04 April 2007

Response to No assignments. No tests. No grades. It's "no problem"

This is an excellent article reported in a manner that suggests the author spent some time at the school and interviewed a number of people involved. Unlike other articles that I recall about this type of school it does not directly raise criticism or off-handedly scorn the differences but takes the more neutral approach of citing a notable critic’s concern. The criticisms represented are reasonable, although from my own experience and research into this type of schooling they only make sense because they miss important features of how this form of educational community works.

I have visited a Sudbury model school in Milwaukee, Oregon, called Cascade Valley School, which I believe is no longer operating. I spent several days at the school and talked with a number of students, staff, and parents. I have also read many books and accounts of Sudbury and other schools with similar philosophies. In my 15 years of working with children in a variety of settings other than the formal classroom I have examined this approach and others like it very carefully.

The criticism that is leveled in the article is from Alfie Kohn, a staunch critic of public education primarily on the grounds of pervasive competitiveness. Kohn’s research into the effects of competition demonstrates that it is detrimental to learning and the kind of positive social skills that most, if not all, parents expect their children to be taught in school. The article says that Kohn “doesn’t think students learn best left entirely on their own.” Then he is directly quoted as saying, “There’s a role for teachers to initiate possible avenues of inquiry, to spark interests that kids might not have had before. To coach and guide and observe. I don’t take the view that the kids have to take the lead all the time. I think we miss a lot that way.”

In my view this criticism is based on an unfounded assumption about what is going on in Sudbury style schools and also on a misunderstanding about the nature of teaching which is an unfortunate by-product of the way our schooling industry restricts the meaning of the term teacher. The unfounded assumption is, as Kohn puts it, children are “left entirely on their own” in these kinds of schools. They are not left alone, they are surrounded by a lively community of people and a lot of resources. There are 62 other kids between the ages of 4 and 19 plus some unstated number of paid staff and, if it is like others of it’s kind, there are usually volunteers, as well. Plus, these types of schools normally have policies that allow children to take advantage of the vast abundance of resources available beyond the school in the local community in age appropriate ways.

Kohn is absolutely correct that teachers are needed to initiate inquiries, spark interests, provide coaching, guidance and make observations. But as a criticism of this type of school it only makes sense if that role is exclusively fulfilled by adults who have coercive authority over the child. I believe it is untenable to insist on this narrow meaning of the term teacher. When the meaning of the term “teacher” is broadened to include anyone or anything that can provide those functions, then it is clear that the children in this school have more than 62 other people teaching them, plus an abundance of other teaching resources. In fact, when mainstream schools insist on making the adult in the classroom the only teacher they “miss a lot” more learning than the kids in a democratic school.

As with other articles on these kinds of schools, the portrayal is framed in terms of limited notions of what constitutes normal learning. The assumption that coerced adult-driven activities are inherently more valuable than child-directed explorations of an actively engaged resource-abundant community is evident in observations that completely miss the larger value of being engaged in democratic participation and minimizes the resources that are available.

“..it’s hard to see what academic learning takes place.” Is it safe to assume that some other kinds of learning were observed? If so, why is academic learning privileged as a form of learning that should be observed and valued more than those other kinds? If learning of other kinds were taking place, then how is that learning supposedly different from the academic kind of learning? This comment suggests that learning is observable. Instruction is observable, behavior is observable but the process of learning is not. This also frames the issue of learning in terms of academic versus other kinds of learning. In my view, it is the author’s clear sense of lots of activity that indicates that valuable learning is happening, not the presence or absence of things academic.

“Many younger students run around outside.” Leaving this sentence without explanation or further insight into the running around suggests to me that the author is implying that young children running around doesn’t involve learning. The author did not take the time to observe the young children to discover what they were doing, besides running around. After 15 years of leading children in a great variety of ways I don’t think I have ever seen a child over the age of 4 simply “run around.” The children always have some purpose, but you may have to be patient to figure it out. In fact, the imaginative play that was undoubtedly accompanying the observed running around was, I bet, very purposeful and could easily be interpreted as very educational if you were to make a careful study of the social skills, communication skills, physical skills, emotional sensitivities, and artistic creations involved.

“They have some resources available when they want them.” As I pointed out above, they do not just have “some” resources available. Because they are not restricted by the dictates of classroom managers to which resources they are allowed to use on an arbitrary schedule then they effectively have a vastly greater abundance of resources available than students in traditionally run schools.

The last section of the article describes the school meeting in terms of the apparently mundane issues of the day and finishes the entire article by emphasizing the participation of a small girl whose contradictory votes on the same request are both counted. My sense of the section about the school meeting is that in spite of previous statements that students “have a significant role in governing the school” and “Students at Clearwater ‘are a lot more mature because a lot more responsibility is placed on you’” the author truly misses the point of having democratic participation. She does not seem to have noticed that this is a direct lesson on the power and significance of real civic engagement. The students at this school effectively hire and fire staff and can change the rules, within the bounds of the policies established by the school Assembly which includes parents and community members. This means that they are taking responsibility not only for their personal decisions about what and how to learn, but they also share responsibility for ensuring that their school is fair in how it supports the learning activities of the other members of the community.

Traditional schooling methods provide abstract descriptions or, at best, create games about civic engagement. The disengagement of the American public from our political process amply demonstrates that the real lesson that is learned is that you don’t make a difference, participation is irrelevant, and you are better off leaving such complicated things to bigger, smarter, and more powerful people.

The article, once again, is very well crafted. It is a good presentation from the perspective of someone who has expectations that have been shaped by the modes of thinking that are prevalent in our industrial schooling system. Unfortunately, that perspective cannot do full justice to the very different assumptions about education that inform non-industrial approaches.

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