In this second letter I’m going to be looking at a different aspect of working for change in education from the inside out. I was excited to read your thoughts about each of us living in two worlds: one world that exists whether or not we exist, and a second world, our consciousness, that exists only because we exist. In other words, your book, Creative Schools, would exist whether or not I existed, but my thoughts about your book only exist because I do. Of course, Creative Schools could only exist because you do!
As you point out, our current education system focuses primarily on the world that exists whether or not we do: the world that existed before we got here, the world that will continue after we are gone.
I agree with your assertion that an education should also include ways for our students to be aware of, and to explore their inner worlds, the worlds that only exist because they do. However, I have a note of caution: we can’t expect our students to enter into an exploration of their inner worlds without some trepidation.
A case in point: within a few days of being in my class, many straight A students want to transfer out, to drop my course because there is very little in my classroom that is what they have learned to expect in schools.
Before I understood why they wanted to leave, I used to be bothered by their exodus. But now when I notice their discomfort, I do what any good host would: I try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. I’ve found that the most effective way to do this is to have them talk to former students of my program who initially had the same discomforting experience.
By the time students get to my courses, they’ve been in school for 11 years. They’ve long learned the rules of the game of school. Straight A students know these rules extremely well. They’ve learned that what’s in the textbook is critically important and that there are right answers for everything.
When students enter my classroom at the beginning of the semester, there are no desks set up. This causes anxiety in many straight A students, excitement in most C students.
We all sit in a circle for every lesson in the first week.
Students do not get textbooks for the first month.
Throughout the semester, they are asked questions for which there are no answers. Not in the textbook and not on Google. Questions such as:
- Who are you?
- Why do you do the things you do?
- What did you learn about yourself when you did that?
- What did you learn about the world today?
- How does that change what you thought you knew about the world?
Students respond to these questions in various ways. C students are intrigued by being asked questions that are not in the textbook, but A students are either angry or frustrated or confused or all three. At first.
Once I had a very earnest student tell me that he was convinced that he was going to fail my class. I asked him why he thought so since I knew he was a straight A student. He said that he had to think really hard in my class, and he was not used to having to do that. He said that his head hurt every day and that he thought about what we had discussed in class long after the end of the school day. I apologized and thanked him for letting me know because that was exactly what I was trying to do. I also assured him that he would be okay and that he would certainly be on the Honour Roll at the end of the semester. He was.
Another time I had a student for whom school was very easy. Both his parents were very involved in his education, and he was rewarded both at home and in school for doing well. He’d never been asked questions like these before and strongly resented them. He refused to respond to them for most of the semester. And then, a few weeks before the end of classes, when he’d been asked, for the umpteenth time, to reflect on these questions while considering his experiences in the class, he wrote in his journal that he finally understood why I had been asking them. He thanked me for my persistence in asking.
But the most pleasing response I have so far received was from a student whose interest in sports sometimes competed with his desire to do well in school, and so he was only occasionally on the Honour Roll. This extract, from his reflective response, reveals what students sometimes experience when invited to explore their inner worlds:
[W]e were asked a question on the first day of class: who are you and why do you do the things you do? Upon hearing this question I thought to go onto Google, find someone else who had done a previous essay on the topic and simply change it up a bit and hand it in. But as time went by I began to ask myself that question more which led to me no longer wanting to take the easy way out. Whenever I tried answering the question, the only thing that came to mind was my name and nothing else. I kept asking myself the question in different ways and I realized that I wasn’t who I really thought I was…I found it very strange that I didn’t know who I was myself.
I wonder how teachers would respond to these questions?
An exploration of that thought would have to start with a discussion about a comment that you make in Creative Schools about the centrality of relationships in education, but I have so much to say about that, I’ll leave it for my next letter!