Saturday, October 12, 2013

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.


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.



  1. Have you read Raising Curious, Creative, Confident Kids, by Rebeca Wild? I don't think the kids at her school (in Ecuador) were privileged. (Except by getting to go to such a marvelous school!)

    I agree with you that this is a hard nut to crack. Kids need a place to explore, and support in their explorations. If their families can't provide that, a 'school' can be helpful. But it will be most helpful if it's a non-traditional school.

    1. Hi Sue. Thanks so much for your comment. I haven't read this book. I will be adding it to my library. I know that there are progressive schools out there that serve the wider community but the disparity is so big when compared to what is generally available. As I mentioned to Edward, the other thing is fear. People are scared that these "fru-fru" schools won't give their kids "a good education".

      The nut, as we've concurred, is indeed very tough to crack.

      I am even willing to meet conventional school half way. The smallest changes can make the biggest difference. We need more mentors! We need more freedom.

  2. Cian - I agree that we need to do institutional public education better. I think there are places that do a better job than we do.

    I think what I was getting at is that the lessons learned in any kind of school are better than those learned outside of a school environment for children from underprivileged backgrounds (in particular here in The Bahamas).

    I have no particular allegiance to any pedagogical dogma, old or new. I have only three criteria: do no harm, do what works, do it for everyone. And I think it is the third on which we get stuck. You're right there are many examples of excellent public and private schools that encourage creativity, exploration, and discovery. But unless we can replicate those models for everyone, it's not enough. I'm not sure it's even ethical.

    I wrote this piece: about why I think good schools and good teachers are a start, but they are not enough unless we can be sure that everyone has equal access.

    You're right though. We've got to start somewhere.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Edward. It's fair to say that, at the moment, I do have a fairly strong allegiance to something like democratic education. Of the models I have learned about and studied, this seems to be most adaptable and able to meet each learner on her own playing field.

    I would agree with you, though, that an attempt to replicate a model would not be ideal. We are, after all, very different people - even within our own families.

    What I am really advocating is openness to new ideas; and the releasing of the old. In our country (and many others) it's patently obvious that the public system is failing our children - and doing so with seemingly fierce determination.

    Schools don't all need the identical model, but it would be great if they all had the same fundamental philosophy - which is that children WANT to learn! At the moment, we are operating on the exact opposite premise.

    Another significant factor is that the generation of today (like all those before us) want a better life for their children and they want their children to be ahead of the curve. They mistakenly think that the earlier they start getting the children to start regurgitating facts (even colours and shapes!) the better it is.

    The race to college now begins in the womb. No exaggeration. It's this misguided motivation that puts pressure on schools and children both to DO MORE. NOW! Then MOST! SOONER!

    Good teachers are a wonderful start in ANY environment. I believe that with all my heart as I reflect on my own schooling and recall that the subjects I excelled in (or at least enjoyed) were the ones in which I had good, kind, attentive teachers. No exceptions.

    This conversation is so important. I love having it. I truly appreciate your part in it. I will read your piece now. And then write another epistle. ;)