Clearing the educational decks

I interviewed two teachers this week, a married couple working from home while their elementary-school-age children pursued their own remote schooling under foot — a caged family in a house full of devices throbbing with data as the world scrambles to reconstruct itself online and educational reform opportunists like Mr. Gates use the occasion to insinuate and annex, to mulct, to stake or to solidify claims to huge chunks of the public education system.

I was fishing for some upsides. Is it possible, I suggested, that people will perforce learn to conceive and execute creative projects as never before? Will we see a renaissance of independent, self-directed, and self-validated learning, an ideal of pure learning to which most educators pay lip service at least but lack the resources and administrative and community buy-in to wholeheartedly pursue?

My child spent some years at a school that attempted to eliminate the dangled carrots of external adult approval and validation from its model of learning — grades, benchmarks, assessments, curricula. None of the above. Instead, the kids were placed in a resource- and material-rich environment with a staff there to help when asked but otherwise unobtrusive. The school itself was run by radical democracy, with students involved in hiring decisions and all matters of discipline and everything else.


Whether it was the right place for our child, going there after years in the public system, is a subject for another day. What impressed me most about this school was the independent, self-directed, and outlandishly productive spirit of its youngest students, the ones who had never known another model, taking on and executing vast projects and works of a kind one never sees in other schools, never wasting a moment’s thought on gold stars or an A+. The locus of authority was internal. Anything was possible.

If you feel you are coming undone in Covidia, at least hold out the chance that good can come of the undoing. Someday, will we look at this bizarre, economically devastating interlude of 2020 as a clearing of the decks, a reset of values and priorities, a weaning off of external validation and the discovery of new or refreshed faculties of doing, of seeing through, of finishing, whether the project is a book or a record or vast social reform?

It’s a hopeful thought, at least.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.

There is one comment

  1. Bill H

    Never say never, John. What you describe is flourishing in many public schools throughout the country. The New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of over 20 schools in New York City have been practicing what you describe for decades, and the model is being replicated in pockets around the country. This group of schools has enjoyed a waiver from New York’s absurd standardized testing, including the Regents, for decades, which has allowed them to develop amazing schools. Read about them:
    Here are the core values of these schools:
    Also, thank you for showing me a new word today: mulct. Good one!

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