Why the Title “Hansel and Gretel…”?

For a moment, try visualizing some smaller moments in the daily life of one young person you know. Lets say age eight to eighteen.

Really reflect on him or her, on what the ever-changing high and low moments of the day are like for him or her, not on how those moments would be for you. Young people seem to represent themselves, and to be represented, more colorfully, dramatically, than any other age group. Perhaps, in this way, imagining their lives may be easier than others.

How does this young person experience school, with its various classes and cast of characters, especially peers, but also the array of adults, the teachers, counselors, coaches, staff, and administrators? How does he or she experience the rest of us adults, wherever that might be, on buses and trains, in churches and gyms, down streets and sidewalks? How do other settings broaden his or her perceptions of how humans interact — the neighborhood, the community, town or city, the geographical region? How do those settings, like the people in them, affect the vicissitudes of his/her day?

After school, what does he or she experience? A job? Sport? Club? Computer? TV? Friend(s)? Caretaking for a child or unable adult? Sleeping? Studying? How do these activities, settings, and the people in them impact that young person in your mind?

In sum, how is this young person continuing to develop an understanding of what life is all about? What creates satisfaction and joy? What causes stress or confusion? When the day has ended, what does the young person in your mind value as meaningful?

Then, think about other ways, beyond immediate settings and human characters, through which his or her emerging understanding of life is being constructed. For example, think about how tv and movie companies represent (or construct) what youth is for the young person in your mind. What are the most compelling ingredients that tv and movies utilize in their young characters, especially for the shows and movies that young people themselves most patronize? What are the prevailing physical ingredients? Emotional ingredients? Cognitive ingredients? Gender-based ingredients? Race-based ingredients? Class-based ingredients? Relationship ingredients (to self, to family, to friends, to schools, to society)? Of course, the same line of questioning holds for how the adults in music companies represent young people to themselves. In different ways, this line is also true for newspapers and magazines.

The media has great responsibility for constructing images of who we are, no matter the age, but, like the chicken and the egg, the relative position of responsibility the media carries and that which we, at once society and consumer of media, hold is debatable. That debate, however, is not for this blog; this blog simply assumes that society and its most powerful cultural transmitter, the media, share responsibility. After the family, of course. Public education requires two of the aforementioned three: society and family, with media free to do as it pleases.

As you think on the particular young person in your mind, ask yourself, does this young person experience more or less (or about the same) pressure today, in intensity and variety, that young people did five years ago – or ten years, or twenty, or, if you want, even thirty? It’s not a generational competition, just an attempt to seek a relative understanding of how pressurized young people are today.

This blog believes that any comparison is not even close, not even to five years ago.

Today’s young person experiences greater intensity and types of pressure than any of those relative years ago. A composite of some of today’s many pressure points:

  • Double Lives. Today, most young people, say ten and older, have developed double lives, one “real” and the other virtual. Managing one life is surely difficult enough; managing two can be, well, hardly manageable, especially as so many of our society’s younger members spend more and more time online (Figure 1). Increasingly, schools (and parents) are learning how scary and consequential it is for young people to manage these two lives, as one spills into the other. Cyber bullying, intimidation, gossip, innuendo, and displays of alcohol, drug, violent, and sexual behaviors transmit a young person’s public image faster, wider, and more permanently than ever. And, what effect is the increased virtual living having on real learning? Behaviors that consume more and more time in one space leave less elsewhere; for the young person, more time networking socially, gaming, netflicking, texting, skyping means less reading, writing, mathing…

    Figure 1: "If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online," Raised on Screens, inset, New York Times, January 20, 2010
  • Our Drug Culture. Whether as bystander, experimenter, user, or abuser, young people’s relationship to our drug culture appears increasingly more intimate. NIDA [The National Institute on Drug Abuse] has been tracking changes in young people’s use (not just abuse) of drugs for over thirty years. For those interested in real and relative numbers, NIDA’s “Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs for 8th-Graders, 10th-Graders, and 12th-Graders, 2007-2010” offers consideration and pause. Like prior generations, most young people seem genuinely ambivalent about our society’s sterner messages regarding drugs; perhaps unlike prior generations, society today seems far less resolute, far more ambivalent itself, regarding what message to send young people. This apparently mutual ambivalence, playing out across settings, creates multiple tension points for so many of our young – with law enforcement, in schools, at home.
  • Body Image. The pressure to conform squeezes so very many of our young females: their bodies, for sure, but even more devastatingly, their senses of themselves, their very mirror value to themselves. Schools watch as so many of our young females sacrifice their self-conceptions to their perceptions of what some culturally constructed “other” desires in them. They often end up agonizing their shape, size, color, hair, teeth, ears… Our culture’s contortion of young female self-conception is not new, though, by any stretch. This squeeze has long choked the identities of many, and now it seems equally compressive with our young males, just toward a larger, more sculpted representation of it. Brown University offers context and insight here.
  • Physical Health. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period.” Obesity among our young has been termed epidemic. Sugar and fats saturate many of their diets, in school and at home. While not ambivalent on this, young people often seem trapped, confused by our mixed messages. What should they do, especially in the face of such mixed messages: the worst stuff for their bodies is often the best tasting, most attractively advertised and readily available (even in many schools) — and cheapest? Many young people recognize that a healthy mind, body, and spirit likely lead to a stronger, healthier life. As a society, we keep telling them that — while at the same time cutting physical education requirements in schools and budgets for intramural and competitive athletic programs across large swaths of public education!
  • Mental Health. If a 2010 study is accurate, nearly half of American young people are affected by mental health disorders. This survey has garnered lots of attention and some criticism, but the gist of it rings true. Our young are under exceptional duress.
  • The Economy. At a time when our society rightly demands a higher level of public education accountability, our young people see fewer and fewer employment opportunities to put that education to use. Demos’ recent study explores young adults’ views on what effect the economy is having on their dreams, their education and employment, their anxiety.
  • Standardized Testing. More than at any time, raw numbers are defining the American learner’s sense of self. “This score means you are that; that score means you are this.” The standardized tests stakes are higher than ever, and rising more with nearly every state, municipal, and school board meeting. For a young person, it’s becoming possible that these numbers will determine admission into or rejection by everything in public education from pre-school to elementary school to high school to undergraduate and graduate school, the entire educational pathway of Pre-K to 20-something. Today, nearly all of public education is funneling itself toward these entirely quantifiable representations of “learning.” Many important voices oppose this high stakes reductivism of learning to numbers, but, like rotor riders when the floor drops (Figure 2), the screaming voices seem unable to help one another, to awaken our society’s sensibilities to the dehumanizing effect the over-emphasis on the results of discrete skills standardized testing is having upon our future, our youth.
    Figure 2: Rotor Ride at an Amusement Park

