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.
Written with significant help from Brendan Heidenreich