Reflections from Home

On Friday I saw the last school I’d see during this first major part of my journey. I’m back in Chicago now. During the last nine weeks I’ve learned a great deal about education, met so many kind people, reconnected with friends and family, and broadened my understanding of many places. Since my last post I’ve seen schools in San Francisco/Oakland, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, and Denver.

Some people have asked me what I’ve learned so far. I can say that I am convinced of certain things, but I also recognize that I have much left to learn. The following ideas reflect my thinking as of now:

• If we want young people to grow into independent, responsible adults, we have to allow them to grow into independent, responsible adults. We cannot assume that upon turning eighteen they will automatically take responsibility for their own decisions. Adults–parents, teachers, administrators, the educational system in general–have made the vast majority of decisions for them up to that point–about where to be, what to do, what to learn. From an earlier age, young people should be given the freedom and responsibility to choose what to do with their time. When their decisions become their own, when they really feel they’re in control of their own actions, they will develop responsibility and independence at an earlier age.
• Perhaps the most important aspect of education is that young people feel respected and supported. This is really the foundation of a good education. The problem is that making people feel respected and supported is easier said than done. How many mission statements refer to respecting and supporting the child for who they are? In how many of those schools do young people actually feel this way? What institutional and systemic obstacles are present (they have a tendency to override individuals’ good intentions)? You cannot respect people for who they are while effectively implying that their grades, test scores, or college admissions prospects are indicators of their worth. I even question whether you can respect people for who they are while replacing their agency and freedom to explore with mandated activities for the majority of the day.
• Externally imposed motivators, whether rewards or punishments, have no place in a genuine learning environment. We forget that human beings are naturally disposed to learn. External motivators remove both the pleasure and power of learning. We should follow students’ interests, wherever they lead (I recognize that this requires immense trust). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer ideas, suggest routes, or share what we know–but it does mean that we must learn to do so very thoughtfully, as equals, without pressure or the authority of ‘knowing better’. Ultimately we should be trying to foster and strengthen peoples’ intrinsic motivation to learn. If it seems that the power or the very existence of that drive is not readily apparent, it’s likely because the system has stifled rather than developed it in people.
• People hold a number of unexamined assumptions about education. Many assume that education naturally involves a teacher leading twenty-odd students in instruction. People take this as the base structure around which they might think about trying new approaches. We should feel comfortable questioning the structure of schooling itself and imagine (and seek out) alternative structures. And when it comes to the purpose of education, we all too often go along without questioning our assumptions, without even acknowledging we have assumptions. Many people assume that they implicitly know, that everyone implicitly knows, the goals of education. But what are they? To get a good job? To become an involved citizen? To be happy? Where do each of these ideas come from? Did you arrive at these conclusions yourself?
• Continuing from the above point: Education is inextricably bound to personal and societal values. Discussions about education, like discussions about politics, are not simply about “what works” and “what doesn’t work.” They are more importantly about what end we are working toward. Education is not simply about effectiveness or efficiency. The fallacy of the standards movement is the belief that you can take what is a complex, qualitative goal–to be educated well–and reduce it to few narrow, quantitative measures (See Campbell’s law and Rachel Aviv’s excellent article on a middle school cheating scandal for more on this). The thinking is that if we could have clearly measurable indicators of success we could increase the effectiveness and quality of education by working toward those easy-to-understand goals. But educational goals, like goals in life, are not so simple or homogenous. Were proponents of the standards movement to be honest, they might say they care more about job training and GDP than producing creative, critically-thinking people. If you find that your values align with that thinking, that’s your prerogative. But I challenge you to determine for yourself what you think the goal(s) of education should be.
I’ve been asking people at the schools I visit, “How do you define success for your students?” It’s a difficult question for many educators to answer, and understandably so. Some say they define success as students’ happiness, some say students’ independence, some say students’ being able to create their own definition of success, one said ninety percent of students majoring in STEM related fields in college. There may never be a definitive answer to satisfy us. Nonetheless, I believe we must continuously reflect upon the purpose of what we are doing if we hope to do something purposeful.
On this journey I’ve been lucky enough to receive help and support from so many generous people. I’m deeply grateful to those who opened their homes to me and to those, adults and kids alike, who opened their schools to me and took the time to engage with me.
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A picture of San Francisco’s Brightworks school, which has an emphasis on hands-on projects and tinkering. The campus is a built-up indoor environment inside of a warehouse.

Three Goals

As I set out on my journey into alternative education in the US, I’ve identified three important goals to focus on:

  • The overarching goal for this project is to gain a better understanding of alternative educational practices being used today. I want to know what people are doing to educate against the grain, how (and whether) their approaches work, and the aims behind those approaches.
  • The second goal is to understand how educators, parents, and communities foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I believe that intrinsic motivation is the key to a meaningful education, and that it is sorely lacking in many traditional school settings. It’s easy to observe intrinsic motivation in a young child at play. How can intrinsic motivation be continued into the later years?
  • The third goal is to find out peoples’ notions of the “ultimate purpose” of education, and to see how those notions affect students, parents, teachers, and schools. Is it even necessary to have a clear notion of an “ultimate purpose” in order to be effective?

Thank you for joining me at the beginning of what I hope will be an exciting and fruitful project.

Yours Truly,

Michael Goldberg