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What must we do to transform schools into places of authentic, democratic learning?

1. Adults in school should experience joy in learning every day. This should be the goal:  to give yourself over to the delight of learning something, or pursuing something you care deeply about, or are curious about, every day.  Because if you have joy in your daily learning life, you will bring this light to others.

What’s lighting you up right now?  Today I am learning about the “hedonic hotspots” in the brain; I am thinking about how my consulting team will deal with a conflict over work quality; I am reading about developmental asset models for kids, and how I will teach this.  It’s all fun.  How about you?

What would happen if pleasure and joy became a part of the daily business of the institution?  (Most schools I visit aren’t very joyful places.)  What if we caught ourselves and our colleagues being happy learning something?  What if we were so excited about the new thing we had just thought of, we just couldn’t wait to share?  How can we teach with joy (as Paula and Chad proclaim) if we do not experience joy in learning ourselves, as a daily habit and as a life-sustaining practice?

Think of how that might change things for kids.

2.  Teaching should be organized around learning, not controlling children, testing students, managing institutions, providing employment for adults.  Every principal should be a chief learning officer, busily and professionally expanding their knowledge about how people learn, questioning their assumptions about what motivates people to learn, talking with other folks who are developing mastery in some aspect of learning.  As part of their professional culture, teachers should also be trained to take their own practices as learners seriously.  Teaching should be about becoming a muscular, perceptive LEARNING EXPERT, not only in our own lives, but in observing, noticing, and fostering others’.

Think of how that might change things for kids.

3.  Schools should be kinder places. My friend Ned Hallowell said recently, if we could just convince teachers not to be mean to kids, think of what a difference that would make.  Or another wise person wrote, “Punishment only works for those who don’t need it.”

Many schools I am in are very rushed, judgmental, unkind environments–to kids and adults.  There is lots of perceived scarcity:  too little time, too little money, too many demands.  This makes people edgy, snappish and mean to each other.  This affects learning (stress inhibits higher-level cognitive functioning).  It makes the work so much harder.

Learning, real learning, is subtle, spiritual, not easy to measure, and requires consent.  You cannot (really) force other people to learn things (except negatively).  Consent requires relationship, it often requires kindness.  Not the kind of kindness that says, “don’t try, take it easy,” but the kind of kindness that generates bravery and boldness.  What if schools were kind?

Think about how that would change things for kids.

Like Chad, if you believe these things, be prepared to Be hurt. But when people are mean to you, don’t be mean back.  When they don’t notice your learning, or value it, value theirs.  If you are judged, try not to be judgmental in return.

One of my friends, who was trying to decide between becoming a minister and a teacher said, “teaching is a a form ministry.”  A ministry of learning.

Answering the call to teach should be more joyful, more technically demanding, and more kind.

Think about how that would change things for kids.


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


17 thoughts on “Three

  1. I find resonance with #3. I tell my high school students that they’ll never look back on their high schools years and think, “Is there anyone I could have been more unkind to?”, but they may look back and regret being mean to someone. And, the saying I learned from our character building in third grade, “You don’t have turn blow out my candle to make yours burn brighter.” And I would tell these things to high schoolers, wondering if they were going to laugh me out of the class, but I think it speaks volumes that they would listen and respond with, “That’s true.”

    Posted by Angie B | May 20, 2010, 2:57 pm
    • Angie, Thank you so much for this comment, and for joining the party here. I love this question to high schoolers, asking them to look back and think about kindness. I often find adolescents more clear on these things, if asked genuinely, than adults. When do you talk about this with them? How do you have these discussions? How are you doing this, AND making adequate yearly progress?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 21, 2010, 11:26 am
      • Hi Kirsten!! This is why I am such a fan!! I am going on a philosophical teacher trip with teachers from Argentina.. We are visiting a place where intolerance and repression was carried out like salem, where some of our great teachers inspired like concorde, and where current students are molded, boston… We will have many interchanging of ideas, hope to have some great ones to post. Thanks again for everything….oxooxo

        Posted by norma | May 27, 2010, 8:34 am
  2. Scarcity in schooling – perceived and otherwise – is another rich topic for us to consider, Kirsten.

    Which scarcities are manufactured? Which are authentic? Which, when remedied, will really move society towards health? What human resources do we have within ourselves to amend relation-based scarcities, like those of patience, kindness, and forgiveness?

