Post 19: Education Reinvented in Chicago

Thursday, April, 25, 13 § 1 Comment

While Christian, Zoe and I have been blogging about re-forming school, I’m inspired to report that a writer and educator named Theodore Richards has been doing it for the last couple of years, through a program called the Chicago Wisdom Project.

I first heard about Richards in January 2011, when I met with a widely-known spiritual leader named Matthew Fox. Matt is a former Catholic priest (and bestselling author) who is deeply involved in the movement toward a more life-loving–and less guilt-ridden–human relationship with spirituality.  He’s also a close friend of Aaron Stern, and visiting scholar at the Academy for the Love of Learning, so through Aaron I had the honor to meet with him at a lively community event in a public high school in Oakland.

Over a free community lunch of locally-grown organic food, Matt and I chatted at length about our shared concerns regarding the values and practices of the current educational system. He described his YELLAWE after-school program, which presented a reinvented curriculum and pedagogy for children from some of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods. At that point, the program was not thriving in Oakland, Matt explained, because the remarkable man who’d been helping him run it had moved to Chicago.

He was talking about Theodore Richards. My research took me elsewhere, however, and i didn’t follow up until last week, when Aaron handed me a book that Richards has just published: Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto (Hiraeth Press, MA).

The term “creatively maladjusted” comes from a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” For Richards, this means that salvation is a communal process–not an individual achievement or gift–that we move towards “not by conforming to society…. but by transforming it.” In other words, if we’re going to survive as a species, what needs to be “adjusted” is not so much our selves, but the values and societal structures that, when we abide by them, plunge us towards ecological and economic collapse. Adjusting our schools, of course, is among the top priorities.

Richards isn’t trying to adjust schools directly–he’s humble enough to admit he’s not sure how to approach such a mammoth endeavor–but he is adjusting the way we educate young people through his after-school program in “inner city” Chicago. Rather than help these kids do better in their conventional schools, like many other after-school programs attempt, Richards is offering them an entirely new type of education, called Wisdom Education.

In his book, Richards explains that conventional education systems, which grow out of monastic traditions but were launched en masse following the industrial revolution, operate within a worldview that is mechanistic (students and teachers are like machines, inputting and outputting fragmented bits of information) and capitalistic (heavy focus on competition and individual success). Wisdom Education, in contrast, presents an organic view of teaching and learning, in which teachers and students are creators, rather than in-takers and out-putters, and in which collaboration and communal success replace the long-misapplied story of “survival of the fittest.”

His manifesto goes on to describe six tenets of this “Wisdom Education Movement”:

  1. Creativity and Imagination. No, not simply adding more arts classes, but shifting the actual way teachers and students engage so that  learnings is not information-transmission but an active, expressive process. “To learn anything in a meaningful, profound way requires that we contextualize it and integrate it from our own perspective. This requires imagination.” And learning creatively not only helps people learn better, but can also help students imagine how to “reshape our world.”
  2. Nature. In Wisdom Education, students reconnect deeply to nature so that they understand that nature is not something separate from us–we are nature. Once they begin to realize they are genetically and physically connected to everything else in the universe (not a quick lesson), they cannot help but shift the way they see them selves and the world. Fragmentation gives way to unity, interconnectedness. The natural world (including other people) is no longer a resource to be studied or exploited, but a partner, a fellow traveler.
  3. The Intellect. One might suspect Wisdom Education to not focus so heavily on intellectual development, but the opposite is true. Richards explains: “…while modern education provides our young people with many facts, it does not provide them with the intellectual tools to discern which facts are valuable and which facts we should accept. Our students are neither trained nor encouraged to challenge the ideas that are put before them.” Drawing from the work of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, Wisdom Education employs a rigorous training (Richards suggests starting with media literacy) that helps young people develop a keen and deep critical consciousness.
  4. The Body. As an alternative to the West’s “radical separation” between mind and body, Wisdom Education calls for a more holistic education that employs activities like meditation, art-making, and martial arts to help young people reconnect to their bodies, and develop a healthier relationship with their body. This new awareness of our physical self  translates into a more receptive mind and healthier relationships with the natural world.
  5.  The Soul. “The soul,” Richards writes, “however one defines it, is as important as any other aspect of the human. We must address our students’ yearning for meaning, their trauma, and their emotions if we are to truly educate them. Wisdom requires not only that we be able to know the world, but to know our selves as well.” Young people strive to answer the question “Who Am I?” and it is society’s responsibility (the “elders,” you might say) to help them develop the tools to find an answer. Wisdom Education draws heavily on the idea of rites of passage, in which young people make a break with who they were before, enter into deep instruction, and then reenter the community as a new person.
  6. Doing. Knowledge is mere cleverness, for good or bad, until it is applied in a conscientious way. In requiring students to undertake projects that help their community, Wisdom Education ensures that young people develop the values and ethics to understand that their success must not come at the detriment of other peoples, or the environment (or their own selves.) Richards explains: “Imagine a poor child from southern Mississippi who goes on to be an executive at British Petroleum. Would society look at him as less successful because he contributes to the construction of his bio-region and his forefathers’ way of life? Probably not.”

