Editor’s Note: Stevan Barfuss works at Paradigm High School, a charter school trying to approach education from an agency-based perspective but under the restrictions of compulsory education.
Celia Johnson, one of the directors at the school, presented at our 2012 ABE conference. You can watch her presentation by clicking her name.
Here is Stevan’s article.
Our society has gotten education turned exactly upside down—we start at the wrong end, lighting the candle from the bottom, then cursing the candle for its ill ability to give light.
Consider how we commonly think about education, currently:
There is a body of knowledge and a set of skills that, it is thought, students should or even must learn in order to be successful. If we only define that body of knowledge and set of skills carefully enough, we can then bring the students to it, show them this mighty edifice of learning and success, and with great confidence tell them, “This is the stuff, children—we have figured this out for you, and we are going to run you through our training until you get this to the best possible degree that is possible for you. Just conform yourself to this and you will be a great student and we will be effective educators.”
To achieve this type of schooling, we develop as efficient a system as we can. We know each piece of knowledge and each skill they should develop at which age. We know the order, the best method of delivery, and we have specific tests that will give us data on how they are doing so we know how efficiently this system is working. We tell students that if they do this the best, then they will be set up to be the most successful people in the adult political and financial systems. They will do great.
This system of starting with standards may even work for conveying knowledge and skills. However, it is upside down. It won’t work, in the long term. Compare this to what happens when you flip this around in the right way and start with the student instead:
“Dear student, we love you. You have greatness in you—we see that greatness, and want to help you develop it. I am a learner, too, just with more experience, and I can help you overcome some of the obstacles that get in the way of you developing your greatness. What are your talents? What do you love? Let’s explore those! By the way, here is a body of knowledge and a set of skills that you can use to develop that greatness that we are both beginning to understand. Do you see how important this could be? Great! Let’s begin. I promise that it will be difficult, and you will need discipline, but this journey will be SO worth it. When you start to see the ideas and how they have developed through time, you will gain the ability to engage in the discussion yourself. I am certain that when you begin to add your voice to these ideas you will have something significant to add. It’s OK if you don’t agree with me. We will have tests to assess along the way how you are doing, and these will help us both to understand where we are and what goals to set, but what is really important is your own role to be in charge of your own education. You and I both know that your true development can’t be measured on any test. I will give you feedback along the way, but I am not always right. Now that you are learning to think through these things yourself, you don’t need me to tell you that you have an education—please define success for yourself, and then go for it! That’s what it really means to be an adult.”
The current education paradigm starts with the standards and the tests. Those standards and tests rule over education and determine how successful we, as a people, believe we are at educating. Much lip service and certain education ideas have talked about “student centered learning”, but in reality it all comes back to the standards and tests. What the student thinks about all this doesn’t matter, because if they do not learn up to the standards so that they can compete well on the tests, then they are simply failures, according to the system. Many of them see through this. They inherently understand that grades and test scores don’t define them, and that creates contempt for the system, a contempt that is growing amongst students and parents.
If you truly start with the student, have appreciation for the human being that they are, then you have a true start, then you are right side up. Every good teacher I know, regardless of the system that they teach in, thinks this way.
However, our system was built in the upside down mindset, and regardless of how many astute teachers, parents and students come to understand its upside down nature, it will continue to propagate upside down education.
I think of Scout in the great work, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Scout is astounded, in the novel, when she goes to school and the teacher is furious that she had already learned to read. She had learned at the wrong time, according to the teacher’s modern ideas, and was reading the wrong things for someone her age. Of course, Scout’s true education happens as she sits and reads with her noble father, and watches his actions as a man of learning and understanding. He sees her talents, and orchestrates lessons just for her. Other adults in her life also see who she is, and they help her begin to uncover the greatness that is there.
So it is with many families that send their students to the upside down schools. Their family life is right side up, so while they appreciate the benefit of the efficient knowledge and skills transfer system, they feel like they are constantly having to battle to keep their students right side up oriented. This can be quite disorienting for the students. Students go from class to class—some of the teachers are right side up oriented, and some of them are upside down—it is quite an art to learn to succeed from environment to environment.
Furthermore, our system is so sure about upside down education that it will put 40 students in one class. The teacher is forced to simply comply with the upside down model to just survive. No teacher can see each student in that scenario—they may not even be able to remember all of their names. Our schools are gigantic, just emphasizing that efficiency is much more important than understanding the individual.
You can have the best standards in the world, and the most amazing and advanced testing system, and your education will still be upside down if that is where your emphasis is. You are still starting at the wrong place, and even though those standards and tests may represent a true path to knowledge, and are accurately designed to teach every necessary skill that a person could need as a human, ultimately you are not educating, you are simply training and controlling.
The first step then, to turn education back right side up, is to stop arguing that we have the wrong standards. Stop buying into the idea that increased standards and “rigor” will make education better. It won’t, and I do not believe it ever has. The accountability that we should demand of our schools and teachers is that they stop teaching to the tests, and begin teaching the students, and we need to give them the opportunity to do so. Class size alone doesn’t ensure great education, but that would be a great start. The whole system needs to be rethought, and that starts with each family, and by extension each community. Some may choose to homeschool, some will find an answer in a charter or private school, and as for our standard public schools, we simply need to reconsider, reconfigure, and re-prioritize. There are great teachers and right side up teaching in every school—it’s just that right now to truly educate you have to fight the system, and the resulting attitudes of the students because of the system, to do so. If you want great education, hire great teachers with a right side up mentality. The current system of teacher training completely fails in this regard.
There is a fear that without an emphasis on standards, we won’t know what to teach somehow. That is absurd. When you teach a person, what they will need to know to be successful is simply rational. They are, after all, in the care of fellow learners who have been there, and who have a great idea about the path their charge must take to reach their potential.
The next way to turn education right side up is to be learners as adults. Get an education, or continue it. Maybe you thought you were educated in school and college. That is upside down education thinking—you acquired the learning of all the standards, and passed all the tests, right? Real education does not happen until a student sees the value, and they will value what they see us do, and what they see in us. We should constantly be aware of our own greatness, and be working on bringing it out, no matter how old and educated we think we are.
Finally, we simply need to begin seeing students—to work from that mindset. This is more difficult than it sounds. To truly accomplish this, we need to be perfectly OK with the decisions that our learners make, we need to value what they have to say, and have patience with them while they are in the process of choosing their education. You can’t force a person to learn—education is a “buy in” process. The person “being educated” must say yes to the process. Upside down education assumes that you can induce education through a system of rewards and punishments. This simply fails as education.
I teach in a charter high school, and every year I have students that are so stuck in the upside down paradigm that they continue fighting it, or playing the upside down please the teacher game, even though I try to eliminate it as much as I can in my classroom. It takes some of them quite a while to realize that what they were fighting all their lives is simply not there anymore, and that I do care and am interested in them. We do have high standards—they will read more, and read more difficult classic books that year in my class than any public school that I know about. I try my best to see each student and to adapt what they are doing to their needs. The result, so often, is that after a time even my small efforts begin to produce a change. It is a true wonder and a joy to see a student realize what an education can do for them and fall in love with learning again. The process gives me hope.
Nothing is more crucial for education than turning it right side up. When we finally understand what education is again, and our education thinking and systems begin to be turned back right side up, then we can truly have a dialogue about methods, curriculum, and the place of the state in education. Until then, we will only be debating which symptoms should be treated first, and in what manner we will treat them.