Published on 2013/01/17
What We Can Learn from Washington
When it comes to accountability, students are not holding up their end of the bargain and this trend is being reflected throughout society. It’s time for educators to take a stand and reintroduce accountability into higher education, before it’s too late.

My grandmother from Croatia once said, “You can learn from everything, if you are open to learning.” I believe that we, as educators, can learn a great deal from what the people, who’ve been elected to serve the people, are and aren’t currently doing in Washington. (Not referring to them as “leaders” was a deliberate choice.) Across all political parties, the actions and choices made by elected officials are having a profound impact on the attitudes, choices and behavior of learners of all ages.

In addition to helping students achieve the rigors of our curriculum, educators try to teach our students values, leadership, deadlines and the art of compromise to make them what John Dewey called responsible “members of a democratic country.” We are also role models so students have a foundation and a frame of reference to draw upon.

Does what happens in Washington have an effect on our students, adults and otherwise? During a previous administration, I had my students look at the words of the President and judge right from wrong and truth from fiction. As we fast forward to today, I see numerous students of all ages, including adults who are back in school or continuing their education, following the models of our legislators and members of the executive branch of government.

While we see many challenges for the adult learner with a family who is balancing studies with employment, my colleagues and I see an increasing number of students not taking responsibility for their actions and resulting choices. The students’ first line of defense is blaming others for an assignment that was either not completed or that was done poorly. Many procrastinate to the degree that extensions are expected. Many believe if they attend classes without participating, full credit should be given even when the criteria clearly states that being passive is not acceptable.

Where are adult learners getting these ideas? Just look to Washington. Legislators expect us to congratulate them when they procrastinate and then “work so hard” to get things done at the last minute. Translated in academic terms, we are to show gratitude to those who let down their colleagues during a project only to arrive on the day of the presentation and participate. We are to give full credit to someone who has done less than half of what is expected. This seems to be the “new norm.” But this is against everything that education has stood for since Socrates.

It’s as if the concepts of wanting to improve oneself or improve the situation of others, having motivation to learn, or being open to learning, are disintegrating rapidly. Is it any wonder that our students don’t understand The Great Compromises of 1787 and 1850? What criteria are they seeing among today’s congressional members and the President that defines the basic concept of compromise? So when we, as educators, propose a compromise, perhaps this is why they look at us as though we’re speaking a foreign language. Maybe we are.

These students seem to be following the example of our current federal legislators, who lack leadership, who believe their priority is to play politics when critical decisions need to be made and who thrive on throwing mud at colleagues. I propose a solution that may be at the hearts of all educators.

Let’s give every elected official a detailed syllabus of what is expected of them, complete with a rubric and grades. Then, put them on probation for unsatisfactory or non-completion of the assigned tasks. These “students” would report to an educational leader and a business executive who know, practice and exemplify leadership. While under probation, nothing can be done until the “students” successfully complete a series of assignments which are carefully assessed with a specific rubric. The assignments would be designed as cooperative, project-based learning lessons.

A website, Teaching Kids to Make Better Choices through Problem Solving Procedures, has been developed to teach such skills to younger students, but it can effectively apply to adult students.  It provides relatively complex problems that can be solved through collaboration, cooperation and community thinking.  For example, instead of “throwing mud” at each other, students have to creatively solve a problem together in a timely way that will have everyone feeling pride and a real sense of accomplishment. Essential topics covered include values, leadership and the art of compromise. If, within an allotted period of time, the student-legislators do not complete the assignment, they fail and are held accountable for the results of that assessment. Wouldn’t this be wonderful?

So, what can we teach our students from the current antics in Washington? The better question is: what can Washington learn from educators?  Instead of elected officials being role models, they must learn from educators who have to lead, compromise and achieve results for which they are held accountable. It’s time for them to learn from educators — people who care about the welfare of others and not about their own welfare.

As with all successful students, legislators and adults have to willfully replace arrogance and narcissistic knee-jerk responses with the true caring, along with the heart and soul, of an educator.  Once, they were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and maybe even to value the opinions of others. It’s time to renew those original skills, values, ethics and dreams. It’s time for everyone, even our legislators, to learn again! This is what we can teach and learn.

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References

Teaching Kids to Make Better Choices through Problem Solving Procedures. Retrieved from http://www.behavioradvisor.com/ProblemSolving.html

Warde, W. F. (1960). “John Dewey’s Theories of Education.” International Socialist Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 1960.

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Readers Comments

Quincy Adams 2013/01/17 at 2:21 pm

I believe there are several public policy institutes that publish “report cards” that grade Washington’s policy initiatives. Not quite the same as evaluating individual politicians, but similar. I think having an official evaluation process for government policies, with results that are publicly shared, is a good idea. Educators do seem well suited to this task.

Natasha Rubin 2013/01/17 at 10:58 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with Wayne Brinda! The antics in Washington are a good “teaching moment” and educators should take full advantage of it. I am a bit surprised at Brinda’s description that college students have tried to follow in the footsteps of some of our politicians.

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