Thursday, April 17, 2008

keep those systems off my kids

I had this incredibly nurturing and thought-provoking day with an old friend earlier this week. I've known this woman about as long as I've known my husband (almost 17 years) but we've been out of touch for the last eight or so. I used to babysit for her daughter, who is now an adult with a Master's degree. She now has a son the same age as Little, and the boys spent the day digging in the dirt, building, and creating performances for us.

She homeschooled her daughter, and is now homeschooling her little son. We talked about many things, including various alternative approaches to education. Her daughter was enrolled in a Waldorf school briefly, but it didn't work out, so she brought her home.

I took the position in that conversation, and I'm taking it now, that any system, be it Waldorf or Montessori or NCLB or the latest ELA test imposed by New York State, cannot serve the best interests of the child. This is because the teachers (or parents) are referring to some authority outside the classroom.

The authority belongs in the classroom (or in the home) with the teacher and the children. Each teacher (or parent) has to work out for themselves whether the adult will have more say in how the learning swings or the children will, but it has to be a balance between those two: the adult who is facilitating the learning, making it possible, and the kids who are there to accrue the tools they need to function in our culture. All these terms would need to be defined, of course: learning, tools, function, culture, and it is by the definition of these terms that many policies and curricula have been imposed on many groups of kids. It is when we decide what our kids really need to know in order to function in what version of our culture that we decide how the learning is going to happen, what the kids will learn, in what order, by what means.

I think this is the primary place where public education has gone so badly awry: nobody trusts the teachers, and certainly nobody trusts the kids. But without that trust, children are just "receiving an education;" they're not actually being educated. They aren't learning how to think, to trust themselves to find out what they need to know, and they aren't learning to work things out in any meaningful way. They're just learning that somebody out there has a notion about what they should be doing all day, and they must sit still for it.

My position is this: the reference has to be the child, in the context of the larger culture and the role the child will eventually play in that culture. We want, of course, for our children to be prepared for a wide variety of roles, so it is they who are making this decision. We don't want them to be limited by their educations.

You have to look at the child, or the children, in a classroom. You can't be looking at some book written by somebody who's never met your kids, or known your community.

That's what I like about Dewey: the reference is the child, and he doesn't imagine himself to know anything about all children everywhere, except that they are capable of real work and they want to engage with the real world.

Now I am sure that there are many Montessori teachers and many Waldorf teachers (and I include parents teaching their kids at home in this category) who use the structure of the philosophy as a sort of invisible framework, and for whom the primary reference is actually the kids. This is what Anthromama was saying in the comments: you study up on the philosophy, and then you let it go when you actually engage with your kids.

My sister-in-law is a good example: she went to a Waldorf school, founded another one when she got older, and enrolled her young daughter in yet another. She loves Waldorf. But she also knows that it doesn't work for every child, and she knows her child, and when the Waldorf school seemed like it wasn't a good fit for her daughter, she brought her back home.

Evenspor is another good example. She loves the Montessori approach, but she is mostly looking at her child. She has goals that are based in a system, but then she looks at her child to figure out how to get there.

But I am equally sure that there are teachers who slavishly follow the precepts of their chosen philosophies, to the point where they don't even see the children in front of them. I might even say that there are more slavish followers than there are creative thinkers in these systems. I might even be pushed into saying that it is the very creation of a system of education that gives birth to slavish followers.

And that, my friends, is just wrong.


Anonymous said...

Amen. Thanks for articulating that. It is so important both for schools and for homeschoolers.

Tara said...

I'm going to bookmark this one. So nicely said!

sandy said...

Well, systems give you a way to make sense of things, and a some techniques that sound reasonable and thoughtful and coherent and work for many children much of the time. But they also make you think you have The Answer. I brush up against alternative education in my work, and there are a lot of children who fall through the cracks of the system, so the idea of a new system that wouldn't leave them behind sounds theoretically appealing. These are the kids I really worry about. Our kids are going to probably be fine, because we are all advocating for them, system or no system. Ok, this isn't really related to what you wrote, but it is what you made me think about -the challenge of a truly public education, which teaches the entire public. Is that possible (politically, logistically) without a system?

Evenspor said...

Thanks so much for the link. That is exactly what I try to do - follow my child's lead and try to figure out what works for him. I started out with a curriculum, but it became apparent pretty quickly that it did not fit him at all. Somedays the montessori works for us, and some days it doesn't.

Casey said...

JoVE sent me here and I'm so glad. My kids (9 and 4) have never been to school, and this has generated some friction with my mostly-schoolteacher family.

The gist of this friction is that they don't understand how I can do their job at home, and I don't understand why they have to make education seem so complicated.

This post and your post from Tuesday explain it nicely--we're not even talking about the same thing. They are focused on the system they work in, and I'm focused on my two kids.

elsie deluxe said...

Sandy, I think you're right. If you're trying to come up with a way to get everyone (or nearly everyone) minimally educated, you've got to have a system. It could very well be that my privilege is showing.

