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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Conversations about learning: Part 1: how should school be different?

The other day I had what is a rather typical conversation for me. I met someone at a bar and we chatted about various things. He told me he had just retired from the fashion industry and he told me where he went to college. He asked about me, I said a few general things but he pushed for more information. So, I said, “actually I am trying to overthrow the education system.”

This kind of remark usually gets a rather shocked response. People get defensive about their schooling. I have learned to anticipate that, so I added, “what did you learn about fashion or business in college?  I am pretty sure that everything you learned in your career that was important to you, you learned on the job and that your college education had no relevance at all.”

He responded, as most people do, by saying that his college education provided him the basics, which I always take as a kind of religious remark. They don’t really know what “the basics” are (apart from reading, writing, and arithmetic, which he would have learned by the fourth grade) but they don’t want to believe that their schooling was a waste of time. He insisted, so I asked what I usually ask in this situation. I wanted him to tell me the Quadratic Formula. He responded that he knew it but of course he didn’t. Of course, he had learned it. And he had retained it long enough to get a good score on the SAT. Then he forgot it and never thought about it again.

When we imagine school, we imagine sitting in a classroom and listening to the teacher. We recall writing papers and cramming for tests. College has the additional feature of being fun. Not because of the classes, most of whose names we cannot remember, but because of the outside activities and the people we met there.

Why do we accept a broken education system? Why do we accept that college will not teach us life skills or job skills and that school before college will be an experience that most people would never even consider repeating? Most kids would skip school if they possibly could. Why do we force them to go? And, when we force them to go why do we force them to sit still and listen? And when we force them to sit still and listen why do we force them to listen to simplistic depictions of history or read books that do not interest them or force them to do math they will never use in their real lives?

We do this for reasons that have to do mostly with day care and history. Few parents want the responsibility of taking care of their kids all day. We like government provided day care and really need it if we want to work. But why don’t we ask questions about what is taught and how teaching takes place? Because the same stuff happened to us. We accept it as part of life. Maybe we even enjoyed some of it when we were kids. (“I always liked history.” Really? You liked it better that your favorite childhood activity? “Well no, I meant I liked that subject best in school.”)

Somehow we accept school as a painful experience of no real relevance to our lives and we talk about what we liked when we mean what we disliked least. And we talk about school’s relevance by assuming it provided “the basics” when we really do not know what the basics are.”

“School taught me how to think.” And you didn’t know how to think before? And life after school hasn’t taught you how to think either? Every experience teaches you how to think better. School does it least well of all since your other experiences typically would relate to your interests, needs, goals, and achievements.

What should we learn? Certainly not the “core subjects" in school. Not only shouldn’t there be a Common Core, there shouldn't be any core at all.

Why not?

When you were a child, before school, did you like to do what your sister (or brother) did? Or, did you choose to do things that interested you? Did your parents force you to study and learn certain things when you were 4 or 5, or did they offer things, some of which you found interesting and wanted to do more of?

People are born with certain natural interests. An interest is a terrible thing to waste. The job of a parent (or of a teacher if they have that freedom) is to help a child follow his or her interests. If your daughter likes dolls you buy her a doll house and talk with her about what is going on in her doll house. If your son likes football you teach him to throw and catch and you take him to a game if you can. None of this is radical stuff.

Then school happens and everyone has to be doing the same stuff at the same time. And everyone has to sit still. (I never saw a 6 year old still still unless he or she was forced to do so.) And no one can talk out of turn. These are the same kids who when out of school, run around and yell, ask questions, draw pictures, build buildings out of blocks, try to learn to swim and so on.  But school is about discipline, which is another way of saying the stuff they teach is boring and everyone has to shut up because there are too many kids in the class.

Of course, somewhere along the line, kids do have to learn discipline and how to behave in public, but this needn’t be a constant all day painful lesson. And kids should be together, not in groups of 30 perhaps, but in smaller groups, so that they can learn to function together and make friends. I am not suggesting that kids stay home and learn on the computer, although that is fine with me. There should be teachers enticing them to learn something different and helping them when they have difficulties. But that does not mean that there need to be classrooms nor the inability to speak one’s mind.

It is time for a change. We do not have to accept that the schools we have always had is what we must have now. Times have changed. Now everyone goes to school and now we have computers and the internet. The possibilities are endless. The economics of school can be quite different than what they are now. We can let kids learn what they want to in the way that works best for them. We will have a happier and a better functioning society because of it.


Paloma Recuero said...

May be that is the reason why we sometimes, as adults, find it so difficult to find what do we want to do, what are we really good at, what really makes us "vibrate". We have killed in us the possibility of watching ourselves without filters, of really looking into us. And then, we feel aimless and lost!.

Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. It was as if I was reading my own writing. I have also gotten out of education in order to change it. I hated school as a child, even though I made "A"s . I taught elementary school for 14 years, and I hated making children be still and quiet and learn boring things. In fact, quite often, my class was known as the loudest in the building. I tried to make learning fun, but the demands on teachers were so stressful, it drained the creativity and fun from my very being. I think "fun" was considered the unspeakable "F" word in my district. I have many ideas about changing education - not this mambsy-pambsy "reform" calling for superfluous testing and "higher standards." The truth is we are preparing the future generation for an unknown future, for jobs that don't even exist yet. Thinking we can be successful in this endeavor by using the same schooling structure developed during the Industrial Revolution to produce compliant factory workers is like duct taping wings on a cat and hoping it can fly. How can I join you in this revolution?

Felicity Miles said...

School is full of unnecessary things. Like this bunch of paper writing and, guess what, students are totally fine with buying essays online. So, here is a fair question: what is the purpose then? I get to asked where I studied sometimes, and I always say that whatever I can do now I have learnt from my different job and life experience. It had nothing to do with my college. All that matters is how fast you learn, nothing actually.