Tuesday, October 22, 2013


There is a question that sits quietly in the back seat of every conversation about education reform.  Sometimes it gets asked, sometimes it waits.  We all know the question, it's one of the regulars.  

In the middle of "Education reform! We need change!  There is a better way!  Consider the alternatives!" it crosses its legs and waits to be noticed. 


Posed articulately by Mr. Chris Mercogliano in this, one of his first blog posts (after several books in print, mind you):  How do we do it?  Do we Reform or Remodel?

Go read it here now and come back for my response.

I find myself wrestling with the same ever-present question.   – do we try to fix the system or do we do what we can along side it? I suppose, as Chris concluded, it’s cannot come down to either/or thinking. It will have to be both/and.
It’s the same dichotomy that exists between Herbert Kohl’s and John Taylor Gatto’s fundamental philosophical approaches to (public) schooling and education reform. Kohl says work from the inside out; Gatto says blow the whole thing up because it’s doing what it was created to do.
There are so many brave educators who persevere in the public school, struggling against the the well armed grain to give those children some semblance of authentic learning experiences. I hear their stories at the education conferences and I am amazed by their tenacity.  I also hear the stories of all the rest of the attendees (the majority, by far) who have disengaged from the machine and are doing it their way. I am amazed by *their* tenacity, too!  They, too, are pushing against the grain, but from a bolstered position.

Where I live  “alternative education” is a foreign concept (no pun intended) and any attempts reform might look like an echo of what american schools are doing.  Something along the lines of "more accountability" and "higher standards".  
The task of changing the system - or at the very least, diversifying the offerings - seems daunting, even with just a few tens of thousands of learners. Our public schools are in dire straights with almost no funding coming their way (some 95% of the budget goes directly to salaries); private schools are in the business of making money and catering to the existing “get ahead ASAP” paradigm. There seems to be no in between.
My point is: I think our conversation about education reform needs to open up to a both/and thought process.  Inside the public school system because that is where the majority of learners are getting their education. Outside the public school system because it serves as a small but growing model for people to re-evaluate their ideas about schooling and education.
Both. And.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Culture of Socialization in School

As Sir Ken Robison so eloquently put it, we group our learners by date of manufacture.

Groups of people all bunched up together because they were born within the same year.  At some point, I'm sure this was the most sensible, if not the easiest solution of how best to break up the one room schoolhouse; how to create a more efficient system of categorizing young learners.  We'll group them by age!  It's so simple!  Throughout the entire process of formal instruction, it seems perfectly reasonable and logical to assume that all people born within 12 months of each other should understand and master identical concepts.  Concepts that we have arbitrarily determined are appropriate absolutely necessary for each age group.

Generally speaking there is no consideration of the individual.  18 years and under are viewed only as members of their chronological peer group - of whom every one is (treated) as a kind of clone, really. All six year olds must know how to read.  All nine year olds must understand fractions.  All two year olds must know every single colour and shape; letter and number names too, if they're to be ahead and readying for those steeply competitive college years.

And so it goes.

Of course this also means that each person spends the majority of her day (shall we be a teensy bit dramatic and say "life"?  Oh do, let's!) ...spends the majority of her life with about 20 other people her age and one or two adults to supervise the lot.

And we call this "socialization".

I am forced then, to wonder, how that might work for other non-institutionalized or otherwise autonomous people - usually the ones we refer to as "adults".  What if I were only permitted to seek employment with a group of people who were all 35 before June 30th?  That, having met the other basic skill set, the main criteria is that I am the same age as all the other staff.

Sure, I'd have lots of generational stuff in common with them.  ("Remember 'G.I. Joe?  And Jem? Wow!  Memories!  Good times..." and/or "Can you even believe slap bands are in AGAIN?! And neon colours?!  Who knew?")  We may even have some major life milestones in common and other things like political views, spiritual paths... any number of non age-related things.

But then what?

The diversity and range of experiences fit neatly within a three and a half decade time continuum.  The SAME one.  What about having more experienced people to ask for their input?  Or even fresher minds who have new perspectives and totally different histories.

What about having timeline diversity?  Mentors and pioneers? Is it possible that these archetypes can all fit in the same chronological group?  Of course it would be possible.

Likely?  Not so much.

Being lumped in with people your same age is not true socialization.  That's exposure.  Which is different.  Exposure is saying to the learner "Here is a group of people and their ranges of behaviours that they have acquired in the same number of years that you have been alive.   Witness their problem solving skills, conflict resolution, sense of humor, perception of the world around them.  Choose from these people and their behaviours the tools you might like to have use of in the future."

