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Learning at its Best

Blue Sky Wonderings about Educational Transformation.

This email/prompt went out to the COOP mailing list this morning from Kirsten Olson, …We thought the responses were so interesting, we decided to make this into a general post and widen the conversation to everyone.

Tomorrow I am participating in a very small think tank meeting at Boston College with Peter Gray
the author of the post below, and a few other individuals.  The topic of the meeting is blue sky wonderings about educational transformation, and whether are at an educational tipping point.

If any of you have a moment to read Peter Gray’s post, and the FANTASTIC comments that follow, I would love to carry your responses into this meeting.  Peter and I have had discussions about whether or not it makes sense to be working in the public school system, as a recent post of mine explains.

Peter Gray posts on the Psychology Today website, and many of his posts gets hundreds of comments. Gray wrote this post in preparation for tomorrow’s meeting.

Is Real Educational Reform Possible? If So, How?

In hopes of carrying your thoughts with me,




About Kirsten Olson

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


21 thoughts on “Blue Sky Wonderings about Educational Transformation.

  1. Ba Luvmour wrote:

    Some thoughts. I do not have an opinion, per se. First, a bit of my background re: Mr. Gray’s post.
    I started homeschooling my daughter in 1981. I started a homeschooling collective in 1986 which morphed into a very successful community education program completely outside the public system. I have been the keynote speaker at the CA homeschooling conference, and a popular presenter there for 8 years, ending in 2000. I consult with homeschooling families regularly as well as homeschooling support groups.

    The thoughts:

    Education is not schooling and to conflate the two is not fair to either. Schooling will change when more people rebel from within as well as from without the current dominant system. Alternative schooling is an important step.

    Education means to draw forth. That is a deeper question than “physical, social, and cultural curiosity.” It also belies statements such as “ For their first four or five years of life we generally grant them that freedom.” Not if we use rewards and punishments, not if hold them to their word and fail to recognize that words are toys, not if we physically threaten them, not if we ignore how they perceive time and death. I only use this as an example to differentiate school and education.

    What is meant by freedom? I don’t agree that it is “new skills and ideas.” Freedom means different things to children of different ages. And freedom is not implicit in schooling, It is, however, in education. And education must include the whole of the child’s life. It must include the family. Moreover, this education includes relationships that recognize the child’s developmental capacities and that include such fundamental human qualities as meaning making, aesthetic, and the organization of time and space.

    The enemy of freedom is conditioning. Conditioning infects all of us, as is implicit in Mr. Gray’s comments about conformity. (I can’t decide if the juxtaposition of choosing a different way to school that claims greater freedom has social value because at critical mass conformity will sweep away others is a contradiction or a useable paradox, so I will leave that alone.) The comprehensive point is that there is nothing in this blog that directly confronts conditioning. I find that worrisome. It seems to me to arise directly from the confusions between education and schooling. Freedom from school can be accomplished through alternative schooling; freedom in education in an ontological issue that strikes to the core of our being.

    Last, I am bit concerned by the evolutionary analogy. I agree with the author that self organization to greater complexity occurs when that entity is in open communication with its environment. And I agree that homeschooling and its brethren allows more openness than public school. Therefore it will bring a more complex social institution. That’s easy. But an evolutionary leap implies much greater complexity. For humans, it is a matter of consciousness and concurrent changes in many areas at once. I cannot go into the details here, but a brief survey of the work in the evolution of consciousness by such people as Gebser, Bateson, Aurobindo and many others will substantiate this point.

    Best of luck tomorrow. It is always valuable for sessions such as these and I am a bit jealous.

    – – –

    Hi Kirsten,

    As seems to be the trend lately, I’m with Ba. I think Peter’s definition of the problem and the solution is too simplistic for me. Lack of schooling does not necessarily equate with freedom to me. I see many kids who are not in school but are manipulated, coerced and conditioned like crazy. Pulling ’em out of school doesn’t lead to transformative child-rearing.

    Also, Peter implies that the best thing an adult can do is get the hell out of the kids’ way and let ’em enjoy their “freedom.” Again – too simple. I do think there is a critical role for caring and careful mentoring and guidance by the adult who is genuinely interested in nurturing a child’s unfolding. (Yes this will include providing a lot more choice, and authorship on the part of the child than in traditional schooling, but that isn’t the full picture. Education towards transformation is a much more complex and subtle thing.)

