You are a unique being. There is no one in the world that is exactly like you, who has the exact skill-set or way of going about things as you do. You have a certain unique pace at which you learn the best, and you have specific ways that you learn the best, as Howard Gardner described in his book about the multiple intelligences, through which we learned that not all children learn best through books, that some actually need to put their hands on things to best learn or to move to be able to absorb information in the most optimal way.
As a unique being, you also have a unique potential, through which you can contribute something original to the world. These potentials can manifest in as many ways as there are human beings, from people inventing useful gadgets to those whose passion it is to work with and care for the elderly.
If this seems too far fetched for you or a little too esoteric, simply have a look at how each, seemingly generic grain of sand on a beach filled with billions of sand grains, is entirely unique when you see it up close in a microscope (it is actually very beautiful), or how each part of the human body has its own specialized function that it contributes to the whole organism with. Being unique is nothing special; it is in fact very natural.
When we live our unique potential, we give the best of ourselves to the world, because what we do becomes an expression of the best version of ourselves. The doctor who is truly passionate about being a doctor, does not compromise his position by taking shortcuts that compromises the patient, because he honors his work and himself as a doctor. The baker who is passionate about baking, will keep learning and perfecting how to make the best bread possible, and does it without effort, because it comes natural to him or her.
Despite knowing that no two people learn in the same way, we have created a school system where we expect all children to learn the exact same material in the exact same way, at the exact same time, in the exact same pace. In fact, all across the world, lesson plans are being standardized to an extreme degree, where school developers for example come to the conclusion that all second graders must learn the exact same mathematical material (like multiplication) or be taught about the exact same cultural or historical references (like the stone age) during the course of a term.
As most parents, teachers and students are aware, the amount of material you have to go through on your journey from kindergarten through high school is massive, and most of it is rushed through in the span of weeks or months, with little to no time to familiarize oneself with the subjects, to dive deeper into something that interests you, or to slow the process down if you struggle to keep up with the pace that is predetermined by standardized lesson plans.
Working as a teacher, I have spoken to many students who experience not only frustration over the pace set in school, but who also experience so much anxiety and stress, that panic attacks have become a normal part of school life. The students internalize their struggles when they can’t keep up, believing that there is something wrong with them, that they aren’t smart enough or disciplined enough to do what is expected of them.
I remember when a seventh grade student, a girl with aspirations towards becoming a movie director, who was busy writing a novel in the evenings after school, looked at me with panic in her eyes when she once again had to take another test, and to her, this was all school had become: taking tests and proving yourself to the teachers.
I remember asking her what they were learning about in the history lessons (the subject in which they were being tested that day), and she said something like “The Mesopotamian kingdom”, and I said “wow, that sounds interesting!” to which she replied: “no, not really.” And when I asked her why that was, she said: “I don’t really have time to learn anything about it, because the teacher is rushing us through everything, so it is difficult to keep up.”
This example perfectly illustrates how absurd our school systems have become, that proving that you have learned something is more important than actually learning. This girl was not stupid or lazy. She was ambitious and disciplined with her school work, self-driven even, but she had completely lost all confidence towards learning inside the school system, she didn’t even see it as a place of learning, but as a place of stress and panic and achievement. To her, real learning was something that happened at night when she was alone in front of her computer, learning how to use editing software, how to use camera angles, how to write storyboards and compelling characters, an education that she had created and was mastering completely on her own. Luckily for her, she had parents that supported her in her endeavors, but for many of us, our potential gets squashed and neglected under the burden that is our schooling.
Now – let’s imagine for a moment that education in this world, was set up in a completely different way:
Let’s imagine that education was organized and conducted in such a way where the focus of the educators (or let’s rather call them educational facilitators) was on each individual child’s unique potential. Let’s imagine that there were resources and structures in place that allowed for the adults in a child’s life to walk with the child, in the natural pace of that individual child, to learn and grow and develop and discover their potential.
In a world where education is centered around each individual’s unique potential, the girl I mentioned in the example before, could be supported to go to film school already at the age of thirteen, or she could at least be given a mentor or trainee ship with a film director or screen writer, to try her hand at it and see if it indeed is something she wants to dedicate herself to, not as a permanent life decision, but as that which is her passion at this moment in time, and that may turn out to be where her potential is best expressed.
It is not so that we have to be adults before we can discover or start developing our potential in life. This is yet another misconception about human nature that is fostered through the very school system that systematically squashes, not only our potential, but also our passion for learning in general.
There are plenty of children who, already when they are young, know exactly what they are passionate about and of course there are also plenty who have no idea what they are or could be passionate about, but that is no different for adults. Some of us knows exactly what we want and others have no clue whatsoever. And one of the reasons why we don’t know what we are passionate about, or what to make our purpose in life, is that we haven’t been allowed to try a lot of things in life. Mostly, we have spent the first twenty years of our lives learning how to sit still on a chair while we passively ingest knowledge that we have no idea what to do with outside the gates of school.
