Is it conceivable that the kind of growth that helps human young people find their unique place in the world can actually be planned, dictated, and compulsorily delivered at scale?
Even if there were some finite body of content knowledge that we could agree was truly necessary for every, single, solitary citizen … is it plausible that transmitting that body of skill and knowledge should require a full time commitment for the first 18 years of life? that it must necessarily be delivered in unison to all children (organized into birth year cohorts)? Are we saying that the right and freedom to direct one’s own attention on the basis of strengths, interests, and local resources should not begin until maturity?
In demanding that all learning communities be accountable for the same outcomes on the same timetables, we are constantly stultifying our children’s fundamental self-organizing impulses – to explore, to seek patterns, to imagine possibilities, to try things that are uncalled for, to create things that aren’t already there, to wonder what would happen if…
We have fashioned our schools into training centers where students learn to consume and process answers previously classified as right and wrong … rather than engage in an open-ended way with complex people and ideas.
Quite naturally, educators and parents – both – have come to fear the unanticipated, the unexplainable, the unfamiliar, and the unmanageable in our kids.
We hurry past moments that would surely be edifying. What if we can’t control the learning? What if we can’t accurately measure it? What if the learning were not of the kind that would make us demonstrably more competitive? What if the learning would cost a lot of time and energy, but isn’t required just now?
We sprinkle answers onto our children’s open confusions like topical narcotics. We do whatever it takes to make the dissonance go away.
But dissonance is the disapproving interior designer that agitates us to consider rearranging our mental furnishings. Learning is belief change … but it’s easier to stick with what we already know. In order to learn, we need to be confused and agitated out of our complacency.
Nurturing the development of inquiring and critical, self-aware and self-organizing, socially engaged and responsible minds demands that we create conditions in which those attributes can flourish.
Chief among the necessary conditions is the liberty to graze and to forage (physically, intellectually, and socially), to encounter and stumble over obstacles, to define problems, to conduct open ended investigations, to pursue false leads, to initiate divergent processes, to consider and discuss competing interpretations, to challenge prevailing views. None of this happens when you’re consuming mechanically dispensed curricula.
Yet, as educators, society holds us accountable primarily for using school resources to maximize the standardized, measurable, short-term acquisition of content knowledge pre-determined by some thoughtful committee that shared a weekend around a conference table at some posh mountain retreat center.
If we were space travelers, given only a few snapshots of the mechanisms Americans use to assesses the effectiveness of their schools and teachers, what might we deduce the goals of schooling to be? Certainly the cultivating potential wouldn’t make the list.
Compulsory, standardized, and competitive micromanagement of educational pathways renders public schooling very simply an instrument of social control. Under the banner of education, the people – the citizens – are being homogenized. That makes them easier to predict and manage at scale. It’s not necessary to make a judgment as to whether this is done intentionally or not. The more standardized the schooling, and the higher the stakes of failing to meet the standards, the more insidious and pervasive is the control effect.
We should all be up in arms. Mandatory impairment of the uniquely self-organizing, inquisitive and creative nature of each child is not an acceptable price to pay for the privilege of attending public school. If there’s any school choice to be demanded, we should all take to the streets to win back choices among diverse goals and outcomes in schools paid for by public dollars.
Why do we continue to support the universal, compulsory implementation of school policies and classroom practices that are sure to render our children uncritical, mechanically productive, conforming, and docile?
I mean, some schools can offer those outcomes, by all means. You can have your rigor.
But over here, can we try a little something else without being called heretics?