    Some examples of these screaming rotor riders include parents who are catching on to the myths of standardized testing; educational science proving that testing experts are incapable of determining the inherent racial, ethnic, and gender bias that exists within their tests; college admissions counselors saying that our college admissions process overvalues standardized tests while undervaluing essential other forms of authentic learning; and reputable educational policy think-tanks critiquing and offering solutions.

So, here’s the crux of it all and the regrettable allusion to the story of “Hansel and Gretel”: at a time when our young people are under what appears unparalleled stress, the curricular focus of our schools is the least relevant to how they experience that world and, frankly, to what our society ought to demand from them later.

Today, the challenges and opportunities of our world, our country, demand that we think so big, so aware of what and where we are. These challenges and opportunities demand that we think critically and creatively about what lies in front of us, as well as that beyond our view. The mission and practice of our public schools must carry this mandate. Public education is the most foundational, hopeful thing our society blesses its own future with. To not respond to the bigness of our challenges with an even bigger mandate — vast improvement in our young people’s ability to think independently, critically, and creatively — is to be less than who we as a collective American peoples tend to view ourselves, dreamers and problem-solvers.

And yet, presently in public education, we use a microscope to dream and solve, neglecting the binoculars and telescope. Amidst the bigness of our challenges and possibilities, our high-stakes standardized testing society is forcing our future into a close examination of the leaves of public education’s curriculum, mostly forgetting the forest. The result of the high-stakes standardized assessment craze is profoundly curricular (with curriculum being the what of learning = both the content and skills that a learner engages).

And so, this is where the tale of “Hansel and Gretel” comes in.

Curriculum is like a Forest of Trees. Understood within this blog’s controlling metaphor, the leaf (tinier and necessary discrete skill — for example, adverbials) is related to the branch (topic — for example, grammar) is related to the tree (subject or discipline — for example, language arts or English) is related to the forest (the interrelation of all subjects or disciplines, much like an ecosystem).

Much of today’s standardized assessment misvalues the Leaf for the Forest. The least learning occurs when discrete skills are taught and assessed without a larger critical and/or creative thinking framework and project/problem for the young mind and heart to engage. Hansel and Gretel, the blog, believes that our society, our public education, and our politics lead a majority of our learners into the discrete and disconnected dark corners of curriculum without celebrating the transcendent light of interconnected, critical and creative humanist thinking. This kind of thinking promotes a cognitive culture that is able to embrace who and where are, in whatever place and time, with dreams and solutions.

Our present discrete skills approach to learning, a sort of scientific determinist approach, is devoid of the essential, interconnected humanism that should fill any classroom. This brand of scientific determinism believes there is a causal relationship between directly teaching a discrete skill, for example, adverbials, and a learner’s successful testing on them. The huge pitfall of this approach is that today’s learner, more assertive than yesterday’s, seeks meaning from that which occurs in the classroom, and, to that learner the meaning needs relevance. So, today, as learners inevitably feel less and less invested in why they should know these discrete skills, like the importance of adverbials, and less and less confident that schools speak to the challenges they face in life, the pressurized adults in these schools become more and more exasperated, even belligerent, trying to enforce learners’ doing well on this discrete skills testing. Much of public education lives this unpleasant journey.

Significantly, scientific determinist and humanist approaches are, within the right context, mutually compatible. The right context occurs when the transcendent light of interconnected, critical and creative humanist thinking is the forest within which the leaves are taught, learned, and measured. That context requires extraordinary school leadership and educators.

This forest-creates-context-for-the-leaves approach has several different shapes and sizes and are evidenced with educational integrity in schools throughout the country. Forest-creates-context-for-the-leaves approaches include such names as problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, authentic learning, and multiple measures learning. Forest-creates-context-for-the-leaves projects include science labs, field work, oral presentations, extended math problems that require application to real world uses, reading aloud and conversing with the teacher about a book, in-depth history reports, writing a paper in a second language, art or music projects, drama and dance performances, and answering questions from an expert panel about a project the student has done. Among these many forest-creates-context-for-the-leaves approaches, tests have a place, just not the only place.

Hansel and Gretel’s “Light Shines Through” looks forward to exploring some of the ideas and schools that embody forest-creates-context-for-the-leaves humanism.