Monday, February 1, 2016

Education and Control: Ryan’s Story

Ryan hates school; he hates the work, he hates the environment, he hates the pressure, the shaming, the inflexibility. He hates having to be there at all. And he’s one of those students who needs educational freedom in order to excel. He doesn’t get that, so he’s failing.

He’s even failing a class in photography, which is his passion. He’s failing because he already knows perfectly well how to learn to take better pictures, and the class assignments are, “BS.” How frustrating, to be good at something but to dislike the class that’s supposed to be teaching you about it.  My son experienced some of those feelings when, after teaching himself five programming languages, he entered his first CS class in college and found it to be....utterly stupid.

Ryan, 17, goes to a high school in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. He tells us how his school is trying to get kids to get good grades.

“We got this BS presentation in the auditorium. ‘Students, welcome back from your snowcation!’ I don't feel welcomed. It was all about being an ‘E-Free School’. E is Failing at my school.  The assembly was fully of ‘E-Shaming’.  And we got this contract thing:”


“If we fail anything we have to go to summer school and our parents have to pay for it.”, Ryan says. “And then the principal presented a shitty incentive to the whole school with this assembly.”

They get to wear hats.

In return for passing grades, the students get to wear hats in school.

“It could be worse,” said Ryan, “And the fact that it could be worse is crippling.”

I thought about that. I think Ryan meant that the fact that adults had the power not only to make students’ life miserable, but to make their lives even more miserable if they wanted to was incredibly stressful.

Like many students, Ryan’s parents see school as the only path to success in life. Their pressure only adds to his stress.

Ryan is a lot like I was. I never was able to do work assigned to me, unless it happened to coincide with work I wanted to do. I failed all through middle and high school. And I felt it. I felt inadequate; mediocre, often depressed. I observed kids around me who cheerfully fulfilled their assignments with a kind of confused wonder.

Yet later in my life, I pursued jobs, did work I had no interest in, and survived under the pressure of bosses who cared not a whit about my feelings. My passion was for independence, and that was my payoff. Ryan has no payoff at all. And he has no power.


How did the system get this way? What does it accomplish?

Comment here or join us in our Dialogue On Education group on Facebook. 

Let’s talk about it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Get on their side -- not on the sidelines.

A blog post came across my screen recently that made my head explode. It's not an easy task to explain why.

Pic from the Grown and Flown blog
"One of the great parenting quandaries is when to push our kids and when to back off. This issue surfaces in every aspect of their lives from academics to music lessons to team sports. For each child there is a different answer and for each family a different story, but on the issue of sports, there seem to be a few universal truths.

"Sports loom large in our world and while there are many insidious aspects to this, the value of sports, particularly team sports, in a child’s life cannot be overstated."

-Grown and Flown

OK, it doesn’t seem so striking at first; it’s a post about the healing powers of sports, and why parents should “push” kids to participate. Take some time to read it. I’ll wait.

Think of all the problems sports have been called in to solve in this article.

Drugs. Cigarettes. Sex.  Weapons. Poor nutrition. Poor health. Depression. Rootlessness. Isolation. Poor family relationships. Doubtful prospects for future employment. A lack of kinship with home once students leave. Yes, these are things parents worry about, and what’s wrong with a strategy for finding the best possible school experience for your kids?

But many questions arise.

Do these problems constitute a default setting? Is there no protection against them, unless you join an athletic team, or perhaps some other extracurricular activity?

What if you’re not athletic? What if none of the sports offered at your school interest you? What if you’re not good enough to make the team?

The parents who read the Grown and Flown blog probably do so because they’re involved and interested in their kids’ educational welfare. If that’s so, chances are their kids are doing OK in school. Children of involved parents usually are.

But even the most involved parents can’t always successfully prescribe solutions to the problems kids experience in school.  In fact, would this post about athletics exist if life in school was simply peachy for every student? There are some things even the most involved and active parents can’t prevent, and pushing their kids toward sports won’t solve it either. (And I’m not touching some of the problems often found in school athletics programs.)

