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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Innovation or Mind Control?

At the charter school I volunteer at, I noticed something rather interesting on the walls of the cafeteria the last time I visited there. They were filled with vague though philosophical messages like: always be honest, be opened minded, strive to persevere, be respectful, etc. It was an interesting way to decorate the walls of a cafeteria, however after speaking to the students I would mentor I found out it was much more.

In fact, these were the guiding principles that the school wanted all the kids to follow. These weren't merely sayings on a wall but rather they were concepts that all students were expected to follow. Charter schools enjoy a lot more leeway than the average school and thus innovative approaches like this are just some of what makes them a great alternative to normal public schools.

It should surprise no one that the three students I mentored were none too happy about having honesty, open mindedness, and perseverence as a part of their curriculum. Long ago, I learned to take anything said by teenagers with a grain of salt. They did say something that troubled me about the concept. These principles weren't merely something they needed to follow but rather they were concepts they could get detentions for not following.

In other words, if a teacher determined that a student was closed minded that student could get a detention. Of course, this could create all sorts of pandora's boxes. For instance, what if a student was honestly feeling closed minded, or they honestly didn't have the energy to persevere one day. Yes, this is probably a bit absurd, however there is the chance that a student would follow one concept only to land in trouble for another.

Where there is really a problem is in the potential for teachers to target students. Concepts like being open minded and striving to persevere are great however they are also vague. It is of course in the eye of the teacher to determine if they are being open minded. If a teacher had it in for a student, these concepts would open up all sorts of opportunities to exploit and target students.

Now, anyone that has played sports knows the importance of drilling concepts into someone's head. All fundamentals are learned through endless repitition. Larry Bird used to shoot thousands of shots everyday. The same principle applies here. It isn't enough for a student to be told once that they need to be open minded or honest. These concepts need to be drilled into their heads repeatedly until it becomes a part of them. Sure, a high schooler isn't going to like being forced to be open minded all the time, and that's probably exactly why they need to be forced to do it over and over.

I am in fact a fan of this concept however I am quite troubled that students can be punished for a lack of compliance. It is one thing to get a detention for being tardy, loud, or late, but quite another for being closed minded. The manner in which the charter school straddles this concept certainly puts it on the edge of going from innovative to mind control.

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