Thursday, March 1, 2012

I Am No Longer Willing to Let Traditional Schooling Hurt Our Children

By School board member Lisa Cooley | Cross posted at The Minds of Kids 

If you’ve been paying attention to the confused jumble that has become the "education reform" movement you’ll often hear this cry:

"The failing school system is a result of the lack of competitiveness of the U.S. compared with that of other nations. A slipping-away of the supremacy of our country."
But we have to ask ourselves, is that really the problem? Especially when we consider that countries like Finland rose to the top with a spirit of collaboration rather than competition. Furthermore they hold out their hands to languishing nations like ours when it comes to learning.  Could it be instead that our focus is out of focus? Success is all in how you define your goals. The focus of educational change won't be good enough if the improvement of the mental and emotional health of children is a side effect to the great purpose of "being competitive again."

If we focus on creating healthier and happier children, not only can we achieve the same ends, but we can also have economic competitiveness.

The reality is this...
We don't need to reform education. We need to reinvent it entirely. The only recognizable thing I see remaining is the buildings (in some cases), and the commitment to education in the form of public funding.

The reason we need to pack it in and start over...
As "Teacher of the Year" John Taylor Gatto told us in his Op Ed to the Wall Street Journal more than a decade ago, kids are being harmed.

Too melodramatic?
I don't believe it is.

We know this:

  • High school graduates are, more and more, ill-prepared for either college or the working world.
  • There is an epidemic of student disengagement.
  • Kids weigh more and have more health problems than they ever did.
  • Sleep requirements of teenagers are ignored in most middle and high schools.
We know this by observing schools and kids and teachers, and we draw our own conclusions about problems and solutions.

The more popular targets of blame, like teacher tenure, or solutions, like more charter schools, don’t get to the heart of the issue. To get to the heart of the issue we must question everything about what we know as school. So let's do just that.

Questioning School
  • We require children change to fit into school, rather than creating schools that fit the needs of children - When we don't accept and value children for who they are, often, they don't turn their resentment outward. When a parent rejects a child, the rejection turns inward and wears away at their self-respect and confidence, often turning into depression. Educators have the same responsibility, and if we fall short, we have to accept that there will be similar consequences.
  • We require kids to learn what WE want them to learn, when WE want them to learn it - We make kids learn stuff they don't care about. We do it every day, in every age group. Don't be fooled by the appearance of compliance, even cheerfulness. Kids want to be happy; they tend to look on the bright side and eventually separate their passions and strengths from anything to do with school. This takes a cumulative toll on kids, and results in a detachment between students and the adults in their lives.
  • We give them no say in the rules that govern them - In most schools, students have little to no say in the rules that govern them and which often make no sense. These rules are usually made by authority figures who don't take the time or have the interest in learning their needs. Sometimes this is turned outward, in rebellious behavior, acting out, bullying. We also ought to worry about those kids who do not display the negative effects of this educational coercion. They go along and get along, do their homework, get decent grades, and feel disconnected from the flow of school. Do these kids put the blame in the right place? Often not, because they don't know there is anyone to blame other than themselves. We need to think more about the loss of self-respect, sense of alienation, even depression, that this system engenders.
  • We tell them the purpose of learning is to get good grades - Getting good grades – something that every parent wants their kids to do – is not a simple issue. Education experts like Alfie Kohn and Joe Bower and career experts like Dan Pink have provided a mountain of research that demonstrated the adverse affect on learning that grades impose. If you have two groups of kids, and you tell one of them, "We're going to study this subject. There will be no test. Would you like the hard version or the easy version?" The answer is: The hard version. The second group is told. "We're going to study this subject. There will be a test. Would you like the hard version or the easy one?" This little experiment has been repeated often in educational research. Group Two always chooses the easy version. We think when we want kids to get good grades, that they will work, learn, reach, and grow. Turns out the quest for good grades means none of those things. It makes kids value a carrot instead of learning. They get a hard lesson when the leave school, get a job, or go to college.
If we agree that schools are built on a foundation that is shaky at best, what would happen instead if we did things differently?

