“How will children learn what they need to know if you don’t teach it to them? How do you know they are on track?”
These are the two questions we most often receive from parents and educators when we explain that the Abrome learning model is non-coercive. We do not test our Learners, we do not give them grades, and we do not give them homework. We do not have classes for the Learners to sit in on, or a curriculum for them to follow. In a society, where virtually everyone is forced to go to primary and secondary school, the assumptions are that learning happens at school, and that without the standard structures and practices of schooling, somehow that learning will be lost. At Abrome, we value the lives of young people far too much to give credence to these false assumptions.
Learning can happen anywhere, and the structures and practices of schooling are obstacles to learning, not vehicles for it. In this post I will address two beliefs or schooling practices that are particularly harmful. The first position I will attack is the belief that young people need to be directed and motivated to learn what is essential. The second position I will attack is that we can measure a student’s mastery of those essential learnings by comparing them against same-age peers.
Motivation: How will children learn what they need to know if you don’t teach it to them?
The overwhelming majority of young people do not need to be told what is essential to learn, and they most certainly do not need to be told how to learn it. Society assumes that if left to their own devices, young people will spend all day eating Twinkies and staring into space. It assumes that young people are docile, lazy, and/or want to remain ignorant about the world around them. It believes that young people are only interested in the most basic forms of stimulation—passive entertainment, food, and refreshments. What it fails to recognize is that our human nature is not to be docile, lazy, and/or want to remain ignorant about our world. In fact, we want to understand our world, to master it, and we are eager to engage with the world in order to do so. It just so happens that most people have had those instincts suppressed through traditional schooling and a generally hierarchical, oppressive society.
Because we pull young people out of society and throw them into schoolhouses with strict class schedules and curriculum requirements, we take away opportunities to engage with the world in ways that are meaningful to them. Many adults bang their heads against walls trying to motivate young people to find an interest in reading, writing, and arithmetic, which they presume to be the foundation to a successful academic career and professional future. And many adults are greatly pained that the only things that many young people seem to get passionate about are video games.
Daniel Pink’s New York Times best-seller Drive leans heavily on a half century’s worth of psychological research into motivation. In it he makes the argument that our understanding of motivation is fundamentally flawed, and that our efforts to motivate through benefits and rewards actively undermines motivation for all but the simplest, rote tasks. He argues that deep motivation is driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose, which are three ingredients that are essentially absent in traditional schools. They are also three ingredients that young people have the rare opportunity to access through video games—which helps explain why so many young people (and adults) are drawn to video games as a respite from school, much to the dismay of parents and teachers.
What Abrome does, that so few other schools are willing to do, is give Learners the opportunity and space to choose what they want to engage in. In other words, they have autonomy in their learning. We allow them the freedom to choose (or not) the measures of achievement that they want to apply to their efforts, so that they can develop mastery on their own terms. And by focusing the community on identifying and pursuing experiences that are meaningful to our individual values, they develop purpose in their activities. And while it is difficult to let go of our desire to shape young people through extrinsic motivation, we understand that by trusting them to shape their own educational experiences (with our support), that they will eventually develop that deeper level motivation that is essential to a love of learning that will remain with them for life.
Age-based benchmarking: How do you know they are on track?
The concern over whether or not alternative schooled (including homeschooled and unschooled) students are “on track” is misplaced because of several misconceptions. First and foremost, parents and educators do not have a firm grasp on what is an appropriate pathway for individual students, much less 50 million school-aged children. Given an ever evolving and dynamic economy and society; and a future predicated on knowledge, inventions, institutions, and discrete events that no human can fully imagine; it is the height of hubris for any educator to state with conviction what defined pathways will lead to future success for any student. Yet traditional schooling systems employ curricula that require students to hit certain benchmarks according to a pre-set timeline, with the most “progressive” traditional schools giving students the ability to self-pace their way through defined blocks or units. If traditional schools that rely on pre-defined curricula cannot determine what the appropriate pathways are for each student, how can they properly determine if a student is on track?
Another misconception parents and educators (amazingly) have is the faulty belief that most students in traditional public and private schools are on track. Traditional schools are not shy about their almost universally aligned beliefs that the purpose of primary and secondary education is to prepare students for admission into and success in college, which is a ludicrous measure of success considering that one does not need to go to college to lead a remarkable life. However, even by this woefully misguided aim of theirs, the schools are a dismal failure. The public high school graduation rate as of 2014 was 82%, meaning that traditional schools failed to graduate nearly 1 in 5 students. As of 2014, of those who graduated high school, about 68% enrolled in college. And as of 2006, only about 39% of those who enrolled in college for the first time graduated within four years. While these numbers do not all cover the same cohort, it becomes readily apparent that less than 1 in 4 traditional schooled students graduate, go to college, and graduate from college within four years. So the default position of traditional schooling is by their own definition, “off track.”
A third misconception of parents and educators is that we can determine who is on track by comparing them to an age-based standard. Nearly every traditional school in America is segregated by age. The most “progressive” traditional elementary schools allow students to be in mix-aged classrooms that span 3-4 years of age, and no traditional schools that we know of allow 16-year-olds to work alongside of 8-year-olds. By segregating students by age, these schools also segregate curricula by age. And age-based curriculum is built around the learning capabilities of the average student. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an average student.
All students learn in unique ways. Learning comes in part from the creation of complex neural pathways in the brain, and even the construction of those pathways for the most basic concepts differ from one individual to another. These differences are amplified when we consider that the appropriate timing of learning, the duration it takes to learn something, and the sequence in which one learns something differs from person to person. When those differences are multiplied by all of the subject areas, lessons, and concepts that are embedded in traditional schooling curricula, it becomes obvious an average student does not exist.
The End of Average, a recently released book by Harvard professor Todd Rose, highlights the dangers of trying to judge people by systems that are based on the hypothetical average person. The title of this essay (“Any system designed around the average person is doomed to fail”) is also the self-described cornerstone of his book. And as highlighted above, the traditional schooling system is a failure, by its own measures, but it is also dooming to failure the students who are subjected to the system. So even if it were possible to identify the average traditional schooled student, that ill-fated student is not the one parents should be measuring their children against.
Recommendations for moving forward: Trust your children
We live in a society where traditional schooling is the wrongly assumed standard that we must be willing to subject our children to in order for them to learn what they need to learn and for them to be on track for future success. While no school or education model can assure future success, trusting young people to take control of their learning experiences greatly enhances the probability of future success.
Allowing young people to choose their own learning experiences, and how they engage in them, will substantially increase the likelihood of them becoming self-directed and motivated life-long learners. This will allow them to reach higher levels of mastery in the domains that they choose to play in, and it will greatly improve their life experiences while they are school-aged. And not comparing them to others is not only the most compassionate approach we adults can take toward evaluating their educational progress, but it is also the most rational and humane approach. Instead of asking if a child is on track with his same-aged peers, we should be asking whether they have the opportunity to mix with people of all ages, so that they can learn from those who are younger, teach those who are older, and every possibility in between.
3. This number does not include private school or homeschool graduates
4. This number conveniently overlooks the documented practice of public schools classifying many dropouts as “homeschooled” to increase their reported graduation rates
7. The four-year graduation rates at American colleges and universities varies tremendously: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/professionals/four-year-graduation-rates-for-four-year-colleges.pdf
8. Complete College America produced a particularly disheartening report on the failure of most college students to graduate on time: http://completecollege.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/4-Year-Myth.pdf