If I Were in Charge Part 2

People sometimes ask me what I think needs to be done with the schools. This is really a two part question for me. One part is the policy side—what should or should or should not be required. The other part of the question is what are my ideas of what a good school and good teaching look like, which does not imply I believe in mandating those ideas even if I could. In my previous blog, I addressed the first part of the question. Now I will briefly tackle the second part.

A good test of schooling is whether one would send one’s own children there. Those who have read my other blogs entries know I favor progressive/constructivist pedagogy. That means that students have to be engaged in activities that matter to them in order to learn. The more those activities are connected authentically to the kinds of activities one engages in outside of school, the more likely what they learn can and will be used beyond school. There is both the need for students to be able follow their own personal interests and abilities, and expanding those interests.

One also needs to think bout how the experience of school shapes both what a student learns about, and what kind of climate and culture they learn it in. As psychologists such as Vygotsky, Bandura, Wenger and many others have shown, we learn more indirectly from how we experience the world, and watching how the adults in our world act and interact, than we do from any explicit instruction. Therefore, as much as possible the school should recreate the kind of culture, society we want our students to learn to be part of.

There is a built in tension in a democracy, between individual rights and pursuits, while recognizing that we are also part of a larger society. Fascist and totalitarian states focus on the state over the individual, and so schools in such a culture would teach students to obey and focus on obedience to higher authority. In an anarchist or libertarian state it would focus on the rights and liberties of the individual (would such a system even have public schooling, much less compulsory schooling?).

In my school students work not just individually, but also with others, others who are both alike and different than themselves. That in itself is one of the most important skills that I see any citizen needs. Most of what we do in life is in collaboration with others, in both the work and civic spheres. Humans are, by nature, social animals. The way a school and its curriculum is organized takes that into account. It means assessments that are part of the learning process and that mimic or are actual real life products or performances for the most part.

Long term projects would be at the center of most learning activities, activities that require students to integrate a variety of skills and abilities across disciplines. This mimics the kinds of activities and work people engage in for the most part outside of school. Real learning takes place when we work at real tasks that matter. The more in-depth the project is, the deeper the learning will be, and the more likely it will stay with us. Such learning takes time.

Students would sty with the same teacher for a minimum of two years. Deep learning takes deep relationships, and when teachers and students only work together for one year, those deep relationships are hard to build, with the family as much as with the student. If you are changing whom you work with too often, it gets hard to put in the investment in the relationship.

The school would be run collaboratively among the faculty. While it is important for all members of the school community to have a say, how much say would vary depending on the kinds of decision. Major curricular decisions would be the purview of the teaching faculty.

Another aspect is school size. Most of the above ideas are hard to implement in a large school. The larger the numbers of people the more such institutions must make decisions based on expediency and the smooth running of the institution rather on the educational needs of the students. Also, the number of people needs to be small enough so that the school can be a community where all members actually can get to know each other over time.

Some people claim such schooling is only appropriate for the gifted, or is not practical, and could not work in the real world. However, as I have documented in earlier blogs, the evidence is quite strong that it does work, and that actually such practices are probably more important for the disadvantaged than the advantaged, since the advantaged get so many of these advantages outside of school.

3 thoughts on “If I Were in Charge Part 2

  1. “The more those activities are connected authentically to the kinds of activities one engages in outside of school, the more likely what they learn can and will be used beyond school.”

    Why even have the school then? Why not just have them do the activity they are engaged in outside of school directly. If a kid what to be a mechanic why would you try to somehow connect what he does in school to being a mechanic…why not just leave school and be a mechanic or an apprentice to one?

    The basic problem with schools is that they are bubbles that are seperated from the real world but somehow are trying to remain relevant to it. The solution is to get the kids out of the fake world and into the real world…not to improve the quality of the fake world.

    • If you were right, then school dropouts would be better off than non school dropouts. I see no evidence to support that. There are several reasons to have school. One is that real world activities by themselves do not necessarily lead one to learning, or at least not positive learning. And different people have access to different kinds of experiences, often based on class and wealth. Schooling allows those activities to be planned and mediated in ways that are most likely to be beneficial to the individual and society (even if in reality they often are not). Also, public schooling at its best allows students to be in a community of a wide range of peers and others that they again may not be connected to outside of school. Might there be other ways of creating these conditions without what we now have as formal schooling? Possibly, but just eliminating schooling will not provide those things. This would be most detrimental to the least advantage who, without formal schooling would lose accesses to the dominant culture that public schools at their best can provide.

  2. I agree with all of the above. I would add an explicit goal of providing a learning environment that encourages democratic citizenship, self- reflection, self-understanding, critical pedagogy (including social action), and philosophy (multiple ways of knowing). I would try to connect these as closely as possible with the active experiences/projects in the world as possible so student “activity” becomes explicitly purpose driven. If one is learning mechanics, s/he is also studying it in a larger context, s/he is learning what else makes them a whole “person” besides vocation, they are developing ethics, they are developing creativity and working as a group, to name a few. Just some thoughts. Thanks for sharing your vision. If most schools shared this vision, I don’t think we would have been so open to attack by “reformers” in recent decades.

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