Saturday, February 25, 2017

Unlearning What Schooling Can Mean

"This school isn't strict enough," was the lament of the 14 year old girl I followed as she was leaving the learning space for the fourth time during the morning and I was remonstrating with her to return to her allocated group and space within the flexible learning environment 280 11-15 year olds and their 12 teachers were thrust 10 days earlier.

"Tell me about that," I requested. "Every time you have left I've followed you and requested politely that you return. What do you mean by strict?"

Her answer saddened me. It also angered me, and challenged me.

According to this beautiful young lady- who so obviously has much talent and potential, but also has been very challenged by her past schooling and in turn has been and is immensely challenging of schooling and authority in any form, I was informed that strict meant shutting you in a room where you couldn't leave and making you do a worksheet silently.

So the conversation went on with me explaining that I didn't really think a random worksheet would help her learning. The response: "this isn't about learning, it's about being a proper school. "

My heart sunk. Here I was observing a group of teachers working harder than they ever had, who were pushing themselves way outside their comfort zones and their past specialist teaching areas, creating and  delivering high interest, practical, hands on learning activities requiring discussion and debate and thinking, and here they were facing a group of pre- teens and teenagers who have an understanding after 6-10 years in our education system that proper learning, or at least proper schooling, consists of sitting in a room silently or quietly doing worksheets. Or at least being told what to do and what to learn and how to learn it and complying.

Since when did learning have no place in schooling in some of our young people's minds and lives and hearts? What are we going to do about that? Are we going to continue to perpetuate the myth that "well-controlled" classrooms where everyone is silent or at least quiet and appears to be actively following instructions and doing the task adds up to effective learning? Or at least effective schooling?

Are we going to continue to explicitly and implicitly give young people the message that learning (or at least schooling) is something that an adult has to do to you in order for it to be proper or real?

We spent three months together as a foundation staff working on unschooling ourselves from our notion of what learning in the school system has been in the past and what it possibly could be in the future. We knew we would be working alongside some young people who have been completely disenfranchised with the schooling system they have worked in and we were determined that we will re- engage these young people. The ones who couldn't conform to the old system, the ones already jaded by a system that so clearly doesn't meet their needs.

We knew we would have to work hard to induct young people who have achieved and had a traditional sense of school success validated by their past experiences. We are having to work even harder to induct young people who have been failed by their past experiences of schooling into an understanding that schooling can equal learning and that this learning can be meaningful to them in deeply personal ways. We need to accept that just because they have been failed by one system they are not just going to magically accept and become part of a new system.

We worked solidly, and without the normal interruptions of a school, for 7 hours a day on this for three months as a staff in our build up to opening. And we just broke the surface. We need to very careful we don't judge ourselves, or allow others to judge us, because some of our young people haven't immediately fallen into line with a completely different way of schooling- even if they were failed by previous systems. We need to have patience, and tolerance and belief in what we are doing. We need strong support systems around us to prevent disenchantment in what we are doing and to prevent temptations to fall back to the past when it gets hard. We need to reflect back on all the talking and learning we have done about implementation dips and learning pits.

And we need to keep going. To keep changing and transforming what being at school is and means.  How learning and schooling could be. One day at a time. Sometimes even one hour or one minute at a time. Definitely one young person at a time.

To all our kaiako and kaiārahi and kaiawhina working so hard every day delivering and every night preparing I want to publicly say- you are awesome. You have a vision and a commitment to developing individual young people to be both learners and the best people they can be that is admirable. You are showing resilience and compassion, passion and commitment and it is an honour to stand amongst you.

It will take time, And that is okay. Change, real change, has to if its to be effective and sustainable.

I look forward to the day I can have a conversation with the young lady quoted above and she can equate her schooling with real life learning that is meaningful for her and where she is in her life right now.

And I have every faith that with the support of our Haeata staff that time will come. Every faith and a total belief.


  1. Having a tight perception about what a learning environment should be or look like is limiting. I wonder what the student thinks a proper workplace will be? Our young people will go on to work in such a broad range of workplaces... in offices, out in the field, from home, within a digital environment... but one of the connections between all of these different settings is that they will need the capacity to work effectively with others and be flexible. It would be interesting to know if the physical elements of the space is what she is referring to? Being an ILE maybe it is too busy for her to focus - she may need a cave every now and then to recharge. You do sound like a committed teaching team :)

  2. What a wonderfully passionate, yet reasoned, reflection. I would love to read a follow-up post about a future conversation with the same ākonga. Please tag me in a tweet if it does come to fruition. Thank you so much for sharing a pit - I bet there will be many mind-blowing and inspiring peaks to share along the journey as well. You guys rock!! Kia kaha

  3. I wonder actually if the problem is that our learners have been 'told' what to do for so long that they lose the capacity to think for themselves - so struggle when given some choice to make their own decisions. This requires thought, thinking ahead, problem-solving, being in the pit and knowing it is the best place and all that stuff! The best part of where you all are is that you have each other for support and like-minded people to korero with. Lucky:)

  4. So sad that the young girl you talked to thought school was all about worksheets and silence. This perception by so many of the people I worked with was a factor in my leaving teaching. Where did this desire to control everyone come from? What situations had they been in themselves as learners to make them think that you learn through silence and writing? And this was also what parents seemed to perceive as being good learning or teaching also. Anything that smelled like student choice or student led learning was quickly stomped on. I'm so glad there are leaders like you, Karyn, who believe that students have an innate desire to learn without needing an adult standing over them and forcing them. Keep up the good work! Kia Kara. You have a hard road ahead undoing years, decades, even centuries of industrialisation of education. I would love to go back to the philosophers like Plato and Socrates and see what they thought about education and learning.