In a world where education is based on each individual discovering their own pace of learning, and learning how to initiate self-directed learning in the best way possible, each person is able to focus on developing their unique passion and purpose in life. Someone may have no use for math until they decide to become an architect because they realize how passionate they are about buildings and to them, math becomes a valuable tool that can support them in developing their passion, it has a practical and real value and perhaps for them, learning math at the age of sixteen or twenty is perfect timing because their brain simply wasn’t mature until that point.
There is a wonderful story about this in one of Sudbury Valley’s videos about life at their school, where a teacher explained (and I am paraphrasing here because I do not remember the exact details of the story) about a group of students who had decided to learn advanced math and who, because they were motivated from a point of self-directed will to learn, learned an entire lesson plan that would have otherwise taken students a year to learn, in three months.
If we could learn at our own pace, in the ways that work best for us on an individual level, I am sure that many people would have completely entire education and training programs by the age of eighteen and we would see potential unfold like never before, because we, already from the get-go support each child to explore the fullness of their capabilities.
Imagine for instance, who you would have been, if the adults around you had supported you to discover your potential, from an early age. Would you still be doing what you are doing now? Most likely not, because most of us end up either in totally random positions or in some predetermined life path of doing what was expected of us, without ever questioning whether this is actually where our skills and efforts comes best to use. Because of this, I have no doubt that our emergency rooms are filled with doctors who would have rather been bakers or guitarists, or that our taxicabs are filled with drivers who could have cured cancer or who would have contributed so much more to the world as lawmakers than they do as cabdrivers, had they only been given the opportunity to explore their full potential from childhood.
The bad news is that we are doing the exact same to our kids that has been done to us, and it is therefore imperative that we, as adults, reconnect with our own passion, purpose and potential so that we may stand as examples for the generations to come, and that we find ways to hack, transform and change our education systems, both in the classrooms and in the very political structures, to become systems of support and facilitation of our children’s unique potential.
The good news is that it is not to late for us as adults. We never lose that ‘fire’ inside our natural learning ability, our unique potential and ourselves. It may be but a whisper by the time we turn twenty-five and we may have forgotten that it ever existed once we hit forty, but it is there, waiting for us to embrace it, to stir the embers of the fire that once was, so that our hearts may once again (or perhaps for the first time) burn with a passion for life, for contributing with creating something meaningful and worthwhile to this planet, and to our own lives.
“Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school. “ – Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
We are all, I am sure, painfully aware that the world as we know it, is in dire need of change. What most of us concerned with this issue, ask ourselves on a daily basis is: how do we reverse the damage we have done to the planet and to ourselves as humanity? Can it even be done?
Yes it can.
Consider this: Everything that exists now, from the way we build our societies to how we treat other species is the result of a process of education. Every single person that is currently alive, has in some way or another been educated or schooled by the generations that have gone before them, to carry on the traditions and habits that make the world go round.
Every dysfunctional family pattern has been passed down generations, just as all ethnocentric history lessons, are passed down year after year in classrooms all over the world. It is a generational cycle of dysfunction that keeps recycling every time a child is born.
Every single human invention that is currently raving havoc on the planet, from the military-industrial complex to war within families, is the result of faulty education; faulty because it creates detrimental consequences, and faulty because it goes against the fundamental aim of education: to teach the upcoming generations how to effectively live and stay alive in the world. That is not what we are teaching them at the moment and the current state of the world is living proof of that. Yet, we assume that the form of education that we know from schooling is the best, and the most optimal and therefore we do not question its legitimacy or monopoly when it comes to decide how our children are to be taught.
We send our kids to school assuming that this is the only option and after all, we think: “”I came out all right after my 8 or 12 or 20 years in the school system and the world is still standing”. Some even go as far as saying that we are “at the peak of human evolution”, and they celebrate the advent of formal schooling believing that its spread into mass society is a great victory for the abolition of inequality because now everyone can pursue their happiness with equal opportunity through schooling – except, they cannot. The purpose of formal public schooling is not, and has never been to give children equal opportunities, and the fact that our societies are becoming increasingly more unequal and more volatile is a stark proof of that.
Educational facilities resembling prisons, age segregated classrooms, exclusive valuation of cognitive abilities over all other human abilities, deliberate dumbing down of the masses to ensure a pliable workforce and consumer population, childism and bullying are but a few examples of how we are systematically educated to become stifled and blunted human beings. Very few of us grow up with effective adult role models who lead by example, in showing us what it means to be human in sustainable and compassionate ways.
The world wouldn’t look the way it does if our schooling had been effective, if it had taught us to care for our world and ourselves, if it had supported us to think critically and question its systems. The world looks the way it does, because bad seeds of knowledge and information for millennia of time, have been passed on as perpetual errors in the production link that increases the errors for every new edition.
To change the current course we are on, a course that, for all we know is leading us closer and closer to the brink of self-destruction, we need to re-asses what it is we are passing on through our systems of education, whether formal (like schooling) or informal (like family dynamics), that is causing us to live dysfunctionally and out of balance with the equilibrium of the earth as a whole.
