Unschooling – Again

It’s that time of year again. By “that time of year,” I don’t mean the insidious back to school displays to tide over retailers until Halloween and Christmas, though that is also true. It’s the time of year when we ask ourselves: why bother with schooling?

I’ve written before about what some call the unschooling movement, a loose collection of folks who hold that we deprive kids of authentic, meaningful, and creative experiences in our grand confinement of young people in millions of schools across the world. The cousin of unschooling, homeschooling, has similar issues with modern school systems.

Here is an interview from yesterday’s Globe and Mail. It’s with Zander Sherman, “Home-schooled until the age of 13, he was the odd man out when he finally joined a public high school, a vegetarian who played classical guitar, read his grandfather’s Marxist literature – and found himself wondering about the strange entity called ‘school.’”

I’d like to take on Sherman’s central claims. Of course, Sherman is a well-meaning, intelligent, and insightful person. But he repeats claims often trotted out about the schooling system, and I think they need some exposure.

Claim: “Most people look at the specifics – standardized testing, the number of homework hours a week, teacher tenure – but not the bigger issues. What is an education? What are we supposed to take away from it? As a home-schooler, though, I felt like an outsider, like I didn’t necessarily belong. At the time, it was kind of excruciating, but in retrospect I was able to look at this thing called “school” with fascination and curiosity.”

I think many people do obsess about what we supposed to take away from formal schooling. There are heated policy debates all the time (full year kindergarten, anyone? Homework policies?), politicians running on education platforms (Ontario’s premier styles himself along educational lines first and foremost, as did Davis and Robarts to a lesser degree before him), and discussions around dinner tables every day. As for the claim that he felt like an outsider, I grant that schools can be mean places – and to their detriment. But so can any important public institution. The remedy is not the destruction of schools.

Claim: “Schools have historically turned out citizens and voters; today, though, you could say we’re focused on human resources – schools have become standardized, and that’s because it makes for a good labour pool, it’s convenient for the economy.”

Writers like Michael Apple have made this case, too. But in response I want to develop a line of thinking that suggests the school-as-training-for-jobs is more complicated than both of them suggest. First, schools are usually accused of not preparing students for the world of work; usually, schools are seen as irrelevant wastes of time, a theme Sherman himself flirts with. I think the schooling system, in its insistence on the importance of literacy and numeracy, with mandatory exposure to liberal arts, physical education, and science is a good balance of the exact kinds of things nearly any parent would like his or her child to experience. I would like more specific examples of instances our schooling system is “convenient” for capitalism. Second, to the extent that schooling is directed at employment (there is a half-year course in grade 10 in Ontario, Careers, that helps students prepare for interviews and make resumes), it is quite reasonable.

Claim: “Education should be about instilling a sense of wonder and a love of learning. If people aren’t galvanized by curiosity, what’s the incentive to go to work?”

I grant that there is a difference between formal schooling and education, and that not all moments of schooling are about nurturing curiosity. Though, the system has been stressing a sense of wonder and curiosity for a long time – and has, at least since 1950, lamented the perceived lack of it (see the Introduction to the 1995 Royal Commission, For the Love of Learning, for a brief summary of both the Hope Commission of 1950, and the Hall-Dennis Report of 1968). Our many Royal Commissions and reports over the past 60 years indicate we aren’t as unthinking as Sherman would argue.

Claim: “Finland is a great example. They don’t value standardized tests (although they perform well on them) and there’s less schooling-per-year than elsewhere. Students learn, then bundle up and go skiing. It’s a wonderfully eccentric system.”

There has been quite a bit written about Finland and its “eccentric” system. It’s hard to separate the truth from the hype, but let’s grant that it’s a high-performing system that serves its students well.

What concerns me is the general opposition to a systematic and standardized approach. In all professions, practitioners have benchmarks and protocols and standards bigger than their own offices. In medicine, doctors follow international guidelines; why should teachers not benefit from the collected work of a hundred years of research into teaching and learning?

If we didn’t collect standardized data on student performance on reasonable and accurate measures of our major priorities (literacy and numeracy), how would we know if we were doing a good job? Teachers in individuals classrooms (including yours truly), often lack the perspective to be able to objectively determine their students’ success. In Ontario, our approach to gathering data across the whole system allows us to see if students are learning or not. How would we ever improve the system if we didn’t know such basic data as how many of our students can read?

