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Learning at its Best

If We Say This Is What We Believe . . .

Recently my family visited a small science center that’s attached to a progressive community school. The place was packed, but it never felt crazy or chaotic. It was loud, but not ear-splitting. It was messy, but never dangerous.

My kids started out at a glider station, where they designed and raced various gliders using random objects (straws, paper clips, paper, buttons) and observing the materials and design influenced flight. They saw a live demonstration of a sewing machine and they asked questions about how it worked. In another corner, kids were making bridges out of straws.

“This is the overflow room,” a man said. “Wait until they get to the main area.”

There were places with magnets and gyroscopes, sound equipment, natural elements, a climbing wall, and a magnet station. Some were highly structured (the optical illusion station) and some were incredibly loose. Some allowed for inquiry, others began with guided inquiry. It was balanced. The workers rarely answered questions, but instead reframed questions to guide observation.

I kept hearing parents say, “I wish my kid’s school had that,” and I kept hearing kids say, “I wish science class was like this.”

And it struck me that there is a big difference between what we say we want in public schools and how we act. People paid money to visit this science center in their free time, noticed the learning, even said it would be great in school. But they stopped there. Transformation has to include the next step.

Demand better schools. Opt out if you desire. Go create a charter school if that’s the only option. But also demand quality, constructivist learning as loudly and boldly as the corporate reformers tend to do with test scores and KIPP academies.

Parents and community members need to speak out against homework, grades and behaviorism. We need to question whether life-long learning really belongs with “college and career readiness” and whether it makes any sense to treat a six-year-old like a twenty-six-year-old. We need to ignore test scores rather than buying nice homes in the areas with the “good districts” or allowing only the gifted kids to have project-based classrooms.

We need to ask whether it is logical or even humane that a kindergartner would spend the whole first week taking tests and why students in Arizona will spend 30 hours taking one test assessing one subject while their teachers take a 4 hour test to see if they are highly qualified to teach those very subjects.

We need to articulate a vision where we either walk out of the factory or we repurpose the factory to be a viable, sustainable learning community.

photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photo pin cc

About John Spencer

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


16 thoughts on “If We Say This Is What We Believe . . .

  1. Re-reading this post. Seriously considering deleting it, because it’s less of a blog post and more of a rant. It’s a bit too stream of consciousness for even a guy like me.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | July 14, 2012, 4:52 pm
  2. I love this post! Do not dare delete it. The point you make is quite powerful, people say they want our schools to look like this but then cut the funding. How will we ever afford all of those hands on activities and when will we ever find the time to actually do them?

    Posted by Pernille Ripp @pernilleripp | July 14, 2012, 5:12 pm
  3. John,

    I hope you leave this up as I fear there is too much concern about the form of communicating, particularly when addressing the education of youths. This concern might arise from our being “enstructurated”, that is to say, trained to behave in a particular manner, or out of fear that we expose too much of our (vulnerable) selves. For those in the teaching trenches, perhaps there is even be an element of fear regarding some type of retaliatory measures being taken on-the-job.

    If I have interpreted your post correctly, I think you articulate a very important point: True Belief, by its nature, leads one to take action.

    Wishing you the very best,

    Posted by Brent Snavely | July 14, 2012, 5:13 pm
    • I never thought about it that way. For me, the big issue is how disorganized it is. It really is a bit of a random rant. Thanks for the kind words, though.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | July 14, 2012, 6:40 pm
  4. don’t you dare take this down! This is brilliant!!!! The last line alone is worth the price of admission! 🙂

    Posted by dloitz | July 14, 2012, 5:30 pm
  5. This reminds of Walk Out, Walk On, the authors of which hold that we can walk out of the system or caretake those in it through a kind of hospice as the system dies. If we stay, we can “walk out” of our old beliefs and change our practice to provide the metaphorical hospice care, but the system doesn’t change.

    What do you think of that view, John?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 14, 2012, 6:44 pm
    • I have mixed feelings on that. All systems are broken at some level. I think the good/bad paradigm can be really dangerous. School does a lot of good and it does a lot of harm. Trying to quantify that is hard for me. Perhaps it is hospice. I don’t mind that. Let it die and let it die with dignity. Or maybe it’s not hospice. Maybe it’s more like a plant dying and through the death it will be transformed and life will be there. If that’s the case, I’m hoping I am planting a seed. Or maybe it’s more like a physical structure that can be repurposed and transformed.

      I haven’t settled on a metaphor and I’m not sure that there is any one “right” way to look at it.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | July 14, 2012, 6:48 pm
  6. I found myself nodding the whole way through reading this. Thanks for posting. We home school due in large part to everything you spoke about, and we live in a “good district.”

    Posted by CJ | July 14, 2012, 6:44 pm
  7. Rant all you feel important! For sure, there are too many people who somehow feel satisfied by simply pointing fingers … My suggestion is what I’ve been calling “local Education Communities” that are motivated and engaged people (teachers, administrators, students, parents / families, non-profit representatives, and general community citizens) that identify and understand local issues and the develop better alternatives (Stephen Covey: alternatives believed by all parties to be better than the position they each championed at the start) and then implement, assess, and refine them.

    The good news I believe is that this can be done in spite of all the mandates; standardized tests will improve for sure.

    Posted by John Bennett | July 14, 2012, 10:44 pm
  8. When you write that transformation has to include the next step, I agree, but I have to add the step-wise behavior might lead to incremental change but rarely if ever does it lead to transformation. Of course, this assumes that by transformation you mean a rather large degree of change.

    Posted by Terry Elliott (@tellio) | July 15, 2012, 1:15 pm


  1. Pingback: In Retro Cite 07/17/2012 « A Retrospective Saunter - July 17, 2012

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