I realize this may sound dramatic.  And it might be for very young children.  But consider your 10 year old.  Your six year old.  There can't be much to gain from associating only with other children who are the same age.

Privilege and You

I shared this article on my facebook page with the following comment:
Young children are never not learning. There is so much to explore and discover about the world around them. Formal teaching (read: curriculum) is based on the idea that chronological age determines peer compatibility and readiness to learn specific academic skill sets. This is a flawed and illogical ideology. (Why we still have that arcane system is beyond me). Many children go through institutionalized learning from age two and three through high school and "come out fine". That's not what we want for the next generations, however - "fine". We want creative, problem solving, motivated, excited-with-possibility graduates. Earlier instruction, I think, will typically yield the opposite. Many children are burned out by the time they hit middle school. They lose their awe and fascination and learning becomes a chore; worse still, regurgitating facts to get good grades and forgetting them immediately.

Let them play and play and play some more. Let them play their way through the whole thing, I say!
It's no surprise that I feel this way about education.  I am kind of (okay, a lot) anti-school.  (Phew.  I'm glad I got that off my chest.)  But.

But.  One topic has come up at all the education conferences I've attended (all three of them!) regarding alternative education and it's this.


At the Rethinking Everything unschooling conference in Texas (2009), the question was raised in one of the workshops about whether this was an elitist movement.  At the Alternative Education Resource Organization conference in New York, the question was raised about the absence of poor and brown people (my words) from the democratic education schools.  At the IDEC (International Democratic Education Conference) in Puerto Rico, the question was raised about the availability of democratic learning to the underprivileged (great news!  such a school - a wonderful place - exists in Caguas: Nuestra Escuela.)

Even as I have pursued this dream of creating a school, I battle with the seeming impossibility of creating a private school that is accessible to anyone other than those families in higher income brackets.

This blog post is inspired by (and in many ways a response to) this thoughtful comment that someone posted under my link and rant.

...this is a complex topic. I agree with much of what you and the article have said. However, the article ignores a whole swath of research that concludes the exact opposite of what they are reporting. I have serious reservations about institutionalized education as well. but for many, and certainly here in [our country], I would say for the majority, Schools may be the best environments for children. School learning may be the only ticket out of an otherwise miserable existence. All the research I've seen conclude that in these environments, you can't start school early enough to give these children any sort of fighting chance. For those who can afford and have the skills and resources, alternative approaches clearly work well. Particularly for the poor and disenfranchised, however, schooling and a lot of it are their only hope. The question is how can we make it better.
What about that?  What about this idea that underprivileged/poor people can really only benefit from the old school?  (Pardon the pun.)   Why would that be true?  Is it true?  How can we test it?

I think that that line of reasoning, while earnest and well meaning, can be a little dangerous.  The implication seems to be that children born into and living within confines of a low(er) socioeconomic situation are somehow incapable of learning unless it's forced upon them.  It implies, further, that middle class and wealthy children are smarter and more adept at - well, at being smart and more adept.  I am sure that my friend does not mean to imply this - even in the least.  As he said, there are studies that support this theory.  Which begs the question once more:  Why?  Why is "school learning ... the only ticket out of an otherwise miserable existence"?

I honestly don't think it is.   The Albany Free School has learners from all walks of life.  As mentioned before, Nuestra Escuela caters to teens from the local (not exactly rich) area.  It's certainly true that there is a glaring dearth of alternative schools with a socioeconomically balanced enrollment (in the US, at least).  Which means we don't have many examples to draw from.

However, I am a firm believer in the premise that average learners all start with the same basic skill set.  Some may have challenges with language, others still the real costs of being poor - hunger, sadness, worry, some children are dealing with abusive situations (across the board), but they can all learn through play.  They can all find pleasure in the discovery of the new, the joy of the aha moment, the kindness of a helpful mentor to guide them, of knowing more today than yesterday, of what it means to be a human being.

What does all that mean, though?

I really do think that the current model of institutionalized teaching is outdated.  I think we can give our children more.  More than tests, homework, grades, drudgery.  I am not saying that school needs to be done away with.  I am saying that school - public and all - needs to be revolutionized.  Reduce the frequency of testing.  Increase time and space dedicated to creativity, to the sciences, to math, to reading.  Get rid of photocopied worksheets and homework (for God's sake, let the children and their families at least have their own time when they leave school!  Is that really so much to ask?!).  Add cooking, microscopes, discovery trips, gardening!

Where will all the money come from for that?

It's there.  Believe me.  Spending money on education is "penny wise and pound wise, too".

I cannot accept that any four or five year old benefits from sitting at a desk all day.  It is a huge disservice that we are doing to these children, forcing them to do this.  No matter where they come from.