Category Archives: Education

alternative education, education reform

Learning on the Homefront

What comes to many people’s minds when they think of homeschooling?
Granola-eating Hippies
Christian missionaries
Anarchists
General weirdos

I was certainly of the opinion, until fairly recently, that homeschooling wasn’t a completely viable or healthy form of education. How could everyday parents adequately replace teachers who have years of training and experience for educating children? How can a homeschooling environment give children the invaluable learning opportunities available in regular schools such as drama productions, school bands, science labs, and student council?  And the biggest argument against homeschooling: home-schooled children will be deprived of important social interaction with their peers.

But when my daughter’s love of school began to fade, I began to look at this institution from a new perspective. We had conversations about what she liked and didn’t like, what she found frustrating, and what was changing in her education as she transitioned from elementary to middle school. I wanted her to enjoy school, and I wanted to enjoy my job as a teacher. Indeed, it was my job to make sure school was enjoyable for kids.

We both probably contributed to each other’s downward spiral in terms of our respective attitudes towards school.  Her unhappiness at school added to my list of job frustrations as a teacher, and I’m sure my frustrations -which were impossible to hide- fed her unhappiness.   I witnessed a multitude of ways that the school and teachers were failing and stifling her, and I came home feeling defeated and guilty every day with the knowledge that I wasn’t able to give my students the time, experiences, and learning environment that they needed and craved.

I was miserable in my teaching job, even perched on the edge of depression. So I left.

Now I had the opportunity to rescue my daughter from the same misery since I no longer had to go to work every day. I didn’t want to be too hasty and force homeschooling on her if she preferred to be at school, so she began the school year in September as normal to see if a summer’s rest and a new beginning would make things better.

It didn’t take long before she was coming home grumpy, whining about  homework (or just not doing it), and beginning each school day with dread.  She came home one day with both knees badly battered and skinned from a PE class accident. She wouldn’t be able to attend school for a couple of days, and I saw this as our opportunity to take a tentative dip into homeschooling.

Firstly, she was able to begin the day at a more suitable hour for adolescents’ circadian clock. She likes creative writing, and rarely gets opportunities to do so at school, so I suggested she write a personal narrative of the accident that punished her knees. She gladly accepted the challenge, and sat outside on the garden patio happily focussed on the task for over an hour. She had the freedom to write as long as she wanted, with no pressure to finish within a prescribed timeframe, and took a break when she wanted. It was the right setting in terms of tranquility, proximity to nature, and absence of stress that allowed her ideas and creativity to flow.

When it came time to do some math, I expected some resistance.  My daughter cringes and tenses up at the mere thought of doing math.  Math classes, under the scrutiny of teachers and peers, have left her feeling inadequate and insecure in her abilities.  I showed her the math text I had purchased over the summer (just in case) and how the programme worked.  We discussed the first lesson, worked through some examples and comprehension questions, and she set off to complete all the exercises without complaint. “I like this kind of math,” she announced.  Feelings of relief and disbelief washed over me at the sound of these words.  “Really?” I asked to confirm.

It was a happy revelation. She could do math -and do it happily given the right circumstances: a relaxed environment with no time pressure and no judgement from teachers and peers. Maybe homeschooling could actually be the right thing.

We spent the next couple of days doing lessons at home.  I gained much clearer insight into how my daughter learned, and what her strengths and weaknesses were.  It forced me to consider homeschooling carefully.  I could see its possibilities and clear advantages, but I was still scared and harboured doubts.

When her injury had healed sufficiently to warrant her returning to school, I thought I’d attempt part-time homeschooling. My daughter would attend school for the classes that had meaning and value to her, and would be home-schooled the rest of the time.  I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, and I wasn’t sure I could do as good a job in some subjects such as art and science where I didn’t have the equipment or facilities at home. Apart from the driving to and fro, it was a good arrangement. My daughter was much happier and relaxed. We enjoyed spending this extra time together, and I got to know her much better as a learner.