I have not yet seen Richards’ Chicago Wisdom Project in action–I hope to make the trip soon–but I am greatly encouraged and inspired by the tenets of the Wisdom Education Movement. Far beyond the tinkering of school reform fads, this movement offers a truly reinvented understanding of how young people learn, and how we can guide a child towards becoming an “educated” person: someone who, by Richards’ succinct definition, “is creative, has a relationship with nature and the body, tries to be healthy of mind and spirit, is intellectually astute and thinks critically, and does something meaningful and useful with all these capacities.”

I plan on taking Thoedore Richards’ five-week online course on Wisdom Education, starting next week. I will report on what I learn in future posts–for now, you can learn more about Theodore Richards and this inspired endeavor at http://chicagowisdomproject.org/.

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Post 18: Confessions of an experiential learner

Saturday, April, 13, 13 § Leave a comment

In his post on the voucher system, I enjoyed Seth’s utopian vision of the diverse learning environments that could emerge if every child were backed with no-strings-attached, government funding.

I could imagine children defining their current curiosities (e.g., the history of soccer, cooking, dance, or bicycle repair) and then logging onto a website where they could search a list of funded mentors in their area, as well as be able to find reviews from past learners and parents. The mentor-based, mini-schools would be paired with “real” teachers. The many hard-working, well-trained teachers from our existing moribund education system would be selected by the kids during the off-hours of the mentorship to refine their standard skill-sets of math, English, biology, etc., all tailored towards the context of their mentorship.

The mentorships, paired with the more standard academic subjects, would comprise  a decentralized system of project-based learning. My recent experiences, here in rural India, brought to life some of the benefits and challenges of creating a rich project-based learning environment.

A return to Adharshila

A few weeks ago, I returned to spend three weeks at the creative and chaotic Adharshila Learning Center, which I blogged about last October. I worked primarily with about 20 students in years 6 and 7, building a small biogas plant (biodigester), and renovating some of their solar-powered lighting systems.

These projects were not just about education, but were chosen to address economic and environmental challenges at the school. The biogas project was motivated by the ongoing costs of buying firewood for cooking, using non-sustainably harvested wood. The lighting project was needed because the school’s power from the main grid is limited and unreliable. Over the course of three weeks, the students learned how to build and operate a biodigester and deepen their knowledge of electricity and solar power, while improving their English, math, and science skills.

Assembling the biodigester, installing lights, testing a streetlight

Assembling the biodigester, installing lights, and testing a streetlight

The biodigester project

There are close to 100 students at Adharshila, and the school sits in a heavily deforested, arid location. Currently the school purchases firewood from a nearby town, and cooks most of their meals on several wood-burning stoves. Our biodigester was comprised of a large, sealed tank that could hold a mixture of water and organic matter. Inside the tank, anaerobic bacteria decompose the matter and produce a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide (biogas) that can be used for cooking.

The biodigester only took a day and a half to build, but a number of smaller projects emerged during the process. The children spent several days weighing the amount of firewood used to cook their daily meals, and characterized the various organic waste streams on the campus. “Waste” is scarce at Adharshila; food leftovers go to their three cows, whose dung goes into the school’s organic farm. None of the charts and tables that we found on the gas production from different biomass sources correlated well with locally available materials and the area’s hot temperatures. We therefore embarked on a small experiment to determine what mixture of inputs would be the most economic. The kids built seven mini-digesters with carefully weighed biomass inputs, hoping to get rough estimates for biogas production rates. We reviewed how to measure volume, read measurements (always at eye-level), and stressed the importance of recording observations.

Mini biodigesters, measuring the amount of biogas, and cooking

Mini-biodigesters, measuring the amount of biogas in the main tank, and cooking

It was easy to incorporate the biogas and solar projects into the children’s curriculum. They compiled a long list of new words in English, and practiced responding to questions about biogas and solar in complete sentences. The older students learned how to calculate the volume of a cylinder in order to estimate the gas inside the tank and solve an equation for an unknown variable, while the younger students practiced algebra with decimals.

Some nuances of the approach

Painting a schematic of the solar lighting system

Painting a schematic of the solar lighting system

During both the biogas and solar projects, I’d typically have a group of three to ten students busily working alongside me. It became interesting to note which learners were constantly involved, which ones would show up for spurts of time, and which ones would steer clear of the hands-on activities. During the solar installations we decided to paint descriptions of the systems on adjacent walls. Suddenly there were students offering to help who hadn’t earlier been interested, illustrating how various project components can capture the curiosity of  different children.

