Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Unnamed Question: Learning, Schooling, and Education

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My mind is jumbled up so this isn’t going to be a very coherent post (I’ve discovered some people really enjoy these, so I’m gonna write it anyway, because I need to purge). It’s about my daughter nearing the age where she’s getting into school, and my experience with a school application and my visit to that school; it’s about #moocmooc and conversations with friends, it’s about an email I got, and it’s about the BIG QUESTIONS of Education. Or should it be the question of learning. As a friend recently said (and ever since he said this, I keep seeing it in everything I read from Papert to Freire to Illich), we should not be confusing learning with schooling/education. Right. So much “learning” occurs in unstructured, informal ways outside school. Some learning manages to occur in school, which almost seems confusing after you unpack all that is wrong with school systems (and I’m generalizing here across contexts but what is “wrong” of course differs in each context).

So more recently, I recommended Illich’s De-Schooling Society to my friend. I’d never read it. We both discovered upon skimming it that it was a good text indeed ūüėČ I told him in a DM that I’ve always had Illich on my reading list but that I never got around to reading him, and now I’m discovering maybe why. Even though I see all that’s wrong with formal education, I always believed I would want to reform it within it, rather than outside it. It’s strange that I think I have this belief (notice what I said: “I¬†think I have this belief”) because almost all my efforts at improving learning and making a difference have been outside academia/schooling – informal, grassroots work, even less structured relationships with students, and things like connectivist MOOCs and blogging and writing and researching. I said almost, because I still teach within a formal institution, and even though I try to make my classroom an informal learning space, there’s still the system and structures within which we work – I have power vested in me by the institution as the professor. No matter what I do in class, that’s still up there in students’ minds. They still expect me to behave like other professors and it takes time for them to understand otherwise. I think it’s kind of like that in connectivist MOOCs. People who don’t know what to expect, expect something like the kinds of education they’ve had before. They don’t really realize it’s really up to¬†them to make something different out of it. For the most part, in a connectivist MOOC, you can. Even in an xMOOC you can. OK, even in a¬†regular, for-credit, required¬†course, you can. It’s just the extent to which you can do this, and still come out victorious, varies. One of the problems with education might be that what Freire calls the “banking model” of education indoctrinates people into submission, which gives the oppressors or the dominant more control over them – rendering them voiceless. But, really, agency exists. It’s just that we as educators cannot rely on agency to manifest itself in learners – if we care, we need to actively do something about it, nurture it, foster it, right?

Now let me step back from this a second and talk about my daughter. I was telling my friend why I had not read Illich so far. Before I had my daughter, it was because of my supposed belief in formal education (I haven’t lost hope yet, I have just realized that I work so much¬†outside it – and this realization of insider/outsider comes from another email – thank you, Scott). Now that I¬†do¬†have my daughter, I’m worried about her schooling. No, to be fair, I was worried about my children’s schooling in Egypt ever since I was 10, when I had to traumatically leave Kuwait to come “back” here (I say “back” because I’m Egyptian but was born and raised in Kuwait, so Kuwait was home even though Egypt was “real home”)… to a really horrible education system. In Kuwait, I had a British education (which my English friends tell me is quite unlike the education most of them get, so I assume I was paying for a private education level they don’t know about) – the problem in Egypt that every form of private education (and let’s not even go near the public education) has its problems. So you can’t even pay your way to a good education for your child. The Illich problem? Egyptians are not allowed, by law, to homeschool their kids. So even if I could hate the education system in Egypt any more than I already do (as I am sure Illich will make me do, because, you know, he’s criticizing much better education systems which are much less flawed) – I would have no way out of it. Suffocating to think about. But I started reading Illich… and I found myself alternately nodding and shaking my head. I’m only a couple of pages in.

And then this happens: I see the application form for one of the schools I’d like to apply for. And it’s got this looooong parent questionnaire asking all sorts of questions about the child. It reads like the evaluation her old preschool used to give, letting you know whether your child was meeting benchmarks or was behind. This always served to frustrate me by making me feel my child was imperfect because she did not meet¬†their standards for her. Who sets these standards anyway, and why should we do this to our kids, make them feel like it’s a problem that they’re still a little shy, or not jumping high enough, or still having bladder problems… Unless there’s something really alarming that requires support, why do we do this to kids? Why do we do it to parents? Why do I, as a parent,¬†allow these things to get to me? I was angry about this form. My mom did not understand. My husband did not understand. I was trying to explain to them that it implies a desire for¬†control¬† and that the school seems to want to¬†categorize¬† children in certain ways… that they may be wanting to choose children who will create fewer problems, or behave in some uniform way they like. They ask questions about obedience. Really? You want to get obedient children who do not have wills of their own? I think I’d be quite disappointed if my child allowed me to do everything I want to do to her. I think she’s smart in the way she resists, even though it drives me nuts. It pushes me to be creative, and it forces me to ask myself every time: do I¬†really¬†need to¬†make¬†her do this, is it really important? Or can she have her space and do what she wants and learn if it’s a mistake? And so I really really pick my battles with her. I really really try not to impose my will on her unless I think there is no other way. But the school? Not only do they ask questions like this, but they also ask specifically what kind of measures we take at home to deal with things like tantrums; they ask for evidence that the child can concentrate on a task for more than 15 minutes (seriously, they want to, what, diagnose ADHD from an application form?). ¬†Are they seriously going to look at every single child’s application and have each teacher work with those details, based on parents’ perceptions? They ask me when she started talking in sentences. I don’t remember!!! I remember some moments where I knew her language development was taking leaps. I did not blog them. I must have recorded some videos.

