Monday, October 5, 2009

Stuck in Traffic

My daughter started kindergarten last month, and recently she was invited to the birthday party of a pre-school classmate. Naturally, the kids turned to playing and the adults turned to dissecting just what was going on in kindergarten. Our children are at different schools, and people were happy and unhappy about different things, but there was parental consensus that the traffic light discipline phenomenon is occupying too much of our children’s attention and interest.

In case readers aren’t familiar with the phenomenon, it’s a “behavioral management system” used frequently in elementary schools. Students who behave are “on green”. If you get into a little bit of trouble, you’re “on yellow” until you get yourself back to green again. From yellow, if you continue to commit infractions you can go down further to red. Not sure what happens there, since my daughter has been on green since day 1, and according to her the only child to get as far as yellow so far is one boy who tends to talk to the other children at his table.

It sounds fairly sensible as a means of maintaining order, and I am certainly sympathetic to classroom teachers’ need to do so. What’s alarming is that in the minds of so many kindergarteners, one’s primary purpose in school seems to be staying out of trouble.

I’m juxtaposing this with my discovery last week that 75% of the undergraduate students in one of my classes could tell me nothing about Karl Marx. Not even that he was one of the Marx brothers, which I almost would have settled for, as some indication of cultural literacy. It’s hardly news that our schools put a lot of energy into behavioral management and not enough into intellectual content, but it’s worth paying attention to again and again. Programs like KIPP and other successful charter schools have drawn our attention to the importance of teaching pro-school behavior. As Arne Duncan and the Department of Education address the problems of failing schools, they would do well to remember that behavior is only part of what matters.

I suspect kindergarteners may in part be enthralled with the traffic light system because they’ve figured out that it’s the key to what school is all about. She who controls the traffic lights holds the power, and kids are savvy enough to see, by the fourth week of kindergarten, that power, norms, and regulation are as much the point as learning to read. When my daughter and a neighborhood friend played school, they gleefully moved my younger daughter from green to yellow when she played with blocks at “storytime” instead of listening. Traffic lights, and the control of social nuisances they made possible, were (and are) the very heart of the game. In a recent article in Ed Week, Alfie Kohn suggests that alternative educators may be inspired by the traditional classrooms they grow up in – inspired to be different and do better. The insights of kindergarteners (which of course still need to turn into critical analysis, rather than tools for oppressing one’s little sister) are reason to think he might be right.

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