Grown and Flown chooses not to question or investigate the problems themselves. Let’s go through the looking glass and see what happens. Here are my responses to their listed problems:

Drugs, lack of connection, isolation, doubtful prospects for employment. These problems would not be inevitable if kids were interested and passionate about learning from a very young age.  Picture a school where kids and adults are equals, and learning develops from student strengths, identities, and deepest interests.

This seems impossible to organize if you can’t picture school as a completely different environment; but those simple principles change the culture and the atmosphere of school completely. All of the above problems would be neatly solved, or rendered small and easily fixed.

Self-directed learning, with the guidance and support of adults, gives young people a strong connection to meaningful experiences and a growing self-respect. They discover that learning isn’t a chore to get through, but a part of who they are.

Students could self-organize by interest, reorganize around another interest. Math, for example, can arise from design (models, toys), creation, (cooking, building), scientific observation (data collection and analysis of pond life).

Verbal skills can develop through the free access to books, lots of reading aloud, performance of plays, original and otherwise, and the pursuit of those answers to the deep questions of their learning, which can only be found by reading.  

History, geography, foreign languages, art, music...all these things are assumed to be topics that wouldn’t come up in the everyday life of kids if it was not imposed. This idea comes from a deep mistrust of kids -- and possibly of ourselves. Since we grew up in this system of imposed learning, and we remember how we felt about these subjects in that coercive environment, maybe we look at our kids and panic at the thought of leaving them to their own interests.

And in all of the above activities is the process of a developing sense of self.

Exposure to interesting stuff, places, happenings, phenomena, skills, products, should all be part of every student’s life. A trusted adult can bring lots of stuff to the attention of students that they might never have come across. But the important factor is trust. “Learn this, you’ll thank me later” is just another way kids are made to be passive recipients instead of active drivers of learning.

But “hey, I found this book that I thought you’d really like,” or “Seriously, Romeo and Juliet is a lot of fun, let’s act out parts of it!” is successful when it is built on relationships of trust and mutual respect.

Kids will learn some things deeply. Other things...well, they might not learn them until the point when they need the knowledge or skill. And don’t worry about algebra -- many more kids will come to understand its use and importance than do now, if the practice is voluntary and attached to work that they chose.

As for the Chinese dynasties...well, some kids will really dig it, others’ eyes will glaze over. Not everything needs to be learned by everybody, and civilization will continue.

But they’ll know, by the end of their childhoods, that they are able to learn whatever they need to, when they need to. That’s the “doubtful prospects for future employment” problem tackled, along with drugs, lack of connection, isolation, and all those difficulties that result from disconnection from learning. Accomplished kids grow up to carry confidence and competence about with them wherever they go.

Premature engagement in sex results from dissatisfaction with oneself, poor self-image, deep need for love and attention. It can also result from a lack of engagement in issues of deep interest that lie outside oneself. If there’s nothing else in life, there is the satisfaction of choosing and being chosen by a lover. Submission to early sex may just be a requirement that kids put up with in order to keep a relationship. Interest in the future, excitement about prospects, having accomplishments in the past and ambitions for the future: that is an effective tool for abstinence from premature engagement in sexual activities

Of course, there is the issue of consensual sex between teens who are exploring, and acting on passionate feelings. I’m not sure this is something to be so afraid of. As a parent of 2 teens, a boy and a girl, I found this post, Sex Positivity in Parenting, to be pretty enlightening.

Poor nutrition. Poor health.
Why is this only reliably combated by kids who play sports? Why isn’t this a regular part of the plan for all kids? This one baffles me.

In a system of self-directed learning, concern for oneself comes along with the prospect of a bright future. Connection to meaningful learning experiences, chosen by children, lead to connection to a larger world, and with that comes the desire for health and future happiness.

