Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The "Grades" Wars: Swing...and a miss...strike two

I wrote this comment in response to an article in today's Lewiston Sun-Journal: 

Both traditional grading and standards-based reporting miss the point by about a mile, when it comes to student learning. I know what I'm about to post will be counter to what many of us believe about what schools should do....but face it. Schools are failing.

There are multiple reasons why, and a biggie is just this...kids are bored. They are disconnected to learning. They do what they need to do and no more; just what's required to get adults to leave them alone (and if you don't see this as true of our better students, then you've never heard a high-achiever ask, "Will this be on the test?")

Here are some phrases from the article that jumped out at me and waved their arms:

“I’m the parent of an eighth-grader. When he goes next year, I want to know how he’s doing in school. ... We need to do a better job.”
We have accepted the idea that we need a number or a letter to know how our kids are doing in school. Should the question be "how are they doing?" or "how fulfilled and satisfied they are with their learning? Are they doing work that is fun for them to explore? Are they creating cool stuff?"

"For instance, he said, freshmen are no longer graded on homework. Some freshmen have interpreted that to mean they don’t have to do homework. They are now beginning to understand why they need to do their homework, that if they skip homework they won’t do well."
If they skip homework, that means they aren't interested enough in the work to do it. That fact has meaning beyond the archaic notion that one must do homework in order to be successful.

"Parents complained that freshmen grading is so inconsistent, incomplete and confusing that students don’t know where they stand. Some have lost incentive to do well in school."
Their incentive to do well should come from their passions and their interests. We are so divorced from the idea that kids are able to direct their own learning, that we can't imagine what might happen if they were doing work that they felt strongly connected to. We have thrown in the towel on the whole notion of fulfilling, satisfying learning that comes from their identities, their strengths, their enjoyments. And we are unacquainted with the idea that the best preparation for the "outside world" is the development and pursuit of creative ideas.

All grades, standards-based or traditional, derive from adults' ideas on what "should" be learned. We're so confident in our judgment that we don't feel it's necessary to see who the student is, and what they're actually intrinsically interested in learning. It's an idea that never really worked well, and now is positively binding and gagging our students.

Before we "strike out" in our pursuit of "fixing" the education system, we need to look at what nobody in the system seems to want to see -- that in order to "do well" students need to direct their own .learning. Let's get out of the high-stakes testing business, let's reject the Common Core, and embrace -- OH MY GOD! -- the students!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Why Eric Jensen is Ruby Payne on Steroids

A Facebook conversation with Paul Gorski and friends...

Facebook not a place for serious discussion? 

Seriously? 

Well, it’s a good thing I ignore that on a daily basis -- and so do the other people in this thread which took place over the past few days.


Some weeks ago I wrote a few posts on poverty and education, and Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. The approach to disadvantaged students that she recommends and teaches to school districts is based in something those I read and talk to call “deficit ideology.” My own school district, in a laudable attempt to do as well as we possibly can with the disadvantaged students in our schools, has been looking into the recommendations of Ruby Payne.

Curious about two books by Eric Jensen that I saw on a meeting table in front of my Superintendent, I inquired in Paul Gorski’s Facebook group, EdChange. Paul Gorski is the founder of EdChange and the author of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap




Paul Gorski also blogged about the exchange

Lisa Cooley:  Does anyone here have experience with this book?






Paul Gorski answered my question, and reposted his answer in public:


Gorski: Earlier today one of my new favorite colleagues, Lisa Cooley, posted a question, asking people to share their beliefs about Eric Jensen's work on poverty and education. I've posted on this topic in the past, but wanted to share my response for anybody who might have missed it.


HERE IT IS:


Eric Jensen more or less is Ruby Payne on steroids. He uses a very narrowly focused approach to brain research to make claims that fail to take into account the same contextual and social conditions Ruby Payne doesn't take into account in her work. Just to give you a snapshot, here is something Jensen wrote in an article in Ed Leadership:


"We know, for example, that the poor and middle classes have many overlapping values, including valuing education and the importance of hard work (Gorski, 2008). But if poor people were exactly the same cognitively, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally as those from the middle class, then the exact same teaching provided to both middle-class students and students from poverty would bring the exact same results." (Note that he cites me here.)


