Wednesday, 22 January 2014

'The underbelly of education according to Karen'

I learn best when I work with others. I talk my way to learning. I need the discourse to help me refine my ideas and to open up new avenues of thought and connections. My entire learning history is based on fusing my thoughts with the thoughts of others. So from that perspective I've always been a "cheater." In the spirit of my need to connect I ran my ideas by Mariana Funes who has turned me onto the blog of Jose Luis Serrano and my good friend Rhonda Jessen where she also writes about cheating as a weapon in school.

So, I am a complete failure as a student. Just so you know upfront. My report cards in elementary school read something like this: Term 1- A, Term 2-B, Term 3-D. This started in Grade 1. I knew school wasn't really for me when I got into trouble for writing my own sentences, instead of copying the ones that Mrs. Lynch had written. And I was so angry that I couldn't write my own sentences and still get credit for it. I banged my head against that particular wall for years. Every report card read "needs to apply herself." And I talked too much. I didn't "try" hard enough.

Well, of course I didn't try! What was the point? I wasn't allowed to learn what I wanted to learn and express myself in the way I wanted to express myself and don't get me started about my inability to finish projects on time because of my obsessive compulsive need to make everything "perfect" (I've sort of got over that-maybe.) So I "failed" my way through elementary and then "failed' my way through secondary. It's not that I couldn't do the work, I just didn't want to do it. I did what interested me and left the rest. I made sure that I would pass all the exams and when I could, I would negotiate with my teachers a different way to do the assignment- something that made sense to me and was interesting to do. I was learning some of the time, but I wasn't happy and almost left school (only the threat of not being able to go to university kept me there.) I was the despair of my teachers. I was told that I would be incapable of completing university. But I applied anyway and got in. I explained my erratic marks to "stresses" at home. (Which was true enough, but not the real reason.)

So finally I was at university, the promised land of learning. Where I would be able to speak my mind, write what I really thought and pursue all of my various passions (according to my mother, who had gone to university in England.) Ha! Was I sold a bill of goods! Same old, same old. No, I was not allowed to disagree with the professor, no, I was not allowed to modify an assignment so it was more meaningful to me, no, do not write what you think, hand everything in on time, you must take this course to graduate, etc. etc. My undergraduate experience was shaping up to be a repeat of K-12. Except, as I took year three and year four courses suddenly I was allowed, no encouraged, to start writing what I was thinking, to modify assignments, to question (but not disagree with) the professor (as my sister says, you are allowed to savage other students with your intellect but not the professor.) But the damage had already been done. I had failed so often that when a legitimate life issue caused me to need to leave some courses mid-term, I was rusticated. A big academic black mark! I went back, finished up and thought, "no more university for me."

Less than four years later, I was back, starting my first Masters in a completely separate field. How? I was admitted on an undergraduate basis and just slid over to the Masters while no one was looking. I never completed that Masters because we moved before I could finish it. When I applied for my teaching degree I was admitted on probation. (I had that big black mark! And I didn't have any university credits in English and I had too many in science!) By then, I was in my thirties, and knew how to game the system.

The first thing to understand about school, and by this I mean all school, is that in its present iteration it's a power game. You, as the student, have no power. You may think that you do, but you don't. Always hand your work in on time, even if it is not as good as you would like. Disagree with your professor at your peril (I still did it (do it!) but I knew there would be consequences and there always are.) It's always better to nod and agree. Keep your answers short and don't explain your thinking, except in an essay format and even then, don't venture into territory that might lose you marks. Be thankful for the professors who are open minded, not into power games and willing to discuss ideas with you. Find a good study group that understands your need to talk out your thinking and share. Drop a course as soon as you see A) the professor doesn't like you because they'll mark you down or if you start B) getting sleepy when they talk (My Cultural Anthropology professor had a soft monotone voice and class was right after lunch in a darkened auditorium (I ended up taking it three times!) or C) You violently disagree with everything they say. You'll fail. I meet with professors before a class now to vet them to see if we'll mesh.

And be prepared to cheat. Because you have no power, how else do you balance the system? Some students copied others work (sometimes without permission), others shared past exams they'd managed to score (guilty!), we all ended up in study groups to support each other, still others had friends do their homework for them (I've done friends homework). Coles Notes? Used them. I passed an exam using them and never read the book. I abhorred those who go the library and clear out the bookshelves of resources or deface books so no one else could have access to the information but I understood the reasoning. It wasn't right and it wasn't fair, but I did understand. Because, as I've said before, the education system really isn't about inspiring a love of learning, it's about understanding who holds the power and doing what you need to succeed since your future is often based on school success.

You see, this is the problem. We're told as children to share, work together, help each other, that life is fair and equitable. But it's not. You can play by the rules, follow a rubric, swallow your ideas and still find yourself wondering "What did I do wrong this time?" Because the system isn't fair.

So how could've my educational journey been different? How might my story have changed if the system had been more aligned to supporting actual learning and creativity instead of some government/business idea of what education should accomplish for the betterment of society? I still ended up being a life long learner and even a teacher, despite knowing that the system is warped. (Though I did think of quiting half way through the teaching program because of the possibility of becoming "one of them." Sort of like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) And isn't sad that, while people participating in Rhizomatic Learning 2014 and the open education movement are trying to smush students lightly, the vast majority of our colleagues are still trying to wedge their students into that tightly controlling box called the education system. #rhizo14