Heading in the Wrong Direction

The place where I work doesn’t make kids do anything – all the activities, classes and learning are voluntary. One of the main questions we get from people learning about our program, especially if they are coming from a traditional school background, is “if everything is voluntary and there are no grades, tests, quizzes or credits, how do you know kids are learning anything?”

There is this sense that learning is a mysterious process that average mortals cannot comprehend. It must be overseen by experts in a specialized building who have top secret knowledge about learning, and there must be systems and tools and sophisticated tests that will help us figure out if kids are learning. And if they aren’t learning, there are all sorts of interventions that the experts can make to get kids back on “grade level.” The overwhelming feeling is of standardization, measurement, pressure, control, anxiety and fear – “what if my kid is falling behind.” “What if our school’s test scores don’t meet adequate yearly progress?”

This feels wrong. Not only from my experience teaching in schools for 11 years, but also just my experience as a person learning things in the world. Standardization, measurement, pressure, control, anxiety and fear are the enemies of learning. They shut people down – especially young people. Joy, excitement, real need, wonderment, curiosity, support, flexibility, freedom, meaningful experiences: these are what make learning happen. What schools are increasingly required to do to “promote life-long learning” have the opposite effect and if it weren’t that everyone is so used to the structure of traditional schools, would seem oddly out of place in any sort of situation.

Think about the last thing that you learned how to do – rock climb, make a new recipe, tile your shower, calculate the interest rate on a car loan. How did that happen? It probably came from a desire or need to figure something out, finding resources or people to help you along either formally or informally and then doing the thing until your curiosity, need or desire was satisfied. The proof that you learned was that you got to the top of the rock wall, your shower was tiled, the soup was wonderful – and if it wasn’t, you tried again if you wanted to or asked for help or googled it.

How weird and awkward would it be if a person you didn’t really know that well and that you didn’t ask for help, was standing there watching everything you did, requiring you to stop periodically to take tests and fill out papers and then judged you at the end based on their perception of your performance – and how even more depressing if you didn’t want to learn the thing they are asking you to learn in the first place? I think a lot of my students felt that way about a lot of their classes and school in general.