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School Reformers Don't Know How Learning Actually Works

by Jerry Mintz (originally posted here)

In reference to:

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/school-turnaroundsreform/how-billionaire-donors-are-har.html

It’s too bad that the school reformers and the billionaire funders have to make every mistake there is to make on their way to, perhaps, finding the real clue to how learning actually works.

I think they mean well. Probably they feel a little guilty about having so much money when so many people have so little. So some of them think that they can spend their way to making the current system of schooling work.

The problem is that they are doing all of this from the wrong paradigm, an old one that hasn’t worked well for a long time, a very long time.

There are lots of analogies, such as rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. I prefer an epigram that my grandfather wrote:” I feel like a spider in a bottle. I can see where I want to go but can’t understand why I can’t get there.

The answer is so simple that it is hard to see. The assumption that the current system seems to act upon is that children need to be pushed to learn. If you believe that to be true, then it follows that you need a lot of artificial means to motivate children to learn. That would include giving grades, homework, getting students to compete with each other, teaching them in uniform batches the way factories do. In fact, the current system operates pretty much on the factory model and the schools even look like factories, inside and out.

The reality that modern brain research supports is the children are natural learners. Think about babies and toddlers. By simply providing to them a rich environment of resources they successfully teach themselves to walk and talk. And what happens to them after that? Most of them are blindly put into a situation in which they are not supposed to move around or talk much, and that all future learning is to come from external sources determined by the teacher. Human nature being resilient, children still retain the restless ability to learn on their own, but it is slowly extinguished. So, after six or seven years of this treatment, the paradigm that is used by the traditional school system becomes reality, a self-fulfilling process. Children, now tweens or teens, are no longer self-motivated. Having been punished for energy, divergent thinking and creativity for that long, they do now seem to need to be pushed to learn anything. And it doesn’t work very well. Even the best schools are only the best of a failed system. Their students are the best at listening to what is told to them, repeating it back, perhaps embellished a little, and the best at filling in the little bubbles on those mindless standardized tests.

There are a very small minority of parents, teachers, students and schools who have noticed that the emperor has no clothes and have rejected all that nonsense, and it is truly nonsensical. They have started various forms of educational alternatives, or decided to send their children to them. In some cases the students have discovered these options themselves. In some cases this is done as homeschooling. More than two million are now doing that, having checked “non of the above.” Others are in democratic or progressive schools, or other alternatives such as Montessori and Waldorf. These alternatives do recognize that each child is a unique person who can think for his or herself.

Unfortunately, those who are involved with these alternatives do not have the funding to let everyone else know what they have discovered. In some cases they may afraid to inform them or talk much about what they have found, because these approaches have often been attacked as they go against the mainstream.

You might ask, what about charter schools? I know Joe Nathan of Minnesota, who started the first charter school in 1993. He started charters because he wanted to take an alternative approach that would avoid the red tape and testing of the regular schools. He also wanted this available to all children, regardless of their family income. But, like many good ideas, thousands of charters schools have now been created. Some have stayed far enough from the norm to enable students to be respected and learn in their own way. But gradually charter schools have come to resemble the schools they tried to replace, as more and more mainstream bureaucrats and corporate interests got involved with them. And now most of them are required to administer the misguided No Child Left Behind guidelines in order to remain in existence.

In fact, I can list some of the very best charters and public alternatives that I have known. These would include:

  • Renaissance Charter in Florida, a K to 5th with democratic process and a farm component.
  • The Village Charter School, in Northfield, MN. They even helped a group of their students represent them at the International Democratic Education Conference in India.
  • Liberty Academy in Maine took advantage of a law that allowed parents in the area to send their children with vouchers to the democratic school.
  • Blue Mountain Charter School in Oregon was based on the famous democratic Sudbury Valley School, the only such charter in the country.

I can list several more. They were all forced to close by their local education administrators. Yes, it is dangerous to fully empower students in the current education environment.

But meanwhile perhaps some philanthropists have noticed the success of the independent alternatives. Bill Gates did and for many years he provided funding for big schools to break up into smaller schools, thinking, mistakenly, that was the reason for their success. Gates just spent two million dollars just to publicize a new movie ,“Waiting for Superman,” which promotes charters.

Some think that if children are forced more strongly to memorize what they need to do better on the tests, though longer days, longer school years, and more rote memory, that this is the solution. Some charters schools are doing that. But independent studies don’t back that up. In fact, Newsweek recently reported that in the very crucial area of creativity American students are rapidly headed to the bottom of the heap. There is no measure for creativity on the NCLB tests.

Some minority families may fear getting off the normal education track and trying learner centered approaches as it might be harder for them to get back on if it didn’t work. But we have found that it works quite well for minority children who go to democratic schools.

WE who are involved with learner centered education approaches are ready and willing to share our knowledge and successes with all who are interested. Beyond that, our organization, the Alternative Education Resource Organization, a small non-profit, have as our mission the “Education Revolution.” We want to see all children have the opportunity to choose an educational approach that meets their needs.

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Posted in: Commentary by SoulRiser on November 7, 2010 @ 11:59 PM

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