We have to break the cycles of dysfunction that have been passed on for generations, and we cannot simply do that by offering our children alternative forms of education. How can we do that when our very own starting-point in life is one of dysfunction? It would only perpetuate the dysfunction in a different environment.
To save the world, we need to deschool ourselves, individually and collectively from the current schooling paradigms (that includes parenting and more informal forms of education), that we have been indoctrinated with through our own upbringing, and that we are actively passing on to new generations.
So what does it mean to deschool ourselves?
The concept of deschooling was originally coined by philosopher Ivan Illich in his book Deschooling Society, where he argued that school has an anti-educational effect on society, while we at the same time, ironically, take schooling for granted as the only correct way to educate children.
“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.” – Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
Others, especially in the alternative education communities have embraced the concept of deschooling, and for many people who practice unschooling, deschooling is an important step, because both parents and children are indoctrinated into the schooling system, to such a degree that it can be difficult to let it go and allow for a more free approach to a child’s education.
Another proponent of deschooling is Charles Eisenstein, author of the book Sacred Economics (2011) and self-proclaimed de-growth activist. In 2008 Eisenstein organized a workshop titled Deschooling ourselves which was published on YouTube, where he lead a group into an immersion process to discover all the ways that schooling had affected and ultimately stifled their lives. This video is a great example of both the detriment of schooling as well as the importance of deschooling and Eisenstein has furthermore published a deschooling handbook titled The deschooling Convivium: Leaders handbook for those who are interested in embarking on the journey of deschooling.
Besides Ivan Illich, Charles Eisenstein and the unschooling community, not many people know of – or practice – deschooling, or they may use different terms for it, like deprogramming or hacking when it comes to subverting dysfunctional societal structures. Certain forms of therapy and personal development methods have for example incorporated the concept of ‘deprogramming’ oneself from dysfunctional thought- and behavioral patterns, to ultimately free oneself from the past and becoming a supportive member of society.
Deschooling however, must not be confused with the concept of unlearning, because ultimately, we cannot unlearn something that has already been learned. Even if one is able to free oneself from a certain behavioral pattern or belief-system, there will still be a memory of how one integrated it into oneself and accepted it as part of oneself and so it should be, if we are to prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes in the future. We do not forget what has already been learned, but we can decide whether that is what we will continue to live according to, and we can learn new ways of living.
Deschooling is a deliberate deconstruction of the way we have been taught to learn and of the dysfunctional ways school itself has shaped us, as well as the deconstruction of what we have been taught; the ability to critically assess information and to, as the saying goes: “Investigate everything and keep what’s good.” – Something that isn’t taught in school.
Through a process of deschooling, we can reassess everything we have learned, as well as they way we have been taught to learn, and we can empower ourselves to decide on new ways of living, thinking and behaving.
An example could be that I, being taught in a distinct Northern European school system, have learned to see the world through a Eurocentric perspective, a perspective where European thought is the center focus and origin of all other ways of thinking.
By becoming aware of that limitation within myself (through the process of deschooling), I can actively start seeing the world in more holistic ways, by for example traveling to countries outside of Europe and through getting to know other cultures, from a perspective of curiosity and openness, rather than from a perspective of the implicit imperial superiority that I have been indoctrinated with during my school years. Worldschooling is an excellent example of that.
As a sociologist, I can read Japanese social theory or immerse myself in the works of Ibn Khaldun, a renowned Arabic thinker who (outside of Europe) is known as one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, and someone I wasn’t taught about in my years at University. I expand my horizon beyond the frame I have been taught to remain within in school.
What deschooling offers us, is a process of emancipation from institutionalized learning, which in turn gives us the opportunity to take education into our own hands. Even more so, through actively deschooling ourselves, we can begin a process of directively re-learning what it means to be a human in this world.
We can therefore, through deschooling, teach ourselves a different way of living and co-existing, a way that is sustainable and supportive for the restoration of the ecosystems of the planet, something that we are inherently dependent on and yet have forgotten in our current schooling systems. This is imperative if we are going to stand as examples for our children and break the cycles of generational dysfunction, that we carry with us as a latent virus that is unleashed onto our children, whether we like it or not.
When a computer program carries virus and raves havoc on our hard drive, we deprogram it and install a new one that is clean and functional. There is no reason we cannot do that when it comes to our education systems, let alone the world system as a whole.
It is in fact, what is required if we are to save the world.
“If you observe children learning in their first few years of life, you can see that they can and do learn on their own – we leave them alone to crawl, walk, talk, and gain control over their bodies. It happens without much help from parents. You can’t make someone learn something – you really can’t teach someone something – they have to want to learn it. And if they want to learn, they will.” – Daniel Greenberg, Co-founder of the Sudbury Valley school
A couple of weeks ago I visited the first Sudbury school in Denmark together with a group of fellow educational activists and school developers from Sweden.
The Danish Sudbury School is modeled and named after the original school situated in Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts in the United States.
The Sudbury School is one of the only schools in the world that bases its activities on self-directed learning and unschooling principles, giving children the freedom (and responsibility) to explore their interests uninhibited.
