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Retired teacher: ‘We’re doing this all wrong’

Denis Ian is a retired school teacher from New York who has taught more than 4,000 students over his 34 year career. Since retirement he has become an educational advocate who writes about issues concerning educational reform in America, sharing a unique vision that has to be read to be believed.

Boy walking alone

By Denis Ian 

This post was originally featured as a comment on Why School has Stopped Working. We loved it so much we asked Denis if we could publish it as an article. While Denis specifically mentions the American system, we feel it applies to similar systems in Europe and Australasia too.


We’re doing this all wrong.

Some day …. somehow … education will discover a proper obsession.

Until then … children will suffer these testing-despots … and too many adults will make believe it’s all okay. And it’s not.

But let’s be certain about this … there are some things in life that just can’t be measured … because they can’t even be defined. Love. Creativity. Curiosity. Courage. Passion. And those special forces that jolt the spirit and open the mind.

If you want a real thinker to blossom from childhood, don’t measure them at every turn … or condition them to shine on every command. Instead … help them indulge in their own natural curiosities … and they’ll measure themselves and shine for all of ever.

American education has become so disappointing … controlled by didactic gurus and self-imagined geniuses who share one important experience: they have no experience.

Most have never lived in any classroom for longer than a few moments. Short-stay aliens who parachute in … and then dash off … having seen enough, so they think, to deduce this or that … and to pen another bit ridiculousness … mostly for others who share the very same silliness.

Few have ever spent a morning on a kindergarten floor, or in a hot-hot circular discussion with lively seventh graders, or faced off against wing-spreading high schoolers who have suddenly come of age.

They know nothing of real-deal epiphanies … because they’ve never seen one. Or been a part of one. Or watched one unfold before their own eyes.

That’s what classroom teachers see. It’s what they help happen.

They don’t know … or care … about percentiles and modules and averages and statistics. For them, it’s all about kids and how to help ‘em grow.

But these experts make these testing mistakes again and again because … like love or courage or talent … the important things about education can never be measured so neatly … or so efficiently reduced to graphs or charts or tables.

And here’s why.

Education … real, real, real education … is all about people. And every learner, how ever old or young, lugs trunkfuls of variables to this pursuit of … of … of becoming.

Yeah ... becoming. That’s what education is all about … becoming.

But still they try to wow us … or alarm us … with their neat and tidy assessments of the state of “becoming” … with a barrage of numbers and endless inferences that they puzzled into something that doesn’t even look like “becoming” at all. Because it’s not. Not even close.

So … right from the start, they’ve misunderstood what they’re measuring … so why should we ever take them seriously?

Instead of pushing bubble-sheets in front of kids and asking them this or that … why don’t we ask them about the passions they don’t even know they have. And their talents they can’t even see Or the cleverness they take for granted. Or the gift they have for this or that.

And why don’t we just get out of their way most of the time? And stop bothering them so much. Maybe just nudge them now and again to … to become what’s inside those tiny bodies … and those gorgeous little minds.

Let them be

What the hell is so hard to understand? Stop bothering them so much. Let ‘em be.

We should give every child lots of stuff. Like chances to run and sing and dance. And fall down.

Girl playing and dancing freely

Chances to act their age … and we shouldn’t interfere with that. Or insist otherwise. Chances to sample things … and even walk away from certain things that just don’t do it for them.

Give ‘em chance to make choices … as much as possible … because life’s a stream of choices. Practice can’t hurt.

They need chances to work together … and to be left alone. Chances to drift into their own worlds … where they can imagine who they are … or might become.

They should have chances to feel safe … and to take risks. And to tell luscious-lovely lies … and fantabulous tales … that we should all take very seriously … because that works both ways.

We should let them speak marvelous nonsense … and not interrupt … because they’re just exercising their imaginations. So we should listen … and shut up … and give them the floor for a change..

And, of course, we should teach them to speak and to count and to scribble. And all of that will sprout … I promise … but never evenly enough to please those testing-tyrants … or the extra-serious beard-scratchers who just can’t leave childhood alone.