His argument is very Payne-esque, making big statements based on a little sliver of knowledge, completely ignoring structural inequity both in and out of schools. First, he misapplied my argument, which was that there are structural barriers that cause class-based outcome inequalities. (He speaks to some of these in his article, like lack of access to healthy foods, but then fails to say, hey, maybe if we provided low-income kids with healthier foods, that would help.)


Then he takes an even bigger step ignoring structural barriers. It frightens me that anybody who works with youth wouldn't be able to pick up on this pretty quickly. Take two students, one who has lived a life in poverty and one who has been given every material advantage. Even if the student whose family is in poverty has the same innate cognitive and intellectual potential as the wealthy student, why would we expect "the exact same results"?


The lower-income student is more likely to have parents who work multiple jobs and evening jobs, giving them less time to help with homework. They're less likely to have access to nutritious food. They're less likely to have access to tutors and other "shadow education." They're less likely to have stable housing or high-quality health care, particularly preventive health care. Inside school, they're more likely to have had the least experienced teachers. They are more likely to be in schools that are grossly under-resourced. They on average will be in schools with larger class sizes, less engaging pedagogies, and with little or no physical education, recess, the arts, and school nurses.


So, the very notion underlying Jensen's work is 100% wrong. In fact, it's deficit ideology. It ignores the need to address structural conditions--very, very basic structural conditions. The brain research Jensen cites is notable in that it describes what can be the impacts of poverty. So then we need to decide, are we going to focus our energy on mitigating those impacts through a deficit lens that sees low-income students' brains as the problem, or are we going to eliminate the conditions of inequality that creates the impacts? If I'm a teacher, why not focus on creating an equitable learning environment and responding to the unequal distribution of opportunity within my sphere of influence (at the very least) rather than locating the "problem" in the brains of low-income kids?


I think his model allows people to hold onto their deficit views by claiming they're engaging with a scientific explanation, which makes the framework very, very dangerous.


Alejandra Estrada-Burt: I understand why Gorski's is critiquing Jensen's work...but having read his books and listening to Jensen present a few times: I would say that he is overall message to teachers is no excuses ..students from poverty can perform at high levels levels when they are presented with high levels of cognitively engaging materials. In one presentation he cites research on what would happen if you removed the bottom 10 percent of low performing teachers in U.S.the visual graph showed quite a substantial jump in academic proficiency. Look Jensen's an easy guy to critique ...gets paid thousands of dollars to keynote, lives in Hawaii, etc. The cynic in me would also argue that he is the package that delivers a message that will be received by most teachers (please read in between the lines)....the reality is that there is no silver bullet to save schools...just like weight loss ...schools and teachers have to put in the work of collectively raising the bar for themselves and for their students.


Paul C. Gorski: Alejandra Estrada-Burt--Yes, that could be his overall intended message, but it's still grounded in a deficit framework, so it doesn't deal with the biggest ideological barrier.


I actually don't think Jensen is an easy target. After Payne, he's the most popular person doing this work. I have a problem with the fact that the two most visible and active people training teachers on issues of poverty fail to address structural barriers as part of the center of the their frameworks. My concern is with his framework, not with that other stuff.


And really, it's not so much about him or about Payne as individuals. It's about how we, in education, continue to have unsophisticated conversations about equity and justice issues. If we were willing to have more sophisticated conversations about this stuff, Payne wouldn't be dominating the conversation because people would see it as inaccurate and damaging.


And by the way, even though I didn't address the "no excuses" message in Jensen's work, I think that message has done a lot of damage in public education because it's meant to divert attention from the structural barriers that Jensen ignores in his work. Saying that low-income kids don't perform in school as well as their wealthier counterparts because they have crappy healthcare, unstable housing, and fewer material resources is not an excuse. It's a reality. And it's a reality that won't disappear if we cut the 10% of lowest-performing teachers (which is basically still a deficit ideology approach).


Lisa Cooley: I have difficulty with this statement, " I would say that he is overall message to teachers is no excuses ... students from poverty can perform at high levels levels when they are presented with high levels of cognitively engaging materials. "


So what do you do with that no-excuses policy? Teach kids the same stuff...giving special attention to those "struggling learners" who are, usually, poor? That's what we do in my district. But "struggling learner" is just a euphemism for dumb kids, isn't it?


Teach kids from a strengths-based pedagogy; teach them the causes of poverty and the results. Create a democratic school structure where all voices are equal.