I also wondered how the process, rather than the content, attracted the learners’ attentions. Some of the younger kids, whose English and science skills were very basic, as well as one child who was very good at math and science, independently built their own mini-biodigesters.  After spotting their private experiments nestled at the foot of nearby trees, I wondered whether the group process had been too fast or too slow or too participatory for them, not giving them enough space to explore in their own ways.

We all have both natural and conditioned inclinations in the way that we learn. The head teachers were able to caricature tendencies that they had observed in some of the kids. “He is more interested in the intellectual aspects, but much less likely to contribute to the manual work”, or “His attention wanders very quickly if not under constant guidance.” Access to a diversity of projects, especially those that are self-designed, creates the potential of letting young learners discover and cultivate their interests.

What a mentorship can mean for the mentor

The past several weeks gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate my own learning tendencies, as well as my motivations to teach. Experiential learning is a huge personal motivator for me. I love to learn, and I learn best by doing. It has now been almost three years that I have been reading and making design calculations about biodigesters, yet I had not gotten a chance to build one.

The thrill of seeing the biogas tank rise, observing the condensation of water in the gas tube, and just mixing the dung with my hands and pouring it into the tank suddenly brought my book-knowledge to life in a vivid manner, adding a diverse array of details that couldn’t have been revealed through reading or discussion. In addition, co-learning with many curious minds expanded the limits of my own understanding. Every time the children or a teacher would ask me a question, I’d usually be able to come up with a suitable-seeming answer, but then would pause and admit “well, I’ve never done this so I don’t really know – how can we investigate it?”

I was also quickly reminded about the stark contrast between mentorships and class-room teaching. Working with a handful of interested learners is rewarding and fun. Trying to motivate a large group of disinterested ones is another story. Effective classroom teachers are typically both good managers and performers. When I was tasked with getting all of the kids actively involved (when we built the mini-biodigesters, for example), I observed a clear internal conflict. Seeds of frustration arose from wanting the kids to be interested in doing what I wanted them to do, and then becoming angry at myself for being hypocritical. I love being motivated by my own curiosity, so why should I try to get the kids to be otherwise?

Project-based learning and mentorships

Lack of experiential learning opportunities is an unfortunate trait of the classroom-based model of education. The typical curriculum trains us to try to understand reality through a simplified representation, using words, numbers, and pictures. Rich and important details only become revealed once the toy-problems take their places in our complex social and natural environments. However, both experiential and abstract learning are important and complementary. A project-based curriculum creates the opportunity for emphasizing them both.

A decentralized pairing of mentorships with academic skill-building has two additional benefits. It creates the potential for the children to make a self-designed curriculum, and opens the door for passionate learners, like myself, who are turned off by standardized curricula and class-room management, to share our learning journeys with youth.

As I was riding in a bus, returning to Adharshila with solar equipment, two boys engaged me in conversation. It turned out that they were both engineering students in their last year at a local college, and one of them was about to build a mini-biodigester for his final project. When he found out what I had been working on, he began peppering me with questions. I couldn’t help but smile, thinking that a group of 12-year old village kids would have been able to answer most of them. I was happy to know that this engineer would soon get his hands dirty with some experiential learning.

– Christian Casillas  | Project Run in March 2013

Post 17: The End of Public School

Thursday, March, 28, 13 § 2 Comments

Nearly two hundred years later, it appears the US is letting go of one of its most enduring dreams: the dream that the government should educate our nation’s children. According to this recent article in the New York Times, more and more state governments are admitting they’re unable to provide quality schools for their young citizens, and are passing the responsibility off to…. Well. That part’s not exactly clear.

The new dream of education in America, popular in the 1990’s and making another surge now, is of a system of vouchers. In this new dream, the government bows out of the business of providing education, and instead provides money to parents, and tells them to go out, and–like good Americans–shop around. Find the best school for your kid, and sign him up. And if it doesn’t work, pull him out and shop some more.

This new dream grows directly out of our love of free markets and innovation, of unimpeded efficiency and cutthroat competition. The new dream vanishes the cumbersome teacher unions and the coffee-sipping retirees-to-be in administrative offices, and offers a vision of a nation of sleek, independent schools, hawking the latest and greatest in pedagogy–or getting shut down for lack of clientele. The new dream posits that the more we expand the vouchered demand, the more the education supply will grow and diversify. Imagine a national boom of “start-up” schools, like so many start-up tech businesses in Silicon Valley, from which parents and students can pick and choose.

Maybe this will happen. There’s certainly no shortage of highly-motivated educators, and I imagine many of them would dare to start up small schools if they were assured income. I could imagine home school collectives forming in living rooms, pooling their voucher money to buy a few computers and a little van for field trips. Or a nature preserve deciding to get into the business, and opening an ecological school on their grounds. A local carpenter could start a “school” for three interested high school kids, and use the voucher money to hire a tutor to help out with academic stuff in the afternoon.

