Debate Magazine

Part Two of What I Was Writing About Yesterday

By Stevemiranda

For those of you who read yesterday’s post closely, you may have stumbled over this paragraph:

A second metaphor [is] a teacher is a therapist. According to this model, the teacher does not impart knowledge and skill to students; rather he or she helps students gain their own knowledge and skill. Teachers in the role of therapist are certainly situated in greater proximity to students and the learning process than those who are guided by industrial metaphors, but the persisting underlying assumptions of illness needing remedy is troubling.”

I know I paused as I was typing it. It contradicts everything that enlightened teachers are taught about school. “Teaching isn’t telling! You have to help students gain the knowledge and skills themselves! That’s what great teachers do!”

That’s what I was always taught. After two years working at PSCS, I’ve reached the conclusion that this is wrong.

And, I think the author of the quoted paragraph above, Haverford University professor Alison Cook-Sather, is right. She’s echoing the same message that I received from PSCS founder Andy Smallman two years ago: the first focus of PSCS is not an academic program, it’s on sustaining an environment that nurtures young people on a path towards self-actualization. There is academic learning going on all the time. But that’s a by-product of the program, rather than its focus.

Here’s a post from the archives, all notions that I stole from Andy, that may help clarify this idea.

* * *

Your daughter is perfect. She was born perfect, with a million different skills, talents, and eccentricities. Her presence in this world is a gift to everyone who is lucky enough to spend time with her.

Don’t you ever send her to a school that doesn’t treat her like she’s perfect.

Too often, schools try to force kids into being something they’re not. Well-meaning adults across the state are busy telling kids who they need to be: you need to be ready for college, you need to learn the periodic table of the elements, you need to be a fluent reader by a certain age.

I don’t believe any of that. I don’t believe she needs to do any specific thing other than follow her intrinsic motivation to learn. The grownups around her don’t need to force her to read certain books or be proficient in certain math concepts by a certain age. They only need to do one thing: love the child.

Love the child, and then watch her pursue reading on her own. Love the child, and watch her ask for harder math problems. When people feel good about themselves, you cannot stop them from learning.

A surefire way to stop children from learning is to make them feel insecure, pressured, and inadequate.

I’ve had many people ask me to define what I mean by the term “progressive school.” It’s complicated, but I think one piece of that definition has to be this: Progressive schools do not try to force kids into being something they’re not. They help kids become more of who they already are.

* * *

So if the correct metaphor for school isn’t the factory and it isn’t the hospital, then what’s the right metaphor?

A few days ago I stole Sir Ken Robinson’s idea and wrote that education is like gardening. The plant has all it needs to grow, and the teacher’s job is merely to ensure that the soil is rich.

Cook-Sather suggests a few others:

  • “education as growth,” which characterizes the Waldorf and Montessori models
  • “learning as participation,” which values the process of individuals becoming a contributing member of a community
  • “education as translation,” which “casts students as active agents engaged in an ongoing, interactive, and reflective process of making new versions of themselves.”

There is no one right metaphor for school, but I suspect there are wrong ones. For example, any metaphors that “assume deficits, deficiencies, and disease” in students run the risk of doing more harm than good. They typically involve doing things to students rather than partnering with them.

And as Cook-Sather writes, “There is something amiss about a system that does not consult the constituency it is intended to serve.”

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