Learning

Place and Time. Time and Place.

Dmitry Shostakovich, 1950.

Dmitry Shostakovich, 1950.

If you have been reading our monthly newsletters you know that we lead a monthly book group discussion focused on education. I am a member of another book group, and this month that group reviewed The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. It was an enjoyable read that became more interesting and much more insightful toward the end of the book. A historical fiction novel based on Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's life, the book has received praise for begging one to consider who art belongs to. However, the book also challenges one to consider the value of an individual's life, the tradeoffs between cowardice and courage, and the external factors that shape those questions. As one reader pointed out, and I agree with, place and time were critical considerations in evaluating these themes, particularly against the backdrop of a totalitarian regime.

Shostakovich (the character in the novel as opposed to the real-life composer) was tortured by the choices he made in life. Having to constantly appeal to and bow down before power, he was prohibited from expressing himself as an artist (or as a human being), but his self-admitted cowardice and self-interested maneuvering ultimately allowed him to become a powerful member of the apparatus that almost purged him, providing him relative security but leaving him a shell of the person he could have been. Had he been true to his art, and himself, he would have been killed. That did not matter though, as he became dead in the soul long before his life expired.

Place and Time

It was hard for me to consider these issues without applying them to the situations we face in today's world. We are fortunate not to experience the type of tyranny that Shostakovich lived under, yet I would argue that many people end up in the same situation that he ended up—broken; having felt that his life was a disappointment and without meaning. Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so many fail to seize the opportunities that come with historically liberal personal freedoms as well as being a part of the largest economy in the world? Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so few leverage that freedom to find meaning within their lives?

The place and time we are born into are out of our control. One of my personal frustrations with the human race is that it often ascribes so much value, or so little value, based on the place from where someone comes. Two people born five miles apart on separate sides of the Rio Grande or the DMZ are sentenced to very different rights and life experiences through no fault of their own. Based on place, people are led to believe that others are enemies, or that others are coming to take something that is theirs by virtue of where they were born.

The time at which someone is born also impacts the course of one’s life. Most vividly, being black in 2018 is very different than being black would have been in 1963 or 1836. The disparities in rights and privileges conferred upon white men versus women, Jewish, Hispanic, Japanese, non-heterosexual, or members of other historically marginalized or oppressed groups have fluctuated over time, with the present day being better than times past for most non-dominant groups. Aside from basic human and civil rights, time can dictate if a generation gets sent off to war, graduates into a recession, or is able to participate in a transformative shift in the economy. [1]

Time and Place

While place and time are largely out of our control, I consider time and place to be more easily brought under our control, at least within the context of the place and time we are subjected to (e.g., the United States in 2018). When I speak of time and place I speak of how we choose to spend our time to include our voluntary participation in organizations. Shostakovich could have made time and place decisions that would have prevented him from being untrue to his art, and that would have defied the communist party. Although that would have led to a premature death. Bill Gates could have made time and place decisions that would have allowed him to graduate from Harvard and take a job with IBM, perhaps allowing him to someday rise to a senior executive position that would have also left him anonymous and scores of billions of dollars less wealthy. As you can see, time and place decisions cannot easily displace the place and time we are born into, but they can substantially alter the course of our lives.

Place and time includes into which family one is born. The resources of the family one is born into has a bigger impact on long-term academic and economic outcomes than the grades one gets in school.[2] And for most people, time and place decisions are mostly out of their control until their late teens or early twenties. Time and place decisions for young people are made primarily by their parents or the state. Perhaps the most significant of the time and place decisions made for young people is where they will be educated for over 15,000 hours of their youth (not including time spent on commuting, homework, studying, and extracurricular activities). It is this decision that is often so tragic, as it can have such an outsized impact on the quality and direction of one’s life both present and future.