Alejandra Estrada-Burt: That is the problem with most Educational speakers and theoretical conversations: which is it does not break it down enough for teachers to answer your question Lisa Cooley...teachers want to know how that plays out in their individual classroom with their students....in theory most educators can accept reframing the conversation from a strength based model...but teachers want support on what they should be doing different. Eric Jensen is one of a few speakers that actually models for teachers strategies and highlights areas where they can better support students in their classroom. I appreciate that he moves beyond the typical sit and get presentations. Jensen is only one perspective but I do believe he helps teachers move along a continuum of a broader understanding toward a more Gorski understanding....but I agree that Jensen does so without calling out the white elephants....


Lisa Cooley: I understand. There's the dichotomy between "what needs to change in society" and "what do I do tomorrow."


Brayatan Carreño: For those of us who grew up in poverty, and I am squarely in that camp. Not only did our teachers ignore the systemic and structural barriers that Paul C. Gorski so aptly points out, but they did so against a backdrop that saw us as not as having less resources but being less worthy. When I taught in the same district I went to school in was the first time I saw how it played out, behind closed doors, the way colleagues, and I only saw it briefly because once I challenged them they simply stopped, talked about children and families. If you don't see yourself and the humanity in those you teach, even recognizing the systemic barriers will do little good because you will have already set yourself up as being different (better) than those you serve. Unlike Paul I am willing to say that I find Jensen and Payne sickening and problematic as humans; that they exploit poverty for their own significant financial gain AND fail to ignore the systemic ways in which poverty operates and how they actively contribute to the exacerbation of punitive teaching lumped on to children historically underrepresented...


Lynda Coates: Hmmm... I read Jensen a few years ago and took away the main message that "If brains can change for the worse because of poverty conditions, they can change for the better in supportive environments." So what educators can do today is focus on creating an enrichment environment instead of focusing on deficits. I am gonna have to review Jensen again after reading your post, Gorski.


Paul C. Gorski: Alejandra Estrada-Burt--Payne and Jensen both talk about practical applications, which is part of their draw. But part of their draw, in my opinion, also is in talking about those practical applications through a framework that doesn't feel threatening--a simplistic framework that doesn't challenge the existing biases of the audience. Now this is where I would separate Payne and Jensen. In Payne's case, the practical strategies are based on misinformation. One study found dozens of factual errors in her work, such as how she describes "language registers" in a way that is completely at odds with decades of linguistics scholarship, or her statement that low-income people don't value education, which I have refuted in my own scholarship.


Jensen does draw on scholarship, although my reading of his work suggests that he applies it quite narrowly, as is the case in the overall "brain research" obsession in education today. Still, he does provide some research-based strategies. But here's the problem that remains, and it goes back to Brayatan Carreño's comment above. The problem is the lack of attention to the structural stuff, which doesn't have to be THE very central message, but does need to be part of the central framework, in my view.


My experience working with teachers--and understand that often I'm the one districts bring in to clean up the bias-laced messes left by Payne and others--is that, without the structural view, many apply the most practical, hands-on strategies discussed by Payne and Jensen within a classroom context that is still full of class bias and misunderstanding.


I'm not talking about bad, aggressively discriminatory teachers here--I'm talking about very well-intentioned teachers who, in the end, still think that poor people are poor because of their own deficiencies (which also remains the dominant view in the US, so it's not unique to teachers, but it is something they probably should not have if they have gone through a decent teacher ed program) and that the way to improve educational outcomes is to fix those deficiencies.


They go through the Jensen workshop and still are talking about how badly low-income people parent or how they wish low-income people care more about school. When I wrote Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, one of my goals was to demonstrate that teachers could enthusiastically have a broader and deeper and more complex conversation. That, if couched in a way that wasn't blaming them and that recognized the challenges they face in their work (and that recognized that teachers, themselves, are targets of a deficit view--blamed, as they are, for all kinds of things that are not really in their control, by among other things the "no excuses" bit), teachers would be very willing to talk about the bigger structural issues.


That's because I simply don't believe it's possible to create real change in even a little context without understanding the bigger conditions. How can I create equitable opportunities for family engagement if I don't realize how the lack of living wage work impacts low-income students and their families?


If I believe they're not showing up because they don't care--if that's my interpretation--then what are the strategies I'm going to be able to imagine for addressing such problems? So having a few practical strategies within a bigger misunderstanding is problematic. It's also inefficient. But most importantly it's oppressive.