    “Freedom” i.e. the absence of schooling can leave the child at the mercy of the incredibly manipulative, coercive and immensely well-funded larger societal predators – advertisers, propagandists of every shape and size. And even “freedom-based” schools can and do develop their own internal power issues and transformation-impeding forces and structures. Just ’cause kids’ vote and can opt out of classes doesn’t mean their growth isn’t stunted by social hierarchy, or both an internally and externally based urge to comply and conform.

    Among the important elements missing from a purely “freedom-based” approach is a strong developmentally based awareness, like Ba’s; a strong ecological and place-based awareness like David Orr’s, Sobel’s et al; a strong recognition of the child’s spiritual developmental needs like Jack Miller’s, Greg Cajete’s et al; a strong ethical/moral component like Noddings’ Eisler’s, and Zoe’s. etc etc.

    As you know I agree that the current system is certainly broken and that reform movements generally don’t do more than scrape the surface the problem. I agree that the system is so far off base in defining what it means to learn, to grow or even to know, that it seems futile to tinker with it. It’s foundations are massive (though also massively flawed) and the edifice is monolithic.

    In regards to strategies for achieving “real reform,” I guess that’s the big question, isn’t it? For the moment I think encouraging diversity of approaches in every way is a step in the right direction. Ultimately, I guess there does need to be a shift in understanding of what we are going for in education, what it means to be educated, developed. The shift I believe is probably best described as part of a much larger consciousness evolution as described by those who talk about Beck & Cowan’s “spiral dynamics theory” and other related concepts. Of course Ron Miller was writing about this a lot a couple of years ago. How so we get there? I guess it has to “self-organize,” right? With many many many of us pushing in every way we can. (speaking of simplistic…sorry.) It is perhaps an evolutionary problem, but much grander in scale than the dinosaur/mice analogy that Peter uses.

    Sounds like a fun meeting. Enjoy!


    Posted by Paul Freedman | August 23, 2011, 6:19 am
    • Paul, I appreciate what you say here, but I think it’s important to distinguish between our discussion of transformation at a personal/family/community level — which, as you suggest, needs to be self-organizing, non-compulsory, and diverse — and reform that occurs at a public policy level. Freedom at the public policy level does not mean freedom from parental or cultural conditioning, but freedom from rigid educational standards and norms which are enforced on children, families, schools, and teachers by the legal power of the state. At this level, it may make sense to try to focus and streamline the discussion in order to work toward something people of diverse inclinations can agree on — sort of a “First Amendment” for education, which carves out the freedom we all need without trying to decide what people should do with that freedom. If we can establish that as a common basis for activism, there are thousands of interesting conversations to be had about “education for transformation.” Everybody will have a different idea of what that means, we don’t need to agree with each other, and the diversity of our approaches is part of what makes it interesting.

      Over the years I’ve noticed a spectrum of general orientations among people who are actively creating new approaches to education outside the dominant system. At one end is a more comprehensive holistic approach, where reformers try to take into account all the dimensions of life that need healing or change, and come up with an all-embracing alternative that addresses these concerns — educational, spiritual, ecological, social justice, etc. — within a single program or lifestyle. At the other end is a more “open network / start where you are” approach, where people are philosophical about the fact that we may not get it all figured out any time soon, and they just want to be free to explore and follow their noses without knowing the outcome. The first personality tends to generate ideas like Waldorf schools, eco-villages, intentional communities. The second personality type tends to generate ideas like unschooling, open resource centers, online discussion groups. In between are a range of alternative schools and programs which attempt to address some issues in a coherent collective way but leave others up to the individual.

      There is a potential for debilitating conflict between people of these different orientations, because the “comprehensive” people will feel starved and unsatisfied by the more minimalistic open-ended solutions, and the “open-ended” people will feel smothered and controlled by the more comprehensive solutions. The people in the middle will think that they have found the perfect compromise, whereas folks at both ends of the spectrum will feel that the compromise is neither here nor there. I have seen some good groups founder on the incompatibility of these visions, and I think if we want real reform, it’s vital to try to take note of these differences and find a way to honor them rather than allow ourselves to degenerate into arguing and conflict. In many cases, these visions are in fact incompatible, but rather than battle over which one is superior we should try to create the conditions for diverse models to flourish and evolve. In evolutionary terms, this is speciation — the divergence down different paths, both of which may be viable in different ways.

