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Forces Against Fundamental Educational Change

Why educational reform must occur outside the school system.

In previous postings I have presented evidence supporting the following claims: (1) Children's instincts to play and explore on their own provided the foundation for education during our long history as hunter-gatherers (August 2 posting). (2) Children today can and do educate themselves very well, without coercion or adult prodding or direction, if they are provided with an environment that supports their instincts to play and explore (August 13 posting). (3) Conventional schools are what they are today because of historical circumstances that led people to devalue play, believe that children's willfulness must be broken, and believe that everything useful, including learning, requires toil (August 20 posting).

Today, many people understand the educative value of free play and exploration, regret that children are provided relatively little opportunity for such activities, and believe that children's willfulness is a positive force for their development, education, and enjoyment of life. Yet schools continue on, as before. In fact, conventional schooling and other adult-led activities modeled after such schooling occupy an ever-growing percentage of our children's time. Why is it so difficult to reverse this trend? Why is it so difficult to institute fundamental changes within the school system? I don't pretend to know the full answer to this question, but here is an outline of my thoughts concerning the forces that make the educational system so difficult to change in a fundamental manner.

The Normality of Conventional Schooling

As social psychologists frequently point out, people will go to amazing lengths to appear normal. If we behave differently from the norm, others may reject us, and nothing is worse for us as social beings than rejection. If everyone in a culture binds girls' feet, essentially crippling them, then even parents who don't believe in that practice do it, so their daughters won't look weird. If all of the children in the neighborhood go to a conventional school, then the child who does something quite different from that may be seen as weird, and the parents may be seen as not only weird but negligent.

As one piece of evidence concerning the degree to which we today identify children with their conventional schooling, listen to almost any conversation (or attempt at conversation) between an adult and a child that the adult has just met: "What grade are you in school?" "What is your favorite subject?" "Do you like your teacher?" "Are you eager for school to start?" We have to find whole new ways of talking with children who don't attend such a school.

New schools that are founded on principles very different from those of conventional schools attract relatively few students, even from among those who believe in the principles, because of the fear of doing something that looks abnormal. Children who do make a decision to attend such a school need lots of social support to counteract that fear, and their parents need even more.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecies of Conventional Schooling

Conventional schooling has promoted ways of thinking and acting that turn its own premises into self-fulfilling prophecies. The premises appear to be true because we evaluate them within the context of conventional schooling and by criteria established by such schooling.

Here's an example of such a premise: Schools need to motivate children to learn. I have, countless times, encountered parents who believe that unconventional schools such as Sudbury Valley are fine for "self-motivated kids" but not for their kids, because their kids are "not self-motivated." And the kids themselves also often believe that. They say things like, "I need teachers who'll kick my butt, or I'll do nothing all day." Why do people in our culture have this perception that school-aged children will not learn much if left to their own devices? Almost nobody has that perception of kids younger than school age (July 23 posting), and hunter-gatherers don't have that perception of kids of any age (August 2 posting).

One reason for the perception that school-aged kids are not motivated to learn on their own comes from our culture's general acceptance of the school system's definition of learning. If learning is defined as doing school assignments or work that looks a lot like school assignments, then it is certainly true that kids who are "unschooled" or who attend Sudbury schools spend little time "learning." Instead, they spend their time playing and exploring, in unpredictable ways, and they pick up the culture's knowledge and skills as a side effect.

Another reason for the perception is that kids who spend their day at a conventional school taking tests and doing work that they don't want to do may, at the end of the day, spend their free time relaxing, kicking back, or letting off steam, much as their parents do after a stressful day at work. This interferes with the opportunity to become fully engaged in the sort of play, exploration, and conversation that we most easily identify as educational.

Another example of a self-fulfilling school prophecy is this: Good performance in school predicts subsequent success. We have made this prophecy come true by setting up a world for children in which we essentially define "success" as good performance in school. The job of children is to get good grades in school, and there are many rewards for doing so. Good grades are the criteria for advancement to the next level in the graded school system, for placement on the "honor roll," for eligibility to play sports, for getting into college, for nominations to sought-after societies, for praise from many adults, and so on. So, of course, by all these measures of success, good performance in school (as measured by grades) predicts subsequent success.

We are also constantly bombarded with statistics showing correlations between years of schooling and career success as measured by income. But there are lots of reasons for those correlations that have nothing to do with learning. Here are three such reasons:

(1) We have set up a world in which certain high-paying jobs, such as law, medicine, and business administration, commonly require a certain number of years of higher education. In such a world, years of schooling inevitably correlate with income.