What would happen, if only...

  • Kids got to pick their teachers?
  • Kids got to pick their topics of study?
  • Kids got to pick the ways in which they pursued their learning of that topic?
  • Kids got to do work that was worthy of the real for real audience?
  • Kids had time to discover and learn deeply about that which they are passionate.
In this scenario, a big A on top of a paper would carry much more value. And how much greater would the happiness be if this paper, into which so much hard work was poured, was put on a blog or other online space where it could be read and receive the feedback from a larger audience who was interested in this topic?

The results of the traditional school scenario
In today’s accountability-driven environment of high stakes tests that rarely assess anything meaningful for success, students are not often given the time and resources to follow their own passions. They have only the carrot of the possible grade to get them through the stifling indifference of studying without heart. I have often heard the counter-argument: “I only learned so-and-so because they made me, and I loved it.” Fine and dandy, but if they make you and you don't love it you should feel free to drop it like a hot potato.

On the other hand, the pursuit of knowledge and skills through student’s passions and strengths increases the possibility that they will come to a more solid understanding of the real world than if coercion continues to rule over those who have absolutely no power or voice or control over what happens to them.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Education further bring clarity to the results of the damaging practices of public school on the kids we are turning out into the world. We are graduating young people not prepared to succeed in the world they were born into. Why are we so stumped at how to respond to the sinking of the U.S. in the global scale of competitiveness? Why do we subject our kids to more tests, more grades, less flexibility, and no latitude for the innate differences between kids? This clearly isn’t working.  We need something very different.

A new way of thinking about school
School is harming our children. We're going from bad to worse.

  • We need to insist on schools that value children for what is inside them.
  • We need to stop planning, processing, talking, arguing and hashing it out.
  • We need the transformation to be big, and we need it to happen now.
  • We need to stop structuring school in such a way that students have to contort themselves, body and mind, to fit into its tight spaces and start designing schools that meet the needs of children.
Unfortunately we don’t traditionally think of schools in this way. As a result, our kids leave the land of high school unprepared for the world of work. Those that choose college are often exposed to the kind of rigorous work deserving of the name. Their unpreparedness for life after school can be a bit of a shock. And who did this to them? Who did this to the kids unable to perform well in the work world? We did. Adults. Those of us who work to perpetuate an unhealthy, harmful system of education.

We can’t continue to ignore the drive to learn that exists inside every child. We can’t keep making them chase after carrots, as though they had real value. We can’t do this because sooner or later they will find out that the world that waits for them has no use for carrots, and would prefer employees who innovate, make connections, ask good questions, think independently and work well with others.

When we don’t prepare them for that world, we are not doing our jobs and that is no longer acceptable. We know what we need to do. So let’s get started.


  1. Cooley sounds like she's in favor of results-only learning -- a complete reinvention of education.

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I named my doctrine (everbody oughta have a doctrine!) "The Identity Imperative." School should be about who kids are, who they want to be, and how to get them there.

    1. Thanks for your bold words. I'm quoting you in a presentation on "Telling the Computer What To Do" today at technology conference -- not sure I like the word "doctrine" for this, however. I think of this phrase as a lens to focus our approach to kids using computers: Is the computer telling the student what to do, or is the student telling (or learning to tell) the computer what to do? The question of student agency--letting children make consequential choices -- is crucial, but in today's schools, most kids spend most of their limited computer time to responding flash cards or "multiple choice" questions (a phrase which demeans the word "choice").

  3. I couldn't agree more. I'd like to add that we are putting teachers in the same restrictive box as students. Increasingly, teachers are being told what to teach and sometimes how to teach. If they comply and get "results" on standardized tests, they get a carrot called merit pay. If they don't? Well, then they are non-compliant and subject to dismissal.

    If we want to improve education, we don't need to think outside the box. We need to eliminate the box. Allow teachers and students to pursue their passions. Everyone will be happier. Everyone will succeed.

