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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Lessons Learned from MAAP 2011

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people in the America lived on small farms in a self-sustaining fashion. They rose in the morning struggled for existence and made their way through life. But best evidence points that over 90% of the population was highly literate. Compulsory school laws were few and non-existent. The first U.S. law was enacted in 1852 in the State of Massachusetts. I have often wondered why the state became involved in mass schooling. Why are children forced to go to school? Why are schools designed in an age-segregated content silo delivery system? What is the objective of using this design?

Having set the stage, I just attended the 2011 Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) Conference in Duluth. As I previously wrote in a recent blog, MAAP is one of my favorite events of the year. On Wednesday of the conference Shane Krukowski and I gave a two-hour workshop on motivation and adolescents. (See link for a PDF of the presentation) This year researcher and authorAlfie Kohn gave a number of addresses at the conference, and stated, “What adolescents most desperately need, most high schools seem designed to thwart.”

In our presentation, others and Alfie Kohn’s, autonomy was the common thread woven into the conference. Anyone who has raised a three year old knows this concept intimately. In my house, Piper, our three year old constantly shouts out with great conviction, “I do it myself!”

This desire to master the world to explore to become as Alfie states, “Competent.” Or as Daniel Pink renames into the concept of self-mastery, means nothing to Piper. All she knows it that she is learning new concepts and applying prior knowledge to old and new situations. This desire for choice and control over her own actions does not fade with time, I suspect if left to her our free will she will increase the desire to construct meaning and mastery over her own world at her own pace.

Yet, when one walks into the high school environment of public schools, it seems that the people who designed the institution were intent on exerting as much control over the students as possible. Rarely do students get to pick the topic of learning in a given day. More often than not students are forced to endure subtle and blatant acts of wounding and indoctrination. (See Kirsten Olson’s book,Wounded by School) If the research is correct and human beings desire and perform better when given autonomy, (See RSA Video on Motivation from Daniel Pink) then why is the system set up with the primary purpose of controlling behavior. As Alfie stated when he divided the world into two camps, those who “do to students” versus those who ” do with students.”

These thoughts bring me back to the primary questions of this article. Why are children forced to go to school? Why are schools designed in an age-segregated content silo delivery system? What is the objective of using this design? I would argue and others like John Taylor Gatto would agree, that by creating a system of schooling that values compliance over creativity, control over freedom, obedience over critical thinking, the system perpetuates a desire to have students become consumers of education rather than creators of education. At the turn of the century, this was desirable. Factories needed workers to move from being autonomous rural landholders to compliant and dependable line workers. The factory line could not tolerate creative independent individuals. So as a function of this need schools filled the role of pre-training the workers for the Industrial Revolution. Today, we are still left with this legacy. In Robert Epstein’s book The Case Against Adolescence, he states that today’s adolescents have more laws restricting their freedom than convicted felons. We seem to forget that the age of the American Revolutionary Soldier was 16.

In Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap, he argues that schools need to redesign their end goals to promote seven essential survival skills for the 21st Century. These skills are in direct conflict with the current school design of today’s schools, which focuses largely on rote memorization of content.

Underlying all of these concepts is the foundation of autonomy. There is a tendency to promote lower order thinking skills in an effort to control adolescents, when developmentally they need the exact opposite. Can we design schools where real choice exists? That is what is incredible about Minnesota and MAAP. Members from MAAP help start the first alternative schools, the first charter schools[1], and the first Post-secondary-enrollment laws. Schools like Jennings Community Learning CenterNorthwest Passage High School, and Minnesota New Country School, which were started in the early days of the MN charter school law are exemplars of student centered programming. All three focus on youth development needs and have designed their schools to place these concepts at the forefront.

MAAP members continue push for innovation and autonomy for their staff, students and the communities they serve. In an era of standardization, MAAP stands as buffer for students and their families, because what is needed today is an explosion of creativity not an implosion of compliance.

[1] I make the distinction of charter schools that are democratic and community focused in nature and are independently run.

About Jamie Steckart

Currently the Head of Academic Affairs for the Qatar Leadership Academy. Passionate about experiential and project based learning.


9 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from MAAP 2011

  1. Excellent post Jamie! It’s ironic, on yesterday my students read Gatto’s “The Seven Lesson School Teacher.” Today they read, Kohn’s “Standardized Testing and Its Victims”. Tomorrow we will read and discuss your blog post.

    You mentioned Pink’s notion of mastery. I really like how Pink wove together autonomy, mastery, and purpose. What if we take what Pink was saying about individuals needing these traits to flourish and apply them to the school system. If schools provide limited autonomy, and they don’t lead to mastery, then what is their purpose? For all the questioning that I do with the current system, I have never actually questioned it’s purpose until very recently. Thank you for writing a reflective piece, summarizing MAAP, and having awesome links! I look forward to reading more in the future.

    Posted by Michael | March 3, 2011, 1:52 am
  2. I would very much like for all schools to go through the process of prioritizing what counts and aligning resources to support those priorities, Jamie. Did you assemble a faculty that came to the table with your school’s priorities in mind, or did the school’s priorities emerge as consensus from diverse suggestions? I’m curious about the process as a case study for other schools and divisions.

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 3, 2011, 7:24 pm
  3. @ Michael,
    As a former builder, I look a the design of things as the underlying purpose for which people will carry out their functions. I’m sure everyone who loves to cook gets frustrated by a poorly designed kitchen. This is the case with schools. Does the 30×30 box rooms we use as the fundamental template for schools promote collaboration? Do age segregated classrooms promote effective learning. Does the batch processing of students promote individualization that children need to thrive? I could go on and on about the design flaws that hinder Pink and others research on motivation and healthy human development. Accepting that we have a design flaw in schooling gives us a direction to take, and things to change. As opposed to “tinkering” around the edges, i.e. teacher effectiveness. I don’t care how effective the teacher is, they will continue to run into barriers due to a poorly constructed “kitchen”.

    @ Chad,
    We sat down as a team and made the priorities, and the first one was a total redesign of our facilities. The facility strategic plan was first and we began by asking the question: How do we want to teach? Developmentally what kind of learning environments do children need to thrive? We came up with three pillars of spending: Technology, 30-60k each year is spent; Focused mission driven staff development, 20-40k; Field experiences 65k-140k. We fund these areas through our per pupil allocation, no fund raising. I wanted to develop a sustainable model.

    As a side note, one of the things, I have seen recently is that we have less square footage than other schools of our size, 20k, but it never seems crowded due to our extensive community programming. It seems that on most days a third of the students are out and about with staff in the community.

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | March 4, 2011, 10:31 am
  4. Wow Jamie. So much here. It’s a veritable book. (I signed up to look at your PDF.)

    So here’s what I’m wondering, with intent to visit the school as soon as I can get my body there: are you achieving what you wish at Northwest Passage? Will your own children go there?

    Where are the growing edges at your school, given all your right-thinking, reflection, and the models you stand on? You are in a unique position to describe for us what a deeply reflective educator, with a lot of wind at his back, and in a relatively supportive reform and policy climate, can say about doing the work for a sustained period of time.

    I look forward to this.


    Posted by Kirsten | March 4, 2011, 1:10 pm
  5. @ Kirsten, I am working on a piece with real practical implications. My kids live far from our school and I commute to it during the week. I am working with a group of parents in our location to help start a democratic charter school. I will be posting it soon.

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | March 4, 2011, 4:28 pm


  1. Pingback: Rural School Districts, Design Flaws, and the Need for Change: | Cooperative Catalyst - March 4, 2011

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