But if you go look at the application announcement, it turns out that the student participant on the State Board of Education is a non-voting member. So much for having a real voice… [sigh]
I’m not trying to pick on DE; the non-voting status of the student is encoded in Iowa statute. But it’s worth noting that, along with student councils in schools and student representatives to school boards, these types of positions mostly seem to be a way for us adults to feel good about ourselves for including students. We pat ourselves on the back for ‘listening to student voice’ and point to the token representation to say, “See? We care!” when in actuality it’s just a sop, a meaningless thing given for appeasement instead of truly honoring needs or meeting demands: “Look, you get to sit with us and listen! We might even occasionally let you speak!”
As adults we’re not willing to give students actual decision-making responsibility. We’re not willing to give them power and authority over anything that’s really meaningful. Instead, we give them these artificial input opportunities and then exercise our freedom to completely ignore them – because they’re minors, you know, and don’t really know what’s best for them or the organizations in which they’re embedded – thus patronizing and demeaning the very youth that we’re supposedly honoring.
If we want to give students real voice and real agency, that means providing them with actual decision-making power (e.g., a vote) and something meaningful upon which to decide. What do students learn from tokenistic, inauthentic, powerless participation opportunities?
I challenge us to try this locally. Let’s give a group of students majority voting power over a school’s behavior and discipline policies. Or what courses are offered. Or the daily schedule. Does this scare us to death? If so, what does that say about us?
Alfie Kohn says:
- Learning should be organized around problems, projects, and (students’) questions – not around lists of facts or skills, or separate disciplines.
- Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly.
- The primary criterion for what we do in schools: How will this affect kids’ interest in the topic (and their excitement about learning more generally)?
- If students are “off task,” the problem may be with the task, not with the kids.
- In outstanding classrooms, teachers do more listening than talking, and students do more talking than listening. Terrific teachers often have teeth marks on their tongues.
- Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.
- When we aren’t sure how to solve a problem relating to curriculum, pedagogy, or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids.
- The more focused we are on kids’ “behaviors,” the more we end up missing the kids themselves – along with the needs, motives, and reasons that underlie their actions.
- If students are rewarded or praised for doing something (e.g., reading, solving problems, being kind), they’ll likely lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.
- The more that students are led to focus on how well they’re doing in school, the less engaged they’ll tend to be with what they’re doing in school.
- All learning can be assessed, but the most important kinds of learning are very difficult to measure – and the quality of that learning may diminish if we try to reduce it to numbers.
- Standardized tests assess the proficiencies that matter least. Such tests serve mostly to make unimpressive forms of instruction appear successful.
The technology affords an environment in which students [can] take on more of the power and responsibility for their own learning.
But we don’t see that. Instead, we see
a hype-and-bust cycle that goes back to the personal computer. Look at all the marvelous things technology is going to do! And then it doesn’t happen.
And the reason, as Rheingold correctly identifies, is
the secret, or maybe not so secret, agenda, which is that the classroom is really for teaching compliance. That was useful when societies were transforming from agrarian to industrial, but it’s less than useful in a world where you’re going to need to be thinking critically about the information you find.
And there we have – all tidy and neat – the biggest barrier to effective technology integration in today’s schools, even in those 1:1 environments that provide computing devices for every student. We could be (should be!) utilizing technology to empower youth at school but instead it’s still about control. That’s why we have acceptable use policies, not empowered use policies. And that’s why in most classrooms we continue to see replicative uses of technology rather than transformative uses. It doesn’t matter that computers are the most powerful learning devices ever invented in all of human history if we’re afraid to lets kids fly.
Fear is a prison. And empowerment within tightly-constrained, adult-directed parameters isn’t really empowerment.
[Guiding question: What can we do to give students more agency and ownership of what they learn, when they learn, how they learn, and how they show what they’ve learned?]
Image credit: Fear is a prison
I love to visit schools that are trying to live on the cutting edges of deeper learning, student empowerment, and digital technologies. But, like most of you, I don’t get to do that nearly as often as I’d like. So I’m jealous of folks like Barbara Levin and Lynne Schrum who get to do case studies of innovative school organizations around the country. And of whomever at Edutopia gets to work on the Schools That Work series.
Now I’ve got a new target of envy. Here’s a video of Grant Lichtman describing what he learned from his 3-month, 21-state, 64-school tour of innovative educational systems. Except for the time away from my family, that sure sounds fun to me. Happy viewing!
We thrive when we learn according to ourselves; we wither when we learn at the beck and call of others. We build community and sow trust when we protect others’ rights to learn as they are; we throttle community and reap mistrust when we insist that others learn as we do – or as we teach.
When we make with others we tacitly discover not only our own weirdnesses – and not only others’ weirdnesses – but also our ability to value ourselves and others for our weirdness and their weirdness.
Weirdness is a place we carry together, in idiosyncratic contrast and invitation to one another to appreciate, understand, and affirm how we learn and express ourselves. Appreciating and sharing weirdness is making stuff – including writing – with students. Appreciating and sharing weirdness is connected learning.
The most dangerous thing we do when we comply with the standardization of schools is to assume that we and our kids will survive it – that we can get through one more lesson. One more test. One more year. One more education. One more job. One more life.
We are not all of us one more life to get through. We are weird, until we are not. We can grow up to be ourselves, until we cannot. We can learn anything we want, until we learn to believe we cannot.
I don’t know what to do about failing schools. I don’t know how to argue someone who wants a standardized education for financial security and social mobility (even though that kind of education is not a guarantee of either anymore). I do know how to teach and learn as if what I want to learn will help me happily live the life I lead. I know that is a privileged stance, and I desperately want help in unpacking how it can become a universal one for all of us in all schools. If my privilege right now lets me make these wishes and do such work, then that is what my privilege should be for – for making it safe to be weird and alive and learning.
I have strong feelings about what kids should learn, which is why I’d put them in charge of their own educations. Experience assures me they’ll get where they need to go, and do so more efficiently than will otherwise be possible. Experience also tells me that won’t happen as long as they’re fenced in by a random mix of courses required because they’ve always been required, by courses based on elitist conceits, by courses shaped by unexamined assumptions. The core’s boundaries are far too narrow to accommodate the collective genius of adolescents.
Kids bring to the curriculum vast differences – differences in gender, maturity, personality, interests, hopes, dreams, abilities, life experiences, situation, family, peers, language, ethnicity, social class, culture, probable and possible futures, and certain indefinable qualities, all combined in dynamic, continuously evolving ways so complex they lie beyond ordinary understanding.
Today’s reformers seem unable or unwilling to grasp the instructional implications of those differences and that complexity. They treat kids as a given, undifferentiated except by grade level, with the core curriculum the lone operative variable. Just standardize and fine-tune the core, they insist, and all will be well.
That’s magical thinking, and it’s dumping genius on the street.
Don’t tell me I’m naïve, that high school kids can’t be trusted with that much responsibility, or that they’re too dumb to know what to do with it. Would it take them awhile to get used to unaccustomed autonomy? Sure. Would they suspect that the respect being shown them was faked and test it out? Of course. Would they at first opt for what they thought was Easy Street? You can count on it.
Eventually, however, their natural curiosity and the desire to make better sense of experience would get the better of them, and they’d discover that Easy Street connected directly to all other streets, and that following it was taking them places they had no intention of going, or even knew existed.