Visioning Many Educational PathsJune 16th, 2012 at 18:24
Angelajean and I founded our Daily KOS “Educational Alternatives” group because we both believe that our youth (and their families) would be much better served in their development if they had a wide range of educational options. Currently there are very few such options available to most young people, particularly those from families without the economic means to have sufficient discretionary income to spend on private schools. I wanted to restate the group’s goal, to hopefully recruit more bloggers and diarists among us who share this vision to contribute their written pieces to our group.
Here is the group’s “mission statement” as posted in the profile…
To best serve the development of all our young people, we need to move away from our one-size-fits-all education system (based on the 19th Century industrial model) to a new approach that encourages and facilitates many profoundly different educational paths, including learning within and outside of schools.
We are grateful for all the people who have contributed pieces to the group and others who have contributed comments to some very lively, thoughtful and provocative discussions. We are also grateful for our silent readers, though as always, I would encourage you to use your voice and comment to add the energy of your posted words to the mix.
From where I sit, we currently have two well-represented sub-groups within our group. One is contributors who are advocates for homeschooling and unschooling, that is education outside of a formal “school” environment. The other is contributors who are advocates for education within the conventional public school environment, though a more progressive version on that schooling than the current paradigm of high-stakes testing and external control of teachers.
But there are other educational “flavors” that are mostly not represented in our group discussions. These include (advocates for) charter schools, holistic schools (like Montessori, Waldorf and others), democratic-free schools (like Sudbury Valley), Critical Pedagogy, online education, learning centers (catering to homeschoolers) and even elite private schools (or at least their possibly unique curriculum). These are, or at least could be, vital components of a “many paths” education system that I feel would much better serve our young people’s development.
Now occasionally I, Angelajean, or another contributor has posted a piece on one of these flavors, but I would like to call out to others reading this piece who are advocates for these educational options to step forward and contribute as well. This would lead to a broader conversation about a range of educational paths that fall between “life learning” on one end and formal instruction in classrooms on the other. Though I tend to favor the former, I also think that a robust education during one’s childhood and youth, depending on the developmental goals you might be pursuing (and your economic means and other resources) might include several of these options at different points in your development. To me the bottom line is that the learner pursues their education instead of being pursued by it.
So in an effort to call on more contributors to spark that wider discussion, I would like to briefly summarize what I see as the significant educational flavors that I’m aware of and some key issues for discussion with each. The first two are already much discussed in our “Ed Alt” group…
1. Conventional standardized instructional schools
This is the educational model that most people routinely think of when they hear the word “school”. Typically, students are assembled in a classroom at desks or tables and are led through a predefined standardized academic curriculum of compartmentalized subjects by a teacher or separate teacher for each subject. The methodology used is generally direct instruction followed by tests and graded assignments evaluated by the teacher. The governance model tends to be hierarchical, with teachers exercising authority over students, principals over teachers, district administrators over principals, and finally state (or possibly now national) administrators at the top of the paradigm.
All sorts of issues tend to swirl around this educational model because it is so ubiquitous and the country’s current obsession with high-stakes testing based on standardized curriculum tends to force schools (particularly public schools) away from other models and toward this one. Issues around what should be included in a state-standardized curriculum, how it should be presented, and how students’ mastery of that curriculum should be assessed. Issues whether the teaching methodology should be standardized as well, begging the question of whether teachers are true professionals who should control their profession, or just highly trained laborers following their bosses instructions. Issues around the typically hierarchical governance model and whether that facilitates full engagement of the learning process of students and the teaching abilities of teachers. There are of course many more.
2. Homeschooling (Academic)
In this approach the academic model of compartmentalized subjects and teacher-led instruction is duplicated to some degree at home with a parent, other adult (or even a professional teacher reviewing work on say a weekly or monthly basis) substituting for the in-school teacher. The curriculum followed may be the same as the standardized state curriculum taught in most schools, but it can also be a very different curriculum (religious, the arts, more focused on one discipline, etc) but still pursued by academically focused reading and other instruction, and possibly even through tests and writing and other assignments. Since the learning environment is more intimate and the parent is generally the main decision-maker, the learning process can be more easily customized to the learner.