We continued with this part-time homeschooling arrangement for over a month, and got into a nice routine.  I was able to give her support in her areas of difficulty, and she enjoyed being able to learn and work at her own pace. My daughter had a much improved attitude towards academic learning with much of the pressures associated with attending school removed. She especially liked being able to focus more on the skills and subjects she enjoyed. Her learning had more purpose , and thus, she put more into it.

From a teaching perspective,  this homeschooling experiment taught me  a lot about how people learn.

Firstly, being compared with others doesn’t help anyone’s learning, motivation, or creativity. This holds true whether you are comparing yourself to others, or someone else is doing it for you.  Regardless of whether it’s a classroom or workplace setting, supervisors are constantly -consciously or not- ranking and comparing their charges. They make note of which ones are high, medium, and low in the required skills and quality of work; which ones work better or worse in groups; who is the smartest, and who needs the most help. When you’re constantly comparing yourself, or being compared to others, you lose sight of who you are. Your self-knowledge suffers.  And without self-knowledge, you will not know how to make yourself happy.

We learn best at our own pace and according to our own schedule.  As Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer on education and human behaviour states, “Real learning takes time. Learning, not the schedule, real learning -not the coverage of a pre-fabricated curriculum- matters the most.” The education system confines students to an imposed, rigid, schedule: children should be reading by 6, adding fractions by 10, deciding a career path at 15. If they don’t conform to this timeline, they are labeled as either gifted or slow.  Students are tied to a prescribed schedule which dictates, for example, two periods of art and 5 periods of math per week, a recess at 10:15, and so on. These schedules are designed to suit the priorities of a corporate-centric, consumer society as they emphasize subjects such as science, economics, math, and language,  and are less suited to the developmental and social needs of children or to children’s individual aptitudes. This makes learning less enjoyable, less efficient. We can’t learn and perform at our best when we’re rushed and pressured to keep up with others and to someone else’s schedule. The same rules apply if we’re bored, forced to keep pace with some that may be struggling or unmotivated, or forced to do something that we find uninspiring.  When people are given some autonomy in what they want to work on, when they want to do it, and for how long, productivity increases as does the quality of work. If we work in tune with ourselves -our rhythms, our strengths, our passions- then work, consequently, dissolves into play.

A person needs to be educated for one’s environment and passions. Subjects that serve higher importance and relevance to a person’s everyday life should be prioritized. We are naturally motivated to learn the needed skills to survive in our environment. A city dweller will learn how to read train and bus schedules.  A farm girl will learn how to read the emotional states of animals. If a child wants to sell friendship bracelets, he or she will learn how to calculate the needed lengths of string, measure it, add up expenses and sales, and make change. Having a garden will prompt a person to learn horticulture and agriculture. And we are naturally motivated to become skilled in what we love to do.  A person who loves to construct would be wasting his/her time and energy sitting down learning Shakespeare. When learning is relevant -to our surroundings as well as our passions- it takes flight and helps us thrive in our environment.

We can’t truly learn and be creative when there is fear and judgement. Trusting, caring relationships are key to learning.  As Rita Pierson, in her excellent TedTalk says, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”  Unfortunately, my daughter had an English teacher that was a very disagreeable person, to put it politely. This teacher’s strategy was to use intimidation and fear to motivate students to do their work. My daughter loves to read and write, but her fear of this woman and the way she ran her classes snuffed out most of her confidence and enjoyment of this very important subject. People must feel safe in all respects in order to learn and create. They must feel safe to take risks and make mistakes; safe to be themselves, to challenge, and to question.

And many do not feel entirely safe or free because of judgement.  I cringe every time when my daughter says things like, “Do you think the teacher will like my project?”  From an early age, we are conscious of the fact that the value and quality of our work is determined by others, usually our superiors. This knowledge of judgement makes us feel less inclined to follow our intuitions, ideas, or curiosities, and impedes our creativity.  But this mindset is engrained, and in many ways, the way things work at school and in the work force. Even my blog writing falls victim to this. Even though I am writing this primarily for my own benefit, I am conscious that it is for public viewing and will be judged.  Therefore, I am careful with my words and ideas, conscious of the reactions and opinions of my audience, and constrict the free flow of my thoughts and creativity.