    If you are interested in a results-only, student-centered learning experience for your students, please check out my project:

  4. I have been ringing this bell for four years now, and left public school to start my own school. I know I am not the only one who believes traditional school needs to be reinvented, but the people who need to make changes aren't listening.

  5. This is a fantastic call to arms! I agree that the focus is too much on REform rather than TRANSform.
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. I a agree with the need to change completely our school system.My son is in the 6th grade and his only reason to go to school is to socialize with other kids.He has A at all disciplines and was an honor and merit roll student since the first grade.I did my best to change his focus from learning for tests to learning for life.He is lucky because I have the time,the passion (see my web site and the knowledge (I have a college degree) to do this but not all kids are not so fortunate.I am not sure if we have to reinvent the wheel.We can just look at the top performers and adapt their system to our situation.

  7. For the uncut version, check out my site: But this version definitely hits the high points of my views.

  8. Key to change is identifying primary behaviors that have greatest impact: some that I derive from this and my own views are:
    Within schools: 1. abolish grades and extrinsic "motivators" while 2. teaching for understanding (understanding by design)
    Outside of schools:1 1. End test-based high-stakes accountability while 2. redirecting all funds currently going to ed profiteers (testing, publishing, tutoring, and consulting) to fund equitable education through a progressive tax structure.
    This would at least get us off to a good start.

  9. I almost completely disagree. The purpose of public education is not to cater to individual kids' [parents'] needs or wants, but to create an informed and literate populace. That means that there needs to be a general understanding of what's important for people to know: literature, writing, math, science, etc. Allowing individual students to determine their own learning plans based on what they [think they] care about [for now] is not going to help.

    The statement that schools alone are hurting students is itself harmful. Schools and teachers do not go out of their way to create problems for students. Students come to school with their own sets of problems that then play out again throughout the day without any help from the school itself. As several researchers have recently pointed out, the primary problem for American schools is poverty.

    As Mr. Bartan says, some kids have the opportunities to pursue their passions. Others don't. Schools have to level the playing field as much as possible with limited resources (financial, personnel, time and otherwise) available to them. It's illogical to demand the complete reform/transform/overhaul of traditional education based on anecdote.

    1. I would recommend that Nancy read Seth's latest ebook, Stop Killing Dreams. He has reiterated what many of us have known for years - school came out of the culture of needing to produce factory workers. Therefore, that was the purpose of school - not really to create an informed, literate populace - rather people who obeyed the bells and learned how to take orders. that what we want school to be for, still?

      Before the "factory worker school" was invented, young people chose an interest, learned about it, were mentored, did an internship, then worked in that field or started a business. This is a very quick summary of what school is really for - preparing students for the world - let's get back to that. That's what Lisa Cooley and many of us are saying!

    2. I try to understand why people are invested in not caring if kids are happy or not. It's baffling. Kids who are in stressful home situations especially need to come to school and find a haven for their imagination, their curiosity, their need for positive interaction with adults. What they get in return is not fair to them, and it's not working.

    3. The purpose of education SHOULD be about doing what is BEST for the kids. They weren't born here onto this earth with the sole purpose of making coorporations richer or our economy better or competing with Asian kids on test scores. Life is much richer than that. People are much more exciting and diverse than that. Sadly though, the majority of us leave public school with no clue of what we want to do with our life or what would make us happy. We don't have the self-awareness that we need or the confidence in ourselves to pursue our passions. This is because we sat for 13 years behind a desk, sitting in a row, listening to a teacher tell us what we are required by law to learn. Compulsory education may have been enacted to produce factory workers, but we must move beyond that. Any child, when given the freedom to be a child and to learn as they are already inclined to do, will thrive. It's time for standardized testing to be tossed, along with curriculum and textbooks. It's time for kids to be treated as kids and given the tools, toys, and choices that they need to thrive.