At a Sudbury school there are no classes, no grades and no age segregation. Children from the ages of 4-18 are welcomed into the school without specific enrollment requirements (besides the willingness to embrace the school’s principles).
The basic principle of the Sudbury school is that children are equipped with a natural learning ability that does not require adult control or interference, so at Sudbury schools children are encouraged to follow their own interests and passions in whatever way they wish, be that fishing for months on end or playing computer games for hours and hours.
For people who are used to traditional forms of schooling, Sudbury schooling might sound extreme, radical and even dangerous. “How are children going to learn without adults teaching them?” “How are they going to prepare to step into society without formal education?” “How do they learn to read and write?” “Aren’t the kids just sitting around wasting their day doing nothing when they have this kind of total freedom?”
We have become so conditioned (through our own schooling) to take traditional formal schooling for granted that we cannot even fathom that it is possible to learn without adult interference and control. We assume that traditional forms of schooling are optimally designed to teach us everything we need to know and that its structures of control are created for our protection and safety.
In traditional schooling forms children are viewed as being naturally resisting towards learning and even as savage and malignant in nature and this is why so many structures of control and force are used to keep the child contained and confined.
But what if it is in fact the other way around? That all the structures of control and force embedded in traditional school is what is causing children to become defiant, apathetic and resisting towards learning?
At Sudbury schools a great amount of trust is placed on the child’s ability to direct its own learning. Children are seen as competent and equal members of society who has just as much to contribute with as any adult. Children are given the space and time to find out what interests them and the support of adults and the learning environment to pursue those interests.
In his book Free at last, Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders and chief philosophers of the Sudbury Valley School writes that children at Sudbury schools often learn vast amounts of materials in short periods of time. Greenberg shares an example about a group of 9-12 year old children who wanted to learn math and who, because they were dedicated and self-directed in their aim to learn, with the help of a math teacher, learned the entire 6th through 12th grade curriculum of math in 20 weeks.
What is difficult is not to learn the material in itself but how traditional schools tries to pound it into the heads of children who hates every step of it. The only way to do that is through consistently repeat the material over and over for years on end, and even then there is no guarantee that the child will remember what it was taught. A child who wants to learn however, who has initiated the learning process on their own, can learn something within a matter of days or weeks.
We need to reassess the way we look at education, because at the moment we are holding, not only individual children back from developing their full potential, but in fact entire generations of children and as a result: humanity as a whole.
This is directly reflected in the current state of the world which, as should be obvious to all of us know, is in a state of uproar and disintegration.
Sudbury schools are a powerful example of children’s ability to learn without adult interference and how what comes out on the other end of that education is not a lazy, apathetic, illiterate human being, which is ironically most often a product of traditional schooling.
Adults do not want children to be free, because they fear children, but it is not so much that they fear the children but in fact that they fear themselves. This is what traditional schools teach us: to fear our natural expression, to see it as too wild, too unruly to be left unrestrained. Since childhood we’ve come to associate moments of natural expression with being scolded, simply because most traditional schools (and most families as well) aren’t designed to harness or embrace that natural expression within us – and so we never realize how that wildness, given the right environment could allow us to bloom into our utmost unique potential. If we should learn anything from the Sudbury experiment, it is that. If there’s anything we should model our societies after, it is that.
“We stand upon the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment…and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap.“ – Flemeth, Dragon Age
Throughout the course of human history there have been certain periods in which the advancement of new technologies took quantum leaps. This is no more true than in the times we live in right now, where the very foundation upon which our societies are built are changing in rapid speed, especially through the introduction of a digital and global civilization.
Not only are we living in an era where more quantum leaps than ever are taken in the areas of human development on all possible levels; we are also living in a time where the traditional boundaries between children and adults are disintegrating before our very eyes.
I am sure that all parents, however old, can recognize themselves in the scenario where their 2-year-old or 5-year-old or 17-year-old navigates digital devises with a natural ease that they themselves can only dream of, and that because their child is able to navigate these devises as were it a native speaker of their language, feel like a foreigner in a foreign country.
Our adult-child relations are based on the foundation that adults pr. Definition knows more about the world than the child and therefore has the responsibility, but also the prerogative to educate and administer the child, based on the assumption that because the adult knows more about the world, they also knows what is best for the child and therefore assumes an automated role of authority and superiority with the child as their minion to mold as they see fit.
Through the rapid advancements, especially in the development of digital technologies, a transition of the role of being knowledge-bearing is shifting from adults to children, with the children being the ones who knows the most about how to best navigate the virtual world through digital devises as well as the devises themselves.
There have been other eras in the course of human history where the younger generations came up with, or embrace new inventions in ways that rattled the older generations, but it has never happened in the profound way that it is happening right now, where the new inventions are affecting all areas of human life from social relationships to banking and education.
This means that the generations growing up right now are faced with the challenge of having to teach themselves since adults are in many cases far behind them when it comes to understanding virtual and digital worlds, although most adults still cling onto the illusion that they are (or at least should be) capable of teaching children these tools from a stance of authority.
