The smoke & mirrors of Oz

I’ve been out of school for a long time now.   Long enough to have realized that the Great & Powerful Oz which we all sort of feared (“If you don’t do well in school your future is ruined!”) is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.   Long enough to know that my Senior English teacher was correct when he told us that 95% of everything we’d learned in school up to that point was garbage.

Being around my two unschooling kids has caused me to learn a lot about the nature of learning.  The two main points?  Learning happens all of the time whether we like it or not, and there is never only one correct way to learn.

Is that so difficult to comprehend?   You wouldn’t think so, but in the many years since my Senior English teacher dropped his bomb on us, the Great & Powerful Oz has become a dictatorial behemoth with countless teachers as his minions, doing his bidding and buying wholeheartedly into the propaganda.

Did you know that there are school teachers out there who believe that some kids don’t know how to learn?  Period?  What is all the more baffling is that in any discussion on this topic, at some point someone will mention the kids’ love of apps, games, etc.   But of course mastering those things doesn’t count as learning.    You are only learning when you are doing what the teacher tells you to do, in the way they tell you to do it.    If you want to watch proverbial gaskets being blown, try pointing out that perhaps the kids just aren’t interested in the subject at hand (or how it’s being presented) and suggest that if those same children can memorize song lyrics and extended scenes from their favorite movies, perhaps their ability to learn is intact.

Perhaps they are just tired of the garbage and of being force fed condescension by way of “learning & success strategies”.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do an experiment and allow an “underperforming” group of school-kids to learn whatever they  wanted for a year?  To somehow fund the project so that if they were interested in cutting hair then that’s what they got to learn; if they loved music mixes they could apprentice in a recording studio or whatever else they wanted.   How quickly do you think those kids, given the freedom to choose and support in their choice, would turn into top notch “learners”?

No school is going to agree to such an experiment, of course.   If they did, they’d have to admit that the Great & Powerful Oz isn’t so great or powerful.   They would be forced to question everything they’ve chosen to believe about learning.

So instead, those of us who know that all kids are voracious learners need to keep talking.  Keep leading by example.  Maybe we’ll convince one family, and then another.  And another.  Until Oz is nothing more than a silly man behind a curtain, pulling levers and peddling garbage.


Following is a link to a blog post written by a teacher who can’t figure out why some of her classes don’t seem to want to learn the subject she is teaching.   Check out the many, many comments, most of which are also from teachers. (My comment – as of right now – is apparently still in moderation.  Oh, and I have no idea what a ‘Flipped Classroom’ is.  If you do, maybe you can tell me.)

Here it is:   Flipping with Kirch

12 comments on “The smoke & mirrors of Oz

  1. LR says:

    Absolute yes to “Perhaps they are just tired of the garbage and of being force fed condescension by way of ‘learning & success strategies’.” That is complete condescension. And, naturally, arrogance: as if any kid will be doomed to a life of illiteracy and not knowing world capitals because he didn’t hand in some worksheets.

  2. CSM says:

    If you think flipped class is about doing worksheets, you really don’t understand it at all. There is a lot of information on the internet about it if you’re curious – it’s really not hard to find out what it’s all about.

    Do you really have nothing else to do but attack hard-working teachers who are working hard to educate students with very few of the advantages of your own children? Students who were raised with very little educational background or academic preparation, who have read fewer than ten books in their lives, and whose parents often don’t even speak the same language they do. That is the audience for methods like the flipped classroom. Not kids who have the luxury of a stay-at-home parent to let them explore their love of learning for themselves.

    The flipped class is about helping those students engage with academics in a way they have never been able to. These kids have failed for years, and by the time they make it to Crystal Kirch’s class have likely never passed a math class in which they were required to do more than count and do basic addition and subtraction.

    It’s really easy to tear down teachers who open themselves up publicly by publishing their work on the web. Crystal does that because what she shares helps thousands of teachers reach their students more effectively. The reality is that 95% of American children attend a public school.

    I would trust Crystal with my children in a heartbeat because she is a passionate, dedicated, intelligent educator who really cares about her students. She does not use worksheets. She is innovative in her use of blogging in the math classroom, and has taught her students how to have academic discussions about math topics in a way that promotes higher-order thinking.

    I wish you would step off your pedestal long enough to realise that there are a lot of people working hard to do an almost impossible job, and by criticising them, you’re only making that work harder.

    By all means make the right decision for your own children – do what you think is best. But let those of us trained to be teachers of students in underserved communities do our jobs without being attacked. Save your effort to persuade people who have the means to unschool their children, rather than going after the people who serve the children who don’t.

