I haven’t yet read da blogfather’s latest book. I have it on my kindle, but the last few days having involved cat illnesses, stupid house tricks, even stupider car tricks and other such interesting, not to say terminally diverting occasions, I haven’t had the time to finish Necropolis and move on to The New School. (And for those who have no idea who da blogfather is – Which planet did you just land from, and no, I will not take you to our leader. There’s some discussion on who that is, and he official one is probably golfing – his name is Glenn Reynolds.)
I’ve read excerpts, and I’m looking forward to reading the book.
As most of you know, I came head to wall with how inadequate our school system is when the kids first entered middle school. It wasn’t so bad with First Son, where the “problem” was simply plummeting grades and the teachers telling me they didn’t have anything new to teach him. (Which considering he was in sixth grade, shocked me.) It was solved by moving him to a new school and a more demanding program.
However, First Son has always been extremely verbal for a boy, and could compete handily in the world of education, even if it was geared to a more verbal presentation.
Second Son is more stereotypically male. In many ways his brain is almost a stereotypical male brain, good with math and spatial reasoning, just now getting to his stride in verbal (though even in that he was fairly above average according to tests.)
But he also had some sensory issues, not uncommon in boys, for instance issues hearing, particularly in a loud classroom.
This made him very, very unlike the other children, and the school didn’t seem to know how to deal with “different” except by assuming it is willful. So they kept punishing him for things he couldn’t help. They also assumed everything he did was malicious. That was before the whole bullying incident. (And of course every time a kid is treated as different by a teacher, the kids pile on, anyway.)
Anyway – I’m not mad in love with American schooling. Colleges are better, because they allow more choice and because the population is more self-selected, at least in STEM.
My own schooling would have been considered erratic by American standards. I’m not absolutely sure whether Portugal too adapted the Prussian schooling methods. Perhaps not, as, like Britain, it seems to have a dual path – to the professions and to academics.
The village was still transitioning from a stage in which the kids were taught what we’d consider elementary school by “dame schools” which is a fancy word for a woman with some learning (which could be just her letters and some cyphering) who would set up a one-room school in her living room. Some took only girls and taught them to embroider as well as read and write. My grandma dropped out at the equivalent of third grade, because she loved reading and writing (and had the most beautiful handwriting) but HATED embroidery and lace making and was tired of being called stupid because of that.
These teachers were colorful characters in themselves, I think. Well, not my grandmother’s older sister, who ran a mixed school room, and whom I barely remember (she died when I was six) save for two things: at her wake, my grandmother taught me to make filet crochet in order to keep me quiet. It remains one of the few kinds of crochet I can do. And she left me her glasses. I think I played with them until I lost them, which is a pity and not just because they’d probably now be worth money.
But the lady who taught me for about six months, then brought me back to grandma with the recommendation she keep me at home till the public school teachers were forced by law to put up with me when I entered first grade was. (No, I didn’t scream, steal other kids’ lunches, or refuse to work. She could deal with all of those. I was a barracks lawyer and every time she punished a kid I came to the defense. Hitting me just made me talk more/louder.)
She had been some society girl, according to local lore. (This could mean anything, including that her parents lived in the city and were moderately well to do/white collar.) She got seduced by a married man, who bought her a cottage in this remote (then) village, and paid her bills until he got tired of her. Then he left her adrift, amid the probably hostile, certainly judgmental, villagers. I don’t know how she had the nerve, but she hung up the shingle saying she’d teach children for x a month. She died doing it at eighty, respected, and having taught most of the village their first letters. (My aunt who was the elder schoolmarm taught at the other end of the village, and I understand mothers – then – were more confident sending daughters to her. She was also more expensive.)
My mom OTOH learned her first letters at a lady who went by the name “Barrel of Sewage” in her village. Mom said it was the way she smelled. Which goes to show.
But that’s the thing. There was public schooling when I grew up, but people didn’t really trust it to teach kids the first stuff – at any rate it started much too late, around 7. Kids were sent to Dona Maria as early as three. (Their formal schooling then often ended at ten.)
And formal schooling was less formal than you expect. I remember my first day of school vividly. No one had told me anything. I woke up at the normal time, had my leisurely breakfast, then mom walked me to the school and handed me in. All the other girls were already there.
But until fourth grade, and then only if the teacher thought you had the potential to test into the academic track, no one much cared when you arrived. People went shopping with their mothers and were dropped off two hours late. Parents came to pick up the kids really early. No one cared. We had a half hour recess midday when we were allowed to run around like crazy. If the teacher was feeling poorly, which often happened, the recess could turn into an hour or two. (Which is why we had time for what I now know were LARP.)
