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From Potential to Success

Many Paths to Learning

An Argument for ‘Many Paths’
by Cooper Zale

Starting in third grade with learning the multiplication tables, our son Eric began having a problem with school. By seventh grade he would not do any homework, had been diagnosed with ADD, was taking Aderall, had been through an IEP, had had a number of sessions with an educational therapist, and resisted in any way he could think of going to school each morning. When he got to the point in eighth grade of writing “F**k Math” on his standardized math test, we pulled him out of school.

We looked at alternative schools with a more holistic approach to learning. The few public alternative schools we found were not really that different, they were equally bound by the standardized curriculum and high-stakes testing. We identified one of two very alternative private schools, but they were too expensive for us, and it seemed our now school-phobic son would have resisted them as well. After he also resisted our attempt to homeschool him in the academic subjects–English, social studies, math, and science, we seemed to be out of the normal alternatives. Luckily we had read John Holt and Matt Hern and were willing to let Eric try the radical approach of unschooling.

So Eric, now 22, has launched a business with three partners installing and maintaining Apple computer systems for video editing businesses in Hollywood and repairing Apple computers. Eric, the math-phobic kid, is the Chief Operating Officer, dealing with all the personnel, logistical and financial issues for the business.

The Key Axiom: One Size Does Not Fit All

From Eric’s experience, as well as the experience of many other families and youth we know or have read about, and the sobering statistic that up to 50% of our youth in our big city public school districts (including our son Eric) are not graduating from high school, I have come to the conclusions that the ubiquitous, “one size fits all” conventional instructional school does not, and cannot, work for every youth, no matter how fully it is funded or how much it is “reformed.” Yet I have talked to plenty of youth who go to conventional schools, do very well, and enjoy going to school each day. I have attended John Lofton’s excellent workshops at AERO conferences where he makes a compelling case that many people in the African-American community believe strongly in the conventional instructional school, if fairly resourced, to be the best shot for their youth to have a chance to succeed. So given all the above, I am dragged inexorably to the conclusion that when it comes to education, don’t even try to argue that any one learning path can fit everybody. One size does not and cannot fit all!

Making Conventional Instructional Schools Better

From my own past experience in classrooms, from talking to my kids and other youth about their school experience, and talking to friends who are public school teachers, it seems one of the main things that drags down the conventional instructional school is that teachers have to try to teach all the youth who don’t want to be there. There is a mythology that if teachers are good they can motivate any student to learn the required material. But despite that, I hear teacher after teacher I know complain about have to spend so much time and effort trying to motivate many of their students to learn and at the same time deal with the behavior problems of those who won’t.

So many of the features of the standard classroom–rules clamping down classroom behavior, required graded homework, and copious little behavior modification techniques–are there to try to motivate or coerce youth to learn who do not want to be there. For the youth who are happy to be in class and are interested in what the teacher has to teach them, these strong-arm tactics and the general negative energy of the other youth can poison the classroom environment.

I ask teachers I know how different it would be if every youth in their class wanted to be there. They generally roll their eyes and tell me that it would be wonderful, for them and for their students. Wouldn’t the conventional instructional school be transformed by just that one profound change, a teacher interacting with a classroom full of students truly interesting in and grateful for the lessons the teacher was providing?

Practical Transformation

As a firm believer in unschooling, I have made an argument in the past that conventional instructional schooling–with its compartmentalized subjects, standardized academy curriculum, and bureaucratic mechanisms–is not an appropriate learning environment for any youth. Nine out of ten parents hearing my argument don’t buy it and write me off as naive, if not delusional.

So how do we realistically get from where we are now with few educational options for most of our youth to many paths for learning for all our youth? We need to create an environment of community will and public policy that encourages rather than discourages profoundly alternative learning settings–schools, learning centers, homes, businesses, whatever–so that every family can find the environment where their youth can bring their positive learning energy and interact with adults bringing the same. We can reach out to teachers and administrators, toiling in the conventional instructional schools, and make them our allies rather than our adversaries. Because our plan is to make their classrooms what they ought to be, a room full of students ready and eager to learn and grateful to the adult teacher who will help them to do so.

A Third Voice in the Education Debate

Education is a hot-button political issue, but liberals and conservatives really embrace this idea of “Many Paths.” This is evidenced by the continuing bipartisan support for the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, with the main issues of disagreement on the margins of funding levels.

As a lifelong liberal and Democrat, I find it ironic that Republicans are often closer to the “Many Paths” positions, in supporting homeschooling, “school choice,” giving more educational decision making to parents. But then in almost big brother fashion, Republicans have also been the strongest proponents of the kind of high-stakes testing, mandated by No Child Left Behind that makes it nearly impossible for truly alternative schools to pass muster.

I would like to see the dialog and debate on education and educational policy include a third position that champions “Many Paths” behind a banner of liberty, democracy, and self-direction, within a context of local community responsibility for nurturing the creation and ongoing support of profound educational options.

I believe that embracing the idea of “Many Paths” to transform our education system is a sound policy for the 21st century. As our species continues to evolve on this planet, the dimensions, complexities, knowledge-base and skill sets needed to maintain human society and facilitate our continuing evolution require a profound move away from the “command and control,” one-size-fits-all education system that we developed in the 19th century to address an earlier phase of our evolution. Today’s challenge is to create an enriched environment for learning so that our youth can find satisfying and rewarding careers that also contribute to their communities, which in turn would contribute to our larger common good, and move our culture forward.