    • CSM,

      Do you think Amy is attacking teachers because she is challenging the idea about kids not wanting to learn stuff they are not interested in? Are you saying that questioning a teacher’s outlook is an attack? Are you saying that teachers should be followed blindly without question? I don’t agree.

      As far as your stated audience for the flipped classroom, maybe you too should spend time looking on the internet. It is not solely for the type of student you describe. It’s a method used for children from various backgrounds INCLUDING those whose parents stay-at-home. Additionally, the flipped classroom often is NOT used for the audience you mistakenly think it is for. That is because they may not have equitable access to technology and the internet.

      Additionally, the percentage of kids who you state go to public school is also wrong. Funny how someone who is telling someone else that finding information isn’t hard, doesn’t bother doing the same.


      That’s not even the point of Amy’s post, so let’s bring this back on track.

      Teachers can and should take the time to learn from parents who allow their children the freedom to learn without force. There is much that you can learn from Amy if you were able to let down your defenses.

      What I find most bothersome is that you sound racist in your remarks as though a certain type of young person needs to be forced to learn and another kind (those with certain luxuries) do not.

      Fortunately, there are teachers who understand that all children deserve to have ownership of their learning. When we take the time to learn about who the child is and what they care about, we will find, as Amy shares in this post, that young people do know how to learn if given the chance to learn what matters to them.

      As for your request to not be challenged. Do you think teaching an underserved community earns you the right to teach without challenge? No way! Teachers of those students deserve to be challenged and questioned just as do those who teach children of greater means.

  3. JAT says:

    I am a minion holding up the curtain of the great and powerful Oz.

    I am an English teacher, one who pretty much agrees with your senior English teacher’s assessment of the system.

    I also sort of agree with the general sentiment behind your argument–that kids should be able to (at least in some respects) drive their own learning. School should be structured like Dennis Littky or Roger Schenk propose– big ideas, big projects, giving kids skills to learn more fluidly and argue their points with more concision.

    But Ms. Milstein, your guns are trained on the wrong armada (teachers). They are trained on the wrong fleet (Flipped Class teachers, who are the hardest-working, most revolutionary, passionate group of educators in Jehovah’s Kingdom… or Oz…whichever metaphor makes you happiest). They are MOST ESPECIALLY trained on the wrong captain.

    Go after the testing companies who run the show. Go after school boards, or politicians, presidents, parents who don’t care.

    But the individuals who are revolutionizing education from the inside out? Take care not to catch people who are on your anti-worksheeted side in your broad rhetorical flourishes.

    And consider what you’d be doing with your life without that one senior English teacher, the one who piqued your interest in revolution.

    • JAT
      The article Amy linked to said, this:
      ==My students don’t know how to learn. They don’t know how to succeed. And, it doesn’t seem like they care to change any of that.==

      As much as I abhor testing companies, this is not about that. This is about a mindset. A mindset in which a parent with experience in providing children with the freedom to learn has trouble.

      As far as flipped classrooms, I fail to see how having kids watch lectures at home is revolutionary. What Littky does is revolutionary, but watching a lecture at home is FAR from that.

      As far as Amy having one teacher across all those years that said something powerful (most of what she’s learning is garbage), well, that’s nice, but it’s pretty sad how few actually make a positive difference. Perhaps if she wasn’t in school she would have had far more people making such a difference. Unfortunately, may learn from teachers to hate subjects that outside of school they might actual like.

      I wish that more people were like Amy and would stand up and challenge those educators who believe that kids don’t know how to learn and don’t care to change that. They do know and they do care when we care about who they are and what they care about. Amy reminds us of that. Instead of feeling defensive and attacked it would behove folks to listen and learn from her reactions and experience.

  4. JAT says:

    My proposed response (there is more, but it’s like 12:30 am)

    I will forgo the “you have much to learn, young grasshopper” comment that I really feel like making.

    I will forgo your misunderstanding of the Flipped Classroom, and your misunderstanding of the people who are doing the best they can to reach all the kids in a highly flawed system. I will just say “You don’t need technology or videos to run a flipped classroom” and leave it at that.

    I will forgo the fact that you seem to be trying to tell 3 of the most student-centered teachers in the whole country (all leaders of the flipped class movement) what the desired audience of said pedagogical mindset is.

    Ms. Nielsen, I will even ignore the fact you’re race-baiting my friend and colleague, or that you seem to draw no distinction between the term “racist” (judging someone based on their “race”), and “elitism” or “classism.” That part of your argument is flawed in any event– creating a classroom culture, the sole purpose of which is for All Kids To Be Successful, is neither racist, classist, nor elitist. It, in fact, is the opposite.

    Let me borrow your rhetorical move, and, as you put it, bring this back on track.

