On the one hand you have Sugata Mitra, who in his Ted Prize Winning talk said that the school system as we know it is not broken, but obsolete; who demonstrated how kids in even the most abject poverty, with no access to “good schools” can, on their own and with no help from a teacher or any adult, master a computer and much of what it has to offer in just a few short months.
On the other hand you have proponents of the Common Core Standards. These are the people like Sol Stern who believe that what has been lost in our educational system over the last 50 years (the period during which he says schools have been in decline) is a unified or shared curriculum. Stern points to the writings & Core Knowledge curriculum of E.D. Hirsch, chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation to support his claim that the Common Core, properly implemented, can restore the United States to educational glory. Says Stern:
“For the first 150 years of the republic, according to Hirsch, most schools followed a shared curriculum emphasizing the explicit content knowledge that children had to acquire in order to grow into literate adults and good citizens. As Hirsch writes in his most recent book “The Making of America” the country had ‘no official national curriculum, but it had the equivalent: a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks to ensure that all students would learn many of the same facts, myths and values and so would grow to be competent, loyal Americans.’ Americas public schools were the envy of the world during this period.”
The envy of the world. Why? Maybe it was because, in an industrialized age, we in this country perfected what Mitra refers to as the creation – by the Victorian British Empire – of a:
“global computer made up of people. It’s still with us today. It’s called the ‘Bureaucratic Administrative Machine’. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people. The school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the Bureaucratic Administrative Machine. They must be identical to each other….”
Yep. Identical, interchangeable, conforming to the ‘proper’ standards so that the machine would not break down. In other words, “good citizens”.
Mitra believes we must encourage children to be free in their learning; to be able to teach each other and find mentors all over the world through technology. That, he maintains, is where the next great ideas will come from.
His plan is anathema to the Common Core.
I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but the Common Core seems to me like an orchestrated attempt by many of those in power across the political spectrum to put the masses back in their place, doing as they’re told and learning what they are ‘supposed’ to learn so that they don’t question the way things are; so that they are good (docile?) citizens.
As I see it, there has of late been a surge in the idea of learning without borders. I should say “re-surgence” as the type of freedom in learning to which I am referring is nothing new; it has just been effectively stifled. It reminds me of a line Anthony Hopkins delivers while portraying John Quincy Adams in Steven Spielberg’s film “Amistad”. Says Hopkins/Adams “The natural state of mankind… is freedom, and the proof is the lengths to which a man, woman or child will go to regain it once taken. He will break loose his chains, he will decimate his enemies, he will try and try against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.”
I would add that the natural state of mankind is also one of learning; learning without borders, without standards, without a common core. Learning through individual curiosity and interest. Learning through play and ingenuity and trial and error – all of each person’s own choosing. Learning in freedom and without coercion of any kind.
The proof? No matter the lengths that the system goes to keep children in line; to make sure they are schooled in whatever curriculum someone else thinks is important, they never quite succeed. Almost, but not quite.
Over the past couple of years there has been a surge of interest – brought on by several factors, not the least of which is the democratization of information – in self-directed learning. Ivy League colleges offer free courses on line in the form of MOOC’s. The Kahn Academy is open to anyone looking to finally figure out how to calculate the interest on their mortgage. And then there are the books. Michael Ellsberg’s Education of Millionaires, Blake Boles’ Better Than College, Dale Stephens’ Hacking Your Education, Peter Gray’s Free To Learn, the e-book release of John Holt’s Escape from Childhood, just to name a few. There are also advocates like Nikhil Goyal, Dayna Martin and Lisa Nielsen who talk openly and in the mainstream press about the power of self-directed learning and unschooling.
And there is Sugata Mitra, telling us stories from the slums of India, and we are amazed. How can children who have never seen a computer, who don’t speak English and don’t know what the internet is – how can they teach themselves and then each other its many and varied functions? Isn’t that amazing?!
Maybe it’s not amazing. Maybe it is natural. Maybe it is the natural state of learning, manifested. We only see it as extraordinary because we are so indoctrinated into the ways of the “Bureaucratic Administrative Machine” that we have almost forgotten how it feels to be free.
Free to learn without borders.