I have always loved Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay because it is so openly contradictory. He makes no apology for his haphazard thought process on the nature of human existence and artistic genius. And yet, despite the fact that it defies logic, the essay is a poignant reminder that we are all individuals, united by a longing for personal identity and community. “Insist on yourself,” writes Emerson, “never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.”
As I was re-reading the essay for this post, I realized that much of what I do in my classroom has little to do with students. I determine the curriculum…the assessments…the grades. Sure, I give some voice and choice by allowing them to pick from a menu of assessment options; but, I don’t think that that model offers enough freedom to students. I don’t think that we can expect students to be engaged in their learning if we don’t allow them to control it.
I have to make a confession: I am a home schooling dad. And I know what you’re thinking: How can a teacher home school their child? The answer, I think, is evident to anyone who has watched a home school child learn.
Each day, my son Oscar pursues his dream of being a professional skateboarder with the full force of his soul. Every waking minute he is thinking about skating. In the morning, he searches for videos on YouTube about how to do “nollie kick flips” and “front-side grinds.” In the afternoon, when the sidewalk is dry, he goes outside and tries to do the tricks he studied. When the sidewalk is wet, he practices on his carpet board. At night, when the “public” kids get home from school, they skate on our road and my son joins them. As he interacts with older kids, and, as they interact with him, he’s building an identity and a sense of community—his community—that is part of who he is. He is happy learner.
I don’t see the same invigoration on the faces of public school students. I see students who have vibrant interests in video games, music, art, creative writing…skateboarding, who aren’t allowed to pursue those interests during the school day because they are not part of the state’s curriculum for kids. From 8AM to 3:30PM, I see too many students who are frustrated by school. They don’t understand why they have to be in school. They don’t understand why there are so many rules. They don’t see a connection between the curriculum and their lives. And who could blame them. Despite having been part of the system for 12 or 13 years, they have little say in what goes on with regard to curriculum, assessment, or discipline. (Imagine doing the same job for 13 years and never being consulted on what you do.) In public schools an alarming percentage of students are apathetic. An alarming percentage of students feel no connection to the school or their peers. An alarming number of students are unhappy.
Even more alarming, I think, is the way that school systems react:
- We are surprised that students are apathetic about their learning.
- We blame failure on students, teachers, or building leaders.
- We try to fix it by promoting best-practices, technology, literacy programs, etc.
The problem, however, is that in these reforms won’t work. They miss the mark. The problem in schools is that the focus is all wrong. Schools don’t need more devices, or new literacy programs, or district-wide learning objectives. In fact, schools might be better off with less of those things because the problem with schools isn’t one of resources—although the question of equitable funding certainly couldn’t hurt—the problem is that we don’t create curriculum around what students want and need. We build curriculum around state standards, district objectives, and BOE goals. In any other business—and education is certainly a business—ignoring your clientele would spell almost certain failure.
If we’re going to have meaningful school reforms, I think, we’re going to have to think about the process of education in a radically different way. That might mean rethinking our systems from the ground up. From mission statements to curriculum to classroom design, we need to rethink everything. And student interests need to be at the heart of that realignment.
If we do not re-align schools, I don’t think we can sustain a public school system in this country. The competition is fierce. Unschools, home schools, charter schools, private schools are willing to look at the task of educating students in new ways, and the more that public schools deny the need for radical reform, the stronger they get. As Ralph Waldo Emerson warned, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Let’s not hold on to ineffective approaches to education for the sake of tradition; let’s design schools that students want to attend.