Some choice quotes from an interview with Alfie Kohn published fourteen years ago:
Independent schools share some problems with the enormous public school factories. First off, there is an emphasis on competition. Every time you set up such a system the message is clearly that other people are potential obstacles to your success.
Schooling, including in most independent schools, is still by and large a process of teacher-directed instruction; it is not about students making meaning. It’s still not about students helping each other understand controversial ideas and moving off in unpredictable directions. It’s still not based on the questions that students have, or their need to make sense of the world. It’s still about a bunch of facts being transmitted to students who are viewed as empty vessels. It’s obviously a far cry from that kind of critique to talking about violence in schools, but its all of a piece in a way, because children’s intellectual, social and moral needs are often not being met – even in very expensive private schools.
Have you seen this next bit happening anywhere? I have.
There are independent schools that have a tradition of progressive pedagogy but have lately been back-pedaling in a way that many of us find terribly discouraging - schools that are running away from labels like progressive and constructivist and chipping away at a very proud tradition that now has more research support than ever before. It’s one thing to look at an institution that’s always been very traditional and conservative. It’s another to look at schools that have been blazing trails for everybody else now compromising on their essential mission to the point that those schools are indistinguishable from those in the mainstream.
Many of these schools are doing it because they are under pressure from their boards and their parent bodies or they are afraid that exciting, enthusiastic learning in a classroom might somehow prevent their kids from getting into Harvard. That is not only vitiating the best kind of instruction at the upper school level, it is trickling down to the middle and lower schools to the point that really good exploration-based science and whole language and constructivist mathematics are coming under attack as well.
And then there’s this exchange, which goes hand in hand with the blow-off phrase “hippie school.”
Thuermer: Does this entail a hands-off, laissez-faire approach to teaching?
Kohn: Hell, no. That’s a caricature of progressivism kept alive by traditionalists who want to make their own stultifying methods look better. The best teachers are vitally active and involved, but not in propelling students toward right answers. Not in filling them full of facts. Not in giving them worksheets that consist of naked numbers, or disconnected sentences in which the point is to circle vowels or verbs. The teacher starts with the kids and then gently challenges them, subtly disorients them, throws them off balance with new ideas that the students have to struggle to reconcile with the way they’d been looking at things. This is really hard, of course. It takes effort and talent to work with kids to explore controversial issues, to design interdisciplinary projects with them, to assess their understanding by watching and listening instead of giving quizzes.
Or How to Encourage Emergent Curriculum
This post has been sitting in my drafts folder far too long. Rather than sharing it as something complete, I offer it as a conversation started. Please feel encouraged to share, react, alter, repost, etc.
What is the framework for an emergent curriculum in a democratic environment that values collaboration? There can be many (for example, KWL), but I offer this curriculum in questions as one alternative. By simply asking a series of questions each morning (some each week), often leaning on answers given in previous days, a curriculum emerges. During my final year in the NMY, we approximated this approach. As part of our morning meeting each day, we began with “What will we do today?” and we developed a schedule for the day (and updated our calendars for the days, weeks and months ahead) to fit the answer.
What commitments (to others and to yourself) do you have pending? What are the consequences of not following through with those commitments?
What do you want to do today? (What are you going to do today?) Does this honor your commitments?
Why do you want to do that? Why is what you are going to do important to you and/or to others?
What do you need to be able to do that? Who can help you do that? Do you need pointers to resources, references, materials? Do you need someone to help you with physical tasks? (Do you need more hands, eyes, ears, etc.?)
What are the costs of doing what you want to do? How does it impact others (social cost)? How does it impact the earth (environment cost)? How does it impact your ability to do other things (opportunity cost)? How does it impact your budget and the class budget (financial cost)?
How can you help others with what they want to do? By sharing what you are working on and asking others about what they are working on, you can support each other and learn from each other.
What did you learn? How do you feel?* Reflect on how you spent your day/week. By doing so, you can decide whether the choices that you are making are good for your well-being and are helping you learn.
