Monday, July 27, 2009

a radical approach to education

I typically don't use this blog as a forum for the teaching part of my life, but lately fall course prep has been dominating my time as well as my thoughts. I lost a lot of sleep this weekend reading two completely different texts. Not that either of them were lengthy, but they gave me so much to think about, and I thought perhaps they were worthy of some public discussion too.

The first is an article called "The Age of Educational Romanticism" by Charles Murray.

As part of our curricular responsibilities in the First Year Writing Program, teachers assign students a complex text on the first day of class and a written response to the text (the prompt and choice of text is at the discretion of the instructor). Naturally, we're always looking for new and challenging texts. So my colleague (and good friend) and I met last week and, while participating in the pleasures of gelato, managed to focus long enough to discuss possible new texts and prompts. She recommended the Murray article on the basis of its controversial nature.

Murray has some strong, non-partisan opinions about public education and education reform. He defines "educational romanticism" as:
"the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better. Correlatively, eudcational romantics believe that the academic achievement of children is determined mainly by the opportunities they receive; that innate intellectual limits 9if they exist at all) play a minor role; and that the current K-12 schools have huge room fro improvement."


He concludes with:
". . .it is enough to recongnize that educational romanticism asks too much from studnets at the bottom of the intellectual pile, asks the wrong things from those in the middle, and asks too little from those at the top. It short-change all of them."

I'm sure this is procisely what propelled me to finally pick up a book that was put into my hands last October at a workshop in Asheville that had absolutely nothing to do with public education but quite a lot to do with synchronicity. I think it took me so long because I was rather skeptical. Most of what I hear in terms of educational reform is not that impressive to me, truth be told. And, after reading Murray's article I think I understand why. But I was looking for an alternative, an answer to the dilemma.

Free at Last, a book about the groundbreaking Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA, was unlike anything I've ever encountered and haven't been able to stop thinking about since reading the book cover to cover in one 3-hour sitting.
According to the website, SVS students
". . .from preschool through high school age explore the world freely, at their own pace and in their own unique ways. They learn to think for themselves, and learn to use Information Age tools to unearth the knowledge they need from multiple sources."

That's an understatement.

There are documented stories about kids not learning to read until age 8 or 9, when they finally decided they wanted to (and leaving the school functionally literate and beyond). About learning basic arithmetic in a fraction of time that it takes matriculated students. About students spending three hours of "class time" fishing, or painting, or cooking, or learning physics. Their choice. About 6-yr-olds playing soccer or learning wookworking with 15-yr-olds, and teachers only providing instruction when asked. Not a single classroom (gasp!). Not a single grade (AMEN!!). Not a single standardized test. (AMEN!!) Not even a single transcript.

This is truly the most radical thing I've ever heard. And yet, success story after success story. Students get into the college/univeristy of their choice (emphasis on the word choice), fully prepared, graduate, move on to successful careers 9some w/out college, but with years of apprenticeship under their belts).

I asked the same questions some of you are asking. What about learning American History? What about Geography and Chemistry and all the other things you're "supposed" to know? Then I wonder how many people can name the 44 US presidents in order of succession? How many people can locate Iraq on a map? How many people know any chemical equation beyond water and table salt?

What's more, I can't help but wonder if this was the answer to the problems posed in the Muray article, and couldn't help but wonder what Murray would think about such a school. On the surface, it might seem to look like more educational romanticism, but dig deeper and you'll see that it's anything but.

In fact, what makes SVS truly fascinating is how much it models American democracy in its truest forms. And wasn't that radical in its time? And how many of us really know what that is? How many of us have read Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Payne? Not about them, but their writings and ideas? What has our education given us? It certainly doesn't give students the desire to learn. It squashes rather than feeds curiosity. I've already discussed how it kills reading as a pleasurable act.

The more I read, the more I was envious of these students. And teachers (until I saw their salaries. This was written some 20 years ago, however; I have no idea what compensation is like today). Additional research showed how schools all over the country (and abroad) are appearing that follow the SVS model precisely (including one in nearby Apex, NC)

So it's got me thinking about the university system. We have standards. We have learning objectives. We have rigidly scheduled class times and rooms and rules. And, god help us, we have to give them grades. Heck, the first-year writing course is the only course required of every single incoming freshman.

And yet, I find myself yearning to make it more autonomous. Make it a class they want to come to as opposed to have to come to. That's always been my goal, really. But now I want even more. I want to make it less like root canal and more like... fishing? a walk in the park?

Let's be clear: I don't mean easy or entertaining. I don't mean lacking challenge, responsiblity, or accountability. What makes SVS work is the responsibility and accountability between students and teachers. There is a deep respect for time. And yet, at SVS, time is timeless.

I have some ideas, though. We'll see. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your opinions.

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