I was so pleased to see this clip of Seth Godin’s thoughts on curiosity. Some of my friends know that my parents had the wisdom to keep me out of public school until 4th grade. If I accomplish anything in my little life, I will give all the credit to the first eight years of my life. Eight years I spent just being me, learning from the people and things that surrounded me, and goofing around with the stuff I had at my disposal (an old organ, a backyard with adjacent forest, a bicycle, books, good curious parents, a tree house, imagination, a Texas Instruments TI99, and some of the first Apple computers).
But The System’s call is persuasive and its greatest leverage is the silent threat that if you don’t mainstream educationally, you run the risk of loosing big somewhere down life’s lane, whether that means college, jobs, careers, or potential earnings. There’s this idea that formal education = eventual success in the big world.
Bull shonkey. How I wish I had figured out sooner that the educational system, and maybe simply because it IS a system, will always tend to steer the majority of its constituents away from and not toward the skills they really need to succeed. This is because the primary object of the educational system is to justify its existence. And it does this by getting bigger, more complex, and less adaptive. By definition, systems are designed to produce homogeneity NOT heterogeneity. In fact, the system (not people) the system will attempt to squash anything that looks like true difference.
But my parents were well-meaning and I felt strong, like I could ignore all the protocol and routine of schooling, cut through the fat, and get some juicy content or good opportunities without hurting my inner-self too badly. I did well in my classes. Usually straight As. I was the perennially “engaged” learner, something of a teacher’s pet. And I never bought into the school as workplace mentality, where you got paid to look bored and disaffected by everything going on around you. I was on a hunt for the “good stuff” and the “good people” and trying to negotiate, ignore, or downplay all the time-wasters.
I did band. I did choir. All the concerts. I did what I would guess is a pretty typical Middle School experience. And it was okay, I guess. Let’s see..What do I remember?
I remember moments, like…
- Listening to the song “We didn’t start the fire” by Billy Joel [media!] and having a teacher try to explain the different between political Left and Right
- Giving a presentation on my interpretation of piano piece by George Winston called “Peace” [media]
- Designing a brochure on tourism in Lebanon [media]
- Composing a simple song and winning an award for it
- Singing solos and in small ensembles for the “Solo & Ensemble” contest
- Doing some hands-on map project for Washington State history and learning how much 1 Billion dollars could buy
- Taking a special school-wide “time out” to go to the library to watch the reports on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster [media]
- Listening to a lady from some non-profit group for Women in Business coming to give a series of presentations.
- Going to this New Horizons conference to encourage girls to get involved in Science. I don’t remember the content. I remember their engagement with us, the students.
- Writing a fictional journal based on the story of one of my ancestors
- Participating in The Music Man school musical as a “cheep-cheep-cheep-talk-a-lot-pick-a-little-more” lady
- Lots and lots of concerts. Too many, actually. Too many rehearsals. Too many shows. They lost their meaning at some point.
- Playing the piano for a lot of choirs and getting bored with the repetitive nature of rehearsal time
- Negotiating the chaos in the lunchroom. So loud. What an unpleasant eating experience.
- Knowing a kid in band who decided to end his life
- Small reading groups in the library where we read and discussed The Chronicles of Narnia
- Watching my teacher’s slide shows on her experiences with the Peace Corps in Africa and New York (I remember all the photos of graffiti)
- Observing a boy from my neighborhood with the guts to ask in Sex Ed why boys have nipples. My teacher struggling for an answer…
- Rummaging through the library during “library” time and just wanting to peruse endlessly, without being interrupted [media]
- Getting “asked out” by a 5th grade boy and not knowing how to handle that
- Listening to my 5th grade teacher read to us every day after lunch
- Getting constantly placed next to the “poor performers” in class so I could help them along, help them “stay on task”
- Forming a very loosely organized club with 3 other girlfriends. All we did was get together in the Computer Lab and drink 7-Up with our typing teacher. And once we went to her house for a slumber party. [How did she do that??]
- Being lent a ROLAND synthesizer over break, thanks to a choir teacher who was willing to bend the rules a little, so I could create musical tracks on my own. This was the same teacher who let me direct entire choir rehearsals in high school instead of substitutes and encouraged me to compose music. This was also the the same teacher who braved miles of district-imposed red tape so that his choirs could have “real-world” experiences at festivals, workshops, and public performances.
Those are the big memories. Everything else school-related from those years is mostly a blur now. If anything else important comes to me, I’ll add it to the list. So I look at this series of memories and I ask myself now, what counted? First of all, why do I remember these things?
- I remember what I built or designed
- I remember the atmosphere of the library, how it was a warm place that invited prolonged visits and reading
- I remember the examples of people and their approach to life more than I remember what they were saying to me
- I remember soaking up the personal attention I got in a small group setting with a caring adult (parent or community volunteers, by the way)
- I remember the breaking of routine (i.e. when things were important enough to the community that we could stop what we were doing and pay attention to the outside world – the Challenger explosion)
- I remember the look in my 8th grade teachers eyes when I actually tried to explain in words how I heard/interpreted music to fellow 8th graders
Let me drill down even further.