In the case of Payne, I think she knows full well she's being oppressive. She's read the responses to her work. She knows by now it's junk. In the case of Jensen, he's applying his narrow bit of expertise to a problem and people are interpreting it as THE WAY to address the problem, either because they don't understand that the problem is much bigger than a lack of practical strategies and the explanation is much bigger than brain stuff OR because it's easier to model a few strategies than to create more substantive and equitable change.


Well, I'm not settling for that. Teachers are capable of doing something more than adding a few strategies to their pedagogies, and it starts with ideological shifts. When the ideology shifts, the practice shifts to be in line with the ideology. That's what I see in schools. And that's where Payne is a complete disaster and Jensen is, at best, underdeveloped.


The quote I shared earlier from his work demonstrates his own lack of understanding. Why would I want somebody who doesn't understand something so fundamental about poverty and how it works training teachers on how to work with students in poverty?


I will add--and I talk about this in my book--that [David] Berliner and some of the other people writing solely about structural stuff and wagging their fingers at people who are doing anything focused more on teaching practice also should be more careful, in my view. To me, it's a both/and, not an either/or., which is why I have ended almost everything I've ever written about these issues with a list of strategies.


One other quick thing, and refer, again to some of Paul Thomas's stuff on this... The other dangerous ideological frame around this conversation is the GRIT stuff, which argues, more or less, that rather than tearing down the barriers of inequity, we should help marginalized youth develop the resiliency and grit to overcome those barriers. That is the worst of deficit ideology.


I actually don't think drawing on brain research is problematic. I just think we need to drawn on a wide swath of research and couch things in a structural understanding. Kind of makes me think of stuff that Ladson-Billings and Delpit have written about helping African American youth strengthen their abilities to navigate racist spaces. The reason they're talking about helping African American youth but are not doing deficit ideology is that they couch their discussions of this in a bigger context of recognizing and addressing structural racism. They're saying, “Until we get this bigger structural racism thing worked out, we better help kids navigate it so they don't get swallowed up, but we also better not come up with these strategies in ways that ignore the existence of structural racism, or they're sure to be swallowed up eventually.”


Lisa Cooley: Paul C. Gorski, I think you are asking people -- teachers, administrators, etc. -- to think more deeply than they might have under the influence of Payne or Jensen. And it may be difficult under the current circumstances of the attack on teachers. As evidenced by the rise of the Badass Teachers Association, teachers are circling the wagons, and with good reason -- the attacks come from every direction. Now, I understand that your approach is NOT in any sense an attack on teachers, but they have to cope with so many trends and fads and practices that are downright antithetical to everything they know about learning -- so they might consider this new approach, while worthwhile, yet another thing they are required to do.


Now, I think there are requirements, and there are requirements, and yours is in quite a different category from, say, the Common Core Standards. But it does require that an entire school staff think more deeply about their place in kids' lives, and how they can adjust the culture of a school to do right be all kids.


Paul C. Gorski: Lisa Cooley--I work with schools all over the country and I get very, very little resistance because my approach begins with an acknowledgement of the challenge educators are up against. Remember, part of my structural message is that teachers, too, are targets of a deficit view. Even as there are some teachers who point the blame to uncaring parents, a lot of people in the US are being socialized to blame teachers for educational outcomes. In the end, my experience has been that educators appreciate being engaged on a deeper level than they are with Payne. My message is not "it's teachers fault." My message is that with some basic shifts in ideology teachers can be even better advocates for their students. My message is that some of those nasty ed reform initiatives are harming teachers, students (and particularly already-marginalized students), families--that the people who feel disempowered by what's happening in education today should be careful not to participate in that divide-and-conquer game of blame each other but instead learn to understand the contextual stuff that makes all of them targets. In the end, teachers' interests are very much aligned with the interests of their most disenfranchised students. In one of the powerpoints I use, my first slide is a photo of my Appalachian grandma who grew up in poverty. The title is "How I know 'the poor' are not 'the problem'". The very next slide is a photo of me with Mr. Hill, the teacher who made me care about these issues. The title is "How I know teachers are an important part of the solution." It's about framing.


