What it shouldn’t be like…

It’s easy to say what school should not be like. A lot of people agree that the current US education system is awful. So we ask: Well, why is it awful? And then we have hundreds of different answers. We don’t agree on what’s really wrong with school, what the purpose of learning truly is, or how a child or teenager should be spending his time. So our agreement that school is awful is almost meaningless. A lot of people think it should be worse than it already is!

A couple days ago I was exploring “democratic education.” (Not schools for democrats… that’s normal schools, considering how many teachers are democrats.) These are schools based on the idea that students should have more, if not the most, power in regards to what they do with their time at school. There is no mandatory curriculum, class times, grades, etc.

I came across this video. I’m not exactly sure when it was made, but I reckon some time in the early 2000’s, as the Lord of the Rings movies are referenced by a student…

(It’s a long film… it’s a documentary, after all…)

Free to Learn: A Radical Experiment in Education from Isaac Graves on Vimeo.

I certainly would have much preferred going to a school like that! But I do not see this as the ideal sort of school.

However, I think they are closer to my ideal school than most schools. A few things they get right: 1) Student directed. 2) No grades. 3) No mandatory curriculum. (Knowledge that you don’t use is useless after all.)

But there are some important things I think the school lacks. The first thing is societal support. That’s not really the school’s fault, it’s society’s, the sort of society that’s surprised and dumbfounded and scared by this sort of education. (It still boggles my mind how so many parents think that their children should be forced to learn things that the parent doesn’t remember. If the parent doesn’t know or remember it, that’s pretty good evidence that you can get along fine without it. But there still seems to be a deep fear that something will go horrible wrong with a student if they don’t learn it anyway, even though they’ll later forget it.) The school would be so much better if it had more resources: a bigger building, more technology, more books, more teachers, etc. As of now, it does seem like a poor run-down place. They need Extreme Makeover: School Edition. Again, this is not really the school’s fault, they’re probably doing the best they can with their financial limits. But it does prevent the school from being my sort of ideal school.

Secondly, I feel there does need to be a wee bit more “discipline.” They don’t need to be nearly as strict as normal schools, but I think the students do need to have some sort of deliverables, some sort of tangible product by the end of the year. They need to choose what to study and stick with it, follow through with it, actually get something concrete done. I think this could work by having the student create their own schedule / guide / list of goals for what they’re going to study and then be somehow forced, or at least highly encouraged, to follow it. As it is now, they run the risk of, you know, not learning anything. If given the chance to play all day, they run the risk of taking it. (Not that play can’t be educational, but it can certainly be less educational.)

Lastly, the “council meetings” feel very odd to me. They could be great for social development (much better than an adult saying “you do this, you do that, and a time-out for you!”), but they also seem somewhat hippy-ish, and could be a major time-waster for students not involved in the main argument.

What it should be like…

I think I agree with everything in this post. Especially what he says about grades:

Grades are demotivating for students. First, they end the learning process. Once an assignment is graded, it is no longer worth improving upon. Second, grades lead naturally to ranking of students, which leads to students self-image being hurt. Nothing is more demoralizing than recognizing that a person of authority thinks you aren’t as worthy as your peers.

Yes, thank you! Finally! Someone who agrees with me! “But then we have no way to assess…” they all say. Not buying it; grades must go.

He’s a bit vague in some parts:

The curriculum itself would be at least 50% self-directed by the students with some essentially skills taught along side completely personalized learning. Our emphasis would be on skills, not content.

I could agree or disagree with that, depending on the finer points of the curriculum. Of course, that’s something that would probably change year to year, as both teachers and students gain experience in using the school. And I think “skills, not content” is a vital point, an awesome point to make. Skills are by their very nature useful. Content may or may not be, and, in our modern schools, usually isn’t. When I say “knowledge that you don’t use is useless” I’m mostly talking about content. Of course, some skills are also more important than others. It would be silly to force all students to have cooking skills, for instance. But critical thinking skills, research skills, project management skills, social skills, etc., these are extremely important, they can be used everyday, and they naturally lead the student to the specific content they need. The Free School mentioned above seems to lack instilling these sorts of skills (at least, from what I could tell).

Again, the finer points would have to be worked out, but I would envision students (and “teachers”) taking on some sort of interesting and useful projects; research projects, science projects, art projects… whatever people are interested in. Working on the project(s) should encourage development of the aforementioned skills. (You cannot do an art project consisting of randomly splashing paint on a canvas. Sorry. You’re really just wasting time.) A student would not be free to play all day, but would have academic freedom in the sense that he could explore the areas that interested him, and ignore the subjects that didn’t (after all, working adults are allowed to do that).

Projects could, of course, be shared among students. That is, you could have a group of students all working on the same project.

Students would have to keep track of and report their project’s progress. The point is not necessarily to reach their goal, but, obviously, to learn. And other students would probably be quite interested in each other’s projects.

Students could of course switch projects, change projects, etc., as their interests shift naturally, or as projects prove to be more difficult than once thought. Projects would be like… amorphous solids… or something.

The big points are: 1) No grades. Progress reports of a sort, perhaps, but no comparable structured grading systems. 2) No mandatory curriculum, at least for the most part, content-wise. You don’t have to learn the phases of the moon or the date George Washington died, etc. And thus 3) no paper quizzes or tests or busy-work. 4) Student directed; students get to decide what particular areas to study. Making them study a little of everything is useless. (Plus it will happen to an extent naturally. A topic is infinitely more interesting if you’re studying it because you want to.) 5) Age mixing. Why do schools so often split students up by age? All ages are capable of working together. That’s what us adults do in the real world anyway. Every kind of mixing, really. 6) Flexible times. It would probably make more sense for most people to start at 10 AM or so and get off later in the evening. Getting up at 6 AM isn’t helping much.

If there existed a school like that, I would desperately want to work there. Except I’ve never been a parent or a teacher or a school administrator and I don’t have a degree in education. Will you still let me in? Heck, I’d even love to be a perpetual student there…

Categories: Philosophy

1 Comment

S P Hannifin · March 24, 2011 at 8:09 PM

Ah, I just thought of something else that would be important, but probably somewhat difficult: the particpation of professionals. People who perpetually teach for a living can be nice people, but they tend to lack an understanding of how what they’re teaching matters in life after school. A good school needs to somehow encourage professionals, perhaps retirees, to take a moment out of their workday and impart some knowledge on the younger generations from a real-world point of view.

I also don’t like what I’ve seen in some art colleges, where professorship seems to have become a safe-haven for the real-world failures. Can’t get hired as backdrop artist for your favorite movie studio? Teach instead! Ugh.

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