As I was reading the first chapters of Who Owns the Learning by Alan November, I was impressed by a couple of quotes that I'd like to ponder here. But, the principles of ownership, purpose, authenticity, autonomy, and self-directed, independent work seemed to stand out in the chapter.
“Education is not preparation for life; Education is life.” - John Dewey. Too often I've heard both teachers and parents explain to their children that what they are doing in school will prepare them for middle school, high school, college or the real world. I know I've used the phrase too, “In high school, your teachers will expect you to know how to write a five-paragraph essay, so we're learning it now in middle school.” But, how authentic is teaching a particular skill, just so it can be mastered in school but not applied in life?
Learning is a social interactive enterprise. In the last year, I had the opportunity to implement a reading/writing workshop in my middle school classroom. We had a set of laptop computers, and a few students brought their own laptops. At the beginning of class, we would meet as a whole group to work on some grammar skills, introduce and practice a new skill, strategy or genre, and review the list of things to do. Usually, students had a choice of activities that including reading, responding, writing, researching or creating a visual response. Then, the students would have workshop time to choose an activity and work on it. Students would grab the computers and spread out across the room. Frequently sitting on the floor with their back against the wall in groups of two or three. As they read or wrote or found an interesting article or fact, they would share with their classmates. I circulated to check in with students, revise with students, or just listen to the conversations. When visitors came into the room, they frequently had trouble finding me, because I was on the floor with the students reading a website or giving feedback on a piece of writing. There was a quiet buzz of activity in the classroom. Students read deeper and wrote more thoughtfully when they had the freedom to talk and share when and how they wanted. Were some students off task at time? Of course, but overall, I think students were more engaged in what they were doing because they had the opportunity to choose their work, their work space, and how they would work.
“We lost the value of children as contributors to the culture of school” (November, 2012, p. 5). A few years ago in a graduate class, I completed a discourse analysis of a set of emails between myself and the parents of one of my students. In George Lakoff's (1980) book Metaphors We Live By, he contends that the metaphors we use every day, often unconsciously, give an indication of how we conceptualize reality. (A summary of Lakoff's chapters 1-4). In my analysis of the emails I sent to these parents, I conceptualized school as a place of business – with assigned tasks, assigned due dates, and evaluations of performance. I used phrases like, “The report was due on [date] and I haven't even seen a rough draft. Since the work is so late, there will be a deduction in points on the final grade.” However, I was not alone in conceptualizing school as a business or factory. It is the dominate metaphor for American schools ever since Taylor's model of efficiency was introduced into schools which produced a factory-like environment for students. Teacher's Mind Resources has an interesting series about the metaphors of education called Transforming Education Part 3: School as Factory: The Greatest Barrier to Transformation. In the factory model, the contribution of the students are not important - the efficiency of measuring students against a standard or benchmark is the goal.
November suggests that we need to let go of existing structures of education to provide spaces for students that give autonomy, master, purpose, self-directedness, and independence to students in their learning. But, I have another area that I think we need to examine. What is valued as knowledge in schools? And, what happens when different types of knowledge are valued by different families, teachers, and administration?