Today I watched two short videos about learning to read and write that could not be more different. One is by NIEER (National Institute for Early Education Learning, www.nieer.org) and the other is from an interview series of participants in learner directed democratic education (a particular form first started by the Sudbury Valley School, www.sudval.org).
I would never have guessed 25 years ago when my first child was born that I would end up in such a completely different place that the NIEER video appears all wrong to me now, based on assumptions with which I no longer agree. And that democratic education would make sense to me after living through my own, unexpected, experience of it.
The NIEER video (http://nieer.org/...) speaks to best practices for an effective preschool classroom, the Sudbury video (http://www.youtube.com/...) speaks to self directed learning from the age of four that may or may not ever take place in a classroom.
The NIEER video scenes are familiar, the narration holding out promise of early student achievement based on research that we can trust. The Sudbury video describes informal learning that results in achievement based on each person’s unique timetable, through experiential interaction of their choosing within the learning community.
Watching these two opposites, it struck me how hard it is to look beyond what we know, what feels true and right, sometimes in our very bones. We are born into a time and place that comes with customs and beliefs, with rituals and knowings. We absorb these with the air we breathe, they are water in which we swim…they are, natural.
Travel, moving away, meeting new people open us to other ways of doing things, other belief systems, obviously very different cultures. Most of us find that interesting, some reject it altogether, but few of us embrace deep changes to our beliefs, to what feels right and natural.
The water in which most of us swim, even around the world, contains a belief system around learning and education that I accepted well into my adult life (earning two master’s degrees and two licensures along the way) but the birth of our son and his learning path unleashed a tsunami that sucked us out to sea and deposited us on a completely different shore.
Terrified at times by the unknown, we chose to trust our son, to ride the wave, eventually paradigm shifting, thriving, and now swimming in completely different waters. Although our family is now happy on this shore, we’d love others to join us, the water really is fine!
But it’s hard convincing others who haven’t had our experience to even consider putting a toe in the water. It’s been 12 years since we took our son out of school in the 8th grade, a journey and aftermath documented by my spouse in his blog www.leftyparent.com. The public education system we pulled him out of to first homeschool, then “unschool” is in worse shape than ever.
From where I stand now I would love to see democratic education in the public sector, funded and available to all families who feel their children would benefit from it. At the moment it is too far from the public education belief system to be accepted, which is a shame considering how well it works and how satisfied the students are who have been able to attend these schools.
The two videos seem to capture the essence of the difference between these two very different views of education…one, teacher directed with prepackaged content and the assumptions below, the other learner directed, based on our innate desire to grow into effective adults, and driven by our curiosity and unfolding passions.
That education sea in which we swim is filled with assumptions; I came up with some of them in the list below, as relevant to the videos.
Our education assumptions are that:
1. Academic subjects can be hard to learn and are not something that will just come naturally.
2. Learning academic subjects happens through being taught by a teacher.
3. Certain subjects are to be learned by certain ages (class grade levels).
4. Almost everyone in the classroom must learn the same material at the same time for the same amount of time.
5. Instruction time for each subject is broken into daily or weekly slots based on how many subjects to cover during the school year for that grade level.
6. Learning of the material must be demonstrated through testing and reflected in a letter (or sometimes number) grade.
7. People who receive higher grades are smarter and work harder than those who receive lower grades.
8. Public acknowledgment of grades and test results is either motivating or neutral for students.
9. People who do not become proficient in basic classes by certain milestones (reading well by third grade for example) will fall further behind and are more likely to drop out so academic learning strategies should begin earlier, some as early as nursery school.
10. Responsibility is considered learned and demonstrated by doing what you are told to do by teachers and other adults.
I realized that when we hold these assumptions, our research starts from there. At least, that is how it seems to me. If we believe, have never known anything else, and see all our family, friends and acquaintances appearing to learn and do well under these assumptions, then the research is done to explore “best practices” within that paradigm, rather than exploring whether it is indeed best practice to even use that paradigm.
The Sudbury model of learner directed, democratic education holds none of these assumptions. None. Yet their students choose to learn the basics and more, large numbers of them becoming entrepreneurial, many going into the arts, the majority going on to college (with no grades or transcripts). They are often remarked upon as being thoughtful, comfortable with all ages, well spoken, creative, hard working and responsible.
The classrooms filmed in the NIEER video show young children being directed during specified times to work on writing letters on specially lined paper, to sit in groups around the teacher as she reads from a lesson in large letters, sounding out specified groupings, to look at books during reading time. It looks good, and it is good within the paradigm. The point of the video is to have all classrooms look like this.
And it works in the sense of these kids learning to read and write through instruction. From outside that paradigm, I have to ask, at what cost? I know that sounds like a strange question when we’re concerned with the societal costs of young children not learning to read and write. But the costs are in terms of what else people can be doing with their time that they can’t do because of “seat” time.
They can be playing, running their bodies, watching butterflies, building an encampment, molding clay, asking for a story to be read or playacted, collecting worms, engaged in imagination games or doing any number of things as varied as they are as individuals. They can be living life and through that living learning in every sense of the word (yes, including reading, writing and ‘rithmetic)…rather than preparing for life in a strictly controlled environment.
The point is to do that living in an environment with resources, supportive people, safety through democratic process and the freedom to choose one’s path and own timing for the pursuit of passions.
Usually when I’m talking like this, people will respond as if I meant that it should tomorrow be instituted in every school, which they object to as impossible to implement, unproven (in their view), and unsupported by all parents.
Not to worry. I know that isn’t going to happen any time soon. The point is that there are different ways of learning (not just different learning styles). Schools that embrace those ways are of great benefit and desired by a segment of parents. In the best of cases they should be available in the public sector as part of “many paths” for our unique young people to be able to grow and learn according to what is truly best for them. At the least they should be given a serious look, as they are growing, more families are requesting them, and I believe there are important features from which our current system could learn.
I haven’t gone into more specific explanation about learner driven democratic education as that will take it’s own piece (or pieces). But do take a look around the Sudbury videos…the one linked here is one of about thirty in the interview series. It may sound crazy, there may be a part of you utterly dismissive of what may seem like a ridiculous notion, but I invite you to dive in…and keep your eyes open.