Most parents that I know are counting down the days until school starts, but why aren’t the kids? Well, we all intuitively know the reason. Anyone who has spent time in a traditional public or private school knows how schooling tends to work. Schools are were curiosity, autonomy, and playfulness generally go to die. And unfortunately, these are sort of the foundations of both engagement and true learning. So, kids aren’t that excited about school. Is that a problem? And if so, whose problem is it? Is it up to schools themselves (both public and private) to fix itself? (good luck with that!). What role do the kids have to play in all this? Do they get a say? And what about us parents, eager to shove the kids out the door, complicit in a system of schooling that deep down we know promises much more than it delivers, what role do we play in all this?
First, let’s establish that it is a problem (I mean, they spend about 1000 of their waking hours in school each year- it should be time well spent right?). But it’s not a new one. It’s been well documented in research by Gallop and others that student engagement falls the longer students participate in our system of compulsive schooling. Once you get kids who are just there because they have to be there, ala I’m just here so I don’t get fined, what else would we expect but also lackluster results? And no, I’m not simply talking about performance on standardized tests.
Here’s what you and I, and probably every other parent knows in our gut: that schooling as we know it is deeply flawed and likely has a limited shelf-life. I could recount the sorted history of how we even got here, which I’ve written about elsewhere, but the bottom line is very few people have positive experiences with how we “perform” school. So why do we keep doing it?
I suspect that like any entrenched way of doing things, we’re here because a few reasons. First, there’s our collective misunderstanding about the purpose of education. We’ve conflated the process of what schooling has become with actual learning. More and more, even as parents we encourage our kids to go to school to “get a good education” and “get good grades” so that they can “get good jobs”. See the problem? Those things are not necessarily related, yet somehow we’ve connected them and established them as the premise of modern day schooling.
Then, there’s the issue of race which tends to divide us, even in the practice of education. (Of course, there’s always race, otherwise it wouldn’t be America right?) The original pioneers of public education in the south (newly freed slaves) were interested in learning to read and write for their own personal and professional edification, not because of a test. They were the original self-directed learners. But, once education became co-opted by institutions with their own agendas to sort and track the population, coupled with vast differences in investment due to systemic racism, we ended up education as a game, with winners and losers.
Schooling has become a game that you learn the rules to play well, rather than a process for actual learning for the sake of learning. That’s not supposed to happen, right? No wonder kids don’t like school. It’s a job, a chore. One that they’re told they have to perform well in order to earn their shot at (insert career that makes a lot of money). No wonder we’re seeing a generation of burnt out, and stressed out kids who are now becoming burnt out and stressed out adults.
Last year, gave my family an eye-opener about what the schooling experience was for our daughters up close and personal. I tell people, the pandemic didn’t create the schooling problems that we saw, it exposed them and likely further exacerbated them. But, at least that exposure pushed us to the brink of making a new decision.
For us, we’ve decided to move towards unschooling, a general approach to education that focuses on self-directed learning. Our kids will be engaging in self-directed learning with a group of other students in a physical setting outside our home, so like a school, but different. For starters, there’s no set curriculum or grades or tests or even grade levels. Kids will learn at their own pace, setting their own goals, with guides rather than teachers and peers from different age groups as their explore various concepts. Self directed learning is just one of many approaches that tries to recapture the magic of playfulness, curiosity, and autonomy that is lost with traditional schooling approaches. My hope is that the girls rediscover their love for learning, the same one they’re naturally born with.
Perhaps, you’re like us. You watched your child suffer through a nearly insufferable year. By the spring, I was actively encouraging my girls to do other things besides homework. Anything we could to get the outside, having fun, and reconnecting to things that sparked their natural interests. As the summer started, I began to read a number of books to help prod me in the direction that we ultimately ended up taking. These include Blake Boles, Why are You Still Sending Your Kids to School, and Akilah Richards, Raising Free People, and Peter Gray’s Free to Learn.
Also, it appears that this shift away from formal traditional education isn’t unique to my family. As the pandemic morphs into its next phase, more families are choosing non-traditional approaches to education, including unschooling, homeschooling, self-directed learning centers, or some combination of each of these according to the US Census. Sure, it may be unconventional (and perhaps not for everyone), but if last year has taught us anything, it’s that we were born to adapt. More than 150 years ago, newly freed slaves were pioneering the idea of self-directed learning before public schools even existed. It was an adaptation necessary for its time. Who knows what we’ll be saying about education 150 years from now?
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