Time and place decisions for children become time and place restrictions. Those restrictions then define to a large degree what a young person’s relationship with their education becomes, as well as the degree to which they feel that they have control over their lives. When a young person is told that they are to attend a traditional school for seven hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years of their life, they are told that they are unable to pursue their own learning interests. They are told that their life is to be put on hold because someone else decided that school was a better use of their time. Which would not necessarily be a bad thing (from a utilitarian perspective) if schooling helped children more than it hurts them. Unfortunately, not only does schooling take them away from their interests, it also takes them away from their community, it undermines an inborne love of learning, it misleads them into believing that what is learned at school is more important than what is learned outside of school, it conditions them to focus more on test scores than learning, and it conditions them to appeal to authority.

Traditional schooling is not the cause of unfulfilled lives short on meaning, but it often a primary contributing factor. When one is told that their worth is tied to grades within a standardized system that everyone else is subjected to, and thereby their worth is tied to a comparison to peers along a very narrow set of measures, they are unlikely to recognize how their unique interests, skills, and life experiences can allow them to lead a remarkable life irrespective of the game everyone else is playing.[3] When one is told that they must conform to an institution that treats them as ignorant and withholds basic rights from them, for their own good, of course, they become much less likely to challenge unjust institutions in the future. It is not hard to imagine that the person who suffers under a dictatorial boss, or a society that suffers under a tyrannical regime, is much less likely to opt out if they were forced to accept their place in school when they were young.

Choices that matter

It is unfortunate that we are born into a place and time that dictates to such a large degree the circumstances and quality of our lives. It is fortunate that for those of us in the United States that this place and time is a lot more forgiving than a lot of other places and times, although not by any means perfect. It is unfortunate that time and place decisions that hold a disproportionate influence over our adult lives are made for us when we are young. It is fortunate that for those of us who are parents that we have the opportunity to make time and place decisions about education that leave young people in control of their lives, that honor their individuality, and that preserve their inborne love of learning. In decades past, the notion of trusting young people to engage in self-directed learning through a space like Abrome, or through unschooling was illegal or seen as irresponsible. Fortunately, although it is still not the social norm, self-directed learning is understood by a growing segment of the population to be more humane and lead to better outcomes than traditional schooling.  

 

1. Through his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the understanding that timing is important when considering the successes of the wealthiest business people of all time. He focused on the opportunities available in the post-Civil War industrial age, and in the personal computer and internet age starting in the mid-1970s. He drove this point home by highlighting that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born in a three year span of one another.

2. Some examples: Parental Income Has Outsized Influence on Children’s Economic Future, Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong, A college degree is worth less if you are raised poor

3. The ranking of human beings in school, at work, and by economic measures not only guides people’s conception of their self-worth, but also the worth of others. This can lead to an elevation of people who may have done nothing more than to be born into privilege, and it can lead to a lack of empathy for those who are classified as less than according to narrow measures.

 

How Abrome Differs from School: Emancipated Learning versus Bells and Whistles

When people ask us what type of school Abrome is, or how we differ from other schools, we remind them that we are not a school. Abrome is an alternative to school. Abrome is Emancipated Learning.

Every public school in America is fundamentally the same, as are 99.8% of private schools. They operate on a coercive model of command and control schooling that prioritizes conformity and obedience over learning. They believe students are incompetent learners that need to be taught by knowledgeable adults. They rely on standardized curriculum. They believe that students must be constantly assessed, tested, and measured against same-aged peers. They believe that competition is the appropriate way to distinguish the intelligent and hardworking students from the stupid and lazy ones. They value students for the dollars they bring in, either seat-time revenue or tuition, as opposed to the value young people can provide to society.

Of course many of those schools will insist that they are different from the failed traditional schools that most young people are subjected to. Some are charter schools. Some are private schools. Some are even alternative schools! Instead of restrictive, standardized curriculum, those schools might claim that their students get to engage in personalized learning, meaning students are allowed to rearrange or stretch out certain aspects of their standardized curricular requirements. Or perhaps they will give lip service to peer learning and flipped classrooms as a way to suggest that they do not have an authoritarian, adult-directed schooling environment. Some schools may even eschew quantitative assessments for seemingly more compassionate qualitative assessments. But these efforts are nothing more than attempts at articulating differentiation (in name only) of the commodity known as schooling.