    4. Nancy: "Informed & Literate" are catchwords long used by public educators to justify the factory model of education that destroys creativity, teaches youth that only adults know what's good for them, and treats the next generation that one Standard fits everyone. It's time for those of us who work with young people to admit that each person is individual enough to justify--no, require--an individualized learning experience. As Christians who live from a paradigm quite different than a humanist's paradigm, we must pay attention to each child's God-given inner gifting(s) and give each child room for that/those giftings to blossom.

  10. Ms. Cooley,

    Love your doctorine, are there any specific changes that have been initiated in your school district (or elsewhere) to make it a reality? What do you recommend students, parents, teachers, etc do to transform edu in today's climate?

    1. Making change in a school district is a matter of patience, time, and patience. I have the patience; for the moment, I have the time, and I know that I have the passion. We're changing over to a "proficiency-based system" which I think is an improvement over the industrial top-down model, but it's not, in itself, a solution.

      No matter what the model is, you have to figure out a way to refocus schools from teaching to learning; from teaching facts, to discovering who kids are, and helping them become the people they want to be. Yes, that will change, kids change, but however they find the on-ramp to learning, once they are on the highway, they'll keep learning.

    2. Thanks for taking the time to reply. May your passion, time, and patience be infectious!

  11. Nancy,

    You and Lisa are both right, and both missing deeper issues that would bring you both together. Extremes of any kind are always missing the bigger picture. There needs to be a middle ground. It is time to revisit education because we know much more about child development now than we did 100 years ago, but our school structures have not adjusted for that - we just medicate to make it easier for the adults to keep things in a "manageable" order. The kids ARE capable of making highly intelligent choices if the adults in their world do not assume they are only interested in being lazy and misheif (another seriously antequated belief). None of these points you both bring up address the deeper core human issues which "competition" and "economy" always ignore - which are the "problems" these kids come to school with. The current debate about education - and quite frankly the entire education system and parents combined - is all about the adults. No one even talks to the kids to see what they want. Everyone's busy throwing their own ego opinions around about how they're right and the others are wrong. I highly suggest all parties consider the beliefs of the other parties and try to find the common understanding shared - and without judgment - try to identify why the other party has those beliefs. In my experience, I have found that most reactionary beliefs aren't even thoroughly thought out. Most of it was passed down from those before without question. If emotions are evoked when another says something contrary to our own beliefs, that is a HUGE sign that we each need to individually address why that created such a strong emotion. There are deeper issues here. The adults in this country are seriously damaged from their own childhoods and educational experiences. THAT is what we're seeing in this current educational debate. Again - that has nothing to do with the children in schools now. We need to fix the adults before anything constructive will ever come out of "reform" or educational "redesign."

    1. Nancy,
      Why should the government decide what individuals need to know? I don’t need to know all the same things everyone else needs to know. I don’t need to learn it at the date everyone else needs to learn it or in the same text-based, sit-n-git, memorize-n-regurgitate way school delivers it. I did go through the system as you explain it, got good grades, but I don't learn that way and I'm not alone.

      Why shouldn't individuals be empowered to learn what is important to their life if/when they determine it is important? Learning can happen at any time. It’s not like if we don’t teach it on February 18th when a child is 12 then it can never be learned if needed.

      What we force schools to do is indeed harmful for many. Many adults are suffering today and students are being left behind as a result.

      I think it would be great if you didn't put the blame on students. Everyone comes to situations with their own baggage if you will. That doesn’t mean it is a problem and it’s not relegated just to students. However, there are many school models (i.e. Schoolwide Enrichment, Democratic, Big Picture, Nuestra Escuela) that honor the passions and learning styles of students and show them love, care, and respect. These lead to great success with kids who have poverty in their backgrounds.

      You point to "some" kids having opportunities to pursue passions. Why? Schools can provide this to all kids. I have witnessed this happening for children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods with limited resources. They simply reached out to the community and the community got involved. If you want a sense of what that looks like visit this post

  12. This is a excellent article. I plan to post a response on my daily "Homework in the News" blogpost later today. My response will be at this evening.

  13. I am entirely driven by the need to see schools as places where kids want to be. Why? Because they are people, that's why; people whose day-to-day experiences of life affect them now and way into the future.

