Reasserting the Personhood of Children


This is Part 1 of a series of posts called
How Kids Are Bypassing School in Order to Learn.


I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game as a teenager. It’s a scifi novel in which gifted children are trained from a very young age in military strategy to fight in adult wars against alien invaders. The story itself had an impact on me, but long after the plot details faded a brief passage from the book’s introduction has stuck with me vividly.

In it, Card recounts the story of a guidance counselor for gifted children who read his book and hated it. “The criticism that left me most flabbergasted,” Card writes, “was her assertion that my depiction of gifted children was hopelessly unrealistic.… It was important to her, and to others, to believe that children don’t actually think or speak the way the children in Ender’s Game think and speak…

Yet I knew—I knew—that this was one of the truest things about Ender’s Game.… Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along—the same person that I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires. And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective—the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s. [Emphasis mine]

This problem is present not just in education, but throughout society. Any lasting learning paradigm must acknowledge the cultural changes that need to take place to accept children as functional people and treat them as such.

In his delightfully meandering essay “Murder in the Kitchen” philosopher Alan Watts contextualized the problem:

Children are a special class of human beings which came into existence with the industrial revolution, at which time we began to invent a closed world for them, a nursery society, wherein their participation in adult life could be delayed increasingly—to keep them off the labor market.

The industrial revolution had a lasting impact on how children were perceived and treated. Children were stuffed into a bubble in an effort to protect them from dangerous factory jobs. Today those factory jobs are mostly gone. In an information economy, keeping children out of society stunts their learning and development.

Watts continues:

Children are, in fact, small adults who want to take part in the adult world as quickly as possible, and to learn by doing. But in the closed nursery society they are supposed to learn by pretending, for which insult to their feelings and intelligence they are propitiated with toys and hypnotized with baby talk. They are thus beguiled into the fantasy of that happy, carefree childhood with its long sunny days through which one may go on ‘playing’—in the peculiar sense of not working—for always and always. This neurotic suppression of growth is outwardly and visibly manifested in the child’s toy world of plastic and tin, of miniaturized won’t-work guns, airplanes, cars, kitchen ranges, dinner sets, medical kits, and space rockets, designed so to entrance them that they will keep out of the way of adults….

In truth, children resent their nursery world but are given no opportunity to go beyond it.

In the time since Watts published his essay in 1971, technology has finally begun to give children that opportunity to participate in society directly. Increasingly, almost any device connects to the greatest aggregations of knowledge in human history.

For example, one of the most accessible and educational sections of that internet is Youtube, a learner’s paradise where one can find a multitude of how-to videos, interviews and lectures demonstrating or explaining nearly anything. And true to form, many school districts block the entire site, afraid it may distract from the serious business of teaching.

Our system is ostensibly about learning but in reality is obsessed with micromanaging the process of teaching with a goal toward bumping up test scores so that the system can “prove” it’s doing something.

But the problem is that teaching itself is an increasingly overrated tool when viewed in the larger world of learning. Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg explore this further in their book Turning Learning Right Side Up:

There are many different ways of learning; teaching is only one of them. We learn a great deal on our own, in independent study or play. We learn a great deal interacting with others informally — sharing what we are learning with others and vice versa. We learn a great deal by doing, through trial and error. Long before there were schools as we know them, there was apprenticeship — learning how to do something by trying it under the guidance of one who knows how.

Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, describes the problem as he saw it growing up in his essay Why Nerds Are Unpopular.

“I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults,” Graham writes, “but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect.”

That was what I found most frustrating in my own school experience. I was a good student. Most of my time was consumed by activities that someone I never met decided were important that I perform. It was disconnected from my own life and goals and yet it consumed most of my time. Growing up I increasingly felt that this wasn’t – this couldn’t be – my life.

“At best it was practice for real work we might do far in the future,” Graham says, “so far that we didn’t even know at the time what we were practicing for.… And there was no way to opt out. The adults had agreed among themselves that this was to be the route to college. The only way to escape this empty life was to submit to it.”

I developed a conviction that this was all temporary and I could wait it out. I didn’t have a choice – if I wanted to get into a good college, I believed this is what I had to do. I could see examples of people everywhere who had made it to the scholastic afterlife and lived to tell tales of freedom. So I clung to the belief that life, once I got a chance to live it, wouldn’t be like high school. Fortunately, I was right.

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they’ll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years’ training, an apprentice could be a real help.

So is the solution to return to a pre-industrial apprenticeship model? The answer almost certainly is no, but the point is that many of the most powerfully ingrained assumptions we have about the nature of children, education, and how the education system must be structured are relatively recent developments.

What scares me is that I had classmates who did not share my conviction that real life would be different. They behaved as if their current physical and social incarceration were permanent. As a result any social currency they lost in this self-contained world affected them deeply, and the brutality of high school social politics led them to all sorts of depression, self-pity, and in some cases self-violence.

