Kirsten Olson is a leading writer in the U.S. describing education from a student’s point of view. Her recent book Wounded By School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up To Old School Culture(2009) was one of the ten bestselling books at Teachers College Press this past year, and was nominated for Book of the Year by Foreword. Reviewers have called the book “brilliant, insightful, unsparing, hopeful.” Kirsten recently became a founding board member of IDEA, an emerging national non-profit that seeks to reinvent public education so that all kids can be creative, curious and collaborative learners. A popular speaker at education conferences, Kirsten is a member of the Socratic Seminar on Educational Innovation at Columbia University and on the advisory board of the Institute for Humane Education. Kirsten is also the author of Schools As Colonizers (Verlag 2008), which examined the ideas of the radical school critics of the 1960s, and dozens of articles about education. Her educational leadership consulting practice is based in Brookline, MA, which works with schools and educational groups all over the country.
DaretheSchool: I am so excited to interview you. You have such an amazing scope of experiences. Considering your views on education and learning, I must say I was surprised to see you graduated from Harvard. How were your experiences at this institution?
Kirsten: Well that’s a long conversation! I had fantastic mentors there. I worked with Sara Lawrence Lightfoot and Pedro Noguera and they are very important people to me. Harvard is an institution that is about power and privilege. During the time I was there, many people at the school were supporting No Child Left Behind, and helping to create our current accountability environment that has proven to be disastrous for kids and schools. I feel grateful that I was able to go to Harvard, but also very aware of some of the problems that students who go there emerge with in terms of power and privilege. So it is a real dilemma. At the end of the day, I knew I could be a more powerful warrior for the things that I believe in spite of being in an institution that reinforces power and privilege. That was the calculation that I made. Having that particular degree ultimately does allow you to be in a variety of different worlds. However, you also have to be really careful because institutions have institutionalizing effects in terms of thinking.
DaretheSchool: Why do you educate?
Kirsten: Education is at the heart of human transformation. Some of the most powerful emotional and spiritual experiences of my life have been around learning. I believe education is at the center of what it means to be a human being in terms of people connecting and finding ways to collaborate to make the world better. Making the education system better feels like a place I can make the most impact. It feels like really meaningful work because the system is profoundly broken, dysfunctional and toxic. It is important to discover how we learn and help others learn, along with the implications of this for our community and the world at large.
DaretheSchool: How was your k-12 experience?
Kirsten: I was aware from very early on that this was a system that was incredibly unfair. I saw people given labels as pieces of self- identity. In first grade I remember my peers being sorted out in high, middle and lower reading groups and thinking of themselves as smart or dumb. I remember being aware that this seemed unfair and wrong. As a white, upper-middle class person (although I didn’t have this kind of consciousness then), it became increasingly apparent to me that the system was rigged to privilege people who were already privileged and to get them to believe that they deserved their privilege. When I was in high school there was not a single student of color in any of my honors and AP courses. There was this unfounded belief that this was a meritocratic environment, and if you were not successful it was your fault individually. That seemed like a lie to me. I also noticed that the system was designed to make you stupid and even students who were privileged in the education system were made stupid in particular ways. All of my most powerful learning experiences were happening outside of school and I felt like I had to protect myself. For instance, I would read interesting books but behind my textbook, or if I thought interesting thoughts, I kept them hidden from the school. It was an environment intent on making you passive, conformist, and less interesting.
DaretheSchool: I want to talk more about your work at the Institute for Democratic Education in America. What is your role?
Kirsten: IDEA is a national activist organization that focuses on ways to transform the education system. It focuses on groups of people all around the country who have been doing great work who feel disconnected with the current trends in the school system. IDEA is focusing on getting to a place where we are a coherent and weighty player when discussing what the future of education should look like. It was started by a group of people who came out of the democratic education movement in Israel and around the U.S. I came to IDEA because a group of founders knew about the work I was doing as an activist and a writer and wanted me be a part of this founding group. I’ve been with IDEA for about a year and it has a talented and wonderful staff and we’ve expanded in incredible ways after just a year. We know there is an incredible need for our work and we’re making sure we have the funding and support our move forward.
