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Learning at its Best

It Isn’t Binary

Loaded Langauge

The other day, I read a post called Standardization: Merely a Symptom of the Disease.  I made a bold assumption that this article was going to advocate for saving public education.  I figured that the real issue might be coercion and standardization and that the solution might be to save one of the last democratic social institutions.  Instead, it was a piece on why the institution itself is a disease, why I’m essentially a slave driver.

Slave driver?  Really?

I visited a second grade classroom where my friend Dan teaches.  They great him with a hug and he teaches them how to read.  I sat for an hour waiting for him to crack a whip, yell at the slaves and demand that they get back to their back-breaking work.  Instead, they moved freely between stations where they worked on number sense.

Often people use bold, loaded language because they have been wounded by a system.  I once called traditional education “a prison,” but a co-worker told me, “Please don’t call it that.  When I was growing up, my home was a prison.  The school was my refuge.  The bars you mock were a sign of safety.  The order you make fun of was what I was thirsting for.  Mrs. Garcia was my safety net.” And that’s the tricky part.  One student’s safety net is another student’s spider web.

All Systems Are Imperfect

It has me thinking that the issue is relational as well as systemic. Un-schooling and homeschooling (or any other system) can be harmful to children. Families can be broken. Parents can be coercive. I know some people who were really wounded by un-schooling, describing the lack of structure as dangerous and unrealistic.  Others describe their parents as overly critical and obsessed with discipline.  However, I also know home-schoolers and un-schoolers who found the home to be a refuge.  They describe a sense safety and the unconditional love that couldn’t happen in a public school.

I know of people who were badly wounded in public schools, parochial schools, private schools, charter schools, un-schooling, home-schooling and any other system of education they experienced.   This doesn’t mean we can’t transform broken systems.  However, it suggests to me that maybe we need to drop the pejorative language about a particular system and ask what it would mean to humanize a broken system.  Maybe the solution is home-schooling.  But maybe the solution is to transform public schools through conversations with home-schoolers and un-schoolers and traditionalists.

Maybe the solution is a humble conversation instead of a tribalistic screaming match playing out in ALL CAPS.

All institutions can become coercive and destructive.  The issues is not simply “change the system.”  The issue is one of approach and philosophy.  Are we being humble?  Are we being humane? Is this what’s best for kids?

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


17 thoughts on “It Isn’t Binary

  1. So true John. The failure of the ed reformers is thinking that whatever solution they have is the best solution, or that what is happening in schools isn’t working for some kids.

    We need a system that recognizes that there are many ways to educate kids, and that each of them works well for some kids. Some kids need lots of structure, some kids don’t. When we fall into the trap of a “this way” or “that way” approach to education, we are allowing our personal view of what education should be to cloud an important issue. Kids aren’t machines. You can’t use machine-logic to predict what will be best for them.

    Posted by dwees | August 23, 2011, 1:27 pm
  2. John! this is it! THANK YOU! 🙂

    But seriously, I think you hit it on the head here. I think honestly we are just at the moment in time where this can not only be said but acted on. I am not sure if it could of happened before….there is something about needing the contrast to help find what we really have been wanting which is not one thing or one system, one way, but a way of living and learning that see us as humans that matter and the helps to grow and develop, to challenge us, and pushing respectfully forward, that see the wonder in all of us but understands we are not perfect. It is a more just and sustainable world, it might look differently for one system than another…but it all will have these at their core…

    I highly recommend checking out Person/Planet by Theodore Roszak … he wrote it in the late 70’s but I think you would dig it.

    Also I like to share Dewey’s trip to Utopia because I think it gets at what we really want in learning communities without saying there is one one way…

    Also recommend Krishnamurti’s writings on Education, particularly Education and the Significance of Life. He frustrated a lot of people because he never laid the perfect way to school child, but instead tried to help people break away from the wound, conditions and “schooling” that would cause them to wound, set conditions, and “school” the children of the world….. It is so simple but so challenging and I think you might find something useful in it… but then again maybe not… I did… and one thing I learned from him is that unless it connect with you on a heart level you are not either ready for it or it is not true for you. He didn’t want people to just take his wisdom and worship him, it was more about sharing in the wisdom… anyway if you get a chance… I would love to chat about it more….

    so anyway I think you are right on and I think we are ready for messages like this!