And you know what? This is what happens when the importance of teaching is cheapened … when professionals are shoved aside because some Ivy League fat-head has decided that teaching is a science … when it’s not. It’s more like conducting … or being in a play … or traveling in time. And most of all …. it’s about remembering. And becoming.

This is what happens when some of us grow too old and become too forgetting of those teachers who swerved our lives … and helped us wriggle out of our cocoons.

Those fuzzy memory-people who polished some talent no one else saw. Or who just whispered us a perfect kindness at the perfect moment …when it was so badly needed. Or who just loved watching us … become someone we never ever imagined we might be. Someone like me.

You get the point? We’re obsessed about the wrong stuff.

We’re doing this all wrong.

Do you agree with Denis' poetic vision for a new kind of education? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Jenny Diaz

Denis Ian

Contributor

Denis is a retired public school teacher with 34 years of experience teaching social studies and English. He is now an educational advocate who writes nationally about issues concerning educational reform in the United States and around the world. He lives in Westchester County, New York.

Why school has stopped working

School, in its current form, is destroying children's innate love of learning and ultimately, their true sense of self as learners. Here's why.

By Grace Koelma | Editor of The Mulberry Journal

It's often said that the purpose of education is to 'prepare kids for life'. This statement is thrown around by parents, teachers, principals, curriculum writers and the media. While it's a fairly true statement (though I would dig deeper and say a true education is a life in itself, not something you do before you start 'living') - the irony is it's being used to justify a current approach to Western education that is, in fact, grossly outdated and out of context.

An important note on teachers

When school is referenced during this article, I'm referring to the institution of the education system, the complex and historical web of rules and policies about what education looks like, and how that filters down through school heirarchies. Teachers are not to blame. They're working within a flawed system, and many of them are good-hearted and care deeply about fostering a love of learning in their students.

But even though I know many teachers, am closely related to teachers, (and was one myself once!) I think this message should not be held back, at the risk of offending them. They do great work! I stayed silent for too long, not wanting to look like a 'school basher'. But the school system needs reform. On a global scale. Urgently.

So why does this outdated education system need significant, meaningful reform?

Curiosity is becoming an endangered species

Humans are wired to learn, and learning happens everywhere. As humans, we are born naturally curious about our world and how it works, and learning flows on from that. Curiosity and learning occurs without the presence of a degree-qualified teacher and 2-kilogram textbooks. Don't believe me? Just watch a 6-month-old baby look at themselves in the mirror for the first time, or learn to crawl.

School (the institution) loves to make itself the monopoly on education, and it's astonishing how many people still believe that learning can only happen inside the school gates, between the hours of 9 and 3. But it's simply not true.

Learning happens everywhere and all the time.

It does happen in school, but it also happens in the park, on a bushwalk, getting lost driving to your Uncle's rural property, shopping online and swimming in your friend's pool. And I'd argue the learning that happens outside of school is much more memorable and relevant than much of what's in textbooks.

But the reality is that, on some level, school still works. There are still some (albeit infrequent) moments where school does inspire this innate curiosity in their students, where a specific teacher or science incursion or theatre performance lights up a child, and creates that wonderful, spontaneous thing we call natural learning.

The problem is, that the nature of school - the bells, the periods, the lines at the end of recess - means open-ended, student-directed learning time is limited, cut short or so often followed by a test 'to make sure you've retained everything we outlined in the lesson plan'. The quality of learning is handicapped and undermined by this continual assessment agenda.

There's nothing that stamps out the true love of learning more quickly than standardised testing and benchmarking.

But don't take my word for it. You can read peer-reviewed, substantial scientific studies here, here, here, here and here on how testing negatively affects student motivation and self-efficacy.

And while childhood anxiety is on the rise, this isn't a new phenomenon. ​A 2002 collaborative study found that students reported significant anxiety and tension in relation to testing. But the anxiety went deeper than a bit of butterflies in the hallway before an exam.

In today's schools, how you perform during an exam defines who you are

This summary of multiple studies concluded that "students incorporated their teacher’s evaluation of them into the construction of their identity as learners."

