Monday, July 05, 2010

"all of us tend to be happiest and most effective when we have some say about what we are doing"

This is Alfie Kohn, from his book The Schools Our Children Deserve:
...all of us tend to be happiest and most effective when we have some say about what we are doing. If we are instead just told what to do [...], achievement tends to drop—right along with any excitement about what we're doing.

The more obvious this idea seems, the more remarkable it is that people are systematically denied the chance to make decisions about what affects them in real schools, real families, and real workplaces. Perhaps no other principle in our society is at once so commonly endorsed and so rarely applied as the value of democratic participation. [...] As one survey after another has confirmed, students are rarely invited to become active participants in their own education, whether they are in kindergarten or college. Indeed, the story of American schools is—and always has been—the story of doing things to students rather than working with them.

The opposite of being controlled is to be able to make decisions, to have one's voice heard. This goes well beyond conventional opportunities to choose, in which each individual selects one option from a menu: which book (from a prepared list) to write a report on, which (elective) course to take in high school or college, which activity to pursue during a narrow block of free time. [...]

...this kind of choosing is limited, to begin with, by the quality of their options. [...] And even when the options are more valuable, authentic decision-making consists of being able to generate the possibilities rather than just choosing among those provided by someone else. Nor does choice always have to be an individual matter: the benefits are multiplied if students can come together to decide. They learn to listen, to consider others' points of view, to argue carefully, to anticipate problems and work things out.

Bringing kids in on the process of designing their own education is particularly terrifying to the staunch defenders of traditional education, whose tightly regulated classroom procedures represent the polar opposite of something messy, something unpredictable—something, well, democratic.
Fed a steady diet of propaganda about traditional* schooling, parents may be resistant to the idea that children should be involved in decision-making. But the attraction remains—can you imagine what a difference it might have made in your life if you were involved in this way? Don't we yearn, still, to have some control over our lives?

This distinction between mere "choice" and "democratic participation" is significant. The implications are broad, because once children are allowed to participate in making decisions affecting their own education, they will not willingly give up the right to remain involved in decision-making. Educate enough children according to such principles, and you have a potential problem. For where else in society are people encouraged to think for themselves or to actually participate in important decisions? (What are important decisions? Food production? Housing? Energy? Growth, as such?) Nowhere. In this way, education is necessarily political. Education reform is political, and all sorts of people want a say in how reform is conceived and implemented. Most of the political battles we hear so much about are further reactionary retrenchments of an already conservative model. So building a new school, a progressive school that runs according to truly democratic principles, is a profoundly political act.

In fact, it is not remarkable at all "that people are systematically denied the chance to make decisions about what affects them in real schools, real families, and real workplaces". Given the material Kohn covers, that line strikes me as a bit disingenuous, since he must know full well that allowing people to make such decisions would entail a thoroughgoing transformation of the political and economic order. His book is a valuable contribution to the endless debates about education (drawing philosophically from Dewey and Whitehead, as well as from numerous studies demonstrating the pernicious effects of traditional education on students, including those students who "succeed", but especially those who do not) (he writes well about parenting too; cf. Unconditional Parenting), but he, perhaps unavoidably, sidesteps these sorts of broader political implications that leap out at me. Of course, the truth that we're happiest when we have some say in what we're doing can easily be twisted to fit into the sort of individual-rights framework we're so familiar with. Which is why Kohn's focus on cooperative learning and cooperative decision-making is so crucial (and equally anathema for political and corporate proponents of traditional models). If I am empowered to make limited decisions affecting my life, that's one thing. I may be better equipped to navigate the broader world, making effective important personal decisions as the need arises. But if groups of children learn to construct knowledge cooperatively, and if they necessarily must consider the voices of all before decisions are made affecting all, then it seems to me that they will be considerably more likely to value democratic participation—and inevitably notice the many incredibly important decisions that have long been out of the control of all but the smallest numbers of people. They might make collective demands and take back the right to make those decisions as well, transforming the nature of the available options in the process. It strikes me that the implications are nothing less than revolutionary.

* I am using the words "traditional" and "progressive" since they are the terms used by Kohn and other education writers, even though many of the so-called "traditional" modes are very recent indeed, and I've elsewhere made clear my unhappiness with the word "progressive".


Jacob Russell said...

It seems that it's self-evident that our 'tradition' is authoritarian.

I can only nod assent to your comments. The schools are the way they are because they are there to supply the politically defined economic needs of the country: a docile and compliant workforce. Education in any broader sense is no more welcome than it was in the Athenian polis of Socrates--and I'd say its more than a 'bit' disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

Eric said...

I haven't read Kohn's school book yet, but I also like his work a lot. Sometimes I'm amazed that he gets away with writing some of the stuff he does while still holding some mainstream respect. Then, as you point out, at other times he stops well short of the mark (which I wrote a bit about at here) and his acceptance makes sense. But still, for me as a parent, he's a very valuable writer.

I also like your point about how cooperative education is anathema to the education system. It seems to me like "movements" that push for something like that, as feeble as they are, have created two responses from the state: loosening regulations on homeschooling (which, at least in most of its current forms, is isolated, noncooperative learning) and an increasing use of charter schools, which give the appearance of choice and cooperation but are done so under strictly controlled, market-driven conditions. Not in any way victories, but indications, I think, that the system feels pressure and is, as you say, meeting it in such a way as to control cooperative education.

skholiast said...

You wrote: "it is not remarkable at all "that people are systematically denied the chance to make decisions about what affects them in real schools, real families, and real workplaces"....allowing people to make such decisions would entail a thoroughgoing transformation of the political and economic order."

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that schools are doing pretty much what they are intended to do, which is among other things to get us good and used to the idea that we don't make the choices, all the while surrounding us with the incantation of individual responsibility. Of course, fundamentally it is just a holding pen for children so that adults can "contribute to society." To think hard about a school that really respected children would involve very fundamental societal (and political) changes, precisely because it would entail that we started respecting ourselves and each other.

Kohn, like most theorists, is hit-and-miss, but I find him mostly hit. His book Punished by Rewards made me think hard and re-evaluate my practice as a teacher (and parent). I have no problem with sincere and genuine praise ("Wow, nice shot!"). But when I started paying attention to all those "Great job"s that I was offering out, I noticed that almost every time I said it, there was an element of profound condescension in it. After a while, I realized, it didn't taste good in my mouth. I dropped it, and I think I am a better and more conscious teacher for it.

Ethan said...

Thanks, Richard. I've been thinking a lot about related issues and this helps.

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