Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Twitter Book Club: John Holt (1972) Freedom and Beyond

Ch 1 Freedom and Beyond

I don't think that this can be overstated. In case something happens to TwitLonger I'll repost it in full:
"children are by nature smart, energetic, curious, eager to learn, and good at learning; that they do not need to be bribed and bullied to learn; that they learn best when they are happy, active, involved, and interested in what they are doing; that they learn least, or not at all, when they are bored, threatened, humiliated, frightened." Holt

Holt goes on in the last chapter of this book to identify the purposes he sees schools serving. Those are custodial, ranking and sorting, social engineering, and indoctrination. He also says that these purposes are at odds with each other and at odds with the educative purpose which gets lost to these other ends.

Ch 4 Some Tensions of Freedom

"most adults, seeing what look like the hopelessly chaotic efforts of children to put some order into their own affairs, never wait long enough to give them a chance to do it."

I have noticed this with my students this year. I have noticed that a lot of them come to me with a kind of learned helplessness, expecting me to tell them everything they are supposed to do and expecting me to give them all the "correct" answers. As a teacher I operate best running an open classroom where students engage in personally meaningful projects and I act as a kind of guide or resource to help them reach their own goals. However, when I try this in my classroom I notice one of two things happen: either I get a lot of students choosing to engage in off-task kinds of behaviors like video games or I get a lot of students raising their hands repeating, "I need help. I need help." It takes a long time for students to break through both of these behaviors. The second is easier to deal with. I've used strategies like telling them to make a guess or ask a neighbor before raising their hand. At first most of them seem astonished by this advice as if I were asking them to cheat. But, after not very long at all these students seem to find their way. The other group is a bit more difficult to deal with only because I know what it must look like to visitors in my classroom to see all these kids playing games. But, for some of them this is what they need and given enough wait time with these students all of them end up finding very interesting projects to get into. The key with both groups is to make accessible interesting tools and to let them see examples of the kinds of things they can do with them. And, it doesn't hurt in the least to take an interest in the games and other diversions these kids engage with. Often that can be a hook that can lead to some powerful learning for that student.

"Every time we try to manage the lives of young people, we give up the chance to see how they might manage their own lives, and to learn what we might have learned from their doing it."

"One way of defining a bureaucracy might be that it is an organization that has learned so much from the past that it can't learn anything from the present."

It is from bureaucracies that things like curriculum standards are born, the nature of which rests with preserving the past. Makes sense when viewed through this lens.

Ch 5 Authority

"Find instead something to do that you can throw yourself into. Let the students see you genuinely interested. Let them see your intelligence, imagination, and energy at work. Then and only then will you be exercising true adult authority."
I have bumped heads with other teachers and administrators about this issue in the past. As an art teacher I always felt that the best way for me to serve my students was to also be a practicing professional artist. This would give me the authority to teach from experience. But I also felt it was important for them to see me working as an artist. Every project I would give them I would also complete alongside them. In this students could learn from watching me work but in engaging in the same activity as them I was placed in a unique social role in the classroom. Students were free to ask questions and engage me in discussions regarding their own inquiries. This also fostered community building and strengthened bonds between teacher and student. Some of my coworkers felt that by spending class time to work on my own studio work I was ignoring my classroom duties. On the contrary, my studio work was my greatest teaching asset. When I was forced once to give it up I lost all authority in the classroom.

"What we really need are schools or learning resource centers that are not just for kids, but where adults come of their own free will to learn what they are interested in, and in which children are free to learn with and among them."

Ch 6 The Problem of Choice

"A student in a traditional school learns before long in a hundred different ways that the school is not on his side; that it is working, not for him, but for the community and the state; that it is not interested in him except as he serves its purposes; and that among all the reasons for which the adults in the school do things, his happiness, health, and growth are by far the least important."

I asked my students to write on the board every type of technology they could find in the room today. I did this for three different classes. Every time the first technologies to go up were computer or electronic technologies followed by mechanical technologies. In one class students came up with building materials like concrete and plastic and in another class the students actually identified the school itself as a technology. In all three cases it was not until I gave lots and lots of wait time before they made the leap to challenge their internal definition of technology and recognize those things like clocks, pencils, and desks as falling under its umbrella. I think these things have become so familiar that they were invisible.