​I'll say it again, because it's crucial. Student's anxious reaction to testing became part of the way they saw themselves as learners. In that they thought because they didn't suit test environments, 'they were stupid'. And considering that learning is one of the most immediate and natural things a human does, from birth, this is very concerning. Because it's a straight out lie.

*Worth adding here that exam culture can also create high achievers who learn how to 'work the system' and get high grades every time. But this is detrimental too, because they will leave school with a different message: 'I'm really smart'. And while that may be true in many cases, it's really only one kind of smart. The lack of school preparation for how to be agile, creative and innovative in the real world will render them feeling useless and frustrated when they don't get A grades in uni, or promoted quickly in their career.

I don't think it's possible to be 'bad at learning', but it is possible to believe that lie.

There have been significant correlations drawn from hundreds of autopsies conducted on America's misguided No Child Left Behind policy. Researcher Geneva Gay has looked at qualitative and quantitative data spanning decades, and surmised the impact of a national plan that has failed to deliver on what it promised. She raises key findings around student victimisation.

"Achievement gaps will continue and even expand; more and more children will be victimized and then punished for being victims… Coercive, subterfuge and ‘one size fits all’ educational reform strategies simply are not reasonable or viable bases on which to build constructive educational futures for a nation in desperate need of new directions that are genuinely egalitarian across ethnic, racial, social, cultural, linguistic and ability differences." (p. 291) Gay 2007

​But America isn't the only country whose education system is in dire straights. After England introduced National Curriculum Tests, this study found that low-achieving students had lower self-esteem than high achieving pupils, while before the tests were introduced there was no correlation measured between self-esteem and achievement. None at all. 

In one state in Australia, the number of Year 12 students seeking special conditions to complete exams due to anxiety rose by one third in 2016.

Why assessment needs a serious makeover

1. Assessment doesn't fairly or accurately represent the student's knowledge

​Designing a high-stakes exam that only tests a student's ability to sit still and regurgitate information on demand in a limited time frame and under strict conditions is not fair to the majority of students. Why? Because only a small percentage of students thrive and perform well under these specifications. Even if they know the content, the high pressure environment can often make their brains perform sub-optimally.

2. The current testing model invites cramming as a valid method of preparation

Because of the​ unrealistic time restraints and the amount of content students are tested on in one exam, the phenomenon of 'cramming' occurs. Students rote learn in an attempt to force so much information through their brains, that they can't possibly retain it all, or even a large majority of it.

Cramming the night before an exam may work for short-term recall, but the information will be gone soon after leaving the exam hall. You may have got an A+ in your senior Politics exam, but how much of your answers can you remember now? I thought so! 😉

So demonstrates my point, that testing in these environments isn't an accurate picture of what many students know.

3. Exams, reports and learning are presented as inseparable

It's no wonder students (especially young ones) get confused when we talk about learning being fun. To them, learning is doing what the teacher says, trying to memorise it (the more tricks and gimmicks used to coax a child to memorise something, the more sure you can be that it's completely irrelevant for them) and being tested on it in high-pressure, anxiety-inducing exams. They walk out beating themselves up for not answering everything in time, and get hit with a low grade (and little or no debrief) a month later.

And because exams turn into report cards that are held up as the pinnacle of schooling and a 'good education', it's something that is intrinsic to the social perception of school. And this leads us back to the views students hold of themselves as learners.

Girl sitting alone studying

4. Currently, test scores carry way too much weight in determining identity and self-worth (for already impressionable students)

Picture this. Jenny receives a C grade for her Maths test and instantly feels disappointed and a little stupid. It doesn't help that her peers joke about test results and tell her that only dumb people get Cs. 

I wish I could pull Jenny aside and tell her that the exam was ONE very flawed measure of what she knows. I bet if we sat down and chatted over a coffee, or she recorded a podcast discussing the main issues, or wrote a screenplay or... (anything else!) Jenny could show more of what she knows and more importantly, what she thinks about what she knows.

Bottom line, Jenny. The teachers, parents and students themselves may hype it up, but a test score doesn't define you. Not in the least.

