Monday, May 11, 2015

"I try never to let my schooling get in the way of my education." - Mark Twain

Like many other clever quotes, this does not appear to have actually been said by Mark Twain, but is often attributed to him. It appear that the original thought, which appeared in slightly different ways in his work, was from the author Grant Allen.

The quote does capture the way in which the systems, procedures, policies, and activities of school often feel not just disconnected from, but opposed to true learning. In her fascinating book, Wounded by School, Kristen Olson explored a consistent theme in interviews with hundreds of people of "negative or self-defeating learning stories based on our experiences in school."

I have a good friend who uses the metaphor of a tree to describe a common problem with policies and procedures.

The fruit of the tree is our end goal, the result we want. The trunk and branches of the tree are the policies and procedures that are developed to support the fruit. The roots of the tree are the actual source of strength.

What often happens is that we are so focused on the branches (policies and procedures), and constantly adding to and changing them, that when the fruit doesn't ripen or grow at all, we fumble and manipulate the branches in vain efforts to attain our goal. Very few are willing to trim back the branches and start watering and fertilizing the roots.

In education, the roots are what we believe about children, their growth, and the role of education in helping others. Voices (and money) get raised about all of the policies and incentives and testing, but try to have a thoughtful, deep conversation about why we school and the philosophical models that drive our beliefs, and watch the engines of efficiency roll right over you, as we have too little time to spend it on such deeper thinking.

In our desire to be efficient, we become not just inefficient, but self-contradicting. The heavy, complicated, serpentine branches of our educational policy tree ultimately produce a sickly and meager fruit, and we're fighting battles that make no sense at all. There's a lot of money and power and influence represented in those tangled branches, and so their continued existence represents hard-fought battles ultimately unrelated and even harmful to the child or fruit at the end.

To fight for change in what particular branch gets put where is to ignore the evidence that the current system of branches is not about education at all, but about profit and power, and the roots are being ignored. It's time for students, parents, and teachers--for all of us--to reclaim the conversation on education.

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