Sunday, October 17, 2010

Today Is the Day for "REBEL Education Blogs"

I heard it from Cooperative Catalyst. The idea is to post your own alternative thoughts on educational reform, and then post a link at wallwisher.

How has 'education reform' become such a mean-spirited and small-minded pursuit? Teacher-bashing, ignoring the realities of students' lives, judging education by standardized tests, competing for funding, etc. (I guess the answer is that someone needs a scapegoat, and teachers are the current candidate. Perhaps they want to get rid of (some of?) the last strong unions?)

Let's cherish our young people, and honor the amazing people who dedicate their professional lives to working with them. Let's fund all the schools adequately. Let's remember that we are a democracy, and educating for democracy requires an environment respectful of children's needs.

My vision is of children freely following their own interests, but perhaps that only works when they've gotten the same sort of freedom in their families. Deborah Meier, in The Power of Their Ideas, shows a school where educating for democracy is really happening. It's in New York City, and is proof that open education works in urban areas, with diverse groups of students, not just with the privileged. It's not as free-form as my vision, but it's really working and it's beautiful. (The book was written in the nineties, but the schools are still going strong.)

I found Ira Socol's blog on wallwisher*. In his current post he links to a post he wrote about his amazing high school in New Rochelle in (I think) the seventies. Here are some of the founding thoughts:
The following quotation from [Thoreau's] Walden expresses compactly the major beliefs which generate the form of the new program:

Students should not play life, or study it merely while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?
In other words, we are assuming (1) that learning takes places best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests rather than "subjects" are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them.

This set of beliefs is sometimes referred to as the "judo" principle of education. Instead of trying to forestall, resist, or neutralize the natural curiosity, intelligence, energy, and idealism of youth, one uses it in a context which permits both them and their community to change. Thus, the experimental program reduces the reliance on classrooms and school buildings; it transforms the relevant problems of the community and the special interests of individual students into the students' "curriculum"; it looks toward the creation of a sense of community in both The Program students and adults.

Unfortunately, this lovely program doesn't exist any more. I hope the rough times we're going through push people to experiment with programs like this again.

Visions of Math
I want to get more specific, and think about math. In my Why Math? Why School? post, I replied to Deborah Meier's disappointinly shallow conception of math with a paraphrase of what Diane Ravitch had said about some other subjects:
We will teach mathematics because it is important and beautiful. We will teach it not because it will save our society, not because we "must" know particular techniques, but because we simply do not have it in our hearts to do otherwise.
In the comments, Ben Blum-Smith wrote:
I think there's something really deeply empowering about mathematics. I believe the rich deep study of mathematics cultivates curiosity, profound resourcefulness, tolerance of frustration, persistence, and an amazing trust of your own mind. I think these are some of the really big reasons why it's an important part of education.
Thinking about why we teach math will help us think about how we might teach it, if we could change the world, and offer students a fulfilling, mind-nourishing set of experiences in school.

 Suburban Lion (also found on wallwisher) dreamed up A Rebel Math Curriculum:
In this Rebel Education, gone are the days of Algebra, Geometry, More Algebra, Trigonometry, and Calculus. Gone are the days of lengthy multiple choice tests. Teachers assess students by analyzing the products they create and encourage the students themselves to critically reflect on their own creations. Students are not pressured to meet Imperial standards, but instead are responsible for setting their own goals for improvement each semester. The students don’t feel like they are competing to score higher than their classmates, but instead learn to recognize that each of their classmates has a different set of skills and that by cooperating they can achieve things that they could not do alone. While the Empire is pumping out clone after clone, the Rebels are producing a diverse array of students with varying sets of knowledge and skills.
His vision is filled with games and computer programming. I think games are one great way to pull students into thinking about math, and computer programming works great alongside that. I'd add:
  • Cooking (for elementary math)
  • Building 
  • Puzzles
  • Science
  • History (which adds so much context to math)
  • "Living Math" (stories that bring math concepts to life, like The Cat In Numberland)
Finding ways to bring together all of the rich ideas we hope students will learn, instead of separating them into 'subjects' will make math so much more accessible.

Let's all think together about all this, and blog together on November 22.