Come to think of it, if there was a voucher law in New Mexico, offering say $8000 per kid per year, I’d start a school tomorrow. I’d find twenty kids, and use the 160K to pay myself and my co-blogger Christian Casillas 60K a year, take out a 10K insurance policy and with the remaining 30K run a great school on the organic farm of my brother and sister-in-law. It’d meet four days a week, for maybe 150 days out of the year, and include backpacking trips and food harvesting and sustainability studies, with tons of reading, tons of inventing, and a smattering of academics when it rains.

I wonder how voucher fans would respond to my school. Many of the same people who are so interested in vouchers are also the people who are clamoring about accountability and results, and how our students’ tests scores aren’t as high as Finland’s. My organic farm school wouldn’t show much of a bump in standardized test scores, though. Mostly because after we analyzed the standardized tests for their cultural biases and absurdity, we’d toss them into the compost pile and get back to learning. But if parents were interested, couldn’t I run my school anyway–tests or not?

The answer is no. Voucher laws come with strings attached. Most of them require schools that receive the vouchers to test their students and to hire certified teachers (and of course to comply with civil rights laws–but all citizens and organizations must do that). Which means that the government is not really opening the market to true innovation. It’s saying, Here, Free Market. Take our same old tests, and take teachers who’ve been trained in our same old teacher training programs, and do what what we couldn’t. In other words, take the same inputs and provide different results.

It’s not going to happen. The voucher program is a set up. It will benefit kids like mine, kids with savvy, college-educated parents who know how to “shop around,” and have a few bucks to chip in if the voucher doesn’t cover the tuition at the school they want. And it will do nothing for the poor kids, at least for the great majority of them, whose parents are too busy or uninformed to do the proper school shopping.

What’s even more troubling, however, is the fact that vouchers are a way for the government–and for all of us–to duck our responsibility to sit down and do the unpleasant work of reaching some sort of consensus on how and why we want to educate our children–all our children. Education is not an economic endeavor to provide a product in the most efficient way. It is a political endeavor to define the values of a community. It is a pedagogical endeavor to generate innovative and relevant ways to transmit those values to the next generation. The free market, even if released from all restrictions, simply does not have the tools, or the “ethical compass” (to borrow the term from Aaron Stern), to lead the way.

So as much as I’d love to start up my voucher-funded organic farm school, and as much as I know it would be successful, I don’t think I should be allowed to do it, at least not in this way. My school should not be a maverick success story. It should be part of a larger community commitment to reach children in different, more relevant ways.

This doesn’t mean we have to stick with the status quo. I can imagine a new dream for public education, one in which the government turns over responsibility of schools not to the valueless free market, but to the passionate citizens who have decided to become teachers. Released for academic years at a time, teacher-leaders would be charged with holding forums with parents and business leader and students to better understand what types of schools we need, and to create them. They would be charged with educating the new generation of teachers–not in distant university classrooms, but right there in their classrooms and schools.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes, recalling the disastrous community-run schools in NYC from the 1960’s, which generated more turf wars and law suits than good education. Or the site-based management buzz of the early 1990’s, which was abandoned after teachers and principals realized all the endless planning meetings came with little real power to make changes. But the vision I’m holding is different, and has proven to work in Finland, where teachers truly are running the educational system.

I don’t think vouchers signify the end of the public school dream. The idea will expand for a few years and then fail. Perhaps it may even prove to be the necessary though painful step that ends up leading us, through our government, towards re-assuming responsibility for public education. And this time, let’s hope we let teachers lead the way.

Profile: Poeh Center

Thursday, February, 14, 13 § 6 Comments

A visionary center in Northern New Mexico where education’s not about chasing urban jobs–it’s about thriving at home.

Picture from Poeh Center website: www.poehcenter.com

Picture from Poeh Center website: http://www.poehcenter.com

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Profile: Manav Sadhna

Thursday, January, 31, 13 § 4 Comments

From the heart in India: Service, learning and love.

Ramapir No Tekra Community Center (Photo credit:  http://www.d-impact.org/projects/proj_earn.php)

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Profile: Shikshantar and Swaraj

Thursday, January, 3, 13 § 2 Comments

What does “school” look like when we throw out the grades, the classes, the teachers (the competition, the tests, the authority from above)? This one-of-a-kind organization in India offers a compelling picture for what learning could be.

Second-year learners from Swaraj University, at a farm outside of Udaipur

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Profile: Adharshila Learning Center

Wednesday, December, 12, 12 § 4 Comments

From the heart of India, a pedagogy that attempts to balance college fantasies with the reality of a subsistence-farming life.

Adharshila Garden

Students in the garden at Adharshila.

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