We’re not recognizing that there’s something profoundly important in the dialogue around the philosophy of education, rather than the structured reform of it. — Steve Hargadon
This is the second part of a two part interview with Steve Hargadon, founder of the Learning Revolution conference series and the Classroom 2.0 social network for educators. In the first post (Thursday February, 5), Steve address our recent interview with Jordan Shapiro, and its vision for creating a better world through the education system. In this post, Steve answers our questions about creating his own ideal, the support of learning cultures with individuals at the heart of them.
Acclaim: We’re interested in how can you make self-motivated learning a reality, especially within low-income and urban communities. How do you start this process of teaching an individual how to learn for himself? You’ve stated that students should “learn how to learn” for themselves, and from a young age.
Steve: Some of the democratic schools, like those influenced by Jerry Mintz, from the Alternative Education Research Organization, have had the biggest successes in low-income areas. There’s usually a presumption that you need a program to go in and solve a problem, perhaps with charter schools, or a KIPP school system. Whereas what Jerry did was create a minimal structure of school with a lot of freedom in it (a good definition of a vibrant democracy), where students themselves could make decisions about what they wanted to do.
[Jerry Mintz] create[d] a minimal structure of school with a lot of freedom in it, where students themselves could make decisions about what they wanted to do.
The democratic school movement is a very healthy and interesting movement, but it doesn’t provide a lot of commercial revenue. Democratic schools don’t create funding opportunities, they don’t provide sponsorship deals, they don’t produce testing revenue. They’re not the kind of thing that a Wall Street firm would look at, or that politicians in Congress will lobby for. While these ideas might be the most brilliant solutions, they’re not going to produce the kind of growth in a capitalist system that we currently define as success.
The closest parallel to how education should function is to how democratic decision-making takes place on a local level in the United States. While we believe that cities and towns should make their own decisions, we don’t have the same beliefs for schools. Somehow we’ve forgotten that education should not be driven by financial growth, but instead by philosophical conversation. And philosophical conversation can take place locally.
Somehow we’ve forgotten that education should not be driven by financial growth, but instead by philosophical conversation. And philosophical conversation can take place locally.
When we think about poor, urban school environments, and how children can become self-directed, we often say things like: “They are not getting what they need at home, and we need to provide it in schools.” If the core problem is the home environment, why aren’t we asking how we can support and bolster families? I might suggest that we don’t do this because we would have to relinquish some aspects of control, and because it doesn’t fit our current model of schooling to create social outcomes. Whether we are talking about parents and their children, or teachers and their students, the truth that I think most of us would recognize is that real learning and personal growth come from one-on-one interactions with caring people. Almost everyone has a story of someone doing or saying something that helped turn on the light-bulb of our learning. You can’t mandate that, you can’t create a system for that, you can’t test that. It’s a part of our human experience that we have to protect, and it comes from the belief that every child is important and has inherent capabilities. There is something sacred that becomes broken when we treat another person as someone we control. If we want to help the poor student, we have to think about poverty and the family, and how to truly help others. Because if we think about education as mandated school programs that are brought into places, we are a hammer looking for a nail.
Acclaim: Who do you think the greatest thinkers and influencers are in terms of democratizing education?
Steve: People like Audrey Watters, Jordan, Diane Ravitch, and Gary Stager do a really good job of questioning the motives of the corporate driven education reform movement. And I think we’re missing the voices of people like Pat Farenga, who runs the “Growing Without Schooling Organization” which was John Holt’s organization, Jerry Mintz at AERO, John Taylor Gatto, and many others. We’re not recognizing that there’s something profoundly important in the dialogue around the philosophy of education, rather than the structured reform of it. And much as I like where Diane, Audrey, Jordan and Gary go, I feel like we’re not moving far enough into that conversation.
I run a bunch of conferences, such as the Global Education Conference, the Future of Museums Conference, the Library 2.0 Conference, the School Leadership Summit, and the Homeschooling Conference. Because of our focus on learning coming through the institution of schooling, we miss the fact that these are all learning professions. If we’re actually talking about learning, there’s a conversation to be had with all of these groups together. That is what the Learning Revolution is about. It’s about bringing people from schools, libraries, museums, and homeschooling communities together for a conversation about learning. Not just about who Gates, or or Pearson, or the MacArthur foundation should be giving money to, or what the Department of Education is currently talking about. But what’s the deeper conversation we should be having about why we educate and how we (children and adults) learn.
If the core problem is the home environment, why aren’t we asking how we can support and bolster families?
Acclaim: Students who come from urban families and working class families deal with a lack of resources. It’s not always the intention of their school administrators and teachers to deprive them of opportunities. But they presume that their students will just stay in the same communities where they’ve always been, and therefore don’t provide them with the set of skills they need to attain upward mobility. Even if these students take the SATs, the message they often hear is that they will only go on to community colleges, which have only a 22 % graduation rate on average. Essentially they’re going to stay in the same positions.
I recently read an article about the importance of the first two years of life, and about so much of what a child is inevitably capable of doing, intellectually, is based on how much their parents read to them during those first two years. If we don’t have the opportunity to intervene then, how can we make a difference along the way? How do we get these students to, like you’ve said, become empowered individuals who can learn how to learn for themselves, independently?
