Sunday, April 01, 2007

Jus Wen I Thot It Cant Get No Wurs

What do you do when you don't know what you don't know? One possibility if you're between 4 and 19 years old and live in the Seattle area: run the school.

A frontpage article by Linda Shaw in The Seattle Times treats as credulous Clearwater School in Bothell, Washington, where the 63 students run the school. There are no assignments, none. There are neither tests nor grades. Not even formal start or finish times for the school day.

The music room sits empty on a recent gray morning at Clearwater School in Bothell. Four girls play cards in the "play" room nearby, and a half-dozen teenagers hang out in the "quiet" room across the way.

The crowd is in the computer room, where 20 students — about a third of this small, private school — are engrossed in strategy and shoot-'em-up video games.

That makes some of their parents uncomfortable, but it shows Clearwater is serious about giving students freedom to choose how to spend their time.

Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, Clearwater students learn to read and write and solve math problems the same way. There are no tests at Clearwater. No assignments. No classes unless students organize them.

It's true, I suppose. Most of my siblings learned to speak without schooling, as are my own children. The major difficulties are two. The level of unstructured learning plateaus early and low, and learning tends to concentrate in areas of interest rather than areas of importance.
At a time when the federal and state governments say the nation's future depends on improving schools with high standards and tests,Clearwater students don't have to study anything they don't want to, and if they choose to shoot cyberspace bad guys all day, that's just fine.
Well, no, it isn't unless you're only role in life will be teaching at a school like Clearwater.

In an era where colleges and employers are already desperate for educated students and employees, a school where the unschooled and inexperienced set the curricula and the standards is a step forward into feel good and a giant leap backward in intellectual development. Which students will think to choose Greek or Roman history? Which will prefer time on arithmetic to Xbox? Which at 16 and now wanting to explore chemistry will want to return to the long division they missed in 4th grade because they didn't know it would be important, or didn't even know the concept exists?

This approach is based on a philosophy (Question: can any of the students define sophism?) developed by the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts under the name free or democratic learning, or sometimes, even by its proponents, the unschooled method.
The Sudbury approach appeals to those who reject what they see as "coerced" instruction that occurs when adults set the agenda. Supporters instead trust that children will choose to learn what they need to become successful adults.
If ever under a surgeon's knife, I'm going to make darn certain he or she was coerced into learning everything possible about their specialty while in school. I wonder how many of the Clearwater parents would prefer a self-taught and self-directed neurosurgeon or cardiologist?

The article makes clear that staff are available to offer assistance if asked, but won't interfere otherwise. Appropriate that they're called staff. The more common title obviously doesn't work at a Sudbury school of unlearning.

Clearwater has 63 victims presently enrolled. Five have graduated.

No word on whether any are voting, but if there are, that might explain our present state of civic affairs.


anon said...

Found your blog through a google alert. I think if you do a *tad* more research, you'll see that your fears are completely unfounded. Sudbury Valley School has been functioning for nearly 40 years, and there is tons of research showing that its graduates are completely functioning members of society... many with advanced college degrees. The difference is - they CHOSE to go to college, the learning they received there was NOT coerced - just as what they learned at SVS was never coerced. Graduates of SVS, if you had bothered to read about it at all, participate more often in voting, are more aware of the issues, and generally have a more rounded view than the pap provided by TV news... or places like your uninformed, knee-jerk reacting blog. Read up on it, *then* talk about it.

Leibowitz said...

Thanks, anon.

I'm sure there are success stories. There have been greatly successful people with no education whatsoever. That doesn't persuade that one should actually favor the path.

Actually, I hired such a graduate one year. He was verbally bright, articulate, with great personality, but unfortunately for he and I, unschooled. He had never learned to write a coherent paragraph. Unlike his peers, he never improved. He couldn't because he'd missed so many of the basics.

He has moved on in life, politics actually, but I still regard him as fundamentally handicapped by his education.

Restless 1 said...

Speaking of education, the comment above reads "but unfortunately for he and I". If you add a little education it would read "unfortunately for him and me".

Leibowitz said...

Good catch restless 1. Thank you.