    Schools ARE hurting students. We keep doing it. We keep pushing them into situations that don't consider their comfort, happiness or satisfaction. It looks very much like we don't care.

    From my original post:

    "Forget everything you have ever heard about tough love, and the school of hard knocks, and not everything is supposed to be fun, and kids have to learn. Yes, adults have to do things they don't want to do. Sometimes the hit is mitigated by a paycheck, but sometimes it isn't. The ability to do that which is unpleasant happens over time; the older kids grow, the more of the world they come to understand. I contend that training courses for kids on the merits of suffering borders on cruelty.

    "However, the pursuit of knowledge and skills through their passions and strengths increases the possibility that they will come to a more solid understanding of the real world than if coercion continues to rule over those who have absolutely no power or voice or control over what happens to them."

    I'm talking about an on-ramp to learning. A way to let kids into the club of learners. Once kids have a sense that WHO THEY ARE is respected by adults, once then see that what is inside them and what they love most is valued, you establish trust in the teaching relationship. Once you have a learner, they can do anything! But what we're doing now -- defining what kids need to learn before giving any consideration to kids' motivations to learn it -- IS FAILING. Would it cost our society so much to consider what it means to respect children for who they are?

    Trust and respect is a two-way street. Show kids you respect them, you'll get respect back. Establish trust, and kids will be much happier to learn what you tell them to learn. But as adults, we want to skip that step, feeling that our authority as adults is nothing without the baseball bat of authoritarianism.

    I come from a very traditional background in terms of education. Father has a masters in math, sister is a professor of chemistry, brother is a physicist and mathematician. I value the things Nancy values about what kids should know. But I give it wiggle room because I value the differences between people, and there is enough to learn out there that we can spread it around...Charlie might not need to learn how a bill becomes a law, and Mary might not need to know what an atomic number refers to. BUT MAKE THEM INTO LEARNERS and when they need to know it, they will find it out.

    Right now, kids are missing the on-ramp to learning, because adults do not think they need to stop the great march of pounding facts into kids' heads long enough to look into their faces to find out who they are.

  14. Literacy is knowing the code. That is all we need to teach to read, write and communicate.

    1. MrC, that is interesting; I recently was made aware of a school here in Maine called the Center for Teaching and Learning, or something close to that, which is almost entirely dedicated to reading. It's a private school. I kinda like it.

    2. Literacy generally refers to reading and writing which everyone will learn if provided a supportive environment to do so

      That is NOT all we need to support people in doing. It's not natural to force kids to sit indoors all day reading and writing the stuff we tell them to. We also need to provide them with the opportunity to "do" and they should have a say in what that is.

    3. I think that what we often forget is that the purpose of reading or writing is communication. Reading and writing have become the end goals in schools with little attention paid to the reasons reading and writing are important and that is to communicate and convey ideas and information, to learn things and to be entertained. In our lives outside of school we don't generally read or write just to read or write. I remember when I was in college, several professors in my education courses were fond of saying, "Grades K-2 students learn to read, Grades 3 and up students read to learn." Seems to be a bit backwards to me. Purpose should come first and then the reading comes quite naturally. Children learn to read independently when they are ready (just as they learn to walk and talk) and when they have a real reason to do so. The goal should not be reading and writing in schools, it should be facilitating communication in all it's many forms. From talking to texting and everything in between.

  15. You're absolutely right Lisa. Schools should be places where kids want to go. They should be fun, child-centered places.

  16. Since everyone likes to play, especially kids and the people who work with them, let's play a game. The game is called National Public School FREE DAY. I want every single school to participate. You can pick the day. When the kids arrive in the morning, tell them it's free day and they can do whatever they want all day long. They can go anywhere on the school campus, they can hang out in the cafeteria all day, it doesn't matter. It's up to them. Turn off the school bells. Now, I want all of the teachers and administrators to observe and give these kids whatever they ask for. How easy is that???? I can assure you that you will learn something more valuable to you as an educator than ever before. I am confident that this will be an eye-opening experience for everyone. JUST RELAX for one day and learn from each other. Be willing to see public school in a new light.