I missed every other week due to being sick, and no one said anything because a) they knew I as one of the better students and b) they knew I was sick.
When I tested into the academic track and went into middle school ( 5th and 6th) grade, things were more formal and stratified, but there was still a lot of slack, and provided you tested well, you got away with an awful lot. Less in high school and still less in college, but even in college, I read blank papers because I’d forgotten to do homework, and it didn’t affect my grades any.
Some parts of it were terribly regimented (until the revolution we had to wear pinafores over our clothes. The idea was a cheap school uniform, which I’d have tolerated better if my middle school pinafore color weren’t p*ss yellow which makes me look sickly and sallow.) But most of it was almost endlessly adaptable and pliable.
What I mean is, encountering American “you must turn homework in on day so and so” was a shock to the system. And the system here has got a lot more regimented since.
But even in high school and college, I had the benefit of three (full) free months in summer, two weeks Easter, two weeks Christmas and sometimes endless teacher strikes.
Benefit? Well, yes. That’s when I read and studied stuff the school didn’t teach (I always studied my brother’s books, for instance.) This makes me understand completely Mark Twain’s bit about never letting school interfere with your education.
But then I came across this article.
Over many years, I’ve observed learning at one such place, the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts. The students, who range in age from four to about 18, are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. These regulations, which have been created democratically by the children and staff together, have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order. The school currently has about 150 students and ten staff members, and it operates on a per-child budget that is less than half that of the surrounding public schools. It accepts essentially all the students who apply and whose parents agree to enroll them.
Today there are about two dozen schools in the United States that are explicitly modeled after Sudbury Valley, and still others that have most of its basic characteristics. Compared with other private institutions, these schools charge low tuitions, and some have sliding tuition scales. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
To people who haven’t witnessed it firsthand, it’s hard to imagine how such a school could work. Yet Sudbury Valley has been in existence for 45 years and has hundreds of graduates who are thriving in the real world.
Read the whole thing. I’m not saying that their model isn’t better than the current model, or that it won’t work spectacularly for many kids. But…
But the school they’re talking about is called a “democratic model” and they are assuming (like the people who assume everyone wants to work hard) that every kid wants to learn. In Hunter-gatherer societies every kid wants to learn because there’s no life outside the tribe (and there are no other models of adult, either.) Here…
If we’d had a “democratic school” in the village, half the farmer girls would have learned nothing EXCEPT needlework, because they saw the use of that. We routinely heard “I don’t need to know how to read to be a wife and mother.”
The thing about kids is that they’re kids. They might want to learn, but not having any idea of what the world is like, learning the complete list of pokemans (once Robert’s ambition) is as important as the multiplication tables. More, since it makes your classmates jealous.
We had direction from a schoolmarm, who told us that spelling, reading and arithmetic were not open to discussion. And everyone learned to read, including the deficient girl.
Was it wonderful? Well directed? Oh, heck. We memorized train schedules for the entire country on the assumption they’d never change and we’d use them every day. It was mandated curriculum.
But we did learn the basics, which we otherwise might not have.
I think in our tech-advanced and savvy society the solution is more complex than “this is the way every kid should learn.”
If the democratic school works for some kids, let them have the democratic school; if some kids learn better in a top down school let them have that (but make sure it teaches needed stuff, not indoctrination.) If your kid learns better at home or in peer-groups, or via computer, or whatever, let them have that.
The virtue of our world as it now is – and the reason I say the next system to get hit is education. Hit with new opportunities and the sort of opening up we’ve seen in Publishing – is that if one thing doesn’t work, you can do the other.
We shouldn’t be trying to identify “the one best method” but allowing sufficient flexibility within existing methods that kids can then learn as each learns best.
Is our current system damaging kids? Assuredly. Particularly boys. If I had my way again, I’d have homeschooled the boys and hired tutors for the sciences. Of course, I probably wouldn’t have started writing except the last four years, but it would have been worth it.
My boys are largely self-directed which is good – and demanding which is not from a mom-who-wants-to-be-writer pov.
But if I knew then what I know now, I would have tried.
And what we should be working on is opening possibilities for families, and letting them know what is available. Also stopping the confiscation of tax money to favor only one model.
Can we do it? I think it will happen one way or another. The important thing is to be ready.