Debate Magazine

I Had an Awesome Week

By Stevemiranda

I’ve had an awesome week.

On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, I invited former students—from my days as a classroom teacher in an urban public high school—to get together to talk about education. We had roundtable discussion with about 20 people on Tuesday, and maybe 30 on Wednesday. For the five or six who hung around until the very end, the conversation stretched past midnight.

Early in our dialogue, I put forward the notion that the point of school is not the transfer of academic content from teacher to student. The point of school is creating and nurturing an environment that is stimulating, nurtures curiosity, and brings out the best in people.

This is, of course, nonsense to most folks. Everyone knows that school = academics and academics = school. So when I put forward the radical notion that academics should be merely a byproduct of school—a concept taught to me by PSCS founder Andy Smallman—I got a lot of befuddled stares.

* * *

The school where I used to work is unique in that many students will proudly declare how much they loved their time in high school. They are often the celebrities of their freshman dormitory once word gets out about the amazing high school they attended and the tales they have to tell.

I asked them, what did you love about high school?

They all had stories to tell. They loved the fact that it was a genuinely diverse space; not only was it multicultural, but people were actually free to express their culture and be themselves, which is sometimes not the case for students of color who attend elite private schools.

They loved the irreverent spirit in which students felt genuine ownership of their school and felt empowered to challenge authority and express themselves.

They loved playing in the orchestra or the jazz band, they loved leading wilderness trips through the outdoor education program, they loved writing for the school newspaper, and playing on the football team. The loved the camaraderie that grows from setting an ambitious goal and working really hard on a project with their peers.

After about 45 minutes, I said, “OK, let’s stop right here. Listen to what we’ve been talking about. Everything you’ve just described is about the school environment, how it was stimulating, how it nurtured curiosity and brought out the best in you.”

* * *

The point of school is to create and maintain an amazing environment. If you do it right, I guarantee you the academics will follow. You can’t force a plant to grow. The best you can do is to create the conditions—soil, water, sunshine—that make it more likely to grow.*

You can’t force children learn. The best you can do is to create the conditions—love, safety, spontaneity, diversity, passion, relationships, enthusiasm—that make them more likely to learn.

The tools we use to try to force kids to learn, such as high-stakes standardized tests, grades, and required classes, all have the opposite effect. They undermine learning because these tools are the enemies of love, safety, spontaneity, diversity, passion, relationships, and enthusiasm.

They undermine learning because they undermine the most important thing about school, which is the richness of the educational environment.

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* Full disclosure: I stole this line from Sir Ken Robinson. Isn’t it great?

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