Thinking Outside the Schooling Box?

I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with the whole concept of “school” and “education”, seeing both as formalized and standardized bureaucratic mechanisms that awkwardly attempt to both facilitate and direct human development. I think that is at the heart of the issue and my discomfort, because facilitating people and directing people are two very different approaches to human social interaction, often incompatible with each other.

A recent piece I read in Education Week, “Superintendents Push Dramatic Changes for Conn. Schools”, highlighted my discomfort with this discordant duality. From the intro to the piece…

The Connecticut classroom of the future may not be limited by a traditional school year, the four walls of a classroom, or even the standard progression of grades, based on a proposed package of unusually bold changes that are being advanced by the state’s school superintendents. Instead, the current system would be replaced by a “learner-centered” education program that would begin at age 3; offer parents a menu of options, including charter schools and magnet schools; and provide assessments when an individual child is ready to be tested, rather than having all children tested in a class at the same time.

As a broken-record advocate for “many educational paths” this all sounds very good to me. Build an entire infrastructure of different and differentiated learning venues, which in some cases is a school, in other cases perhaps a library, in other cases a “real world” venue like a work place or community center, and even a kids’ home. Leverage the Internet as well to link all these together, students with teachers (only when teachers are needed by the learners) or create new virtual venues beyond all the brick and mortar ones.

I certainly will bear witness to the idea that learning can happen outside the classroom. I know from my own experience growing up, plus watching my kids do the same, that most of my and my kids most profound learning happened outside of a school classroom and not under the direction of a teacher. That said, I know other kids who really resonate with that whole academic classroom milieu. For those kids that seek it out, great. But why as kids do we have to build our “school days” anchored around sitting on our butts in a generally information-impoverished classroom environment being spoon-fed instruction by a gatekeeper adult, unless that instruction is what we have individually decided we are seeking?

Finally the idea that mastering a particular body of knowledge should be done on the learner’s timetable rather than the state’s. And the related problem of all kids the same age having to learn the same thing at the same time. To me this is a remnant of a 19th century industrial paradigm that facilitated building a million Model T Fords, but not help kids transition to adulthood in the 21st century.

So starting to imagine all these wonderful transformational possibilities, I continue to read about what is motivating the council of the state’s school district superintendents to move forward with this plan…

“We’ve seen a not-so-subtle transformation in the education world from providing students with an opportunity to learn, to an obligation to be sure that every kid does learn,” said Frank H. Sippy, the superintendent of the 4,500-student Pomperaug Regional School District 15 and a member of the 16-person panel that developed the education transformation proposal. “We superintendents recognized we’re pretty well equipped to do the former, but not terribly equipped to do the latter.”

My heart sinks reading this. I am enough of a believer in people having the liberty to direct their own lives to feel that the state has no business going beyond giving every young person the opportunity to learn. You start forcing people to learn and there is a profound paradigm shift which corrodes the natural internally motivated urge every human being has to learn things.

Once it becomes the state’s obligation to direct rather than facilitate each person’s development, then it justifies the use of standardization and centralization to force schools to teach and students to learn. The justified use of force leads to all sorts of coercion and corruption that we see in all this teaching to the test and the inevitable cheating that is the collateral damage of that.

Then I read…

In 2008, at an annual policy conference that brought together 123 of the state’s 165 superintendents, the leaders talked about how the mission of education had shifted to the expectation that all students should be achieving at high levels.

I thought we progressive people had figured out that the goal is to offer people equal opportunity, not try to engineer equal results. That is the critique of progressivism that conservatives are always putting forward.

So here again is my ambivalence. Somehow whenever learning and human development are framed in terms of “education” and particularly in that learning venue we call “school”, it becomes a bureaucratic exercise where we are trying to do things to people rather than do things for people. The state of Connecticut is talking the language of learner-centered facilitation but accepting the obligation to have kids achieve concrete learning objectives rather than just ensure that they have the opportunity to do so. It seems like such a slippery slope!

So sill with some hope but also a great deal of concern I will continue to watch the unfolding events in Connecticut. Hoping that the benefits of making formal education more differentiated and more on the learner’s timetable will outweigh the costs of the state taking ever greater responsibility for the outcomes and direction of individual human development.

4 replies on “Thinking Outside the Schooling Box?”

  1. Feeling “an obligation to be sure that every kid does learn” is not at all the same as “forcing people to learn.” As a matter of fact, I would say that merely “providing an opportunity” without checking to see if learning is taking place and then adjusting the system if it is not is a dereliction of duty. It is the school’s duty to adjust the teaching, the curriculum, the schedule, the placement of the particular child, or whatever other barriers are preventing the child’s progress (lack of food, parental support, health problems, etc.)

    Not that you can force anyone to learn, anyway.

    On “unless that instruction is what we have individually decided we are seeking” – children do not know what they don’t know and what they need to know. Beyond that, the idea that everyone, including people who do not have the expertise to make a considered decision, should be able to do whatever they like, and that everything else is coercion, is a libertarian, not a progressive, ideal.

  2. LdeG… Good points yours! Maybe I’m overstating the coercive aspect. I appreciate your thoughts and need to ponder my tone here!

    But with all the high-stakes grading and testing it is like to the student, “You learn this or you fail, you don’t pass and this is a mark on your permanent record”. Or to the school, “Your students learn this or we shut you down.” That seems like a form of coercion to me. The coercion is part and parcel of a hierarchical control paradigm. Look at what Arne Duncan is doing, coercing states to agree to certain policies for teacher evaluation in order to be waived from almost certain “failure” judgement by NCLB. It is all about doing what “the man” says to avoid being branded a failure!

    You are right on individual liberty, it is more of a libertarian than a progressive ideal. And though I was raised in a progressive college town milieu I do have that libertarian thread as well which I call being “left-libertarian”, which is what I generally put down when someone asks me my political orientation. In that vein, I do think kids to a large degree can chart their own course and in today’s meydia-rich world figure out what they don’t know.

    To that, if you are interested, you might check out my previous piece on one of my own unschooling experiences charting my own course of learning to profound results as to who I am today and the kind of work skills I bring to the table. See…

  3. Clearly reasoned and stated argument favoring a facilitative role for the education establishment.

    The trouble people have with this argument is that it requires accepting that no content is sacrosanct and that reading and writing can be learned without being taught.

  4. Reuben… It is a paradigm shift. Though a kid could still ask an adult “teacher” to help them learn how to read or to write… proactievly ask for assistance rather than passively being told now its time to learn this.

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