Public Education: Start Again

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

The Slow Awakening

Posted by Stephen Dill on August 5, 2010

The total reboot of global public education (which will no longer be public, by the way, but personal—what we call private now) is going to take time. Lots of time. I call it my 150-year project because I suspect it will take at least that long to bring about. However, every day there are more and more small signs that thinking individuals are coming to the conclusion that the foundations of the current education system are no longer appropriate, as indicated by the poor results of the system built upon them.

My childhood neighbor, Judith Scacco Pack—another Facebook reconnection success story, linked to an article from EducationNews.Org and the title caught my eye: Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech. Unique as much for its message as the age of the presenter of that message, Erica Goldson politely and respectfully expressed her frustration with the education system to the audience at the graduation ceremony at Coxsackie-Athens High School. In her estimation:

We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something?” Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

Ms. Goldson touches on a concordant theme stated elsewhere here on All New Public Education: that “education” is not about standardization, but freedom of expression and lifelong learning. While many may nod their heads and agree to the words, few realize that this means no buildings where all children enter and are sorted by age. This means “classes” unlike any we know now, for classes will be associated by interest, not age or geography, connected by the Internet, unmeasured by tests unless decided by the pupils to have some value to help them learn the topic. Few I speak with can grasp the idea that a child may not begin learning from someone else until they are 12 or older, while other children may become teachers at age 10 without ever having taken formal training from anyone else, either in the topic they are now teaching, or the process of teaching. Throughout time the young mind, unfettered by adult constraints, consistently confounds adult’s preconceived correlations between age and mental acuity and capacity.

“Anarchy!” I hear all the time. If only a few did it, such as the relatively small number pursuing unschooling today, perhaps. But not when everyone does it, the world over. “Utopian,” is another response. Perhaps so, but we once knew the value of teaching by doing; letting children play and work alongside their peers and parents in order to identify their personal interests. But we are talking centuries ago. The last vestige of that culture is still seen in the traditional school year calendar, scheduled originally to allow children to assist the family farm. By 1854 Thoreau wrote in “Walden,”

I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life; — to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar. Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month — the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this — or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?

I applaud Ms. Goldson’s bravery in challenging the status quo and in taking to task the system that almost convinced her that chasing the goal of better grades than anyone else in her class was in her best interests. Erica has joined the many who shake their heads in baffled wonder at how such methods can persist so long after so much conclusive evidence has been accumulated to disprove its validity. Howard Gardner, John Taylor Gatto and all the many others who have paved the way to understanding the need for educational revolution must be very, very patient people.

5 Responses to “The Slow Awakening”

  1. Judi Pack said

    Thanks for writing this. I share your frustration and desire for a whole new way of thinking about education–and yes, it will be a 150 project! We need a national dialogue about what education should look like and that doesn’t seem likely, given the media and the powers that be–the same old players. However, I am encouraged by the numbers of organizations, unschoolers, and Erica Goldson’s out there. The internet has helped us learn about each other and share ideas and opinions. It’s difficult to believe that an educational system like ours can continue like this into the future.

    I am interested in the ideas you expressed above and want to add that we need to include a way to foster working and learning together and to be sure everyone has the opportunity to be introduced to some of the best minds of the past and present, especially through literature. When we talk about children having more control over their own learning, most people think we’re talking about learning absent mentors, classical/cultural artifacts, and self discipline. I don’t think I’m as romantic as Rousseau but I strongly believe that all human beings feel both thrilled and satisfied when learning. And of course I’m referring to Piaget’s definition of learning and not school “learning.”

    David Hawkins referred to “messing about” in science and how important it is that children (and adults) have lots of time to mess about with materials before they are introduced to any scientific information. That they have the opportunity to play, experiment and theorize as they mess with water, sand, tubes, etc. I think this is true in all domains and disciplines.

    Where is the messing about? It’s all but disappeared.

    • Judi,

      While I cannot point to research right this minute, I am willing to bet that every human has experienced the joy of discovering something new. The key to that joy is in self-discovery, as opposed to forced learning. The truly rich figure out how to establish and stay within an environment that provides such self-discovery throughout their lives. As our valedictorian says, our current system results in most people whose goal is to get out of the system relatively unscathed. A classic case of opportunity lost.

      Great point, Judi. Where, indeed, has the messing about gone?

  2. Catholic Homeschooling in Delaware: The Importance of Catholic Materials…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  3. Frank Ferguson said

    Indeed our present “sage on the stage” teacher and our one-size-fits-all textbook dominated model for instruction fail us in all the ways cited in this post and the responses.

    Decades ago Dr. Donald D. Durrell, then Dean of the graduate school of education at Boston University said to me “It’s the output skills that count [writing, speaking] not the input skills… not a lot happen [in the way of learning] until the student goes to work.”

    Another under appreciate insight is the benefit of collaborative learning. As far back as 35A.D. Seneca the Younger observed in his letter to his pal Lucilius “Docendo Discimus” — when we teach, we learn. In the late 1700s the Scot, Andrew Bell, wrote to book on the benefits of students teaching one another; in the late 1800’s the French had a system of “ecole mutuelle” with peer-team learning, in the past 100 years we’ve had Slavin at Johns Hopkins, and the Johnsons at the University of Minnesota with centers for cooperative learning, and Durrell at BU who published numerous studies on the benefits of peer team learning.

    A unifying theory underlying ALL of the above is the work of Lev Vygotsky [who died of TB in Moscow at age 38 in 1934] and whose pioneering work lay untranslated for some 40 years. Vygotsky, in his book THOUGHT AND LANGUAGE, identifies a profound connection between oral language (speech) and cognition (learning), i.e. the one talking is the one learning. Hence the power of project-based learning (lots of oral interaction), peer-team learning and cooperative learning (Durrell, Slavin, Johnson, et al.) ecole mutuelle, and, indeed, Seneca the Younger’s Docendo Discimuis.

    Tomorrow’s effective teachers, mentors, and learnng guides, will best serve the following generation by arranging for learning to occur, and that may, on occasion, involve “teaching.”

  4. Jon Madian said

    Thank you all for your “spot on” article and comments. I’d like to suggest that this may not take 7.5 generations. The research on learning is clear; clearly we’re not attending to that research. Our new technologies offer a Trojan Horse that will soon be everywhere in our knowledge industries, of which education is numero uno. Aligning learning with the three “ecologies” is coming. These are the ecology of the self as a bio-psycho-social being; the ecology of the community; and the ecology of the earth from which we’ve emerged and on which all else relies. As we see the alignment among these three highly complex and coordinated systems we will apply ourselves to creating learning processes that more closely reflect our nature, enthusiasms, concerns and talents. Such a re-weaving of the tapestry of education would not be imaginable but for the new digital looms on which we can weave our knowledge to create and reflect greater and more refined light from and into each of us.

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