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Learning at its Best

A Question of Failure

Before this last year, I’d never really worked in education.  There was a brief stint volunteering in a 4th grade class, but other than that all my experience in the realm of education came from the 17 years I spent learning in it.  In college, I studied Communication with a focus on documentary filmmaking.  But, I decided to take a job working with a small alternative education program, mainly for the fact that I wanted to return to Thailand and this seemed like a good way to do it.

I’ve spent the last year working in the Northeast of Thailand.  Originally started in 2004 by the mayor and NGO workers, Khon Kaen Education Initiative has reinvented itself nearly every year.  Today, it is a group of Thai and international educators who work together in an effort to reform education in the city of Khon Kaen.  With a small group of teachers from three different schools participating, each classroom is run differently, with the group acting as a support system and way to share resources.  In a country where alternative education is still very much in it’s infancy, especially among native teachers, it’s an important first step in trying to change Thailand’s current and flawed educational system. 

This past year, I worked mainly in a very alternative classroom full of boys who had learning or behavioral difficulties.  It was taught by two Thai teachers, one who had been teaching for over 30 years and one who had only been the a teacher for a few years.  The students had been chosen by the other teachers at the school to participate in what they called The Class of the Endless Sky.  With boys ranging from 8 to 12 years old, the class was home to a variety of different students, all with very different needs.  Some of them were on medication, some of them lived in shacks, some of them didn’t have parents, and some of them were beaten by their parents. 

It was the first year, and so it was very much about trial and error.  The basic idea of the class was that these kids couldn’t function in the traditional classroom setting, and that by giving them the freedom to follow their interests, they would be able to find more success.  A typical day involved a small class discussion, an opportunity for the kids to decide what traditional subject they wanted to work on in the morning, a nap in the afternoon, and then free time or group activities for the rest of the day.  The teachers, wanting to create a classroom that allowed for flexibility, stuck firmly to making no lesson plans.

I think that it’s important to be open to spontaneity.  Some of the most magical teaching experiences are the ones that happen when you stop trying to teach.  There was one morning when the kids were sitting around and listening to a story.  One by one, they each got up and left class in search of something more interesting to do.  By the time they had all left, we decided to follow.  When we got outside, we found all of the boys playing with a giant pile of sand.  They began to dig holes and tunnels, one of the boys finally suggesting that they make a re-creation of the local dam.  And it was amazing to see them work together in a way that they rarely did.  All of their qualms with one another faded away and they focused at the task at hand.

But, moments like those were too far and few between.  For the most part, class was not very productive.  From my perspective, very little learning was actually going on, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense.  As the year went on, the students became less disciplined and fought more often.  Cliques formed and bullying increased.  The students weren’t interested in what the teachers had to say.  And, finally, they simply stopped coming to class.  They would be in school, but they were rarely physically in class.  On an average day, there would be 3 to 5 students who spent a majority of the day in the classroom.  By the end of the year, a total of 5 students were moved to the regular classrooms, a decision made either by the students themselves or their parents. 

While other classrooms were suffocating their students, this class was giving them too much room.  They went to an extreme and had a total lack of discipline and the students had no consequences for their actions.  The teachers even held the belief that they shouldn’t interfere when students were fighting.  When a student threw a knife at me (though, admittedly, from far away and not very hard), he had he knife back in 10 minutes without so much as a word from the teachers.  The teachers felt that if the students were given the opportunity to learn in an open environment, that the discipline would come organically. 

I spent many afternoons pondering the dynamic of the class or having discussion with my coworkers about what was going on.  To me, they were rebelling from this lack of structure. So many of them had no structure or strong support system at home, and then were going to school everyday only to be faced with a similar lack of structure.  They were young kids who were being told that they should be shaping their lives and doing it without much guidance from adults.  They didn’t have the confidence in themselves yet to believe that they could do it.  While it is important for children to explore and learn on their own, it can’t be done without support.  Children with still developing minds need to be given paths and then given the opportunity to decide which one they want to go down, not expected to make their own path.   

After a year, my position with the program is over and I’ve come back to the United States.  It was a year full of new experiences and reflection.  Everything that I thought I had known was at one point or another challenged.  At the end of many school days, I was left feeling raw and exposed.  As I try and look back over the experience, I’m left with more questions than when I began. 

I’m scared these students are being left behind and that once they leave the safety of the Class of the Endless Sky, they will fail.  I’m afraid that they’re not academically being challenged and this will negatively affect them.  But, at the same time, I wonder if that is okay.  As I said, it was a year of trial and error and I came to except my failures.  I felt as if they were failures that needed to happen in order for progress in the future to happen.  But, is that a healthy way of looking at things?

