Letter to Ashley on a New Education — Part 2

July 21, 2016

Hi again Ashley,

I think your observation about students of any age not knowing what to learn is an important one. However, this only becomes a dilemma when we isolate young people in classrooms with a single adult whose principal, perceived activity is to tell those young people (sometimes in charming or participatory ways) what they must remember. People of any age can sustainedly only want to learn something with which they have had some experience. So an effective environment for learning would be filled with a great diversity of people of every age doing every available variety of things for which they have a passion. It is a natural way for people to become exposed to new things. As you say, “Educators would have to make important topics like history and language arts relevant to the lives of the students, because the students usually won’t be able to piece it together themselves (since doing so would necessitate a knowledge of the topic in the first place, that which the student won’t have).” Perhaps the best way to do this is for anyone, including educators, to show the relevance in their own lives.

Language arts would be associated with a passion for communicating and imagining, and helping or cooperating and being understood, and history with a passion for storytelling, wonderment at the range of human behavior, and a curiosity about how things got to be the way they are. And you are so right that “making it topical to each student would then require quite a bit of knowledge about the student themselves, since real-world relevancy would differ [from person to person],” but also it would differ from time to time for the same person. So much in education depends on timing, on the confluence of personal developmental strands with appropriate resources and opportunities to use them. There is no predictable, optimal time for everyone to learn to use the calculus. Effective educators would have to maintain long-term relationships with learners. The way schools are organized we can’t even come close to understanding and nourishing the complexity of learning in human development.

How do we deal with a complexity beyond the capacity of any one person to embrace or fully understand? We have chosen to lay the burden on the individual, the student, and to blame the consequences on the teachers. The purpose of this is to so constrict and simplify the possible activity and content that there is no room for the unexpected, for the unknown surprises of complexity. The result of this approach is a mechanization of education, with grade levels, graded curricula and graded tests, in which we mass process students in competitive, semester-long events. Teachers are forced by this system to spend most of their time and attention, most of their creative thought, on subject matter information, data organizing and processing, and administration, rather than on understanding each student, and living their passion for something they do. And students spend most of their time and attention on trying to make the grade, or tuning out, rather than on becoming enriched and versatile human beings.

It seems to me an objective absurdity to classify our lives into precise, predictable stages, and for the later first or entire second stage to isolate our young from the workings of the world and society at large by confining them in institutions that occupy nearly a majority of their waking time for much of the year; and to do the same for our most elderly as well. And not only that, but to segregate them narrowly by twelve-month age differences, or points on a test score, or disability diagnoses. It seems even more absurd to classify either learning or curriculum into precise, predictable steps or stages and to insist through institutionalization on the identical scope and sequence for nearly everyone. We are all much too diverse to thrive under such constraints. Experienced teachers may tell you that only valedictorians always can march to the steps of a standardized curriculum.

An alternative to this would be to place the burden of complexity on a lavish and evolving social and natural educational environment, which could absorb, embrace and respond to uneven and unexpected developments from equally unexpected sources. This was the impetus for the learning park idea. It was one idea for moving away from a confined and relatively sterile school and classroom environment to a diverse and complex learning environment that is in fact an amalgam of different environments, and for moving away from the social isolation of an age-restricted group of peers and a single instructor to an all-age inclusive social milieu with a great diversity of collaborative associations from which to learn, and for moving away from a narrowly defined and rigid in both scope and sequence curriculum to a fluid and agile continuum of practice, full of resources, that can adapt to ongoing changes in learning needs and activity.

The ongoing learning transactions among all these complex constituents are what meaningfully educate, not just teachers in their traditional role as presenters, although educators as facilitators are necessary constituents of any place of learning. However, perhaps the most critical role of an educator is to help determine what specific things (objects, behaviors, people, activities, conversations, etc.) of all kinds could be introduced into the learning environment so as to make it most educative, most supportive of growth for the people involved at the time. But there still remains as much of a beneficial role for chance in education as for research and planning. Healthy educational environments embrace chance.

Since the learning dynamics and constituents for every person are diverse, complex, evolving and unpredictable, and furthermore depend upon ongoing transactions with the available social and natural environments, all of which is far too complex and motile to anticipate, it makes most sense for a humane and effective education to eschew cramming learners into identical, individual, preformed canisters and sending them down a sixteen-year-long vacuum tube, and rather to focus its attention on creating the most rich and complex environments for learning imaginable, and equally to focus on understanding its participants well enough to facilitate their transactions with these environments to be in maximum service of their growth as human beings. Becoming educated is about a lifetime of becoming a person.

Because you are a teacher in a school, I understand your need to distinguish among students and to have methods to do so. But we need to ask ourselves for what purposes do we need to distinguish among students? What purposes would serve the best interests of the learners? How would our attitude or methods change if these students ranged in age from five to seventy-five, or if the purpose were to better understand how each person learned and how to engage their interests; or if the purpose were to become a more helpful educator and effective learner? It seems to me that being “tested, evaluated, judged, ranked, separated, sorted, classified, and placed” are already consequences of distinguishing among people, and are harmful as methods of doing so. These are primarily management conveniences. I do not see how these actions benefit the education or growth of the persons to whom they are applied. However, they certainly affect the opportunities they have, and the resources available to them, and their social and economic status both now and later. I see these as unacceptable sources of inequality.

In many ways our schools have been kidnapped by consequences of our economic system and the beliefs, metaphors, models and motives that drive it. The organizational, management, production and quality control models, the underlying profit motive, the self-serving, self-aggrandizing behavior that is encouraged, even admired, by this economic system sustain a competitive and radically individualistic, therefore false, psychology that has been incorporated into our corporately structured schooling. Contrary to popular belief, the institutional structure of schooling perpetuates inequality. I believe that even the language we use in schools and the language of educational psychology carry acquired and implicit economic meanings to the detriment of their usefulness.

You wonder, without methods of distinguishing among students, “how others would be able to evaluate the qualities of a person for instances of something like a career. How will a principal know a teacher candidate is the best teacher for the job?” Even though the business world would like schools to evaluate and guarantee a person’s qualifications for a job, this remains sketchy at best, and is not a function of education. The truth is that a principal can’t know ahead of time which candidate is the best teacher for the job, and school documents don’t help. Good principals have good hunches, and these best come from face-to-face encounters. The fact is that one only knows the best teachers for the job after they’ve been on the job. And this suggests that we should have an entirely different way of hiring teachers, perhaps selecting from long-serving and well-paid apprentices.

Why would we believe that the principal purpose of education should be to prepare and evaluate a person for a future job, rather than to help a person become a life-long learner, thinking deeply and acting generously beginning now; or to train prospective employees, rather than to help each person pursue her or his full, human potential now? Is it not the pervasive and coercive intrusion of the economic system into education? We have entrenched a system that surrenders judgment, decisions and outcomes to wealth, privilege, authority and power, and that excludes or punishes us for being poor, unemployed, underemployed, food or health or safety or home insecure, inadequately documented or diploma’d or insured, and yet makes no effort to multiply types of work or education that lead to continual and personal human development. And although the economic narrative leads us to believe that work is our significant contribution to ourselves, our families, and to society, it is in fact only as a means to income that its true value ensues when we buy things as consumers. So what is being determined by our schooling is our fitness as employees to be consumers, which becomes our principle contribution to the economy and society and to ourselves. The result has been to make our schools centers of training rather than of education.

I know there are exceptions and some wonderful teachers and some joyful learning. But the institutional structures that house them are by and large mis-educative. It may be too soon to create a better, more humane economic system, but it is not too soon to create a better way to educate.

Gratefully Yours,
Paul