      The problem with the current system, I think, is that it attempts to dictate and control in excruciating detail the exact process and outcome of education, and thus freezes learning, change, growth, life. The reason to view “freedom” primarily as the absence of restraint rather than as the presence of any particular approach to learning is to avoid substituting one controlling system for another. In a living system, mistakes will be made, dead-ends will be tried and abandoned, problems will persist and morph into new problems, and meaningful change will occur over generations. In ditching the dinosaur, I think the best we can do, as you suggest, is to create the conditions under which that process can begin.

      Posted by Carol Black | August 24, 2011, 7:11 pm
      • Hi Carol,

        Thanks. I appreciate your thoughtful perspective. I agree with what I think is the thrust of your comment. Let us recognize and appreciate a range of approaches to education, and build a healthy and diverse landscape full of choices, all interested in allowing children an education that is meaningful, relevant and humane while aiming towards building a society that is more just, than this one.

        I am not into tearing into free schoolers or unschoolers. Though it isn’t exactly my approach, I certainly see the value in such an approach to child rearing and I know it can be a beautiful thing for the right individual, family or community. More power to these folks, and all of us who are searching for creative alternatives to the oppressive system that is the dominant model today.

        I definitely have heard the point you make in your last paragraph, before. And I get it. Let’s not substitute one controlling coercive ideology for another – even one that seems more liberal, groovy or whatever.

        I still do feel the need to point out sometimes that an effort towards giving freedom, can leave the learner at the mercy of all kinds of other social manipulation and coercion. If it isn’t the state superintendent, the principal and the teacher directing students’ movements and learning, there might still be other powerful forces at work – mass media, advertisers, peer groups, etc. I don’t believe that it is possible (or desirable) to create a cocoon of “pure freedom” that holds all other forces and pressures at bay. Do you know what I mean?

        That said, your points are well taken. Thank you for the dialogue, Carol.


        Posted by Paul Freedman | August 25, 2011, 11:16 pm
  2. I agree with much of what we have shared on our Google Group – especially the contradictory bits.

    I don’t know that a large enough percentage of our population can walk away from schools, and I think that those who are ready to walk away from them are already able to take advantage of outside learning activities.

    What would I like to see? Counter-narratives and counter-schools in our communities that are most dependent on public education for schooling. I’d like to see tuition-free independent schools in urban and rural communities that balance social justice curricula with increasingly student-directed inquiry and project-based learning opportunities.

    If we can gift a significant number of such schools to communities – if we can make them as free to families as school run by charter management organizations – we can provide some kind of alternative to traditional public education that is more meaningful – and ultimately more civic – than the choice between schools with higher and lower test scores.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 23, 2011, 9:27 am
    • Chad, you put into words what I seemed incapable of doing. I worry that too many truly independent schools are tuition-based, and though they offer grants and scholarships, are not totally accessible to the urban and rural communities you mention. If they were to operate as charters, that would require that charters return to their original purpose as labs of innovation. I wonder what your thoughts are on the parent piece. How do we educate rural and urban parents about other viable educational models and give them a voice to bring these kinds of student-centered educational choices into their communities? Do you think this is necessary, or is it an ‘if you build it they will come’ scenario?

      Posted by marybethhertz | August 24, 2011, 8:23 pm
      • I think we’d need a mix of approaches. Some families might enroll out of frustration with being excluded from charter schools; some families might enroll for the kinds of teaching and learning going on at such schools; some families might enroll only after attending a community meeting or hearing word-of-mouth from trusted neighbors after any such school is on its feet..

        A significant investment would need to be secured (say 8 million per school, which is a figure I hear bandied about some non CMO charter start-up scenes) for building, planning and a secure operational budget for the first 3-5 years per small school.

        Money aside, the process might start with a market scan, or during announcements at weekly services, or with feet and fliers at grocery stores.