*I don't like that wallwisher hides the url of the site it's linking to. Perhaps there's an easier way I'm not seeing, but I've been googling the blog name to get a proper link.


  1. By thinking of our creations as alternatives to X, we focus on X.

  2. Hmmm... I'm not sure the current model is one that can be fixed. You're still working in the same paradigm. What's needed is a paradigm shift. Can your vision of "children freely following their own interests" really happen in an institutional setting?

    Your math salon is one of the best ideas I've seen. The trouble is that the best teaching/learning is in very small groups and is so time and energy intense that it is expensive at many levels.

    It's selfish, and not available to many, but homeschooling is one way to give kids the freedom to learn in the ways that best suit them.

    traditional schools = inside-the-box

    experimental/charter/open schools = outside-the-box

    homeschool = "Box? What box?" ;-)

  3. April, why should any particular education method be available to many?

    Imagine there are, say, 300 methods. Each works well for 3-5% of the general population and is available to anywhere from .1 to100%. As long as the availability isn't clumped across the population, everybody will have many choices of different methods!

    For example, unschooling is available to families with a particular philosophy and lifestyle, Birgham Young model is available to mormons, virtual schools are available for people who have the fast internet, the boarding School of Science and Math is available to math geeks, a private school costing $20k a year is available to people with incomes over $20k a year and so on.

    As long as these are very diverse criteria, every child will belong to multiple populations and thus will have multiple education choices. There is no reason whatsoever to call creators of an education method selfish just because they don't serve 100% of the population.

  4. I think April was calling herself selfish. ;^)

    April, have you read Deborah Meier's book? Her school was no more expensive (to the government) than the other public schools in NYC. She would agree with you that the best classes are much smaller than in most public schools. She suggested no more than 15 kids per class in elementary school, and no more than 15 classes per school.

    I don't think good learning always requires a super-high adult to kid ratio. If the kids have lots of freedom, the adult is mentoring and modeling, and doesn't need to 'teach' so much.

    >What's needed is a paradigm shift. Can your vision of "children freely following their own interests" really happen in an institutional setting?

    I totally agree that we need a paradigm shift. I see us needing to honor kids' desire to learn. That would be huge. In some sense, 'family' is an institution, though much more organic than 'school'. My question is how we can recreate the notion of school so it becomes more organic, fluid, able to take on diverse forms, like families do.

    My son is in a mini-school that currently (first year in existence) has 5 kids. It's fabulous. It's more like homeschooling than like any other school I've seen.

    If homeschoolers who need a bit more money coming in wanted to get together with people who need to work and need their kids in some sort of 'school', maybe this model could spread. It takes lots of rethinking, and lots of trust.

  5. Sue:
    I don't think good learning always requires a super-high adult to kid ratio. If the kids have lots of freedom, the adult is mentoring and modeling, and doesn't need to 'teach' so much.

    The ratio of adults to kids in communities strongly determines community dynamics. There are "pack behavior" laws to mind, as well as "community of practice" expert-novice laws. There are plenty of activities that are very educational solo, in pairs, or within purely child groups. However, at least for my child, I have a very strong preference for communities where children are outnumbered by adults, overall.

  6. I love your thoughts, Maria! There may have been a 'pack behavior' issue at my son's previous school, with 20-30 kids, and only a few adults. If one adult was inside teaching 6 kids, there might be over 20 kids outside, and only one adult. I thought we needed better focus on communication and conflict resolution, but maybe that ratio would have been the deciding factor.

    >I have a very strong preference for communities where children are outnumbered by adults, overall.

    As was mentioned earlier in this thread, that can be expensive.

    At my son's school, there are usually 5 kids and two adults. That's enough to keep the adult presence visible, I think.

  7. As was mentioned earlier in this thread, that can be expensive.

    Kids can be viewed either as expense (an economic liability) or as a boon and a source of help. Sometime between babyhood and adulthood, there is a turning point at which the person stops being a liability to her family and community. Currently, the point hovers around the late teens or even early twenties, not only globally across the child's life, but even for most individual events.

    If kids contribute to communities (rather than only taking), they are the opposite of expensive. They add value.

    Katherine's presentation on children working:


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