To the Editor:
The future of the planet is uncertain, the far-reaching effects of climate change are likely, and everybody’s in the grip of this pandemic. Whatever the truth is about the virus and its origins or its potential consequences, I think we need to take back control of our own lives, our communities, and our children’s futures. No better silver lining has come our way than this opportunity to reimagine and reinvent the world around us, especially the opportunities for natural learning that we all could create going forward.
As I have been communicating with people all over the planet, and wondering how we can remake learning structures of all kinds, there has been scant mention of a particular bull elephant among the herd of elephants in the room. Maybe it’s an elephant that we, who are thinking about transforming the learnscape, have the least control over. I’m talking about the test monster, the scourge of high-stakes testing that is controlled by politicians and the education industry, and effectively ties the hands of almost every public educator you can find. What inspires me most about Superintendent Mike Hynes’ work on Long Island is that he has empowered his families to make their own decisions about what elements are desirable for the learning activities of their children. I have found two videos so far (from four years ago!) that illustrate his commitment to transforming education in his district. One features his reassurance to parents that the school won’t be threatened if they opt out of testing. The second outlines his proposal to literally redesign the school structures and schedules in his district to include elements that many of us have identified as essential for the health, well-being, and learning lives of children. In the face of criticism from testing proponents, Hynes said in 2018 that “roughly 75 percent of kids in his district decline to sit for the tests that aim to measure academic aptitude.” Sounds like empowerment to me.
When we started the Charter School 25 years ago, we had bold objectives for our kids, like self-directed learning in a democratic environment. The first year was a miracle of six teachers offering what they wanted to teach and 75 kids choosing the learning experiences they wanted to have. Enter the bull elephant. State standards were handed down, and everybody freaked out with the initial stages of a constantly escalating fear that the school would lose its charter if it didn’t play by the rules. Never mind that the job of the school board of directors was to ensure that the school operated in a manner consistent with the objectives of its charter (like self-directed learning in a democratic environment).
One of the metaphors I used when we pitched the Charter School to interested families in the beginning was that of a “coin sorter.” Students pursue their interests, live their lives, expend their energies and “make change” that they bring back to school and toss in the “coin sorter.” The various kinds of experience they have and learning they accomplish are then lined up with whatever learning objectives or “performance standards” are addressed in their “personal education plan.” The PEP was just that — an authentic plan crafted by students, advisors, and parents that created and monitored the individual learning goals of each student. It appears the elephants have trampled those PEPs, and what’s left is mostly a record of seat time in the various required courses of an increasingly standardized curriculum.
If we want to transform our education landscape into a world that embraces the natural learning capacities of all people, especially children, then we must address this juggernaut of politically motivated coercion that holds all players in the game hostage. High-stakes testing and the anxiety-ridden environments it promotes have been shown repeatedly to reduce people’s capacity to learn and create the conditions for pervasive and wide-ranging mental health challenges. Michael Hynes gives us an example of an education leader, supervisor, and authority who has stood up to the bull elephant of mandated testing for all children, and empowered his constituents to exercise their rights to decide for themselves what learning should look like. I would hope that our Charter School would use the state-approved elements of its own charter to lead the way toward a world of many options for natural learning, and let testing get off the school bus.
We have the chance now to suggest, recommend, even demand that our Vineyard learning environment meet the needs and capabilities of our children to embrace their innate capacities for natural learning. They learned to walk and to talk on their own, and they crave the chance to learn information, skills, values, and lifestyles demonstrated by the people in their communities. Let’s make sure they can do that, in whatever ways feel best to them, support their individual strengths and interests, capitalize on their passions and intrinsic motivations, and empower them to become the best version of themselves that they can design and build. Let’s evolve education to harness the power of natural learning.