Tag Archives: children’s rights

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?

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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!

Dear Media: I’m Anti-Schooling, Not Anti-Intellectual

Anti-schooling, not anti-intellectual

It’s that time of the year where I live: Kids are going back to school. Those kids who aren’t following the crowd back to school are used to fill the media’s need for novelty.

I don’t do media interviews about that anymore.

I got tired of explaining the irrelevance – and the actual harm to learning – of things that schools and our popular culture present as necessary to life and learning. That includes (but isn’t limited to): defining certain topics as academic and others not; one-size-fits-all curriculum, and study topics and programs that aren’t originated by the learner; testing, grading, marks, and diplomas; power and control by the privileged; age segregation; coercion and compulsory attendance at school.

I got tired of explaining that being anti-schooling does not mean I’m against public education or publicly supported learning. I got tired of explaining how we could divert the resources used to pay for all the above aspects of schooling into abundant and stable public support for libraries, museums, science centers, learning centers, art galleries, maker spaces, and any other places that people can freely use for learning.

I got tired of explaining that it is possible to be anti-schooling and not anti-intellectual. None of this fit the shallow needs of the media. I don’t do media interviews anymore.

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Adultism: The Last Frontier of “isms”?

Adultism

I want to talk about adultism. It is one of many “isms” in our vocabulary – racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and so on – which address discrimination on the basis of things like ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, and physical abilities. Many of us try to overturn these “isms” in our own lives and in the broader culture. But adultism is one “ism” that isn’t so often dealt with – even by progressives. In fact, I think that it may be the last frontier of “isms.”

In our culture (and many, if not most, others in the world), adults have a special status of control over kids. Adults make decisions for children (their own and other people’s), create rules that govern children’s day-to-day lives, and generally tell kids what to do. That often manifests in ordering, yelling, directing, preaching, disciplining, demeaning, embarrassing, questioning, patting and other touching without permission, yanking, ignoring, and referring to children in the third person.

This behavior isn’t usually undertaken with abusive intent; indeed, most adults wield power over kids because they assume it’s their duty, as well as their right. Adults are thought to be entitled to these behaviors on the assumptions that they are superior to children and young people, and that they know best what’s good for the younger generation.

Scratch below the surface, and you’ll find that this sort of adult disrespect is inherited. It’s how we were treated as children by our parents and in our schools…and how our parents were treated by the generation before that. And it’s reinforced by other social institutions like churches and medical systems, as well as by laws. The context of the adult-child relationship in our society is power, hierarchy, mistrust, and coercion.

One of the places that adultism manifests itself is our education system. Most people believe that children and young people must be made to go to school or else they won’t learn. So we have created factories in which children are processed and warehouses where they are stored until it’s convenient for adults to have them around. Getting rid of the factory model of public education challenges not just our assumptions about how children learn, but a variety of agendas related to adultism and other sorts of power.

I wrote about this in the introduction to my book Challenging Assumptions in Education – From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society:

“By our very use of words like ‘teaching’ and ‘schooling,’ we seem to accept the idea that some people at the top are doing things to other people farther down the totem pole. Public education reflects our society’s paternalistic, hierarchical worldview, which exploits children in the same way it takes the earth’s resources for granted. That is no way to help children grow up into compassionate citizens who think independently and participate in the life of their communities and countries.”

Arguing against adultism is difficult. Giving up power can make people fearful and leave them feeling threatened. They think “unschooling” means unparenting, and life learning means uneducated. But life learners are at the leading edge of an important attempt to broaden the definition of childhood, to respect children as whole people who are functioning members of society…and to improve our education system along the way.

Since we are already living the opposite of adultism, I believe that we life learners can contribute to the defeat of adultism by being conscious about how we speak to (and about) children, and by how we treat them.

Unschooling Lets Kids Control Their Own Minds and Activities

teen-boy-relaxing1Appearing to hang around and do nothing at all is dangerous – whether you’re a teenager in a public place, an adult at work, or a child in school (or even in some homeschool settings). Inactivity is perhaps one of the most frowned upon states in our culture. And certainly, many parents get nervous when their kids don’t seem to be accomplishing anything – especially something that the parents have organized or mandated. Adults are “supposed” to organize, and kids partake…at least until they turn a certain age (18 maybe), at which point they’re supposed to miraculously know how to take control of their own lives. In fact, the danger of allowing kids to control their own minds and activities may be one of the main concerns many people have about unschooling.

I can recall sitting at my desk in school as a child, pretending to read a text book as a cover for thinking (or “daydreaming” as it was derisively called), or practicing looking attentive while the teacher was talking and my mind was somewhere else entirely. I knew that she wasn’t in charge of my mind or my life, but I had internalized the message that such realizations were subversive, and that it would be disruptive for me not to hide that knowledge. Nevertheless, unlike some of my peers – most often boys – I got away with going my own way in school because I was an otherwise well-behaved girl who got good marks.

And now, because I’m a well-dressed and groomed adult, I get away with “loitering” in public places listening to music, observing the passersby (because that’s what writers do!), or scribbling in my journal.

Years ago, my unschooling daughters weren’t always so lucky when they spent time in public seeming to be nonproductive, and found themselves being looked upon distrustfully by many adults. But their freedom to direct their own childhood thoughts, time, activity, and learning helped them become the productive, balanced, happy, inquisitive, aware, free-thinking adults they are today.

Not all kids are so lucky. As I was loitering this morning at my favorite sidewalk café, I listened to a couple of moms feverishly programming their children’s upcoming activities, apparently unwilling to leave a single minute unorganized and dangerously nonproductive. Not for those kids any time to watch ants crawl along the sidewalk, to play in the snow, ride their bikes, or skate aimlessly around the rink, just for the sake of enjoying skating; no time to consolidate or expand upon any bit of information they might remember from the whirlwind of facts jammed into their brains at school, no time to think or to daydream. No, they might miss an opportunity to “learn,” to advance their school careers, to compete in an organized, skill-building activity. No time to learn how to think for themselves. That would threaten adults’ erroneous belief that they are in change of their children’s minds and their learning.

Now that is dangerous, as I knew so well as a child in school. But just think what a world it would be if we could embrace that danger and any risk why might think it entailed…if all adults respected children’s ability to think for themselves and trusted that they could learn what they need to know. What if adults could put aside their doubts about kids and their need to control them and, instead, could partner with them in everybody’s best interest? What a world it would be, indeed.