For a few weeks this year, I spent part of every day on Twitter, interacting with some of the thousands of students who tweet the words “I hate school” daily. It was an education.
When I asked them to explain their feelings and reactions to school, I was often met with hostile wariness. I had done something that, to these kids, was just too weird: I took them seriously.
Asked, “How many of your friends feel the same way?” they’d respond: “All of them.”
The level of despair expressed by young people when they don’t think adults are listening is truly distressing. The unshakable belief of those I talked to was that there is no help, no hope possible for them. They believe what they are told: that the only way toward success in life is success in the system that has made them miserable.
Where can they turn? Most parents believe that their own schooling was good enough for them, so it should be good enough for their kids. Educators are baffled over the issue of how to get those self-involved, distracted complainers motivated to learn.
Kids seem to be slipping through school without what we regard as “basic skills.” The only solution most adults can think of is to threaten, punish, push harder, and test.
Our country is full of young people who don’t have a sense of who they are, what they can do or how they can make any positive contribution to the world around them. The education system (which is still based on a one-size-fits-all industrial model that started over a century ago to meet the needs of a very different world) still doesn’t provide ways for young people to learn about themselves.
Alan Burnce, director of Open Road, a self-directed learning center in Portland, Oregon, once told me, “Traditional school, with a rigidly curated, content-driven curriculum that sucks up 6-9 hours a day, actively prevents kids from exploring who they are.” He goes on to say that motivation for learning, “needs to come from the learner for it to be integrated into a developing sense of self.” Without it, students “don’t learn anything about themselves or about how the learning fits into a bigger picture that helps make sense of the world and our place in it.”
I try to bring the cause of these young people with me to the school board table here in RSU 3 in Waldo County. I have encouraged board members and the administration to consider introducing this kind of learning environment. But like many schools in Maine, we are implementing the proficiency-based or standards-based system. The advocates of this system (which claims to allow students to learn fixed standards in their own way and at their own pace) would like us to believe that it addresses the needs of 21st century learners. There are great expectations attached to it, and a huge amount of work is involved in making it happen.
Since this method teaches those required Common Core standards and satisfies standardized testing preparation, a self-directed learning environment isn’t possible. In the end I think the proficiency-based system will produce exactly what “traditional school” produces: too many young people who believe that school (and by association, learning) is meaningless and irrelevant to their lives.
People counter my advocacy of student passions and interests with the assertion that the world simply doesn’t give a damn. Issues of identity are secondary to survival. When people hire you to do a job, you’d better do it, like it or not. School is there to teach that lesson.
A small-business owner in Bar Harbor once said to me, “I hire MDI high school students who are passionate about where they want to go and what they want to do. These kids are great employees. They take initiative, they work hard, because they know that will help them succeed.” Kids who lack passion and direction, he said, are “much more likely to stand around and wait to be told what to do.”
The days and nights spent studying stuff you don’t care about are soul-destroying. Passion, identity, self-respect that is built from accomplishments that are meaningful — these are the building blocks of success.
We need to take young people seriously. Radical change is not an option. Not only our children’s happiness, but their chances of meaningful success requires it. Help change our schools into places where young people hunger to be.
Lisa Cooley is an education activist, co-founder of the Catalyst Learning Network ( catalystlearning.net) and an RSU 3 school board member from Jackson. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.