- examples/role models (me watching others and observing the “energy” they brought to life at school)
- the atmosphere and environment around me
- personal meaning and development of individual talents (me making sense of things that I cared about)
- personal attention (an adult caring enough to have a real discussion with me)
- breaking routine (the community caring enough to drop routine and just listen for awhile to the outside world)
- resources (the community investing in books, equipment, and other tools that were fun and interesting for me to use and the time set aside to use them)
Is this any different than what I look for now, as an adult? Not really. I think there are other things I look for in addition to those listed, but those are still pretty high on my list. It would be very interesting if a statistically-significant number of adults went through this same exercise and boiled their schooling experiences down to what they still remember and use.
So what’s my point about Middle School? Well, I don’t really have one, except to say that the government sure invested a lot of money in teachers, facilities, training, etc. so that I could have those memories. And there are probably a lot of other things “embedded” in me today, as a result of my education 4th to 9th grade, which I can’t even see. Culture is like that.
But what I was driving at with this post what happened to me after 9th grade. After 9th grade, I quit school. I looked at my life. I saw the social benefits of being “IN” the honors club and I weighed that against the time that school was costing me. And school lost. School, more than anything, was taking just way too much time. I could use my time much more efficiently than a school could use my time, no matter how creative their scheduling efforts. And since my parents were a little more confident about home schooling, they supported my decision to “cherry pick” high school offerings. So I went to school for choir, band, Spanish, sciences and studied math, history, writing, whatever else at home. And I did gymnastics my 10th grade year. The end result was a part-time affair that didn’t buy me as much time as I had hoped, but enough to play the piano every morning for at least an hour and create some music at home.
Looking back, I think that I spent way too much time at school. But I didn’t have the confidence that I could learn things on my own and I definitely didn’t believe that my “research questions” were more important than The System’s “curricular objectives”. (I still went into college my freshman year with this feeling of ineptitude for not having taken Calculus, for example.) But I wanted to go to college and so I sort of had to walk this fine line between doing my thing and playing the academic game (SAT scores, college entrance requirements, etc.). In the end, the principal let me graduate, based on a portfolio, my SAT scores, and the sheer number of credits. I got into college and… well, that’s another story.
Maybe it goes without saying that everybody walks this line (thank you Johnny Cash) between personal interests and social interests, some more adeptly than others. But in the end, everyone has to make choices that display how much confidence we have in what others intend to teach TO US and what we intend to learn FOR OURSELVES.
Sometimes, I wish students could just wake up and boycott school. Do they care enough about themselves and their own inner gifts and voices to stop the madness? Nobody else will. Not the teachers. Not the parents. Not the administrators. Not the government. There is too much invested, too much infrastructure, too many full time jobs, like mine in fact.
Back to the main point of this. What I learned about myself, I learned in 11th grade. Because it was in 11th grade that out of the blue one day, I wondered about Beauty and the Beast. I wondered where the story came from. How many different versions existed. If the beauty ever WAS the beast? So I went to the library and I looked up all I could about the question. And no, I don’t remember very much about what I learned. I remember all the gorgeous illustrated books I found, that the Western version of the tale had its origins in France, and well, that’s about it. But what I remember about that experience was that I asked the question and I got the answers to it on my own. It was my first cycle of truly self-driven learning in an entire year since going “part-time”.
I don’t know if I can say this strongly enough. It took me ONE WHOLE YEAR of detoxing from the Public School system to come up with one single question that I cared about enough to go to the library and look up everything I could about it. The rest of the time I spent playing the piano, listening to music, goofing around the house, and sleeping. Maybe I’m Special Needs.
So here’s my question. If it took me a full 12 months to decompress from 6 years of formal education, to be able to relax enough mentally, to free up enough brain space for my curiosity to trickle back. If it took me, Allison, “resister” of The System, an entire year to get to this point, how can I expect students who are stretched to the max, negotiating school like it was warfare, to be self-directed learners and ‘find their voice’?
Self-directed learning happens every where BUT the classroom, people. People. The classroom is the distraction, the decoy. If true self-directed learning were to occur in a school context, it would be more anarchy than system. Yes, there would be free-forming groups and some loosely-structured group learning, but you wouldn’t necessarily see clear learning objectives that meant anything to the state.
What I want are safe spaces (I wish this could be in our homes, but if not, then in our schools), a temporary shelter from the compromises we are forced to make everywhere else in life, so that we have the strength to NOT compromise our values and talents as much as we otherwise would. I want safe spaces where students can unwind long enough to get in touch with their core. I want something more like kindergarten back, for all of us, the teachers, the students, the administrators. I want exploration. I want time. I want adults who care. I want plenty of resources at the student’s disposal. And I want credit for all the informal learning and extracurricular activities that form the basis of who I become, not what test I pass, or what percentile I live in. I want the freedom to drop what I am doing and explore something else. I want hours and hours of uninterrupted reading and learning when I am in “the zone.” I want adults to talk with me, not at me. I want real human contact with the outside world, daily. I want contact with nature, daily.
This is what I want, for starters at least. And I want it for public education everywhere (primary, secondary, and higher). My guess is that if students had one year to detox from traditional schooling, they would want it too.