5. Teachers mostly teach in the way the tests are conducted

Instructional teaching from the front of the room is still the way most teachers convey lessons most of the time. In doing so they customise their delivery to suit only a small percentage of students. Here's a quote from the same study that analysed low-self esteem correlations after the National Curriculum Tests were introduced in England.

"When passing tests is high stakes, teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasised transmission teaching of knowledge, thereby favouring those students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantaging and lowering the self-esteem of those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences." 

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it's
ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing
it is stupid."

Albert Einstein

It comes down to this.

The institution of school, in its current form, is destroying children's love of learning, and ultimately, their true sense of self as learners.

And it's something millions of people care about and want to see reform in, if the views on this Ken Robinson TED talk and Boyinaband YouTube video are anything to go by. (All kinds of influential people care about this. Sir Ken Robinson is an international author, and Boyinaband is a British rapper and YouTuber.)

As the late educational author and educator John Holt said:

“We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A's on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean's lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.”

Are you okay with that, honestly?

Are you okay with looking the other way, and letting this slide?

We send our children to school for roughly a fifth of their life, during their most impressionable, foundational years. School gets to shape a huge part of their future adult selves. Are we really happy with the way the institution of school (whether intentionally or unintentionally) is teaching them to think - about the world, about learning and, most critically, about themselves?

At The Mulberry Journal, we are big proponents of home education and alternative forms of schooling. But this is only a small part of the answer. School reform is absolutely vital as well, and it's something we want to get behind and start writing about more often.

If you'd like to contribute on this topic, or have information you think would be of interest, please email me: editor@mulberrymagazine.com.au​

* We want to see significant change, so if you liked this article, please share with your friends and family. And I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

If you liked this, you may like - Retired teacher: 'We're doing this all wrong'

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School reform: why the education system is broken and how we can fix it
Grace profile image square

Grace Koelma

Editor

Grace is the Editor of The Mulberry Journal and when she's not reading submissions, divides her time between hanging out with her simultaneously delightful and headstrong 2-year-old, running multiple ventures, writing and travelling full time with her little family. You can follow her travels at @darelist.family.

5 unconventional ideas about relationships with teens

Unschooling author and mother, Pam Laricchia, explores the ways we can support our teens and help them write a different story—their own story. Not a shadow of ours.

teenage girls

By Pam Laricchia | livingjoyfully.ca

One of the biggest fears I see mentioned over and over by parents is that their teens will make the same mistakes they did growing up. Parents of teens have, at this point in their lives, gained a certain perspective and feel pretty confident about the thread of actions and consequences that wove through their own teen years.

The dreaded 'If Only'

Even beyond that, many imagine that if they could go back and do it all again knowing what they know now, they’d do a better job of it. Mired in what they see as the perfect vision of hindsight, their mind starts each flashback with “if only …” “If only I’d hung out with a different crowd, I would have made better connections.” “If only I hadn’t wasted my time, I could have made more money at my job.” “If only I had studied harder, I could have gotten into a better college.”

These are simplistic appraisals, but given what they see as a second chance, parents are confident they can engineer a better outcome for their teen, “if only they would listen to me.” (There it is again!)

woman thinking silhouette

While I am suggesting that we as parents try to avoid projecting our personal experiences too deeply onto our teens, I don’t mean to imply that we keep our thoughts to ourselves and leave them to figure out the world on their own. Far from it!

Parents have experience and wisdom to share that can be very helpful. Yet, to be truly helpful, it’s important that our teens receive it in the “no strings attached” spirit we intend, or else our motivation is suspect and the information understandably discounted. So the atmosphere of communication is important—the relationship.

Hands off or helicopter parenting

Conventionally, relationships with teens are painted as either/or: either you focus on maintaining authority (tough love) or you avoid challenges altogether (let them run wild).

Unschooling families have found the beauty of living inside the spectrum of those extremes. We continue to cultivate the strong and connected relationships we have built with our children over the years—it’s a relationship paradigm that serves us well no matter our children’s age.

Let’s look at some of the ways unschooling parents view relationships differently and what that can look like in the teen years. Notice how they all boil down to how we relate to them: as people, not possessions.