What values and qualities are supported by a curriculum in questions? It’s hard to say what produces any quality, but here are some of the qualities that we regularly saw and appreciated in the NMY students. I’d like to think that they were in part the product of their school experience.
Independence and Autonomy: choice in what to do, developing a sense of self
Interdependence and Appreciation: commitments to others, helping others, depending on others for their help, acknowledging that we never really do anything by ourselves, understanding that our actions impact others
Communication: articulating what we want to do and why, answering the seven questions (and their sub-questions) of the curriculum, sharing what is learned and the process of learning it
Curiosity, Creativity, and Agency: asking questions that provoke thought, recognizing problems to solve, defining those problems, solving those problems
Reflection: pausing to think about what has been done, asking what is the value of our actions, checking in with each other
*These two questions were stolen shamelessly from AC4D's POW reflection videos. See this example. The NMY Class of 2012 did this once a week during their eighth grade year. They each ended up with a collection of 36 videos, which they chose to display as part of the graduation exhibition they prepared for their guests.
Three short passages from Josef Albers: To Open Eyes
From page four:
"Sit on your own behinds," was what he told them all — deliberately using blunt language to emphasize the need not to follow someone else, but to look within yourself with the recognition that "genius is the power to light your own fire."
From page six:
A chorus of former students recall him as a lively and flexible teacher who cautioned them to “stay off the bandwagon,” especially his own, and whose interest in formal values led his students far beyond any so-called Bauhaus style, and beyond the Western canon as well.
From page forty-nine:
Albers’s disdain for bureaucrats and administrators was deep-seated. As he wrote to Perdekamp, “The more you administer the more you make your intellectual helplessness known. Each new problem falls from the sky, without any administration.” Administration, which had efficiency and organization at its goal, was to Albers an unproductive, uncreative, and futile endeavor.
The following are some pull quotes from Landscapes of Betrayal, Landscapes of Joy: Curtisville in the Lives of its Teenagers, by Herb Childress. (Curtisville is a pseudonym for a city in California.) I post this here because it serves as a deep influence and validation of my educational philosophy and work in schools. Of course, I would also like to encourage others to read the book.
David Seamon writes in the introduction:
Throughout the book, Childress demonstrates the crucial role of social, economic, and educational institutions in the lives of teenagers and their positive and negative, active or passive responses. He suggests that, too often today, these institutions undermine and destroy the places and situations where teenagers might find joy, with the result that many young people become manipulative, cynical or angry.
This passage reminds me of the difficulty students and teachers in the NMY program had in defining to outsiders their roles and relationships to one another. Our institutions force us into oppositionaly and hierarchically defined roles that are unhealthy for the social and emotional well-being of all involved.
I voluntarily surrendered my adulthood (which is to say my authority and encultured status of power over these people), and in many ways I succeeded. I don’t know how many kids said that I was something other to them than “an adult,” even though I was clearly not their age. They had no precedent to help them figure out who I was.
They also got a friend who wouldn’t make fun of their plans and their insecurity over the future, and who could answer factually, if anecdotally, about what and adult life might be like. As I went further in the project, I spent more Saturday evenings doing the basic work of friendship.
I opened my home to them in small return for being a part of theirs. They seemed to enjoy coming to visit, to listen to some odd music that I wanted to share with them or simply to sit on the couch and read and play with the cats, to see another version of adulthood, to add another scrap to their collage.
The responsibility I started out believing was the important one—learning enough to tell the world about their lives and places, being their public advocate—disappeared constantly under the real responsibility of being a good friend.
In Chapter Twenty-Three, “The Hidden Program of the High School,” Childress addresses issues of age-segregation and standardization, both frequent themes on this blog.
The first metaphor that guides school construction and administration is the separation of kids and adults, removing teenagers from the community and placing them into the hands of appointed experts. The school building and grounds are both evidence of adult desire for separation from children and teenagers and the means of separating them.
