Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people in the America lived on small farms in a self-sustaining fashion. They rose in the morning struggled for existence and made their way through life. But best evidence points that over 90% of the population was highly literate. Compulsory school laws were few and non-existent. The first U.S. law was enacted in 1852 in the State of Massachusetts. I have often wondered why the state became involved in mass schooling. Why are children forced to go to school? Why are schools designed in an age-segregated content silo delivery system? What is the objective of using this design?
Having set the stage, I just attended the 2011 Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) Conference in Duluth. As I previously wrote in a recent blog, MAAP is one of my favorite events of the year. On Wednesday of the conference Shane Krukowski and I gave a two-hour workshop on motivation and adolescents. (See link for a PDF of the presentation) This year researcher and author Alfie Kohn gave a number of addresses at the conference, and stated, “What adolescents most desperately need, most high schools seem designed to thwart.”
In our presentation, others and Alfie Kohn’s, autonomy was the common thread woven into the conference. Anyone who has raised a three year old knows this concept intimately. In my house, Piper, our three year old constantly shouts out with great conviction, “I do it myself!”
This desire to master the world to explore to become as Alfie states, “Competent.” Or as Daniel Pink renames into the concept of self-mastery, means nothing to Piper. All she knows it that she is learning new concepts and applying prior knowledge to old and new situations. This desire for choice and control over her own actions does not fade with time, I suspect if left to her our free will she will increase the desire to construct meaning and mastery over her own world at her own pace.
Yet, when one walks into the high school environment of public schools, it seems that the people who designed the institution were intent on exerting as much control over the students as possible. Rarely do students get to pick the topic of learning in a given day. More often than not students are forced to endure subtle and blatant acts of wounding and indoctrination. (See Kirsten Olson’s book, Wounded by School) If the research is correct and human beings desire and perform better when given autonomy, (See RSA Video on Motivation from Daniel Pink) then why is the system set up with the primary purpose of controlling behavior. As Alfie stated when he divided the world into two camps, those who “do to students” versus those who ” do with students.”
These thoughts bring me back to the primary questions of this article. Why are children forced to go to school? Why are schools designed in an age-segregated content silo delivery system? What is the objective of using this design? I would argue and others like John Taylor Gatto would agree, that by creating a system of schooling that values compliance over creativity, control over freedom, obedience over critical thinking, the system perpetuates a desire to have students become consumers of education rather than creators of education. At the turn of the century, this was desirable. Factories needed workers to move from being autonomous rural landholders to compliant and dependable line workers. The factory line could not tolerate creative independent individuals. So as a function of this need schools filled the role of pre-training the workers for the Industrial Revolution. Today, we are still left with this legacy. In Robert Epstein’s book The Case Against Adolescence, he states that today’s adolescents have more laws restricting their freedom than convicted felons. We seem to forget that the age of the American Revolutionary Soldier was 16.
In Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap, he argues that schools need to redesign their end goals to promote seven essential survival skills for the 21st Century. These skills are in direct conflict with the current school design of today’s schools, which focuses largely on rote memorization of content.
Underlying all of these concepts is the foundation of autonomy. There is a tendency to promote lower order thinking skills in an effort to control adolescents, when developmentally they need the exact opposite. Can we design schools where real choice exists? That is what is incredible about Minnesota and MAAP. Members from MAAP help start the first alternative schools, the first charter schools, and the first Post-secondary-enrollment laws. Schools like Jennings Community Learning Center, Northwest Passage High School, and Minnesota New Country School, which were started in the early days of the MN charter school law are exemplars of student centered programming. All three focus on youth development needs and have designed their schools to place these concepts at the forefront.
MAAP members continue push for innovation and autonomy for their staff, students and the communities they serve. In an era of standardization, MAAP stands as buffer for students and their families, because what is needed today is an explosion of creativity not an implosion of compliance.
 I make the distinction of charter schools that are democratic and community focused in nature and is independently run.