Monday, September 12, 2011

Learning Through Life: No Teacher, No Curriculum

Many years ago, in my travels around the large (86 buildings) Richmond City public school system providing services requested of the Media Services department from all levels of the food chain, I found that most of the schools suffered from an unnecessary choke point called a Curriculum Specialist, who often had as much power as the principal. Some required that all requests and requisitions be routed through them, and prevented any direct contact with the worker bees. One battleaxe challenged me upon entering the building (this was way before all that security stuff), which caused me to then research what the heck this obstruction was.

With a large headquarters downtown populated by many Assistant Superintendents and Directors of this and that, and a principal or two for each school to meddle with all such weighty concepts as "curriculum," the only reason for the C.S.'s existence was probably as a very well-paid reserve corps of future assistant supers, principals and directors. Bored and useless, they became petty dictators. I dealt directly with the teachers and librarians after that, learning which entrance to use to avoid the Reaper.

Not the only reason I've thought about education for many decades. My own, and your own, standardized school experiences as students give us all enough to contemplate for the rest of our lives (if the phrase WTF? had existed back then, I'd have used it every day).

Conventional school is too much like a factory; the innate contradiction is that each part is different instead of being the same. We learn in different ways, something little understood even now, and we learn on very different timelines. We get bored and inattentive if we encounter a subject too late in our development, and frustrated when we meet it too early. Curiosity is innate in human and animal young; they all want to learn. But there are such overwhelming limits on what can occur in a classroom setting in strict conformance to the clock, that enthusiasm just shrivels. Inescapable, pervasive testing is a cruel joke, since all souls must be evaluated the same when they are as different as snowflakes. Do-or-die testing and fear of failure do not encourage, but erode abilities and interest.

With the dizzying pace of change, we can't know what knowledge will be needed in the future. Learning how to learn will serve us better than ending up with a stack of boxes of knowledge with a diploma on top.

Cyberschools and homeschooling are now available, but the motivations for their establishment and growth alongside the conventional public systems are often negative. Parents who fear for their children in bad schools or neighborhoods are grateful for alternatives other than church school, but about three-quarters of homeschoolers do it to ensure religious instruction and to insulate their progeny from any worldview but their own. I used to have several volumes of religious homeschool texts and workbooks; the propaganda included little gems like the statement that all fossils were deposited during Noah's Flood, and dinosaurs existed a few thousand years ago.

Not mentioned in any but the most obscure journals is the "unschooling" movement, proposed by John Holt, Ivan Illich and Raymond Moore in the 1970s (the most active and productive era in educational thinking since the turn of the 20th century). Unschooling is based on learning through natural life experiences and explorations initiated by the students themselves -- superfically similar to, but very different philosopically from, homeschooling. It asks: Can you make a better path for yourself than someone else can make for you? As an inmate, I sure thought so, but there was nowhere to go with that idea back then.

Adults and parents involved act as navigators, provide access and introduction to mentors, while sharing their interests and skills. A high level of supervision slides down to a lesser one as the students age and grow. Even in conventional schools, the project a student takes the lead on and explores deeply will be the experience he/she will benefit the most from. This is proven over and over again by home-schooled children succeeding at consistently higher rates in higher education and in life; they are more mature and confident.

Our society is only going to tolerate a few who value cooperation over competition and don't value coercion at all, so the unschooling movement will remain small, and should, to survive.

Two working parents is a common enough situation which would prevent participation. The school calendar is a just a tyrant to families --those who can follow an alternative program will miss that rigid calendar as much as a toothache (and they can participate in some of the local school activities). And the commonest objection, "lack of socialization," is not the problem critics may think; the artificial context of the schoolhouse environment actually retards socialization due to lack of contact with many adults in the community, the loneliness of the crowd and age segregation.

It makes you wonder where a different path may have taken you.

1 comment:

  1. I'll defer to the professional teachers to comment, but I know the public system of teaching did not work for me, even though I have two sheets of paper saying it did. Learning and processing that information with guidance is how we grow, yet exposure to music, art, environment and life presents lessons that are not taught in any school.