For about forty years or so, there has been a proliferation of “alternative schools” and various other attempts to provide alternative routes to education such as by homeschooling, distance learning via televised and computer/Internet classes, “free schools”, some tutoring programs for incarcerated youth or others, “unschooling”, and such, which have been known by a variety of names and designations around the US. There is a dynamic ‘movement’ of sorts with many avid followers and some fairly large organizations, some with international ties and some of which sponsor huge conventions and whose members often participate in networking and correspondence. The impetus for these groups and activities is the general dissatisfaction with traditional schooling, both public and private.
One couple in New England have been turning their two teen-aged boys out on their huge rural acreage for most of their youth to roam the land hunting and fishing, caring for animals, tending a garden or crops, exploring and doing crafts, performing chores, and just living large. The boys attend to academic things only if and when they show a particular interest or their parents see a definite need to involve them in learning a new skill or something that they expect to enhance their life or survival (which includes economic survival and being able to function and communicate in the community). They have a blog on which they give enticing and vivid accounts of their philosophy and experiences with a great deal of insight and eloquence.
A prominent psychologist, Dr. Peter Gray, (mentioned elsewhere on this website) who writes a popular education blog for Psychology Today on-line maintains that children learn best and much of what they need to know during childhood through play activities, games, social interaction with other children, engaging in continual physical movement, and manipulating objects. John Taylor Gatto, twice New York State Teacher of the Year and prolific author claims that the typical child needs approximately 100 hours total of academic instruction during their formative years to become proficient and productive with all the intellectual capability of a scholar. These ideas were originally formulated by Montessori. The schools/centers she established still draw more than a few enthusiastic adherents.
One can hardly argue with the propositions and principles behind these organizations, groups, and families. While the traditional schools have their supporters and it is somewhat of an extreme position to claim that they do more harm than good overall (as is strongly suggested in several pages on this website), it is hard for any thinking person living in the real world to deny that change is needed or that most of the available alternatives do in fact live up to expectations, graduating students who are at least as productive and well-educated and well-adjusted as graduates from the regular public and private schools. Still, plenty of people are in denial about the extent of the problems and the damage inflicted in dysfunctional our institutions.
However, this begs an important question. If the traditional public schools and not a few private schools are too rigid, inhospitable, too focused on academics or drill or performance measures, or if they are plagued by discipline problems, bullying behaviors, low rates of literacy at graduation or semi-literacy, dropping out, complaints by employers, political or other controversy, dysfunction and corruption, inadequate funding, etc., etc., then how will we as a society or a nation replace them with alternatives, and in which century will we overcome these serious chronic issues in order to stop failing our children and families?
The Re-invention of the Educational Wheel
The usual responses to these questions by those in the alternative community are exasperating! These fine folks will invariably tell the questioner that they are unable to change the world alone, but that they are doing the best they possibly can as individual change agents in their little corner of the world. They have well-thought-out rationales and reality-based descriptions and explications for the way they approach education, working diligently and lovingly with their devoted students.
This is always followed by extremely optimistic projections for the future based on the reasonable logic that they have discovered much healthier and more beneficial practices and methods that cannot help but be proven to be superior in time. They will repeat facts about the deplorable conditions and practices in schools currently and historically and reiterate the praises for their more organic and effective paradigm. The terms that have become the excuse for not making a direct assault on the core issues causing the dysfunction and failure in schools are that a “tipping point” or a “critical mass” will be reached when enough of the public will finally demand that the marvelous methods and philosophy they have developed and perfected must be adopted in all schools. Yet, this is the stuff of fantasy.
While it is entirely true that many of the various techniques and ideas that are established by these educators, or educationists as some of us prefer to call them, have clear advantages and conform to the concepts promoted as a consequence of intense study and scientific research, the theories and concepts are rarely novel or original. They have in most cases re-discovered basic principles and applied them in ways that closely parallel those of their forbearers, whether in the traditions of a John Dewey, a Socrates, a Holt, etc., or some combination of these.
No one would love more to see the great innovations, philosophies, and methodologies embodied within the alternative communities sweep the nation than we at ACES, Inc. (Authentic Choices in Education & Schooling, Inc.), the new nonprofit organization behind this website. However, the momentum they have experienced is to a large extent more illusion than real. Their infectious exuberance infects a rather tiny minority. The highly anticipated waves of change and the predicted “tipping point” are not going to be realized despite their diligence and passion, because of a variety of factors that remain to prohibit effective change.
The irony here is that the exceptional and intelligent people who are so thoroughly convinced that they will lead us all out of the education wilderness nearly all believe that freedom and autonomy are essential and are primary principles in schooling and education. Their exemplary schools and methods generally all model a libertarian and child-centered approach.
The reasons for their existence outside the established schools or for creating a separate space within the traditional schools is an intense resistance to the regimentation, repression, circumscription, and duress associated with authoritarian regimes. Nevertheless, they are adamant about just doing “their own thing” and staying narrowly focused on their special alternative designs, refusing to acknowledge that the things they reject and oppose are impervious to their efforts elsewhere.
