Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Either/And

There is a question that sits quietly in the back seat of every conversation about education reform.  Sometimes it gets asked, sometimes it waits.  We all know the question, it's one of the regulars.  

In the middle of "Education reform! We need change!  There is a better way!  Consider the alternatives!" it crosses its legs and waits to be noticed. 

"How?"

Posed articulately by Mr. Chris Mercogliano in this, one of his first blog posts (after several books in print, mind you):  How do we do it?  Do we Reform or Remodel?

Go read it here now and come back for my response.

I find myself wrestling with the same ever-present question.   – do we try to fix the system or do we do what we can along side it? I suppose, as Chris concluded, it’s cannot come down to either/or thinking. It will have to be both/and.
It’s the same dichotomy that exists between Herbert Kohl’s and John Taylor Gatto’s fundamental philosophical approaches to (public) schooling and education reform. Kohl says work from the inside out; Gatto says blow the whole thing up because it’s doing what it was created to do.
There are so many brave educators who persevere in the public school, struggling against the the well armed grain to give those children some semblance of authentic learning experiences. I hear their stories at the education conferences and I am amazed by their tenacity.  I also hear the stories of all the rest of the attendees (the majority, by far) who have disengaged from the machine and are doing it their way. I am amazed by *their* tenacity, too!  They, too, are pushing against the grain, but from a bolstered position.

Where I live  “alternative education” is a foreign concept (no pun intended) and any attempts reform might look like an echo of what american schools are doing.  Something along the lines of "more accountability" and "higher standards".  
The task of changing the system - or at the very least, diversifying the offerings - seems daunting, even with just a few tens of thousands of learners. Our public schools are in dire straights with almost no funding coming their way (some 95% of the budget goes directly to salaries); private schools are in the business of making money and catering to the existing “get ahead ASAP” paradigm. There seems to be no in between.
My point is: I think our conversation about education reform needs to open up to a both/and thought process.  Inside the public school system because that is where the majority of learners are getting their education. Outside the public school system because it serves as a small but growing model for people to re-evaluate their ideas about schooling and education.
Both. And.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Culture of Socialization in School

As Sir Ken Robison so eloquently put it, we group our learners by date of manufacture.

Groups of people all bunched up together because they were born within the same year.  At some point, I'm sure this was the most sensible, if not the easiest solution of how best to break up the one room schoolhouse; how to create a more efficient system of categorizing young learners.  We'll group them by age!  It's so simple!  Throughout the entire process of formal instruction, it seems perfectly reasonable and logical to assume that all people born within 12 months of each other should understand and master identical concepts.  Concepts that we have arbitrarily determined are appropriate absolutely necessary for each age group.

Generally speaking there is no consideration of the individual.  18 years and under are viewed only as members of their chronological peer group - of whom every one is (treated) as a kind of clone, really. All six year olds must know how to read.  All nine year olds must understand fractions.  All two year olds must know every single colour and shape; letter and number names too, if they're to be ahead and readying for those steeply competitive college years.

And so it goes.

Of course this also means that each person spends the majority of her day (shall we be a teensy bit dramatic and say "life"?  Oh do, let's!) ...spends the majority of her life with about 20 other people her age and one or two adults to supervise the lot.

And we call this "socialization".

I am forced then, to wonder, how that might work for other non-institutionalized or otherwise autonomous people - usually the ones we refer to as "adults".  What if I were only permitted to seek employment with a group of people who were all 35 before June 30th?  That, having met the other basic skill set, the main criteria is that I am the same age as all the other staff.

Sure, I'd have lots of generational stuff in common with them.  ("Remember 'G.I. Joe?  And Jem? Wow!  Memories!  Good times..." and/or "Can you even believe slap bands are in AGAIN?! And neon colours?!  Who knew?")  We may even have some major life milestones in common and other things like political views, spiritual paths... any number of non age-related things.

But then what?