        The process needs to start with a plan to reach all kind of people in the communities the schools hope to serve. The early days of KIPP with its founders’ house visits and DIY transportation schemes provide a good model here, although now that charters are so well known and, in some cases, trusted in their communities, alternative, tuition-free independent schools might not need to hustle so much as start-ups – the idea of sending a child to a different school is alive and well in our country.

        All the best,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | August 25, 2011, 6:08 am
  3. From Steve Miranda:

    Awesome! I just posted on Peter Gray’s piece a couple days ago: That’s the kind of writing that makes me want
    to give up blogging—after reading that, I feel like I have nothing
    much to add. He nails it.

    Very interested in your meeting, Kirsten, say hello for all of us.

    By the way, I’m working on a committee that is going to be putting on
    a month-long film and lecture series on the future of education in
    Seattle in August 2012. I’ll post more specific information as it
    comes in, but if you’re considering a vacation for next summer, think
    about Seattle. I think this has a chance to be important.

    All the best,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 24, 2011, 7:25 am
  4. From Pam Moran:


    I read Peter at Psych Today and really value the core of his message that
    schooling itself as an institution is anathema to learning naturally. I
    don’t see abolution of school as occurring in my lifetime- but do believe we
    have a great deal of evidence that students learn in spite of school rather
    than because of it. It reminds me of situations teachers and principals set
    up such as punishment to shape learning. For a brief period, it appears to
    work so we begin to think it does despite the evidence to the contrary in
    the recidivism data we generate in discipline reports year after year.
    Assessment is key to transformation of schooling to approximate learning in
    a more natural environment. When we begin to value different kinds of
    learning – *really* different, not just slightly different- I think we may
    move closer to Peter’s dream. This means restoring play, create, design,
    build, invent, perform, storytell as centering verbs – the maker movement
    gets it- so does this prof at WSU who studies the “science of play” vertebrates. The Institute
    of Play looks at it through a tech lenses- but all have one thing common and
    that is a play-based children’s work, not one of scientific management as it
    exists today.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 24, 2011, 7:26 am
  5. From Monika Hardy:

    Remember, the shadows are just as important as the light.
    Jane Eyre … (C.Bronte)

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 24, 2011, 7:27 am
  6. From Carol Black:

    Hi Kirsten —

    If you’re not already familiar with it, check out the Berkana Institute short video called “Two Loops: How Systems Change.” ( ) I think this really applies to the Coop, with people working both inside and outside the system. Gray, like John Gatto, is advocating working outside the system, which I think is vitally important. But inside work has value as well, and it is so destructive to get into debating which is better — instead we should each follow our inclinations and support each other. I’m an outside person all the way — I would be miserable trying to work within the existing bureaucracy — but many Coop members are inside folks, and are doing good work from within the system.

    It is so important to recognize the value of both. It is not somehow morally preferable to allow all the kids who are stuck inside the system to die on the vine just to make a point. On the other hand, those of us who are outside the system who have been able to try things, to experiment freely, and to build up an invaluable body of knowledge about how kids learn outside the typical constraints of institutional schools. So if we see our work as mutually reinforcing, and each as moving change forward by degrees, we will build on each other’s efforts in the most efficient and powerful way.

    I agree with Peter that the power of the natural human instinct for affiliation is key here — you accomplish more by modeling a positive alternative than by debating with people who disagree with you. I’ve watched many people watching my amazing beautiful girls and suddenly the light goes on and they realize that other worlds are not only possible but within easy reach. The social networking activity Ian discusses in his post on learning networks potentially allows this effect to be amplified in an organic way that could reach a tipping point and go exponential. I think when change comes, it will be like the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc — i.e., just when you think the all-powerful bureaucracy is so entrenched that it will never go away, people will suddenly recognize its lifelessness and it will dissolve into multiple smaller, more flexible, more human-scaled structures.

    But it’s key to stop thinking there is one right way of doing things. I’ve watched a bunch of unschooled kids grow to adulthood now, and they are all different. They’ve needed different forms of freedom and support, they have moved in and out of conventional schools in both directions at different times, they orient differently toward college, work and self-directed learning as adults. The key here is freedom and options. That includes the freedom for kids to get themselves into a situation that makes demands on them, that imposes time scheduling, consequences, and other constraints. The need for a socially defined structure for activity and motivation is a natural human trait, and kids who have a higher need for this should not be made to feel that there is something wrong with them. Truly inner-directed people are probably in the minority. A lot of people like to find a tribe, a group to go along with, and suffer if they have too much choice, if they feel like they have to figure everything out for themselves. On the other hand, our great creators in the arts and sciences usually want to stay outside of any confining structure, especially hierarchical ones. So I think we need to see the need for individual freedom vs. external social structure as a natural human variable, one more area where there is a wide spectrum of “normal,” one more area where it takes all kinds to make a world.

