As a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I often get into arguments with other graduate students over the necessity and effectiveness of compulsory, coercive education. Not surprisingly, most of the people who choose to get a Master of Education degree believe that in order for children to learn and reach their full potential, adults need to define for them what they will learn and in what manner, especially if those with education degrees get to be the ones making the decisions.
I am currently working on a concept for a teacherless school. Yes, no teachers, something that doesn’t go over well with a bunch of people who want to celebrate the wonderful profession of teaching. While I have absolutely no reason to argue that teachers can’t do great things for children, the reality is that in most contexts, teachers can’t do much to stop the abuse of children in traditional schools; often times they create more harm than good.
What should education be? Should it even consist of four walls, a bunch of desks and a teacher pushing some curriculum at the kids? The problem with traditional education is that a lot of eager children have their optimism and love of learning crushed when they come to school and are told to sit down and shut up. How do we expect children to be eager to learn when we yell at them for not learning what we want them to on our timeline, as opposed to what they want to learn on their timelines? How do we expect children to continue to be lifelong learners (because they come into the schools as learners), when we tell them to pay attention to the teacher so they can learn inside of a box for 7 hours a day, 180 days a year for 13 years? On top of that, self-esteem, creativity and compassion are also often lost in traditional schools.
Unfortunately, the idea of non-coercive education, unschooling at the extreme, and Sudbury schools at the not so extreme, is incomprehensible to most. Most believe that children cannot and will not learn how to read, write or do arithmetic without a heavy hand from teachers who will guide them forward. However, I posit that so long as parents and other caring members of a community place heavy social emphasis on the acquisition of these skills, that a non-coercive educational environment will allow the children to accomplish at least as much as they would in a traditional schooling environment, with the added benefits of the children not losing their love of learning, their self-esteem, their creativity or their compassion.
Yesterday I stumbled upon the story of Caine’s Arcade, a film that came out about a year and a half ago. Caine is a precious 9-year-old boy who had built an arcade comprised of cardboard games in his dad’s used auto parts store in East Los Angeles, over his summer vacation. The complexity of the games that he created, and his amazing optimism waiting for customers to come to his arcade is touching.
The short video which is linked above is a feel-good clip, but I worry about what comes next for Caine. Unfortunately, Caine goes to school, and schools aren’t typically a safe place for children who stretch themselves and act outside of the docile norm. One of the saddest parts of the short clip begins at 4:13, where Caine’s father explains how his son doesn’t wear his customized shirt to school for fear of bullying. Additionally, at school this type of creativity and self-direction is not permitted. At school, when it is time to work on multiplication, there is no option for a child who wants to read a book. And when it is time to listen to a story about the American Revolution, there is no option for a child who wants to figure out how a battery works. Imagine how much someone like Caine could accomplish in the future if he was given a free license to pursue all of his interests in the manner he did with his cardboard arcade.
* Fortunately the wonderful filmmaker who shared this story with the world, Nirvan Mullick, decided to also raise a scholarship fund for Caine, so at least Caine can see a path forward. Mullick and others then created a movement, through the Imagination Foundation, to encourage similar innovation and creativity in other children. Share this story with your friends.