Justin Schwamm: Lisa Cooley, I think you're right about the difficulty of asking people, especially teachers and administrators, to think more deeply about structural issues. But I don't think the difficulty is anything new. There's something about the culture and structure of (many) schools that encourages an attitude of "too much to do, not enough time to stop and think, get out of my way, stop bothering me, just close my door and let me teach because this too shall pass." And those cultural and structural elements have been in place for decades.


Lisa Cooley: Another thing I wanted to suggest is that kids are constantly being asked to learn stuff they didn't ask to learn. Obviously there is going to be greater engagement in a classroom that discusses the poverty issue itself, especially if 75% of the kids in the class are poor. But it is still an imposed curriculum, and I trust "learning about" systems less than I do a more immersed learning.


What I'm saying is that a school culture in which everyone's opinion matters equally, from the administrators to the kindergartners -- (yes!) teaches equity by living it. It's the difference between showing and telling. There are an awful lot of things I think should be taught in school and is not touched because of testing and standardization, and certainly the causes of the economic structure of society is one of them, but I think the conditions of learning, the environment and culture of schools, has to undergo a shift in order for the lessons of equity to really be learned.


Of course, it is far easier (not easy, but easier) to institute a curriculum than it is to turn public schools into democratic schools, but I think we have to keep the end goal in mind as the way of healing the wounds that poor kids suffer in and out of schools, and turning them into confident, empathetic, self-respecting adults.


There are a few things that I believe might be done to create this culture of equity; one of them derives from the work of Nel Noddings, who talks about the difference between "caring about" and "caring for." This applies to all students -- "caring about" is a more distant kind of caring, but "caring for" means that there is a focus among staff to make sure all kids' needs are met, educationally, emotionally, socially, etc. Making sure there is a level playing field between kids and adults is part of the strategy. Chris Lehmann works hard to see this happens at the Science Leadership Academy (Chris, I wouldn't pull you in here if it wasn't winter vacation! )


The other thing as I've mentioned to you is a strengths-based pedagogy. If we assume all kids have strengths -- and how could they not? -- then poor and middle-class kids are equal. So we start there. Find the strengths, find the interests, and give all kids equal opportunities to not only learn what they are interested in but show that they are good at stuff. I read once that one kid in an inner-city school said he was very good at walking home from school without getting shot. His strengths were in knowing his neighborhood really well including helpful alleyways, but also in understanding the mood of a neighborhood and being able to tell if there was trouble. These strengths could be taught by him, and also applied to other learning. Other kids won't be good at what he's good at, so he gets to feel pretty special, as do all the other kids in their own way.


Then, from a different thread...


Lisa Cooley: To quote Paul in an earlier exchange, "My experience working with teachers--and understand that often I'm the one districts bring in to clean up the bias-laced messes left by Payne and others..."


Paul C. Gorski, could you describe some of the "messes" that Payne leaves behind? How did they manifest themselves, and what did you do to clean it up? Thanks! (I'm taking advantage of people being on vacation to gain as much info as I can!)


Paul C. Gorski: Mostly it's just a confirmation of deficit views, but it comes through as teachers speaking very confidently about poverty, not realizing how misinformed they've been by Payne. It's all the basic stereotypes. They don't care about education. They speak in informal register. They struggle to communicate effectively. It's all about what they need to understand about what's broken in low-income families, although they'd never use the word "broken" because that would be too explicitly biased.


Go back to the example of family involvement. I've worked with schools where, based on Payne's message, the primary strategy for increasing family involvement was to find ways to convince low-income families they should care more about their children's education.


Well, we know based on about 45 years of research that low-income families have the exact same attitudes about the importance of education as their wealthier peers--that that's not why they show up in lower numbers to family engagement things hosted at the school. So now they're using strategies that are actually further alienating low-income families rather than asking themselves whether they family engagement opportunities they provide are scheduled in ways that make sense for families who can't afford childcare, who don't have transportation, who don't have paid leave and are more likely to be working evening jobs, who experience schools as hostile. It's not mean-spirited usually.


It's very well-intended--enthusiastic, even. Most see themselves as real advocates. So my approach is about having them look through a different window, from a different angle, incorporating a more structural view so that they can imagine more sensible solutions. The mess is the more deeply embedded stereotypes (which Payne has confirmed for them) and the practices and policies and initiatives developed through those stereotypes.


Then I'm coming in and saying, "Oops--this isn't going to work unless we're willing to change the way we think about poverty." And despite what people might assume, my experience has been that, as long as I engage educators in a respectful process of digging through the muck--a process that does not blame educators, a process that wraps back around to classroom practice eventually--I get very, very little resistance.


