What did you do in school today? with Rob Cohen

Today I ask Rob Cohen, an educational consultant working in schools throughout northern New Jersey, our question: “What did you do in school today?”

This series of blog posts includes responses to our question from educators from all over the world, of all content areas, in all grade levels, and in various teaching assignments so that together, we will have a better understanding of what is happening TODAY IN SCHOOL. For more information about this series or to write your own response to the question, please visit this page.

What did I learn in school today?

I wasn’t in school today, and that should put shut to my answering this question in some kind of reasonable and responsible way, but somehow it doesn’t. What it does is raise more questions. For example, there’s a whole slew of uncertainties swirling around what we call learning and where and whether learning can take place anywhere (with or without wifi) or only in schools (with or without wifi) and if it can only take place in schools, is that learning different from the learning that takes place elsewhere, and if it is different, is that what those of us who work in schools intend or desire? You see? This idea of learning in schools gets complicated very quickly.

Now, I work in schools, mostly urban schools, as a literacy consultant/coach, helping teachers to design and enact curriculum, offering ideas for increasing student engagement and empowerment–all the usual buzzwords that surround education, CCSS, PARCC and other things that impinge their presence on classrooms and (re)define learning in the day to day (I almost wrote 21st century but I’d be hard pressed to explain how I might work in, say, the 23rd century–21st century learning is  a phrase that I call a natural redundancy: there’s no other timeframe I could exist in and still be considered rational). And I really do the work I describe. But I also question the validity of extending a range of practices (both institutional and individual) that sometimes have their roots in the 19th or early 20th century. To my way of thinking, then, there are four things we need to look at in order to parse the question of what I learned in school today.

The first is this idea of “what” — WHAT did I learn in school? I know we talk about concepts and experiences and creating contexts and all of those good things, but the idea of WHATness, or as the young Stephen Daedelus explains in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in explicating Aquinas on the way to an aesthtic theory, “the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing” (you can read a longer excerpt here).

The problem is that the WHAT or WHATness takes Aquinas’ claritas, as enriching as it may be, and reifies it; WHAT becomes an object in the real world and whether that WHAT is actually abstract or concrete matters little. The process of reification opens the door to Thorndike’s edict concerning measurement: “Anything that may be said to exist may be said to exist in some quantity.” Which, when you think about it, leads to all kinds of difficulty around describing WHAT was learned in school and how we determine (measure) that learning, or whether we even should.

I’m going to skip over the “I” in what did “I” learn in school today and avoid the existential crisis that arises in trying to define a self and then differentiating that self from every other self out there. Suffice to say that I exist, no thanks to Descartes. Or Sartre.

The next term we need to confront, then, is what might be meant by the word “learn” — WHAT did I LEARN? Having already established the role of THINGs (WHAT, WHATness) in this process, maybe noTHING, maybe someTHING. The question is how do I tell–it really doesn’t matter whether you think I LEARNed something if I know I LEARNed something; it’s just that what I LEARNed may not match what you think I should have LEARNed. Obvious example: watch a group of kids play in the park and they figure THINGs out, and even if they dont know the “right” way to do someTHING, they figure out ways to do those THINGs: climb a tree without falling, throw a ball so that it goes where its aimed, whatever. They do this by exploring their world, testing its boundaries, experimenting, building and breaking things. Put these same kids in fourth grade, and they may LEARN that LEARNing isn’t about interacting with an environment or each other, about exploring and asking and joy, and especially not about failing, but about sitting still, being quiet, and waiting. For them, LEARNing is about rules and conformity and compliance. I have a 16 year old son who builds computers, programs in several languages, and has run gaming servers for fun and profit on and off since he was 12, and none of this is even remotely connected to his experiences in classrooms.


And that brings us to this idea of SCHOOL, that brick and mortar structure where we all go to work teach LEARN THINGS. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but building walls around a place and calling that place a place of LEARNing may not be the only way to get this education THING done. After all, we all LEARNed way back when we read Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” (you can read the entire story here) that walling THINGSs in is also walling THINGs out, didn’t we? When I was a kid in Brooklyn way back when, not only was the entire world a grid, much like a giant piece of graph paper, but there were clear 51yie0pQv8L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_delineations of inside and outside, divisions in space, even in my house: this was the living room, that was MY room, et cet. Like most kids, I really thought the lines on the map were representations of lines on the ground, that somewhere between Canada and the United States there was a long visible line snaking through the woods (like in the cartoons). Imagine my disappointment the first time I noticed the sign on the George Washington Bridge that marks the NY/NJ dividing line and noticed no concomitant line in the water of the Hudson River below. You get the idea. SCHOOL is place where we do someTHING called academic LEARNing, but, as Sir Ken Robinson tells us (in his newest book, Creative Schoolsthere are lots of different kinds of LEARNing and not all of them happen in SCHOOL, that maybe it’s time that we move beyond privileging only one kind of LEARNing in one kind of place.

And of course, we need to do this TODAY. Not tomorrow. No SCHOOLs of tomorrow. TODAY. Now. Am I calling for a revolutionary change in practice and perception in the same way as Ken Robinson? Maybe. But that’s because I think we’re running out of time. If you tak41g1wC1SkdL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_e away CCSS and any other standards, if you take away PARCC and any other standardized measures, if you remove the reformers and the reform movement and the charters, the institution of SCHOOL is still broken. A bogus conversation about what 21st century SCHOOLs need or might become as if we’re not already 15 years into the 21st century, as if we still have time to plan for some far off time when the 21st century gets here, is ridiculous. The 21st century is here. Now. We have the tools we have to do the work we can do, and yet the system dithers. Michael Power (here, and here) lays out the idea of audit culture as the measuring of measurement: when we expend endless amounts of energy determining not what the measurements may mean (if anything) or if they have any validity (they might), but whether or not the measurements are simply being taken, we have entered into audit culture.

So no, I did41JXkwev8ML._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_n’t LEARN all this in SCHOOL TODAY, but I see it over and over and over again in just about every SCHOOL I visit. It’s not just teachers or administrators or consultants (my pedigree these days) or parents or students, it’s all of us. The institution is fragmented by an antiquated age-grouped assembly-line process that no longer serves well the society in which it is embedded because it is marked as separate, other, and that separation needs to be far more fluidly suffused with diffuse, blended borders and absent of the demarcations and separations and categorizations that characterize the cult of efficiency (see Raymond Callahan’s book, here) that informs and describes our schools.

What did I learn in school today? I learned that we need to change.

Pete Seeger: What did you learn in school today?

unnamed-1Rob Cohen holds an MA in writing and has taught across a range of grades from middle school to graduate school, always with an eye toward the inclusion of new technologies, art, and new media in school based learning. Rob currently works as a literacy consultant and coach in urban and suburban districts in northern New Jersey. You can connect with Rob on Twitter: @rcohen54.

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