If schools cannot distinguish themselves with an educational fad (e.g., personalized learning), and because schools are all largely the same, they are left relying on and promoting superficial differences to convince families that they are better than other schools. These are called bells and whistles. Bells and whistles can be the promise of personalized learning, peer learning, flipped classrooms, or qualitative assessments. It can be technology in the classroom, with online academic support at home. It can be the promise of access to mentors and internships. It can be programing classes or maker labs. It can be an award winning yearbook club, robotics club, debate team, or science Olympiad team. It could be a 30,000 seat football stadium, an Olympic sized pool, or a 9-hole golf course. But what does not change with these bells and whistles are the underlying structures and practices of schooling.

Abrome is often described by what we are not. We are not a school. We do not replicate or perpetuate the structures and practices of schooling. We do not have teachers, classes, instruction, curriculum, testing, homework, grades, or age-based segregation. And there is good reason for us not replicating what is happening in school—schooling harms children. Schooling convinces most students that they are incompetent, stupid, untrustworthy, lazy, and inherently flawed. These students’ lives are substantially altered for the worse because of schooling. From a societal perspective, schooling destroys more human capital than any other institution. A small minority of school students do not become convinced that they are damaged goods, and instead fall into the trap of believing that they are inherently better than everyone else. This is also harmful to society, as students with a belief of superiority often assume positions of power and make decisions with little regard or understanding for the general public.

While eliminating the structures and practices of schooling is necessary, it is not sufficient to create a society where everyone is able to lead a remarkable life. Abrome goes beyond eliminating the harmful aspects of schooling by leveraging our Emancipated Learning model. Emancipated Learning is not an adornment, it is a fundamentally different approach to education based on the axiom that young people are competent and active knowledge seekers. We trust young people to take charge of their educational experiences and their lives.

The Abrome logo provides a visual representation of how the Emancipated Learning model works. The Abrome logo is an adaptation of Borromean rings, which are an arrangement of three interlocked circles, with no two circles being interlocked. This is a form of a Brunnian link. If one were to break one of the rings in a Brunnian link, the other rings would fall away. Borromean rings show strength in unity, as the whole is much stronger than the sum of its parts.

The Abrome logo consists of a triangle, a square, and a circle, all in different colors, as opposed to three symmetrical rings. This was done to emphasize the importance of diversity in the Abrome space.  

Well-being:

The circle in the Abrome logo stands for well-being. The circle is the best representation for a focus on the whole child. The circle has no end and no beginning, but it is reflective of the iterative or cyclical aspects of life such as personal growth and understanding. The circle draws people toward the center, just as we want Learners to look inward.

At Abrome, the well-being of Learners comes first. We recognize that in order for Learners to engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences, they must first be happy and healthy.

Self-directed learning:

The square in the Abrome logo stands for self-directed learning. The square is the most flexible of the three shapes, which comports with the agile and adaptive approaches one must take to learning and discovery. The square is the best way to visualize the construction of knowledge using multiple dimensions. Whereas a circle draws you inward, a square invites you to investigate it from end to end.

Abrome Learners choose for themselves the activities and experiences they engage in. They embrace the responsibilities of learning and life.

Learning community:

The triangle in the Abrome logo stands for the learning community. The triangle is a rigid object that does not easily buckle under stress. The triangle symbolizes how the learning community provides strength to individuals in times of need. The triangle also makes space for an individual to choose to be surrounded by others or to find themselves in a more acute and solitary position, all the while still being supported.

An Abrome Learner's learning community is comprised of intellectually curious Learners, committed Learning Coaches, and a personal network that is standing by ready to lend their support.

Abrome logo shapes6 100.png

Psychological Safety:

The overlap between well-being and the learning community represents psychological safety.

Abrome is a psychologically safe space where young people feel free to engage in unlimited free play, and take intellectual and personal risks without fear of being assessed, judged, or ridiculed. The ability to remain vulnerable in the pursuit of growth is an extension of our focus on well-being coupled with a learning community that values diversity.

Learning and Inquiry:

The overlap between self-directed learning and the learning community represents learning and inquiry.