So, I keep to my standard response to my daughter’s query, “It’s not important what the teacher or anyone else thinks of your work. What do YOU think of it?”

We mustn’t lose our ability to honestly reflect on and evaluate our own work and ideas. The creator is the only one who knows if the product is a personal best or not, who knows what aspects were particularly challenging, and what thought processes were responsible for certain features. The creator’s perspective on the product is the most valid and of greatest significance, and the skill of reflection is perhaps one of the most important to learn and practice.

Of course, it’s always beneficial to gain others’ perspectives. I ask other people to read my writing before I publish and ask for their reactions and suggestions. Notice that this kind of  feedback is not a form of evaluation or cold judgement. It will neither give me an unhelpful grade, feed me empty praise, nor highlight the mistakes and weak points –and is by invitation only.  I ask for feedback because I have a genuine desire to learn and improve, and I’m so invested in my creation that I want it to be the best that I can make it.  After conducting my own thorough reflection on my work, I am ready to receive input from others. That’s how and when students should use and receive feedback on their products of learning.

Work and learning, in order to occur most effectively, should be play. Why do we have this mentality that if something is enjoyable, it’s not worthwhile or good for us?  My students were most excited about learning, and indeed, learned the most when it was play. Why do most kids run and skip happily to elementary school, but drag their feet and groan when they go to middle school and high school? Yes, adolescence will play a part in the more sullen attitude, but take a look at their opportunities to play. They’re all but gone. No more playgrounds, no more math games, role plays, discovery stations. Where’s the fun in learning?  Kids are stuck inside, at their desks, for hours on end with little time to move, play, or go outside – three key components for better brain function and emotional and physical well-being. The same applies to the workforce. People are more productive, take fewer sick days, and have a greater work ethic and job satisfaction in work environments where they have opportunities to take breaks when wanted, move around, and get outside.

Just like work, learning must be challenging, rewarding, and have purpose.  The challenging work provides opportunities to try new things, make mistakes and persevere. This makes us grow and develop skills which, in turn, provides us with a steady stream of feelings of accomplishment.  We are rewarded in the currency of our accomplishments, but also with the knowledge that our work or learning itself is achieving something worthwhile.  Our work may be helping others, making a better world, or our learning may be giving us a very useful skill or knowledge in a topic of interest to us.

To get back to homeschooling, our education system should provide students with challenge, reward and purpose. It should teach kids how to discover and develop their passions and talents – whether they feed into the corporate model or not. It should let kids be themselves, free from judgement and imposed schedules  and subjects of learning. It should teach them how to live healthy, happy, fulfilling lives. But it doesn’t. So homeschooling or even “unschooling” is a very attractive option to many who have the opportunity of time and finances.

My experiment with homeschooling opened my eyes to its many benefits as well as to its challenges. I thought I’d be able to carry on with my work and “To Do List” as normal while my daughter did her home studies. This wasn’t the case. Homeschooling is a full-time job that needs conscientious planning, commitment, and time set aside every day for it to work. It has wonderful potential for being flexible and spontaneous, but one does need a vision, a plan and set goals.  Living in a foreign country, where the language and cultural barriers were significant, made finding social opportunities outside of school very difficult. This wouldn’t be a problem if we were living where those barriers didn’t exist.  For most parents, homeschooling isn’t an option due to work and financial demands. I envy those parents who have found ways to give their children this marvellous opportunity to discover and blossom into their true selves.  I have hope that those children will have the strength, skills and values that will contribute to our world where we need it the most: for peace, compassion and nature.

 

Inspiration and Disenchantment: Chicken or the Egg Dilemma

When I think back to when I started to become dissatisfied with my career, it’s hard to know for sure which came first, the inspiration or the disenchantment.
Had I become more idealistic and radical which, in turn, predisposed me to having less tolerance for dictatorship and backward systems and practices? Or had the poor administration, daily job frustrations, and low morale push me to seek inspiration on how things could be better? Perhaps the inspiration fed off the disenchantment and vice versa. The bottom line is, the two certainly go hand in hand.

Even though I’ve determined that I cannot confirm which came first, I’m going to begin with discussing my disenchantment so that I can end on a good note with my inspiration.

