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Learning at its Best

How do revolutions happen?

There are several moments in time that, when I look back, ended up being pivotal for me in making the decision to leave my job as a classroom teacher.

Here’s one:

I had acquired a dolly to help my video students achieve high-level production value in their movies. A few students on the newspaper staff had finished their assignments for the forthcoming issue, saw the dolly in a back strorage area of my classroom, and asked if they could take it out into the hall.

I knew what they had in mind. They wanted to ride on it, skate on it, stand on it. They wanted to play, to experiment, to see if they could do something interesting with it. I sunk my shoulders, sighed, and said, “I’m sorry. No.”

They asked why, and I told them the truth.

“Because someone will see you playing on it, and they’ll get upset. Then, I’ll get called into a meeting and have to answer a bunch of questions about it.”

The person who would take me to task about kids playing on the dolly would, most likely, be unfamiliar with Stuart Brown’s research on the extraordinary benefits of play. There exists a prevailing attitude that school means that kids need to be sitting in chairs, with an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper in front of them, producing something that’s due at the end of the period. Learning takes place like sands through the hourglass—one more minute has passed, therefore students have gained one more minute’s worth of knowledge. That kind of attitude won’t get you in trouble at a traditional school.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s how people learn. At least, that’s not how I learn. Most people I know learn in bursts, with breakthroughs coming at unexpected, unpredictable moments, sometimes in the most unlikely circumstances.

What would students learn by playing on a camera dolly? I have no idea. But I saw a creative, playful spark in their eyes, and I extinguished it. I just wasn’t prepared to receive another finger-wagging from one of my supervisors.

* * *

GOOD magazine ran a short blog entry today that offered reflections on a dropout prevention forum last week in L.A. It featured speakers like Sir Ken Robinson. The author writes,

So how do we make the alternative mainstream? Robinson and the rest of the forum’s attendees, a who’s who of alternative-thinking L.A. education influencers, say that change begins at the classroom level. Every teacher has the ability to take the time to build relationships with students, make her classroom an engaging environment, and connect students with “real world opportunities in local creative industries and higher education.” School-wide solutions, like ending 40-minute block scheduling or team-teaching subjects like math and art, depend on having a school principal with a strong vision and a willingness to ditch current school customs.

I think this group of thinkers is on the right track, but if they believe the revolution is going to happen one classroom teacher at a time, they’re misguided. Re-programming the bell schedule or creating cross-curricular partnerships are merely surface reforms. They won’t last, because even if we change the school customs, the traditional school culture still lives on.

Classroom teachers interested in meaningful change—like eliminating the bell schedule entirely or helping students pursue cross-curricular independent study projects—are not welcome in that system. Cultures are maintained by eliminating the voices of those who oppose it.

The author continues,

But, Robinson cautioned, we shouldn’t expect to reform the entire system in one or two years. Instead, a ten-year plan that’s well thought-out and truly student-centered is what’s needed to change the alternative into the mainstream.

It’s not going to happen in one year, two years, or 10 years according to someone’s plan. A shift in consciousness—a shift in the fundamental assumptions about what school is for and how people learn—is unlikely to take place according to a carefully crafted schedule. A shift in consciousness means authentic learning, and authentic learning happens in bursts, with breakthroughs coming at unexpected, unpredictable moments.

The best we can do, I think, is to simply embrace a new way of thinking about school and live our lives according to a new paradigm. If enough people do that, the revolution will happen. That’s how the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution were born. That’s the only way that revolutions happen.

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3 thoughts on “How do revolutions happen?

  1. Thanks for sharing your findings about the value of play in school. This is one topic close to my heart and can’t stop reading, researching, and writing about. I used to work at a Community School in Seattle, and have visited the Puget Sound school on a few occasions. This is a great school and appreciate the playful, engaging, and open approach to curriculum. It has a warm Sudbury feel to it. Any how, thanks for writing, posting, sharing, and looking forward to the possibility of or paths crossing.

    Best of play to you!

    Posted by Roc | August 8, 2011, 3:12 pm
  2. I’m with you on play and the personal decision to pick up a new paradigm, Steve –

    How can we help kids lead the revolution and prevent or ameliorate the predictable class-based outcomes of an education system further fractured along corporate and constructivist fault lines?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 8, 2011, 3:33 pm


  1. Pingback: Now, Go Make It Happen « Cooperative Catalyst - August 6, 2011

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