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New way of thinking may require new way of teaching

Changing our relationship with the environment depends on changing the way we think. But can we think in new ways if we continue to learn in old ways? I have to wonder.

I was always good at school, but during my second year in college a thought that had been niggling around since high school finally gelled. I realized that my success in the classroom was less a matter of intelligence or “learning” than a facility for recognizing what the teacher wanted to hear and providing it.

The other shoe dropped in a history class where, for the first time in my educational experience, a teacher expected students to take the reading assignment purely as a foundation for class discussion, with the expectation that we move beyond it immediately.

Simply regurgitating the reading was not enough. We were supposed to think about it and extrapolate, draw conclusions that weren’t handed to us by the textbook. That sounds like it should be a good thing.

But the professor didn’t explain the new “rules of the game;” she just frowned whenever one of us produced a conversational tidbit based on the reading assignment. We were adrift. What were we doing wrong?

It took a couple of weeks for some of us to figure it out. But most importantly, the majority of the class never did. They continued to regurgitate and flounder, bewildered by the relentless disapproval but unable to make the leap. (A leap most of them could have made if anyone had told them what was expected. After all, we were well trained in meeting teacher expectations.)

I may not remember anything about The Fall of Rome to 1560, but I’ve never forgotten that we were so programmed to forgo original thought that most of the students couldn’t even recognize what was being asked of them. Or that the professor refused to put what she wanted into words, grading us on our ability to figure it out.

Two articles in the October issue of Ode magazine reminded me of that long-ago lesson and explained some of why it made me so uncomfortable. The first is an edited excerpt from John Taylor Gatto’s book “Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling.”

In it Gatto outlines his own disillusionment with a system that emphasized “schooling” over education – in the sense of schooling a horse – teaching acceptable behavior that makes the student controllable and predictable rather than brilliant or original.

Citing an early text on the purpose of compulsory education, Gatto interprets several jargon-filled tenets to include: teaching “fixed habits of reaction to authority;” making children “who are as alike as possible…who conform and are predictable,” all in aid of keeping the general public “deliberately dumbed down and declawed.”

Is this too strong? Perhaps. But it’s hard for me to argue in favor of a system that bestows its greatest rewards on those whose primary talent is discerning what authority figures want and giving it to them. I was one of them for most of my alleged education. What it taught me primarily was how not to teach.

While my future students benefited from that lesson, I have to wonder what I might have been personally capable of had I been taught the way students at Aventurijn in the Netherlands are taught.

This small private school was started in 2000 by Hannah de Vos-Beckers. Her system of teaching is based on the fact that children have an innate desire to learn. They are curious and interested in the world around them (as anyone who has ever experienced the endless “whys” of a toddler can attest).

De Vos-Beckers believes this desire to learn is blunted by standardized education with its regimented schedule and insistence that everyone learn the same things at the same pace – things which are often presented in a dull manner with no obvious relevance to life.

Inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori and the Pestalozzi school in Ecuador, Aventurijn uses a self-directed approach in which students set their own areas of study and the pace at which they learn.

The focus here is on self-confidence, taking responsibility, retaining enthusiasm for learning and relating how and what students study to the practical world as well as the intellectual.

What kind of a world could we create with a population of self-confident, responsible, practical and enthusiastic original-thinkers? Maybe one we’d all like to live in, that could sustain itself indefinitely into the future.

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