Tag 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?




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.

Instead of Efficiency

Instead of Efficiency

Efficiency is one of the hallmarks of our society. And, on the surface, creating more desired results from the resources available may seem benign or even beneficial, whether we’re talking agriculture, business, government, or education. However, our quest for efficiency is, increasingly, leading us to dangerous places.

A good example of this lies in the way we produce our food. Take, for instance, the highly efficient “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs). Critics have been warning for years that these massive, inhumane animal factories are incubators for virulent super-pathogens, and we’ve written about them in Natural Life Magazine. Knowing that their crowded and unhygienic farms put animals at risk of disease, farmers pump pigs and cattle full of antibiotics, which is the prerequisite for antibiotic-resistant organisms and a potential public health crisis. The industrial farming company finds it more efficient to give drugs to healthy animals than to grow food on small, mixed farms where conditions are humane, animals stay healthy, and customers are nearby. This efficiency serves both corporate greed and consumer desire for cheap food.

Capitalism is also, by definition and design, highly efficient as it matches resources to consumer demand. Globalization is an efficiency-driven expansion of capitalism, with its deregulation of nation-state financial and labor markets. And we are now seeing the effects of an integrated global economy on the environment and society. It is increasing the devastation of natural habitats, speeding global warming, and polluting water supplies. It has given us unsustainable development, job insecurity, and growing socio-economic inequity. It has usurped democratic control by multinational corporations and the financial institutions that support them. And it is focused on growth at all costs, irrespective of quality of life.

While we would like to agree with the promoters of these policies that they will eventually lead to democratization and freedom around the world, globalization was not chosen by voters. In fact, democracy itself is not particularly efficient. Educating people about the issues, allowing for discussion and debate, consensus-building, and implementing policies that are not in the best interests of everyone, all require time and can be messy. Dictatorship is much more efficient!

Education is one of the ways we presume to learn to live democratically. But efficiency has become a hallmark of public education too, creating large classes, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and standardized testing. Efficiency has entrenched the outmoded factory model of schooling and its pursuit of economies of scale at a time when we are long overdue for a paradigm shift instead. We are efficiently processing students along a conveyor belt of stale facts instead of helping them develop their creativity, research skills, adaptation abilities, and love of learning, all of which will help them live more democratically and productively. I’ve written about this – and the alternative – in Life Learning Magazine.

Fortunately, it seems that the issues of the day are providing us with the inspiration to embrace less efficient but more robust systems in all these aspects of life. I think we could be approaching the tipping point, where enough people recognize that efficiency is not always the most important thing and that the “experts” don’t always have our best interests at heart.

Many more of us are moving back to basics, spending less money on courses and electronic toys for our children, growing our own veggie gardens, leaving our cars at home when walking or cycling are possible, taking control over our own health and wellness, shopping less and mending more, getting to know our neighbors and enjoying time spent with family. These things aren’t necessarily efficient, but they are creating habits that will ultimately make us healthier, better governed, and more educated. I’ve seen a huge increase in interest in these topics since my partner Rolf and I started Natural Life Magazine almost forty years ago.

Hitting the ecological, economic, and ethical walls all at the same time has got our attention. It remains to be seen how we will work ourselves out of the mess. But I do know that more people than ever before have a sense of the impact their actions have on the world. So I continue to have hope for a sustainable future – where capitalism and consumerism do not cause human suffering, and where individuals take responsibility for discontinuing and cleaning up environmental and economic devastation.

John Holt in Life Learning Magazine

John Holt in Life Learning MagazineJohn Holt died in September of 1985. But the ideas and words of the man who was the creator of the term “unschooling” and a steadfast supporter of trusting and respecting children live on. In Life Learning Magazine, on the 30th anniversary of his death, we looked back at some of that inspiration.

Here’s an article I wrote about my experience with John Holt.

And here’s an interview I did with Pat Farenga about his work with John Holt. The quote above is from that interview. Here is another:

“He created [the word unschooling] in order to avoid giving the impression that families were really creating miniature schools in their homes, as the word homeschooling connotes. I see it not as a method, but an attitude towards learning and children, a way of life.”

I am honored to have known and worked with John when I was first embarking on my own advocacy work. And I’m pleased to be able to help keep his words alive for this and future generations of unschoolers.

The Life Learning Journey

The Life Learning JourneyI’ve been thinking about the term “grown up.” Lots of people talk about “grown unschoolers.” But what does it mean, really? When has a person reached “up”? When they hit six feet tall? When they turn 20? Or 30? Or 50? When they can support themselves financially? Of course, those are all arbitrary criteria, set in relation to our cultural and family experiences. They are mere signposts along the road to a destination that we are not able to locate on anyone’s life map. Maybe, like Peter Pan, we never really grow up! Now there’s a thought that will probably upset many people, since growing up seems to be the paramount goal in our society.

Another really important goal, it seems, is to become educated. But neither is an education a destination; it, too, is a journey. We commonly speak of the importance of “getting an education” and of “finishing our education” and we think of people as being educated or not, as if there were some finite place one reached when learning could stop. But we don’t become educated any more than we ever completely grow up. There is always something to learn…and, in fact, many important lessons are not learned until mid-life or older. An education is not a destination, but a journey – one that begins at birth and continues until we die (or even after, depending upon your spiritual/religious beliefs).

So if your school-free child isn’t learning in lock-step with her schooled peers, just remember that she has a whole lifetime ahead of her to walk the life learning path…and that the life learning journey involves much more than she would ever be taught in school or than she can learn before she grows up.