21 September 2018

Honoring The State's Interest In Learning

If you choose to take responsibility for your own children's learning then in some places you could be risking criminal prosecution or having your children kidnapped by the government. 

Here are some examples. 
  • Elvira Block, mother of 9, was arrested and served jail time for homeschooling without permission in Germany. 
  • After helping to start a Democratic Learning Centre in which all the parents 1) documented that they were taking full responsibility for their own children's education and 2) participated equally in the operations of the center, Derek Sheppard, one of the parents, was singled out and criminally charged with operating an unaccredited school which resulted in the closing of the center. 
  • And when she was 15 years old, Melissa Busekros was kidnapped from her home and imprisoned in a juvenile psychiatric ward for “school phobia” by the state government in Germany because she was learning at home
  • Here's a video of a talk by a Brazilian father, Cleber Nunes, who was prosecuted both civilly and criminally for homeschooling his children. 
These are just the most extreme examples of how, just because parents assume they have prior claim to educating their children, states can act very aggressively to protect their interests in children's education. 

What could possibly drive otherwise caring people in control of government laws and their enforcement to unleash their massive coercive power against innocent children and otherwise law-abiding and well-intentioned parents? 
I suspect it is their assumptions about learning and the state's interest in it. 

Examining The State's Interest in Learning

The only sense I see behind these laws and their enforcement is the following suite of four ideas:
  1. the state has a substantial vested interest in the kinds of experiences that are made available to immature people, specifically, children as they are growing up,
  2. certain kinds of experiences are better for children than others, 
  3. activities or materials that are labeled "educational" by authorized groups or individuals are the kinds of experiences that are better for children, and 
  4. the full force of the government should be used to ensure that all children are made to do the activities that are officially labeled "educational."
    (Most countries have conceded that parents and non-governmental organizations are capable of providing "educational" activities, so they allow homeschooling and a variety of school organizations to exist as long as they do "educational" activities.
    Germany, Australia, and Brazil seem to be glaring exceptions as Elvira, Derek, young Melissa, and Cleber found out in the incidents mentioned above.)
I agree with, and do not question, the first and second assumptions. 
It is the third and fourth assumptions that are problematic in the face of what is known about learning. 
Most schools are conceived, organized, operated, evaluated and defended as necessary because (it is assumed) normal people, especially immature people like children, cannot, and/or will not, learn to be successful unless they go to school. 
The majority of schools in the world today act as if learning is deliberate, effortful and avoidable.

What is now known is that exactly the opposite, however, is also true; learning is also automatic, unconscious and impossible to avoid. 
Learning is, in fact, a property of all living things. 
To be alive implies it. 
The only time you stop it is when you die. 

But...

"But," a skeptic replies, "if that's true then how come some kids go through years of schooling without learning to read and write?" 
This retort is misleading despite the fact that the concern behind it is well founded. 
Let's consider "seeing" as a parallel to "learning." 
For example, how is it that some blind people automatically react to visual cues that they can't see? 
Researchers who work with the blind have discovered that in certain kinds of blindness the subjects retain particular automatic visual functions, despite their complete inability to "see" normally. 
When an accident or disease damages certain parts of their brains these people cannot see in our normal sense of the term, but their eyes and other parts of their visual systems still work. 
So, they can still react automatically and unconsciously to certain kinds of visual stimuli. 
It's a phenomena known as "blind-sight." 
Despite the fact that some aspects of their visual systems are working these people do not have the ability to direct their attention to that information. 
The visual systems are mostly still operating, but the only operational functions are unconscious and automatic. 

Given these observations and their implications for what we know about "seeing," then consider the statement, "As long as your eyes are open then seeing is automatic, unconscious, and impossible to avoid, but seeing the letters in this sentence is deliberate, effortful, and avoidable." 
This statement is true but it applies two apparently contradictory descriptions to the phenomenon of sight. 
The crucial difference in the two descriptions of sight is between the general verb "seeing" and the specific verb clause "seeing the letters in this sentence." 
The general verb is referring to the over-all process that occurs when visual information is available whereas the specific verb clause is referring to the necessity of directing attention in order for that automatic, unconscious, and unavoidable process to act upon particular visual information. 

Reframing The "But..."

Now reconsider the skeptics implicitly critical retort to my description of "learning" given that the statement I made is about the general verb and his retort is about particular learning tasks. 
This skeptic's concern is actually well founded, in so far as it is true that many children remain illiterate despite attending school and we have all accepted assumption number one above that we, as components of the state, share in a vested interest in the successful education of those children. 
But the fact of illiteracy does not falsify the statement about learning, therefore it is really a non-sequitor. 
In fact, learning to read and write are both deliberate, effortful and avoidable tasks, just like seeing the letters in this sentence. 
The problem is not the learning process, the problem is with the way children deliberate on, apply effort to, and avoid those particular activities. 

