is the “age of school” over?

Posted by Daniela Elza on Mar 25 2008

In my last post I had a quote by Ivan Illich on how the “age of school” is over. And that school is a myth. Illich wrote that almost 40 years ago. I understand school here as the institution, the thing that we pay taxes for our kids to go to, the thing that struggles to educate our children.

This type of school has become too dinasaur an institution to be of use to the fast and curious brains of children. It is so dinosaur, and slow, that it has convinced itself that reading and writing is a job too complex for children to undertake, so school will undertake it for them. With the dire result of prolonging something that comes easy, and natural, something children think nothing of, into something painful, boring, and impossible to achieve. So much so, that kids are struggling to read at grade level, are diagnosed with all sorts of conditions to account for school’s failure to teach them, and drugged so they do end up sitting still for school, so that school can continue to perform its failing experiment year after year.

Coincidentally, today I read this post on I, Cringely called War of the Worlds: The Human Side of Moore’s Law [for more on the author Robert X. Cringely you can read here]

In his post he adds steam to the idea of how schools are, well, shall we say, kind of, irrelevant?

Here, buried in my sixth paragraph, is the most important nugget: we’ve reached the point in our (disparate) cultural adaptation to computing and communication technology that the younger technical generations are so empowered they are impatient and ready to jettison institutions most of the rest of us tend to think of as essential, central, even immortal. They are ready to dump our schools.

I know it is a radical think to think, but we are here to be radical, in the best possible sense.

My sense is, I agree with him. When I once asked my son’s grade one teacher (who really understood him and accommodated him), what to do to make sure he continues to be happy in school the way he was in her class, she started telling me what to do with him outside of school. What I was concerned about was the six hours he spent in school. I had no trouble keeping him challenged, and busy, and happy outside of school. He was going on to grade two where I knew my daughter started being bored, uninspired, and the light in her eyes was slowly dying, she was unseen. By grade three we had to pull her out of that school. I feared (considering the same teachers were lined up to teach him) the same will happen with my son. He will become invisible, bored and miserable in the piles of senseless worksheets (or was that workshits)?

Sorry for that last one, but recently a grade 1 teacher put a grade 1 kid I know off writing, because she made him sit for a long time practicing drawing a straight line across a page. Teacher told child that unless he can draw those straight lines, he cannot learn to write. Did it escape teacher’s attention that child was already writing? Do you hear that dinosaur stomping ominously in the background? So child refuses to go to school.

How would you feel if you went to work one day and your boss told you, unless you can walk in a perfect straight line across his office you are not fit to do your work?

I do not even want to go into the kindergarden class where my five year old was reading above the reading level teacher had assigned for him (because she tested him, she said) and I had to interfere because instead of the three blue books (higher reading level) he chose that morning with me to bring home to read, teacher put one yellow book (lower reading level) in his envelope (a book he did not pick) and that was the book that ended up coming home. How did teacher have time to pursue this? In this case I would have appreciated teacher not having enough time for my son.

In my talk with her I could not see any benefit or purpose of this gesture. After I told her that in none of my degrees which encompass Lingusitics, Pedagogy, ESL, Reading education, Curriculum Theory and Implementation, Philosophy of Education, have I encountered a line where it says you hold a child back when he wants to read ahead. Her response to that was that, ok, he could read the blue books, “but he cannot take more than two.” How to explain this control, this power play, practiced from an adult on a five year old. My son’s explanation when I asked him: How can you read the blue books with me, and not with Miss. C?
He said: I don’t know, I just read them with you, and I cannot read them with her.

Needless to say, we ignored this pathetic engagement teacher had with my beautiful curious and enthusiastic boy and we moved on. See, our problem is different, not reading level. He is seven now and can read whatever he picks up, the question is more what is worth reading, subject matter, and appropriate content.

Where is the pathology here? I have come to see these thoughtless actions as crimes. I can see what they do to my kids, and others, who were unseen, ignored, or told were no good. What good is there, to be good at?

Did I forget to mention that this whole battle is being fought while my seven year old is programming the computer, and according to computer expert dad, he is inventing something in his head which we can only identify as his own programming language.

I can see how teacher can be really threatened by that, and increase the stronghold, or is that a stranglehold she could have on him if we had kept him in that school.

Cringely later in his piece says:

“we’re moving from a knowledge economy to a search economy, from a kingdom of static values to those that are dynamic. Education still seems to define knowing as more important than being able to find, yet which do you do more of in your work? “

That is provided you walk that straight line, right?

On the other hand there are teachers and principals who, despite the constraints and the fear from the dinosaur stomping in the background, are radical and defiant because they choose to attend to kids and not to the institution. Who do not compromise or exchange the children they teach for the institution and its, mostly concern, for liability, security, profit, or cost. That is a brave thing to do, which unfortunately requires a lot of energy on the teacher’s or principal’s part. An example is Susan Montabello, a principal, whose amazing doctoral defense I attended a week ago. There is someone who demonstrates how philosophy can inform her everyday as she stands in the midst of all her students, their families, and the needs, challenges, and celebrations they bring to her by the minute and she is both the rock and the water that flows around it.

So despite the dinosaur still shaking the ground under kids, (and now parents’ feet, because parents are taking more and more responsibility for their child’s education as the school gives them more and more labels for their child, and more problems to solve: like it is so bad we need private lessons now) there are other spaces opening up to create the space children need to actually do their work, do real work, work that is satisfying and rewarding and they are proud of. While the school board continues to crunch numbers and figure out where to make the next cut.

Manuel Eduardo Correia in the comments to the Cringely post says:

The latest Arthur C. Clarke used to say:

“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all”

Proper schooling has never been and will never be about amassing information but about what can be accomplished with it to build and create new and original ideas. In the search economy we are currently living, “guidance”, or if you prefer, “mentoring”, is more needed then ever, lest the next generation be drowned and dominated by a sea of information they lack the wisdom to assimilate and make good use.

I would place this guidance at home first. The fact that school takes your kid’s time for six hours a day does not mean they will get that guidance. It is great if they do. One on one attention cannot be substituted with any media, any public school, and the sooner the better. You, the parent first (and then the teacher, if we are lucky) give that attention, give it and do it as early as you can. And watch your child bloom, watch how they develop their own checks and balances, and you will be nothing but amazed. But you have to put the time in first. And do not take that as a chore, take it as a calling, as a vocation, as what we owe the next generation. Because then, even if we hear that stomping we will move on without batting an eye, because we know dinosaurs are extinct.

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