I’ve been reading me some more Seymour Sarason, one of the “oldies” who I wish were a “newie” in the “what-do-we-do-with-schools” conversations we’re having. The snips below are from an essay titled “An Overarching Goal for Students” from a collection titled The Skeptical Visionary. To me, Sarason is one of those people who just peels away all the bullshit about education reform and gets to the heart of things which, in short, is that we’re not doing the best we can for kids and we know it. In this particular piece, Sarason says our goal should be to foster in children “the desire to continue to learn about self, others, and the world.” It speaks to his belief that productive, sticky learning only occurs when the learner wants to learn more, a belief that totally resonates with my own experience as a learner and as a parent.
Sarason’s observation here is that kids are productive learners when they come to us, and over the course of 12 years, we pretty much turn learning into something they don’t want to learn anything more about. We make it unproductive and disengaging. It’s hard to argue with him.
If there is anything we can say about the biologically intact, preschool child, it is that he or she is a question-asking, question-answering, questing, knowledge-pursuing organism, pursuing knowledge about self, others, and its world. That is truly a glimpse of the obvious but, remarkably, it is not taken seriously. Our schools (beginning in kindergarten), in a myriad of ways and with the best of intentions, require the student to make a sharp distinction between “what I am interested in and what I am supposed to be interested in, what I am curious about and what I am supposed to be curious about, what I know and what I am supposed to know, what kinds of questions I would like to ask and what questions I am told I should or it is permissible to ask.” Put more succinctly schools do a remarkably effective job, albeit unwittingly, of getting children to conclude that there are two worlds – the one inside of school in the one outside – and they have no doubt whatsoever about which of the two is intrinsically more interesting and stimulating…
…That young children are question-asking, answer-seeking characters is among the most obvious features of human development. And that is true regardless of family, race, ethnicity, economic background, or where on this earth children are found. When children start school, a message is conveyed to them that is as influential as it is subtle and unverbalized: “forget or set aside your world of questions and interests. Your job, our responsibility, is to get you to learn rules, fact, and skills, without which you are nothing. School is not for play or for dreaming. It is work, serious work. And if you pay attention, work hard, some day when you are big, you will understand.”…
…The overarching aim of schooling should be to recognize, capitalize on, and exploit the obvious fact that children come to school already possessed of the major psychological attributes crucial to productive learning. They are thinkers and doers before they come to school. They are eager to remain thinkers and doers, to integrate new worlds into their old ones – an integration not a separation. They already know that there is much they do not know and are eager to learn. Motivation is not a problem. They want to conform, but to them conformity does not mean giving up or setting aside the world most familiar and intriguing to them. There is a difference between willing conformity and an unwilling and puzzled submission. That children generally experience school as boring and uninteresting should occasion no surprise. What would require explanation is if they felt otherwise.
More and more, my lens for this change in schools conversation starts here: This is not rocket science. We know in our learner souls what is required for “productive” learning to take place, because we ourselves have learned productively. We know that kids are engaged when they come to us. We also know that less than half are engaged when they leave us. We do this to them, yet we seem to want to ignore that. Why?
I get that many feel powerless to change. The tests, the curriculum, the parents, the state, the … But here’s the deal. People are changing. More and more each day, I see child centered practices growing in schools and classrooms. It’s not a wave yet, but it’s a significant ripple. And I think we are waking up to the damage that we do to kids by thinking that they’re not already productive, powerful learners when they come to us. They are. We know it.
Now we just have to act like we know it.