I’m not an expert here but I’ve done substantial reading on the subject and have had dozens of conversations with the parents of depressed teens. What I’ve come to understand is that depression can be situational, but it is also a condition that some kids and their parents need to cope with through mental health services, medication, patience and understanding. Physical activity can help. But all the above changes in how our system can work means each individual child is respected for their strengths, and not sorted and labeled on the basis of their weaknesses. Time and attention needs to be given to kids as people with joys and struggles, not as widgets with learning outcomes. If in a system based on caring a trusted adult sees that physical activity might improve life for a depressed teen, then together they find a way.

Poor family relationships
Take a look at what is between you and your child. Is it homework? Grades? Boredom? Learning struggles? All these things, when allowed to become a conflict point at home, create barriers between parents and children that are heartbreaking on both sides. You don’t need to stand on the sidelines of the soccer game cheering in order for your kids to appreciate you. In fact, you can very easily create wonderful family lives by simply getting on their side. If what’s being imposed on your kids at school is coming between you, let go of your expectations and assumptions about your kid and about school. Go through the looking glass. It’s not you, and it’s not your kid. It’s school. As well-intentioned and as filled with kindness as it might be, it can’t recover from the toxicity of imposed learning. (Why is this more important now than when you were in school?)

A lack of kinship with home once students leave.
Whether the connection to their place of origin stays with kids or not is entirely based on how their experiences there affected them. Meaningful accomplishments done alongside other students is the best way I can think of to create strong ties with home. Alumni organizations have much more to worry about now than under this new system of self-directed learning.

Kids who associate school with connection, self-respect, caring, trust and kindness don’t go shooting it up. Adults who are tuned into kids on that basis don’t lose touch when a kids mental health goes south. Adequately-funded schools have things like programs and services for families. As for the access to guns’ll forgive me if I don’t that one with a ten-foot pole

OK. You’ve got me. With a coach on your back about it, your parents, your teammates, a desire to excel physically, a student might successfully avoid cigarettes. But I seem to recall seeing Friday Night Lights’ Tim Riggins with a cigarette in his hand. That’s all I’m saying.

OK, so these problems might not be problems for your kid....
They might love every aspect of school. Mine did, or very nearly. One is what I call a “genial learner,” happy to pick up and run with whatever you put in front of him. The other loves the social life of school, and a good deal of the learning, and is willing to put in the required time on the rest. But some of the kids of the most involved parents will not have such compliant kids.

Then there are the kids of parents who are not active in their kids’ education, due to stressful home situations or difficult circumstances. Involvement and engagement in school-as-usual exists on a spectrum, but we tend to assume that all is well when we observe our very best students.

The missing pieces that create the difficulties the Grown and Flown authors addresses need more than the partial band-aid that sports applies. They need to be examined, every one of them, and rooted out, and for adults this requires some effort of will. (I recently learned that the word “radical,” often applied to some of my ideas about school, can be defined as the pursuit of the conceptual root of a problem. That’s the goal here..)

So what do we do now?
Our kids are stuck in a system that cannot make certain that every child’s needs are being fulfilled by exciting and engaging learning experiences in a positive learning environment, as long as the curriculum is imposed regardless of interest...and I might add, pushed through curriculum standards and enforced by testing.

It is in the best interests of your child and our coming generation to dismiss all our inner reliance on the the way education has been in our lifetimes, and hang our hats on something new. School as it is now is not inevitable. But when adults see problems in children’s learning and school life it is hard to take that leap and say, “I’m going to figure out how to get what’s best for my kid and DAMN the way things have always been done.”

If the image of the possibilities of self-directed learning that I tried to paint in this post appeals to you, explore alternatives. There are self-directed learning centers, democratic schools, and other child-oriented alternatives in many communities. Or you can explore unschooling, a variety of homeschooling where children and adults engage in learning as part of their everyday living.

If alternatives are not possible for you, the simple act of understanding these issues and talking with your kids about it will make a huge difference. The sense that you are on their side will help them immensely. And even if you can’t make a change in your family, you can get involved in changing education so that all kids regard learning as the joy that it is supposed to be.