This supervised distance between teens and community ensures that teenagers only rarely come into contact with adults engaged in their work. Kids get to see teachers at work, and janitors; they get to watch the lady who makes their sandwiches at the Deli; they see the guy who fries potato wedges in the convenience store and the woman who runs the cash register. But they’re held apart from the real economic doings of their town and the human aspects of that working life. If one of the the jobs of school is to enculturate teenagers, we act counter to that if we separate them from the most basic elements of that culture: the ways in which we make our livings.” […]
Even on campus, though, kids are held separate from the adults around them. Teachers have separate bathrooms, a separate lounge and work room, a separate parking lot. Within the classrooms, there are two zones set aside for the teacher: the front wall of the classroom, […] and the desk in the rear corner of the room[…] Physical proximity between teacher and students is very rare in Curtisville—and it was, over the year, to be a reliable sign of a good classroom.
The administration of the school is also sharply divided from the students, both in function and in building. Students play very little role in the planning of their school or their education, planning which takes place on the site but in buildings that are never entered by students except for punishment.
Our insistence on treating everyone equally and “fairly” ensures that we treat almost no one sensibly.
The linkage of so many schools to mandated curriculum frameworks has led to a massive industry that creates and sells teaching aids in careful compliance with the California Department of Education guidelines. […]
Teachers are caught in the middle of the struggle, attempting to deal both with administrative abstractions and with the realities of classroom and personality and interactions. Some teachers align themselves closely to the state curriculum[…] Others use the frameworks as a broad outline[…] Still others treat guidelines and uniformity as the enemy: Dan Jacobs, a twenty-five-year veteran, told me early in the year that “you’ve got to break the rules if you’re going to get anything accomplished in the classroom.”
The school building and its associated program are based around placing passive kids into an isolated and homogeneous environment for mass-produced training. This training will be delivered by rule-bound experts who prepare youth at the least cost for a life of mobility and participation in the global economy. Continued participation is always contingent upon periodic competition and evaluation.
In Chapter Twenty-Five, “November 19th, Where Joy Was Found,” Childress recognizes the general absence of joy in the institutional lives of the teens in Curtisville and shares some of the rare instances that he was able to observe it. He goes on to pinpoint the conflict between the frequently stated goals of our schools and to show how the policy decisions we make tend to produce dehumanizing and joyless results.
On a single transparency, drawn from a single seminar, are two strikingly different positions. On one hand, education is hailed as an ability for “creative problem-solving,” to deal with “a problem that drops out of the sky,” “to apply what they learn, “to try new things and perhaps invent something totally new.” On the other hand, we want a “common language” for our expectations, a state assessment that will “provide a definitive description… of what students need to learn to be able to do.” Didn’t anybody notice some discrepancy when this discussion went on, or when they assembled the PR materials? And can it be any surprise who held what position? The creative problem-solvers were two entrepreneurs and a curator of a shrine to innovation. The proponent of standards for assessment worked for the phone company.
When things become institutionalized, the rational systems and their rules get more and more clear, and the real emotional goals—that imagined and desired future—get harder and harder to find. We seem to be bent on making our human encounters reliable and accountable and consistent. We are not standard people, but we believe very strongly in standardized processes.
Teenagers live in much more proximate contact with institutions, because kids don’t have the resources that allow adults to cushion the blow. Every place they use is owned by someone else. They cannot build places. They cannot purchase places. They typically cannot modify places. They can only inhabit places, which means to be subjected to someone else’s rules. […] If rules are the logical extension of mistrust, then rules about teenage behavior are doubly so, because most adults are certain that kids don’t share our assumptions. We fear and dislike teenagers as we do any foreigners.
Whenever kids try to find some joy within this bleak landscape, they almost always find that there’s a rule against what they try to do. An extraordinary amount of the planning in city government isn’t planning at all, but simply a default to the even more distant rule systems of insurance carriers and lawyers. […]
Kids also run up agains the rational insistence upon singular definitions for all things, even when that demand runs counter to the experiential world of use. […] Rather than applaud their ingenuity [in using unoccupied spaces for purposes than those intended], we define teenagers off the tennis courts.