We drop the expectations

Unschoolers don’t share their experiences or perspective with the expectation that their teens will reach the same conclusions. That’s hard, isn’t it? We know what we know! To us—for us—our experiences are fact.

For me, it’s a kind of philosophical detachment. Not a detachment as in disengagement, but in appreciation of their individuality. Almost paradoxically, when I’m not living my life through them, I feel even closer to them, because it’s not about me—their life is theirs to live—so I can detach from the outcome and drop my expectations.

They are not younger versions of me, but unique beings in their own right. So though the experiences I share may be helpful to them, useful pieces to the puzzle of their life, I don’t expect my stories to mean the same things to them: we are each building different puzzles.

teenage boy tree

We realise that the circumstances of their lives are different than ours

Speaking of different puzzles, take a moment to consider just how different their childhood has been from our own. The pace of change has been accelerating at breakneck speed over our lifetimes.

This is a new thing! Comparatively, the pace of change from one generation to the next even just a few decades ago was almost negligible. What an exciting time in human history to be living! But it also means that the passing down of generational experience is more about bigger picture human issues, like empathy and morality, than any day-to-day advice to “do this and get that outcome”. The nuts and bolts of our stories are often no longer applicable because the world is changing so rapidly.

For example, even mainstream society is starting to question the typical counsel to “go to college and get a good job at a big company.” That was the conventional definition of success in the industrial age, and even deeply into the information age, but we are swiftly moving beyond that now. That advice, so adamantly passed on to us by our parents, has become hopelessly out-of-date as our teens move into the adult world.

teenagers on jetty

We don’t presume we know better than they how they experience their lives

This can be a hard one, too. We have more life experience. We remember a time when they were young children and totally dependent on us and we came through for them—here they are!

Yet we can also acknowledge that we don’t always know what they are thinking and feeling, how they are experiencing and interpreting the day-to-day moments of their lives. Sure, maybe we really enjoyed camping at the lake as a family over the last long weekend, but that doesn’t mean they did. And they are not “wrong” to have disliked it. Different personalities and outlooks are just that: different, not wrong.

As I said, none of this is intended to suggest disengagement—that we don’t share our experiences, or that we leave them alone to figure out their own lives. What I hope people get out of this discussion is the inspiration to listen to teens: they have intelligent information and insights about their own lives to share!

Don’t discount what they say just because it’s different from your thoughts and perspective. Again, it’s different, not wrong. Instead, if you try to connect what they’re saying with what you already know, you just might create a bigger picture of the world for yourself. You’re learning too. Which leads to …

We don’t assume that, as parents, we’re always right

This seems to be at the crux of so much parent-teen conflict. At some point, teens are ready for more responsibility, more independence, more freedom. So often parents are determined to keep them in that conventional childhood box as long as possible, the box where parents are 'right' and their children need to do what they’re told.

With this new perspective—that their childhood environment is radically different than ours, that they are experiencing life in their own unique ways, and that our expectations are entangled with our life experiences—it is presumptuous of us to believe that our worldview will fit neatly into their lives. What was right for us (or what we imagine would have been right for us), may not be right for them.

teenage girls talking

Which leads us back to where we started:

Teens are people, too

Just because they are our children, they are not our possessions. They are people. And just because they are our progeny, doesn’t mean we intimately understand them. We need to get to know them. And be open so that they get to know us. Build lasting relationships. And from there we have lasting impact on each others’ lives. My kids have inspired me countless times! I have learned things from them that have made me a better person. We continue to learn from each other.

From childhood, through the teen years, and beyond, everyone wins with strong, connected, respectful relationships.

This post was originally featured on livingjoyfully.ca and has been republished here with permission.

Which part of this article resonated with you? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Pam Laricchia

Pam Laricchia

Contributor

Pam Laricchia is a Canadian unschooling author, speaker and podcaster. She started unschooling her three children in 2002, and now her three young adults are exploring the world in their own unique ways. Her website, livingjoyfully.ca is a treasure trove of resources for families who are travelling an unschooling journey.