And I don't candy-coat. I say up-front, "If you believe that people in poverty are in poverty because people in poverty are deficient, you cannot be an effective educator for low-income students." That's my first message. My second message is that this is 90% ideological, and part of our shift has to be thinking that every educational problem is 90% practical.


Lisa Cooley: Interesting, thank you! it's kind of amazing that administrators see the damage that has been done and bring you in to fix it.


Paul C. Gorski: Lisa Cooley--Yes. In those cases it is pretty amazing. Other times what happens is they've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Payne's stuff and five years in they realize nothing has changed so they decide to try something different...


Lisa Cooley: Oh, yeah, and I bet you have the "sunk costs" phenomenon there as well...we paid X dollars for Payne's people to come in here and teach us, nothing has changed, so now we have to pay X more to reinforce it because we don't want to admit that we were mistaken to let her run the process of making change to begin with.


I’ll let Paul sum up....


Paul C. Gorski: The issue is not who values education. Virtually everybody values education, and we have research going back to the mid-70s that makes that very clear. The issue is who has ACCESS to equitable educational opportunity. And this is what I've been saying about IDEOLOGY, why it's so important. If I start by believing that poverty is actually a symptom of deficiencies in people or communities, I am very likely to interpret the symptoms of unequal opportunity--low-income parents showing up to school-based opportunities for family engagement at lower rates than their wealthier peers--as evidence supporting my deficit view. And it's wrong. In every single way it's wrong.


Sure there are individual people who might not value education in whatever way, but those people are not concentrated in low-income communities (or in communities of color, which also is a common assumption). This works in other ways, too. A low-income student consistently doesn't do her homework. How do I interpret it? A low-income student falls asleep in class. How do I interpret it? Do I consider that they might not have computers or access to a library? Do I consider they are more likely to be caring for younger siblings? Do I consider they are more likely to be working to help support the family? Do I consider they might be homeless or have had the lights cut off? If I have the deficit view, I'm not likely even to be curious about these things.


If I have the structural view, even though I might not be able to change these things for the student, I at least will not start with the assumption that the student is irresponsible and that the parents don't value education. I won't respond in a way that further alienates my most marginalized students. And I can come up with strategies that at least take the reality of the situation into account rather than strategies that begin with faulty assumptions. Ideology = practicality.


I think it might be possible to successfully work Facebook as an activist, as a way of both gathering information and raising awareness about the changes that are needed in education.


A friend recently told me it might be productive to offer these discussions up to a larger audience. If anyone would like to participate in these discussions, be sure to send me a friend request. I’ll return it for anyone who demonstrates a genuine interest in making public education work for all of America’s children.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Class Struggle in School

Public education’s reputation as a place where all kids are given an equal chance at success is a great myth.


“Equal,” to some, means to expect the same learning to happen for the same age kids at around the same time. That, to many, is how educational fairness is achieved. But to expect, in the context of school, is to coerce. “Equality” in this sense means the demand for ritual compliance of children, without the encumbrance of having to listen in return.


It is true that some kids find compliance with the learning demands of school to be a piece of cake. Skim the 10% of kids off the top who trust authority, can manage to get interested in anything put in front of them, and feel a connection to the world that leads to an understanding that what is expected of them is truly important.


Those kids are our justification for continuing a coercive system of learning.


But there is loss even for them.  “Successful” students have turned their initiative, their powers of choice, over to the authorities. Over the course of 13 years, they have accepted that their needs should be subjugated to the system’s demands. They’ve done pretty well with it, and when pressed, might even defend the system as being just what all kids really need.


But there is something worse; no matter how kind and sympathetic a "good student" is, they have been given cause to believe they are the good kids, the smart ones; the ones who have gained the approval of those in power. It is an institutional exercise of the the class system.


Those who struggle to succeed in school either settle for little or no sense of accomplishment, try to be satisfied with the cheapened sense that comes from having struggled through the stuff that’s put in front of them, no matter how disconnected they feel. The self-respect that comes from this is chancy, and connected to the approval from those in power who have a mistaken notion of what good learning looks like. It is a hit-or-miss proposition.


