The Mess of K12 Schools: Standards vs. Learning
I’ve been working in alternative education, primarily child-centered, self-directed education for 15 years. No, I’m not a teacher. I’m an entrepreneur, business strategist, and mother of two daughters.
I keep reading that the future belongs to people who can learn, grow, and share their knowledge. This is where the jobs are. So it is strange that most schools and companies are not designed for learning.
The school system is obsessed with standards and testing. I guess the thinking goes, that if we are asking taxpayers to fund schools, we need to prove that learning is happening. We continue to believe that learning belongs in the material world of stuff and that we can observe and measure it.
We cannot. Because we don’t understand what learning is. We can see some of the artifacts of the learning process: essays, presentations, videos, projects. There is no possible way for you to know what is in my head, heart, and body. You can measure my competence if you give me real work that I care about doing.
Learning is an internal, neurological process
Learning is a neurological process that involves emotions and body states that are unique to each person. Each person on this planet has a unique way of learning.
We get confused because we are still mesmerized by the religion of scientific materialism that tells us if we cannot see something and measure it, it isn’t real. This is just crazy. Love is real. Compassion is real. Quantum physics has also shown that there is a whole field of energy and activity that is beyond our individual capacity to measure and see. Ideas and energy can be moved instantaneously through space.
This is where learning lives. In the fields of quantum physics.
Parents have been distracted by debates over content and standards
It doesn’t matter what a child is learning. Content doesn’t matter. I had this conversation continually with my mentor, Brent Cameron, founder of SelfDesign, for two years as I worked with him to bring his model of learning to the world. I understood it mentally and it took me two years to really understand it.
I invested several years developing two charter schools for SelfDesign Learning Foundation. Even though I won $500,000 in a competitive federal start-up grant process to start the charter schools, I couldn’t get them authorized.
The Superintendent of the school district where I was trying to get the SelfDesign charter schools authorized said to me one day, behind closed doors, “Caprice, I understand that SelfDesign teaches children the love of learning, but I can’t see how you can cover all of the standards with that approach.”
So there it is: Learning vs. Standards.
I attend numerous school board meetings and never, not once, was the word “learning” ever uttered.
What??? Doesn’t that strike you as crazy?
It doesn’t matter what a child is learning.
What does matter is that the child learns how to learn. And the child (or adult) does this by taking moments to pause and reflect on her learning process. And specifically, how does she react when things get challenging? When she makes a mistake? Does she give up or persevere? What emotional states are available to her as she negotiates her own learning process?
We don’t learn deeply by listening or reading. We only retain 5% to 10% of the knowledge that we get this way. We learn by applying our learning to real projects and by teaching others. Learning is a messy process. It is littered with false starts and dead ends.
Schooling is Not Learning
School is a place where learning might happen. More often than not, it is about social control and coercion.
I hated school. I was intensely bored and knew that the teachers didn’t really care about me. Even though my schools were safe from violence, I never felt emotionally safe in school.
Both of my daughters have learned outside of traditional school their entire lives. I get lots of comments from people ranging from, “Wow, your daughter is amazing. She is so alert and articulate.” to “Wow, you are so brave Caprice.” and also, “I couldn’t do what you do, I work.” Well, I’m a single mom who just happens to understand the difference between schooling and learning.
I witnessed worried moms through the years praying that their child got a good teacher for the coming year. To me, that is more of a gamble than carefully designing a child’s learning environment and projects around her unique learning process.
Nevertheless, I did try to create a self-directed education option within the school system. Here is a short synopsis from the minutes of the Ventura County Office Of Education public hearing on the SelfDesign charter schools:
“On the one hand, you have SelfDesign which allows children to follow their interests and passion. On the other hand, you have the California Department of Education that requires all children to learn the same things at the same time. I don’t think there is a match here… Inherently the idea that you are going to allow students to select their curriculum based on what they are passionate about, it’s inherently contradictory to you have to learn these things and you have to learn them in this order.” — Roger Rice, Assistant Superintendent, Ventura County Office of Education, February 25, 2012, Ventura County Board of Education public hearing on the appeal for SelfDesign YES and LCCC charter schools.
Again, school requires all children to learn the same thing, in the same way, at the same age.
School Teaches Bad Learning Habits
School rewards knowing rather than learning. School punishes mistakes. School gets you to focus on your weaknesses. “Your son is getting straight As in English and History, but only Cs in math. So, we need to put extra time in that area.”
School also teaches in only one way: auditory-sequential. Teachers act as verbal textbooks that supplement textbooks. I learned in my efforts to start two charter schools that the textbook publishers control the curriculum and it’s big business.
If you are a right-brain, visual-spatial learner forget it. Your learning style is the exact opposite of how school is designed. It doesn’t matter that Dan Pink says right-brain learners will take over the world. First, they will leave school believing they are stupid.
Creating a Culture of Learning
What I have learned over the past 15 years is that creating a culture of learning is the most important first step for any school or company. In order to learn something new, you must feel safe. You must be able to admit that you don’t know something and be vulnerable enough to ask questions and seek help when you need it. You need to be able to make mistakes.
This starts by having learning facilitators (perhaps teachers) who are human — vulnerable, caring, learning as well, and making mistakes.
10 Criteria for a Learning Culture
1. You are doing real work not “make” work.
2. You understand the purpose of your work or project.
3. You are empowered to choose projects that you are interested in.
4. Members of your learning team (teachers, mentors, parents) understand where you are developmentally and what you need to grow to the next level. They don’t ask you to do something that you are not ready for. (An aside: gifted learners either learn to read when they are young (3 or 4) or when they are older (closer to 12) So it’s absurd to make everyone learn to read at 5 or 6.)
5. Teachers and leaders are authentic learners too, openly admitting mistakes and sharing their learning processes.
6. You can show your emotions and will be coached how to handle them productively.
7. You are part of a community of care where people truly care about your well-being and growth.
8. Your contributions are valued.
9. You trust the teachers and leaders. They walk their talk.
10. You say “I don’t know” and ask for help without being ridiculed — in fact it is viewed as a strength.
For a moment, let’s stop talking about standards, content, and testing and focus on the culture in our schools and organizations.
Do the schools you and/or your children attended have a culture of learning? Does the culture in your company or organization meet the 10 criteria for a learning culture?