    -here’s to living and learning together


    Posted by dloitz | August 23, 2011, 2:03 pm
  3. >But maybe the solution is to transform public schools through conversations with home-schoolers and un-schoolers and traditionalists.

    Perhaps it’s different for you, but my own discussions within the public school have been shockingly one-sided, as in “public school is the only answer, we’re doing great, and all this hippie crap is bullshit”. I don’t know how the system can be transformed if it’s in the best interest of the system to remain entrenched in traditional bureaucratic thinking. Imagine if we moved to John Holt-type “schooling”, libraries as places of learning and schools as we know it gone. The number of teachers would be reduced by 75%, admins by 95%, and there’s no longer be a “ministry of education” as we know it. Imagine how many highly educated people would be out of a job: do you think that they would tolerate such a radical change, even if it was in the best interests of children?

    Maybe I’m just cynical, but talking hasn’t done a lot to change the way we do schools. The recent trend towards more standardised tests and less individualised learning shows that we’re moving away, not towards, the place we need to go.

    Posted by alanthefriesen | August 23, 2011, 2:29 pm
    • I appreciate your perspective. In all honesty, I haven’t seen a ton of dialogue either way. I’ve met many intolerant, ideological home-schoolers and un-schoolers who don’t believe a teacher “from the system” has anything to offer. Just like those from within the system, there are people within the un-school and home-school systems that have a vested interest in seeing it work.

      On some level, I am one of those with a vested interest. I don’t want to see the system fail. I want to see it change. I want to see it move toward local, democratic communities. I want student voices to be respected. I fight my battle within the system, because public education is necessary for a thriving democracy.

      If we lost 75% of our students to home-schooling, I would be encouraged – as long as we still had the same funding. Smaller class sizes. Larger rooms. It would be a beautiful thing. If we moved to larger library-style schools, I would support it. But doing away with teachers wouldn’t be the solution. To me, it wouldn’t be in the best interest of students.

      Here’s where I’m hopeful: I have taken ideas from home-schoolers. I have shared specific strategies on projects with home-schooling and un-schooling friends. We can respectfully disagree on the “best system” and focus instead of what quality learning looks like within any system.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | August 23, 2011, 5:03 pm
    • I also admit that my context is pretty different. I teach in a low-SES school, where home-schooling and un-schooling is not as feasible (everyone is working). If we want radical change, I can’t imagine that firing a large number of teachers and reducing the adult-to-student interaction would be ideal. Teachers still matter.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | August 23, 2011, 5:06 pm
  4. Alan,

    See I think your right too… talking only can get you so far… vision without action is just pretend, but action without vision can be dangerous…

    I agree the system has a lot invested in the status quo… and I think more so the people outside the classroom than inside… I think teachers would always have a job, but in a different sort of way. I don’t think it is so much about certain people being without a job, as in how money and POWER would change. In a more open system the need or usefulness of top-down power and control would go away. Education has been used for years to get certain outcomes…. which most of the times has nothing to do with learning or academic achievement.

    People are schooled into believing this system is the only way…or believe this system is the problem….but what the problem is a value system or cultural consciousness that has yet to move on…or evolve….

    but i think what I am trying to say is that I think there is a tipping point and we are at it… and moving from a either/or conversation to a what is working conversation and then moving forward based on those conversations will help push the value and consciousness to a place where Industrial way of thinking and living just doesn’t have a place and therefore can’t be…. it is happening, even if it is not being publicized or can’t be seen in every school.

    I think we can’t take lightly the energy of change that is happening on the planet… The Arab Spring is not hippy bullshit, it is real, social media revolutions are still in their infancy, but they have more power and can work faster than any revolution in the past…but they are not just happening overnight on their own…this energy has been building for a long time and I think the big push from the “Corp reformers and Standardization agents” is a sign of this…. Bullies punch hardest right before they fall… they know the end is near…. we just need to be ready with a vision of something better when they do…

    or I might be wrong, but every once of my being can feel the energy moving in a new direction…

    Visioning and doing,


    Posted by dloitz | August 23, 2011, 3:26 pm
  5. Fo me, the work we should be doing comes down to creating positive, rich conditions for kids’ emergent learning, community, and independence. Where we can do this, we should. Where we cannot, we should speak up and agitate for change and consider carefully the consequences of following all the rules.

