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Philosophical Meanderings

“The tyranny of choice is still tyranny” and other fun thoughts on a cold November morn

Perhaps it’s just because it’s November, but I’ve felt extremely discouraged about my own teaching methodology and the state of education in general as of late. In my own senior high English classes, I’ve been practicing a model of freedom for my students: they pick what they want to study, how they want to respond to what they’re reading, and when they hand in each assignment (so long as it’s before the end of the semester). I’ve been supplementing their independent study with periodic explications of poems and short stories, generally keeping this to a half-hour per week, and with one-on-one help as needed during class time.

Earlier this month, I sat down and talked with a student from a different school, listening to her growing frustration and unease at her own schooling experience. In my English class, I believe that good writing takes time, and expecting students to only complete first-drafts in class for marks might make for secure and reliable grading, but it doesn’t encourage students to become writers. This student was frustrated because, although she’s a brilliant writer, she’s also a slow writer – a label that would be meaningless if school didn’t exist. If a novelist takes five months or five years to write a novel, nobody is concerned, after all; in the end, the novel is written and celebrated. But in school, all are limited by time and the bugbear of grading, and can creativity truly take place in such an environment? As the saying goes, have any poets been born as a result of an English class?

I’ll admit that I was feeling a bit smug about my own system when I had one of my own students sit down with me and express her concern: without any hard and fast deadlines, and without giving her percentage marks on her assignments that she’s turned in so far, she doesn’t know how she’s doing in class and feels like she’s floundering. I told her that, based on her work so far, she’s doing fine and shouldn’t worry, but she insisted that she needed a number to quantify her progress so far. Never mind the paragraphs I’ve written in response to her short story or essay; no, our school system has demanded that formative feedback take a back seat in favour of a two-digit percentage.

In the end, though I think that my own system does offer more flexibility and more freedom for students, ultimately it’s as coercive as the traditional model of education. Yes, assignments can be handed in at any time, but they still need to be handed in if a student wants to “pass.” Yes, there’s freedom in the class, but only within the confines of the class – the rest of the school hasn’t changed. No, I don’t provide grades for students’ assignments, but ultimately their performance in class will be judged based on a two-digit percentage, and that’s the number that will be considered by parents, administrators, and university admissions counsellors. As a teacher and a professional, I’m not judged by the hours I pour into my written feedback, but by these numbers and the nearly-meaningless statistical analyses that they facilitate.

I reflect back to my visits to Trillium and Clearwater this past March and still marvel that these students have been given the opportunity to be themselves at school, the opportunity to not just choose what they want to learn, but if they want to learn. My own students, on the contrary, have been trained since primary school to “grade-grub”, as Jack Black’s effusive character chides in The School of Rock. It’s for this reason that my wife homeschools my children, and at this point in my career I’m starting to feel the internal pressure of my own hypocrisy: the educational system in which I teach is not good enough for my kids, yet I take money from this broken system every month.

Perhaps this is just the November slump. Perhaps I’ll feel better after Christmas. Perhaps this bit of discouragement is exactly the wrong thing that teachers need right now, especially teachers (who read posts like this on the Coop!) putting themselves at the forefront of educational research and humane education as I write this. But right now in the school year, surrounded by gung-ho colleagues who see nothing wrong with the way that we educate our children, the isolation I feel is profound, and I question not just the impulse that brought me to this place in my life, but the inertia that allows me to stay within this system.

Is there hope? For decades now reformers have been talking about non-coercive education; Summerhill School, Sudbury Valley, and other free schools have shown that this model works, and that it’s far more humane for our students than the students-in-rows, note-taking, test-writing culture that’s embedded into our systemic DNA. But right now, sitting in the classroom and pondering the statement from a student that she has too much freedom in English class, I agree far too much with the sign Dante reads at the beginning of his journey: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”

About alanthefriesen

Educational anarchist doing all I can to de-school students.


8 thoughts on ““The tyranny of choice is still tyranny” and other fun thoughts on a cold November morn

  1. Like you, I often speak alone in a room full of private sector reformers, school board members and Dept. of Education administrators, who, spend most of their time citing the meaningless statistics you reference. After they (sometimes) politely listen to my plea for the freedom to learn and teach that students and teachers so desperately need, I will read your post to show them how profoundly engaging a humane learning environment can and should be..

