Saturday, March 10, 2012

Yes, I really mean it.

I've been getting some push-back lately on one of those ideas that I keep questioning, and keep coming back to. How seriously, really, do I take the idea that people should not be made to learn stuff they don't care about? If I don't really believe it, if I believe it with exceptions, then should I keep trying to push the idea? If I talk about it just to make my point about establishing the on-ramp to learning through what a child enjoys, through interests and passions, does it necessarily mean that I truly believe no student should ever have to study anything they aren't interested in?

It's a point of view that's very easy to misinterpret, skew and distort; it's easy to set up those "straw man" arguments against it that make it possible to avoid addressing what is important about the idea ("You  mean kids shouldn't learn to read unless they want to?"). So I start to wonder if I'm digging in to this point of view out of stubbornness. I think I need to come out of the closet and say....I really do believe it.

Do I mean, therefore, that I don't believe there are things kids need to learn in order to live successful lives?

I'm pretty traditional that way, actually. I have what I call educational "sacred cows" of my own. I do believe there are things kids as individuals need to learn. I also think there are things that our next generations will have to do that will require collective knowledge and abilities, values, responsibilities. So it is not out of a willingness to sacrifice something essential that I advocate for a system of education whose curriculum begins with the tudents themselves.

It's just that the way it's working now...IT'S NOT WORKING!

There are so many reasons why,  it's hard to list them, but I'll try.

Kids have a completely different relationship with information now; it's entirely free, no longer the property of the teacher until they hand it down to waiting children, and kids know it. What they don't know is why they need to sit and be taught what they can look up on Wikipedia. Motivation to learn is entirely left out of the traditional education equation. It's all based on "because I said so," a parenting technique that is tenuous at best, and simply useless as a teaching tool.

Kids have an interconnectivity today that we could never have dreamed about. They have to power down for most classrooms, leaving out of the room the entire world that they know perfectly well is open to them when they leave the school building.

Kids also know that the promise of jobs and prosperity that we make to them as a return for knuckling down and getting to work is a myth. (If they don't know it, if they believe in that prosperity, then we are guilty of lying, aren't we?)

A lot of kids simply don't believe the institution cares a fig for them. I should say, some kids have a funny feeling that their needs don't matter...others know it for sure. Giving children the respect they deserve doesn't just mean simply treating them nicely, which I believe most teachers try very hard to do. It means giving kids the kind of attention that lets them know that who they are matters to the adults in their lives. It matters so much that adults will devote time and attention to finding out who these kids are, what they enjoy, what they love, and what they most want to do, and learn, and be.

There are more reasons. Reasons of family and home life are among them; reasons that a school system cannot control. But we do have control over that which we control, don't we? As Seth Godin says in his new book, Stop Stealing Dreams,

"I can’t think of anything more cynical and selfish, though, than telling kids who didn’t win the parent lottery that they’ve lost the entire game. Society has the resources and the skill (and thus the obligation) to reset cultural norms and to amplify them through schooling."

To those of you who think we can't possibly structure a school system around those principles, I have good news. It is most definitely do-able. First we need to let go of most of the preconceived notions about education, and open our minds to a new idea.

So I'm not saying kids don't need to learn to read, to write, to do math. I'm saying that kids need these things most desperately.  Learning that is coerced is ineffectual. Kids' natural desire to learn is their most powerful tool.

The best way to shut it down is to make kids learn stuff they don't care about.


  1. Kudos for coming out of the closet with this.

    For those who are worried about the basics, they should know that kids can and will learn to read, write, and do math without teachers, textbooks, or tests. All they need is an environment that is supportive and nurturing and their natural ability to learn will take care of the rest.

    Dr. Peter Gray has some great research in this area for those who want to learn more.

  2. I agree with you quite a bit. In fact, much of what you say coincides with the central themes of my book, The Homework Trap. School is important but when homework is assigned, it traverses the boundaries between home and school with extraordinary power to dictate and overrule the individual parent’s judgment. Further, as you so aptly say, it does not work. Once you look at the world from the child’s point of view, you realize that incessant academic demands which intrude on the home and bypass parental authority serve to teach children to dislike school and actually reinforce disobedient behaviors. Many “bad behaviors” are actually adaptive behaviors used by the child to deal with demands that do not make sense. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.

    1. Dr. Ken brings up a critical point in this discussion--the child's point of view. It is the child that is missing from so much of the conversation about schooling. As a teacher in a public school I am dismayed to see the focus on teaching techniques that emphasize total control while there is little discussion of how children learn and what motivates them.

  3. I have been reading and listening to you recently. For a solid year, I spoke at every school board meeting about every topic that Kohn, Meier, Littky et. al espouse. I even threw in Olsen's Wounded By School, democratic schools, The Hope Survey, High School Student Engagement Survey, Fairest and United Opt Out. Then I stopped and seriously considered running for the school board. It would have been a spirited campaign, but, even if I had won, I don't think I could have handled working in the context of traditional public schools. I try to present "alternative education" topics at statewide conferences, and organizations that are focusing on public education. I have been involved with the charter school movement and actually followed for several years the battle in Maine. Bless their tenacity and audacity, I sincerely hope that 10 schools over the next 10 years, are radically different learning environments grounded in student-directed, democratic, progressive tenets, but I will be very surprised if that happens. Plus, it is a much bigger battle, than just allowing some schools to be different, they all should have that choice. At least, that was what I was really fighting for in WV.

    Now I am at the point that if I could start one Big Picture school, I would gladly spend the rest of my life in that cause. But even that, gets thumbs down around here.

    I just wanted you to know that I appreciate what you write and your simple declaration that you really believe its is about the students. It sounds like you have figured out how to sit on a school board when all around you is madness. Thanks for fighting the good fight.

  4. I would love a Met school here in my little corner of the world!

    Thanks so much for reading, and for responding. I'm not sure why I've stuck it out on the school board so long, but I know that while it's sometimes frustrating, I have no intention of stopping as long as my town is content to send me!

    I had an uncle who used to muse, while looking at the stock market report in the paper, "There's got to be a way to crack the stock market. There's just got to be some way." I guess that's how I feel: as though the solution is staring me in the face, and if I keep doing it, it's going to jump out at me at any time. I get smarter, my positions evolve, I expand my own world of contacts and people I follow and learn from, I get smarter about my local interactions. So I keep going, feeling like at some point I'm going to make some headway!