    1. Angel, I really like that idea. The concept of Reggio-Emilia and the Project Approach has built in ways of documenting what kids do and talk about when they are in free play time. They listen in, write things down, video tape them, and then they make sure and observe the videos and talk about how to take their interests and create rich experiences out of it. That's for little kids, but there are more sophisticated ways of doing it for middle and high school students.

    2. Lisa, your complicating it already with documentation. No documentation requirements for this game. This is FREE DAY for everyone. Just play, have fun, interact with the kids, and observe.

    3. And when there are kids caught having sex in bathrooms, smoking pot in stairwells, and beating up on each other, they're just kids being kids, right?

    4. @Anonymous,
      What is your point? They're doing that in the current oppressive environment of school.

    5. Wow, is that what you think of your students, Anonymous? That's really sad. You should try FREE DAY and see if that is what happens. You may be surprised. On second thought, maybe you should get a sub for that day. You'd probably be barking at the kids anyway.

    6. My school already has free periods, scheduled regularly throughout the week. The kids get to do whatever they want for 40 minutes. Guess what? They almost all pull out the indoor recess board games, and play. A handful might draw. One pair of girls likes to play hangman. In other words, this is a stupid idea. Kids love to play, but there's more to learning than that. Let's be wary of these extreme ideas--they're almost always deeply flawed.

    7. Anonymous, this may be hard for you to believe, but 40 minutes a few times a week is not enough play for a child. It's a stark lack of playtime. I just so happen to host board game day at the public library and have been observing and learning about how child learn through playing board games. Board games are excellent learning resources. All the basic math is there, the language development, motivation, fun, community learning, everything. It is NOT a stupid idea. There is value in learning through play.

  17. Angel, my point is only that adults can learn from kids just by paying attention. I understand and appreciate your call for a "free day!"

    1. Thanks Lisa. I live what I'm suggesting. It works! I'd like to see public schools make a huge shift toward child-centered learning centers.

    2. Angel, there are FOUR of us on my current school board that agree with you and me, FOUR out of eleven and we STILL can't get any headway.

    3. Well, I suggest you walk into your next board meeting and propose a Free Day Holiday for your school system as I suggested above. It's free, it won't cost anyone anything, but it will give educators and kids a break. Then, I would talk to the principals and find out if they are interested in doing it. Get one principal to agree and it's a homerun! Have a few parents, teachers, and kids blog about it or something, and you've got free publishing for your cause. Next thing you know, all the school principals will be wanting to try it.

  18. Another reference to school and factories - From Eric Jensen's Brighter Brain Bulletin: "Out in the real world, people talk to other people at their jobs, at home and when they're out relaxing. Who ever thought that kids should be quiet, sit in rows and only talk when spoken to? The answer: someone who was training kids for solitary factory jobs."

  19. I understand the thinking behind "the education system was designed for the industrial age and that doesn't fit our current times". I just believe it's erroneous.

    Starting with Maria Montessori and moving through John Holt and others, many educators have theorized that public education needs an overhaul because it doesn't meet the individual needs of kids. On the other hand, public education hasn't changed a lot probably because meeting the individual needs of individual kids is time-consuming and expensive as evidenced by special education (PL 94-142 passed in 1972) which is based on the Individual Education Plan (IEP). Each identified special education student is guaranteed a "free and appropriate (not perfect) public education" (FAPE) through whatever accommodations and modifications are required in his/her case. It's a valuable but costly process that has created a specialized bureaucracy in schools and towns across the country.

    I am retired and currently working as an Educational Technician with at-risk kids. These students do not have the type of home life that provides opportunities for pursuing their passions and interests (except video games and hanging around town). They don't even have the type of home life that encourages reading or cooking (so as to learn fractions, for example) or building (geometry) with Mom and Dad or grandparents.

