The key word here is “learning.” Learning is a biological imperative. Humans learn or die. Well, we also learn and then die. But before we die, we continue to learn right up until the moment we lose our sentience. The learning begins in utero and results in our mastering kinesthetic miracles such as breathing, walking and reproducing (usually in that order). Many of us learn to speak with absolutely no instruction at all. Some of us even learn to remain speechless when appropriate although this often requires a great deal of instruction.
Unfortunately, the public perception of learning has been corrupted. As a result, learning has come to be nearly indistinguishable from the word education, and inextricably linked to the word school. The intertwining of these words might not be such a terrible thing except that education is too general and inefficient a word. And school, well, school often stinks.
For decades now, our country has been beset by an increasingly loud and contentious argument about what is wrong with education and schools. For good reason, too, since education and schools are rife with problems. I wouldn’t be alarmed except that learning is carelessly dragged into this debate as though it is some type of accomplice of education and school.
In the late 1800s, our nation decided to educate everyone for free. And while that was an admirable goal, the methods for doing so resembled that of a factory. Perhaps, we can look back and think it quaint or amusing that our ancestors were educated in the same manner that tuna were canned or cars were assembled. However, the educational system is UNCHANGED today for the most part.
Do we think it cute or funny that our children are educated in the same fashion as their great-grandparents? Furthermore, do we think this process is greatly improved by the increasing dependence upon subjective letter grades, standardized testing, and homework?
Over the years, learning has become a slave to education and it is restricted to serving only in schools.
Skills developed, interests researched and knowledge gained outside of school cannot be standardized or certified and therefore, cannot be valued. Even people learning outside of school, in homeschool or unschool situations, are still defined according to their relationship with school! This is absurd.
Learning takes place in school and everywhere else. Learning happens around the clock. Learning cannot be pushed onto someone but pushing is not necessary for learning to happen. Learning is natural and we humans are excellent at it from the time we breathe fluid.
However, the educational system has distanced itself from true learning and embraced pseudo-achievement through letter grades, test scores and diplomas. In our culture, students’ learning has been replaced with students’ ability to meet the standards established with curricula, grades, and tests. The educational system has marginalized true learning, making it an alternative.
As a result, it has never been more urgent that opportunities for alternative learning exist. Reading, creating and focusing on fascinating topics is natural for humans, especially children. When the educational system and schools drive the learning, making it compulsory and standardized, children lose their curiosity, their passion, their natural impetus to learn. It stops being an intrinsically joyful experience and becomes dispassionate training.
Children don’t stop learning in school; they never stop learning. They learn, instead, how to avoid the pain that results from being required to study subjects forced upon them. They learn rules, nuances, and short-term memory techniques. They perform for the carrots and avoid the sticks. They learn that they don’t care for being told what to do and then they learn to not care at all. They learn that they are not as smart, resourceful, or creative as they had once been. They learn school and education and learning as a list of synonyms. They learn that they don’t like school very much so that must mean they don’t like education or learning.
Self-directed learning should not be relegated as an “alternative,” but it is the only viable choice when mainstream learning is lumped in with education and school.
Darrell Cookman is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of True North Teen Learning Alternative in Collinsville, Connecticut. He served as the Lead Teacher for the middle school program at Hunter Montessori School in New Hartford, Connecticut from 2010-2015. He has extensive experience teaching students in grades 7-12 in public settings (Tucson High School, Morenci Jr-Sr High School) as well as privately (Kaplan Test Prep). Darrell holds a Masters in Education from the University of Connecticut as well as a Bachelors in Secondary Education from the University of Arizona. He earned a Secondary I Certificate in Montessori Education from the MACTE-approved, teacher-training program at Washington Montessori School in 2014. Contact Darrell: firstname.lastname@example.org