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.