Tag Archives: change

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.

Unschoolers Live (and Learn) at the Edges

Living and learning at the edgesIn my 2014 memoir It Hasn’t Shut Me Up, I wrote how, all my life, I’ve operated along the borders of things…at the edges. When I was a child, it was called the sidelines by those – like my mother – who wanted me to be more participatory and less thoughtful, when quiet meant getting into trouble. I remember as a young child being scooted back to bed when I was discovered perched just out of sight in the darkened kitchen listening to the adult conversation. I remember as a young teen that sitting along the wall at dances was where I met the most interesting people…those who were happier to chat than to stumble over each others’ feet in the middle of the floor. Sometimes, I was called “snooty” and thought to be standoffish. So I went through a phase of trying to be in the middle of the action, forcing myself to do things designed make me popular. But at some point, I realized that I was more comfortable (and still had friends) at the edges. My view of edge-sitting continued to evolve when I met and married a man who also inhabits the edges, who, in fact, is often at the leading edge, and doesn’t care if it’s lonely or even premature.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the edges are a good place from which to observe, and observation is one of the things that journalists and writers like me do. But I’ve also learned that borders are lively places, where some of the most interesting stuff happens, because change is part of their definition. In the course of editing Natural Life Magazine, which my husband and I launched in 1976, I discovered Permaculture, the sustainable systems design practice where edge habitats – borders or transition areas between ecosystems, such as forests and grasslands, for instance – are recognized as the places where there is the most diversity. Edge species are often more flexible, resilient pioneer species, and sometimes even so hardy as to be unruly and invasive. This 1994 Natural Life Magazine article describes the Permaculture edges concept well, I think.

The author of that article even suggests that humans are an edge species. That got me thinking that our family, which “radically unschooled” in the 1970s, when it was just called “homeschooling,” was an edge-dwelling family. We were pioneers, seemingly unruly to many, flexible by need, and helping lead major change on a number of fronts. Sometimes we were so far to the edges as to seem marginalized from mainstream society. And, looking back on those forty years, I see that our whole life, along with our business, was radical.

So I was struck by this quote that I saw recently on Facebook, posted by writer Laura Grace Weldon of Free Range Learning: “Most revolutions begin in the margins. We can see this in many famous people for whom school never worked. Everybody from Einstein to George Lucas to Jack Horner, the paleontologist, are people for whom school was too narrow. They were marginalized. Students in the margins, as in any revolution, are pointing at the way towards the future.” ~David Rose, Founder and Chief Education Officer, Harvard School of Education.

Those are the Permaculture edges to which Rose is referring. And he’s highlighted my conclusion that unschoolers / life learners are an edge species. We mark the transition between school thinking and living as if school doesn’t exist. That puts us at the lively, leading edge, crossing the border between old ways of thinking and new ways of dealing with a changing world. Edges are not for the faint of heart, but, as neither my mother nor I understood when I was a kid, they can be productive and exciting.

P.S. If you are interested in pursuing the comparison between Permaculture and unschooling, here is an article from Life Learning Magazine about that.

Moving Beyond the Factory Model of Education

stop schoolAn article from LinkedIn about schools and the future of education was shared with me yesterday. It was written by Heather Hiles, founder and CEO of Pathbrite Inc., a start-up that markets an educational portfolio platform.

She has decided that our education system is no longer relevant, that our current economy doesn’t need the factory model of education designed for the Industrial Era. Instead, she writes, a whole new set of skills is required now and in the future – things like problem solving, creative and independent thinking, and adaptability. That’s not exactly news to me and most of my readers! Here’s an article I wrote about that in Life Learning Magazine three years ago.

Hiles has been recently inspired by the work of Sugata Mitra. He’s the person who, in 1999, dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected computer, and left it there, with a hidden camera filming what happened next. Kids from the slum played around with the computer and, in the process (and without adult intervention), learned how to use it and how to go online, and then taught others what they’d learned.

In her article, Hiles springboards from describing that to presenting a vision of self-direction and applied learning that is, she writes, the way of the future. Here vision involves replacing rote learning and testing with “inquiry, search, discovery, application, presentation, encouragement and validation.” Of course, life learners / unschoolers (and all babies) already do that. But it’s great to see the light bulb turn on for others.

Then, she gets confused. In spite of her excitement about the kids in Mitra’s projects who learn naturally without being taught, Hiles’ vision also involves the nonsensical notion of students “learning how to learn.” As I’ve written countless times – and as Mitra’s work illustrates so well – children are hard-wired to learn; they only need to re-learn that ability if it has been stolen from them by school or other circumstances.

Hiles displays no other evidence of adultism. So maybe she arrived at that conclusion because she is, after all, marketing an educational product to teachers. But I think she has displayed a common logic lapse resulting from inadvertently being as stuck in the status quo as the system she criticizes. She is not alone. So often, I encounter people who understand the problem with how we’re currently educating children and young people, but aren’t able to take their concerns to their fullest conclusion of abolishing compulsory classroom teaching, curriculum, and testing. And they have an ideological block that doesn’t allow them to learn about homeschooling / unschooling in order to take it (and its lessons for the future of education) seriously. Remarkably, the school model has become so entrenched in our cultural worldview in just a few hundred years that most people – even those who understand that it’s past its best-before date – have difficulty envisioning anything much different.

As I’ve written elsewhere, home-based education is not an experiment. It’s how people learned to function in the world for millennia. And there is no reason that people today can’t do the same thing. School is the experiment, not the lack of it. That experiment is in trouble and we urgently need to use our understanding of how people learn to invent something more relevant to our kids’ needs, as well as those of our society and its economy. It might not be unschooling for every learner, but if there is a will to think outside the compulsory factory model box (which writer David H. Albert calls the “day jail”), the alternative model is there.

And, by the way, the teachers who are insulted or otherwise bothered by such statements (like those commenting on the Hiles article) need to realize they can be part of the problem or part of the solution. Many of their colleagues have already joined us in making the changes that are clearly overdue.