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Running Towards the Enemy
Ignorance is the enemy.
If education is a battleground, then the enemy is ignorance. Public schools were ostensibly created as fortifications against the spread of this enemy because ignorance has powerful allies: Fear, suspicion, hatred and intolerance. Any way you look at it, this is a good fight.
Can something inherently bad be used to do good?
In the 1700s the Prussian army faced a problem. While its army was highly trained in tactics and fighting techniques, it was not always successful in its campaigns. On many occasions, soldiers ordered to perform a full frontal attack on an enemy who outnumbered them would simply refuse the order and retreat rather than rush headlong into the arms of death. A new, highly-regimented education system was instituted that involved rote learning and choral responses. The graduates of this program would follow orders without thinking.
Horace Mann, developing Massachusetts' public school system in the 19th century, thought that the same methodology could be implemented for a more benign outcome. This highly-regimented school system has evolved into the Public School system that we know today, but at its heart it is the same. It places answers above inquiry. It places scores over ability. It falsely separates learning into disciplines, turning it into a commodity that is in short supply rather than an endless well from which all of humanity can drink.
An industry that doesn't follow its own best practices.
Modern education is filled with buzz words such as research-based, data-based and best practices. One of the most disturbing things that I've found out after teaching in public and charter schools for almost twenty years is that the best educational research is either misused or ignored altogether. One of the earliest educational researchers and the foremost pioneer in the field of Child Development was Jean Piaget.
Through scrupulous observations and recording of data, Piaget discovered that the human mind goes through four distinct phases of development. The Sensorimotor Stage, from birth to age two; the Preoperational Stage, from two to age seven; the Concrete Operational Stage, from ages seven to eleven; and the Formal Operational Stage, from ages eleven to sixteen and beyond.
The first thing one notices about these stages of development is that there is a range of ages associated with each stage. Our nascent educational system recognized that the appropriate stage at which to begin academic instruction is the Preoperational Stage. The problem is that they took the range of readiness, two to seven, and averaged it to age five. This means that children who were ready for such instruction when they were two are already ahead of the ball game when they get to school and quickly become bored with their instruction and those who won't be ready until they are seven derive no benefit from the first two years of their instruction and struggle when they are finally ready to learn because others in their grade are two years ahead of them. The school's failure to start children when they are ready for instruction, as opposed to an arbitrary age designation, creates a preprinted path for success or failure. Many of our failing students were simply put in the wrong place at the wrong time. We know better, but we forge ahead anyway.
Schooling is not synonymous with education.
Some students find school to be an unpleasant experience because they were dumped into it before they were ready. Some students find school to be an unpleasant experience because they're already two steps ahead of the work that is being assigned. Other students find school to be an unpleasant experience because they have absolutely no agency in the process and are treated as if they are incapable of advocating for themselves.
Schooling is not synonymous with education. Education takes place every day, whether we want it to or not. We constantly have new experiences that we measure against our past experience to try and extrapolate an accurate picture of what is going on around us and predict the most likely outcome of our actions. Failure and reflection on failure are an inherent part of that process. Schools turn failure into something else. Instead of an instrument to shine light on learning, failure becomes a dark shadow that follows you on your permanent record. Failure becomes something to be avoided at all costs, whether that is through cheating or dropping out. Learning is superseded by a system that grades students just like pieces of meat to determine which ones go to the fancy restaurants and which are destined to become dog food.
Let the inmates run the asylum.
Students don't enter our school system with the intention of failing or dropping out. They don't want to collude with the enemy, ignorance, but the circumstances of their captivity lead many in this direction anyway. They don't trust the institution because the institution doesn't trust them. This isn't just true of the students, it's true of the teachers and administrators as well. There is no easy way of measuring learning and the absence of such a measurement is ignorance.
The only way out of this situation is to consult the one segment of the population whose input has been studiously ignored by educational institutions: The students. I have used students to help me construct the rules for my classroom for years now. They always call for the same things: Respect, understanding and kindness. There are some schools where students are given an equal voice in vital decisions at the school - everything from stocking the janitor's closet to hiring and firing teachers. The students know what they're talking about since they're the ones that live the experience, and that knowledge is turned into informed decision-making. To ignore this vital source of knowledge and to proceed as though the crown of adulthood has somehow imbued our thinking with superior quality is to embrace the enemy.
© 2017 Sam Delaune