Can we “unlearn”schooling and learn how to “be there” for kids?




“You can’t ever keep your kids from getting hurt, but you can be there for them when it happens”

Steve Yurchak, ca 1974

Happy New Year!

That quote was shared with me in a conversation with a very wise man when I was saddened by something that had hurt one of my kids. In this age of standards, high stakes testing, increasing academic and social pressures, I wonder if we’ve lost the time, freedom and commitment to “be there” for the kids we teach.

I was planning on taking a writing break for the holidays when life suddenly intervened and put an idea in my head. The idea came in the form of an article shared with me by a good friend. The author, Ted Wachtel, wrote about his journey as both a student and later as a teacher. With one sentence, he had me…

“However, not until I read “Deschooling Society”  in 1971 did I realize that the institution of school itself is the obstacle to learning for many young people.”

My reflections on this brought me back to Clark Aldrich’s book, Unschooling Rules, in which he describes the three critical types of learning that our kids need today: learning how to learn, learning how to be, and learning how to do. (For more on Aldrich and his thinking, here is a link to a YouTube presentation by him).This was a private reflection, one that I’ve been hoping will lead me to language sufficiently powerful to move readers to consider the possibility that Wachtel raises, i.e., school may be the obstacle. School may be, as Russell Ackoff asserts, an example of trying to do the wrong thing better and better.

I’ve written about this conflict previously, but something in the piece struck a new chord with me.   I connected it to observations I’ve been making recently about my youngest grandchildren, all four of whom are under the age of ten with three of them less than 5.

Each time we have the kids over or have babysitting duty (which I’ve come to realize is actually babysitting “privilege”), I’m amazed at how they much they learn, how serious they are about learning, how much fun they have doing it, etc. I don’t want to romanticize this process. There are times when they are frustrated, impatient, downright unpleasant. But they are natural learners. They are driven by curiosity and the need to find explanations for the world they are experiencing.

And then school/schooling happens. We’ve all seen it. Our kids and grandkids come home and after their first week we notice that they are raising their hands to speak. The proudly announce that they were named “line leader” for recess. Out nine year old responds to the question, “what was the best part of school today?” with one word “Recess”?

The school that happens to/for our kids reflects the need to “educate” increasing numbers of children, to insure that important information is transmitted to all and to do this efficiently. The result… kids grouped by age, kids moving in age based cohorts, kids being exposed to information organized by discrete content areas, and kids being evaluated largely based on their ability to recall pre-identified facts, etc., etc., etc.

We aimed for excellence and focused delivery of information on the average. We guaranteed the perpetuation of the system with only minor and incremental modifications by staffing the schools largely with those who had “succeeded” in such a system.

Enter the kindergartners or pre-schoolers, full of curiosity, full of questions, experienced in independent inquiry and conclusion drawing. Too often we treat this as a lack of the discipline necessary for learning. It reflects a need to impose discipline so that we can provide learning in the way we have organized it… it is about efficiency. We assume that certain kinds of environments are conducive for learning and we set about to create these conditions.

Because we have organized by age and by a preferred group size (an efficiency issue) we need to provide the environment in which kids thus grouped might be able to “learn” what we have decided they need to know, in the framework that we have determined to be best, and at a pace which is based on average not uniqueness.

Ironically, we do so, too frequently, at the expense of the very things that now, in the 21st Century, we are hoping to see in our children, in our graduates. We recognize our failings, or perhaps more importantly, we “recognize” the failing of our students and blame them and their teachers.

And we try very hard not to accept the observation shared by Wachtel, “…the institution of school itself is the obstacle to learning for many young people.”  But what if he’s right? What kinds of things might we consider for the new year?

And so here are a few of the primary questions that I’m  hoping we can grapple with…

  • How can we transform the “obstacle of school” to the “center for learning”? How can we create “circles of safety”, places dominated by the commitment to personal relationships and support for all?
  • What would happen if, at the very earliest ages and thereafter, instead of training young children how to conform to the culture of school, we intentionally focused on the further development of their innate curiosity, their desire for learning, the need to seek and explore explanation for the way their world works?
  • What would happen if, instead of focusing our high profile reform efforts on high school programs, we helped our youngest children understand that it’s great to follow their curiosity and decide what they would like to learn and that we can help them do that in our schools?
  • What would happen if we built primary and elementary learning experiences for children around what we now know about learning and worked on the development of metacognitive and self-reflective dispositions to enhance their natural inclinations?
  • What would happen if we removed obstacles to us “being there” for our children by focusing less at how to score higher on tests of content increasingly removed from the life needs of our students?
  • What would school look like if we acknowledged that Dewey was right and focused on the creation of learning experiences that extend well beyond thee walls of the school?
  • Would school still be an obstacle? Would schooling and learning still be in conflict?

Please feel free to use the comment option to share some questions of your own and if you know an elementary educator who might like this, please pass it along and suggest that they subscribe.

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