So what turned me off of teaching? It wasn’t the kids. They were the energy that fuelled my days. They kept me challenged, gave me purpose, and pumped up my ego with their darling comments, “You’re the BEST teacher EVER!” It wasn’t the planning or the marking. I got rather good at finding a way to praise a student for their fine use of a period.  It was the accumulation of things that got in the way of teaching: redundant, meaningless documentation to appease the bureaucratic powers in education, cover-your-ass paperwork, standardized testing, and inefficient systems to do the afore-mentioned. But I think it was mostly the traditional education system itself, seeing its immense flaws and restrictions on children’s learning and development, and how it works in opposition to creating a peaceful and sustainable future for our planet.  I knew the system wasn’t properly serving children or society as it should.  I had ideas on how to make it better, but was powerless in my position to make much significant change. I could not do what I thought was right for the kids and for our future, and it was eating me up. Banging and rattling my cage to draw attention and action to the system flaws or trying to push change through wasn’t endearing me to administration, and only succeeded in getting me a collection of reprimands in my file.  I’m very patient with kids and animals. I just have little patience for poor leadership and bureaucracy.

Although I cannot say for certain if inspiration preceded my disenchantment with teaching, it certainly was the more powerful and influential of the two sides.  I think the first bit of media that made me stop and begin to consider some of the damaging effects of our current education system  was Sir Ken Robinson’s famous Ted Talk, How Schools Kill Creativity. I remember when I first saw this video and thought to myself, “Yes, what he says is true, but OUR school is doing things right. We aren’t killing creativity.”

Later, I saw this Ted Talk presentation given by a young adolescent boy whose parents took him out of school to get “an education”. I was very impressed with his confidence, achievements, and presentation skills–and more over, his words, “Much of education is geared towards making a living  rather than making a life” struck a resonating chord in my mind. He convinced me that there were, at least for some kids, better ways to get an education. I really thought this boy had a great thing going. He really had his happiness and prosperity well in hand. Don’t we all want that for our children and for ourselves?

After watching his presentation, I looked into more examples of people who “hacked” their education. I learned that great innovators such as Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Richard Branson broke free from the shackles of traditional education to enjoy the freedom to create, develop, and make great advancements in their fields (a.k.a. passions). Some of the most brilliant minds were stifled, shunned, and shamed in traditional education institutions.

I think of some of the students I’ve had in my teaching career who fit that type of description: the kids who were difficult to control, or motivate, or understand; the ones who simultaneously fascinated me and infuriated me; the ones I knew had more talent, brains, and potential than could be accommodated within the restrictive four walls of my classroom; the ones who were grossly underserved and misunderstood by the education system. Bound by rules, policies, curricula, and schedules, I felt helpless in giving these kids what they needed and craved.  I cringed as I saw their lights of wonder and enthusiasm for learning and discovery be systematically snuffed out, and at the thought of all the lost potential. Later, I came to realize that really ALL kids, not just the exceptional or gifted ones, should not be confined to a desk, in a classroom, to a schedule, to a set curriculum.  Children (as well as adults) are wired to learn through moving, doing, exploring, watching, communicating together with others, not in isolation sitting at a desk.  Learning enjoyment and retention occur best when people are given the freedom to experiment, explore and figure things out for themselves instead of being told or directly taught.  And this is where creativity happens. This is how new ways of solving problems are found or new discoveries are made.

It’s very quick and simple to teach someone the  formula for finding the circumference of a circle. You give them the formula, ∏d=C, then a bunch of practice questions, and voilà, they know how to find the circumference of a circle.