    I would never ignore a student’s request for structure, but I would make sure that I heard the student and listened well to the what and how of his or her request. I would try to find the best way to support his or her agency, competency, and learning. I would not start at a place of control, and I would not acquiesce to a student’s request to be controlled. Structure isn’t binary, and it’s goal should not be control – and while I’m not reading “we should control students who want to be controlled” as any one’s argument, I think it’s important to distinguish between structure and control.

    Our problems here come from the binary culture of schooling and the culture of industrial schools’ parent, authority. I’m glad so many people are working to change that culture inside and outside schools, but to shift our schools’ culture – rather than our individual school’s cultures – we need more of us from more walks of life.

    So, I will hazard this: we do face a binary choice between a system that controls and a system that frees. We should not excuse or stop questioning practices that make kids subservient to adult interests and convenience. One can have structure and safety without a seven-period schedule that disintegrates the self-evident connections between disciplines, for example.

    Your thoughts, community?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 24, 2011, 4:18 am
  6. It’s all mired in mystery. Even the way we go about changing hits the paradox of sage and lunatic. Sometimes I should boldly throw my fist at the system and sometimes I should quietly work toward changing it. A certain level of conformity is necessary for long-term, systemic change.

    I agree with your call for change, but I don’t see it as binary, but more like a spectrum. Even with questions like “Is it humane?” and “Is it humble?” leave me with a sense that it falls somewhere within a spectrum. Some places are much more coercive than others. I place the seven-period schedule on the coercive side, but it is nothing near as coercive as Zero Tolerance or handing out fried dough for reading books.

    I would also caution criticizing a system simply because it is industrial. That’s the same danger the industrialists fell into when they criticized the one-room schoolhouse. There are probably some elements to industrial learning that aren’t all bad (perhaps there’s a time and a place for lecture, for systematic notes or for single-age learning – just not all the time). In moving forward, I want to think critically about all models, knowing that I will not create utopia and that all systems have pros and cons. It’s an issue of listening humbly.

    With regards to structure, that can be tricky. I ran a very “loose” classroom last year. Tons of blending between subjects. Lots of project-based learning. Murals and the like. Yet, for some, it was still too structured. For others, it felt uncomfortable to have no class rules (but rather a loose set of norms). However, students felt safe. And that’s always going to be true of groups. The individual sacrifices some comfort for a sense of group identity.

    Again, things become incredibly paradoxical: anarchy within protective love, freedom within safety, showing mercy while holding to truth, social and individual voice, leading by serving, structures that are both loose and tight enough for everyone to be safe. If I can’t always get it right as a dad, I’ll never completely pull it off as a teacher and I sure as hell won’t pull it off as a system.

    Some authors get the sense of paradox better than others. I appreciate the nuance of Seymor Papert, Paulo Freire and John Dewey. I’m not so crazy about the lack of nuance and the tear-down-a-straw-man approach of John Holt and to some degree Alfie Kohn.

    And yet . . .

    It’s still humane. It’s still humble. It’s still creative. It still encourages critical thinking. Yes, it’s a paradox. Yes, it’s a spectrum. However, I can still boldly say that it’s worth fighting for and that it’s very different from factory education.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | August 24, 2011, 7:59 am
    • I hear you, John, but in our non-binary efforts, a certain level of non-conformity is necessary for long-term, systemic change, as well, right?

      I am comfortable decrying industrial education – that model and that kind of labor environment are not liberating. I think that you’re right to cite the utility of lecture and note-taking, but those practices are not unique to industry – I see those practices as part of inquiry and apprenticeship, which are not industrial in my mind. Your thoughts?

      By structures, I am speaking more of frames than any kind of traditional notion of discipline. Your decision to run a loose classroom with project-based learning provides a structure. Structures can be different, but I think they should be scaffolds to lift up learning, independence, and community, rather than practices meant to push down students’ curiosities, criticisms, and questions.

      Does any of that make my point clearer? I think there is more than one spectrum, and that they one we should position ourselves on concerns itself with the myriad ways to help students free themselves from blind compliance and consumership. I don’t imagine any of us are far apart here, but I want to be sure that my previous comment isn’t read as advocating traditional schooling.