I believe this is exactly why so many of my students this year had so much trouble getting settled into an open classroom.

"The problem is that because of pressure from anxious or angry adults in the community, or our own worries about what is important, we are afraid to let the students think, read, and write about what we know very well they are interested in."
I feel this pressure all the time. All the time.

"an oppressive high school in a low-income community may not be a very promising place for a teacher to work in to bring about educational change."

This is why we see things like the production gap and more conservative education practices used with poor kids. When I read this I got a bit emotional because this statement seems to validate a lot of what I have felt in my current teaching situation. The unjust thing is that it is exactly students in those low-income communities in most need of educational change.

Ch 8 Beyond Schooling

"I have come to feel that the deschooled society, a society in which learning is not separated from but joined to, part of the rest of life, is not a luxury for which we can wait hundreds of years, but something toward which we must move and work as quickly as possible."

"as we put more and more of our educational resources into schools, we have less and less left over for those institutions that are truly open and educative and in which more and more people might learn for themselves."

Ch 9 Schooling and Poverty

"To deny or even question the all-importance of growth is to attack Truth itself. Much safer these days to deny the existence or importance of God."

This is a difficult issue to address but I have come to see it as a central issue with our federal education policy. Everything is about progress, moving forward, achievement, etc. Holt says it is the one and only true world-wide religion. What about sustainability, joy, and contentment? Steve Jobs famously said, "stay hungry." This attitude worked very well for him in a world that worships progress. But with progress come costs. At what point do we find ourselves needing to step back and change our mindset from one of moving forward to one of stewardship of what we have?

Ch 10 Deschooling and the Poor

"schools and schooling, by their very nature, purposes, structure, and ways of working are, and are meant to be, an obstacle to poor kids, designed and built not to move them up in the world but to keep them at the bottom of it and to make them think it is their own fault."

"what schools demand of poor kids, as a condition of being given a chance to learn some skills that might get them into the middle class, is that they act as if they were already in it."

Just had a conversation at lunch today with a group of teachers talking about how they would like to mandate that the kids in our school always use proper English while in school. This was suggested all with good intention but I couldn't help thinking about this quote.

"school teaches above all the superiority of the schooled, and one of the very first and most important requirements for getting ahead in school and rising in the world is that the student accept this myth as true."

"It is only recently, at least on a large scale, that man has come to think that learning best takes place in an institution that doesn't produce anything but learning."

I tried to think on my drive home yesterday how a school might produce something other than learning, how it might make itself self-sufficient. I had a lot of trouble coming up with anything beyond the trivial. Corporate industry and cheap outsourced labor have made it nearly impossible to generate any real income from production of a good or service. The one thing schools do produce are consumers.

Ch 11 Reading Without Schooling

This goes for nearly every other type of learning as well.

I love that quote, lets repeat it in large print:

"True education doesn't quiet things down; it stirs them up. It awakens consciousness. It destroys myths."

Ch 12 Schools Against Themselves

"it seems to me foolish to put all our hopes for a truly educative society or enlightened way of rearing children into the basket of school reform."

"Universal compulsory schools are not and were never meant to be humane institutions, and most of their fundamental purposes, tasks, missions, are not humane."

"Proposals for merit pay are and will remain at best useless and at worst harmful as long as some administrative superior judges this merit, or as long as we try to measure it by such things as achievement test scores."

Yet I have never seen a proposal for merit pay that did not base its criteria on one of these two questionable categories.

"If we turn schools into a kind of cream separator, if we give to schools the business of finding and training a future elite, if in short we turn education into a race, with winners and losers, as in all races we are going to have many more losers than winners."

Which is exactly what Race to the Top does. Right?

"We cannot expect large numbers of children to trust us if they know, as before long most of them do, that an important part of our job is compiling records on them which will be used to judge them for much of the rest of their life."

I certainly have trouble trusting anyone with this power over me.

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