Liberty and Real Learning

Saw a piece today in Education Week magazine, “Panel Says Ed. Schools Overlook Developmental Science”, commenting on a report released this morning by a panel convened by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. As the title suggests, the panel calls out a disconnect between educational practice and what we have learned about the nature of how human beings develop.

In typical Education Week fashion, the article is very much inside the box of the conventional instructional school model and top-down control, rather than questioning any of the assumptions of that instructional approach. Excerpting from the article…

“There’s just been an explosion of knowledge in development science over the last 10 to 14 years,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “We know so much more about 4-year-olds’ capacity in math, or the skills progression that leads to confident literacy, or the way making material relevant engages an adolescent.”

What I don’t hear from this quote is any thought about giving early school-age children more liberty to engage in developmentally appropriate free play in an enriched environment. That would be promoting self-direction by the learner, which is not compatible with that top-down control model. Instead the findings from human development science appear to be addressed by modifying the current instructional regime, focused on “academic readiness” rather than natural human development. (Am I projecting too much of my own bias about our education system’s one-size-fits-all focus?)

Quoting another member of the panel…

Such programs, “focus on curriculum, instruction, assessment with the assumption that the rest of it has been taken care of somewhere else in the family, in the community, wherever, that all kids come to school ready to learn,” said Dr. Comer, the panel’s other co-chair. “You often hear educators say, ‘That stuff’s not our job.’”

Though Comer states the assumption that children “come to school ready to learn”, what I hear him saying is the assumption that children “come to school ready to be instructed” and learn from that instruction. So come hell or high water and damn the torpedoes of human developmental wisdom, we are planning to instruct these kids rather than let them direct their own learning through play naturally, since “that stuff’s not our job”.

And here is the top-down, rather than learner focus of applying this wisdom…

The report outlines a number of avenues through which policymakers could strengthen the preservice focus on developmental science, including through individual programs’ requirements and assessments; the national-accreditation process; state licensing and accreditation regimes; and federal programs and policy governing teacher-preparation and school-turnaround initiatives… The regular teacher-evaluation cycle in school systems, meanwhile, could serve as one way to encourage a stronger application of developmental science to instruction among the current teaching force.

The stated bottom line is “to encourage a stronger application of developmental science to instruction”, rather than questioning the human developmental efficacy of instruction as the be all and end all of formal education.

Looking back on my own childhood I can clearly see how much more significant my self-directed free play was than any time I spent in the classroom sitting at my desk and being taught through instruction. I was blessed with parents who, either through their education or based on their instincts, gave me an enriched environment inside and outside the house, and the liberty to direct the bulk of my activities (rather than guide me toward “learning toys” with an explicit academic or pre-academic intent).

Like the main character in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, when I was not sitting at my desk in the classroom, I enjoyed the benefits of a “free-range” childhood of adventure, self-directed discovery, and creative fantasies (see also my post “Plastic Dinosaurs and the Tragedy of Jinx Island”). The opportunities this gave me to develop social and collaboration skills (playing with the other kids in my neighborhood), along with conceptual and problem-solving skills contributed way more to my development than the instruction I received in my very good but conventional schools.

And even when I was in school my school day always included a significant recess period that allowed for additional free play with my schoolmates. Today recess seems to be viewed as vestigial, and is being cut out of school programs for children in favor of more externally-directed academic instruction. There is no way this can be developmentally appropriate for a child, but within the ever-narrowing academic focus of conventional instructional schools (damning the developmental torpedoes), there is an unfortunate logic.

The first nine years of my formal education (particularly the latter three in junior high) nearly brought me to my knees. (See my piece “Staying Home”.) I entered high school on the last fumes of any self-esteem, doubting I had any skills, intelligence or wisdom. I spent the weekend evenings of my initial months of my sophomore year hanging out with a group of neighborhood acquaintances who did not know or care a wit about who I was, and could not by any definition rise to the level of “friends”. Our most favorite activity was “teepeeing” the trees of other schoolmates houses with reams of toilet paper.

Fortuitously for me, the high school in my very liberal and progressive university town circa 1969 was all about freedom and liberty. I don’t think they even took attendance, except perhaps during first period. (Or else they notified my mom of my skipped classes and she chose not to do anything about it!) I soon discovered I could pick and choose what classes to go to and which to skip (even going off campus for several hours at a time) as long as I could pass tests and turn in important assignments. Looking back, it was more like college than conventional high school. That said I still spent many mind-numbing hours in classes like Chemistry that bored me. (See my piece “The Keisling Clock”).

Add to this more self-controlled formal learning environment (which took much less of a toll on me than my previous three years in junior high) were the main new extracurricular activities I stumbled into in my high school years. Again, looking back, the learning outside of school was much more profound for me than the learning in school. I became an active participant in a unique youth-run theater company, “Junior Light Opera”, and fell in with a circle of “war game nerds” who spent their weekend evenings playing very complicated military simulation board games (see my piece “Boys in the Basement”), rather than going out on dates etc. with their female peers.

Given all the classes I skipped during the school day, I probably spent as much time engaged in these activities outside of school as I spent sitting in those ubiquitous school desks. I developed a plethora of skills in these activities that are the basis and mainstay of my paid and volunteer work today, including project management, and system analysis, design, and implementation. Inside the classroom I got very little of this and not a whole lot else that was important to me later on, with the notable exception of a few key books I had to read for English classes.

From my experience, I would have to second radical educator and unschooler John Holt’s assertion that real learning is generally self-initiated. I was blessed after my junior high years with opportunities to avoid or outmaneuver much of the top-down control of the educational hierarchy.

But looking back, I would have been better served if I could have had the liberty to exercise more self-direction of my learning in school at every point along the way. That would have given me more time to conceive and mount theatrical productions and get to the point of collaborating with my peers on designing our own historical military simulations. All that “real” learning (per John Holt) I passed on in favor of adhering to the bureaucratic edicts of mandatory one-size-fits-all schooling.

Given all that, I want to clearly disclaim that I have known other kids who loved pretty much every moment of conventional instructional schooling and came out the other end raring to go. That sort of externally designed “best practice” academic education should be available to anyone and everyone who desires it. But for the most part, with some notable exceptions, I don’t think it was the right learning environment for me, and perhaps set me back a number of years in my own development.

Bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, life is all about identifying and developing the aspects of your unique human consciousness. Any formal education (particularly that which you are mandated to participate in) should be all about helping you facilitate your own development, not merely staying within the box of societal convention.

2 replies on “Liberty and Real Learning”

  1. Mr. Kiesling?!? One of my kids had Mr. Kiesling for science in 1988/99 (middle school). I still see him in the grocery store sometimes. I *hope* he is not *still* teaching!

    The A-squared schools are quite a bit less progressive today, although we are still hanging on to Community High (my kids are grads) et al. There is also a new *huge* traditional comprehensive high school — Skyline — out on N. Maple.

  2. kayak woman… I heard about the beast school in the burbs… but glad to hear Community High is still alive and kicking. Mr. Keisling and his spouse Mrs. Keisling taught Chemistry and Math respectively at Pioneer High in the early 70s. I would doubt they are still teaching today. FYI… Mrs. K was an excellent math teacher and I got a lot out of her class.

    Thanks for the comment and sorry for the late response. Somehow my mechanism that alerts me to comments did not work on this one.

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