As an adult who works with supporting children to become self-empowered and self-directive, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth, and the more we as adults try to reign in children and prevent the integration between digital and physical societies, the more they are simply going to do it without us, because it is a process that cannot – and should not – be stopped.
What would be much more beneficial is for us as adults to be humble towards the transformation happening, and rather than trying to position ourselves as captains of a ship that we know nothing about steering, stand as pillars of support for the coming generations and together embark on a journey of discovery and immerse ourselves in this brave new world.
It ought to be clear now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we have come to the end of rope of our current way of conducting education in this world. There are absolutely no reason why children should not be able to direct their own educational processes aligned to their individual needs and interests – in fact, many results show that this type of education is the most beneficial for individual learning which in turn is most beneficial for society as a whole because the individual is able to develop so much more of their unique potential.
The current education system is archaic at best – and at worst it is clung onto and safeguarded by adults who fear losing their position of power despite knowing how redundant the system in fact is, because it would mean admitting that we as adults are redundant – like a species that did not adequately adapt to the demands of an evolving environment and therefore dies out and vanishes as new life forms takes its place.
We therefore have a choice: we can either embrace the imminent changes and support the coming generations to dismantle the current education system or we can cling onto an archaic system just because we are afraid of letting go of control and thereby make an inevitable process more difficult for everyone involved.
By immersing ourselves in the opportunity that lay before us, to deconstruct and redefine, not only the education systems, but the entire foundation upon which we live on this planet, we too will change, transform and evolve – so rather than trying to hold onto an illusion of importance and authority when it is evident that this belongs to a past long gone, we can make new meaning of ourselves, redefine what it means to be an adult – and create the life for ourselves that we’ve always wanted, but that we never even dared to dream of… until now.
There is a new wave of education underway. You can either let it wash over you and be crushed, or you can learn how to ride it. One thing is certain: it cannot be stopped.
A discourse of paranoia is slowly but surely creeping into the core of our education systems and if you are a parent who has a child in school, you will know that education today is not what it was, even 10 or 20 years ago.
One of the main culprits of the discourse of paranoia, is the increase of comparative testing of children’s’ cognitive development, especially when it comes to reading, writing and math.
This increase in standardized testing is spearheaded by a private global interest organization called the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) who runs a program called PISA (Program For International Student Assessment).
The OECD has with its PISA program become one of the most influential organizations when it comes to setting the agenda for the future of education, and they are rapidly working towards standardizing the world’s school systems into one streamlined model with a singular aim of optimizing profits.
So why is a private economic interest organization having such a significant influence on school systems all over the world?
In mere 20 years the OECD has become one of the world’s leading forces with regards to affecting education policies and currently, more than 70 countries solicits OECD to test its students through international comparative tests and accordingly give ‘expert advice’ based on the results of these test on how each country can optimize its education system.
It is for example based on results from the PISA tests that Finland’s education system was glorified and appraised and it is because of their high rankings in PISA that South Korea and Singapore currently are seen as having some of the best education systems in the world.
In previous articles I have discussed standardized testing from a critical perspective when it comes to the effect it has on children on a psychological level as well as on teachers, but also in regards to it being symptomatic of a development towards global competition and market capitalism.
In this post I will therefore rather present a critical perspective on the subtle way in which an economic organization has penetrated the very fabric of our education systems in ubiquitous ways that seems to go unnoticed by most – and this includes parents and teachers but also local governments.
There are two ways in which OECD with PISA is slowly but surely monopolizing educational policy:
The first is the seemingly innocuous ways in which our education systems are changing through the ways standardized testing are affecting schools and curricular all over the world on a rather ubiquitous level.
The other is how OECD with PISA is acting as a global overseer of quality in education with which it penetrates the education system to further a specific economic and ideological agenda. Countries are literally basing educational reforms on directions from OECD, in some countries with what some would call devastating effects. More on this later.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at the first:
The fact of the matter is that standardized testing is not simply a ‘tool’ as the OECD presents it, which is used to optimize the quality of our education systems. It is in itself changing the way education is carried out, addressed and seen.
It is not a passive tool for measuring the quality of education at a school because it requires students active participation and at many schools the result of PISA and other tests are included as part of the students final grading. Teachers have to change their curricular to ‘teach to the test’ and local budgets are set based on competitive results between schools in the same area.
This is not simply adding an innocuous tool which only effect it is to optimize the equality of education – it is pervasive in nature and it is changing our education systems more rapidly than we realize.
This is seen no more than in how students experience having to take one standardized test after another. One of my 7th grade students for example experiences perpetual stress over having to do tests close to every week. She is a young bring woman with an immense drive and creative ambition. She wants to become a movie director and often sits at home writing long scripts. She is even working on a novel. One time she mentioned to me that they had been learning about the ancient Mesopotamia in a history class. To me that sounded like a fascinating subject and I asked her with excitement what she had learned. “I’m not really sure,” she said. “The teacher is moving so fast through the curriculum pushing us towards the test so it is difficult to keep up.”