But they haven’t learned the concept. They don’t understand that pi is the ratio of the circle’s diameter to it’s circumference,  just like a side of a square is 1/4 the length of its perimeter. They don’t know where pi came from except from the pages of their math text. They need to go and discover pi for themselves. They need to get out of their seats, even their classroom, and go and measure the diameter and circumference of a large collection of various circles. Then they need to look at their data and search for patterns. Aha! Curiously, the mean circumference seems to be about 3.14 times bigger than its diameter. Not only have they learned the formula, they found it themselves, just the way the Ancient Greeks did long ago. It’s not just a random number (though indeed irrational) they have to memorize now. They understand what pi is and where it came from. Not only will they be able to apply it to calculating all sorts of lovely things having to do with circles, they have learned how to investigate. With more and more practice of learning  through investigation, people will have the skills to solve the problems we haven’t even seen yet, to crack the mysteries that have been stumping us for years.  Frankly, as Sir Ken Robinson clearly pointed out, we have no idea what the world will be like in 50 years time, what kind of jobs people will have, and what sorts of problems will need solving. We need people who can think creatively and learn what hasn’t been taught.

This type of learning is hard to get in traditional education systems because it takes time, and goodness knows schools must keep to what they deem age-appropriate learning deadlines known as scope and sequences. Teachers have to get through the curricula of their various subjects by June every year or they are deemed incompetent. The time constraints imposed on students’ learning serve to kill inquiry, understanding, enjoyment of school, and of course, creativity. Countless number of times, I had to tell my students, just when they were highly engaged in a learning activity, to stop or to hurry up because we needed to move on to the next thing.  So many students missed learning opportunities that were sacrificed for “education”.

Learning can’t be set to a time frame. We learn best when we’re ready and at our own pace.  This article,  Are you Ready to Join the Slow Education Movement?  addresses this issue and gave me inspiration and reassurance that I wasn’t the only one who thought this way.  Why are we in such a rush for everything, especially for our kids to enter adulthood and the work force? Childhood needs to be protected and nurtured if the ensuing adulthood is going to be of any quality.  How many adults look back on their lives and think, “I wish I hadn’t played so much as a kid or built so many tree forts with my friends”? I can’t name one, including myself.  When I think about all the wonderful potential for development, breakthroughs, discoveries –and most importantly, HAPPINESS–  lost to imposed conformity, I shake my head in sadness and frustration. What the hell are we doing? We can achieve such great heights if only we are given the confidence and freedom and time to be ourselves.

There are some schools that have clued into this and demonstrate this understanding in their mission statement, teaching practices, and curriculum.  Summerhill School in Suffolk,  England is the flagship for this educational philosophy.  Oh how I would love to teach and have my daughter learn there!  There is also a growing number of children who are being home schooled in order for them to enjoy a meaningful, custom-fit education, and escape the stunting and damaging effects of the traditional system. I shall expand upon my discoveries and experiences with home schooling in another post.

Sustainability is a popular buzzword of the 21st Century as we’ve slowly figured out that good things can come to an end if we’re not careful.  It’s an important and complex lesson to learn, and certainly it has to be a mindset and lifestyle nurtured from infancy. Hence schools play an essential role in securing our society’s and planet’s future by educating for sustainability. Many schools plug this into their marketing schemes and welcome speeches, but it’s rare to see educating for a sustainable future in full practice.  This film explains what this education looks like. In my teaching experience, I have seen schools and their administrators talk a fine talk, singing the praises of developing critical thinking skills, social/emotional intelligence, and interaction with natural environments.  At the end of day,  however, it’s the familiar, prescribed, one-size-fits-all education system, designed to feed a capitalist economy, that wins. Parents and governments still want to see test results, linear progress in valued skills (not usually in the arts), and assurances that students will be able to be active participants in the free market.

Do we not value integrity, ingenuity, compassion, individuality, initiative, or happiness?  These values are what will sustain us, our societies, and our planet for the future.  People who are healthy in mind, body and spirit, who have developed self-knowledge, and are living and working in accordance with their values, passions, and strengths will sustain themselves and their contributions to society.  Those who are stuck in poor-fitting, meaningless jobs are unmotivated and disheartened in making the world a better place.  A person who enjoys a task will be far more productive and produce higher quality work than someone who is in it simply for the money.  So why don’t schools teach kids to be happy?

For as long as we pursue and support a monetary economic system, globalization, and a competitive spirit, we will never achieve sustainability. I got tired of fighting a losing battle and being forced to give in to the Dark Side.  I’ve seen the light, and can no longer participate in a system that fears what I value and negates what I strive to achieve.