DaretheSchool: Considering the current political environment of high standards, how do you survive in terms of securing funding and support?
Kirsten: That era began in 2001 with NCLB. We now have 11 years of evidence that this accountability environment, and the supposed enforcing “high standards” through testing, has tremendously eroded the quality of instruction, demoralized the American teaching force and threatens to break up the remaining trust in the public education system. (Although I would say this was probably what it was designed to do.) I believe that era is collapsing under its own weight. There is now so much research and evidence about the negative effects of these policies, that it will cease to have authority, which means something else will emerge. The question becomes: does the system become privatized in the charter model or is it possible to rebuild public trust around a variety of new educational models? The idea of “one best system” is an old school idea. There is no one system. Real learning doesn’t look like that however, we have this large hierarchical system that employs 3 million adults and we don’t know what to do about that. But to answer your question, I believe the old system is collapsing around us, but the new question is what are we going to do instead or in addition to? That is what we are wrestling with.
DaretheSchool: You speak of public versus charter and this is an issue that I wrestle with myself. What are your thoughts about this subject?
Kirsten: I would like to see many different education models emerge and be supported by public funds. I don’t just want to see wonderful schools only serve the kids who already have choices. I worry about all of these wonderful alternative learning environments being created and only people who have the means are able to access them. Meanwhile, the people who are left in the public school system are folks who have no choice, no resources, and no social capital. That’s a scary prospect and would be terrible for our country.
DaretheSchool: I completely agree. I think the charter model started out as a really progressive idea but got twisted along the way.
Kirsten: It’s so true. I’ve worked with many, many charter schools and some of them have been the least adventuresome intellectual environments that I have ever been in…Particularly the KIPP schools.
This is a colonialist model of education. Largely middle and upper middle class people deciding how poor kids should be educated. It’s very problematic and it’s just not being talked about enough. Also, there is this idea of trying to “cure” kids of their community. They call it the new paternalism, but it looks a lot like 19th century colonialism to me! Moreover, it is a command and control instructional environment. A child who goes through this sort of schooling until the 8th grade will not be able to go to a highly-selective private school and all of a sudden be authorized to think their own thoughts, when all they’ve ever been taught it how to please the teacher and the adults best. The model advocates for control and custody of students along with a culturally imperialist model. Teach for America, KIPP, Uncommon schools, and Achievement First, are crafted as social movements and young folks right out of college get so filled with a sense of belief about mission of erasing inequality, which is intentional, that these questions don’t come up. There’s a kind of fervor to this, and an intensity of belief. This makes it really hard because most people are not very questioning about the underlying assumptions behind this form of education.
DarethSchool: Do you have any plans for future projects in the field of education?
Kirsten: In my lifetime, I am hoping for a collective effort to begin a set of hybridized, multi-choice education communities that all parents would CHOOSE to send their children to. I envision these learning communities as being rich, welcoming, warm, challenging, and hospitable environments. These environments would place the brilliance and potential of children at the forefront. I believe that a public commitment to educating children is a way for us to express our commitment to each other. We need to find ways to express our connectedness in our education system and we are currently so far away from that.
DaretheSchool: Is there any writer or reformer who has really influenced your work?
Kirsten: John Holt’s How Children Fail. I found this book in the discard pile in the library during graduate school, just to articulate how out of style his thinking was. I think Holt is better than Dewey in describing how learning is a deeply spiritual enterprise. It’s about having self-confidence, being bold and believing in yourself and he writes beautifully about how school thwarts that. It’s lovely writing grounded in the classroom. I also love Ivan Illich, a great critical theorist of institutions. He wrote about the way institutions work so hard at preserving themselves no matter how dysfunctional they get and that’s a lot of what we’re seeing now. We are seeing how difficult it is to move away from a system that doesn’t work. The last one would be bell hooks. She writes about what it means for kids to be colonized by a system that is unfair and how that impacted her work as a teacher. She talks about what that means for her in her work and her biography as an activist.
DaretheSchool: Favorite quote?
To learn more about Kirsten, please visit: www.kirstenolson.org