This is coming from a bright and intelligent young woman who still has an immense curiosity and interest for learning. How much learning potential is not wasted when students are rushed through a curriculum only to get to a test at the end?
Another tragic example of the effects that standardized testing has on students can be seen on the American art teacher Mrs. Chang’s blog. She gave her 10 – 12th grade students the task to illustrate how they felt about taking tests. You can see the outcome of that project for yourself here.
In 1998, Noel Wilson, a scholar from the Flinders University of South Australia wrote a paper in the journal EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS titled Educational Standards and the Problem of Error on the devastating effects that standardized testing has on students that is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. A summarized and updated version was added by someone called Duane Swacker in the comment section of this article which I also recommend reading in relation to a critical perspective on PISA.
In it, Wilson criticizes the entire notion of standardized testing in schools and asks:
“So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.
So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self-evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”
Paraphrasing Wilson on the epistemological error of the notion of testing, Swacker writes:
“A quality cannot be quantified. Quantity is a sub-category of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category by only a part (sub-category) of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as one dimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing we are lacking much information about said interactions.
A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place.
The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?”
It is indeed highly problematic that testing is seen as a benevolent tool to improve and optimize education, when it in fact appears to have an oppressing effect on students subjected to it.
The question is then whether this oppressing cookie-cutter effect of standardized testing is an innocuous but problematic side effect of a benevolent project regarding educational reforms or whether it is actually part of a much more sinister agenda to propagate a certain mindset in students graduating from schools around the world?
One of the most revered critiques of OCED and PISA is professor Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon.
”was designed to capitalize on the intense nationalistic concern for global competitiveness by inducing strong emotional responses from the unsuspecting public, gullible politicians, and sensation-seeking media. Virtually all PISA products, particularly its signature product—the league tables, are intended to show winners and losers, in not only educational policies and practices of the past, but more important, in capacity for global competition in the future.
While this approach has made PISA an extremely successful global enterprise, it has misled the world down a path of self-destruction, resulting in irrational policies and practices that are more likely to squander precious resources and opportunities than enhancing capacity for future prosperity.”
Zhao criticizes the PISA program for measuring the quality of education purely based on academic achievements, entirely leaving out and disregarding socioeconomic facts as well as the psychosocial well being of students. I have discussed this in a previous article where I mentioned how countries such as South Korea might score high on the PISA tests, but they also have some of the highest suicide rates amongst students – and the question is then whether that is an education system that is worth modeling?
In his closing statement of the article Zhao argues that:
“Until OECD-PISA became the only employer in the world with PISA scores as the only qualification, I would not suggest lawyers and doctors in the U.S., U.K., or any nation to replace your children’s activities in music, arts, sports, dancing, debates, and field trips with math tutoring. For the same reason, it is not time yet for schools in developed countries to close your swimming pools, burn your musical instruments, end museums visits, or fire your art teachers.”
In an 2014 article for the UK-based TES (Times Educational Supplement) newspaper titled “Is Pisa fundamentally flawed?” Educational reporter William Stewart outlined the scope of influence that the OECD has gotten over the past decade: ”Politicians worldwide, such as England’s education secretary Michael Gove, have based their case for sweeping, controversial reforms on the fact that their countries’ Pisa rankings have “plummeted”. Meanwhile, top-ranked success stories such as Finland have become international bywords for educational excellence, with other ambitious countries queuing up to see how they have managed it.”
Like Zhao, Stewart argues that measuring educational quality based on results from PISA is flawed. He argues that the tests are not based on common results but on different results from different students and that this creates highly fluctuating results from country to country and even within the same country, despite the OECD’s claim that PISA is one of the most accurately tools for measuring the quality of education. Stewart argues that it is absurd to expect that 50 countries with widely different cultures can be expected to fit into a one-size-fits-all measurement of educational quality and that the tests may therefore potentially be culturally biased.
So how has a private economic interest organization like OECD within the span of a decade managed to influence the course of national education policies on a global level?
In the past 20-30 years a discourse of global competition has become ubiquitously part of the conversation in media and in political sphere. Global competition for profit and resources (where knowledge is one of the most valuable assets a country can mine), is seen as a natural outflow of the processes of globalization and it is in that discourse that the OECD positions itself within and from which it gains its self-proclaimed relevance. PISA is presented as a tool that governments can (and must) use to optimize their educational policies to not fall back in the global competition.
The question is whether the OECD is doing that in fact or whether they, with PISA are adding gasoline to the fire to further their own agenda, specifically through generating panic and paranoia amongst member countries who feverishly fight tooth and nail to not be at the bottom of the ranks.
When Sweden, a country who otherwise prided itself of having one of the world’s best education systems, keep dropping in the PISA results year after year, it begs the question of whether PISA is doing more good than harm. Students are becoming increasingly more stressed and meanwhile politicians are acting as lapdogs for the OECD, following their every decree, to do whatever it takes to not fall back and risk being losers in this global game of thrones.