You know what they forgot to ask? They forgot to ask me when she started singing in tune. They forgot to ask when she started singing the right words to Twinkle Twinkle. They forgot to ask when she realized, independently, that the tune for Twinkle and ABC were the same, and started singing them interachangeably. They forgot to ask when she started making up her own words to songs.

They forgot to ask me what makes her happy, and what makes her sad. They forgot to ask me what keeps her motivated, and what hurts her feelings. They forgot to ask about her favorite teddy bear, cartoon character, and song.

So they don’t know that she learns new words by singing them before speaking them (she could sing Barney’s “I love you” long before she could say “I love you” properly); they don’t know that she likes putting plastic eggs inside each other and uncovering their hidden mysteries; they don’t know that even though she is initially shy, she is curious about people and asks about them as soon as they are out of sight, and wants to go talk to them after I’ve told them something more about them; they don’t know that she remembers who got her which gifts, even if she only ever met that person once; they don’t know that she can type the ABCs and 123s because, you know, she doesn’t have the fine motor skills to¬†write but she can sure type up a storm!

And yet

And yet, I still applied to this school. If you’re my friend on facebook, you’ll have heard of the other school (Which I declined to apply to) where parents were required to agree that if their child was found to have a mental/psychiatric illness, the school had the right to suspend them. Or something awfully distressing and disturbing like that.

If you read my earlier blogpost, you’ll know about the school where my child cried when I left her to do the assessment, who said, “yeah, she’s probably too young anyway, too tiny anyway, and socially not ready, wait another year and apply again”. [to this day, my kid remembers that day, the name of the school and what happened]

So I learned something from that experience which I hope to apply: take the kid to the school a few times before the actual “assessment” so she gets used to the place and the people. Enough that she’ll be comfortable a little more than she was that day.

So when I visited this school to submit the application (they have an online form but they won’t let you submit it that way) I asked about the assessment and talked about my daughter. I was pleasantly surprised by how warm and welcoming the person (head mistress? dunno who it was) ¬†was to me, and her willingness to have me bring my daughter with me a few times so she’d get used to the school and to her as a person (this idea originally came to me from a friend who told me she did this with one of her kids, something she told me when my child was really young but stuck with me coz I knew I had a high-need sometimes shy child). And so, that attitude, that willingness to accept that each child has different needs, was in itself important to me. Forget all those questions on the form (not really, but I’ll have to, right?) and focus on the humans. As long as there are key human beings in the school willing to look at my child as an individual human being, there is hope for this school.

Then again, I keep wondering – how bad can school be? How bad can one school be compared to another? A lot of people tell me not to fret, in the end, it’s all the same. I’m guessing they’re all just as bad ūüôā

I wonder how much influence school has on a child compared to what they learn from home or informally anywhere else? I’ve recently written about this – that a lot of real and important learning occurs outside the classroom. Sure, as educators, it’s our role to try to make our classrooms conducive to authentic learning, and to promoting learning autonomy such that they won’t keep needing us to facilitate that learning – but ¬†when we overemphasize the disempowering potential of schooling (because, really, the schools I went to in Kuwait were awesome; I’m not complaining about all schooling), does this focus take us away from the potential of other avenues for learning and growth? Of course, the number of hours spent¬†in¬†school, followed by doing school work¬†at home and then the socialization with school friends outside school hours – all that time spent cannot be ignored. And the way it influences how people experience the world and other types of learning cannot be ignored.

And yet, it seems to only take a few¬†different¬† learning experiences to foster agency, and some sort of community to then allow you to keep nurturing that agency in a direction that challenges the status quo. Doesn’t it? I don’t know, I’m ending this on a romantic note again, and it wasn’t my intention.

I did want to say something about connectivist MOOCs, though. I’ve written before that I acknowledge they are not for everyone; not everyone has the digital literacy for it, or the comfort to make oneself vulnerable online and interact with strangers so openly; but for the most part, if you are one of the people who are empowered, autonomous and literate enough to participate, it’s a really empowering, rewarding experience that improves your autonomy and literacy. Ummm. And if you’ve got the beginnings of an attitude towards open pedagogy, you may lurk a time or two then participate eventually. Many people who tend to find lurking acceptable or even encouraged, tend to also think of it as a step towards more engaged participation. Then again, silence is not always a sign of disempowerment. It can have multiple meanings, including learning quietly in peace. I’ve lost my own ability to learn quietly (as in, I can’t read a text without highlighting, commenting, and even blogging about it) but that does not mean I don’t remember that ever happening ūüėČ

Omigosh I’m already at 2,000+ words and I’m not even done yet! I’ll have to stop here and write again later! This upcoming silence is a sign of… tiredness and other pressing priorities…

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