I have often argued that engaged teaching and learning must be so much fun that children do not know what they are doing is good for them. This idea turns on the notion that teaching and learning must be ENGAGED. To be engaged teaching and learning must be rigorous, must be of value to students, and must be targeted to a real audience that goes beyond the teacher. Another way of thinking about engagement is to label this teaching and learning in this way as authentic.
In American schools today the emphasis on high-stakes testing resulting from the No Child Left Behind requirement to demonstrate adequate yearly growth (AYG) has placed a damper on engagement. Furthermore, NCLB requirements are causing schools to concentrate on technical aspects of reading and mathematics while abandoning aesthetic reading purposes as well as science, social studies, and the arts. Students are encouraged to follow specific formulas for writing, apply technical language to their acts of learning, and spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for the standardized testing that is required by NCLB.
By abandoning literature, science, social studies and arts integration into the curriculum, American schools are effectively creating an entire generation of Jeopardy players; an entire generation of people who are able to recall isolated facts without the ability to relate those facts to anything meaningful. Americans, sadly, are tolerating, perhaps even encouraging, the dismemberment of intellectual capital among the younger generation.
Integrating the arts into the classroom by introducing models of creative dramatics such as improvisation, choral reading, text to script adaptations (and performances) as well as teaching music, drawing, and the like as these important and engaging activities relate to the content of literature, science, mathematics, the social studies, and the like will restore creativity for sure. Additionally, students will learn to contextualize knowledge rather than understand knowledge as a bunch of facts.
Fear of being less than Number 1, an American obsession, seems to be driving the political and cultural movement toward a standards based curriculum and high stakes testing. Becoming well schooled in a Western hegemonic world view is the goal of some. Reliance on technical aspects of reading and mathematics is on the plates of others. What is missing is a commitment to knowledge as thinking rather than knowledge as a matter of being able to recall facts and structures.
Of course this little rant comes about because it is testing time in Illinois where I live. I have personally witnessed nearly two months of test preparation mostly at the expense of instruction. If I count the time dedicated to test preparation in the schools I visit on a regular basis over 70 instructional days have been dedicated to preparing for the multiple tests being administered to Chicago Public School students. This amounts to better than 50% of the school year so far spent on testing and test preparation.