If there were ever going to be a tipping point, the brilliance of John Dewey, John Holt, Jonathon Kozol, John Taylor Gatto, Paul Goodman, and any number of others would have taken us there long ago. The list of things that would have to take place for a critical mass to be reached in the popular mind and culture is lengthy and formidable. Affording true autonomy to either students or teachers would require a major shift in thinking on many levels. There is a mythology and irrationality among the general population relative to schools and education of Biblical proportions – in more than one sense.
However, the barrier at the perimeter that stands most resolutely against all attempts to institute authentic and meaningful long-term and large scale change is the iron-clad law requiring attendance. We cannot say this too many times or stress it too much. The attendance laws guarantee that the status quo will go largely unchallenged. The law by itself may appear innocuous and impartial. It is anything but.
The disconnect between new discoveries from solid empirical research studies and from tried and tested practices from the field and any significant awareness of those studies and the efficacy of those proven practices in the various schools around the nation is nothing less than phenomenal. Dr. Peter Gray PhD, mentioned above has just posted a new article May 1, 2016 on his Psychology Today blog entitled, Freedom to Learn Blog. The title of the article is: “Inverse Relationship Between GPA and Innovative Orientation”. Ideally, the blog should be read by every teacher and it is on the ‘cutting edge’ by any normal standard.
The following incisive quote from the blog about a research project of the highest quality and value, reported in the “popular press” shows how a different approach would clearly and definitively lead to more creativity and innovation in high school graduates.
“Increasingly, controlled research studies are also showing no correlation, or even an inverse correlation, between college GPA and innovative orientation or ability. One major study, which has recently come to the attention of the popular press …, was conducted by Matthew Mayhew and his colleagues at NYU. These researchers surveyed thousands of college seniors, at five different institutions of higher education, with a battery of psychological tests and questionnaires. One of their major findings was an inverse relationship between students’ reported GPA and their orientation toward creative or innovative work. The higher the grade point average, the lower was the students’ interest in innovation.”
What are the chances that these research findings will filter down or somehow be promoted from the top to affect the attitudes and behaviors of teachers and those making the decisions in schools and on school boards? How many teachers will have even the dimmest awareness of the facts and factors involved next year, five years from now, or twenty-five years into the future?
Teachers have their noses to the grindstone. Teachers have a curriculum to follow. Teachers have pressures from parents, from students, from administrators and others that weigh heavily on them. Moreover, teachers nearly universally believe that the GPA is of the greatest importance; that college is essential to success and happiness in life, and that others elsewhere should be concerned with creativity and innovation. A study such as this is water off a duck’s back, so to speak. It doesn’t translate or get translated for those “in the trenches”. It has no legs and no impact other than possibly to cause a momentary stir in certain narrow circles and in reaffirming the beliefs of the already committed alternative schooling believers.
Creativity and innovation? Autonomy and child-centered teaching? Critical thinking skills and familiarity with democratic processes? These values and objectives clash on many fronts with the intractable and unyielding demands that come with the compulsory attendance territory. It is a real territory inhabited by people with real and well-guarded power.
The people in charge talk a good game and they may even believe fervently in those same fine ideals at heart. However, when push comes to shove, as it inevitably does, usually in very short order, the winners are always the rigid rules and cookie-cutter or “common core” curricula, the requirements for obedience and a complaisant demeanor, the need for bureaucratic processes and political correctness, and accountability affirmed via measuring what is essentially unmeasurable.
Change must always be postponed, made contingent on better circumstances and future conditions. The implementation of great new concepts and methodologies are never proved adequately according to the professionals and “experts”. Grand programs and wonderful innovations have a cost and don’t promise to lead to higher degrees, higher salaries, or greater prestige.
The alternative community is a happy group whose members reinforce each other’s faith and confidence. They engage in what is best described as more of the innocuous and oblivious “happy talk” that has characterized the cult of school for generations. They comprise a mutual admiration society and their egos are bolstered by the good they see in their idyllic schools where a fortunate few children are free and motivated.
But, decades from now, there will be a new crop of these dreamers and schemers comfortable with the belief that a tipping point is just down the road. Once the message gets out and people are able to witness the miracles large and small, there will be an awakening. Meanwhile, millions of children are still subjected to a high-pressure environment, blamed for the failures of the system, and in many respects neglected and abused, in the tradition of the traditional schools.
The barriers to change will prevent change just as they are designed to do until they are removed. It’s that simple. Everyone can argue about philosophy, logic, theory, or practical consequences, and fear of setting children and teachers free may immobilize the timid and cautious. There are a million complexities and complications involved in a nation with a long legacy of conflict and confusion. However, laws can be changed and the changes can have profound effects. Will we do it for children, or will we wait until they do it for themselves, through less pleasant and orderly means?
Note: This website will be evolving and expanding for an indeterminate period, depending on time, resources, and the amount of assistance available. Currently, it is the product primarily of just one principal author and one or two technical assistants. Some pages will clearly not be completed or have a conclusion or satisfactory summary until time allows. It has been decided however, that the message as it exists so far is important enough and well-enough organized to date to merit publication in order to inform and involve others who may find it inspiring and motivational. This page will be built in the very near future.