Claim: “Teachers in Finland are venerated above doctors and lawyers. Why can’t we look at our own teachers the same way? It’s totally baffling.”

A lot of studies have pointed to the lack of respect in the teaching profession as a reason lower-performing undergraduates enter the field, and I think there is a lot of truth to the lament that teachers aren’t esteemed enough. But surely the appropriate response is not to get rid of system-wide data collection and merely increase the amount of nordic skiing. The path to greater respect, at least if medicine is any guide, involves greater transparency, rigorous standards, and the dedicated pursuit of meaningful goals – in the case of teaching, goals like literacy and numeracy. I think teaching is where medicine was in the 19th century; on the way to professionalization through the increasing use of evidence-based techniques, not snake oil.

Claim: “I think a growing number of educators are disillusioned with international comparisons. They often put the economy first – these are not necessarily the subjects that make for the best education. These countries are at war to be economic superpowers, and math, technology and engineering are the sectors that generate the most capital.”

First we should emulate Finland because of its high performance on international standardized tests, but we should also abandon international comparisons. Which is it?

And again, a variation on the claim that the economy drives the curriculum – at least, more than it should. In Ontario, the highest number of high school credits needed is in English, hardly a capitalist bastion. The second highest? Math. Then science.

Is it the case that math and science have been turned over to General Electric? Hardly. Corporations continue to complain that our school system is not geared enough to the needs of the economy.

Claim: “I’m currently working on an article about the importance of Latin and Greek. In the schools of yesteryear, knowledge of the classical languages was part of a pedagogy known as ‘formal discipline.’ The idea was that the human brain is a muscle; learning Latin and Greek gave the brain a workout, students’ minds were toughened, sculpted.

“In the 20th century, the curriculum no longer focuses on simple knowledge and wisdom, but what’s required for the work world.”

How would we define “simple knowledge and wisdom”? While I adore the classics, and have taught ancient history and philosophy throughout my career, the path to greater relevance is teaching Latin and Greek?

Claim: “I was home-schooled for creative reasons. But many home-schoolers are from religious families, and I think the temptation there can be for parents to indoctrinate instead of developing inquiring minds.”

So, his parents taught out of a love of creativity, but the rest can’t be trusted to. In light of this claim against homeschoolers, what’s to be done?

“I like what I see at the local level, when teachers take things into their own hands. One of my best friends is a public high-school teacher. Every day he practices what I preach: He chooses material that engages his students – that gets them excited and curious. He also avoids an emphasis on testing, grading and data in general. That’s what excites me most.”

All teachers can currently do this. There is no prohibition against it, nor has there been much restriction over day-to-day curriculum for several generations (in Ontario, at least). There are no daily suggested lessons in the slightest. Teachers have a tremendous degree of latitude over their daily practices. And of course, no student goes to school at a system-level – every last one is in a local school and the daily experience is made up of relationships with (mostly) caring teachers and peers. (Teachers, a highly unionized bunch, are unlikely foot soldiers of creeping capitalism.)

I still object to the treatment of “data” here. I think it’s important to know how your students are doing, ideally every class period. But that does not mean – in the slightest – that this data collection is only in paper-and-pencil tests. Talking, as any psychiatrist or journalist can tell you, is also data. So is debating. So is conferencing with a small group of students. As is when a student paints in art class. This is all data towards the same aim: namely, to know how we are doing.

If we’re not assessing our students, how do we know if they can read or write, or have the wisdom that Sherman is fond of?

(And again on standardized tests, Ontario has a standardized test – with no individual accountability for individual students or teachers – in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10. Hardly every day are the students exposed to the dangers of these insidious tormentors.)

School is there to do what not every parent can: instill in young people the skills that we have deemed important through our democratic process. Currently, that is literacy, numeracy, with some exposure to science, and a smattering of liberal arts and physical education courses. Evidence of the undue influence of capitalism is hard to find.

And while alternatives to the current system exist, of course, how could they be efficiently deployed? Can everyone be homeschooled? As I’ve written before, the wholesale opposition to modern schooling is the prerogative of the wealthy. Universal, government-funded schooling has been transformative for those not born into wealth. I say we celebrate that success, while dedicating ourselves to improving the system further through a systematic approach guided by – gasp – the most trustworthy data we can find.