    (From an evolutionary standpoint, what makes humans successful is that we are all different; we increase our species intelligence and capability when each of us is allowed to develop in different ways, each contributing something different to the collective intelligence and knowledge base. Diversity of all kinds increases the resiliance and adaptability of living systems.)

    So one of the things that causes the pendulum swing is this tendency to try to figure out what everybody should do. You can’t decide that everybody should unschool / go to a Sudbury-style school etc. Then you get people like the guy who responded to John Spencer, who start arguing that alternative education can never work. You can’t decide that you have hit on the perfect compromise between freedom and structure and then try to impose this on everybody. Whatever you create, it will work for some kids and not for others. We’ve got to stop sacrificing our beloved children to any one-size-fits-all-this-is-the-right-answer-for-everybody god.

    Forgive the rant! I’m a bit rushed today —

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 24, 2011, 7:29 am
  7. From Terry Elliott:


    I recently read an apt article from Umair Haque that refers to the work of Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom and the vast middle of the commons that has proven up to the task of change.  Skim the article and perhaps there is a way forward in there.  I think there is and will write about it later this week.  If you guys discuss it, let me know.  Here is the link:

    Gray has articulated what I have been feeling and thinking ever since my wife and I unschooled our kids thirty years ago.  I briefly mention this in a post I made earlier this week (see how I did that, yeah) on my blog:  I used to think that the way to educational transformation was by laying down parallel tracks for an alternative within the conventional.  For example, having a Moodle system set up and ready to fly for when diesel goes over $5 a gallon again and schools can’t afford to meet face to face with students five times a week. Eventually, that might become school in places like I live Or I thought maybe a ‘trojan mouse’ was the way to go–customizing student learning at the cafe of the internet by using twitter and edumodo and whatever piece of the learning puzzle happened to be available to loosely join with another.

     Now? Not so much.  As often as not I have the twelve step model in mind when I think of educational transformation.  But I have to catch myself there as well.  Why adopt an illness model when learning is as natural and  positive a human function as there is.  Hell, we get spurts of dopamine and other good chemicals when we learn.  We are hardwired to learn so the twelve step model while appealing isn’t really much of a step away from the bar.  Can you imagine the financial apocalypse that would have to manifest in order to make us go cold turkey on schooling?  Me neither.  Nor do I wish to.

    So where does that leave us?  First, I don’t think Gray has the slightest idea of the emotional investment one has to have to walk away from the status quo.  I still can’t believe we did it 30 years ago.  It is a continual gutcheck and requires one to justify the decision over and over to family, friends, and community at large. 

    As far as Sudbury is concerned, well…its existence depends upon the ubiquity of the public school.  It defines itself in part by being what the public school isn’t–democratic and folksonomic.  The about face that needs to happen n order to produce more Sudburies is pretty basic.  I remember a high school colleague and I talking about this.  He represented the consensus that you have to make them learn.  I represented the iconoclastic notion that learning is as natural as pooping.  Parents have to be self-convinced and self-confident enough to defy this consensus point of view and to even take the responsibility for being wrong if that happens.  The experts need to be on tap, not on top.  That used to be a core American value.  It isn’t any more. And what will it take to convince parents and communities to take real and urgent responsibility for their children.  The cynic in me says that it will take a lot for parents to give up their taxpayer babysitting service; the positive in me says that they will do it for their kids if they can get some help.    

    So where does that leave us?  I return to the addiction model.  Sometimes you have to crash and burn out the denial before some new can be started.  I don’t want that, but I fear that.  We could see more than one generation go up in smoke if that was to happen.  But I don’t think that will happen.  I think it will be more like what Kunstler calls ‘the long emergency’  with the emphasis on emergence.  Different solutions will emerge from different emerging conditions.  I will be messy. People are going to have to get a lot more messy.  Education is messy.  Get over it.  And get over the idea of the one ring that rules modern schooling.  It is like Randy Newman said in his song “I’m Dead”.  Forgive me if I quote the whole song, but it is apropos:

    I have nothing left to say
    But I’m going to say it anyway
    Thirty years upon a stage
    And now I hear the people say
    Why won’t he go away?