We use schools to introduce these kids into the divisive ways of thinking that our culture depends upon for both its operation and its sustaining beliefs. We introduce the sequential and divided curriculum, the sharp grade divisions, the sharp temporal divisions, the sharp between one student’s success and that of another, the sharp division between student and teacher, the “right” time and the “wrong” time for each activity. We divide the whole and complete world into amazingly small bits, and we do it so thoroughly and so systematically that it becomes the entire galaxy for these kids; it’s the only system they see. They learn to ask questions within the framework, because questions that lie outside it can’t be asked; institutional language is a language of division, a language that sets analytical units in relationship to one another rather than synthesizing the world as it appears. What the kids are being taught throughout their schooling and in their communities is the division of object and subject, the rational split that lies at the heart of western thought. We tell them that all problems and all solutions lie somewhere “out there” in the correct manipulation of external things, and that objective factual knowledge is the basis for their future lives.
We seem as a culture to be doing everything we can to make the world less spontaneous and more uniform, to move away from personal responsibility and personal moral positions and toward simple adherence to standards that may not make sense in any particular case. […]
We can devise a lot of reasons for doing things the way we’ve done them. They all seem to make sense, because we’re so thoroughly used to them. But our reliance on rules and standards represents a fundamental way of experiencing the world, a lifestyle that is based on a presumption of mistrust combined with a worship of precision, uniformity, efficiency, and economic gain.
A lifestyle with little room for joy.
At the end of the chapter, he highlights the colonialist nature of our schools and the different ways that teens respond to an imposed culture.
Adolescence is neither a condition nor a stage nor a phase. Adolescence is the search for the self, trying both to find and to make the person that they are and will continue to be. Teenagers are caught in the heart of the movement in the existential dilemma, placed into a system not of their own choosing and having to make a set of conscious decisions about their response, their position within it. When I speak of adolescence, I am not talking about a set of inherent psycho-physiological patterns, the one-way genetic road down which “they” travel to become “us;” I am talking about the power-laden point of conflict between two sets of ideals, the intrusion of one way of living upon another. There is a generation gap, and it has little to do with age. It has to do with power and status, with imposition and submission. It is a cultural divide, as distinct as black and white, as broad as the Rio Grande.
In Chapter Twenty-Seven, “Rereading Curtisville,” the final chapter of the book, Childress tees up two quotes:
To make changes within that framework [the existing “enormous landscape that already asserts its own power”] would be to accept that narrative, to surrender to the terms that have already captured us. What we need is not a new set of rules but a new story. In the words of Frank Smith:
I have a serious suggestion to make. We should stop worrying about the problems of education, declare it a disaster, and let teachers and students get on with their lives. The trouble with the endless concern over “problems” in education is that many well-meaning but often misguided and sometimes meddlesome people believe that solutions must exist. They waste their own and other people’s time and energy trying to find and implement these solutions. Typically, they try harder to do more of something that is already being done (although what is being done is probably one of the problems).
Or, in the words of Douglas Biklen:
We probably should abandon all hope of reforming institutions from within. To assume that one can instigate reform from within is to assume that closed institutions exist primarily to serve inmates and that dehumanization is an aberrant condition in an otherwise acceptable system. … institutions emphasize other, less charitable ends. With this knowledge we should frame our reforms. … I suggest, therefore that any proposal for transforming institutions be accompanied by a detailed plan to evacuate these settings altogether.
Childress goes on to define and list the “Modernist ideas, a “set of beliefs that have formed Curtisville.” In parallel, he suggests an alternative, the “Existential ideas.” He also quotes Ivan Illich, Alfred North Whitehead, Jane Jacobs, and Christopher Alexander, several favorites of mine. You’ll have to read the book for all of that. I hope you do.
There’s a new interview with Bill Watterson circulating the Internet today. I’ll probably post a quote from it at some time or another, but for now, I’m sharing a clip from the commencement address he gave at Kenyon college in 1990, “Some Thoughts on the Real World by One Who Glimpsed It and Fled)”:
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
Mental Floss has the new words from Watterson.