Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Taught to the Tune of the Gaslight (Introduction)

I was never hungry at school, or forced to get a job, or lacking any of the fancier tools of education. The vast majority of my teachers assumed I was a decent, bright individual before they ever interacted with me, and they remained supportive after. Thus, my privilege probably shows when I start to whine about school. So be it. Let me try to make the whining productive and you can think of me what you will.

As in discussions of social justice, I am extremely skeptical of the implication that because a thing has improved we should not continue to strive to make it still better, especially when the thing is as important as justice, or equity, or education. In fact, though of course there are some incredible educators and institutions out there, unless we go way back to the drawing board, questioning all of our assumptions about education before creating something flexible enough to serve everyone, there will always remain much work to be done.

Good schools, bad schools, great schools, average schools: even with all their various flavors and shapes, systems and schemas, philosophies and ethics, if we can point to an institution and call it a “school,” it probably meets some basic criteria: students learn in groups; they follow schedules; their progress is monitored and norm-assessed. Students probably outnumber teachers. They probably compare their progress to their peers. Their sense of their own okay-ness, and possibly their very value as a human being, is internally “norm-assessed” within each of them, all day.

Millions of years of evolution have enabled nature to take a single cell and turn it into a toddler, with the folks around that toddler mostly taking our cues from her. This is a Nature that knows what it's doing, and does things we can’t possibly do. Then, for some mysterious reason, after a few short years, we say ‘thank you--we’ll take it from here” to nature, and we insert that youngster into a series of institutions in order to shape them into a proper thinker, doer, and member of society. It is odd and arbitrary on the face of it. Why this form for all these functions? And do we really want to sacrifice quality for the sake of efficiency in this area, as we have in the post-industrial world for so many other...products? Apparently so.

I’m not arguing that we only learn at school; that’s silly. But the sheer ratio of time spent at school versus time elsewhere--and the ways many of us casually contrast the purpose and value of time in and out of school, especially with kids in earshot--strongly implies that vital work is supposed to happen at school.

With regard to the learning that does happen at school, my point is twofold:
  1. No matter the strengths and weaknesses of a particular institution, it will only map seamlessly onto the strengths and challenges of a very small portion of its students. For institutional learning to be effective at all, it must by its nature force the vast majority of students to quickly adjust their individual strengths, challenges, affect, and behavior to school norms that conform to those of a mysterious (and imaginary) “normal” student, in order to succeed there. This adjustment feels to many students like an adjustment from wrong to right, from bad to good, and if they struggle with it, it often feels like a shameful defectiveness--like they are the problem. No! They must be disabused of this notion. We may all agree that institutional learning is great, or at least the best we have--but we must give children agency in coming to that agreement with us for themselves, so they know the costs and they don’t internalize the unavoidable drawbacks of communal learning as flaws in themselves.
  2. Moving from family to classroom, a child becomes less important in the new sphere (with the notable exception of kids facing serious challenges at home, who may find much greater, precious care on arrival at school--but the pattern may proceed similarly through school afterward, and may be even more painful because of that initial relief!). I matter less here: my opinions and needs are subjugate to the group. As school progresses, classes get bigger, and the time with a specific teacher decreases. Individual importance decreases further. Agency does as well--in fact, the degree of agency bestowed upon a student by various authorities throughout the day is increasingly dependent upon her ability to adjust to those aforementioned constrictive institutional norms. Some students can't adjust to some of them even if they desperately want to. Unless some part of school is deeply satisfying, the cost of this lost agency, this feeling of not mattering, is much too high. Kids are depressed, or angry, or anxious, or any combination of these. Again, they need to know what’s going on: it is the nature of institutional learning to subject them to these pressures. They deserve to be given the tools to conform, if they wish, and the tools to remain true to themselves while agreeing to conform, for the good of themselves and their school community. And they deserve the systematic proof that they can experience the satisfaction of ever-increasing skills and understanding, as the direct consequence of striving to conform in a healthy way.

So, though I am interested in radical revolutionary approaches to education, I am not setting out to do that here. I want students to be happy in the school where they are. I want them to be given the tools to succeed and maintain a powerful sense of their individual, perfect, one-of-a-kind-ness. I want to let them in on the secret. The grown ups are flawed; the system is flawed--they’re not crazy for thinking so. Without that information, our schools are systematically gaslighting the kids they are supposed to serve. Let’s stop that.

I often tell kids about my grandfather teaching me to fish. He taught me once and I’ll never forget it. Why did it stick? Why was it so effortless? I felt safe; I felt loved; I was not in danger emotionally or physically. He both told and showed me. He did not shame me for errors or for not understanding; he explained what I did well and he adjusted his explanations and modeling by paying close attention to what I did and said. He was happy to be there with me. And I him.

I try to to help kids internalize a teacher like that--notice their own strengths, pace themselves according to what works, balance easy and difficult tasks. I also help them to notice a teacher like that when they meet one. Ideally we all have that Internal teacher when we don’t have an external one, and we make the most out of the external ones when we meet them.

Let's talk about how.

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