    I pass the houses of the dead
    They’re calling me to join their group
    But I stagger on instead
    Dear God, Sweet God
    Protect me from the truth


    I’m dead but I don’t know it
    (He’s dead He’s dead)
    I’m dead but I don’t know
    (He’s dead He’s dead)
    I’m dead but I don’t know it
    (He’s dead He’s dead)
    Please don’t tell me so
    Let me, let me go

    I have a family to support
    But surely, that is no excuse
    I’ve nothing further to report
    Time you spend with me
    Is time you lose


    I always thought that I would know
    When it was time to quit
    That when I lost a step or two or three or four or five
    I’d notice it
    Now that I’ve arrived here safely
    I find my talent is gone
    Why do I go on and on and on and on and on
    And on and on and on and on and on

    (He’s dead He’s dead He’s dead)
    I don’t know it
    (He’s dead He’s dead He’s dead)
    I didn’t know
    (He’s dead He’s dead He’s dead)
    I didn’t know it
    (He’s dead He’s dead He’s dead)
    How would be so cruel to tell me so?
    (You’re dead!)

    When will I end this bitter game?
    When will I end this cruel charade?
    Everything I write all sounds the same
    Each record that I’m making
    Sounds like a record that I made
    Just not as good!

    I’m dead but I don’t know it
    (He’s dead He’s dead)
    I’m dead but I didn’t know
    (He’s dead He’s dead)
    I’m dead but I don’t know it
    (He’s dead He’s dead)
    Please don’t tell me so
    Please don’t tell me so
    (YOUR”RE DEAD!!!)

    What I think will really happen is this:  old wine will get poured into new bottles (OWNB).  Let me know if you want me to elaborate because I think the prospect of OWNB would be depressingly, soul-killingly sad.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 24, 2011, 7:38 am
  8. From Kim Farris Berg and Ted Kolderie:

    Hi Kirsten –

    I’m not back from maternity leave just yet, but I saw your email yesterday and forwarded it to some colleagues. Would you let me know how that meeting went? Also, see below some remarks from Ted Kolderie (founder of Education|Evolving).


    kim farris-berg

    From: Ted Kolderie

    Well, how did “tomorrow’s meeting” go? Can you find out, from Kirsten?


    I think the guy has a good analysis of the different philosophies of education . . . and of the way the conflict between them paralyzes progress.

    The reality, though, is that “the traditionalists” control education policy at the moment; control the discussion about ‘education reform’.

    I suppose this is why Gray says the solution is to “walk away”.

    That’s pretty much the ‘bypass’ as we’ve described it. Making it work will require those-doing-it to find someone who will assess and validate what they/their-children have learned.

    Personally I’m liking better our strategy . . . that opens the chartered sector to schools with different approaches to learning and different/broader definitions of achievement, while leaving the traditionalists the default district system for their approaches.

    Ted Kolderie |

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 24, 2011, 7:41 am
  9. Folks, I will write some kind of reflection on the meeting yesterday. (It’s now Wednesday morning.) Thank you everyone for the outpouring of comments, just further indication of the kind of thoughtful and generous community this is.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 24, 2011, 7:50 am
  10. As someone who has had a fair amount of non-traditional learning experiences (see my iBio on Peoplegogy I definitely recognize the power of having the ‘freedom to learn.’ At the same time, as someone who has worked solely in low-SES and marginalized communities, I wonder how these communities and children can find the resources to support such an education. With a smaller percentage of employed parents and parents employed with ‘careers’ as opposed to ‘jobs,’ how would the idea of unschooling play out? If you read better than your mother, or if your father doesn’t speak English, or you have a single parent who works 3 jobs just to support you and your sibilings, is a school that provides a rich learning environment but doesn’t teach structured basic reading, writing and math skills going to make the grade? Do these families even have a choice to ‘walk away’ from schools as they exist? A small part of me smells some good old white/middle/upperclass privilege.