But what one teacher does in one classroom is not general, or public. It's very specific, and if s/he does it right, very personal. What I am trying to propose/advocate is that each teacher be given more autonomy and freedom, so that there is room in the day to actually pay attention to the children. But that is a very big project, and much would need to change.

So we're back to just making sure our own kids get that sort of personal attention. I wish there was a way to do better for more kids.

Good point. Yours, I mean.

Evenspor, you're welcome. :-) I've enjoyed your blog.

elsie deluxe said...

Hi Casey! My family is mostly schoolteachers, too, going back three generations. They haven't said much about my decision to homeschool, though. My parents were surprised, but know me well enough not to make too much of a fuss.

Granna Judy said...

Your parents also know you well enough to have confidence in your decision, even if it is not the decision they (we) would make. One of the nice parts of grandparenthood for this particular grandmother is the lack of pressure and the feeling that we don't have to make decisions! All we have to do is enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Ipo said...

i have both of the recent posts about education in my head so hope not to mix them up to terribly.

teaching a class and educating your own child/ren is such a different scene... one could be able to do both, one or neither... it's like apples and oranges as far as i am concerned.

and systems... what a BIG topic. i don't subscribe to any system as golden, can't. no system can address the masses in any fully satisfying way as far as i am concerned. i am the mentioned sister-in-law involved with waldorf and i wouldn't even go as far as saying i love waldorf, it has major flaws like any other system. it just happens to be the system that has been the lesser of "evils" available really. i do like that it is a classical liberal arts education and that it is mellow academically for the younger child, but it has some major draw back as well, as does any system really.

if all things were equal and all options available and money not an issue i think homeschooling would be my first choice. it allows for the most responsive and flexible way to educate a growing being in my opinion. it obviously isn't for everyone or even possible for everyone for a variety of reasons, but does seem ideal in most ways to me. but the path of homeschooling is so vast and varied and i don't believe that there is any one way to homeschool, that is the beauty really.

and the problems with organized education would be as hard to "fix" as the problems with organized religion - the systems are too big, you can't truly meet every individuals needs because the system was never set up to do that and i don't think can. organized education is for the masses, meeting a common denominator, not even trying to meet the individual.

and elsie, you touched on the idea that "we" should trust teachers more, which hypothetically is a good idea and if you were my dd's teacher i would have no problem with that but not all teachers are created equal and many i wouldn't trust with anything close to the well being of my child so that approach to "cleansing" the problems of organized education only works if all teachers are as wonderful as you :-))

i feel like i've lost track, blah, blah, blah...

good posts elsie!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link! Any dogmatic thinking is bad, I believe. The Waldorf world has its fair share, mostly because Steiner set himself up as a clairvoyant, so everything he said was true and right, right? And he essentially said that Waldorf education was the solution to humanity's ills. How hard it is not to think that way once you've read enough Steiner!

But he was a fallible human being, addressing questions within a specific culture and time. I strongly feel that a lot of traditional Waldorf methods might not be appropriate in the modern US, for example. And people forget that he advocated for the teacher to have ultimate control over his/her classroom with little interference from any other quarter. Over and over again, he stated that what he was saying was specific to the child in question, the culture in question, etc. Not a dogma ├╝ber alles!

I think it's simply easier for people to use a prearranged curriculum than to create something new, or to be child-led. And that will serve, for the most part. But the sad part is, at least for Waldorf, that the whole thing was supposed to be as you say, based on observation of the children themselves.

Ipo said...

what/who is this Dewey you speak of? want to hear more...

elsie deluxe said...

Ipo, you should really do some kind of degree in this field at some point, even though you don't ever want to be a teacher. Maybe a History of Education sort of thing? You'd find it fascinating.

Anyway, Dewey is John Dewey, and he was a major mover in the progressive movement, which was an important school reform moment early in the 20th century. He was involved in all sorts of other stuff as well. Good info, including a list of schools inspired by his ideas, is here:

elsie deluxe said...

Also: I know there is some kind of elementary lab school at the University at Hilo. The phrase "lab school" sometimes implies an alignment with Dewey's ideas. You could check it out.

Ipo said...

i have seen the web page for the lab school at UH Manoa, not sure of the connection either, will check it out again.

will look into John Dewey...

would love to study more history of education, history in general i find very interesting, and interesting for a homeschooling family. and also would love to study religion as an atheist. knowledge is awesome!!

Ipo said...

speaking of educational theory/history... i was recently reading an article about Pre-School Prep Schools, getting a child ready for the "test/interviews" to get into the "right pre-school" - ugh, what a nightmare - and the article mentioned how all Kindergartens until the '50s were still play based and when it changed was during the Space War with Russia. Russia made it to space first, the US didn't like that so moved academics down into the Kindergartens thinking this would increase their Super Power stature. so a major educational policy made because of politics, not based on the needs or health of children... CRAZY!

funny thing about that article is that it was written about Hawaii, not known for its educational prowess in public education but has some of the top private schools on Oahu, Iolani and Punahou (of Obama fame) and are REALLY hard to get into, hence the Pre-School Prep craze.

anyhow... off to get ready for dd's 5th birthday party, no time to re-read so hope that what i wrote makes sense and is overall spelled/written correctly :-))