Even though nearly every educator that you may talk to, read, or hear knows that we continue to have a huge educational crisis in this country — things go on as they ever have. Or at least as they ever have since Dewey’s day. Here in the USA, we continue to be hung up on standardized scores. Testing of standardized skills has so much to do with “consumption” of testing curricula, and so little to do with students actually learning to innovate, create, and develop resiliency in their learning and in their doing.
We all say that learning by doing, learning in context, and learning that is relevant is what engages people. And then we ignore this and compel students and teachers to drill, de-contextualize learning, and “teach to the test.” Result: burnout for the creative teachers and alienation for the students.
Our world has become extraordinarily complex and not always easy to navigate. We are not teaching realistically. We are not helping the majority of our students find ways to connect with real learning that challenges them to be creative and that produces innovative thinkers instead of consumers. We are not quite hitting the mark in helping students take joy in being life-long learners (although we talktalktalk about it). And we are missing the mark in helping young people develop into flexible, resilient, adaptive learners who will be able to make their way in a future none of us can quite visualize. Our young people will have to teach us how to get from here to there. They will have to confront issues we haven’t begun to plumb today. Our institutional educational facilities are failing to help them develop the necessary skills to do that.
The entire educational institution reminds me of a big car barreling toward the edge of a chasm at top speed. We can’t get the brakes to stop it before it plunges over the edge with our kids piled inside. We don’t seem to have the sense or the will to simply make a huge u-turn. Sometimes I see the very same image when I think about our entire world — moving headlong toward ecological and social disaster. I’m not a pessimist by nature. In fact, I have often thought of myself as almost pathologically optimistic! So…if I move back to this image time and again, well, that tells me either I’m suffering from a midlife delusion or things really might be that bad.
One thing that gives me hope is talking to and being around home/unschoolers who often seem to find creative ways to bring stimulating, collaborative, experiential, and relevant learning home. I know of a handful of small private schools, scattered around the country, that seem to find creative ways to empower students to learn what is relevant to them in situated, contextual ways — ways that are significant to the students, ways that are experiential, ways that deeply engage the students with each other, with their teachers, and with their communities. Unfortunately, these schools are not available to the majority of young people. Using the results of Patricia Lines’ and Brian Ray’s studies of homeschoolers in the United States, there are anywhere between 1 million and nearly 2 million homeschooled kids going on about learning right now. I suppose their numbers are an educated guess, as many homeschoolers do fly under the radar, for various reasons, and it is unclear sometimes what exactly falls into the category “homeschooling.” Hazarding a guess, based loosely on these numbers, I’d say that there are more homeschoolers than kids attending the very ideal schools I’ve mentioned above.
If those of us who are deeply engaged with home/unschooling can continue to mobilize and support one another to provide learning environments that are experiential, relevant, engaging to the learner, stimulating, holistic, dialogic, collaborative, and fearless, then we may be a large part of the solution to the often-acknowledged crisis in education. We may be the u-turn that is needed. This is not a new idea. John Holt came to the same conclusion decades ago.
Word to myself: under the circumstances, why be afraid of being utopian? Holt wasn’t. Times are even stranger now than when he was writing, when Illich was writing about “deschooling society.” What we’ve got going in the institution isn’t exactly working. Everyone acknowledges that. Let’s be courageous and unafraid to explore our ways of learning in the face of the future.