The diversity and range of experiences fit neatly within a three and a half decade time continuum.  The SAME one.  What about having more experienced people to ask for their input?  Or even fresher minds who have new perspectives and totally different histories.

What about having timeline diversity?  Mentors and pioneers? Is it possible that these archetypes can all fit in the same chronological group?  Of course it would be possible.

Likely?  Not so much.

Being lumped in with people your same age is not true socialization.  That's exposure.  Which is different.  Exposure is saying to the learner "Here is a group of people and their ranges of behaviours that they have acquired in the same number of years that you have been alive.   Witness their problem solving skills, conflict resolution, sense of humor, perception of the world around them.  Choose from these people and their behaviours the tools you might like to have use of in the future."

I realize this may sound dramatic.  And it might be for very young children.  But consider your 10 year old.  Your six year old.  There can't be much to gain from associating only with other children who are the same age.

Privilege and You

I shared this article on my facebook page with the following comment:
Young children are never not learning. There is so much to explore and discover about the world around them. Formal teaching (read: curriculum) is based on the idea that chronological age determines peer compatibility and readiness to learn specific academic skill sets. This is a flawed and illogical ideology. (Why we still have that arcane system is beyond me). Many children go through institutionalized learning from age two and three through high school and "come out fine". That's not what we want for the next generations, however - "fine". We want creative, problem solving, motivated, excited-with-possibility graduates. Earlier instruction, I think, will typically yield the opposite. Many children are burned out by the time they hit middle school. They lose their awe and fascination and learning becomes a chore; worse still, regurgitating facts to get good grades and forgetting them immediately.

Let them play and play and play some more. Let them play their way through the whole thing, I say!
It's no surprise that I feel this way about education.  I am kind of (okay, a lot) anti-school.  (Phew.  I'm glad I got that off my chest.)  But.

But.  One topic has come up at all the education conferences I've attended (all three of them!) regarding alternative education and it's this.

Privilege.

At the Rethinking Everything unschooling conference in Texas (2009), the question was raised in one of the workshops about whether this was an elitist movement.  At the Alternative Education Resource Organization conference in New York, the question was raised about the absence of poor and brown people (my words) from the democratic education schools.  At the IDEC (International Democratic Education Conference) in Puerto Rico, the question was raised about the availability of democratic learning to the underprivileged (great news!  such a school - a wonderful place - exists in Caguas: Nuestra Escuela.)

Even as I have pursued this dream of creating a school, I battle with the seeming impossibility of creating a private school that is accessible to anyone other than those families in higher income brackets.

This blog post is inspired by (and in many ways a response to) this thoughtful comment that someone posted under my link and rant.

...this is a complex topic. I agree with much of what you and the article have said. However, the article ignores a whole swath of research that concludes the exact opposite of what they are reporting. I have serious reservations about institutionalized education as well. but for many, and certainly here in [our country], I would say for the majority, Schools may be the best environments for children. School learning may be the only ticket out of an otherwise miserable existence. All the research I've seen conclude that in these environments, you can't start school early enough to give these children any sort of fighting chance. For those who can afford and have the skills and resources, alternative approaches clearly work well. Particularly for the poor and disenfranchised, however, schooling and a lot of it are their only hope. The question is how can we make it better.
What about that?  What about this idea that underprivileged/poor people can really only benefit from the old school?  (Pardon the pun.)   Why would that be true?  Is it true?  How can we test it?

I think that that line of reasoning, while earnest and well meaning, can be a little dangerous.  The implication seems to be that children born into and living within confines of a low(er) socioeconomic situation are somehow incapable of learning unless it's forced upon them.  It implies, further, that middle class and wealthy children are smarter and more adept at - well, at being smart and more adept.  I am sure that my friend does not mean to imply this - even in the least.  As he said, there are studies that support this theory.  Which begs the question once more:  Why?  Why is "school learning ... the only ticket out of an otherwise miserable existence"?