    To borrow a phrase, what “pedagogies of abundance” do we suggest?

    What if we kept Teaching is Joy journals or blogs, like the force-for-good notebook Laura mentioned?

    Thanks for reminding us of teaching and learning’s joy, Kirsten –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 20, 2010, 5:37 pm
    • So I’m going to put this to you Chad: when do you experience joy in your day in school? Around what? With whom?

      Will you share?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 21, 2010, 11:41 am
      • Here are the contents of my “happy-wagon” from the past few weeks:

        I can see every day that my decisions to focus on relationships and self-directed learning have made for a happier classroom community, one with more warmth, humor, and willingness to learn new things than we had at the start of the year.

        We started a school-wide Sparkling Moments blog for staff. Everyone’s been invited. Half are are signed up on WordPress. A third have posted or commented. Several faculty members have started reading my posts on other blogs, too, and will occasionally mention a post or idea from them.

        We’ve re-normed the kid-talk time of our faculty meetings to share really specific concerns and brainstorm together really specific ways to address them.

        Kid A finished his first book ever.

        Kid B self-talked his way out of insulting a classmate.

        Our Choices intern and technology evangelist has created a small online student community of praise and feedback around the kids’ Cold War Scratch games. The positivity and fun the students have had online with each other’s games have spilled over into compliments in the hall and friendly advice on programming in class. The kids’ games are awesome, too.

        Students have embraced new tools for learning this year, including Scratch, OpenZine, Glogster, SketchUp, and WordPress. One brave 13-year old interested in working for ILM is even learning Blender.

        Students have appreciated the changes we made to our testing routine this year. Our relationships and their feedback about what they wanted in a testing environment really have made for a calm, confident, and happy first week of testing.

        I have two local mentors who have taken care to know me well enough that they complicate things perfectly for me. We often meet here. They have mastered the, “yes, but…,” redirection when I get worn down by inertia. They are engaged in their own vital work in education and make me feel valued in their lives, as well. They lift my work, but don’t manage it or judge it, keeping accountability with me.

        I have a great group of collaborators in my classroom helping pull of our small-group stations and keeping me freed up to experiment with self-directed learning. I feel lucky every day to be teaching how I’m teaching.

        Thanks for the opportunity to reflect, Kirsten – what makes you happy at work, Coöp Friends?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 21, 2010, 2:02 pm
  3. Kirsten,

    I looked and I looked but there’s nothing to rake you over the coals about here. Three very sound ideas that absolutely are “must-do’s” and should be implemented immediately.

    It is a joy learning with you! What lights me up currently is cultural reform and permaculture, that’s what I am digging into now. I am also using Martin Luther King Jr’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” and The Earth Charter to inspire and formulate a new personal mission statement.

    With hope,

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 20, 2010, 10:47 pm
  4. Adam, Thank you for these links. I just went to The Earth Charter, and it is inspiring and important; I have passed it on to my son. My 19-year-old son, who has turned our entire household into vegans, is going to study sustainable urban agriculture at McGill next year. His anarchic, activist vision, which is that we must in small, coherent communities remake our way of living on this planet, gives me hope about being transformed by a new group of revolutionaries.

    What are you hopeful about? Who inspires you?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 21, 2010, 11:46 am
    • (Anne Carson used to teach at McGill. I love her poetry. – C)

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 21, 2010, 2:06 pm
    • Kirsten,

      I like your son! He and others like him give me hope. I see shining examples of beautiful character (like your son, and everyone here at the Co-op) every day, and I know that is these people that are keeping the world out of total decay and chaos.

      In many faith traditions it is said that the few lead the many, and this is not in the sense of our current technocracy, but rather there will always be a few people with beautiful personalities that lead the many out of darkness. This is wonderfully portrayed by J.R.R Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings series.

      As for who inspires me, this man, Wolf Richards, has had great influence in my life and always inspires me. This group here at the Co-op inspires me, my beautiful family of friends inspires me, and without fail Nature, the more-than-human world, always inspires me. Paul Stamets inspires me. Life also has seemed to always provide me with perfectly synchronistic events that uplift me, inspire and transform me. For example, today you mention your son, and last night I met a young man, a senior in high school, who has chosen to study slow-food as his senior study project. He goes to a relatively progressive school that gives Seniors the month of May off of classes to study whatever they want. Others chose things like surfing, he chose slow-food. Nothing against surfing, but this young man’s interest in the world beyond himself was inspiring.