    Posted by timmcclung | November 22, 2011, 3:42 pm
  2. I hope that this is one of the places from which we can draw hope. The dissatisfaction and sense of isolation are familiar to me this time of year, too, as are some students’ difficulties in acclimating to independent work. It is better to teach them to use narrative feedback from others – as well as to self-assess and self-advocate for clarity. Clarity of vision about what a student wants to learn and produce is not the same thing as the “clarity” offered by a letter or number grade.

    Keep up the struggle. The struggle is the hope.

    A little spark is followed by huge fires:
    Perhaps, after me, prayers will be so raised
    With stronger voices that Cyrrha may respond.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 22, 2011, 3:52 pm
  3. I do not hold ‘making the grade’ in high esteem, but it is a critical issue for others (leading me to wonder if there is any hope for them).

    Were it not for hope, or at least the hope of having hope, I think everyone would disconnect right now. Perhaps the general public and the policy makers know this, whether consciously or otherwise, and find it best not to let the students know — they would otherwise revolt, and there would be no way to stop them.

    From one systemically co-opted individual to another, hang in there!

    Posted by Brent Snavely | November 22, 2011, 4:18 pm
  4. Well my friend, I hear you. I have followed exactly the same path in my own teaching experiences, first being disturbed that students themselves were not more willing to embrace the freedom I offered them in classes and then realizing, of course, that they had been schooled into passivity and other-evaluation through years of conditioning and truly we’re ready (yet) to take on the revolution of values that self-education entails. I asked my students to grade themselves as well, and this was very challenging, but the challenge, in essence is what my course–and perhaps yours–is about.

    Many of my students, although they strained against it mightily, tell me their course arranged this way was a turning point for them. Discomfort is a part of learning, and staying in discomfort is something you may be being asked to do.

    And we are here for you. That is what this blog is about, in part. I have written about this whole journey in many places if you want to connect on that.

    More importantly too, bell hooks’ amazing book Teaching to Transgress: Education As The Practice of Freedom (1994) is is a beautiful set of essays on the dilemmas you describe here.

    So what does the sense of disheartenment and discouragement mean for you? What is happening to you and with you through that feeling? There is change there. What is it?

    With respect and colleagueship,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 22, 2011, 5:11 pm
  5. I try my best to toe the line between a “slow” writing assignment and satisfying the need for a grade, especially since I have students who are conditioned to get grades for every little thing and breaking said conditioning takes time and patience. In all honesty, it’s just being thorough on feedback for any paper or essay and giving plenty of opportunity to revise and rewrite. This sounds counterproductive to what you were talking about, but I do put a grade on a first version and simply replace that grade on later versions. My students have discovered that the comments left are way more important than the grades, but they’re still comfortable.

    I am extremely frustrated by the way that standardized testing has turned writing, which is a craft, into a “process” and has completely turned students off to the idea of a well-crafted, enthralling essay. Fighting this little by little is a tough fight but I’m glad I’m not the only one willing to take it on.

    Posted by Tom Panarese | November 22, 2011, 10:21 pm
  6. “Deschooling” is the word that came to my mind while reading your post.

    In my world, that’s the process students and families go through while transitioning from school to homeschooling, whether unschooling or other.

    The general rule of thumb you will hear in hsing circles is one month for every year the student was in school. After that time, the students and the parents may be comfortable enough with all that freedom to get on with figuring out how they want to live as hsers.

    All that freedom can be very difficult to deal with in the best of situations. Add other problems a student may have had in school and the deschooling process can take even longer.

    Now tell a student who is still in school that they will have freedom, but only for one block a day. The rest of their day will remain in lock-step with the usual school experience. And the importance of the grade they get for that one block of freedom is not diminished.

    How can they ever successfully deschool and get on with actual learning?


    Posted by NanceConfer | November 23, 2011, 8:48 pm
    • >How can they ever successfully deschool and get on with actual learning?

      I completely get what you’re saying, and I completely agree. I honestly don’t know what else I can do as a public school teacher, however. My school (and, indeed, any public school in my province) is tied to funding through completion of credits, and without funding… well, you know the answer to that one. Am I wrong in thinking that giving these students a tiny bit of freedom in their lives is, in the end, better than ruling my class like a tyrant? Or is this little bit of freedom making their lives more difficult? Some days, I don’t know which to believe.

      Posted by alanthefriesen | November 23, 2011, 9:11 pm
      • I don’t know the answer, either. You and your students are still working in a system that allows what freedom you can find but that’s all. When the choice to be in the system is really a choice, things will be different.

        Posted by NanceConfer | November 23, 2011, 9:29 pm

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