I honestly don't think it is.   The Albany Free School has learners from all walks of life.  As mentioned before, Nuestra Escuela caters to teens from the local (not exactly rich) area.  It's certainly true that there is a glaring dearth of alternative schools with a socioeconomically balanced enrollment (in the US, at least).  Which means we don't have many examples to draw from.

However, I am a firm believer in the premise that average learners all start with the same basic skill set.  Some may have challenges with language, others still the real costs of being poor - hunger, sadness, worry, some children are dealing with abusive situations (across the board), but they can all learn through play.  They can all find pleasure in the discovery of the new, the joy of the aha moment, the kindness of a helpful mentor to guide them, of knowing more today than yesterday, of what it means to be a human being.

What does all that mean, though?

I really do think that the current model of institutionalized teaching is outdated.  I think we can give our children more.  More than tests, homework, grades, drudgery.  I am not saying that school needs to be done away with.  I am saying that school - public and all - needs to be revolutionized.  Reduce the frequency of testing.  Increase time and space dedicated to creativity, to the sciences, to math, to reading.  Get rid of photocopied worksheets and homework (for God's sake, let the children and their families at least have their own time when they leave school!  Is that really so much to ask?!).  Add cooking, microscopes, discovery trips, gardening!

Where will all the money come from for that?

It's there.  Believe me.  Spending money on education is "penny wise and pound wise, too".

I cannot accept that any four or five year old benefits from sitting at a desk all day.  It is a huge disservice that we are doing to these children, forcing them to do this.  No matter where they come from.


 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Goddard College, Here I Come!

I wrote the following application essay a few months ago.  I've just found out that I have been accepted into the programme and I am pretty darn happy about that!

That's the first hurdle.  The second is how I am going to actually pay for the schooling!  No matter - have will, will travel.

Having re-read it just now, I think it's kind of a neat little summary of my journey so I thought I'd share it here with you.  Enjoy!

After almost a decade of facilitating learning and, through that process,  growing in leaps and bounds as an educator, the time has finally come for me to pursue my degree in Education.  

I began facilitating a nursery group at a local private school when I first enrolled in a satellite campus of Sojourner Douglas College to obtain my Bachelor's Degree in Early Childhood Education.  I found that from my very first moment in the classroom, I was completely fascinated and captivated with the process of learning and discovery.  Being the one to help create the space, and help children to make those discoveries was especially transformative for me.  

Not long after I started teaching, I gave birth to my first child.  She became my priority and I took an extended leave from my school and schooling in order to care for my baby.  

Between my experience at the school and having my own child(ren), I made my own discovery that education as I know it is fundamentally flawed.  I began to conclude that the systematic institutionalization of the learning process has stolen something - a big, important something - from the learners and teachers alike.  At the time, I couldn't name what that missing something was, but I just knew there had to be another, better way to go about educating young children.  

This was the beginning of a long journey - one I am still on with dogged determination - to finding out what education really means, and how we can evolutionize* prevailing pedagogy.  

My search led me to Maria Montessori and her pioneering work in literally hands-on education and through her theories, I began to see that learning was a so much more interactive and purpose driven than it has been interpreted in traditional schools.  Though I was beginning to re-orient with Montessori, I still felt driven to keep searching.  

Rudolf Steiner's Waldorf Schools came next.  I read everything I could put my hands on about Mr. Steiner's philosophy and theories; and, of course, the principles of the schooling itself.  Here, too, I learned more about learning, particularly about play and the critical role it plays in a child's development.  My encounter with (the theories of) Waldorf Schools left me with with a wider scope of understanding about education and learning and still, I needed to keep searching.

What else?  How else?  When else?  Who else? These questions drove me to understand the history of education and to incorporate the truths about the history into the theories I was developing about learning. 

By this time, I had given birth to my second child and we were all three happily playing and growing together.  Spending those years with my two children as my teachers has taught me far more about life as a learner than any other encompassing experience ever could. 

