By Jane Weinkrantz   


    At the end of April, my ten year old son tested for his purple belt in kempo karate. He tested with about 7 other children and, after the test, his Sensei announced some disappointing news. Although the children who had tested knew their techniques “in the air”---which is to say against an imaginary assailant---when they had performed the same techniques on one another, real live people, they had come up short. Hence, the kids were now on “Purple Belt Probation.” Before they could learn any of the techniques commensurate with their new rank, they would have to demonstrate  mastery of all their previous moves by coming to class and practicing them on  more advanced students. Only after Sensei was satisfied that they could do everything “on a person”, would he teach them the new material. After all, he told parents, the purpose of learning martial arts is to be able to defend yourself against an attacker. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter what color your belt is.

    Sensei’s logic was impeccable; in fact, you could easily call it common sense. Yet, I fear such logic is not so common when we switch from martial arts to academics. The pressure to let kids slide without proof that they know what they need to know is incredible. Every day we are asked to disregard any assignment that wasn’t a piece of cake, (“This is going to bring down my whole average. Do you drop the lowest grade?”), ignore the importance of meeting deadlines, (“ Dear Ms. Weinkrantz, May Ian have an extra couple of days to get this paper done? He has been working on a big science project all week.”), pretend cheating and plagiarism never happened. (“Do you really want to affect this student’s whole college career by failing him for plagiarism?” ) or not to take our profession seriously.( “We all have to play the game. You know how it works. My daughter needs 90s to get into college and then go to medical school.”)

    With so many forces eroding our resolve to teach what is intellectually appropriate and challenging,  is it any wonder some teachers cave in and teach material that is “high interest”  and easily mastered rather than what forces their students to think and explore? Worse, many of them receive reinforcement and encouragement from administrators who see students being attentive or “actively engaged in the lesson.”  Personally, I’d rather see kids paying attention because to not pay attention means they may lose the thread of a lesson that they need to understand rather than because someone has figured out a way to incorporate the latest Disney film, popular song or TV show into an academic subject. Yet, open a teaching magazine and you will see all manner of gimmicky suggestions on how to rap Shakespeare or lose your dignity---but captivate your students, (if they really are captivated by this, I suspect they are embarrassed for us)--- in other pandering ways.

    What we have to remember is this: the commodity we deal in is knowledge. It is valuable for its own sake and we should not apologize for it. We have to have confidence in the beauty of our material to begin with. When we say one of our students has mastered a body of knowledge, they really should have mastered it.  Students should meet our standards for everything from understanding photosynthesis, identifying the causes of the Second World War, to completing long division with decimals, asking directions in French  or being able to identify iambic pentameter. If they can’t do those things or whatever things we ask of them, both of us need to work a little harder. That is the obligation we have to one another. Those who try to get us to think otherwise degrade our profession and lack faith in our students. An education “in the air” is not enough.


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