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learning from life

Replacing a Dying Institution Rather Than Blaming Kids – December 3, 2012
Waiting for a slow barista this morning, I overheard a conversation between two teachers. Kids today, they complained, don’t want to learn. In fact, they don’t know how to. They are entitled, lazy, and just interested in electronic devices. I would normally have thought nothing more about this conversation because I have given up trying to persuade people with that attitude to rethink children and learning and, instead, just trust that when someone is ready to understand, they will. But as I walked home, I was reminded of a couple of other similar instances that I’ve read about recently.

For instance, blogger Amy Milstein described what happened when she wrote a response to a teacher’s blog post that contained similar complaints about her students’ supposed shortcomings. This high school teacher and her supporters reacted negatively (and, I think, defensively) to the notion that the kids would learn more by pursuing their own interests rather than being forced to focus on what someone else has decided is important.

It’s not just high school teachers who blame the victims while feeling victimized themselves. In the comments on this post written to help teachers respond to criticism over the holidays, a teacher complains that he/she has been “spat on, kicked, hit, pinched, or cursed at by young children (4-8 year olds!).” The proposed solution was better working conditions and pay…and snappy responses to people who don’t know what it’s like to be a teacher – rather than wondering why the children are so angry.

Some innovative teachers and academics do seem to understand that kids innately know how to learn, and do so effortlessly when engaged in their own chosen activities. I quit teaching in 1969 when I realized that; John Taylor Gatto took a little longer than my four months, but the result was the same. For most enlightened teachers, though, the benefit of that insight is limited by the boundaries of institutional thinking and the demands of the institution itself. And it results in stuff like this article about new alternative schools being created by a school board: “The school would follow the … curriculum but, instead of teacher-led discussions, lesson plans will evolve based on the children’s interests … It doesn’t mean children run the curriculum, but instead of sitting them down and overtly teaching them something, you kind of make propositions or invitations to specific topics.”

We wouldn’t want kids to control what they’re learning, now would we?! However, these efforts are a step away from blaming school children because they’re disinterested, bored, or angry. And it will help kids who are still, for whatever reason, victims of the institution. But it still frames education in terms of the notion that children should be providing adults with the right answers. It doesn’t recognize there is dissociation between school and learning that is not the fault of the students. And it makes me wonder how much actual change can be created from the inside.

Nevertheless, I haven’t lost hope. In this essay, which I mentioned yesterday, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Richard Elmore is quoted as saying, “I do not believe in the institutional structure of public schooling anymore,” and that his long-standing work helping teachers is “palliative care for a dying institution.” With that attitude, I wonder how much longer he’ll be able to do his work. Perhaps he’ll give it up and begin to engage full-time with the unschooling and democratic schools communities in search of something to replace that dying institution. One place to start would be to reverse the direction of the “bridge program” that one of those proposed “alternative schools” is creating to connect homeschooled kids with that dying institution! And another place to begin would be somehow to end both the defensiveness and sense of superiority that are so often part of the institutional mindset and promote a serious dialogue among everyone who cares about how children are treated. Unschoolers can play an important role in that discussion, as Eva Swidler wrote in this important article that we published in Natural Life Magazine a few years ago.
Posted: 2012/12/03 11:45 AM


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