    One purpose of public education is to level that playing field as much as possible. That's a reason Maine provides laptops for all middle-school students. Another purpose is to provide a foundation in basic skills and knowledge. Kids are kids, no matter what era they live in. They need guidance. They need help. They aren't in a position - yet - make their own decisions because the don't have the experience to know what they need.

    The idea of a free day is lovely, but schools run 9-10 months of the year. Show me how this works for an entire year. And then another entire year. I doubt you can. And even if you could, the resources required to make it happen would be astounding.

    Blaming schools for society's ills is pointless. 6 hours per day (give or take) for 175 days (or so) is all schools see of kids. The rest of the time is spent at home or out-and-about. Kids who are on the edge of homelessness, or searching for a sexual identity, or living with grandparents because Mom and Dad are in drug rehab are unlikely candidates for appropriately pursuing their passions - in or out of a school building. Help schools, stop blaming them.

  20. Nancy, with all due respect, you underestimate kids.

    You said, "Kids are kids, no matter what era they live in. They need guidance. They need help. They aren't in a position - yet - make their own decisions because the don't have the experience to know what they need."

    Babies are born with built in alarms that sound whenever they need something. Kids show you what they need. They tell you what they need. Teachers are responsible for the 6 hours a day that they have with the kids regardless of their messed up home life.

    I proposed 1 free day. Of course I think it will work for everyday schooling. But if we can get at least 1 National Public School Free Day, I think it will help put some light on what is possible for learning in freedom.

  21. I am up trying to study, but feeling sleepy, so I turn on the listening tool to have your blog read to me and as I nod away every second or so, I became alert suddenly to make sure that I was hearing what I have always known --- the awful truth about our school system. I know it and a lot more people are just finding out about it particularly after some parents have received the high school notice for their child to attend in the fall. What a mess this mayoral control has done to our children? Lisa, you really are letting them have it and I commend you and I have already established my blog with similar intentions to let the community of learners be aware of what’s going in the schools.

  22. Since we're never going to see any significant school reform--not in our lifetimes, and certainly not here in NY State where things have only gotten more oppressive--how about we just try to work for improvement within the system. In other words, giving children choice of what they study, how they learn and present the results of their learning, and who (if anyone) they work with. I did this as a student teacher for a single social studies unit, and the kids took complete ownership of their learning, and LOVED it. When the unit ended, they begged me to do it again for the next unit. And while I'm at it, how about I speak a truth that will make everyone here apoplectic: from my extremely limited observations, it seems clear to me what the biggest problem is in our schools--uninspired, distracted, not-terribly-bright TEACHERS. On the rare occasions I've witnessed smart, caring, creative teachers, the result has been vibrant, fun classrooms, with alert, eager, enthusiastic kids. But most of the time, I've seen the opposite: mechanical, flat, uninventive teachers--and kids drifting off into their own worlds. So the real question should be--how can we reform our TEACHERS, not our schools. Unfortunately, that will never happen in our current system, either. With salaries so low, the best and the brightest will never be drawn to the teaching profession in great numbers. Sure, the occasional person who had the tools to become a doctor or architect might choose teaching, but for the most part, the profession attracts mediocre people. With that talent pool, expecting school "reform" is like hoping to catch trout in your bathtub--crazily unrealistic. In short, I don't think we're going to find a way out of this situation any time soon. Anyone who thinks otherwise may be a good person, but they're not likely to catch any fish.

    1. I'm wondering what grade you taught when you did the independent learning in the social studies unit? As a teacher at a small school, I teach classes to 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, and the older the students get the less I see them willing to get enthusiastic, even when I try to give them independence. You have to understand that teachers, to a certain extent, can only work with what they have. If kids have been conditioned to do what a teacher says and spit it back out on a test, after enough time they're going to be resistant to independence.

      Moreover, you claim that NY state becomes more oppressive, yet you were able to give students independence about what they study. I'm thinking you must be at the middle school level. I'm from PA and with the looming Keystone exams the "what they study" itself is becoming ever more constricted. Sure, I could try to bring up a topic in chemistry and let my students choose their focus in that unit, but when it comes test time and the things they focused on in that unit are, by random chance, overlooked on that version of the test and things they skimmed over the questions that are on the test, both my students and I are going to be in a pickle.

