Am I a Grumpy Old Man?

I think I am becoming a grumpy old man. I realize that I am not “old” (lightly seasoned at this point) but I find myself observing things in the world and getting grumpy. Let me explain.

Some Observations

Observation #1: I attended a high school track meet yesterday. As I watched the triple jump, I noticed that the high school student in charge of raking the sand to smooth it out after each competitor was struggling with his task. When I say struggling, I mean that he did not know how to use the rake! He placed his hands at the top of the rake and pushed down on the rake expecting the sand to magically move. Seeing that he was struggling, the adult in charge of the pit stopped the proceedings and taught him how to use the rake….bend your knees, grab the rake with one hand halfway down the handle with the other one toward the top and bend low to move the sand. Thinking this was good enough, the adult left. The result…no improvement in performance. Now the student simply pulled the sand to the side of the pit with the result that there was a big dip in the middle of the pit. The question in my mind…how can someone a) not know how to use a rake and b) not be able to figure it out on their own?

Observation #2: Two people that I know who work in the construction field confirm that many of their new hires do not know how to operate a shovel. The new employees do something like the student I saw at the track meet…to no effect. These seasoned construction workers have to take time out of their day and teach the kids how to use a shovel. To make matters worse, these particular new workers are graduates of the local career and technical school where they graduated in heavy equipment operation, which is part of the problem. They believe they should just run equipment and not pay their “dues” with grunt work in the trench (literally).

Observation #3: While doing research for my dissertation, I read through old copies of my hometown newspaper, The Elkland Journal. I found something that was interesting. An author wrote a letter to the editor in 1943 to shed light on what he perceived to be a real problem. The author (who was my neighbor years later) was a prominent businessman in town. In the letter, he said something to the effect, “Kids these days, I see them hanging out around town not working and causing problems. When I was their age we worked for everything we had but these kids don’t know how to work.” This is interesting because he was talking about THE GREATEST GENERATION! The generation that lived through the Great Depression and won World War Two! If they can’t live up to standards of some middle-aged guy, who can? This leads me to believe that every generation looks at the new generation and says something similar.

With all of that being said…

Is it possible that a perfect storm of societal factors has caused students to lose some of their initiative and for grumpy people like me to complain? Let me try to answer that.

I worry that our schooling system since 2002 when No Child Left Behind was passed has had an unintended consequence. The accountability system based on blame and shame (for students, teachers, schools and communities) changed the structure of how schools teach. Schooling as a process (generally) was always hierarchical with a sage on the stage mentality. There was a bit of the philosophy that “There is only one right answer and I know what it is, and you don’t”. I am not arguing that this was a good thing. It just happened. The calculus changed when the requirements of NCLB started to punish everyone involved in schooling if students did not reach a preset number on a silly test. Now, the drill and kill method of teaching started.

Students, teachers, schools were rewarded for teaching methods that encouraged no critical thinking, creativity or imagination. The new reality became something like there is only one right answer and that is the one that the State test says should be correct…period…no questions asked…full stop. Kids brought up in this system simply have no frame of reference in their schooling experience to grow grit, a growth mindset or intellectual risk-taking. Maybe not figuring out how to use a shovel or rake is the logical end of this type of schooling?

My reaction may also be as simple as the change society is undertaking. We are living in the midst of a significant shift away from an industrialized society toward a post-industrial world. Maybe, knowing how to run a shovel or rake are archaic skills that do not need to be learned anymore. I am just a relic of the old world being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. Maybe. Or, I could just be becoming a grumpy old man…

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
View all posts by Tom Butler, Ph.D. →

Leave a Reply