Can a new educational system be put into place without these failures?  Are the failures really necessary in order to find success?  And what becomes of the children who are part of that trial and error?  We as educators were able to grow, but is that enough?


About aliciarice

I spent a year working with Khon Kaen Education Initiative, an alternative education program in Northeastern Thailand. I have a B.A. in Communication with an emphasis in video production. My main interests is documentary film making.


10 thoughts on “A Question of Failure

  1. In chaos theory scientists discuss the idea of emergence–what comes out of the mix. And, not surprisingly, what comes out depends on what goes in, the initial conditions. What we cannot predict is where these initial conditions will lead the student short and long-term. Failure is one of those emergent possibilities. In fact it is a universal emergent condition. To modify the hacker phrase, “Failure is not an option. It comes bundled with life and cannot be uninstalled.” So…I hate it that they threw a knife at you, but I love what you did with the story. I hope you do more with it in film, perhaps as a motive force, but mostly I hope you share more digital stories and do so in your blog. We are way too text based here and I, for one, would love to see/hear more from you and shared here.

    Best of luck and good on ya.

    Posted by Terry Elliott | June 21, 2011, 8:22 am
    • The failure on my part was wonderful, in a way. I was really able to learn far more about myself from it that I’ve ever been able to do in being successful (though it was much more uncomfortable). And I understand that failure is part of life and often can lead to great things. However, my qualms come when there is failure for one person at the expense of another. Can the kids learn from my failures? Or are they just the unfortunate by-products of the failure?

      As far as videos for blog posts, it’s definitely something I could look into. I’m hoping to go around and explore some of the alternative education and schools in my area and I could try and look into bringing my camera along.

      I’ve got a video of the class and what a typical day looked like. It would been understandable if this was not a typical day, but this was very normal.

      Posted by aliciarice | June 21, 2011, 3:49 pm
  2. Freedom and accountability shouldn’t often be separated from one another. The trick is to figure out how to help kids develop healthy attitudes towards and habits for both. Every child deserves to learn how to manage him or herself – schools should help that process along on a kid by kid basis. I recognize much of the “chaos” you describe, Alicia, in my students lives and in moments of crisis at school. I think adults have to be involved at the level that shows humane and just care and reasoned interventions. How to help those students understand that in the absence of external control, there is internal control – rather than nothing – seems crucial. It takes time to develop that understanding, as well as useful constraints on learning and a community-building response to behavior that harms the community.

    What made the successful moments – like dam-building – successful, and how can we teachers draw inspiration and methods from those conditions?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 21, 2011, 9:41 am
    • As much as it seemed as if they weren’t doing anything, the teachers were following a very strict plan for themselves. They were very much almost obsessed (in my view) on their process and I think it got in the way of learning. And so those organic moments came when the kids were able to get out of that process or when the teachers were able to let it go. One day they decided to let the kids go down to a local canal and we all played in the water. Some of the kids ended up teaching the younger students how to swim. That amazing teamwork mentality came out in them again.

      My problem with the lack of discipline came in the subsequent lack of consequences. The students could do nearly anything they wanted and have no consequences for it, which is very unlike real life. In real life, no one gives you a timeout, but if you don’t show up to work you’re fired. If you don’t treat your friend nicely, they will stop talking to you. And what I felt like the kids didn’t understand was that there IS a consequence to all their actions, but it’s far off and too abstract for them to understand on their own. Because if they don’t do well in school now, they won’t continue on to school, which means that life will be much harder for them. And you can try just telling a child that, but they won’t really understand.

      I really like the idea of external and internal control and think it’s a good way to look at it. The question then becomes how do you take that abstract idea and make it a reality, especially when each child is so very different. Which is another problem that I had, the idea of being able to do things on a kid to kid basis. Each kid was so unique and needed a different “strategy” that is became overwhelming a bit. The teachers said that they would first get to know the needs and interests of each student, and focused on that for the first semester. So by the end of the first semester, they had a decent idea of the needs of each student and then had to focus on trying to build a way of working with them. But with two full time teachers and one part time teacher (who wasn’t fluent), it was hard to give them all the attention they needed. At least with a normal classroom, not every single child needs the kind of attention these students needed.

      Posted by aliciarice | June 21, 2011, 3:39 pm
      • Thanks, Alicia –

        In a “normal classroom” I do think every kid needs and deserves attention that is different from what “normally” happens in school, but I take your point about these teachers’ process and distance from the kids’ and their behaviors. What kinds of relationships did the teachers have with the kids? Did they keep themselves aloof because of the process?

