She is the eager girl always raising her hand, always with an answer, always following the rules. A know-it-all, a pleaser, she is the kind of student most other kids can’t stand; she makes them all look bad. And most teachers like her because she does everything she is supposed to do, and then some. Teachers don’t have to cajole and plead and threaten; she does all the work, and she does it with joy.
In the Harry Potter books written by JK Rowling, the character of Hermione Granger stands out. She is the eager girl always raising her hand, always with an answer, always following the rules. A know-it-all, a pleaser, she is the kind of student most other kids can’t stand; she makes them all look bad. And most teachers like her because she does everything she is supposed to do, and then some. Teachers don’t have to cajole and plead and threaten; she does all the work, and she does it with joy.
In some ways, Hermione is insufferable. Don’t girls just want to have fun? Why can’t she just lighten up? Why can’t she blow off the homework, sometime? Why can’t she just be a kid?
So as teachers, one way of thinking about the Hermiones in our classes is to regard them as suck-ups, as apple-polishers, as vapid, unquestioning followers of all instructions. When we look at her that way, we can see the superior talents of students who resist, who flounder, who are clueless, who drag their feet, who challenge authority. Because, after all, don’t we want that from our students?
But from another perspective, Hermione Granger is the very best of what schooling can bring. She doesn’t do all the work only because the teachers demand it; she reads furiously on her own, sneaking out forbidden books, risking the rules to learn more. Her curiosity is insatiable. She writes whole treatises even when a short answer would do. She retains it all because it matters to her, not because she learned it for the test. In the end, of course, her knowledge is needed all the time to save Harry Potter. It’s not useless, unconnected knowledge that she was forced at gunpoint (grade point?) to chug. It’s all part of a large, connected, complicated skein of information and reasoning and theory and practice, and mastery is motivated by thirst and genuine care, not by the dutiful quest for good grades. In the end, grades won’t save anyone’s life, but real knowledge might.
What kind of student, at best, are we aiming for? And how do we design a school system or school systems to produce such a person (if that’s not too hubristic, believing that we can craft a human being)?
As it is, our school system in general is designed to produce a certain kind of person: one who learns just enough to pass a test or write a paper or answer a question, unconnected to anything else and no more. There are strict limits to writing or answering: write no more than 4 pages, or write 2 pages, or 10 (gasp!) pages. You have 10 minutes, or 45 minutes, for this quiz. As John Gatto Taylor points out, we are teaching children to feign involvement and interest, but we couldn’t possibly mean for them to get absorbed, because 45 or 55 minutes later, they have to switch to another, completely unrelated subject. You can’t really delve into something in such a short time. We are asking for a performance, a pretend-dance of caring, of pleasing teachers just enough to either evade attention or get positive attention. Questions like “Is this on the test?” are okay (though most teachers/professors despise them) but “What is this for?” are seen as hostile, challenging authority. It might seem like an obvious question, though, if we are asking students to spend 16 years in this task.
Someone like Hermione Granger already sees the use of the material she is to learn. She is not ultimately learning it for the test, nor for the teachers. She is self-motivated, willing to spend any amount of time to satisfy her hunger for learning. This did not come from school, but in her case school did not destroy it; it simply channeled it. Could this be generalized to the mass of students clueless about learning?
How can we create curiosity?
Can we make someone wonder?
Can we mass-produce Hermione Grangers?
And if not, what exactly ARE we producing?
Gatto, John Taylor. 2002 . Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Rowling, J.K. 1998-2007. Harry Potter series [7 books]. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books.
September 20, 2010