    On the other side, I think of friends of mine who spent a few years at Hampshire College ( and summarily dropped out or transferred because they found it a bit too unstructured for their liking. There is no one size fits all package. Just because the Sudbury model works for some doesn’t mean it works for all. (see my post “What is School Choice, Really?”

    I am also intrigued by Ba’s initial statement that ‘schooling’ and ‘education’ are two different things and we need to make sure that we don’t confuse them. I would say that those who were ‘schooled’ fall on both ends of the ‘freedom to learn’ spectrum as do those who were ‘unschooled.’ I’m wondering if the best we can do is provide as many non seat-time based learning experiences, real-world experiences and freedom to explore to our young people and let them get to know themselves and their passions, acting as a guide and a mentor. As Gray says, our system has been swinging back and forth between two extremes ever since school became mandated and under government control. We also need to educate families and parents as to what their choices are and what they really mean. When I say ‘we,’ I mean educators, not public think tanks, Fox News or the Dept of Education.

    Posted by marybethhertz | August 24, 2011, 10:53 am
    • Mary Beth — I appreciate your dedicated work with low-income families and your obvious very real concern for their children. But I’d like to make sure that you know that many people who homeschool / unschool do an amazing job with their kids on extremely low incomes, and it may not be quite fair to imply that this is a “white/middle/upperclass privilege” option. Obviously parents who have to work three jobs to put food on the table are harshly constrained in their ability to provide a decent life for their children. But interestingly, as long as there are public libraries, museums, buses, forests, beaches, cities, and interesting people to talk to, learning does not have to cost a lot of money, and there are many folks just a notch above this who choose to live at a pretty humble material level in order to be able to homeschool their kids. In addition, there are people of color, indigenous people, and others who choose to teach their own children precisely because they feel marginalized by mainstream institutional schooling.

      Economic injustice affects all children in every educational setting, and brutally limits the opportunities available to kids at the bottom of the hierarchy regardless of educational philosophy. (The Daily Show did a bit the other night showing that the U.S. ranks near Rwanda and Uganda in terms of income inequality.) Obviously kids at the bottom of the heap have constraints on their home situations, but by the same token they rarely enjoy a “rich learning environment” at school, whether structured or unstructured. It becomes a very tough choice for these kids whether it makes sense to stay in school or just drop out and try to make some money. In the “developing” world, many kids make the decision to leave school at quite a young age and try to scrape together some cash rather than stay in a low-quality school. It’s what immigrant children did in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, and the chances of a poor kid being able to get some kind of workable small business enterprise going is probably at least as good as the chance of getting any tangible economic benefit from poor-quality schooling.

      These are not the choices children and families should have to make, however, and I think it’s important not to suggest that people of one educational philosophy are more or less insensitive to the plight of the poor. The KIPP schools have demonstrated that a highly structured environment with serious funding can benefit some kids from poor families. On the other hand, millions of kids in conventionally structured schools are simply damaged by the experience of failure, chaos, deprivation, and harsh disciplinary actions which form the “school-to-prison” pipeline. The Albany Free School ( has been providing a viable alternative for some of these kids for decades, so it is an option that can work and should receive support. In New Delhi, India, a non-compulsory drop-in resource center called Manzil ( provides a combination of focused tutoring in language and math skills along with enriching activities like theater, music, field trips, etc., for low-income youth. At a very low cost, Manzil is able to offer these kids — most of whom are working — the choice to receive some focused instruction that may be of real economic benefit to them along with some of the pleasurable activities generally available to more affluent children — without the punishing confinement and failure that so often accompany conventional compulsory schooling. So all kinds of alternative structures need to be explored. Out of respect for one another, we should assume that people of every educational philosophy care equally about the plight of poor children, and hold on to the fact that the solution to the problems of poverty is to create a more economically just and compassionate society.

