Unsurprising admission: School didn’t do it for me.
I didn’t enjoy school. Every single day of it, walking into the gates felt like walking into a prison of sorts, and every single day, walking out felt like a return to freedom. The freedom was somewhat tainted by an associated burden: the burden of creating the impression that everything was fine at school, that I was happy, that I had friends, that I was OK.
Unlike some kids, academically I found school easy. Too easy. Most of it was unbelievably boring. I sat through classes with a kind of neverending anticipation: would today be the day that a teacher brought something new and fascinating for us to ponder? Would today be the day something would actually happen? Would today bring some sort of opportunity to break out – someone from overseas, who would fly you to a new, different, exciting place, somewhere you could actually discover some sort of talent or passion and pursue it, grapple with it, get your teeth into it and wrestle with it? I must have had a very persistent sense of optimism, because day in, day out, week after week, year after year, nothing much came up to break the tedium.
So instead of learning to challenge myself, I learned to game the system. I learned to get 90% on my essays, by presenting offbeat views in the format I knew the teachers wanted. I learned that every question has a “model answer” and it’s the job of the student to anticipate what the teacher wants to hear, and feed it back in just the right form, peppered with just enough of a personal angle to get extra points for “originality” without so much of a personal angle that you lose points for straying from “the point”. (To be fair, I didn’t always get that right.)
When I was seven, a drama teacher brought her little charges, dressed in furry rabbit suits, to perform their staged adaptation of Peter Rabbit. I was outraged. Why wasn’t I in a rabbit suit? Why wasn’t I on that stage? I promptly demanded to go to these drama lessons and beyond. There again, however, the anticipation seldom matched what actually happened in the lessons. Diphthongs and tripthongs, enunciation and projection; Reading With Expression; and learning “age-appropriate” bits of poetry and prose off by heart. It was all about Being Good. If you were Good, you’d get higher marks for the Eistedfodd or exam. You’d get honours (Good) or distinction (Better) or merit (devastating). If you were the best, you got the highest number from the adjudicator, and (possibly) a cup.
That was what you had to look forward to outside of school. On the inside, I learned that the most interesting thing on offer was maths, so I got good at maths. I learned the most freedom-infused thing on offer was art, so I immersed myself in art.
There was the three-month trip to Israel, where I learned and enjoyed more than in the entire rest of my school career put together. There was a single weekend away where I learned about mountain plants, and learned to mentor younger kids, again, an experience that eclipsed about three years of schooling that went before it, and about three after.
There were two or three school plays, that taught me the heady, crazy feeling of being involved on a project that consumes you night and day and demands that everything else gets juggled and shifted around, that involves an immovable Opening Night and the politics of a massive extended family of cast, and all their personal dramas, and the thrill of working closely with other people and singing and dancing and playing together.
High marks weren’t difficult to attain. Nor was adult approval. I wasn’t particularly aware of seeking it out, but I was a voracious reader. Adults dish out approval to kids that are Good Readers. Readers also develop a strong command of language, a decent vocabulary and a feel for logic and narrative. That makes it easier to talk to adults. But in most of the books I read, I noticed that kids had friends – real, full-on, confide-in-you, share-your-dreams, adventure-with-you, get-into-trouble-with-you friends. In real life, I found, friends were the people that went to ballet or drama classes with you, that frequently seemed either irritated or irritating, secretive, teasy or just plain difficult to understand. In my fantasy childhood, there would have been a band us who would have dreamed up crazy plans, gotten lost together, explored wild places together, built things, invented things. In my actual childhood, there was simply nowhere that could happen. We were stuck at school, and then we were stuck in the safe, sanguine, insulated suburbs. We were stuck in routine, in uniform and uniformity, in the confines of a spectacularly dull curriculum. So there we were. It was a long, dull and somewhat lonely walk to matric.
Last week, I read an unexpected book: Free to Learn, by Peter Gray. I’d been chatting to a friend about unschooling, and she recommended it. Gray’s perspective on education is wildly refreshing. His critique of American schools struck every chord of my recollections about school, and his portrayal of the alternatives struck every chord of my wishes and desires about what school could only be – if we could let it. How much more children would learn with a sense of freedom and self-direction and openness to possibility. Amazingly, it is backed up by a lot of solid data and research, which I’d never seen before. It’s not the vision of a fringe lunatic. It’s a studied vision, backed up with solid research, not just anecdotes and wishful thinking. Studies have actually proven that observation and grading interferes with the development of skills. Repeated experiments and research have shown that incentives (such as marks and certificates) annihilate creativity. That given the space and time and resources, kids actually learn more and better from each other than they do from teachers. It’s astounding, revolutionary stuff. It left me feeling that everything I thought I knew about education was, basically, an error. Teaching is a misnomer. Learning does not require teaching. It may require some assistance and guidance. But not teaching as we know it. You’ve got kids? Read this book. You’re a teacher? Read this book. You have any interest in education? Read this book. Just – read this book.