The Reluctant Reformer

I have a confession to make: I hate education.

Before you ask what someone like me is doing in this line of work, let me be clear: I like teaching and being in a place that fosters learning. Above all, I love working and playing with young people. I love getting to know them, connecting with them over time, and helping maintain a setting where they can grow into amazing adults.

What I take issue with are empty discussions that never get anywhere, becoming quickly mired in vapid concepts and edu-speak. Again, it’s not that I dislike philosophy: on the contrary, I thoroughly enjoy digging into the whys and wherefores, the intellectual underpinnings of things. It’s just that, as far as I can tell, educational philosophy is mostly consigned to aimless, perpetual meandering in an abstract, kid-less wonderland.

Given the real needs of real people, the real crisis which is American education, this endless babble is endlessly frustrating.

The other night, I was listening to a recent This American Life podcast called “Back to School” while jogging along a creekside path here in Austin. As I’m sure many of you know, podcasts can make workouts go much more quickly and pleasantly. For me, it’s one of the few times I have to keep up with the podcasts I follow. Unlike many, though, this one got me rather worked up even as I worked out.

Yes! I repeatedly said to myself, as one of the show’s segments detailed the power of programs that focus on skills for which no one seems to have a good name: non-cognitive skills, soft skills, leadership, character. (They could have mentioned, but didn’t, emotional intelligence, which is similarly critical to success and more malleable than I.Q.—which is to say, it’s capable of being increased significantly.)

Exactly, I thought. These are exactly the sort of strengths that Sudbury students develop in spades, to degrees that make them stand out very favorably as self-aware go-getters with stellar people skills, drive, and resourcefulness. The TAL segment also highlighted the potent effects of what it called coaching (e.g., mentoring, relationship building) compared to what we typically understand as teaching (e.g., content delivery, the assigning and evaluating of tasks).

Pardon the return of my frustration, but…duh. This is exactly what Sudbury schools have been doing for over 44 years.  Why should it still be news that this works?

Really, it’s not that hard. You find out what helps kids learn best, what helps them grow into self-actualized, responsible, capable (etc.) adults, and then run with it. This only seems strange because it defies conventional assumptions. If you ask me, though, we’re not going to get anywhere by tinkering around the edges of the status quo.

Indeed, in what’s probably the best TED talk I’ve ever seen, Sir Ken Robinson speaks eloquently on the need for revolution, not reform, in education. Deftly and humorously, Sir Ken lampoons the prevailing paradigm, one based squarely on the foundation of the Industrial Revolution: standardized mass production, treating students as if they were widgets.

He goes on to extol an agricultural model of education as a successor to our current industrial approach. Here, we recognize that our role in the learning process is basically limited to maximizing the conditions for learning, then getting out of the way. Rather than continuing to think of education as something we do to children, we need to realize that our goal has got to be letting them do what they entered this world knowing how to do: learn, and grow.

I do love promoting Sudbury schools, as anyone who knows me even slightly can attest. I believe in this model every bit as much as I did when I first discovered it sixteen years ago. I love talking about self-directed learning in democratic settings, both as theory and as practice. I revel in highlighting the amazing growth Sudbury schools enable, and I enjoy people’s reactions to discovering what we do (which tend to be quite striking, whether favorable or otherwise).

Yet more often than I’d prefer, I feel rather like Cassandra of ancient Greek story, doomed to speaking the truth but having no one believe her. Or I’m the boy who sees the farce of the emperor’s new clothes but can’t convince others of what’s right before their eyes.

I never meant to become an education reformer. Frankly, I would much rather spend my time with self-directed learners of all ages, co-creating a vibrant community, than convince a  public that somehow doubts whether empowering young people is a good thing, that we ought to give them the opportunity to grow up intact, capable of great things.

Yet for reasons that pervade this blog, Sudbury schooling is one of my passions, a calling I can’t ignore. And so I invite you to join me in spreading the word—or at least, to engage with me in respectful, fruitful discussion of the need to totally rethink how we do education.

At the risk of hyperbole, I will say this: we owe our children, and the future of our world, nothing less.

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One response to “The Reluctant Reformer

  1. Pingback: Niche Guys Finish Last (?) | Write Learning

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