Because of when you were born.

Several months ago I mentioned Robert Epstein’s book Teen 2.0.  In his chapter on the emergence of adolescence as a concept, Epstein also walks the reader through the history of compulsory education.  He mentions that when Massachusetts established the first public school system in 1827, which required students between the ages of eight and fourteen to attend school at least three months of the year, that if students were able to demonstrate mastery of the material to be taught during those three months, they weren’t required to go.

Epstein makes chapters and chapters worth of interesting points in this book, but this is the paragraph that I cannot forget.  Over time and for various rather complicated reasons, we moved from this kind of competency requirement to a system in which a young person is required to be in school whether or not he or she needs instruction in the areas of instruction offered.  If you’re of school age, you have to go just because you have to go.  Because of when you were born.

This is an extremely weird thing to do, and I’d venture to say it’s part of the reason we get so much resistance from so many kids when we tell them education is important so they better do their homework.  Even the ones who struggle chronically in school have noticed within the first few years of school that once they’ve learned something, they’ll have to get taught it again just because that’s what’s happening that day.  School has a little bit to do with learning, but mostly, it’s somewhere kids have to go.  (Often we dismiss the repeated instruction in the name of practice, but children know the difference between things they need to practice and things they’re being taught more than once for no apparent reason.)

When families opt out of traditional schooling, the machinery of published curriculum often mimics the situation at home.  If a math curriculum teaches and reteaches a concept, then it has to be done and redone.  Again, it’s justified as required practice, but we don’t always remember to check.  How much practice does it take, really?  Does everyone need the same amount of practice?

For now, education-wise, this is what we’ve got.  But there’s a lot we can do in conversation with kids to reduce some of the ill effects.  For a child who’s not in school, we can use whatever materials we choose to offer academic instruction that we deem useful, but we don’t have to insist that every page get done.  Or even every lesson, every chapter, every book.  Once we know a child can write the paragraph the way we want her to be able to do it, we can let her move on.  As it happens, it tends to be lots easier to get a child on board with mastering a clear set of competencies than to get her to comply with a requirement of open-ended unlimited instruction and academic work.  If we say “here are the things we want you to know how to do and once you can do them we won’t belabor them,” she knows exactly where she stands and what there is to do.

For a child who’s attending school, it’s tremendously empowering (and has a similar though not as profound effect as saying “here are the things…”) to distinguish between the things he’s being told to do that are new and instructional and those that are not.  We tend to avoid admitting such things to kids because we worry that it will undermine a teacher’s or school’s credibility or authority.

It’s worth considering whether or not this protection is worth the cost to a child’s morale.  Kids can understand a lot more subtlety than we tend to give them credit for.   You don’t have to say “You shouldn’t have to do that because you already know how; I don’t know what your teacher is thinking.”  You can say something more like “I see why you’re frustrated about doing more addition and subtraction practice.  This is one of the things that’s not working very well about schools.  We want all kids to be able to do the things they need to do, but you’ve probably noticed that different kids learn different things quickly.  You remember how it was really easy for you to learn to swim, and it took your brother a long time, but then it was harder for you to get your balance on your bike?  It’s like that with a lot of things and we haven’t worked out yet how to manage it.”

It’s a long way from where we are to where the education we offer might make sense and work for everyone, or even most everyone.  In the meantime, while we’re working that out, we’ll be wise to venture into these tricky conversations with kids about why things are the way they are, to acknowledge the things that aren’t working so kids don’t have to wonder why their experience feels so removed from what we’re insisting upon.

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Escape velocity and the memorable incident

I’ve been reading about the origin of our present-day relationship to childhood, and in the course of it I came across a book by French historian Phillipé Aries called Centuries of Childhood. Aries writes, with regard to his research on the condition of childhood, “But how was I to discover, in the documents of the past, references to things which were too ordinary, too commonplace, too far removed from the memorable incident…”  I found myself distracted for the moment from own my research, intrigued by Aries’ predicament: popular ideas, thoughts, positions about children and childhood were too… everyday… to merit mention in historical documents. Too far removed from the memorable incident. 

We’re so used to conceiving of childhood the way we do, as a truth with a set of conditions and other truths attached to it, that we don’t talk much about it, the same way we don’t talk much about whether the contents of a traditional academic curriculum, beginning with its 3Rs and proceeding on toward algebra and expository writing, serve and prepare young people the way we trust them to.  We think about how we’re carrying out the details – whether we’re disciplining children properly and effectively; whether our methods of math instruction are any good – but we don’t tend to think about the conditions themselves.  We don’t tend to think of our ways of relating to young people, or of the automatic courses of instruction we require of children – as things that we choose, or have any agency in.  We think they just are and must be.

I’m reminded of the distinction Ken Robinson makes between theory and ideology, in Out of Our Minds, Learning to be Creative:

“Theory is conscious, ideology is unrecognized.  If you have a theory you know you have it and you can say what it is.  Theorizing is a conscious and deliberate attempt at explanation. I don’t just mean grand theory about the cosmos or the meaning of life: it may be a theory about why your favorite team is doing badly.  Ideology is something else. By ideology I mean the fundamental underlying attitudes on which our theories are based: like why you support the team in the first place.  I mean the assumptions, values and beliefs that constitute our taken-for-granted views of reality, our natural conception of the way things are.  We are all guided in our everyday lives by ideas, values, and beliefs that we simply take for granted.  They become so much a part of our way of seeing things – our worldview – that we come to think of them as simply common sense.  These are the ideologies on which we build our theories.  The dominant ideologies of education are now defeating their most urgent purpose: to develop people who can cope with and contribute to the breathless rate of change in the 21st century – people who are flexible, creative, and have found their talents.”

Schooling and education as we know them comprise the fabric of our young lives, the landscape of our memories of youth, to such a great extent that even when we recognize their shortcomings, our attempts to address them very often fail. No matter how good the theories that drive these attempts, it’s the ideologies that are ill-suited to the task.  I don’t mean ideologies at the level of, for example, believing that education is important.  I mean at the level of believing that we know what education is.  Of course we want full rich productive lives for children.  The ideology that limits our ability to make it possible for them to realize those lives is the one that says “this is what education looks like; these are the building blocks of being educated.” So we spend our energy reshaping all we can, by changing teaching methods, regrouping students, writing new textbooks.  Or we opt out and oppose, by homeschooling or unschooling. But very, very often the ideology keeps us in some degree of satellite to its gravitational force.

(When I got to this point in my draft of this post, I took a break to read for a few minutes and pulled out the Domino Project’s End Malaria, a collection of short essays about making things happen.  The essay I happened to open up to was about escape velocity, a phrase in physics that refers to the speed at which an object has to be moving in order to break away from the gravitational pull of another.  The author, Chris Brogan, uses the concept of escape velocity to talk about what it takes for people to overcome the pull of unworkable jobs and other habits.  He’s recommending a cobbling together of small accelerations away from unworkability that result in that ability to break free (because you can’t exactly just enter a desirable speed and press Go!).)

What, I wonder, will it take for us to reach escape velocity from our ideology of academic business as usual, such that we might build something entirely new, something that can tap into to the cognitive and preferential diversity of humanity and stand up to the complexity of present-day life? I suppose we’ll have to start with acknowledging that the ideology is no longer serving us (if it ever did) and that that constitutes a problem worth taking on.  Then, of course, we’ll have to muster the faith and courage to believe we can do better.