And they see their failures against the success of other students. They can learn to accept their position in the education class system, or they can struggle and struggle against the powerful, most often finding it a lost cause. They have to comply or lose their ticket out, the pass to a better life: a high school diploma.


Some benevolent folks (including myself) believe that creating alternative spaces for those students who don’t thrive in the public education mainstream is the way to go. But this implies that school works fine for some students; it’s the oddball kids who can't fit into the normal school.


The coercive nature of the learning experience in public education is a problem for every student.


How do we even things out? How do we make certain that every child has great and successful learning experiences at school regardless of their stressful home life, education level of their parents, learning strengths, and other life circumstances?


Every member of a learning community should have some say in the environment in which they spend so much of their day. Instead, we require children in school to live out the experience of being under a quasi-totalitarian regime (whether they realize it or not) even while they sit in class, memorizing principles of "democracy." Check hypocrisy at the door! There is no down-side to the enfranchisement of every human in every school. Give power of choice and voice over both learning and living, and reap the reward of students who have a sense of responsibility to the community.


With democracy comes the acknowledgment of the individual identities of each student. So many of us claim to believe that every child has an equal ability to grow intelligence; to learn, and succeed. I don't know anyone who would deny this. I know many, many people who feel that it is perfectly appropriate to refer to some kids as "struggling learners," without any sense of having violated that first precept: that all kids have an equal ability to grow intelligence. If you believe that is true, then the existence of a struggling learner indicates that something is wrong with the system.


So we begin with the appreciation of and belief in every individual child.


From there we begin to understand that every child has an area of strength. Every child is an expert in something, and would love to tell you what that is. My favorite is the inner-city child who said he is an expert in "walking home from school without getting shot." That is a kid who gets the neighborhood. He senses the mood, knows the streets and alleyways intimately, and understands how to avoid trouble. He is proud, and he should be. He should be able to teach others how to be so alert and tuned-in to their surroundings.


Lately it seems it is fashionable and PC for adults to claim to value play. Where that value can be seen in action is a mystery to me, but play is another huge part of fulfilling the idea that every child can grow intelligence. When children play, adults should be watching. They should take note of the conversation of children; what each child is attracted to, how they play, what they play with, and what they need. When a child plays alone, and when they play with others. Some education models actually have adults document these conversations and activities through stealthy video or audio taping, or at the very least, a pencil and piece of paper!


Adults can use the information to provide the environment that will cultivate and enrich children's play time. If it is tech that is needed, get it. According to age, that could be Raspberry Pi, Makey-Makey, Arduino, Scratch, and many other ways kids can play with tech. Or maybe if you are a cardboard expert like Cain in Cain's Arcade, all you need is lots of boxes, tape, and a warehouse of random materials. Young gardeners can grow seedlings. Young fashion designers can follow their interests by playing with patterns and fabric. Young theater impresarios can produce their own plays. The list is endless but enriching play all has one thing in common: adults are paying respectful attention.


Tony Wagner, in his book Creating Innovators, came up with the expression, "Play, Passion, Purpose." Enriching play is absolutely essential: time to explore and dive deeply into fun.


I have in the past been a big believer in children's goal-setting, but I've had a change of heart. If kids want to set goals and work toward them then they certainly should. But working toward a goal should not stand in the way of exploratory play. THAT is what creates innovators; and that is what attaches children to learning. The goals will emerge if you take that leap of faith in the unadulterated ingenuity of children.


The emergence of the next two concepts -- passion, and purpose -- are inevitable with the right environment and adult guidance. All learning wraps around the discoveries made in play. Reading, math, social studies, science.


This approach to learning -- identity, strengths, play and passion, all embedded in democracy -- can start in Kindergarten and continue through high school. It may look very different from school to school or grade to grade, but it carries those principles along.


What happens if we trust kids to learn, without coercion? Is coercion benefiting anyone? The differences between children should not lie in how they respond to coercion, but in their interests and their strengths.


We worry so much about our kids developing a sense of responsibility and accountability; and yet we deny them the connection to learning and pursuit of deep interests that would naturally result in greater responsibility. The level of disengagement we see is entirely predictable.

Public education is no more an institution that provides kids with equal opportunities to grow and succeed than culture outside it is. Not as the system stands now.  We can fashion a new way, one that really does engender equality. Delve into the principles outlined here; insist that our schools embrace the effort to truly value the intelligence and abilities of each child.




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Written with significant help from Brendan Heidenreich