Ignore the official claptrap, fight the market champions and maybe one day we can truly liberate young minds

9th September 2011 at 01:00

So much of school is structured around getting the right answers that we spend almost no time looking at the questions - or who gets to ask them. Who benefits from and gains power by framing and privileging certain questions and ignoring others? That is left impenetrable and opaque. Subjects are taught in an atmosphere of obedience and conformity, drill-and-kill, sorting and punishing.

Imagine a school or a classroom where asking, framing and pursuing their own questions became the central work of both teachers and students. In this school, creativity and art would be valued in an atmosphere that underscores mistakes as a pathway to deeper exploration.

Today, school is built so much on the task of summing up knowledge, certifying and sanctioning all the stuff of the curriculum, that "reform" often amounts to little more than spreading the powerful arms of authorisation into new realms (new standards for dance) or a more encompassing reach (think of the growing range of competencies language learners are expected to cover). The curriculum itself goes unchallenged.

Imagine a classroom where the question of what is worthwhile to know and experience is taken up as a living challenge that focuses all student activity.

School has been increasingly framed as a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace (just like a refrigerator or a stove), the system simply another business, identical in kind to an auto or munitions plant. Worn down, many of us begin to take the logic of layoffs and cutbacks as sensible managerial moves. Certification trumps the pursuit of knowledge, competition overwhelms learning.

Imagine schools as expressions of participatory democracy, models of associative living, places powered by the principle that education in a democracy is a human right, and that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all.

Imagine a school or a classroom that tears down that wall and recognises school and society as one and the same, and every day acts out the belief that the classroom, far from being a preparation for life, is indeed life itself. Building community and trust and traditions and engagement are central lessons of that kind of classroom.

Those musings frame what we think of as "teaching the taboo". They help us as we organise ourselves to teach toward what could be, but is not yet. Can we imagine dramatically different schools and classrooms? Can we find ways to breathe these classrooms to life in the real worlds we inhabit?

Education is under a serious and sustained attack. The view that the market is the wisest teacher, and the pursuit of wealth and unfettered competition is the path to the good life, has moved from the economic sphere to all walks of life. In an application of Orwellian double-speak, these privatisation efforts are recast as "free schools" - a cynical term that would make AS Neill of Summerhill and Ella Baker of the Mississippi Freedom Schools turn in their graves.

This fetishisation of market forces suggests that a single measure, the standardised test, is wholly adequate to determine if a student has learned or developed well - an assumption that every classroom teacher knows to be a lie. Not only are these tests inherently biased by class and race, they narrow the curriculum, dumbing down schools to test prep and move away from deeper learning. Test dogma sets all in competition, district against district, school against school, teacher against teacher, and student against student.

The proponents of market competition have pushed their ideology on to the agenda by force of wealth and power, not through evidence or argument. Indeed, study after study has shown that test prep factories, school turn-around and reconstitution, "charters" in the US and, no doubt, the new "free schools" in Britain, fail to push the needle at all in outcomes, even as they measure them.

In a school focused on the needs and dreams of individuals as well as the broad community, we would be inspired by fundamental principles of democracy.

In the democratic spirit, we want students to be able to develop minds of their own, to make judgments based on evidence and argument. We want them to ask fundamental questions. Who in the world am I? How did I get here? Where am I going?

In a democracy we refuse obedience and conformity in favour of initiative, courage, imagination, creativity and more. These qualities must be modelled and nourished, encouraged and defended.

While teaching is suffering insult and contempt from the talking heads of media and policy, there is a secret that all good teachers know. We know what a delightful, meaningful and important place the classroom can be.

The most important things we do - being with young people through crucial moments in their growth, modelling curiosity, sustained effort, and ethical caring, witnessing the miracles and the wonder, and unleashing curiosity and imagination - are never adequately measured by quantitative metrics.

We need to stand together, sensible voices from the community and the classroom, to shake off the anaesthetising impact of much official claptrap and the authoritative voices that dominate our schools and universities, the airwaves and the media.

We need to revitalise our imaginations and act on behalf of what the known demands, linking our conduct firmly to our consciousness. We would be moving, then, with purpose and a measure of hope.

Rick Ayers is a professor of teacher education at San Francisco University and his brother William Ayers is a senior university scholar at Illinois University in Chicago. Their book Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom is published by Teachers College Press.

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