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Challenging Assumptions in Education

Overcoming Fear, Building a Future
by Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

Choosing progressive educational opportunities for our children and our society

children cooperating
Photo Shutterstock Images

Wellspring Community School, our small independent school in New Jersey, has recently hosted a number of outreach events that have brought many new people into our midst – educators, grandparents, parents, children, and other members of our community. Parents, especially, frequently comment about how welcoming and appealing our space and people are, and often leave full of enthusiasm for our particular embodiment of the philosophy of holistic education. However, more often than not they ultimately select a more traditional educational setting for their children.

We often wonder why people are so full of interest after visiting us, only to later decide that our school is not a good choice for them. Parents who have a viscerally positive reaction while in our classroom go home and create a boatload of excuses as to why our school would not fulfill their children’s needs. Why is this? I ask myself how we can better reach potential families with our vision of filling the world with inspired children who are happy, creative, and active members of a local and global community.

This is a vital question for the future of progressive education, and I imagine it is one asked around the world by those of us seeking to grow a larger movement while sustaining our schools and life learning opportunities. I think the answer to this question lies in our willingness as a culture to abdicate responsibility for our lives and our children in a very fundamental way. (I would like to insert here a recognition of the fact that not all families are biological, and that families created by adoption or  other non-biological means often must jump through all manner of hoops in order to secure their rights as parents, whether they like it or not.)

This begins before children are even born, when many parents choose a physician and follow her orders without questioning. Once a child is born, the pediatrician becomes the arbiter of good parenting in many ways. Many parents are beholden to their doctors’ advice when it comes time to choose which if any drugs they put into their children’s bodies, how to ensure that the young people in their care reach developmental milestones “on time,” even what detergent they use to wash an infant’s clothing.

For questions that arise between well-visits to the pediatrician, parents consult any of a burgeoning number of books that can be found at bookstores or libraries. These books are granted the status of user manuals (if not religious texts) as parents use the authors’ advice to guide them through the difficult, messy, and exhausting terrain of living with young children. If you want sleep, you’re told to leave your child to cry in his crib for this number of minutes before going in to comfort (but not hold) him, and then leave him for this number of minutes and so on until he is quiet. A fever of this particular degree warrants a call to the doctor, and this other temperature should send you straight to the emergency room. Even clothing for young children is labeled by age, so that my two-year-old who is still wearing eighteen month clothing is somehow not quite right, at least according to Carter’s or Gymboree or Gap Kids.

Soon it is time for the young child to begin school, and parents are faced with a decision that is often perceived to be the most momentous of all. Education is seen as preparation for adulthood and career (or at least work), so the start of a child’s school years is make it or break it time. Most parents, when faced with this milestone in a child’s life, send their children to public school or, if they can afford it, to a traditionally-structured private school.

"I wish that there were some easy answer whereby we could quickly grow a broad and strong progressive education movement based on respecting children and equipping them with self-confidence, curiosity, problem-solving skills, and a deeply-ingrained sense of community. I believe that such a system of education will benefit not only my own children but the entire Earth and all her inhabitants."

A growing number of parents are beginning to have niggling doubts about what is going on in our schools. Large class sizes, high-stakes testing, curriculum developed by bureaucrats rather than educators, teachers hired by their position on the pay scale rather than their qualifications, even school lunches made from highly processed government-purchased surplus rather than fresh, healthy, local ingredients – these things make many parents uncomfortable. However, most parents set aside their discomfort and send their children off to the neighborhood kindergarten anyway. Some of them are not aware of the alternatives. Some are aware but simply cannot afford the expense of a private education or do not have the option of homeschooling due to employment or other concerns. Other parents are genuinely committed to the ideal of quality free education for all children and work to improve the system from within. Some of these parents are the ones who visit progressive schools like ours, are enchanted by what they see happening there, and still choose public or conservative private schools.

Why? The short answer, in my opinion, is fear. By abdicating responsibility, we also free ourselves from accountability. If we do what the doctor says and things don’t turn out well, it’s the doctor’s fault, or if not the doctor then it’s the medical system, or the pharmaceutical companies, or the malpractice insurance providers. In any case, the fault is definitely not ours. If we send our child to school and she doesn’t read “on time” or fails to achieve acceptable scores on standardized tests, then the school has failed her despite our best efforts. After all, we did what the experts told us to do. We did our part. Once we take on the responsibility of researching our options and making our own choices, we become responsible for the outcome as well. We have no one to blame but ourselves if things turn out to be less than perfect. That scares most parents.

