Our education system was designed to fight and
win political and economic wars. We needed people to build bombs, radar and
airplanes. We now have different problems, which require different types of
solutions. Our present technologies are not sustainable. We need to figure out
how to reverse climate change, feed the world’s population and preserve the
planet’s clean water supplies. We need to drastically reduce our use of fossil
fuels by developing renewable energy technologies. We need to change our waste
management procedures, before we bury ourselves in both consumer and toxic
waste. And more. The problems are so big that in order to fix them, we need to
find new ways of working together rather than fighting with each other.
Unfortunately, our public education systems are
not set up for solving these modern problems. Although today’s young people are
living in a sophisticated, fast-paced, highly technological world, the schools
we make them attend are still operating much like they did a century ago. The
dilemma is that as long as we educate people in traditional ways, they will
perpetuate the current way of doing things. In order to make change, we must
fundamentally transform how we think about learning and the position of
individuals in society.
By our very use of words like “teaching” and
“schooling”, we seem to accept the idea that some people at the top are doing
things to other people farther down the totem pole. Our current education
systems reflect our society’s paternalistic, hierarchical worldview, which
undervalues children in the same way it takes the earth’s resources for granted.
Nothing less than a complete paradigm shift will change this situation. And in
order to create that shift, we will have to examine and challenge our
assumptions about children and learning.
Challenging assumptions is not easy. Like most
other people, my upbringing and my schooling taught me to accept what I was told
by my parents, my teachers and everyone else in my life. I did that well. I was
a good little girl and got good grades in school. I came from a working class
family that lived in a mid-sized industrial city. Nobody in my family had gone
to university and nobody suggested I go there either. My dream was to be an
airline stewardess as we called flight attendants in the 1960s. But I had not
been encouraged to go after my dreams; instead, I was supposed to know my place.
So as a relatively naive 19-year-old, I went to teachers’ college. I was a good
girl there too and got good grades once again. And I actually got quite excited
about the prospect of filling little heads with important facts.
"Our current education systems reflect our society’s paternalistic,
hierarchical worldview, which undervalues children in the same way it takes the
earth’s resources for granted."
When I graduated, I got a job teaching at a
school in my old neighborhood. What disappointment and disillusionment to
discover that I was spending most of my time yelling at kids to keep them from
swinging from the lights and jumping out the windows! They were not interested
in my carefully planned lessons and colorfully decorated bulletin boards. In
fact, they didn’t want to be there at all. So I ended my career as a school
teacher after only four months.
Then I did what I should have done while I was
attending teachers’ college. I started to think about how people learn...as well
as what we need to learn and why. I decided that all those lessons I had so
carefully memorized in teachers’ college about how to motivate students to learn
were absolute nonsense. I realized that we learn things better if we are not
compelled and coerced; if we are given control over what, when, where, why and
how we learn; and if we are trusted and respected. I realized that until schools
get in the way, children do not need to be forced to learn…because curiosity
about the world and how it works is a natural human trait.
Around the same time, I met and married a man
who agreed that we would not send our future children to school. When I was
pregnant with our first daughter Heidi in 1972, I fought anger, frustration and
sometimes despair at the state of the world into which I would bring her.
Propelled by a desire to make the world a better place for our children, we
decided that Heidi and her sister Melanie who was born 18 months later, would
grow up unfettered by many of the assumptions people make about children’s
subordinate place in the world.
Then, when the girls were ages three and four,
we started a home-based business to publish Natural Life. We had no training or
experience in the media world. But we knew that we wanted to provide information
and inspiration to help people question the status quo and the conventional,
consumer-oriented ways that were damaging our Earth.
Our home business was a deliberately alternative
economic, social and environmental choice. But little did I know that the
entrepreneurial experience would have ramifications far beyond the value of
putting food on our family’s table – or that it would teach me to challenge
assumptions...about economics, education and food production, and about what is
truly important in life.
In 1979, in an attempt to communicate with other
families who were challenging the assumption that children must attend school, I
founded the Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers (CAHS). It was a national
network that helped launch many of the provincial support and advocacy
organizations that are in place today in Canada.
At any rate, as the end of the 20th century
loomed, current events made me wonder if those small, personal choices I was
making were enough. I watched child poverty and the abuse of women and children
grow to epidemic proportions globally, while social safety nets were being torn
apart in the name of fiscal responsibility. Youth crime appeared to be
increasing, fueled at least partially by the violence that surrounds us, both in
real life and in the media. I saw indigenous peoples still fighting for their
basic rights. I saw logging companies continuing to ravage forests, tobacco
companies cynically buying their way out of responsibility for their deadly
product, global warming wreaking havoc with world weather patterns, garbage
dumps overflowing, nuclear power plants and oil tankers leaking and toxic
chemicals being found in mothers’ milk.
That is how, in 1996, my need to “do more” led
me to accept an invitation to run for the leadership of the Green Party of
Canada. Although I had no formal experience with politics, I realized that, as
the feminist slogan goes, “the personal is political” and many of the choices I
had made in my life were, in reality, political.
The Canadian Greens were only thirteen years old at
the time, and I took on the daunting task of trying to build a truly
progressive, grassroots alternative to the mainstream political parties.
Unfortunately, I quickly learned that from day one, many in the tiny party
wanted a party that was not a party, an organization that would not organize and
a leader who would not lead. This seems to have translated into a distrust of
initiative, which resulted in lack of action, as well as seemingly endless
conflicts about structure and process.
