Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Education vs. Schooling

I loved school. I could never understand why anyone hated it at all. Now, as I get deeper into John Taylor Gatto's book, I'm starting to understand. I was never really exposed to "school" as the majority of kids and teens are. In fact, I can recall only three classes in 14 years - all of which were negative experiences for me. Let me share a little of what my education looked like.

There was little structure and much liberty given to myself and my classmates. Freedom to learn according to my interests, explore the questions I had, and to share the things I learned in meaningful ways.

1. The Paper Airplane Project - My grade 5 independent study project was just that - completely independent. We could choose absolutely anything the interested us. Perhaps influenced by my father who worked in the airline industry, I studied paper airplanes. I devoured books on different models. I built them all and studied how they flew. Then I gathered my research and created an "optimal" airplane based on different criteria. No one else in the class was doing anything to do with paper airplanes. It was my interest and my project.

2. Scrap the Essay - Grade 13 English Literature class, reading the play "A Man for All Season's." The "curriculum" dictated all 30 students read the play and write an essay based on one of 3 topics. As the teacher read the topics, I put up my hand. "Can we do something instead of writing an essay?" My question was not based on laziness or inability - I could have written an A paper overnight. The question stemmed from boredom. "What do you want to do?" the teacher inquired, entertaining my idea. I looked around the classroom, surrounded by students talented in many different areas of the arts. "Can we mount a scene?" Permission granted. Over the next two weeks I directed the pivotal jail scene. Our presentation included actors, set designers, musicians who wrote a score and costume designers. Everyone had been compelled to read the play more closely, research the time period, and really understand the message and themes.

3. Beowulf at age 10 - The inclusion of this text in my grade 4/5 class caused a stir among students and parents alike. It was "over our heads" and a "waste of time". I can still remember my frustration in trying to find imagery in the old English lines. I remember my teacher's frustration when I concluded there was no imagery to be found. I also remember his response, that the colour red was representing blood and violence. To this day I am acutely aware of the use of colour in imagery, and used colour prominently in all my filmmaking. All this stemming from that one lesson.

4. Games during class time - My time spent in grades 6/7/8 included a major game tournament each year. One year was V-gate, one year was Risk, (and the last game eludes me). We spent many hours in big tournaments. We worked hard at learning strategy. We interacted with follow classmates. One year we even designed, built and packaged our own board game, of whatever style and whatever topic we pleased. All during class time.

5. Schedule-shmedule - One of my elementary school teachers realized the futility of learning in hour long blocks, forcing kids to drop everything in one subject in order to start another. (He probably also recognized that we didn't need to respond to the sound of a bell, and that the constant shift in activity might lead to attention deficit issues). Instead, he gave us a blank schedule each week. On the side was noted the amount of time we needed to allot to each subject. Each student could fill in the schedule however we liked. If I wanted to read a book for English all day Monday, that was fine. If I was knee-deep in a science project, I could work on it all morning. The freedom was exhilarating.

6. Go beyond - I wrote my first essay when I was 10 years old. The assignment: to research an ancient civilization - any one of interest to me. Look into its political structure, model of society, the presence and influence of art, and more. But my essay wasn't about Ancient Greece. The topic was: was this ancient civilization more or less civilized than we are today? This meant I was going beyond regurgitation of facts from library books. I had to process what their lives were like, what our lives were like, compare and contrast, draw a conclusion, and then coherently express my opinion. Now that's education.

I bet you're wondering if amid all this chaotic, open, libertarian education I ever actually learned the basics. Well, I read "Les Miserables" at age 13, took Grade 13 calculus to raise my grade average, and wrote several short stories, books of poetry, a few plays and a musical before high school graduation. (I don't say that to brag about myself - just that open-ended learning doesn't mean sacrificing essential learning tools.) For the record, I should also include the three isolated examples of schooling that marred my otherwise exciting years of education. Also for the record, these three experiences were my exposure to what most children are exposed to day in and day in schooling.

1. You know as much as I do - This is how my grade 11 biology teacher introduced herself on the first day of class. She was a math teacher told to teach science, a subject she had barely studied past high school herself. She self-admitedly didn't want to be there, which didn't spark much excitement in her students.

2. Just read it. Grade 13 English. Our class reading assignment was a book dreaded by all high school students. I don't know one person who ever read it that liked it, or found anything to related to in it. I have no problem with "hard" texts (and this one was particularly challenging) but was it this teacher's mission to make us hate reading? Literally, not one person I ever met liked reading this book in high school. Pay attention a little, teacher!

3. I'll read it. Grade 13 calculus. I took it to boost my average for university admissions. The teacher spent 10 minutes reading from the text book on how to solve a problem, then dismissed us from class to complete the pages of exercises. The only class I ever considered skipping, but as we only had to be there for 10 minutes anyway, what was the point in ruffling the administrative powers-that-be with that behaviour? (By the way, my plan to boost my average with this class failed. I went into the exam with a 98%, completed the simple exam in half the allotted time, then gasped when I saw my final grade in the mail 6 weeks later: a 72%??? Yes - that meant I had scored about 14% on the exam. Yeah right. But my wonderful, caring, attentive (ha) teacher didn't notice the discrepancy. I didn't bother with a fight - I was just glad to be graduated).