While hormones undoubtedly create their own limited swings it is ludicrous to believe that they are a primary cause for long term frustration and depression. We limit kids by storing them together based on age rather than allowing them to self-associate according to their interests.

“It is so important to keep communities multi-aged,” write Ackoff and Greenberg, “and why it is so destructive to learning, and to the development of culture in general, to segregate certain ages (children, old people) from others.”

Paul Graham also shares my suspicion of hormones as a culprit for frustration:

I’m suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren’t crazy.

For modern teenagers, “Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.”

How much violence, self-inflicted or otherwise, could we avoid by treating kids as fully human? By refocusing on learning rather than teaching or warehousing? By promoting inquiry rather than acting as learning’s gatekeeper? By contextualizing them into a global community where things and ideas and people matter? Where they matter in that world right now right here and not just as some abstracted notion of their potential? Where they have the freedom to make the world a better place not by someone else’s standard but by their own?

The Waste of Warehousing

“And as for the schools,” Graham writes, “they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done.”

There are school districts in Southern Illinois and other rural parts of the country where an enormous percentage of the districts’ budget is literally burned up as transportation fuel shipping kids around five days a week. The waste is unfathomable.

And yet they do it. Why? Because education culture values teaching over learning and one of the requirements of teaching is attendance. Fortunately, we live in the future, a time where technology has long since solved many of these problems.

But while technology has embedded deeply into the culture, mainstream education has yet to catch on. To stop hauling kids in some of these communities would cause outrage from local school boards, community leaders, and parents. Many communities take great pride in their local sports teams and their cheerleading squads, which seem to be the primary purpose of school in some locales.

And legitimately, what about activities that require people to group together on a regular basis? Not just sports but also music and theater and dance and the traditional collaborative arts? It’s hard to imagine that organizing these groups independently could possibly be more costly than the current system. And depending on the details, travel may not be needed nearly as often.

Let’s take theater as an example. Many of the greatest scripts and screenplays can be downloaded for free. Youtube and Netflix contain a trove of video performances of these works. Screenwriting software is free. Video cameras are embedded in almost every mobile device. Video distribution is free on sites like YouTube and Vimeo. Many critics, filmmakers, celebrities and world-class professionals are directly messageable on Twitter and other social media sites, and a well-composed message could garner valuable feedback or more. Finding (or starting) local meetups for actors, photographers, cinematographers or just about any other interest group has gotten much easier. Today local theater can reach a much larger, and yet still intimate, audience.

Want to gain an understanding of the history of theater or cinema? Want to read or watch great works? Want to write, perform, edit, and distribute your own? Want to perform live theater and get the word out (social media) or even sell tickets? Want to become a critic and publish your writing for the world to see? It’s easier cheaper and faster now than it’s ever been, and the main limit is one’s own creativity and interest.

Are there still times where it’s absolutely necessary to meet up in person on a regular basis? Sure. But weigh the cost-benefit and don’t assume that travel is better.

If local sports are the priority of the community, then by all means continue them. But in the face of modern technology let’s not pretend that shipping kids back and forth to a distant lockup every single weekday isn’t more about getting them out of their parents’ hair than it is about encouraging learning. Self-driven distance learning doesn’t mean life without sports teams or music ensembles; it just means being more thoughtful about when travel is really necessary.

Transportation isn’t the only problem with rigid block scheduling. As much of my time as homework and extracurriculars consumed, it was the school day itself that was my biggest wasted allocation of time. Although a rigid 7-2 schedule may work for some people, there is no single rigid schedule that works for most people, and it certainly didn’t work for me.

The problem with rigid scheduling, as Github’s Zach Holman points out, is that “There’s no one work day that fits everyone’s productive hours.”  This couldn’t be more true for learning. If rigid scheduling makes learning harder, why on earth would our educational institutions follow them?

Because it makes teaching easier.

Teaching-Centric Models Stunt Learning

Years ago an administrator was observing a high school Civics teacher’s classroom for the purposes of teacher evaluation. In this particular class session the teacher had students doing a simulation of the legislative process. They were divided up into committees. They wrote a law and then debated it based on pre-assigned political party affiliations as well as pressures from their home constituencies.

The activity was designed to help the kids think through the dynamics of the legislative process. The kids were engaged and the activity went well. A lot of the activity was based around kids interacting with each other, so the teacher spent a good amount of the class time watching the simulation play out.

A year passed. The administrator came back to do another observation. The teacher was running another classroom simulation, again where he was mostly hands-off during class time. Later, when the administrator met with the teacher during his evaluation, she said, “This was a good activity, the kids were engaged and the activity went well. But next time I’d really like to see you teach.”

Terms like “Teacher” and “Education” are relics from a system that was the sole information source and whose job it was to put that information into its captive “Students.” They come from an old paradigm where you don’t learn when you’re not in school and you’re not a student if you don’t have a teacher. Simply by way of language, teaching is something I do to you, which is the wrong paradigm entirely.

