Friday, September 05, 2014

Revolution And Transformation

Education does not need to be reformed -- it needs to be transformed. The key is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions. ~Ken Robinson

There are some, and I'm included among them, who believe that a revolution is coming in public education. Indeed, I feel emboldened these days, not just by recent evidence that the regressive corporate "reform" movement and their Dickensian drive to subject a generation of children to labor in test score mines, has been forced into a small strategic retreat, but also by the fact that the pushback is coming from parents, teachers, and students representing all points of America's political spectrum. Change seems to be in the air. The media seems to be finally noticing, and if this article in The Atlantic is any indication, they are starting to notice that the biggest problem with public schools is poverty.

Like any good revolutionaries, then, assuming anything like "victory" is possible, we can't simply settle for a return to the status quo. Stopping "reform" is not enough: revolution is our opportunity for transformation.

I'm not going to pretend to know how to solve poverty, although I'm certain that it will require some version of the perfectly reasonable solutions devised by the children I teach: give them jobs, give them food, give them homes. (On that third point, the state of Utah has seemingly managed to actually cure homelessness in just this way.)

I have a few ideas, however, on the transformation of schools.

The first, and perhaps most difficult part, will be that we, as a society, will need to get past the hubristic belief that adults inherently know best how and what to know. We do not. Only the learner, whatever her age, can know this. As Peter Gray details through an exhaustive survey of anthropological research in his book Free to Learn, during most of the 10,000 years of human evolution we lived in hunter-gatherer societies in which free play was the norm for children. There is no evidence of the notion that adults had anything to "teach" other than that which could be conveyed through role modeling, like hunting, gathering, cooking, and singing. It's in this environment that the young learned what they needed to learn without classrooms, text books, lectures, and, most significantly, adults vainly persisting in the fallacy that they know how and what to know. It's in this environment that humans have evolved to learn, through free play, through free choice, through experimentation and observation.

I often think that my own childhood of roaming the neighborhood, playing outdoors with the children and things I found there, with few toys and lots of time, and largely unsupervised, comes as close as the modern world has ever come to matching this hunter-gatherer educational ideal.

Lest this sound like I'm suggesting that children can thrive in a world entirely without adults, I assure you we will always have a significant role to play. We have experience: the stuff of wisdom. We know about important things like safety, schedules, and courtesy to others. And our heads are chock-a-block with bits of potentially useful information and true stories to tell, because questions will be asked and perfect moments will arise when just the right word, metaphor, concept, or idea can help build bridges for children when the gap is a bit too far to span on their own. It's the role of protector and guide more than all-knowing teacher.

As I wrote yesterday, it appears to me that a model for transformation already imperfectly resides in our play-based preschools and those few democratic free schools that dot the landscape. I suggest that our educational transformation can be built from this foundation, perhaps from the early years up the way things are properly built, rather than this pie-in-the-sky notion that corporate "reformers" have of reverse engineering from the top down.

I see schools that are locally controlled if not locally owned, schools in which parents, teachers, and students work together to shape the physical and organizational environment, the "third leg" of the stool in Reggio Emilia parlance, because each neighborhood, each population of families, must be allowed to shape the culture of their own school if it is to truly serve its children. I don't see any reason why this transformation cannot begin with the facilities we already have in place, with their walls, libraries, computers, and outdoor spaces, although I'd be inclined to remove the doors from their hinges. I don't see any reason why this transformation cannot begin with the teachers we already have, although their role will shift from one in which direct instruction predominates to one more akin to "loitering with intent," concentrating mostly on the things adults understand best, like safety, schedules, courtesies to others, and, when called upon, to dispense those bits of information and tell those stories we've acquired through experience. Parents will be welcome at any time; indeed, they will be vital to the functioning of these learning communities, perhaps even in the way they are the lifeblood of our own cooperative preschool

As for the children, these transformed schools will be places they want to be, just as we were driven to escape each day into our neighborhoods to play with our friends. They will group themselves not by the strict superficialities of age, but rather according to their own interests and needs, learning through their processes and one another, discovering their unique talents, personalizing their education, and it will be through this, supported, but not directed by adults, that children will discover their true passions.

Am I dreaming? Probably, but revolution is in the air, and I fancy myself a revolutionary: now is the time to dream. When people ask me what I would have if not the status quo, I answer with what I've written these past couple days . . . And depending on your questions and comments, I may very well be writing about this tomorrow as it is one of my true passions.

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Anonymous said...

I’ve also been reading some wonderful blogs about Reggio inspired kindergartens and I found that the province of Ontario has a wealth of information on emergent curriculum for kindergarten. Ontario seems very progressive in their support of playful learning. The only thing I’m wondering is what happens when kids get to first grade in Ontario or elsewhere that play based kindergartens are supported? My experience of first and second graders is that they would thrive in a play based learning environment as well. And I believe there's no reason anyone of any age wouldn't thrive in a learning environment in which one could select and direct one's own learning. I've often felt that we start children in preschool with wonderful learning opportunities and then pull the rug out from under them as soon as they walk through the elementary school doors. Why is it we have got the first bit right and the rest all wrong?

Kristi Fiske Photography said...

I love this article and what you have spoken about here. Yes, please keep writing and being that revolutionary, as you say! It helps to fuel that same passion in me, too! I am right there with you!