We Don’t Need No Education
Adrienne BoettingerTuesday,9 June 2015
I went to my wonderfully, nerdy book club meeting the other day and was horrified to learn a local school district is taking all works of fiction out of the curriculum. Those kids are only supposed to focus on comparative analysis of non-fiction articles and books. This seemed unbelievably terrible until I started questioning what education is and what it should be (I may have been under the heady influence of nerdy book talk and delightful cocktails). You could say that education isn’t something I should be concerned with as I am a childless spinster but after I remove my foot from your ass I’d remind you that we all have to live in the same world and education should be important to everyone, if only for the selfish reason that when I have to have surgery later in life I don’t want the surgeon to be an idiot.
With that in mind I want to bring up three very unique approaches to education that are radically different than the standardized test driven, “everyone gets a trophy for trying” school system that seems to be the norm now.
1. Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. This middle school is designed like Hogwart’s and after you see the kids, you’ll be pretty convinced these are the next generation of leaders, movers and shakers. The basic premise of the school is passion. You have to be passionate to go to or teach at this school; the kids don’t seem to dread going here, they are so ecstatic they are literally dancing at their desks while learning complex mathematics.
The school was founded by Ron Clark, a former National Teacher of the Year in Harlem, and Kim Bearden. It’s private, non-profit and educates students grades five through eight. The school does have 55 rules but they cover way more than you’d think; the rules include things like shaking hands, maintaining eye contact, answering questions in complete sentences, and tipping hotel staff. Each year, 4,000 educators and visitors from across the globe visit the academy – many to learn how to replicate the school’s style in their own classrooms.
2. Unschooling. You may have heard me drinking over this on our most recent podcast (if not, go check This Week in Jackassery out; we’re on iTunes and SoundCloud). Usually I’m drinking because of some asshat thing a politician or sexist does or says; this time it was because I don’t know what to think about unschooling. When I first heard about it, it sounded insane. Now I’m not so sure.
Unschooling was inspired by the teachings of John Holt; it’s a branch of homeschooling but one that focuses entirely on non-structured, child-led learning. There’s no set curriculum or schedule. The kids decide everything. If your son wants to play video games all day, you let him. If your daughter wants to spend the week building a fort in the backyard, great.
Seems nuts, right? Well, it goes along with the idea of passion espoused by the Ron Clark Academy. Kids learn best when they’re passionate about the topic. They tend not to be as passionate about sitting in a classroom prepping for a mandatory test.
Peter Gray, a research professor from Boston College, has studied unschooling and surveyed parents and kids alike to get a better idea of the effects. The results might make you reconsider your earlier thoughts on unschooling. He surveyed adults who had at least 3 years of unschooling; all but 3 respondents thought the experience was positive. What’s more, 83% of the unschooled went on to higher education — including attending Ivy League universities. It does appear more difficult for unschoolers to pick up math and even reading can be a bit tricky; plus it would seem to require stay-at-home parents or guardians to check in every now and then. What might be even tougher is for those adults not to give in to the desire to structure their kids’ learning – to let them learn on their own the consequences and effects of their actions.
3. A School In The Cloud. Last but not least, we have the Self Organized Learning Environment or SOLE introduced to many by Sugata Mitra in his 2013 Ted Talk. You should go watch the talk in its entirety but here are some of the main takeaways:
*Our current educational systems and models are obsolete. They were designed for the age of empires and haven’t adapted adequately to meet the requirements for the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of tomorrow.
*Mitra had an idea that sounds a lot like unschooling — namely that kids don’t need a traditional classroom environment or even a teacher in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, he thinks they need broadband Internet and encouragement.
*He tested this by putting a computer in the wall that separated his neighborhood in India from a slum to see what the children would do. Within 8 hours, they were teaching each other to browse. These were kids who didn’t know anything about the Internet and likely had very little to no formal education.
*To confirm that the kids were teaching themselves and not being instructed by a helpful passerby, he went to a remote village 300 miles away and repeated the experiment. He came back two months later and the kids told him, “You’ve given us a machine that speaks only in English so we had to teach ourselves to speak English.” Let that sink in: kids who had never been taught formally before and had no English proficiency were teaching each other the language.
*He found encouragement to be a critical component. The kids didn’t need a traditional teacher to grade them and tell them when they needed to improve and how to do it. They needed a facilitator who would pose complex problems to them and then stand back and praise and encourage them. He found that English grannies were exceptionally good at this and they ended up forming a sort of Granny Cloud. From 6,000 miles away, these grannies provided tough questions for the kids to sort out, encouraged them along the way, and the kids taught themselves.