    1. Crystal Kirch wrote a blog post asking for help. Amy’s response and subsequent blog post(s) are the reactions of someone feeling Defensive and Attacked.

    2. Crystal (and all teachers, really) do not work in a context which allows a Fly And Be Free curriculum. Many of us wish, desperately, that we could allow students more freedom. And many of us do, despite high-and-low-level curricular restrictions.

    3. Much of the frustration in your argument seems to come from a couple places– first, that Amy is having trouble convincing others of her position. This would be far better served by Not Attacking The Educators Who Generally Agree With Her. Second, the quote you listed above in your response to me. (“My students don’t know how to learn. They don’t know how to succeed. And, it doesn’t seem like they care to change any of that.”) Taking quotes out of context from educators’ blog posts and reappropriating them to fit your personal narrative is the kind of faulty reasoning and poor analytical strategy great teachers fight against every day.

    All guns and blazes aside, the saddest part here for me is that we are arguing more or less the same thing. Regardless of whether you think kids should know how to do Algebra (and I question that, personally), I don’t think kids know how to learn, at least not in the way trained educators mean it. Knowing how to learn means knowing how to figure something out for yourself– and being able to transfer your knowledge of how to work through a complex video game to Learning Something of Social and Political Import. (Personally, I think learning early American History through Assassin’s Creed is really cool.)

    A thorough knowledge of basic governmental premises is not technically necessary, but it helps in becoming a member of a democratic society. A knowledge of Literary Classics is not necessary, though it allows students to recognize the universality of human experience. For example, just this week, my students have been discussing universal principles from the Greek tragedies, things like “misdirected anger is destructive, and it destroys the angry person far more than the target” and “unchecked arrogance can destroy whole families and societies.”

    But that is another soapbox for another day.

    You’re working on this from the outside. We’re working from the inside. We both want a revolution. Put up the missiles and the Rottweilers. Please. For the kids’ sakes.

    • CMBG says:

      “You’re working on this from the outside. We’re working from the inside. We both want a revolution. Put up the missiles and the Rottweilers. Please. For the kids’ sakes.”

      On the flip side, maybe be open to the possibility that you cannot have a revolution from the inside. Maybe you can; I don’t know. It hasn’t happened yet — not in education. (Flipped classrooms help a lot of students but not all; open classrooms help a lot of students but not all; unit studies help a lot of students but not all; mixed-age classrooms help a lot of students but not all; team-teaching arrangements help a lot of students but not all; etc. In the end, the students still all have to be there, like it or not, regardless of how the lectures are presented and how the work is portioned. And that in itself is sort of the opposite of revolutionary.)

      From what I’ve seen, these are among the primary results of any attempts at revolution from the inside (these are quotes from the article called “My biggest struggle this year,” and its comments, linked above):

      “I can’t help students who just don’t want to learn.”


      “The students do not know how to learn . . . true!! How do we get them to start taking more ownership of their learning?”

      Maybe stop giving them things they don’t want and telling them, “Here! Take this! Own this!” Maybe let them decide what they want to learn.

      Those students that you’re mystified about are trying to tell you, “We don’t want this,” and you’re all baffled, throwing your hands up and honestly wondering, “Why won’t they take it? Why won’t they own it?” It’s because they don’t want it. That’s why they won’t take it; that’s why they won’t own it. Listen to them!

      Being a teacher in the current traditional educational system means that you have to make some of your students do things they don’t want to do, things they may have no use for, things that may actually interfere with their learning or with better things they could be doing. That’s part of the job. (It’s not a job I could do, myself. More power to those who manage it!) That being the case, I cannot understand how any teacher is ever surprised to find that some of the students refuse to “take ownership” of this stuff that they didn’t ask for in the first place and don’t want.

      Another comment from the linked article said: “I think that’s the key– very few of us were That Student [meaning apathetic], so it’s especially hard for us to get our minds around what their “problems” are.”

      Do you really want to understand them? Do you really want to know what their “problems” are? Then ask them. And then listen to them. And don’t dismiss their answers when they fall outside of what you want to hear, or what you can control. Accept that “I don’t care about this stuff” is a valid answer! And listen to the voices from the “outside” too — maybe like the ones here — who are trying to explain what might not be obvious from an “inside” vantage point. You have asked questions, and we are trying to offer you answers from a new perspective. Here, take it! Own it! Oh, why won’t you learn; do you not know how to learn?? 😉

  5. JAT,

    Can you please write in a way that makes it clear when you are addressing me verses Amy. If this is all directed toward me, you’re greatly mistaken about what I understand and where I am coming from. If it’s directed toward Amy, she will respond for herself if she feels appropriate.

    Aside from your personal attacks, I will say this JAT.