      Posted by Carol Black | August 24, 2011, 6:09 pm
      • Thank you, Carol, for your thoughtful reply. I was wondering who would be first to pick up the stick that I threw out there in the form of “white/middle class privilege.’ I’m sorry that I was not more clear in my post in regards to how and whether people of certain economic backgrounds care about education. I have the wonderful opportunity to interact with many parents who would do anything for their child and instill in their children the importance and value of education. My comments are not about whether they care or not. What saddens me is that most of these parents do a) not know that there are other models for education and that desks in rows, tests, quizzes and learning cursive are not what a classroom has to look like, b) look at schools like KIPP as the only way out for their child or c) do not have a strong support network of parents like themselves to learn and grow with. Are these wide generalizations? Yes. That said, I would *love* to see my students able to develop their own learning contracts and learning plan with the help of an adult. I would love to see more learning happen outside of the classroom and not sitting in test prep for an hour a day (it KILLS me). However, the way I see it, any impetus to change needs to not only come from teachers, but also from parents and family members who are outraged at the way their child is expected to sit back at ‘take’ their education or outraged at how their child drops out because there is nothing at school that interests them and they can find no reason to go anymore. Until we see families of all socio-economic backgrounds say ‘enough is enough’ we will not see enough change in educational choices in huge, urban districts like Philadelphia. Charter schools are just simply not enough.

        Thanks for the conversation and the links. I have heard of the Albany Free School, and it seems to be very sustainable and successful. One last thought—changing the system also requires changing funding systems. Low-income schools that successfully serve at-risk populations require enough supports to allow students to focus on learning, and these supports cost money. Perhaps that is part of the problem–too big a system to really meet the needs of these students and their families. More local control, more curricular freedoms and more adults who aren’t afraid to shirk tradition could be a start.

        Posted by marybethhertz | August 24, 2011, 7:58 pm
        • Good points, Mary Beth. I know that it took a while for the Albany Free School to build trust in the low-income community where it is located. Families at the low end of the economic ladder tend to be very realistic about what forms of education are accorded status in our society — if the upper classes value high test scores and grade point averages, i.e. rank their kids by the numbers in order to send them to colleges ranked by the numbers, then good luck convincing low-income people to forgo these priorities.

          They are justifiably suspicious that an alternative will turn out to be some sort of dead-end holding tank for poor kids, and are concerned that a less stringent school environment will end up as something that cheats their children of the economic pay-off to education.

          That’s where I think, ironically, that alternatives established by more privileged people may ultimately have (okay, I hate to use this term, but…) a kind of trickle-down effect. As alternatives grow, become desirable to people who can have whatever they desire, and produce graduates who turn out to be socially and economically successful, then alternative schools increase in status, and poor parents will feel more confident in trying them. I think this has happened already to some degree with Montessori education.

          Posted by Carol Black | August 26, 2011, 2:50 pm
  11. These videos of students talking about what they think school should be like will add to this dialogue. Check them out!

    Posted by marybethhertz | August 24, 2011, 8:53 pm
  12. How do colleges and universities factor into the equation? Is there room to do more at this level in lieu of perpetuating a state/federal status quo? Can alternative schools be sponsored by higher ed?

    Posted by Kristine | August 29, 2011, 4:09 pm
  13. Kirsten – I’ve just become familiar with your work within the past 24 hours, but here are some quotes I’d love for you to carry forward:

    * Piaget (Intelligence & Affectivity, 1981) :: When kids ENJOY a learning experience, they have a greater chance of retaining the information and being inspired to learn more. (paraphrased)

    * Vernon & Louise Jones (Responsible Classroom Discipline, 1981) :: “academic achievement and student behavior are influenced by the quality of the teacher and student relationship.”

    * Renzulli/Ries (Light Up Your Child’s Mind, 2009) :: “IQ and test scores are inadequate measures of potential…The inexact correspondence of creativity with IQ makes sense after a brief and broad consideration of history, which suggests that the creative and productive people in the world — the producers, not the consumers, of knowledge — are the ones recognized as gifted individuals. History does not necessarily remember people who scored high on IQ tests and learned their lessons well.”

    * Mike Rose (Lives on the Boundary, 1999) :: ‎”It is what we are excited about that educates us.”

    * Clayton Christensen (Disrupting Class, 2010) :: “We CAN make schooling intrinsically motivating and help our children maximize their individual potential to realize their most daring dreams.”

    Affectionately, your “kindred spirit”…
    Jen Lilienstein

    Posted by kidzmet | September 7, 2011, 9:20 pm


  1. Pingback: Blue Sky Wonderings about Educational Transformation. | Cooperative Catalyst | - August 23, 2011

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