I eventually resigned, disillusioned by the
party’s lack of ability to walk its talk, in spite of some wonderful policies
and dedicated people. Later, I realized that the experience had taught me
something important, in the same way that my brief school teaching career had
done. I had learned that only when we have truly rejected the top-down model of
organizing our lives and our institutions, will we be able to concentrate on
building sustainable communities.
And surprise, surprise, I realized that I had
known the source of the problem – and hence the solution – all along! One of our
most revered (and hierarchical) institutions takes young children, molds them
into obedient consumers and fits them into their places in the hierarchy of our
society, leaving few of them able to do anything except accept the status quo
while bemoaning its problems. So I ended up back where I had started from –
thinking about children and how we equip them to save the world, or at least to
live happily and productively in it.
There are few assumptions more entrenched than
those we have about how we educate children. So I decided to write Challenging
Assumptions in Education to help others examine those assumptions and to explore
alternative ways of thinking about how we can help children grow up into
problem-solving, assumption-challenging, compassionate citizens who think
independently and participate in the life of their communities and countries.
Of course, challenging assumptions can be
uncomfortable. No matter how open-minded we are, most of us have at least one
sacred cow based on the way we were raised or are currently living our adult
lives. So some of the conclusions in my book will be controversial to some
readers. They certainly are radical, because my own process of challenging
assumptions has convinced me that we need to do nothing less than dismantle our
public education systems and start over from scratch. There is no point
continuing to pour increasing amounts of money into trying to fix our school
systems, when it is those very systems that are the problem.
Sociologists, futurists, politicians,
entrepreneurs and even some educators talk about the need for a revolution in
education. But what they envision really amounts to nothing more than tinkering
with the old, crumbling structure. Although there have been many cosmetic
alterations to public education over the past century, the traditional blueprint
for education persists...and it looks like a factory. From time to time
alternative schools and programs emerge that are teaching a so-called
“child-centered curriculum”, or that are using team-teaching or a program of
integrated studies or some other new pedagogy.
But the context of these well-meaning and
sometimes less oppressive alternatives is still hierarchy and coercion. Most
people still believe that children and young people must be made to go to school
or else they won’t become educated. And even the most radical critics of the
school system seem not to want to abandon the belief that children must be
processed for a life as producers and consumers.
This is not surprising, since education is,
itself, an industry. Our present system was designed to prepare workers for an
Industrial Age culture, teaching authoritarianism, self-repression, and strict
obedience to the clock. True to the industrial model, control over what is to be
learned rests somewhere inside a huge bureaucracy that oversees both teachers
Getting rid of the factory model of public
education challenges not just our assumptions about how children learn, but a
variety of agendas related to who manages the affairs of our communities and how
corporations make profits. It is those vested interests which allow other wise
insightful and community-minded people to ignore the scandalous malfunctioning
of our billion dollar education industry.
Overturning the education industry is not some
kind of utopian dream. The transition from “educating” to “learning” is being
recognized by a wide variety of often conservative business people from
management guru Peter Drucker to futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler. Drucker, in
his book Post-Capitalist Society,
writes of a society based on knowledge, one
in which all society is an open, lifelong learning system in which every person
can enter any level at any time.
"Getting rid of the factory model of public education challenges not
just our assumptions about how children learn, but a variety of agendas related
to who manages the affairs of our communities and how corporations make profits."
The Tofflers, in their book Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, write that schools operate like factories. They say, “An
important question to ask of any proposed educational innovation is simply this:
Is it intended to make the factory run more efficiently, or is it designed, as
it should be, to get rid of the factory model altogether and replace it with
individualized, customized education?”
Some futurists were even thinking in those terms
two decades ago. Back in 1979 the Research Branch of the Ontario Ministry of
Education commissioned a study on future trends and strategic planning. The
author of one scenario, Dr. Norman Henchey, a professor at McGill University’s
Faculty of Education, foresaw the end of compulsory education by the year 2000.
In his fictional account of the future, Henchey described a transition from
compulsory schooling to a concept that he called “Guaranteed Access to
Educational Services”, which he said was inevitable because the definitions of
schooling and education have become “so broad that any definition of compulsory
learning has little meaning and is unenforceable”.
Here we are in the new millennium and that sort
of change has not yet happened. And it will not happen until we give up on the
hierarchical, coercive, industrial model of education – whether it looks like a
public school, a charter school, a private school, or a home school. We must
deschool society, as author Ivan Illich put it back in 1970, rather than merely
reform the institution. We must demolish the institution of schooling because it
impedes learning and enslaves children. Then we need to put both money and
creativity into creating opportunities and infrastructures that respect children
and help them learn.
To do that, we must challenge our dearly held
assumptions about the purpose and process of education. These are assumptions
that have created a society that chooses consumption over action, that favors
developing new weapons to relating to each other, that encourages production
I believe change on the scale that is required
happens one person at a time. So I hope that you will embark on your own
personal journey to deschooling our society…and help put learning back into the
hands of a learner that you know.
Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor
of Natural Life Magazine and Life Learning Magazine, and a journalist with 40 years of
experience. She has also authored twelve books. She is also the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school as children.
This article is excerpted from her book
Challenging Assumptions in Education.