Learning is innate.  Learning happens organically when there is meaning and relevance.  Learning is driven by the learner, not the teacher.  The role of the teacher is to create space, know the learner and help the learner access what she needs to gain deeper understanding.  

I was reading books and listening to talks given by profound thinkers in education such as John Holt, Chris Mercogliano, bell hooks, Lisa Delpit, John Taylor Gatto, Herbert Kohl, Sir Ken Robinson, Paolo Friere ... the list goes on and on and on.

I've not only been facilitating learning for my own children, but I hosted several school year long 3-days/week playgroups for 2 to 4 year olds.  A simple, play-based learning environment that met the ideals of parents seeking, too, a better way.   

My path eventually wondered into the Unschooling movement when I attended a Rethinking Education conference in Texas in 2009.  Having been an "unwitting" unschooler for several years prior, it seemed a perfect fit... for a while.  As usual, more questions began to surface for me.  The most important of which was: What about everybody else?  What about people who, struggling to meet the basic needs of Maslow's Hierarchy, could not afford to home- or unschool their children?  Who would help those children? 

These questions helped me to learn about democratic education and schooling; Sudbury and Free Schools all over the United States were already providing learner-centred education as a service.  But still, it was primarily mid- and upper economic income brackets who could afford the private schools offering this.

My next stop was the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) conference in 2010.  It was here that I was able to meet, hear, and interact with some of the authors I mentioned earlier, as well as a wonderful group of forward thinking educators and learners alike.  It was also here that I first learned about Goddard College.  

Since then, I have most recently attended the 20th Annual IDEC (International Democratic Education Conference) in Caguas, Puerto Rico, where I strengthened my resolve to be a catalyst for educational reform right here in my country of residence: The Bahamas.

My life has take me on varied and scenic route.  Rather, my life has been the route -and I know that one of the things I must do is to create a space for learners to come and discover their own amazing individual selves so they can know that they really do matter and that they have gifts that they can share with the world.  [...]

I am excited about the possibilities that will become accessible to me should I be accepted into your profoundly relevant and dynamic programme!  

There is so much more that simply will not fit into this essay.  So I will conclude with this:  I believe that Goddard College is the right place for me to pursue a degree in Education that will be meaningful and applicable (which can hardly be said about many degree programmes out there!).  As a working mother, the low-residency aspect is especially attractive to me because it offers me the freedom and flexibility to pursue my education in the spaces that best suite me.  I have heard good things about the program offered there, particularly the ability of the learner to construct their own learning.  It is my desire to obtain a degree that will focus on Progressive Education with a component of educating for sustainability and ecological awareness.  

*- "Evolutionize" is my own word that I am using because it's the best way for me to articulate what I am trying to say - which is that education doesn't need a 'turn around' (a la "revolutionize") but rather advancement, diversification, transformation and adaptation to where humans are today.
There you have it, guts and all.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Dreaming This, Part II

I've spent the last three weeks immersed in the vibrant and abundant green of Jamaica.  The aliveness of everything is both intoxicating and soothing.  It is all at once peaceful and riotous with life and living things: the gentle white noise of thousands and thousands of leaves brushing each other in their lofty treetop dwellings, the intermittent high-pitched hum of cicadas, the squawking of black birds and the melodious chirping of others; and at night lizards that croak make a symphony with the orchestra of cricket.

The Dreaming began to reshape itself with and through this beauty.

What about a little ecologically focused boarding school somewhere in the rolling hills of Jamaica?  I thought.  In a small settlement, with land for farming and space for being?  What about that?

I became energized and excited as the idea began to take shape - to come into focus a bit more.  I started saying out loud to my husband and the words were like bees.  The buzzed and hummed, the went out and came back.  Yes, I thought, what about that?!

It would be a day school for local residents and a boarding school for those in other locales.  It would be like the mountain top, democratic version of The Island School.  In situ Green living and learning.  I mean, just imagine a school where this is your backyard!