    Your definition of knowing how to learn is not in alignment with mine or Amy’s because you leave out a crucial component. That crucial component is that you need to care about what you are figuring out and find it relevant to your life. The problem with the article Amy cites is that the teacher is complaining that students don’t know how to learn or care about learning something they never asked to learn.

    Amy’s focus isn’t the three teachers you proclaim are the most student-centered in the country. Her focus is on the idea that people who think that some kids don’t know how to learn need to think again and reexamine their beliefs.

    Perhaps you can indeed get back on track and respond to Amy’s concern about that. That, not anything you’ve written in defense and praise of yourself and your buddies, happens to be the topic of her post.

  6. […] subsequent blog post of a few days ago, “The smoke and mirrors of Oz” got some pretty interesting comments itself.  All of which you can read – even those that […]

  7. Pauline says:

    “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do an experiment and allow an “underperforming” group of school-kids to learn whatever they wanted for a year? ”
    As a teacher who would love to devote more time to allowing kids to following their own learning journeys I think this is an intriguing idea .Sign me up! I’m sure we could all learn much from an experiment like this :)

  8. Emily says:

    Dear Amy (and other commenters)-

    I’m stricken by three major issues that seem to be at play in what (I take to be) the misunderstandings that fueled Amy’s mostly well-meant post. Those issues are ones of genre, attribution, and alliance.

    First: genre. I think that Amy has mistaken Crystal’s blog post for a representation of her entire teaching philosophy, or of her general orientation toward her profession, when in fact what we have is a frustrated teacher releasing stress and asking for help from her colleagues. This is an issue of genre. Crystal wasn’t outlining her mission statement for her classroom, or discussing pedagogy, per se. She was venting. There’s a place for that, even for teachers, and particularly in the somewhat informal world of blogging. Sometimes it makes sense to throw up your hands sometimes, and to ask others what they do when they feel the same frustrations.

    While, granted, it’s possible to make assumptions about authors’ intentions from all their writings, not just from what’s intended for which audience, I think that if Crystal’s post is read with a hermeneutic of generosity, and not suspicion, one finds an opportunity to bolster the flagging spirits of a teacher who’s demoralized by a bad system that she’s trying to make better. Ideally, a person who feels Crystal could do things differently or who has wisdom to share does that with her with care and respect, not with direct criticism.

    Second, the issue of attribution. That is, to whom is Crystal attributing the blame for her students’ inability to learn? One some level, Crystal is right: many students in this country DON’T know how to learn. Do they have the raw material for that? Do they have the innate human curiosity and drive for knowledge that inspires so many people to pick up books or examine spiders or become teachers? Yes! Of course! But after being churned through a system that encourages rote memorization and obedience from the first day of class, most children have learned anti-skills that prevent them from accessing and taking advantage of their right to creativity and improvisation. They DON’T know how to learn; the only thing they learned as students was how NOT to learn. Oh, the paradox!

    For Crystal to show frustration at her students’ inability to learn, and their nonchalance about that fact, isn’t the same as saying, “My students are stupid.” It’s saying, “Sometimes this problem seems unsolvable.” It’s saying, “I have to start at square one with these children, because no one else has.” Those are valid statements. They’re valid frustrations. And they aren’t attacks on students, they’re real consequences of factory education. They’re attributions of blame for deep structural issues, not those who suffer the results of it.

    Finally (I know, finally!), alliance. I’m saddened by the ways in which this discussion recapitulates so much of the history American high school students hate learning; that is, in the battle of dominant systems against revolutionary ones, the revolutionary is undone by part of its own party/community/alliance. Amy and Cheryl are partners in the struggle to make education better; they have different points of view, in some ways, but they generally want the same thing– to give children the tools to improve their intellectual lives. That’s pretty badass. That matters. And yet, there’s a battle now between these natural partners. The way the dominant narrative keeps dominating is when its objectors spend their energy on tearing down one another. Constructive criticism is one thing; direct rebuke is another.

    I think the notion of un-schooling is really fascinating; it seems to have a great deal of merit, and more people in the country would do well to know about and embrace its move away from “traditional” schooling models. Likewise, the philosophy behind the flipped classroom (which is about much more than at-home videos) is compelling and inspiring, and parents and, of course, their children stand to gain a great deal from not only learning about it, but embracing it. In both cases, the value of these approaches far outweighs the negatives, and that’s the story that should be told here– that there are valiant efforts in the country (and elsewhere, of course) to offer all kinds of children all kinds of specifically tailored learning experiences that change who they are and how they engage the world. It’s time “alternative” approaches to education get together, strengthen each other, and balance out the dominant narrative.

    The end…finally!

  9. Emily says:

    Somehow I wrote Cheryl in there instead of Crystal; apologies for that!

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