It seems as though the increased focus on global competition in our education systems has done nothing but decrease the actual quality of education, which is in itself an irony of massive proportions. It seems as though an undercurrent of paranoia based on an ethos of ‘survival of the fittest’ is governing our education systems and the question is: who stands to gain from a system that is set up to make students fail, despite getting an education?
I leave you with this analogy that may serve as a precautionary tale, to not let organizations like the OECD dictate the future of education based on paranoia.
In the classic 1954 book about survival and human nature, Lord of the flies, Jack (leader of the choir boys) convinces the other boys that there is a monster on the island and he soon spreads paranoia to gain power over the tribe. The boys vehemently start hunting the monster. Later, in a vision, another boy called Simon realizes that the monster is not real and that the boys have created the monster as a figment of their own imagination through the intoxication of fear. Jack and his followers kill Simon before they eventually burn down the entire island and destroy what little community was left.
Education is about learning how to navigate the world in the most effective way, to live together and to take care of the world and each other in the best way possible. Education is about learning from those who came before us, both from their experiences and examples, but also from their mistakes. Education is about developing and living one’s utmost potential so as to best contribute to a world that is best for all, and so for oneself. This is not the type of education that is promoted neither by the OECD, nor by our countries officials when they so desperately follow the OECD’s recommendations without questioning its political agenda.
If we are not interested in an education system designed by a private economic interest organization, whose goal it seems to be to increase paranoia to encourage competition – it is important that we come up with sound alternatives; alternatives such as the democratic (Sudbury) schools that are emerging all over the world, alternatives such as unschooling that questions the very notion of schooling and its capacity to true education our children. At the very least, we ought to question the starting-point with which we send our children to school: is it to teach them to compete and survive in a global version of Lord of the Flies or is it to become the best people they can possibly be, so that they may leave a world that is better than the one they came into?
“A child does not have to be motivated to learn; in fact, learning cannot be stopped. A child will focus on the world around him and long to understand it. He will want to know why things are the way they are. He won’t have to be told to be curious; he will just be curious. He has no desire to be ignorant; rather he wants to know everything. “ – Valerie Fitzenreiter, in The Unprocessed Child: Living Without School
When I started working as a teacher, I made a decision that would come to shape my work and my life in ways I could not have imagined.
I decided that I would become the best teacher that I could possibly
In striving to become the best teacher I can possibly be, my focus is to provide children with the best possible education, to be a sparring partner who respects them and listens to them and who values their insights and unique expressions. I am constantly reevaluating my teaching principles and methods and I keep developing myself as a teacher through the direct feedback from the children. I strive to see life from their perspective and to be a champion on their behalf, however I am also acutely aware of the humbleness required from me as an adult to take a step back and see the potential for greatness in my students and let them develop their own voices and become champions of their own sovereignty.
Why I unschool in the school system
Throughout my work I have found it particularly challenging to motivate children, especially as they get older, to do homework and assignments. They would generally do it the night before deadline and in some cases, the parents would sit down and do it for them, just to have something to show – as though the entire purpose of their education was to get a ‘pass’ from the teacher or to make the teacher happy and not to actually learn and develop themselves.
So I have been looking for ways to engage students, to make the work authentic for them as something they would actually want to do and find purpose in. Through this process I have found that a distinct problem with formal schooling is that it is set up as a simulation process where children are taught ‘about life’ from abstract textbooks that doesn’t have anything to do with real life. The entire purpose of formal schooling is to weigh, measure and categorize students, to apparently prepare them for ‘real life’ – completely disregarding the fact that they’ve been a part of real life since the day they were born. Children learn something about the world and about life every minute of every day, especially in those formative years where they integrate knowledge at a quantum level.
I have therefore been working towards making the subjects and projects that we do in our classes relevant to their real lives and to give the students assignments that does not just have the purpose of measuring them or proving themselves to me, but that would actually matter to them.
As I started to develop more of such projects I saw a distinct difference, especially with the younger students interest in learning, however with the older students and especially the teenagers, I was at my wits end. Nothing I did seem to spark an interest in them. They seemed distant and demotivated and saw me as yet another adult who wanted to put them into a simulated learning environment that had nothing to do with them or their real life. I struggled to get any form of authentic connection established with them.
Then about six months ago I discovered unschooling as an educational principle and strategy and since implementing unschooling principles into my work, it has completely transformed not only the way I teach, but also my relationship with the students.
I have taken an educational quantum leap that has opened doors and potential I had no idea existed.
Since I started working actively with unschooling I have come to realize that I have been ’intuitively unschooling’ all this time, and that I have basically been a proponent for unschooling my entire life – I simply wasn’t aware that there was a word for it.
So from a certain perspective it has not been that big of a leap to go from what I was already working with to now actively start unschooling. What has however supported me a lot has been to realize that what I naturally saw as common sense and that I struggled against because I thought I had to teach in a more formal way, had already been working for a lot of people for many years. So it has supported me to trust myself more and to throw myself more into progressive forms of education rather than deliberately holding myself back because I wasn’t sure if what I was doing was okay or not.