The hillside backyard of a friend's home in St. Catherine
And there would be plenty of other stuff happening at the same time.  We can grow all kinds of food.

Banana and plantain growing around my father's home on White River.
We can work together with the artisans and tradespeople of the surrounding area to create small, sustainable cottage industries.  

It would be so perfect!  It makes me think about The Green School in Bali.  We can do that!  

The Dreaming is big and expansive.  The Dreaming is all around me and in me at the same time.  The Dreaming is everyone who wants to be a part of this story.  

Please, tell me your thoughts.  

Welcome to The Dreaming, Part YOU.

This Dreaming, Part I

It would appear that I can not stop dreaming.  

It's not that I'm trying to stop dreaming, it's that I keep being surprised at how many shapes this one core dream keeps taking.  

I sometimes wonder - Do I really want to start a school or is it an idea that I've become attached to, am defining parts of myself by and therefore won't let go?  I suppose it's those moments of doubt that cause the central is-ness of this desire to be refocused.  In the way that blurriness causes to one to adjust the dials on the binoculars.  There.  That's better.

I know this because I have actually tried to put it down.  There was a time when everything became so blurry, my eyes in so much pain that I had no choice and I put it down and stepped away.  I didn't look for a long time.  

But that dream persisted.  It would gently stir - a light breeze skittering some leaves on the ground.  It would wake me from actual dreaming to pull at my mind and heart.  It would speak to me in the voices of others.  This Dreaming belongs here: in me.  It is a constant companion.

Still, it's not so defined.  It changes shape; is malleable.  Just the way it needs to be.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Post Apocolyptic

Last night I watched a History Channel "what if?" piece about life during and after a massive, population-eradicating pandemic.  It was an interesting piece in which the story follows one family and their attempts to survive the widespread disease and death as it plays out in their home city of LA.

Towards the end - 25 years after the 'panpocolypse' (my word), life requires a new oldish way of doing things.  The people are living in smaller communities and growing their own food.  There are small towns with small town doctors and local law enforcement (as in a kind of Sheriff.)  Some may call it a sustainable lifestyle.  As it's wrapping up, there is a mouthful of words about education.  The narrator says something about how the children are now being taught useful skills/information and then a somewhat glib comment follows that 'the [text] books didn't get sick' [and can therefore continue to be used].

Of course, I got snagged on the phrase "useful skills/information".  Useful.  The children are now (in this new, old world) being taught useful information, useful skills.

While I am completely aware that things may not go this particular way, I am also aware that the time for people to learn Useful Information and Useful Skills is right now.  Why wait till our thin veneer of civilization has crumbled?

The point I am trying to make to both you and myself, is that I snagged on the whole 'useful' terminology because what it means is that much of what children are being taught now is useless.  The way I see it, the fundamental goal of education is to help the learners to begin to grasp two things:  1) How the world around them works (including what we understand about the Universe) - which is easy because all children are curious about this, and 2) How they work (which is to say, knowing themselves) and what that means in the larger context.

This qualifies as "useful information building blocks".  A starter kit, if you will.  And a tremendous gift.


Monday, July 16, 2012

It's not the kids that need educating...

It's their parents.

I realize that parents who try to get their young babies a "head start" mean well.  But then, so did that couple who only fed their newborn soy milk and apple juice.  (That loved but very unfortunate baby did not survive.)  Obviously, people who are subjecting their babies to 'Your Baby Can Read', "Frogster" "Learning" toys and other 'head start' paraphernalia are not actually killing hurting their children. 

But they are very likely hurting their child's natural curiosity and desire to learn.   This whole idea of trying to teach an infant to read would be akin to people creating programs to help 6 week old babies to learn to walk.  (Positively preposterous!) 

There are well established growing stages which are critical for proper brain development.  Learning to creep, for instance, has to do neurological development. 

