Category Archives: Education

Attacking Teachers, Not the System: When Schools are the Problem, Not the Solution

Attacking Teachers, Not the System: When Schools are the Problem, Not the Solution

Kids attacking teachers is a symptom of a system that does not serve those kids. We need to move beyond bandage solutions and ask what’s wrong. It’s not a shortage of money.

When a teacher complains about being” routinely attacked and abused” by her students, “going home with bruises, scratch marks and bite marks,” and being “slapped and punched in the face and hit multiple times” by her four- and five-year-old students, there is a problem that’s way bigger than lack of classroom resources.

The situation referenced above involves a years’ long fight between a teachers’ union and a government, culminating now in a forced contract. The contract will leave a bad taste all round. And it will not solve the problems that plague public education.

In all the media coverage of this situation, I’m not seeing any discussion about why four- and five-year-olds are attacking teachers. Nor am I seeing discussion about why “teachers are seeing more and more students with a variety of learning challenges who require individual program plans because of autism and other physical or mental challenges.”

You can throw all the money in the world at providing more teachers, more psychologists, and tweaking the system in other ways. But those are just bandages. Parents, teachers, and governments must start examining the root causes of the problem with schools. Why do little kids attack their teachers? Do they not want to be in school? If so, why not? What are the social and human rights issues lurking behind that? Are children respected and trusted in our schools? Why are there increasing numbers of children with “learning challenges” like autism and other “mental challenges”? Why are more children being diagnosed? Are those real diagnoses or symptoms of underlying environmental, health, or economic issues? Are our society’s (and economy’s) priorities for parents and families skewed? Are they evidence that schools as currently configured are bad places for kids to learn? Does anyone care about whether or not children want to be confined to classrooms for many hours each day, for many years of their lives? Has anyone cared to ask the children?

Much of my writing over the past thirty years has addressed those issues. Other people are also asking those questions, of course. But real change will take more than just a few renegades talking among ourselves. If there is public money to be spent (and there is, if our children are considered to be a priority), let’s use it to ask the deep questions, and to challenge the current model of education. Let’s be honest with our questions and our answers. Let’s free all those well-meaning people who want to be teachers so they can actually help kids rather than be attacked by them.

It is no longer subversive to ask about the elephant in the room. Are schools the problem rather than the solution?

Save

Save

Save

Compulsory Self-Directed Learning?

Compulsory Self-Directed Learning?

What do you call it when students are allowed to self-direct their learning when their attendance at school is compulsory? I call it cognitive dissonance. You might call it baby steps in the right direction!

There’s a new school opening later this year in California. It’s called, for now, the UnSchool (the students will be able to choose their own name later). There are also a number of other schools, specialized programs, and organizations that use the term “unschooling” or ally themselves with it.

What they’re really about – and share with life learning/unschooling – is the principle of self-directed learning. And it’s great that so many people are recognizing how much learning happens when one controls, and therefore engages with, their subject matter. As much as that is obvious to life learners (like my family, who practiced self-directed learning before the author John Holt coined the term “unschooling” in the 1970s), it is a huge step for most educators. They, after all, have mostly experienced kids caught in classroom tedium and the rebellious behavior that often results. So the fact that kids can be self-directed learners can come as a surprise to – or even be denied by – most teachers, school administrators, and parents.

My problem is that the schools that do get it – like the UnSchool and the Sudbury Valley Schools, for instance – are still schools with compulsory attendance. And our thinking about learning and learners can be stretched so much further – to include, among other things, children’s rights. Self-direction can be seen as a basic life principle. In the introduction to my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education, I wrote that trusting one thing leads to trust in others, and questioning the assumptions embedded in one aspect of life leads us to question others. (Some refer to this as “radical unschooling,” but I think it’s a natural and inevitable progression in trust and respect.)

If we agree that learning arises not from compulsion, memorization, and repetition of material dictated by someone else but through self-direction, investigation, and discovery, then where is the justification for coercive, compulsory participation?

In that light, I look forward to the day when those who offer self-directed educational opportunities further extend their trust in and respect for children and young people…and stop enforcing compulsory school attendance. That way, they can truly pursue a self-directed education!

Students are People Too: Why Language Matters

Students are People Too: Why Language Matters

An acquaintance who is a former teacher asked me the other day how to shift other people – including educators – toward tolerance for, if not an understanding and appreciation of, how students can benefit from informal, self-directed learning. She wanted one small thing that could help change the attitudes of people in her conversational circles.

So I suggested she look at her use of language and its power to make change.

To illustrate this, I shared with her a quote that’s been going around on social media recently by Sir Ken Robinson from his latest book The Element. He wrote. “…education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

After a quick read, I agreed with this statement. However, I pointed out to my friend that the wording of the last part of it is actually contradictory to the idea of major change. True transformation in education will not come from having “achievement” as a goal, nor from adults thinking they must create special environments for learning (i.e. schools) and inserting kids into them. Instead, it will involve acknowledging three things:

  • The world itself is a wonderful learning environment.
  • Kids naturally want to learn from birth (until adults bore that natural inclination right out of them).
  • Children don’t need to be coerced to learn if they are in control of the learning agenda, “true passions” or otherwise.

Now, I’m sure Robinson understands all of that. But his words are steeped in an academic brew – a tea that encourages the status quo of schools as babysitters, rather than educational and social transformation.

For instance, both Robinson and my friend used the word “student” when referring to learners. In popular usage, that word reinforces the hierarchy and division of power that is part of the problem with our current systems of education. It also interferes with an understanding of the natural, informal, self-directed exploration and learning that can take place in a school-free environment. So I suggest we consider avoiding the word “student” if we want to participate in educational change making.

Why? The dictionaries variously define “student” as a person who is enrolled in or studying at a school or college or who is studying in order to enter a particular profession. Synonyms include scholar, pupil, undergraduate, graduate, grad student, postdoctoral fellow; refinements include freshman, sophomore, junior, senior.

In some dictionaries, there is a secondary definition of the word “student” as someone who takes an interest in a particular subject. That definition could include informal learning. It could broaden learning past the expert-designed curriculum and toward the general acquisition of skills and insights. But it still separates learners into a group distinct from everyone else who is supposedly either teaching or not learning. We are all learners, all the time.

So I believe that life learners can create real change by using language that broadens people’s ideas about how knowledge is acquired, and that expands the definition of learning beyond instruction in schools.

The late philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society, “Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school. Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher.”

When our words help to prove the folly of that institutional “wisdom,” we will be contributing to an understanding that we are all students of life; to a tolerance of informal, self-directed learning; and to a transformation in the way we educate ourselves and our children that goes far beyond motivating students and retooling schools.