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I spent Friday-Sunday in Albany, NY, at an Alternative Education Conference. I focus on workshops that would welcome someone from a public school board and also yield relevant insights to bring home with me.

My overall impression was of an alternative movement that no longer wants to be “alternative.” The people I chose to listen to were very much trying to shift the entire education paradigm. Here are some insights that might be most relevant in Somerville:

1. I went to two talks by Shilpa Jain, who with her brother and two other people, started a “learning city” project in Udaipur, India. The project is called Shikshantar, which she translated as collective wisdom. The impetus for the project came from her brother’s attempts to reconcile two UNESCO projects he was involved with. He was working on an effort called “Learning without Frontiers” which kept bumping up against a concurrent UNESCO project trying to provide “Education for All.” It’s no surprise that not all locales can afford schooling for all. But the Learning without Frontiers method really could be extended to everyone for very little money. In Udaipur, they asked, “Does our learning system serve us very well? How do people feel about themselves at the end of the day? How do they feel about the work of their hands? How do they feel about their community? Is there only one version of success?” Because the ranking and grading can make students feel bad about themselves if words and math are not their gifts. Also many communities lose young people to the big cities or to emigration as they seek monetary success.

So in Udaipur, the Shikshantar project developed a concept of public education as distinct from schools. They started with an artist who wanted to teach art. They asked if he would volunteer with some students for an hour a week. He said no, he would give two hours a day for a month. At the end of the month they had a festival to exhibit his students’ work. Soon they found that everybody wanted to contribute; every person wants to be involved with raising the next generation. The city is full of learning opportunities and learning resources. Every person, animal, and natural place can be a resource for learning.

The audience brainstormed about the obstacles to doing this. Some included time, geography, logistics, organization, insurance liability, and the assumption that young people will be clueless and obtrusive. But John Taylor Gatto in his books has reminded us that American children used to be integral parts of American cities as well before universal schooling. And so I wonder if we might consider one small step like creating a community directory of safe adults and the skills they are willing to share or teach. I also think there are adults who might like to learn some computing skills or even knitting or whatever from young people. It could create excellent intergenerational connections.

2. Along the lines of asking adults what they’d like to teach, Laurie Spigel’s workshop on Applying Child-Led Learning Principles in the Classroom involved asking children, if there was anything in the whole wide world they would like to learn about, what would it be? She gives her students 3 days to answer, but said they usually answer within 3 minutes. The shift in world-view that her approach fosters is a different conception of a teacher. Some traditional views of teaching see the teacher as having all the responsibility to choose what to teach and all the knowledge to pour into the child. She called this a very burdensome notion and said the more you can see the world as the well of knowledge and that the teacher and child go to the well together, the easier one’s teaching job becomes. The pressure to know in advance is off the teacher while the child is automatically interested in learning. It does require being very present and open to who you are with right now.

The topic of the learning is never the teacher’s goal in this approach. The teacher’s goal is to impart to students the skills to be able to learn whatever they want. They are the skills involved in inquiry, imagination, interaction, collaboration, etc. In fact she said that an educator’s goals are not the same as the child’s goals which are not the same as the parents’ goals. She did not talk about these as conflicting goals at all, but she recommending prioritizing the child’s goals for them and holding the child’s goals as the priority, while trying to meet the parents’ goals, and keeping the teaching goals high.

She gave lots of examples of classes she teaches.

3. Chris Mercogliano gave a workshop called Beyond The Brain and The Mind. He says that scientists have known for 40 years or more that the science on which traditional educational models are based is incorrect. Luckily, I think teachers, being human, adapt more and don’t teach just according to scientific theories. But anyway when psychology switched from being philosophical to being scientific it began to try to explain systems and mechanisms. At the time physics was in a mechanistic paradigm, very good at describing closed systems. Astronomers could absolutely predict a comet’s return or an eclipse or other celestial events because the solar system can be seen as a closed system; it doesn’t adapt to input. Early research into child development tried to create predictive models for children’s growth and learning, like lists and descriptions of “stages.” But these don’t always perfectly describe children’s growth.

Eventually tools improved and science perspectives changed and biologists were able to say, hey that’s not the way living things work. Living things are open systems. They can respond to input, but we must move away from mechanistic views because open systems can also cause their own changes in themselves! Even brain-based education is a little scary, he said, because it still reinforces the mechanistic view of the human brain, you know like explicitly comparing it to a computer. Whereas mechanical changes are completely controlled by the design of the machine, a living system can change very suddenly and unpredictably. A living system organizes itself. So his argument is that we have to redesign education in a way that acknowledges the self-organizing abilities of learners.

4. Angela Engel talked about how the current trends in standards and testing have flipped accountability around and it is imperative that we flip them back. She says the mandates and the money spent on testing and reporting are strangling schools. How can schools be effective while being strangled? We are letting the government rank and label our students according to the lowest levels of thinking skills (eg, multiple choice tests), when education should be creating empowered critical thinkers who can hold government accountable. I wrote extensively about this in my learning resources blog. I just want to add that in Engel’s workshop a man came from across the room to be my partner in one of the exercises. He and his wife just made a film about a progressive public school in California. When I started to explain how I live near Boston, he said, “I know exactly where Somerville is; my daughter lives on  ______ St.” So I am hoping that someday when he visits his daughter he will bring the film and screen it for us.

5. And I will just end with a slightly modified version of the main question John Taylor Gatto posed in his Friday morning keynote: How, or at least to what extent, can we withdraw our cooperation? I know Ms. Rossetti and Rep. Sciortino have been working on changes to the law. In the meantime, can we get waivers on some of the mandates? What would be the consequences of selective noncompliance? Is it just about money? Could we create a more vibrant learning city for less money like Udaipur did? Are we willing to ask ourselves really radical and probing questions?