        I think one way to help lend structure and natural consequences – the logical, practical outcomes of our behaviors – to shared work in a classroom is to approach work and all kinds of consequences through a healthy, positive, and humane relationship between teachers and students. Those kinds of relationships let teachers pose questions and talk about what kids want and how different behaviors impact those wants, as well as students’ needs. The relationship shouldn’t be used to exert external control over the student, but, rather, to provide a safe – but morally consistent – space for thinking through behaviors and their impact on the class community and learning.

        Does that make sense?

        Best regards,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | June 21, 2011, 6:23 pm
      • I don’t think it was their intention to build that type of relationship with the students, but I do think that’s what ended up happening. And my relationship with the students was a whole different type. In the beginning of the year, I was introduced as their older sibling, not their teacher. Add on the fact that I’m a young, white female and there was no chance that they would respect me. And so I was able to relate to them a little more on their level, they would sometimes tell me things they wouldn’t tell the teachers, but I also got nearly no respect.

        Ideally, the teachers wanted to create a family atmosphere in their class where everyone was equal. They wanted the kids to know that they loved them (which they did) and that they would tell them anything. However, the kids didn’t really feel that way themselves. And when the kids started to rebel against them, they didn’t know what to do. I think they thought that if they loved the kids enough, then they would be okay and would start to change. But I think the kids didn’t understand that love in they way the teachers wanted them to.

        The ideas that they had about the relationships with the students were strong, but something in execution just wasn’t there. Again, for me, it goes back to the classroom and style being so new. By the end of the year, I couldn’t help but feel like they (we) were destined to do a horrible job at it the first time around and that, hopefully, in the future it would improve.

        This also makes me think about the idea of trying to figure out when it’s time to call it quits with a new style. It’s a fine line between trying something new and not giving up right away and trying something new for too long before giving up and saying it doesn’t work.

        Posted by aliciarice | June 22, 2011, 3:28 pm
        • Rapid-prototyping can indeed help salvage what works and jettison what doesn’t – it’s tough to do when you “own” something you so strongly want to succeed.

          Thanks for the information and insights about the relationships, Alicia –

          All the best,

          Posted by Chad Sansing | June 22, 2011, 7:06 pm
  3. Many years ago, I developed what we’d call today a hybrid distance learning program for students who had failed at least two eighth grade classes and were viewed by their schools as likely high school dropouts. We had small groups of students at four sites, each with a teacher. The teachers took turns presenting content online to the entire group. While one teacher taught, the other teachers participated as students. If you have access to ERIC you can find a report on the project.

    None of the teachers had taught online before. There were problems aligning what they wanted to teach with what the technology could do well. Teachers got a little uptight and, occasionally, irritated with one another. Sometimes the teachers were not very good at doing the tasks that the presenter assigned; it’s not comfortable for a teacher to do less well than his/her students.

    The program was very successful. Within five years, 16 of 17 students in the program had graduated high school. The kid who’d pulled a knife on his teacher on day one was in college in three-and-a-half years.

    I don’t think the results had anything to do with teaching academic content. I think what was useful was for students to see how adults react and interact in stressful situations. The potential for that kind of modeling of adult beheavior could easily have occurred in the situation you describe where two teachers are in the classroom. However, as you observed, the program requires some structure—even if the structure does nothing except provide challenges for the teachers.

    Posted by Linda Aragoni | June 21, 2011, 10:13 am
  4. Alicia, I’m joining in here a little late, so am adding on to the many comments that have already been made about freedom and adult authority. In this wonderful post–you should send this to the head of AERO, an organization that specializes in alternative learning in the US–you describe the problems that beset many free schools or unschooling or deschooling initiatives everywhere. The nature of appropriate adult authority is in question (in your case, there was almost none in your classroom), and student’s consequent difficulties adapting to these situations. There is a wonderful literature that describes authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive adult authority patterns in relation to learning (and parenting) (Baumrind 1978), and it describes how for many children authoritative, negotiative, kinds of authority between adults and children–for many children–helps them learn best. As Linda, in the comment above observes, for the kids in her program seeing how adults deal with and resolve conflict was the central learning in her program.

    It sounds like the adults in your school were experimenting, and for the most part, the experiment didn’t work very well from your point of view. The decision to exercise NO authority in children’s lives can be viewed as a move that makes adults comfortable–just as highly rigid, very authoritative authority can also be comforting because it eliminates all the troublesome questions that being in the grey area between raises. Deciding, as an adult, as a teacher, when to intervene, when to create boundary conditions, when to step in and intervene, means one has to confront one’s own sense of our value, knowledge and competence, and act on it in the moment. That’s a real challenge when you’re really thinking about it.

    This is a wonderful, rich post and I’m so glad you’re here, and also, appreciative of the video snippet. There are rich and important ideas here.



    Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 26, 2011, 8:03 am


  1. Pingback: Which is more important to education: success or failure? « - August 23, 2011

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