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Month: April 2008 (page 1 of 2)

why we homeschool: reason 2, keeping it natural

Today, class, we will be discussing Paulo Freire’s “The Banking Concept of Education.” I will tell you what I know about this essay over the next hour or so, you will write it down, and then soon I will test you on what I know about this essay. We only have 60 minutes to talk about Freire’s work and his complex, revolutionary ideas, so ask your questions if you have them over the next hour. After this time, I will be moving on to other topics with or without you. Oh, and also note that over the next hour, I will be teaching in a way that meets the needs of the student with average abilities. If you are above average, you will likely be bored. If you are struggling, you will likely fall behind, become frustrated, and end up thinking this is all a stupid waste of time anyway–or maybe you’ll just end up feeling bad about yourself; either way, it is what it is. We’ve got stuff to cover and a schedule to keep.

And that’s how it often goes. I am a college teacher and have spent the past 30 years in a classroom of one form or another, as either a student, a teacher, or both. The model above is not an unfamiliar one. It is deeply rooted in tradition. In fairness, there are plenty of variations on this theme–some are far better than others–but, by and large, they amount to little more than variations. Even the most innovative teacher is limited in what he or she can do by an institutional system that operates under rigid time constraints, the pressures of meeting established “standards” or “learner outcomes” decided by the state, textbooks and syllabi that tell us what a class needs to learn and how quickly it needs to be learned (or, more accurately, “covered”) before advancing to the next grade or level.

“Daddy, why do birds make music? Can we go outside on a nature walk? No, no, I have a good idea. Let’s have a dance party? I’ll play the piano while you dance. I want to go back to the Children’s Garden and play with the outdoor instruments. They sound like birds. Can we go, Daddy? Can we?”

Our four-year-old son has a natural and insatiable curiosity that keeps him moving throughout the day with Mom and Dad trailing behind. His drive to know, to understand, to play with what is around him, to test his guesses about the world, and have a good time while doing it is natural. We don’t start each day with a lecture on the virtues of curiosity, of learning, of having and asking questions, of being interested. As a child, he just follows his whimsy, and he learns, he learns, he learns. He soaks it all in, and the connections he makes between all that he experiences, reads, and does are amazing. There is nothing more natural than a desire to learn. It’s only when learning becomes institutionalized that it becomes a chore–and schooling takes over learning. It is in school that children become bored, lazy, disinterested, or where they begin to define learning in terms of external validation. “Good boy, Johnny, you earn an A, and as a reward we will end class early. No more learning for today.”

Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” For our family, education is about living life. Learning is natural. We want to keep it that way–even if it means taking a break some Tuesday afternoon on a school day to lay on the grass in the backyard and wonder why butterflies flutter, clouds roll, and wind blows. We’ll have our work cut out for us on Wednesday, naturally, but we can take our time.

Some Musical Inspiration

dumbing us down by john taylor gatto

Gatto has some interesting ideas. I was first turned on to what he had to say when I read his essay “Against School” published in Harpers of September 2003. Dumbing Us Down is a collection of his speeches. I’ll be amending this post as I read the book.

gatto’s seven lessons of schooling

The front matter and the first chapter of Gatto’s book is enough to make one yank their kids out of school and run for the hills. He minces no words and invokes the most inflammatory language at times to make his point. Undeniably, Gatto stomps far left of the center, but his points, just the same, make sense. He asserts quite compellingly that “schooling” has little to do with education. He speaks from his more than 30 years of experience as an award-winning New York City schoolteacher, and as such, he confesses to having taught seven basic lessons again and again over those 30 years.

  1. Confusion
  2. Class Position
  3. Indifference
  4. Emotional Dependency
  5. Intellectual Dependency
  6. Provisional Self-Esteem
  7. One Can’t Hide (or have any kind of inner- or private life)

In detail he explains how systematically children are taught these lessons in school–and, furthermore, he contends that teaching these seven lessons are the very purpose for which public schooling has been designed. The disturbing thing, as Gatto points out, is that just about everyone who has been institutionalized in this way by public schooling cannot imagine any other way. “‘The kids have to know how to read and write, don’t they?’ ‘They have to know how to add and substract, don’t they?’ ‘They have to learn how to follow orders if they ever expect to keep a job’”(11). He later states that what cumpulsory public schooling supposedly takes 12 years to teach–reading, writing, and arithmetic–can be transmitted in one hundred hours if the person is eager and willing to learn (12). His implication is a sinister one–that public schooling stretches this out so it can further the agenda of its seven lessons as stated above. The true aim is, of course, to engineer a populace of workers and consumers that is compliant, predictable, and easily controlled.

Gatto’s vision is a bleak one, but what struck me as most encouraging (as my wife and I pursue child-led learning with our own son) was the alternative that he suggests. Despite the culture of fear and constant global and economic crisis that the media spins around us, Gatto has the following to say. Allow me to quote at length:

Global economics does not speak to the public need for meaningful work, affordable housing, fulfilling education, adequate medical care, a clearn environment, honest and accountable government, social and cultural renewal, or simple justice. All global ambitions are based on a definition of productivity and the good life so alienated from common human reality that I am convinced it is wrong and that most people would agree with me if they could perceive an alternative. We might be able to see that if we regained a hold on a philosophy that locates meaning where meaning is genuinely to be found–in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and services to others, in a decent independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends, and real communities are built–then we would be so self-suficcient we would not even need the material “sufficiency” which our global “experts” are so insistent we be concerned about. (15)

So, it seems that the issue is not how we are teaching our kids in schools, but what we are teaching them. Fundamentally, it seems that our schooling institutions are instilling the wrong values. Whether this is by insidious design, as Gatto asserts, or by mistake, I find myself in agreement with his assessment of the outcome thus far. No child should be left in the hands of an institution as he or she wants to grow into a fully-developed human being. Gatto reminds us that the teaching function in a healthy community belongs to everyone (16).

an ice cream treat

Aidan had a good day today despite being stuck at home due to rain and the car being in the shop. He had his hopes up of going to get some ice cream with the Mom’s Club group, but obviously circumstances didn’t allow this. So, as a special family treat we all trekked to the ice cream shop in the pouring rain after dinner. He did his happy dance right there in the middle of the shop. And he even shared a little of his ice cream with me.

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