Results of introducing unschooling in the school system
When I started introducing unschooling into my classes, I was initially quite worried about how parents and other teachers would react and I can only say that the responses and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I get emails and phone calls from parents saying that there children come home elated with big smiles on their faces and that they can’t wait to go to our classes.
The older sister of one of my 5th grade students recently told me that he never does homework and that he hates writing. She was utterly surprised to hear that not only did he do the assignments for our class, but he kept writing so much that I had to tell him to cut it back because it otherwise wouldn’t fit to the project we were doing. He even send me edited and corrected versions of his assignment several times – without me instructing him to – before it was submitted for final publication.
After I have started to change who I am as a teacher to be (even more) relaxed, more myself and less fearful of not getting results, entirely new dimensions have opened up in my relationships with the kids. They are more considerate and gentler. I suddenly get more hugs and invites to come home for dinner or hear them play piano. They have started to tell me about their life and the things they struggle with or are passionate about.
How I unschool in the school system
The first thing I did, as I actively let go of the fear of what parents and other teachers would think was to stop trying to control the lesson. If the children want to go, I let them go. If they want to do something else than what I’ve prepared, we do that. I don’t force them to do anything anymore. I might encourage them to push themselves, especially if I see that they are resistant or reluctant because of lack of confidence.
I listen to the students, I’m interested in what they have to say, and I am engaged with them, meaning: I am not preoccupied with getting results or accomplishing things. Instead I am here with them and let the moment naturally unfold, (while having somewhat of a plan of what we’re doing/where we’re going). But I am letting go of the ‘need’ to control the situation – which I’ve realized mostly came from fear.
Because I’m letting go of that fear and that need to control and make sure they get results, I can also be more present and listen more to their individual needs. So if someone doesn’t want to do something, I don’t make them. (Which I used to do reluctantly out of fear).
Instead I talk to them about it and make sure that they really don’t want to do it and find out why. Then we do something else, no big deal. If I see that they resist because its something they find difficult, I encourage them to push through – and they do.
An example of that is from a preschool I recently visited. A little girl aged 3 wanted me to draw her a drawing. She started whimpering and talking to me in a manipulative baby voice. Her body language changed and she started becoming emotional. I actually found the situation quite funny and looked within myself at how I could best direct it, what would be best for her and for me in the moment.
So then I calmly said to her: “Okay, but then you got to talk in your normal voice”. What she did next was very sweet and moving. She tried changing her voice back to her normal voice. She struggled at first because I’m not sure anyone has ever asked her to do this before. So she wasn’t used to directing herself to move out of the ‘cry baby personality’. But she definitely understood exactly what I meant. As she tried a couple of times and reverted back and tried again, I could see how her body language changed and she started straightening herself up. She knew exactly what she was doing. She tried a couple of times more and finally got it, back to her normal voice – and I drew the drawing, not because she manipulated me to by being emotional, but because she had asked in self-respect and I wanted to honor that.
I focus more on getting to know the students individual needs and do things that they want to do/that suit them and where they are at in their process of learning. This doesn’t change the effectiveness of my teaching, because they still learn what they need to learn, but it happens naturally without any force. Instead it comes more and more from their own interest to grow and learn. And fascinatingly enough, the work they have produced since we started working with unschooling principles have been lengthier and so much more substantial. Several students have told me that they have been working all night on some of the projects that we do and the most amazing drawings and writings have come out of that process, so much so that it has even surprised me to discover the abundance of potential within the students that I had no idea existed.
Contrary to what critics of unschooling may believe, I also don’t let the children do what ever they want at any cost. If they are too noisy and it is potentially disturbing for another class I ask them to tone it down. If I have a headache or if I am exhausted I explain it to them and ask that we do a more quiet activity. Because the relationships are becoming more equal, because they see that I respect their choices and their needs, they respect mine equally.
The basic principle of unschooling is therefore not to just let children do whatever they want at the expense of everyone else. It is about empowering children to be equals in a partnership where I stand as a point of support and guidance based on a principle of doing what is best for all.
The relationships are becoming more real and more equal which means that I am also allowing myself to learn from the kids and how they see the world. If more teachers would do this, we could compare notes and perhaps together we could steer towards a paradigm change when it comes to how we see and educate children.
Working as a teacher with progressive principles I’ve come to realize how important it is that there’s a real life purpose with what the students work with. Most of what is being taught in school is either abstract or simulated to resemble real life. The students know that and they know that what they do only matters as to measure their performance. Every person wants to contribute to society, wants to do something that matters. When children are encouraged to work with something that has an impact on real life, they give it their all.
“The reality is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform. No system that discards millions of normal, healthy kids as failures – many of them extremely smart, by the way – will ever provide a lasting or universal solution to anything.” – Carol Black, filmmaker and educational activist
The potential is there that we, within the next fifty years will see a total transformation of the process of education and of educational environments – and that as a result, the world will be forever changed because of it. To manifest this potential, from vision to reality, we have to as adults push ourselves to go further than we’ve ever gone before, further than those who came before us, so that we can provide the future generations with a clean slate to learn and grow and explore from – a platform of learning that is unlimited and empowering in every way.