Steve: In some ways, you’ve framed the decisions and the dialogue by how you’ve couched it. So we don’t have good social mobility. Clearly, the system itself is not doing a great job at creating opportunities for social mobility. But we still look to the system for answers. If in fact, the first two years are really important (and I agree that they are), what would we need to do to support families for that to be a better two years of experience? The moment we say we’re not going to be able to help the families, so we need to take over, I think we’ve missed the crucial piece!
Gary Stager has asked, “Why don’t we trust parents?” We think that the school system is going to solve a deficiency in parents, rather than understanding the deep importance of families to a healthy society, and thinking about how we support families. In the last fifty years we’ve transitioned from having a single income support a family to having most families need two incomes, and single parents that are completely buried financially. If for nothing else, most families depend on school just to have the kids be somewhere so the parents can work. Why are we comfortable with this? In what ways have we allowed those who benefit from dependency capitalism to create the narratives for our culture?
How do we promote [alternative schools], and how do we make them more visible, and how do we help people to understand the importance of one-to-one relationships, and the importance of a given adult in the life of a child.
We’re so deeply mired in this idea that school is the solution. We then couch the questions in the form of “What can we do in schools to make the experiences better for kids.” Let’s look instead at the alternative education models that don’t create funding opportunities, but that do a really good job with kids. How do we promote them, and how do we make them more visible, and how do we help people to understand the importance of one-to-one relationships, and the importance of a given adult in the life of a child. And it doesn’t come from a process, or a system, or a discipline structure. It comes from caring adults in the situation where they’re connecting with kids. And in some ways, that’s letting go of control–which means that sometimes things are going to happen in ways that we don’t want. But can it be any worse than it is now? Why are we hanging on to this system?
So if we’ve got a system right now which is not working, I think it’s worth asking, is the system the problem? Is our desire to control others the problem?
Acclaim: But I wanted to get back to the question of, how, on an individual-by-individual basis, do you teach students to become self-motivated learners? Don’t you think this idea of self-motivated learning only really makes sense to the people who’ve already had the benefits of an education created by our current system of education? Do you really believe that learning and motivation can just organically happen? We can say, “Well of course learning is an inherent human need. There’s all of this information out there, and there’s the internet, and it’s filled with wonderful resources, and we just need to build more of it.” But despite this abundance, plenty of people just don’t really know where to start.
Steve: I would say that the reason for that is because were so deeply mired in the dependency system that we can’t even imagine what it would be like without it. We have to see that the institutions responsible for the school system are more concerned with the perpetuation of the institution than with the individual student.
If we really care about these students, then we have to look back and have a deeper discussion. If you look at urban centers, there are hoards of people who are in cycles of poverty and they’re probably not doing a good job parenting, and so we see schooling as the solution. But is this actually the solution? What kind of programs could we put in place that would enhance their ability to be good parents, where we’re supporting them in their individual agency in their families. And I don’t know what that is. But I want to have that conversation. Because I think that we can’t solve a problem that we’ve actually misunderstood.
But if we believe that learning is a natural, inherent part of our human experience, we don’t need to be teaching people how to learn–we do need to be helping them learn how to think.
Learning is inherent. You don’t have to teach a kid how to learn. They learn to ride a bicycle, and they learn to walk. If we’re talking about memorizing, or reading a book when they don’t want to read a book, or doing math problems when they want to be out playing, yes, then we have to help them figure out how to learn. And more specifically, caring parents and adults recognize that “drawing out” the potential in student (going back to Socrates) is hard but very important work. But if we believe that learning is a natural, inherent part of our human experience, we don’t need to be teaching people how to learn–we do need to be helping them learn how to think. We have to be creating environments which give children opportunities and responsibilities, asking them to challenge themselves, and encouraging them to exceed their current expectations for themselves. If we believe in helping the individual gain capacity, for their own individual intellect, accomplishment, and achievement, then we should do things differently than the way they are.
Acclaim: Who do you think it doing the best job right now of teaching students to be in charge of their own learning? Where do you see the best examples coming from?
Steve: There are many examples of schools I can think of that have created very student positive environments. I think that in the Albemarle School district in Virginia, there are really caring adults from the district superintendent, down. And they are not the only ones. But there’s also a huge percentage of people who have taken their children out of the current school system, including teachers. Every once in a while, I will sit next to a teacher on a plane, and they will tell me that they are homeschooling their children, because they don’t like what they see children in the school system are going through.
Homeschooling includes a lot of different kinds of ways of thinking about learning. There’s a lot to learn from the allowance of self-direction. The alternative schools and the democratic schools are greatly undervalued. There’s the annual AERO Conference, which most teachers have no idea exists. They’re too busy dealing with the requirements of their individual responsibilities. How are they going to look beyond to ask these deeper questions?
Acclaim: What would you say to the contingency of people who say that “America is the greatest country in the world? This is a country where you can go from rags to riches. You can come in a poor immigrant, and within a generation be a millionaire.” Many might say this is evidence enough that America is fine as it is, and if someone can’t find opportunity, that’s their fault, and they lack initiative. Obviously, I’m playing the devil’s advocate!
Steve: There’s a clip from the TV show Newsroom where a student asks this question. I don’t think any of the current statistics indicate that we are that country any more. But we have core beliefs in freedom, the inherent worth and value of every child, and the importance of opportunity. If we can reclaim those beliefs, then I think we can become that country again.