      Speaking about last night, this young man, and your son, I just watched DIRT! The Movie last night and there were many great examples of people doing great work in sustainable urban agriculture. I am trying to sort out what I want to focus on in my doctoral work, and after watching the movie, I think I might study the effects on the people in communities that engage in ecological restoration and sustainability. This could integrate my work and studies in eco-psychology and education, while furthering my involvement in cultural reform.

      While I figure that out I hope to begin taking some course at Yestermorrow, a brilliant place in Vermont.

      How about you, Kirsten and Co-op, what gives you hope? Who inspires you?

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 21, 2010, 3:04 pm
  5. Kirsten,

    Thank you for these thoughts. I was inspired by them and wrote about my own thoughts:

    I find that attitude: joy, happiness, fun, are as important as knowledge or skill when it comes to teaching or any job in a school. I only hire folks that seem to really like kids and have a positive attitude. I’ve taken some risks with unproven, positive teachers over those more experienced and been right more often than not.

    Again, thanks for sharing your ideas.

    Posted by Larry @fliegs | May 24, 2010, 11:39 pm
  6. Thank you for these posts, I was at a futurecorp workshop for teachers yesterday and they gave some great presentations on service learning. What came through the most about these teachers was their love for the students. This is easy to come by in the younger grades but in High School , not so much. They showed us how compassionate and caring these students were and how involved they got in the projects, the learning and the mentoring of others. Ofcourse we are always faced with the underlying question of “chicken or egg?” I feel that the feeling I got from those teachers is what they transmit to their students, and students absorb what makes sense to them…and teachers who bring out the best of students instead of the worst makes sense to them I am sure…

    Posted by norma | May 27, 2010, 8:21 am
    • Norma, This is powerful to me, what you are getting at here, that the environment between teacher and student is “co-created,” something both parties, all parties must mindfully construct. I experience great hostility towards students in high school among many teachers and staff: disparaging comments, talk about lack of ability, “that kind of kid,” other labeling. In elementary school the humanity of children seems to be more apparent, but as children begin to move through middle school and high school, many adults become much more punitive, judgmental, angry about missteps. What could be done about this?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 27, 2010, 10:25 am
      • Well for one I invited both the teachers to the coop, I hope they can join us. Its a hard thing to change, there are so many aspects to one’s prejudicial or non-accepting judging that could mainly come from the disparity between the “ideal” that a teacher has and the “reality” of it. I feel too much effort is put on the potential teachers mastering the subject they wil be teaching and not enough about intrinsically understanding the complexity of the subjects they will be teaching to? I think maybe they forget about the biggest and most unpredictable of the variables in the equation…”the human factor” and the fact that the students are not empty slates to which we are feeding information?? I think that it is easier to blame the students than to maybe question if they could be doing something different to achieve engagement and true learning?? I was proctoring one of the ELA tests and one of the teachers came in and stood next to a student who was tapping a pencil on the desk…she didn’t say anything but continued standing. Then she said ” how disrespectful! I am standing right next to you and you don’t stop” and she made him leave the room?? I was appalled, the next day a different teacher made this statement ” i know that if I was taking the test, any tapping of sound would really make me not be able to concentrate, so please try not to do it because there may be others who have the same problem” …everything went smoothly, not a tap, not an angry teacher, not a reprimanded student….

        Maybe it has to do with the premise that we are there to” fix “i because some are raised as children to think that kids are bad nstead of ‘enhancing” because they believe that they are already good and just need to get better or allowing for the student to evolve trhough us not by us???

        When dealing with little ones, or teens I say they always behave for me , and people think i am lying….but they do behave, they jsust behave like kids, or teens , or bored students or fidgety adolescents, etc. Its up to us to understand that and bring the best out of them but with realistic expectations of the starting point and “human factor” and then making them change any behavior that although appropriate for their age may not be appropriate for the situation by pointing out and allowing them to practice or try it again through reasoning of the situation and their collaboration of the best way to modify.
        Not easy but you have to see them all as potential geniuses or potential humanitarians or as even having great potential, not get fixed on the raw product or the ideal of the end result before it is completed…michael angelo said of his masterpieces somthing to the effect of “david was always in there, i just had to get rid of the excess pieces” and i think that is the mentality some lack when looking at children???


        Posted by norma | May 27, 2010, 11:09 am

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