Which sets the skeptic up to gloat over the fact that I have admitted that children avoid those activities and seemingly justified his or her confidence in the necessity of the fourth assumption. 
But, we have not yet addressed the third idea upon which the fourth is based and to address the skeptics concern properly it is crucial to answer the following question first: 
If learning is automatic, unconscious and impossible to avoid, then what were all those illiterate students learning while their teachers were trying to teach them to read and write? 

They were learning the same things that every single experience you have while you are alive teaches you: 
  1. how to manage your own and other people's behavior,
  2. what and how you exchange with your environment to meet your own and other people's needs, and
  3. the patterns of consciousness that result from being embedded in those power structures for managing behavior and those exchange processes for meeting needs. 

What those children learned is what multiple award-winning teacher John Taylor Gatto calls the "hidden curriculum." 
They learned that their opinions about what is worth paying attention to are not important. 
They learned that their obedience to authority is more important than meeting their fundamental needs. 
And a great deal of other lessons that Gatto has talked about in his books and essays. 

What follows from combining the facts that 1) learning is automatic, unconscious and impossible to avoid and 2) that what we learn in every experience is about how to manage behavior, attend to exchanges, and observe patterns of consciousness is that what counts as "educational" is not an objective feature of any particular materials or activities, it is a property that emerges out of the process of each student choosing a certain depth of connection to their own experiences. 
Let's consider the "educational" value of reading Shakespeare, as an example. 

Determining the "educational" value of something depends on what you mean by the term. 
Of course, "educational" activities are those that are supposed to produce an educated person. 
But for many people an "educated person" is simply someone who has successfully jumped through all the hoops that schools put in front of them. Others take great pains to list out particular knowledge, skills and information that are typically possessed, or should be possessed, by an "educated person." 
Then they make great efforts to ensure that their list is officially authorized to become the set of hoops that schools put in front of children. 
I call this the education-as-symbol-manipulation position, and if you take it to be the whole extent of what counts as "educational" then you will probably take the third and fourth assumptions to be self-evident and beyond criticism. 
And you would be logically correct in taking that position, based on what you consider to be an "educated person." 
In the case of reading Shakespeare it would simply be a matter of determining if people who are already considered "educated" have read Shakespeare, then getting the educational experts to agree that reading Shakespeare must have contributed to the production of their "education" (with appropriate analysis of how Shakespeare must have stimulated certain skills and abilities and contributed to the knowledge they possess) and, finally, those experts would officially declare that reading Shakespeare is an objectively "educational" activity based on their rigorous studies. 
As a matter of fact, you will probably find reading Shakespeare on every English speaking educational expert's list of "educational" activities. 
And I suspect, though I have not looked into it, that every English speaking government that has issued "education" standards includes reading Shakespeare, too. 

Redefined

On the other hand, I assert that an "educated person" is better defined as someone who is able to perceive accurately, think clearly, act effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations, and engage in an on-going process of cognitive cartography in which they map out their experiences and their relationship to reality as they understand it. 
Taking this definition of education means that symbol manipulation is not the central defining feature of what it means to be educated. 
The central defining feature of being "educated" involves engagement with a learning process connected to your current life situation as defined by your own goals and aspirations, thus demoting symbol manipulation to the subservient position of one of many tools available for creating experiences and relating them to each other. 
This is what I call the education-as-attitude position. 

Given the education-as-attitude position then what is "educational" is dependent on being aware of each individual student's situation in time and space plus what his/her different choices in the past and future mean in relation to their current goals and aspirations. 
These are entirely unique to each individual and cannot be predicted or controlled by anyone else. 
What makes any experience "educational" is an emergent property of how the individual interacts with their environment. 

For instance, the idea that reading Shakespeare is inherently "educational" is, from this perspective, absurd. 
It could be educational if, and only if, the learner actually chooses to put effort into associating other experiences in their life and current situation with the world that Shakespeare creates with words such that Shakespeare's perspective contributes to his/her cognitive maps of reality. 
Shakespeare's words have been powerful in helping many people to better understand themselves and their place in the world, but, that is not an objective feature of Shakespeare's words nor an objective property of the act of reading them. 
It is a property that emerged from a learner engaging their attention on the world evoked by Shakespeare's words so intently that the automatic, unconscious and impossible to avoid process of learning then assimilated the meaning of those symbols (that simulated world) into it's cognitive mapping process and thereby enabled that individual to gain a new perspective on their life and the world. 

So from the education-as-attitude perspective, we must reject both the third and fourth assumptions about learning and the state's interest in it. 
The third assumption is based on the premise that what is "educational" is not simple and obvious thus we need experts to objectively determine what kinds of materials and activities are universally "educational." 
I concede that becoming successful in our complex society today is not simple and obvious, but is also not possible to objectively determine what will or will not be "educational" before you have a specific student to educate. 
The first part of the premise, about the obscurity of what ultimately causes education to occur, is true, but, the second part about needing experts to objectively define certain materials or activities as universally "educational" is false. 

