True Confessions

I have 1,965 things I need to get done right now, but I’ve decided to take a break and write about something that’s been troubling me. Consider this post my “true confessions,” if you like.

I like school.

There, I said it.

Now, tell me, why does writing those words feel like I’ve said something entirely unforgivable? These days, in the circles I travel in, I fear admitting that I like school may be enough to get me kicked out of said circles. I hope not. I’ve grown kind of fond of the people I’ve met here.

The thing is, since as far back as I can remember, I’ve liked school. I’ve gotten a kick out of not just learning, but learning in school — with great teachers, to boot. I’ll even go so far as to say I’ve been blessed with a number of amazing teachers in my life from grade school through grad school. I’m entirely aware that these individuals helped to shape me, helped me to grow up, and helped me to realize my own potential. Those may seem like trite, idealistic, simplistic concepts. But, for me, they’ve mattered.

It would probably be easy to surmise that I like school because I’m “good” at it. And, honestly, for much of my life I have been good at school. But that hasn’t always been the case. I spent four years at a high school that, basically, kicked my butt. It was a fairly new school, with fairly new, untested approaches, but it was also just plain hard. I wasn’t the smartest kid at the school, not even close. I wasn’t studying subjects that came to me naturally. Looking back on my experience there, I often felt like I was being asked to use a sense that I didn’t have in order to succeed. That was often frustrating and even disheartening. But it was also incredibly instructive. As hard as those four years of my life were, I’ve never been able to really write off that experience or shake a sense of gratitude for the time I had there. It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve begun to think that the point of that passage in my life wasn’t to like school because it was easy or because I was successful but because it WASN’T easy and I WASN’T entirely successful.

All that said, I do think that there is much about our educational system that is broken: standardized testing, mindless drilling, limiting access to new avenues of information, endless infantilization of students (particularly college students), unwillingness to try new kinds of pedagogies, over-emphasis on grades and outcomes as opposed to process, etc., etc. etc.

All THAT said, I balk when I hear people suggest that everything about our schools is broken. Because many of the most tradition-steeped aspects of education were big factors in my own successful relationship with school: (great) lectures, the dreaded term paper, the “sage” teacher. (Also, I loved diagramming sentences.)

All THAT said, I certainly believe that we learn in lots of venues other than school. I certainly have. (Many of the most valuable learning experiences I had in college came during my one-year tenure on the debate team. I can’t imagine more learning crammed into a single activity over the course of one year. )

I’ve had vital, life-altering learning experiences in all kinds of venues: staff meetings (!), conferences, airplanes, bars. I’ve had those experiences with and without the presence of great teachers. I’ve been alone; I’ve been in small and large groups. I’ve been eating. I’ve been drinking — sometimes too much.  And I suspect that this is nothing profound. I’m sure all of us can identify a myriad number of places and circumstances– some predictable and some unexpected — where learning caught us and wouldn’t let us go. Where we had one of those quintessential “learning moments” when suddenly it felt like a hole had opened up in the cloudiness of our brains and we could, just for a moment, see something entirely clearly.

And I deeply respect the people I know who have decided to forge out into new territories, leaving schools and traditional institutions behind. Because I do believe that these other learning venues are vital and need strong voices and vision. And I deeply respect the people I know who have decided to stay at these institutions and fight for rigorous reflection on our practices and innovation and adaptation (and even revolution). And I trust that both groups of people are fighting for the same goals and ideals and that they will do what they can to preserve the best of us and grow in the directions where we have atrophied. And I hope that we can all find a way to talk across these two groups because I don’t believe there is a great divide, only two passages to be built.

And I REFUSE to apologize for liking school. I don’t care if it’s not cool.

I suppose some people could just write me off as a victim of the very schools that I claim to like. I’ve been brain-washed by the system and what I really like is just the thing I’ve been told I should like. Whatever. I know that’s not true. Not for me, anyway.

I like school.

8 thoughts on “True Confessions”

  1. I like school, too. But I also learn in other ways, ways that are sometimes dismissed in schools. What I’d like to see in these conversations and in the future of schools is a both/and approach instead of an either/or approach. That is, we can have both formal and informal learning. Lectures have a place right alongside small group discussion. But we need to be critical of practices and practitioners in a way that we’re not right now. I’ve had some great lecturers in my life, but I’ve had some devastatingly bad ones, some bad enough to drive me away from an entire field of study, and that should never happen. I’ve also had some student-centered approaches that in theory should have been fabulous, but instead, put way too much on the students in a way that we were unable to really learn anything. I think the difficulty we’re running into with education and learning more generally is that learning is a very personal process. Everyone needs different things to learn and sometimes different things for different topics. The system of education, it seems to me, attempts to most efficiently provide a learning environment. I think what’s happened, especially at the K-12 level, is that a kind of inertia has set in where easiest is substituted for most efficient. It’s easier to teach to the test by rote, for example, than to do project-based learning that may indeed teach the same skills, but is more time-consuming and riskier. And this didn’t happen through some grand conspiracy. It happened one teacher at a time, responding to requirements and incentives. What that means, and what I’m hopeful for, is that change can happen one teacher at a time. Because there are teachers and professors who provide a learning environment that’s successful. And what I’m hoping for is a kind of network effects situation where teachers and students collaborate on this project of learning, and show others how it’s done, so to speak. I somehow lost that attitude as I got more and more involved in the administration of things, in the desire for efficiency that became “whatever’s easiest” (which turned out to be Blackboard). Instead what I should have focused on, what we should all focus on, is working from both ends, convincing individuals to change who in turn help foster change among their colleagues and convincing those at the top that easiest isn’t most efficient all the time. It’s a challenge, but a good one. I love school, too, and I want to see the ideal school in my mind thrive, but to do that, as Gardner said in the SXSW panel, it will need to evolve, and evolution is not a top down process.

  2. I’ve listened to a lot of people complaining about our schools. There are many valid points out there. However, I am always left wondering if there aren’t many wonderful aspects to our schools too.

    I think you are right, the attitude seems to be that we need to blow up our current system. That may be what is needed in order to truly manage to meet the needs of our students. I just hope that if we do manage to blow it all up we also manage to put back in the things that have made school work for so many of us for so long.

  3. @Laura Yeah. It’s that working from both ends that seems so important, but also seems to spark so much disagreement. I get that. At heart, I’ve got a lot of revolutionary and rabble rouser (:-) ) in me. I hate to come across as someone who thinks that the institutions we work in don’t have tremendous flaws (that’s my own anxiety — I’m not suggesting you’re saying that was what I was saying). I don’t know. I just feel like there is so much good thinking and good will on both sides of the fence. I hate when it gets sidetracked because of the bad thinking and bad will that also exists — particularly within our traditional institutions.

    @Jenny Exactly. If we have to blow it up, let’s not lose the pieces that really are powerful and transformative just because they’re associated with all the stuff that sucks.

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