Ackoff and Greenberg continue:

One might wonder how on earth learning came to be seen primarily a result of teaching. Until quite recently, the world’s great teachers were understood to be people who had something fresh to say about something to people who were interested in hearing their message. Moses, Socrates, Aristotle, Jesus — these were people who had original insights, and people came from far and wide to find out what those insights were. One can see most clearly in Plato’s dialogues that people did not come to Socrates to “learn philosophy,” but rather to hear Socrates’ version of philosophy (and his wicked and witty attacks on other people’s versions), just as they went to other philosophers to hear (and learn) their versions. In other words, teaching was understood as public exposure of an individual’s perspective, which anyone could take or leave, depending on whether they cared about it.

No one in his right mind thought that the only way you could become a philosopher was by taking a course from one of those guys. On the contrary, you were expected to come up with your own original worldview if you aspired to the title of philosopher. This was true of any and every aspect of knowledge; you figured out how to learn it, and you exposed yourself to people who were willing to make their understanding public if you thought it could be a worthwhile part of your endeavor. That is the basis for the formation of universities in the Middle Ages — places where thinkers were willing to spend their time making their thoughts public. The only ones who got to stay were the ones whom other people (“students”) found relevant enough to their own personal quests to make listening to them worthwhile.

This is where a lot of the current education reform activities fall down. Many of them focus on repeated student testing to measure “student growth,” soon with a major emphasis on using those numbers to evaluate teacher performance. Ostensibly this will pinpoint teachers who need support, and improving those teachers will in turn improve student learning (or at least “student growth” by increasing “student achievement”).

In the 21st century, this isn’t good enough. While this expensive approach could yield some marginal results, it misses the big picture entirely.

TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra, in his inspiring talk, brings this to its logical conclusion:

I tried to look at where did the kind of learning we do in schools, where did it come from?… It came from about 300 years ago, and it came from the last and the biggest of the empires on this planet, The British Empire. Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data handwritten on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It’s still with us today. It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine.

In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people: the school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional.

The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists. The empire is gone, so what are we doing with that design that produces these identical people, and what are we going to do next if we ever are going to do anything else with it?

So that’s a pretty strong comment there. I said schools as we know them now, they’re obsolete. I’m not saying they’re broken. It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken. It’s not broken. It’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore.

Making It Matter

So where do we go from here? Members of the education establishment seem to be largely unaware of the cultural and technological changes that are already replacing education. They know vaguely that it will happen, but they don’t realize that it already has. As long as we prolong the old educational paradigms that emphasize classroom teaching and testing, we squander kids’ time, warp their attitudes, and stunt their development.

Outside of school, learners have more opportunities and resources than ever before. The system probably can’t make a pivot of this magnitude. Radical, disruptive change had to come from outside the education feedback loop, and it had to happen in a decentralized way. It’s here now, it’s already in practice, and it’s not just a one-off experiment; it’s already larger than the education system, and it’s nearly at scale.

The next stage is for the education system to step aside to free up kids’ time and attention. There is still a role for the education system to play but it must be completely re-imagined.

If we were to re-implement “education” from scratch in the face of modern society and technology, how would we do it? If we were to stop for a minute and ignore all of the existing infrastructure, the school buildings and buses and employees and management and salaries and grades and K-12 and retirement systems and politics, what would an education system created with modern society in mind look like?

The answer, I believe, involves putting the learner at the center of the system. Notice I said “learner” and not “student” or “kid.” There is no reason to think of learning as revolving around a certain age group.

An ideal system encourages people to work on real-world problems, ask big questions, follow their interests, seek out others with similar interests, learn from people with different perspectives, contextualize problems across subject areas, and above all else, drive their own learning and inquiry.

The system must help the learner develop a mission and purpose through exploration. That mission can be flexible and be revisited, adapted, and changed over time. But help to inspire the learner to choose something. Out of this mission, they pursue a project or series of projects and are encouraged to collaborate or consult with others. This process of trying something, assessing the results, and then trying something else is a common theme that underscores diverse activities like the creative process, technological innovation, science, and entrepreneurship.

The system needs to get out of the way and offer encouragement. The role of Mitra’s “Grannies” is not to guide the learning but to offer encouragement. The kids can turn them off any time. Importantly, they are not called “Teachers” and they function differently.

When referring to learning and inquiry we need to adopt some new terminology. The role of teachers really should be around offering emotional encouragement. They take on a mentoring or coaching role, providing support when kids get discouraged and suggestions, tools, or contacts that kids might want to check out or reach out to based on their current interests.

My purpose in writing this series of posts is not merely to cite problems, but also to call attention to specific solutions. In the next parts of this post I will explore how we can redefine “education” in the face of modern learning and inquiry, society and technology. I’ll look at communities and tools that have already changed the paradigm, and others that show promise. I am optimistic about the future of learning and inquiry and I truly believe that we live in the most exciting period of human history.

Part 2 coming soon.

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