Another practical example of misguided attempts to 'force' development is the baby walker*.  Studies suggest that the walker is harmful to the child's cephalocaudal development.  That is, the walker forces the child to use her legs and feet to gain mobility before she has even learned how to creep.  (Not to mention, of course, all the terrible injuries children suffer as a result of accidents in the walker.)

I'm laying some ground work here to establish that - exceptional individuals notwithstanding - there are definite neurological, emotional and social developmental stages that are chronological and chronological for good reason!

And now, we come to "early learning".  Early learning is a Real Thing.  It is valid and true.  And it requires practically ZERO intervention from adults.   Guidance, yes.  Intervention, no.

Think with me for a moment about the acquisition of language by a newborn, infant, baby, then toddler.  This fundamentally necessary learning is carried out by a weak, completely dependent, tiny, wordless person who has no discernible skill set, no preparation for the task, no special instruction and most of all no carrot and stick motivation by the adults.  Language acquisition is a complex and long term event, for sure.  Yet when one considers the all that is accomplished in under a year... it is nothing short of monumental.  And still.  So Very Ordinary.  It's what human babies do.  They hear language, see body language and then they say and do it! 

John Holt has said in one of his books (I forget which it is, but it's either How Children Learn - probably! - or How Children Fail) that the babies employ true scientific method in the process.  They observe, make a hypothesis, then experiment.  Which explains how they sometimes mix up the pronouns and articles or tenses.  It's cute to us, but it's really the child making inferences from other situations in which he heard the language and then inserting it into another scenario where he thinks it will belong. 

Marvelous! 

And ALL on her own!

No instruction required. 

This person also learns, congruently I might add, an inordinate number of data about the world around her purely from observation and experimentation. 

And here parents and would-be educators come waltzing in on the assumption that the child is stupid and unable to learn anything useful without their help.  Which leads me to a very interesting book I am reading called The Ignorant Schoomaster by Jacque RanciĆ©r.  This excerpt amazon blurb succinctly sums it up as such:
... It is the story of Joseph Jacotot, an exiled French schoolteacher who discovered in 1818 an unconventional teaching method that spread panic throughout the learned community of Europe.
Knowing no Flemish, Jacotot found himself able to teach in French to Flemish students who know no French; knowledge, Jacotot concluded, was not necessary to teach, nor explication necessary to learn. The results of this unusual experiment in pedagogy led him to announce that all people were equally intelligent. From this postulate, Jacotot devised a philosophy and a method for what he called "intellectual emancipation"--a method that would allow, for instance, illiterate parents to themselves teach their children how to read.
  It is this book and recent commentary on social media that has my feathers all sticking up in the air, charged with electricity again.  It is the old frustration with people confidently upholding a fatally flawed system and perpetuating -on a colossal scale- this poor facsimile of education.   I am enjoying reading it because the author articulates the thoughts that have been suspended like dark matter in my own consciousness. 

Thoughts which, yet again, have caused me to think about how we can change "The System".

I do not think it can change until the educators who are a part of (the facilitation) of this fledgling paradigm shift begin to fully and intentionally engage with the parents

Parents who want the best for their children.  Parents who want their children to be ready for tomorrow.  Parents who are expecting a competitive marketplace for high school, college, careers.  Parents who don't know how to think any other terms.  Parents who DO need guidance, sign posts, invitations even, to rethink what kind of life, what kind of world they hope for their children and future generations. 

The time of one-up-manship and competition is coming to a close.  The time of cooperative, collaborative community living is coming. 

People will still be wonderfully singular in what they bring to the world.  Everyone cannot be good at only one or two things.  Our strength is in our diversity, and more so in the embracing of the diversity and working together to create new (yet unimaginable) realities. 

It is imperative that we allow children to develop at their own pace, to encourage and support them.  It is crucial that we allow our children to continue to know that learning is synonymous with living.  That the two are one.  That there is no special place or time where learning begins or ends. 

It is even more important that we help their parents understand why this is so so SO urgent; so critical.

How, exactly, do we do that?