This model also engenders a wide range of issues, particularly around the curriculum that parents choose to teach their kids, particularly if it is religious in nature. Also issues around socialization of the homeschooled kids and the breadth of their social perspective. And finally issues around whether parents are up to the task of substituting for teachers.
This is a variant of homeschooling that moves it away from the academic model used in conventional instructional schools and is referred to by some advocates as “life learning”. The venues and activities for learning are drawn more holistically from “real life” rather than compartmentalized “subjects”. My take at least is that the young person is more likely than in most school models or even more academic homeschooling to be playing a major role in directing their own learning process.
The most frequent issues surrounding this model revolve around whether this non-academic model is bonafide “education” at all, or whether a young person is capable of playing a (or the) major role in directing their own life and learning process. Other issues are around whether kids will learn the broad range of knowledge they are required to learn when they follow a standardized curriculum and whether that matters or not. Anecdotally at least, unschooling is credited (whether rightly or wrongly and depending on whose sharing) with some of the best and the worst outcomes, from early empowered young people able to “deep dive” into areas of interest or talent, to adults who are completely dysfunctional.
Our Daily KOS “Education Alternatives” group tends to have a range of voices advocating for the the three educational models summarized above. But we are in great need of advocates to post on the following models…
4. Charter schools
These are public schools that are initiated by entities outside the public school districts that traditionally launch and manage conventional public schools. Those entities might be individuals, community groups, non-profit organizations, or even for-profit businesses. Though as public schools, charters generally have to abide by the same standardized curriculum and high-stakes assessments as conventional public schools, they have more flexibility to deliver that curriculum using a range of educational methodologies including (at least in theory) some of those called out below. They tend to be smaller than conventional public schools which can foster more direct relationships (rather than indirect bureaucracy) within the school community. Also from a governance point of view, they have more flexibility to move away from the traditional state-district-principal-teacher-student hierarchy to something more egalitarian, including a school run more by teachers or with more significant student involvement in real governance.
Charter schools tend to draw ire from many political progressives (particularly on Daily KOS) because they keep making headlines as part of state public school privatization efforts or because they are often advocated for by conservative educational activists. Most (but not all) of them also have non-unionized teachers which casts them often in a union-busting role. There are also issues raised often around how they function (or are rightly or wrongly seen to function) more like private schools, cherry-picking which students can attend and not fully addressing accommodating special needs students. But in theory at least, they hold out a possibility (if not the reality) of bringing more of the educational diversity of public schools to the “people’s schools”.
5. Holistic schools
These are schools based on the curriculum and methodology generally of an innovative, charismatic education visionary that addresses standard academics within a broader context focused on the “whole child”, often metaphysical or even spiritual. The most common are schools based on the ideas of Maria Montessori or Rudolph Steiner (the originator of Waldorf schools). But there are also schools based on the ideas of a range of other such educational visionaries including American John Dewey and Indian educators Aurobindo Ghose and Inayat Khan. The methodology tends to feature the creation of an enriched learning environment that the student then explores more at their own direction with teachers more as “guides on the side” than “sages on the stage”. Not surprisingly, these schools tend to revolve around specially trained and highly skilled and gifted teachers (more like gurus perhaps) who generally play a larger role in the overall school governance than teachers traditionally do in public schools.
Issues with these schools tend to revolve around the fact that they are mostly (but not all) private (and so generally only available to families of more economic privilege) and that the curriculum may have some spiritual or even religious components. It is also my understanding that these schools often wrestle internally with having teachers that are gifted and skilled enough to guide a more self-directed student through a more holistic multi-dimensional and metaphysical curriculum.
6. Democratic-Free Schools
These are schools that both follow a democratic model of governance (that includes students and adult staff with equal votes in most matters of how the school is run) and where the students are free to do and learn pretty much whatever they want (as long as they don’t run afoul of the school’s democratically agreed upon rules). The two most well-known models of this type of school are the Summerhill School in Suffolk England and the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts U.S., and there are a number of others, but all told these schools are very rare. Some DF schools may feature teachers offering classes (all optional of course), but others do not and may not even call their adult staff “teachers”. I suppose you could characterize these schools not unlike unschooling, as “life learning” but in a school rather than a home or more real-life setting.
