Saturday, December 11, 2010

required classes

Someone emailed me, asking why I am against required classes. Here's my response:

Regarding school, most people are stuck in a mental rut. I was, and it took me years of reading, thinking and debating to claw my way out of it. Thinking clearly about school is like imagining alien life. It's really hard -- impossible? -- to imagine it without picturing human, animal or insect forms. One's mind grasp a few other possibilities (e.g. giant gas clouds), but it's mostly stuck thinking in terrestrial terms. Earth forms are all we know. Worse, Earth forms seem inevitable, as if having-two-eyes is writ into the rules of the universe.

School, for most of us, is like this. We started experiencing the sort of schools we have when we were very, very young, and we went on experiencing them for many years, maybe twenty or more. So when I make a claim that schools should be very different from them way they are, people have a viscerally unpleasant reaction. That's natural. But, if they want to think clearly about education, try should try to figure out why they're uncomfortable. Is it because my idea is bad or is it because I'm rocking a foundational boat? When boats rock, people get seasick.

I get frustrated when people argue about school, because it's usually like hearing people argue about whether Camel Lights or Marlboro Lights are least likely to give you cancer, instead of saying, "Hey, let's just quit smoking."

I hear people fight about whether we should use this textbook or that textbook, but not about whether we should or shouldn't use textbooks at all; they fight about whether kids should be tested via essay questions or multiple-choice problems, but not on whether kids should be tested at all; they argue about whether or not teachers should lecture about Creationism or Evolution, but not about whether lecturing is a useful pedagogical tool; they argue about whether kids should or shouldn't listen to music while they do their homework, but not about whether or not they should be don't homework at all. They argue about whether this or a particular class should be required, but not about whether classes should be required at all.

I'm not suggesting, at least in this paragraph, that we should do away with textbooks, tests and requirements. What saddens me is that people's minds just refuse to explore these foundational questions. For most people, they aren't questions. Of course kids do homework! Homework like the sky or rocks. It just exists, right?

Yet I insist that if we're going to have textbooks, tests, lectures, homework and requirements, we should have them for a good, logical (at best empirical) reason -- not due to inertia, not because they're the defaults.

Because people cling to what they know, when I say, "I don't believe in requirements," they picture their high school, as it was when they went to it, but with no required courses. They picture themselves in sixth grade, all the sudden being told they don't have to do anything they don't want to do. They say, "Oh, man! If I wasn't forced, I would never have learned ANYTHING!" What they're not picturing is a child who has grown up, from preschool, with a totally different sort of experience.

I spent many years working with young children in a daycare center for preschoolers, with a summer program for older kids. So I was with two-through-five-year-olds year round. Then, my students would graduate and move on to public or private elementary schools. But I'd see them during the summers. I saw what school did to them, and it gibed with what I remembered from my own schooling.

Children are born as learning machines. No one has to force them to learn. They have a drive to do it that is at least as strong as the sex drive in adults. Then, gradually, school beats it out of them. School teaches them that learning is work, not fun -- that learning is something you do at someone else's pace, not your pace. Gradually, most kids forget that they used to love to learn. As adults, all they can remember is the school sort of learning, the forced sort. They know it was painful, but they value what they got out of it. They can't imagine it not being painful (because they can't remember their early childhood), so they naturally assume this is important, worthwhile pain, and that the alternative is ignorance.

I also spent years teaching adults. I taught computer classes to people whose companies were forcing them to use computers. They always said the same thing: "I'm not a computer person. I just don't get this stuff." What I learned, from talking to them and observing them in their workplaces (and, frankly, from talking to my family and friends) was this: these people didn't have trouble with computers; they have trouble with learning anything new, because they haven't had to do that in years. They "aren't computer people" because it just so happens that computers are the only things they've been forced to learn as adults.

Most professional people work from rote. Even highly skilled professionals, such as GP Doctors and non-trial lawyers. They learn their skills to the point where them becomes automatic, freeing them up so they can get a paycheck by just going through motions.