      As for all of your stuff on teachers, I do agree to a large extent, but I also think that teacher education programs need to chance. And the teachers who are successfully implementing these units of independent study need to share what they're doing and how they're doing it. I am one of those people who had the tools to be a doctor but chose education because I believe in its importance (and want to be part of the solution), but having gone through a public school system that was completely devoid of this type of learning and, moreover, never having had any trouble with mastering concepts based on this type of school system, it would be extremely helpful for me to actually hear a detailed account of what this freedom of learning would look like, rather than simply being told I should do it.

  23. I thank you, Lisa, for your provocative and informed blog! This post means enough to me that I blogged about it here:

    I've been reading your blog for awhile now and I admire your forward thinking and passion!

  24. This article gave me a lot to think about. I agree with much of it, but I also disagree with some points here and there. I will attempt to keep my comments short here.

    First is this: I realized that I agree with many things in here, and that the only reason I have not at least attempted them in practice is because of administrative and testing requirement. Would I like my students to have more freedom in what they're learning as it relates to my subjuct area (science)? Sure, I'd love it. But there's ever more emphasis on making sure students know exact bits of information for standardized tests (I live in PA, so Keystone exams are the tests du jour) that they won't remember a month later, let alone years. I absolutely think that relevant, self-directed projects would be more beneficial in the long run, even if it seems like students aren't "covering all the bases."

    I also don't necessarily agree with all the rule and expectations. I think students should be able to have more freedom in the classroom (provided they don't abuse it). I realized while reading this that I keep a tight rein on my students, even though I don't necessarily agree that it's entirely necessary, because as a new teacher and a young teacher, I don't want to be thought of as unable to control a class. I feel like there's something wrong with me when students are moving around and talking for me but sit quietly for another teacher -- but perhaps I should feel just the opposite.

    However, as many times as I've read this type of argument (I've been watching some recordings of Gatto a little bit at a time), I think it's a little too idealistic. Maybe this perfect system will work for parents who are willing and able to homeschool their children, but there are a lot of issues to work through on terms of a public school implementation.

    First off, as much as I love the idea of giving students more choices, there are always going to be those students who don't want to work hard at something academic. These same kids may work very hard to excel in athletics or some other area, but it may not happen in the classroom. Then again, we're losing these kids anyway, so really what harm can we do by giving them more choice? The only other caveat I would place here is that students should be required to follow their interests within a variety of subject areas -- they need to be informed about science, math, English, social studies, etc. and not just one single area, which is what some would choose to do.

    The other main issue I have with this is the fact that there's all this focus on students doing exactly what interests them under constraints that perfectly fit their personal desires ... but the real world doesn't work that way. Think what you want, we may not be producing factory workers, but we are producing workers of some kind or another, and most of them are not going to go on to work in environments that give them almost entire control of their day. They are going to be given certain tasks to complete with certain deadlines and be expected to follow them. They are going to work under certain rules whether this cramps their style or not. And many of those rules are there for a reason. I work in a lab that had to follow federal rules for laboratory practices because they involved products on the consumer market. Those rules were important, and even though I had absolutely no say in them, I still had to follow them.

    We need to recognize that as much as every student can strive to work in a position that offers freedom of expression and freedom of task, not everyone will. Even if we taught them all the skills they need to do it, how would our world function without people in all those positions who are filling very important yet personally contraining jobs that help our society run?

  25. I realize I am somewhat late to the party, but I'm kind of surprised that the Sudbury Valley school, and schools that follow the Sudbury philosophy haven't been mentioned here. The Sudbury model meets all of the "what would happen if..." items, and is a radical change from all of the No Child Left Behind standardized model of schooling here in the US.

    When we trust our children, and give them the freedom to learn, they flourish. Peter Grey has written extensively on this subject in his blog on the Psychology Today website.