Issues with these schools tend to revolve around both of their fundamental components, that the students to a large degree run the school (and in some of these schools can even vote to fire the school’s adult staff members) and that they are not told by the adults what to do or what to learn.
7. Online Education
This is a very new educational process facilitated by the Internet and computer applications like Skype and Webex that facilitate remote audio-visual conferencing. It can be a delivery model for a conventional instructional curriculum within the context of an online private or even public (likely charter) “school without walls” or can be part of the spectrum of learning “venues” employed by an academic homeschooler or non-academic unschooler. It can also be previously unavailable channel for students who are shut-ins, constantly in transit with their families or living in very geographically remote areas (that at least have Internet access). In the case of my own kids, their online social networking and multi-player role-playing gaming communities became unschooling venues for non-academic learning around community building and creative writing.
Issues I’ve seen around formal academic online education are whether it can be as robust and interactive as face-to-face learning with student and teacher in a “brick and mortar” classroom, and therefore whether public schooling conducted online is a means to save state money by teaching students on the cheap. In its less formal, less academic application, can “playing games” and “chatting” online even be considered “educational”. (I would say yes but others not!)
8. Learning Centers
This is another type of educational venue that is a more recent invention in one sense, but is based in another sense on the traditional model of a library or a YMCA. It is a place where young people can go to take classes or otherwise pursue learning or interact socially with other young people, generally during the day when other kids are in school. These learning centers (unlike libraries but more like YMCA’s) charge money for their offerings and market themselves to students who are otherwise homeschooled or unschooled. One relatively well known one is North Star in Hadley Massachusetts.
Their very existence raises the issue, at least in my mind, why at least some conventional public schools couldn’t be run more like these learning centers (or even community colleges). Be places where the young person could go not to stay all day but to attend a particular class or participate in a particular (say sports or theater) activity during part of the day or perhaps just one or two days a week.
9. Critical Pedagogy
This is more closely a curriculum rather than a venue, but it involves focusing the school or other venue on community social/political empowerment often in the sense of an oppressed community challenging the dominant social/political/economic paradigm of their oppression. A school frames itself as an organization for community transformation. Rather than studying the standardized curriculum that may have little relevance to say urban at-risk youth and their neighborhoods, the curriculum becomes their struggle to understand the forces that adversely affect their community and how to take action against those forces and to build the positive components of community.
There are some historical precedents for this, particularly the anarchist Modern Schools, based on the ideas of Spanish anarchist educator Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, and the famous New York City version of the school set up by Emma Goldman and Will Durrant.
As you can imagine, Critical Pedagogy raises all sorts of issues surrounding educating kids around an adult political agenda, possibly in opposition to the very government that would generally fund schools in a marginalized minority neighborhood.
10. Elite Private School Curriculum
In some important ways a sort of doppleganger of Critical Pedagogy, expensive private schools cater to the economically and politically privileged elite to train their kids to be the next generation of political and corporate leaders. As Critical Pedagogy presents a curriculum to challenge racial and/or economic privilege, these elite private schools offer a curriculum and a community of connections to seats of power to help maintain existing privilege.
Most progressives (particularly those on Daily KOS) would be likely to see these schools in a very negative light. But I include their curriculum as one of “many paths” because many of these schools feature a curriculum specifically designed to teach kids how to exist comfortably and effectively in circles of power, and be creative outside-the-box thinkers and leaders. Wouldn’t it make sense to bring components of this elite curriculum to kids of the “99%” as well, to teach them how to manipulate the levers of power.
Calling All Advocates of Education Alternatives!
Please comment if you are an advocate for one or more of these educational “flavors” (particularly 4 through 10 which are currently unrepresented or at least underrepresented on this list) or if you see another alternative to frame separately from the ten I’ve called out above.