At Abrome, self-directed Learners leverage a dynamic and diverse learning community to engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences. Connection with others is valued. Collaboration, debate, and peer learning are outcroppings of a culture that values mentorship and dialectical inquiry. 

Meaningfulness:

The overlap between self-directed learning and well-being represents meaningfulness.

Given the time and space to focus on their well-being and engage in self-directed learning, Abrome Learners come to understand themselves and how they fit into the world. They find significance in creating connections with others and contributing to something beyond themselves. Abrome Learners develop lives that have purpose, value, and impact.   

Emancipated Learning:

The interplay between psychological safety, learning and inquiry, and meaningfulness represents emancipated learning.                                                                                                                           

Abrome Learners feel comfortable taking risks and diving deep in pursuit of knowledge in their fields of interests, rather than skimming them at the surface. Learners construct knowledge by leveraging resources that are directly available to them, to include their learning community, or by acquiring necessary resources in the process of exploration and discovery. This process is unique for every Learner as they link various resources, in pursuit of their own purposes, according to their own needs. Like any two distinct individuals, no two Learners or educational pathways are the same; only in retrospect will a learning pathway become fully defined. When an individual is able to marry such educational experiences with a life of meaning, the result is a remarkable life lived.

Education should be a liberating experience that allows people to lead remarkable lives so they can positively impact society and improve the human condition. Education fads and supplemental experiences do not unwind the oppression of schooling. Emancipated Learning, however, allows anyone to leverage their education so that they can lead a remarkable life.

 

Has School Ever Gotten in the Way of Your Learning?

Do you remember what you learned in school? Was it useful in your life? Did it help you understand who you are and where you fit in this world? For me the answer to all of those questions is a resounding no. Sometimes I whip out my protractor and draw a perfect angle … just kidding. Now, I’m not saying the ability to use a protractor is useless for everyone. Surveyors, drafters, engineers, architects protractor on. However, I am saying that the overwhelming majority of children’s primary and secondary experiences are focused on developing a shallow base of knowledge that society deems meaningful. A wonderfully hilarious example of this is the article “If You Only Knew The Amazing Things Your Child Does In School All Day” written by Merete Kropp.[1] At least I thought the article was going to be hilarious until I realized it was not satire. The opening paragraph begins:

“As she prepares to enter the school building every morning, she knows exactly where to line up and what she needs to carry with her. Perhaps she even knows her precise position in line: in front of number 16 and behind number 14. She stops playing, turns off her voice and is swallowed up behind   the doors before you turn away …”

Is this your definition of amazing? Amazing means exchanging your name for a number, turning off your voice and becoming a robot? Interesting. I thought amazing would be finding her voice. I thought amazing would be figuring out how she can contribute to her society.

“She makes choices on how to spend her free time both in the classroom and            outside during the limited free time the class may have or earn through positive behavioral choices.”

Does this make anyone else want to vomit? In school, free time is not a right. One has to earn it by way of “positive behavioral choices,” meaning sit down, shut up and listen. In school, children are not free. Their every move is scheduled, watched, and judged. But America is the land of the free! They say, “Oh but it’s for the best. Think about their future!” My response: I am.

When did learning become rote memorization of facts? When did it become more about controlling children than learning? In school, every minute of the day is planned: what they learn, how they learn, what time they learn, when they eat, when they play, when they go to the bathroom. Students have no time to think for themselves, they are too busy memorizing mindless drills and procedures. They are too busy being obedient. Schools are producing robots that follow orders, not critical, independent thinkers with a developed sense of self. Schools are teaching young people that they are incompetent (e.g., “we know what is best, sit down sweetie”). Schools are teaching young people not to question, to act only for rewards or to avoid punishment, to be cookie cutter. Schools are teaching young people that life is a series of judgments. How boring. How will these young people be able to make decisions for themselves if they are being trained to be dependent?

At Abrome, we recognize that our young people are capable of controlling their own lives. We are here to create a psychologically safe space where they can take control of their learning, and their lives. That requires us to get out of their way.

 

1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/if-you-only-knew-the-amazing-things-your-child-does_us_5829da7fe4b057e23e314793