Saturday, February 23, 2008

Working on the Bust-Out!

Students 2.0

Amateur Education

Posted: 22 Feb 2008 10:12 PM CST

Locking doors

Public School, Rural America; 12:30 pm

One by one, we file past the teacher-turned-prison-guard. As each of us passed, she engages us in a confirmation ritual. “Work?” “Check.” “Book?” “Check.” That is the last word uttered for one and a half hours. For this period, we must sit silently with heads in books and work, where our mouths are conveniently positioned to be incapable of questioning. We cannot leave—even to seek the help of a teacher. In the only time during the day when most students actually work, we are treated like convicts. We must work (not learn) in the most efficient way possible. We are widgets in the machine of school. We are unwillingly being conscripted into a hostile intervention.

Interventions also happen behind other closed doors—in the justice system:

Intervention: Programs or services that are intended to disrupt the delinquency process and prevent a youth from penetrating further into the juvenile justice system. ~Kentucky Juvenile Justice Advisory Board

For me, this represents the epitome of what it is wrong in public school education—learning is seen as a laborious activity which students must literally be locked into doing. When one intervenes in something, one alters the direction it is heading in. Therefore, the assumption when students are put into intervention is that their learning direction must be altered. This would be fine (many of my peers do need to have intervention in their life/learning direction), except the course is required. No matter the direction of your learning or how well you are doing, you are forced into a silent study period. See where I am going with this? Before I even start school, I am scheduled for an intervention in my learning. The equivalent would be signing up your baby girl for drug rehab 16 years in advance.

Rows of chairs

Step back and consider the way education is approached in the majority of classrooms: as a dreaded task. Complicated assessment patterns are devised to be carrots for students to do their work. Meanwhile, sticks of punishment are given to those who do not do their job. Forced study halls are created in order to ensure we all keep our noses in books, where our voices are conveniently stifled. Of course, this is all done under the principal that students need to be forced to learn.

Wait. There is something wrong with the picture here. Frankly, I think schools are becoming far too business-like. Many of my peers often think of school as unpaid work. Of course, professionalism is continually emphasized as the highest principle for which students must strive. Schools even use the same reward/punishment system as the workplace: good grades = good job = $$$ and failing school = unemployment ≠ $$$. I think this is the core of what is wrong with schools: all students are expected to be professional students. That is, it is expected that we will only learn if we are forced to do so either because we desire the reward (grades) or fear the punishment (failing). In fact, this is setting up students to hate learning.

That might be a dangerous accusation, but I think it is an ultimately true one. After all, students are treated as if they already do hate learning. Grades, forced study times, detentions, and graduation requirements are all safeguards built to force students into learning. My philosophy is that if you treat a problem, there will soon be a problem; this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By treating students as if we hate and will avoid learning at all costs, we will hate and avoid learning at all costs.

Naturally, the alternative is to encourage amateur learning: learning which is done for the love of it rather than for some distant paycheck. The argument against this is that students will not learn the skills they need to be successful citizens. I vastly disagree for the simple reason that every young child wants to grow up to be a successful citizen. Nobody is born hating learning—they grow to hate it through successively being treated as if they should hate it. No child is born thinking I am bad at math—they think that after being told it many times (in different words). Think of it like this: there is only so much education which can be packed into 12 years of school. What if instead of trying to build students the perfect toolbox, schools taught students to make their own tools? If students are never taught to hate/fear learning, they will not shy away from learning opportunities. The teachers and resources are available for life-long, anytime learning; students must simply have their original love of learning preserved.


Imagine: Peter is a student in a self-directed learning environment. In the primary grades, he takes a wide mix of classes, primarily due to peer pressure and recommendations from friends/family. In these classes, he learns the basics: reading, mathematics fundamentals, grammar, and how to research. As he moves up in the grades, he narrows his focus upon writing, eventually phasing out mathematics classes. Throughout the process, no class or work is forced upon him: he is given the options and selects the choices for himself. Consequently, since learning is never treated as a hated activity, he never learns to hate learning but instead preserves the innate love of it. Down the line, Peter has written a best-selling novel and is trying to invest the money he earned. As any intelligent person would, he is trying to figure out the best option from the choices banks have presented him with. To be clear, Peter never learned about exponential equations or compound interest in school. However, because he still loves to learn he simply taps into Google and finds the resources necessary for him to evaluate the choices. Due to Peter being an amateur learner, he actively seeks out opportunities to learn, even though nobody is forcing him to.

The rational for not encouraging self directed learning is that simply packing students with as much knowledge possible (no matter the cost) is most efficient. However, the problem arises with the information that students do not get into their memory: since most of them will end up fearing/despising learning they will not add anything to it after school. Meanwhile, students who pursue learning on their own terms may well know less information on their exit from formal schooling. However, that information is not static: they are readily adding to it through additional learning. The traditional model has been to treat students like hard drives: packing them with 12 TB of knowledge before all cables are cut. I’d rather get out of school with only 1 GB of knowledge and a connection to the internet&mdashl;at least then I can continually add to that store. Schools must make a choice: do they want to try to stuff as much learning as possible down students’ throats or do they want to give students a hunger for learning?

I don’t want to be a professional student; I want to be an amateur learner.

  1. Photo by Still Burning on Flickr
  2. Photo by smallestbones on Flickr
  3. Photo by Marcus Vegas on Flickr

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