The foundation of the fourth assumption is that the government can both know what is "educational" and then force children to have those materials or do those activities. 
Having rejected the possibility of their being universally "educational" materials or activities, then the fourth assumption must, naturally, be rejected as well. 

Returning to the illiterate students who failed to learn to read and write despite being taught, we can take the parallel with the "blind-sight" phenomena a step further. 
In the same way that an accident or disease destroyed a portion of the brain of patients with "blind-sight," students who fail to learn the symbol manipulation behaviors taught in academics-first classrooms may have had their motivation to engage with those tools destroyed. 
An academics-first classroom uses a behavioral management power structure that ignores students personal interests and concerns by imposing the exchange of manipulated symbols as the exclusive measure of value. 
Thus, some students not only fail to learn to read and write, but it is possible that being embedded in this kind of power structure and exchange process could then result in a pattern of consciousness that simply negates their motivation to engage with symbol manipulation activities. 
In short, they have fallen victim to motivational deficiencies with regards to literacy skills. 
The hapless teachers that attempt to "educate" children within coercive "academic" classrooms become inadvertently transformed into vectors of psychological negligence by the relentless association of symbol manipulation activities with subjugation within power structures that minimize or ignore the children's basic psychological needs. 

Now we have to consider how to rectify our society's school system with the facts that 1) "educational" experiences emerge from the degree of engagement that a child has with their experiences, and 2) that the state has a vested interest in ensuring that children achieve an "educational" level of deep connection with those experiences.

The State's Interest Reconsidered

First of all, experts can help us. 
They will define the necessary qualities of different communities that have successfully facilitated the deep engagement of people with their experiences. 
Three relevant books that immediately come to mind are Intrinsic Motivation At Work by Kenneth W. Thomas, The Power Of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz, and Flow by Milhaly Csikszentmihali. 
The relevant experts are not those who evaluate materials and activities, it is experts who evaluate the qualities of communities and people's experiences. 
Experts will no longer analyze the materials and activities individuals happen to utilize in their educational process but instead will analyze the power structures, exchange processes, and patterns of consciousness that individuals experience in school communities. 

Second, we need to make the options between different power structures, exchange processes, and patterns of consciousness as much or more prominent in the mind of the general public as competing reading programs like phonics and whole language.

Here's what I propose as replacement assumptions around which we can organize our education systems (based on the ideas presented on my web site, such as: The Moral Path of CurriculumIn Elementary School, What's Elementary?Democractic Schooling: Nurturing Every Child, Not Just Playing the Odds; and others):
  1. Better experiences that the State has an interest in promoting for children are those in which the children choose to be a member of a group that treats them with respect, holds them responsible for the consequences of their actions, and encourages them to be resourceful in meeting their needs and the needs of others. 
    Thus we have a new 3R's of Respect, Responsibility, and Resourcefulness. 
  2. The full influence of government should be used to ensure that every child has the information, the ability, and the opportunity to choose to be a member of one or more groups that would treat them with respect, hold them responsible, and encourage resourcefulness. 

To give the government more specific guidance on how to discern groups that succeed from those that fail in their charge to teach these new 3R's (via their power structures, exchange processes, and patterns of consciousness) they could assess the patterns of motivation in members of the group and the climate of the group itself. 
In my book, Attitude First: A Leadership Strategy For Educational Success (Trafford, 2004), I define each of the new 3R's as a composite of two of six qualities of mind that might also provide a measure of meaningful outcomes. 

In the education-as-attitude view the assumption that normal people, especially children, will not learn to be successful unless they go to school is only true if the child chooses to be engaged at school and that the school they choose is an organization that treats them with respect, holds them responsible, and encourages them to be resourceful. 
Learning all the particular knowledge, skills, and information that they will need to become successful in today's complex world is going to require children to be deliberate, apply effort and choose to engage with their experiences, not just go to school. 
Our job, as members of a state with a substantial vested interest in ensuring that children have better experiences, is not to impose certain activities on children. 
Our job is to shape their communities to be the kinds of places where the power structures invite participation, the exchange processes are fair, and the patterns of consciousness that result are consistently positive. 
These are the kinds of communities in which people are deeply engaged with their experiences and make lasting contributions to their own lives, the lives of their families, their communities and, also, to the State. 

Putting a mom in prison, shutting down a democratic school, and kidnapping a child are the extreme, but logical, manifestations of erroneous assumptions about what is "educational" and how the state should act on it's interest in education. 
The current assumptions that the state makes as they regulate how schools and families facilitate education only make sense from an outdated and mistaken perspective. 
Those assumptions need to be challenged and reformulated to reflect what is currently known about learning and also how the state can align the meeting of both the individual's need to be educated, and, the state's obligation to cultivate an educated citizenry. 
Education policy needs to be shaped by more accurate understandings of education itself.
The foundations of better assumptions are an attitude-first perspective on learning and applying state influence to ensure that all organization's that serve children operate according to new 3R's of respect, responsibility and resourcefulness.
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