Monday, April 07, 2008

Me and My Big Ideas, part 1

This is a post about me. A while ago, I participated in a lively discussion elsewhere online about home-education, and someone asked about unschooling. I found I had ... quite a lot to say on the subject, and I've decided to repost some of my thoughts here.

This first post is about why I have reservations about the mainstream school model.

I was traditionally schooled, and according to the traditional paradigm I was a very successful student. For complex reasons, though, I wasn't great at fitting in socially. Unfortunately, I didn't complain about this situation. Instead, it's not exaggerating to say that I more or less "removed" myself from school, emotionally, at the age of around eight, and thereafter participated only to the extent required to wring optimal academic approval from the authorities. Because I was consistently top of the class at most things, and not too bad at faking what passes for "normal" peer interaction in the peculiar atmosphere of the school day, nobody - as far as I know - attempted to address what was, in retrospect, really quite a serious psychological/social problem.

In recent years I've read Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society) and John Holt (How Children Fail and How Children Learn), among others, and I've become enthusiastic about the Unschooling movement (see this Wikipedia article for an overview, or the unschooling.info site for some rather more polemical approaches).

I don't dismiss school out of hand - for many children, in many contexts, it may present the best available opportunity to learn - but certain fundamentals of the currently mainstream model simply don't make pedagogical sense to me. Segregation by age, rigid timetabling, imposed curricula (as opposed to curricula negotiated between learners and teachers), a schedule of academic milestones: all of these things carry clear logistical advantages, given the spoken and unspoken goals of the institution, but I can't see that they are in the best interests of a person's education, per se. I can't make a case for it actually mattering if a person understands quadratic equations before or after memorising the principal rivers of South America, or reads Hamlet before or after discussing the causes of the First World War. And yet, in the context of school, it is made to matter. That strikes me as twisted.

(I like Ivan Illich's phrase "irrational consistency". You take a shaky premise - e.g., "it is vital that every seven-year-old can subtract" - and you behave as though it is true, and you make it a rule, with consequences for breaching it, and you do this over and over again with different premises, and gradually, you drift away from any kind of reality-based moorings. And you don't allow the powerless subjects of this experiment to make any kind of effective complaint about the situation; instead, you make it clear to them, whether explicitly or implicitly, that this is the only way things can be, and that mental pain, fear, intense boredom and OH GOD the GUT-SCRUNCHING waste of TIME are just part of the deal, so get used to it. *pant, pant, froth* Excuse me, am I ranting?)

For many people, these factors are not deal-breakers (and let me say, I have enormous respect for anyone who enters the system with eyes open and a mission to change it for the better). For me and my husband, for all sorts of reasons related to our own negative experiences in school, they are. We won't be sending our children to school as a matter of course, and we are (well, I am) seriously considering trying to set up a school on a radically alternative model - something along the lines of Sudbury Valley (my goodness, that's a spiffier site than the one that blew my mind open in late 2000!) - which, given the homogeneity of the Irish education system, will be no small undertaking.

All that said, I'm a naturally equivocal person, and I'm oddly uneasy about holding such a one-sided opinion. Therefore, if you read the above screed and thought, "How can she say that? She'd never say that if she'd read X!", can you please let me know what X is?

(For completeness of this record, I'll add that a participant in the discussion I'm referring to directed people's attention to the Framework of Educational Standards and Learning Opportunities in the state of Vermont. My initial response: I don't necessarily dispute the value of such standards in principle, but I'm very antsy about the likely institutional response to a child who fails to meet them to the desired schedule. If I learn (for example) to describe words in terms of categories when I am three, not six, I am likely to be bored and switched off in English class; if I don't learn it until I am seven, I am likely to sense from the adults around me that there is a problem - to experience "failure" where no failure actually exists, and possibly to identify myself as "bad at English". I realise it's not as simple as that, and that educators may even have thought about this issue and developed strategies to address it , but both of these negative outcomes seem to me, nonetheless, a clear risk inherent in the system as it stands.)

1 comment:

Ailbhe said...

You're going to make me cry. Carry on.

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