When parents come to visit our school, they do not ask us if our students are content, or motivated, or curious. Naturally, visitors do not really have to ask because they can clearly see that our students are all these things. But the sad truth is that these are not the things parents are really concerned with anyway. They want to know when the children learn to read and write, and how they compare to their public school contemporaries in mathematical abilities. They want to know if their children, if educated in this way, will be able to compete with their traditionally-schooled peers when it comes time for high school or college or “life.”

Even parents who realize that a child’s learning and potential cannot and should not be quantified still find some reassurance in assigning numbers as indicators of educational performance and possibility. They are comforted in the belief that test scores provide some useful information, as well as providing a clear, attainable goal. Eschewing statistics in favor of more esoteric things like portfolios and subjective observation takes a leap of faith. That scares parents, too.

As a parent, I can certainly relate to the fear. Of course, I worry that my children may not find success and happiness. I want them to be safe, healthy, and fulfilled. But in the words of Antoine De Saint-Exupery, “Those of us who understand life couldn’t care less about numbers!” As an educator, I know that numbers are less a guarantee and more a security blanket. I know that doing things the way they have always been done is often a sign of stagnation rather than success. I know that children are better served in the long-term by learning about cooperation and community than conformity. Most importantly for me, as a product of the traditional school system who was considered a model student – a “gifted” student, even – I know that I have spent the entirety of my adult life trying to overcome the training I received there.

More and more parents are choosing progressive educational settings for their children, both in schools and at home. Instead of being motivated by fear of what they do not want for their children, these parents are courageously setting their sights on what they do want. It is encouraging to see the availability of educational alternatives growing, yet the original question still remains. How can we get more people to set aside the fear, step outside their comfort zone, and join us as we build a new system of education where children’s bodies, minds, and spirits are valued and nurtured?

In the end, when visitors to our school ask how our students compare to traditionally-schooled children, the true answer is that we really do not know. Insofar as we reject the quantification of children’s essential qualities, we may never be able to answer this question to anyone’s satisfaction, since the evidence we offer is anecdotal. Yet on the other hand, the very fact that the traditionally schooled individual is held up as the benchmark against whom alternatively schooled children are measured is based on a rather bold assumption that the predominant system for schooling children is effective. In our rapidly changing world, no one can say with any degree of certainty that any system of education will adequately prepare young people to be adult members of society in ten or twenty years. No one even knows what that means; much less does anyone know how to prepare children for it. We are all taking a huge leap of faith when it comes to raising and teaching our children, albeit some of us with a greater sense of security (false or otherwise) than others.

I wish that there were some easy answer whereby we could quickly grow a broad and strong progressive education movement based on respecting children and equipping them with self-confidence, curiosity, problem-solving skills, and a deeply-ingrained sense of community. I believe that such a system of education will benefit not only my own children but the entire Earth and all her inhabitants. I am grateful that our movement is gaining traction and momentum, even if this is happening at a slower pace than I would like.

We must continue to grow a movement for progressive educational alternatives by seeking out educational communities that speak to us as parents, educators, and individuals while recognizing that this means something different for each child and family. We must support all manner and type of alternatives, because freedom is only meaningful when options exist. We can spread the word within our circle of friends, family, and acquaintances about the choices we make and the reasons behind these choices. We should make use of the tools of social media to reach an even wider audience with our ideas.

The people who share our vision will find us, and we will continue to grow as a grassroots movement of people seeking a stronger, more sustainable future for our children and our planet. As Krishnamurti says, true revolution “comes about through cultivating the integration and intelligence of human beings who, by their very life, will gradually create radical changes in society,” and we must continue to cultivate our young children to bring about change.

Kelly Coyle DiNorcia is a writer, educator, and mother of two children: a daughter who is a student at Wellspring Community School in Gladstone, New Jersey and a son who is two years old and still doing his learning at home. She earned her M.Ed. from Cambridge College through their partnership with the Institute for Humane Education. This article was published in 2010.

 

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