So now you know what my years of early learning looked like, why I was a huge advocate of schooling, and why I'm scared to think of the schooling my boys might get in the "mainstream" class. I only wish all students could (and firmly believe they should) have the type of education experience I got.


Kevin H. said...

*ahem*If I correctly surmise that the novel you're speaking of is Kamouraska, I'll have you know (once again) that I liked it just fine. (Why do I think we've had this conversation before?)

Yes, it's difficult. Yes, it's formally complex (certainly moreso than most high school students are accustomed to) and yes, it can be a puzzling, even dreary read if one choses to withdraw one's interest and investment, but I think it's time to fess up that the reader can fail the book just as much as the book can fail the reader.

Maybe the teacher's real mistake is to overestimate the maturity and sophistication of his or her students? Or, failing that, to provide insufficient context for the piece and/or encouragement for its readers (though, from what I recall, Ms. L.H. was thoroughly enamoured of the thing, even calling it her "favourite book" -- or was that Ms. Keyes? -- so certainly no enthusiasm was lost during this particular pedagogical exploit). Or maybe (and this is the most likely option) the real failure, broadly speaking, is on the part of the public education system itself, which never taught us (hell, practically refused to teach us) anything about language, grammar or literary aesthetics that was of any use beyond basic communication. No wonder we didn't know what the heck we were reading...

Otherwise, I'm basically with you re: this entry. : )

(P.S. If, in fact, you were not referring to Kamouraska, my belated apologies for a most lamentable error. I'll try to better gauge my indignant outbursts in future...)

Terri-Ann said...

Ahh, you have seen through my thinly veiled comments. Indeed, that is the book. In an effort to keep the entry to a reasonable length I think I left out some of my reasoning here. I completely agree that books can and should challenge the reader, - in form, content, themes, ideas, etc. I also believe that reading is an active activity that requires an effort on the reader's part (that is often missing in students). Hey - I praised (in a way) giving Beowulf to 10 year olds.

But I also adhere to the idea that there is a time and a place for each book in your life. I rarely force myself to read a book I'm not enjoying, because there is a good chance that sometime in the future I may really like it. Just not here and now. One needs to develop a relationship with the book. From the majority of high school readers I spoke with, they just weren't able to connect with the novel. If 90% (random stat, but likely about true) of high school students couldn't relate to the novel, perhaps this is not the time to be reading it. It has little to do with "level of difficulty", if that exists, and everything to do with interest. Most educators advocate searching the billions of books in print to find something the readers will enjoy, instead of forcing a set list of "classics" that must be read in order to be classed as "educated". I think you can get kids to read a variety of styles, themes and genres by being more selective of your book choice and aware of your audience.

In brief: my reluctance with Kamouraska was not the complexity or difficulty of the piece, but the seemingly inaccessibility to the majority of 17 year olds. I never like to underestimate kids and difficulty levels - probably why I read 18th century poetry to my kids - I just make sure it's thematically relevant to them.

Kevin H. said...

Nice response.

One point: how do we reconcile the argument that universities should not be "dumbed down" to accomodate coddled public school students with the argument that public school curriculums should accomodate student interests and offer relevant subject matter? Relevant according to whom? Not the students themselves, I should think, or they'd never study anything outside of skateboarding, etc. (to exaggerate violently).

The only way to broaden one's knowledge and aptitudes is to willfully stretch outside oneself and experience the new. But try to convince a high school student of that, right? Most of them routinely "dislike" every new book they're handed simply because they're ordered to read it, because it's not a choice. That doesn't really describe you, I think, but it does point to the obvious central problem: the system, by its very design, disillusions and dissociates students by conditioning them to associate learning --> work --> drudgery (to quote David Foster Wallace ... I think) because it's all orders, instructions and requirements instead of an attempt to nurture and encourage our interest in and excitement towards the new.

Most of the time, I'm guessing, you enjoyed what you were given to study, or what you chose from a list of available options (that's just the kind of keener you are ... *psst*: me too), but in this one instance you were forced to read something that genuinely turned you off. Win some, lose some, I guess, but that's not really the point. The point is to accomodate student desire to learn and expand, even if the material doesn't appear to agree with them, rather than accomodate their immediate interests and aptitudes. Even if they really dislike what they're studying, they should be excited about bringing that response to class and figuring out why. (First step, they should be allowed to bring that response to class without fear of reprimand. It's a delicate balance requiring openness and humility on both sides.)

This is (a little) more like my university experience -- although there's no getting around arbitrary assignments and similarly arbitrary grading....

Parting note: you bring up Beowulf as an example of a learning experience that, while you didn't always enjoy it, certainly gave you something of value to take away (namely, the symbolic or coded use of colour, especially the colour red). I guess this was the only time that lesson was significant, though, since Kamouraska was similarly interested in the use of colour as metaphor, red in particular...

avi5732 said...

V-Gate?? Wow, I was just googling that based on a random memory from Grade 8 (1986) and wondering if anyone else on cyberspace remembered it. As it happens, almost nobody does. There's an entry on a "geek" web board with a photo, and not much else.

Terri-Ann said...

I actually tried to track down the game a few years luck. It almost made me question the existence of the game and the validity of my memory!