      Best regards,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | August 25, 2011, 6:19 am
  7. As an “other” (at least from the perspective dominant Western European and “White” authority in the U.S.), I find education to be something along the lines of the pharmakon, both a medicine and poison. Paradox, aporia and the structure of the “education system” aside, it would seem to me that education-as-system (or the system-of-education) is but a part of a far larger structure, and that attempts to alter, decompose, restructure of otherwise effect change is doomed to fail barring the address of far larger socioeconomic, political and cultural issues.

    I am not an “educator”, and approach this as an “Ex” cop, Paramedic, business owner and more recently as a practicing attorney (X 20 yrs). With a BS, JD and soon an MA, I can only view the “education system” as an abject failure vis-a-vis its being a vehicle for “all” to advance themselves within society.

    Bless you all for trying…

    Posted by Brent Snavely | August 24, 2011, 9:52 am
  8. I don’t disagree with any of that, but I wonder if I haven’t made my point very clear. (I tend to meander). Here are a few thoughts:

    1. Every system has pros and cons. The same is true of nations. I’d much rather live in the U.S. than North Korea. I’d probably choose Canada over the U.S. (on a systemic level – the weather, in general, would drive me crazy)
    2. I believe it’s possible to work within the system to change it. We need people at all levels, including classroom teachers. There is this belief out there that classroom teachers can’t do enough, that we are still conforming to the system, that we’re just a bunch of government agent sellouts. Honestly, that mentality of “you’re not radical enough” does more harm than good. Change needs to happen on many different levels.
    3. I don’t advocate for traditional schools. Even if a system is on a spectrum, the factory-based education is pretty low on the spectrum. And yet, even within the factory system, the lack of awareness, ability to enforce and political will is typically enough wiggle room for a classroom to still run in a pretty non-traditional framework.
    4. Just because someone advocates a particular system does not mean there won’t be dysfunction in the system. True, kids are wounded by systems, but they are scarred by bad relationships. I hated the system growing up, but I found hope in certain teachers. I was scarred by others. Home-schooling and un-schooling both have the potential for bad relationships, fear, coercion and dysfunction.
    5. To believe in public education does not mean one advocates for traditional schools. I believe in the democratic, community-based, local institution. The issue wasn’t with the existence of the institution but with the cancer of standardization. It’s why I am often more hopeful than some of the people who comment on this blog. I’ve seen it work. I’ve experienced when it works.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | August 25, 2011, 8:23 am
    • 1. I imagine that a perceptual difference exists as to the ‘purpose’ of education. It would seem the structure Thomas Jefferson outlined is one of social control and, given the general timbre of discussion in public fora, marching to the drum of mainstream production and consumption, and ‘follow the leader’ does appear to be the main purpose served by ‘public education’.
      2. One must always “work within a system”, and yet attempting to change a system when it is corrupted is impossible as changing the structure is governed by the structure itself — the results of following Polical Process Theory (at least to my mind) has demonstrated this several times.
      3. I agree that ‘wiggle-room’ is available. One of my HS teachers provided me a book on alternate pathways to higher education — I dropped out of HS and “dropped up” to college, essentially skipping my senioer HS year. This was not at all an easy task, but was doable.
      4. The ‘public education system’ is but a sub-system of greater society/culture. As such, effecting change in public education involves far more than public ed itself — the task is far greater than one might anticipate.
      5. One size does not fit all, or even most of the populace, and a fair number of individuals realize this. Still, they ‘follow the leader’ whether an individual or a mainstream concept who/which, in all likelihood, is but a co-opted structuralist or a structural concept that is “doomed to fail”. In this regard, there is an interlocking network of cultural threads within which minimal flexation is possible before shifting is bounded by the woven threads.

      I suspect most here are very much concerned about students, and do their utmost to help them “learn the basics”, seeking to attain various stated and unstated quantified goals. I suggest the framework is inverted — that qualitative achievement would lead to more “learning” of the basics (and even beyond) by establishing ‘the student’ as prime agent for learning information that they find interesting. From my own experience, I did not care much for inorganic chemistry or trig while ‘in school’, but separately learned a great deal when my inquistiveness took over and I had a need for information on those subjects in order to perform various tasks.

      On a philosophic level, a pre-defined and quantified educational telos is likely to operate so as to kill off the exact end(s) sought.

      Posted by Brent Snavely | August 25, 2011, 9:15 am


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