(2) We have set up a world in which "success" is more or less defined as good grades during youth and as high income later on. In such a world, those people who are highly achievement motivated, by conventional standards, will work hard for high grades in school and for money in adulthood; and, voila, we have the correlation. We have also set up a world in which very few people do not attend conventional schools, so parents and children have few models that they can look to of success through any other route.

(3) Children from wealthy homes can afford more schooling than can those from poorer homes, so they obtain more schooling. Children from wealthy homes also have more opportunities for high paying jobs, because of family connections and lots of other advantages, than do those from poorer homes. This too helps create the correlation between years of schooling and subsequent income.

For these and other reasons an overall correlation between schooling and "success" is inevitable in the world we have built. There is no statistical way to know if any of that correlation has anything at all to do with what is actually learned in school.

The Entrenchment of the Education Business

Another reason for the inertia that operates against real change in our educational system has to do with the massive, entrenched nature of the educational establisment. In the United States, 6.8 million people currently make their living as teachers (U.S. Census Bureau). Contrary to popular belief, teaching pays better than does the average white-collar or professional job (Greene & Winters, 2007) and offers many other benefits, including, usually, job security, excellent pension plans, and lots of vacation time. Schools of education, which prepare teachers for conventional schools, comprise a huge portion of the higher educational establishment. The textbook industry is also massive and lucrative. A radical change in our system of education would upset all of this. Such a change would abolish our need for teachers, as presently defined. It would also abolish our need for schools of education and most if not all of our need for textbooks.

Many people in our culture have an economic interest in not just retaining but expanding conventional education. The more hours and years we require young people to go to school, the more teachers, school administrators, education professors, and textbook authors and publishers we can employ. The education business is just like every business; it is constantly trying to expand for the benefit of those who profit from it.

The education industry thrives on small changes and fads. New ideas about how to motivate children, new courses, and new ways of teaching old courses (such as the "new new new math") all provide jobs for education professors and textbook publishers. But fundamental change of the type I have been talking about in previous postings of this blog would upset everything.

Gradual Change Doesn't Work

Another barrier to the kind of change in schooling that I have been talking about is that it cannot be done gradually within a school or school system. The change requires a paradigm shift, from one in which teachers are in charge of the educational process to one in which each student is truly in charge of his or her own education. You can't do that a little at a time. As long as teachers set a curriculum, no matter how many choices they offer within that curriculum, students will see it as teachers' jobs, not theirs, to decide what to learn. As long as teachers evaluate students' progress, no matter how they do so, students will see that their job is to meet teachers' expectations, not to establish and meet their own expectations.

In fact, the addition of choices and of less clearly defined means of evaluation within the conventional schooling system can make students' lives even more stressful than before. After such "liberal" changes, it becomes each student's job to guess what it is that the teachers want them to do and to guess at the real, unspoken criteria for evaluation. School becomes an exercise in mind reading. My own belief is that within the conventional school system the most benign way to teach is to be as clear as possible about the requirements and criteria, so students can meet those requirements and criteria with minimal fear that they may be studying the wrong things.

You also can't, within the conventional school system, expect to eliminate evaluation gradually, one course at a time. Suppose you introduce into the curriculum one course in which students will not be graded. What you will find is that most students won't do anything in that course, even if they want to. In a system where other courses are graded, the ungraded course is understood as irrelevant. How can a good student justify devoting time to a course that is not graded if other courses are graded? In order to change that mindset, the whole system has to change.

How Change is Occurring

Fundamental change in education is, nevertheless, occurring outside of the traditional school system. It is occurring among groups of families who decide to "unschool" their children (that is, to home school them in a free way, where there is no curriculum or evaluation) and among people who start non-school schools, such as those modeled after the Sudbury Valley School. People in these movements establish among themselves new sets of social norms, which allow them to overcome the barriers to behaving in ways that seem abnormal to others. Their observations of children who are educating themselves lead them to perceive education in a new light, as something to admire and enjoy in children but not to control. They begin to see many examples of people who have educated themselves freely and happily, outside of the conventional school system, and have gone on to successful lives by every meaningful definition of success, and so the self-fulfilling prophesies of conventional schooling are understood for what they are.

We have no reason to be discouraged about the future of education. We just must realize that real reform is not going to occur within the established school system. It will continue to occur outside of that system. The gradual change that will occur is that more and more people will opt out of conventional schooling. To permit that to happen, we need to be sure that people have the legal right to opt out. On a political level, that should be the highest priority for those of us who look for a world in which children can develop freely and happily, with the full experience of democracy and the rights and responsibilities that democracy entails.


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