I now make my living as a computer programmer. Every day DOES involve some real problem solving, but about 80% of my work is just plugging in boilerplate solutions. Many of these are solutions that "laypeople" couldn't employ, which is what makes me highly skilled. Still, once I worked them out for the first time, it took no skill to employ them a second or third time.

Most adults do little learning or problem-solving at work, and when they get home, they watch TV, talk to their friends and family about light-hearted, unchallenging stuff, do mindless chores and go to bed. What they don't do is read Shakespeare plays for fun, do math problems for fun, learn foreign languages for fun, etc. Why not? What happened to that LUST for learning they had as kids?

It's possibly that this desire naturally falls away from people as they get older, but I don't believe it. It's telling that kids who didn't go through traditional schooling -- kids that were allowed to keep learning in a natural way, following their own instincts -- tend to never lose this lust. In their 80s, they are still challenging themselves, for no other reason than because it's the most fun they can possibly have. So I believe that the reason most people stop learning (when they don't have to) is that school teaches them to associate learning with pain, boredom and forced labor.

By the time a kid is halfway through elementary school, the damage is already done. It only takes a couple of years to replace "learning is something I naturally do and love to do" with "learning is something I have to be forced to do," so of course people wind up thinking, "Thank God Mrs. Wilson forced me to learn grammar! If she hadn't, I never would have!" They're right. They're right because school turned them into that sort of person.

"If we didn't require people to learn to read, some of them would never learn!" That's the most common objection to dropping requirements, so let me address it.

First of all, note that we don't force people to learn to read. In fact, it's impossible to force anyone to learn anything. What we do -- when we require certain subjects -- is to force kids to go to classes. We force them to spend a certain amount of time in certain rooms with certain teachers. If doing that doesn't end up with a particular kid learning to read, we shrug and say, "Well, we did our best." A lot of the reason we force kids it to absolve ourselves. "Hey, we tried!"

Note that whatever we do, a certain number of kids (because they don't pay attention or "apply themselves") will not learn. A certain number will not learn if we have requirements; a certain number will not learn if we don't have requirements.

So the issue shouldn't be "if we don't have requirements, some kids won't choose to learn to read." The issue should be (a) what will produce MORE literate kids, a system with requirements or a system without it, and (b) what will produce more kids who have a lifetime LOVE of reading, a system with requirements or a system without it?

The truth is, no one wants to be illiterate. By the time a kid is eight (or perhaps younger), he already is very upset if he can't read. Our culture is full of things that need to be read. So naturally everyone want to be able to understand those things. It's not that people don't want to read: it's that people don't want to go through the pain of learning to read. If we took the pain away and said, "Hey, learn when you want to -- here are the resources," most people would learn.

"Here are the good resources" is key. If we're going to drop requirements, we also have to drop boring, incompetant teachers. We have to put kids in environments full of rich materials, full of lusty art and enticing scientifi experienets. We need teachers who ratiate enthusiasm. We need a world that says, "No one is going to force you to go to the really fun party if you don't want to." Which is why dropping requirements won't work in a standard elementary school or high school. Of COURSE kids won't choose to go to Mr. Boring's Algebra class or Mrs. Nasty's English class!

You asked about books that turned me on to this way of thinking. The main one was "Summerhill" by A. S. Neill.

Warning: it was written in 1960, and it contains some offensive (e.g. sexist, homophobic) writing that was a product of the way many people thought at the time. (Though I linked to an "updated" edition, so maybe that stuff has been removed.) If you read it, I urge you to try to look past that crap to the ideas underneath.

Summerhill was (maybe "is." I don't know if it still exists) a school in England -- elementary-through-high-school -- with no requirements. Kids weren't even required to go to class. That's right, they could run around outside all day if they wanted to. No on forced them to do anything.

The result? Most of them -- almost all of them -- chose to go to class. When kids transfered there from other schools, naturally they said, "No one's going to make me go to class? SWEET!" And they spent a couple of months goofing off. Then they got bored, got the rebellion of of their systems, and started going to class.

The school produced many successful people.

I don't expect you to come to the same conclusion as me about this subject. But I am thrilled it's something you're thinking about.

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