Public Education: Start Again

If you could start from zero, what would public education look like?

Was There Ever Joy In School?

Posted by Stephen Dill on May 14, 2012

Learning is not always going to be about following rules.You might have seen the article in Forbes by Jessica Hagy that recently was shared by the many who would wish for a different learning environment for the world. Her list of 9 things that school taught you that would make no sense if not in the context of memory rang true for most of us, I am sure. But I found the responses to my posting of it in Facebook interesting. Much like my post earlier this year comparing public school failure with the denial of slavery’s inherent evil that frustrated abolitionists, there are some who see no problem with our current system or the system they were in (survived) when they were young—which, of course, resembles in most measures the system we are sending our children through today.

Understanding why people cannot sense the distinct differences between a joyful, empowering, enlightening learning experience and that which the clear majority of adults experienced and the children of the world currently experience is fundamental to what All New Public Education is all about. For every person who agrees with me that there is a need to start from scratch to build a better system, there are 100 who think the system is just fine, or can be fixed with, in essence, a few tweaks and more money.

Just how insidious the damage is that can be wrought by the current public education system is the subject of a book by Kirsten Olson I have recently read, Wounded By School. In the remarkable foreword by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the true value of Kirsten’s work is summarized by this statement:

At this time, when the public discourse about schooling tends to focus on the quantifiable indices of access, achievement, and opportunity, when the measurements of inequality use a rhetoric that is literal and objectifying, when educators and policymakers tend to be preoccupied with “achievement gaps,” with “high-stakes testing,” and with statistically based assessments and accountability, Olson raises up another specter of injustice that is more randomly spread. She speaks about the wounds of schools that cannot be easily classified by race, class, or gender, by the disadvantages of disability or giftedness, by the things visible or countable. … But she also, importantly, underscores the ways in which people who seem to thrive and excel—the perfectionist, the overachiever, the valedictorian, the brilliant athlete—may also be carrying around the pain that dulls curiosity, limits creativity, stifles imagination, and ultimately may one day lead to inertia and depression.

In an equally inspired second foreword by Parker J. Palmer, he adds:

Equally sad and profoundly ironic is the wound that may be the most widespread of all: the eagerness to learn that we all bring to the world as infants is often diminished and even destroyed by our schooling.

The wounds of schooling do not belong to students alone. They are frequently shared by teachers.

Yes, there are teachers and parents who participate in the wounding of children, adults who have grown so numb (and dumb) that they have lost touch with the feeling-life of the child, adults who subject the children in their care to the same kinds of cruelty that led to their own deformation.

And so begins a powerful examination of what so many of us experienced in our public and private schools:

  • Wounds of creativity
  • Wounds of compliance
  • Wounds of rebelliousness
  • Wounds that numb
  • Wounds of underestimation
  • Wounds of perfectionism, and
  • Wounds of the average

Kirsten Olson's powerful book, Wounded By SchoolOlson based this book on interviews to support her own research while a Masters of Education candidate at Harvard. She speaks of how “almost immediately I began hearing stories about educational wounding. Although in this project I was speaking with very “successful” individuals … individuals who felt that learning was at the center of their lives, as I tried to capture their educational biographies, nearly every one of them told me they felt they had a lot to recover from in their school experiences, and that their learning lives had developed primarily outside of, or in opposition to, their experiences in school.”

The stories Kirsten recounts are gripping, and make for engaging reading. But more importantly, there are few aspects of any of them that I could not remember either going through myself or feeling that I had witnessed similar scenarios happen to my friends, or children of friends I know now or have known. I would posit that the depth that Olson goes into would shake a scintilla of recognition from even the most hardened advocate for sustaining the current system. Who can deny that—at the macro level—schools (as represented by teachers and administrators) are “more focused on managing kids’ behaviors than fostering their academic growth”? And even more disturbing, the government-fostered perception that “If you get good grades, test well, and overall do well in school, you are intelligent, but if you do poorly, you are not intelligent.”

This deep dive into the unintended consequences of a system whose affects rob us all of our creativity, flexibility, understanding, higher cognitive ability, and social confidence is critical reading for everyone: educators, administrators, legislators, parents and students. For the many parents who have been suckered into thinking it’s acceptable to hold their public school responsible for taking care of their child from age 5 or earlier to age 18, Wounded By School is a wakeup call. True, there are bright spots, there are the Sudbury Valley Schools that allow for student-centic learning. There are the halfway houses (charter schools) that allow for some individualized programing, though still heavily supervised by an adult. But the clear majority of public and private schools use conformity as a measure of success, testing as a measure of results, and ignore the rights of the individuals trusted in their care to seek, find and express their inner calling, their true passion.

Kirsten Olson is a saint. As a consultant she willingly enters one school district after another to identify and document what is a repetitive and monotonous scenario: these few teachers respect the child and thrive in spite of the environment and system, the rest are here to get through the day without hitting anyone. Olson writes that, “School administrators often function as barriers to parents and “protectors” of the teachers, “doing their job” when they keep parents from intruding into the classroom or the instructional workings of the school.” The more enlightened of these will allow her to walk the halls, observe classes, and speak with their various communities, but to what degree they will agree with her assessments and  recommendations is anyone’s guess. And in the quagmire of a system that is based on an incorrect foundation, one school on stilts above it will not last long, much less make a difference.

3 Responses to “Was There Ever Joy In School?”

  1. Peter Gray said

    Stephen, great review of a great book. I think almost everyone can identify with at least some of the school wounds that Kirsten Olson discusses.

  2. patfarenga said

    Bravo, Stephen. Thanks for bringing these ideas to people. And don’t forget: you can leave school if you are wounded and heal by unschooling, too. You don’t have to keep putting up with a bad situation, hoping it will change.

  3. There is a good interview of Kirsten by Steve Hargadon on Future of Education available archived at http://audio.edtechlive.com/foe/kirstenolson.mp3. She talks about the interviews behind the book, the options that she sees for those who realize their children are being wounded by schools, and current conversations around the institutionalization of value and normalized outcomes that leave so many learners out.

    There is an interesting discussion of the responsibility for creation of market value (i.e. ability to get a job) in every child to public education, as opposed to the intention to help children learn how to learn, how to be inquisitive, how to investigate, and how to be a world citizen. Kirsten says that learning has become unmoored from the institution called education. Except for those who have no options, she sees the system we still offer being left behind.

    Steve asks Kirsten how anyone can get out of the industrialization of education with No Child Left Behind, and now, Race to the Top, sustaining the focus on testing and standardization across all demographics.

    Here is the link to the great resource in this effort some call ed reform, and a contributor to the evolution of a new system of learning: http://www.futureofeducation.com/

    Many thanks to Steve and Kirsten!

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