The Missing Voice in Education Debates

“Learning is not a product of teaching. Kids are born learning. They learn how to walk, how to talk. They’re basically little scientists. If we don’t stop that process, it will continue.” ― Grace Llewellyn

“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions — if they have any — and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.” ― John Holt

I don’t care that “they” want to teach common core in public schools.

I don’t care that “they” cut back on things like music and theater in public schools.

I don’t care that “they” think recess is less important than math.

I care that there is a “they,” besides the actual customers that pay for educational services and products, who get to decide what constitutes a good education for everybody else.

I care that our conventional approach to education is based on the premise that someone other than parents and their children knows what’s best for parents and their children.

Human beings have always had diverse understandings regarding what it means to learn and what’s most important to study. Differences in educational philosophy aren’t the problem. Systems that refuse to respect and accommodate those differences are the problem.

The people who exercise the most power in determining what children have to study are often the people who are the least affected by the real-world choices those children will have to grow up and make.

What industry is capable of thriving without having the utmost regard for the preferences and priorities of the very people it serves? What business could possibly succeed by telling its customers that they are wrong for being bored and dissatisfied with their product?

We spend so much time and money trying to figure out how to make students interested in topics they’re clearly not interested in learning. Perhaps we should make an equal investment towards questioning our own assumptions about what’s truly important. Children are naturally curious. In fact, children are almost annoyingly curious. They don’t stop asking questions until we indoctrinate them with our own ideas about what types of questions they ought to ask. Children are natural learners. They don’t lose their passion for learning until we extinguish it with our outdated, unquestioned, and unsubstantiated dogmas about what it “really” means to be informed.

Before we start conditioning people to believe that their interests are irrelevant and irresponsible in relation to practical concerns, they’re already providing us with evidence that, to borrow the words of Grace Llewellyn, “learning was there all the time, happening by itself.”

The question is not “How do we get people interested in education?”

The question is “How do we stop destroying people’s innate sense of wonder?”

Finding the answer is the most humbling part. It means we have to stop playing politics and start listening respectfully to the ones we’re trying to teach. Because no matter what your philosophy or pedigree is, you can’t teach someone unless you’re willing to let them teach you. Compulsory schooling is right in its assumption that education begins with the teacher. Unfortunately, it’s still confused over the issue of who should be teaching who.

Originally published as “What Really Irks Me About Debates on Education” at tkcoleman.com on October 16th, 2015.

T.K. Coleman is the co-founder and education director for Praxis, a 12-month apprenticeship program that combines a traditional liberal arts education with practical skills training, one-on-one coaching, academic mentoring, group discussions, professional development workshops, and real-world business experience. T.K. is an avid lover of ideas and blogs regularly on personal development, education, and philosophy at tkcoleman.com and the Praxis blog.