Escape from Reality: The Apathetic Adolescent

Easily the most daunting challenge I face is the apathetic teenager, one who is disheartened, disengaged, or likely distracted by something much more appealing: Clash of ClansFortnite, Snapchat, the latest memes — what have you. How can I possibly design a curriculum that conquers instant gratification? Especially when this content stands to be delivered no matter what (as it is a “standard”) and students have no choice in coming to the building?

Perhaps the place to start is figuring out why teenagers love these activities. Teachers tend to jump to conclusions — that these ideas are dumb, lack brain cells, or are pointless, often forgetting the presumed retroactively viewed-as-silly behavior they engaged in. I believe engagement like this is valuable — it offers something teenagers are missing. People don’t engage in behaviors en masse unless they’re deriving pleasure from it that they can’t access easily somewhere else. What do they offer? Community, belonging, commonality, entertainment, and friendship: they’re all activities that anyone can enjoy, engage with, and bring people together. Just like sports or box office movies, games like Fortnite and Clash of Clans are the go-to way to connect with your friends. It is on rare occasion that students solely “zone out” — they want to be around others doing the same thing — it’s social behavior (or in some cases, a desire for social behavior such as via social media).

Therefore, the place to confront these possible barriers is to change how our engagement looks — if students want attachment and a feeling of belonging, we must build a curriculum which fosters that. A school built on trust — real trust — that listens to student input, allows them to take control of initiatives, and directs itself on their interests, will lend itself to learning. We must stop pulling our hair out — or worse, punishing and demeaning students who would rather do what they enjoy — and restructure what a modern curriculum can be. If we judge, control, and limit them, students will no longer see our points as authentic nor justified. It’s not a place for learning, it’s now a prison.

I struggle with any label placed on gamers or phone users — “they’ll never amount to anything”; “that’s all they ever do”; “can’t they just live in the real world?”; “they’re going to rot away doing that.” etc. Although addiction is incredibly serious and we must be steadfast in acknowledging that — it’s rare in comparison to the assumption that students are addicted to their screens. It’s because they’re not engaged, not because they’re incapable of letting go. I should know — I spent most of my formative years playing World of WarcraftCounterstrike, and The Sims. I don’t regret any of it — I built friendships, learned about graphic design and computer coding, learned valuable skills of compromise and leadership, and how to manage my time so I could meet bare-minimum requirements at school. Throughout, it wasn’t that I couldn’t detach myself — it was just my detachment was more engaging — more connected — and more purposeful than anything school would offer. This is common — 40% of online video game players say they play to escape the real world. This may an element of addiction — but I see it as a problem of what our world is offering.

There is no sustainable focus on children to find their calling. An aside question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or “What college are you planning on attending?” does little to spark the imagination. Despite the overhanded use of “job-readiness” in schools — this takes the form of qualifying a workforce of boring, uninspired pupils that can master Algebra II and AP British Literature rather than people who are clamoring to work passionately. If I have nothing to connect to — nothing to works toward in the first eighteen years of my life — what’s the point? Disillusionment is the natural result: children work toward the next-step without qualifying why they’re taking the next-step. As William Deresiewicz notes, they’re zombies.

And after they realize how far removed they are from a meaningful life, they become grossly disengaged. Anxiety and depression rates are rising at alarming levels — doubling in the last 30 years. Coupled with less certainty in every arena: political divisions, economic worries, lack of a safety net, higher divorce rates, and “tougher standards” in schools — there shouldn’t be any surprise: our world is a scary, uncertain place. However, as teachers we have so much control in helping to change this narrative — even if it’s only for the short period of time in our room, it matters.

If we’re okay with our classroom being a place that is entirely based on relationship building — meeting students halfway — and meaningful connections to content and student agency — then we’re designing a path for purpose. Meaningful time, coupled with learning that attaches to student aspirations and experiences, will begin to establish meaning. And that may sound contrived, but there is a worrisome lack of meaning across almost everything in middle school and beyond. Initially, these changes will be hard — it’s not what students expect: the class will be less structured, less competitive, and therefore “not as serious.” And it wouldn’t hurt to make our classes fun as well — interesting, sure — but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the space you’re in. Overtime our consistency in making connections — loving students — will give rise to a community which is what we were all looking for in the first place.

The logical conclusion many teachers come to is to pair what students like with their traditional coursework: make a meme of neuroplasticity!; how would this Fortnite situation be calculated? I applaud any educator willing to meet students in their space, but endeavors like this tend to simply rationalize a system of control: get students to do the work we want by manipulating what they like to do. And as a result, our outcomes are short-term and marginal — the lesson may go well, students may be incredibly excited that day, they probably will learn a lot. But this isn’t a sustainable practice, because our content isn’t what students are always doing — and we can’t pair an entire subject area to Fortnite. We’re just updating to Teach Like a Champion 3.0 — finding new ways to dish out antiquated work.

Our ability to design a better future is based entirely on our willingness to completely change how our classroom works. To design meaningful experiences, we shouldn’t look at ways to pair our curriculum (usually, it’s a stretch anyways). Instead, we should be creating a curriculum that is engaging to students in the first place. Children want to learn — they care about knowledge — just not what we’re giving them. The only way to find out is ask — help guide their journys — and build a better, purposeful future together.

A Different Sort

Maybe instead of clinging to the “some-win-and-some-lose” approach to education, we should embrace the “all-need” approach. The former pushes competition, forcing us to rank and sort kids, enabling us to wash our hands, for the results fit the model — it’s the natural order of things. It’s how it’s been. It’s how it is. It’s how it will be. But it doesn’t have to be. I reject wholeheartedly, in spirit and practice, the notion that we have to award winners and, in turn, name losers in the classroom. Such sorting carries serious consequences.

What if we sorted kids differently? What if instead of letting them win or lose the game, we simply let them play the game? I know, this is where those who cling to competition will object to such openhanded offal, warning that we have to have to winners and losers, but we don’t have to, not in school, not in the critical development of our young humans whose growth is dependent not upon the labels we level but the help we hand.

Let’s, then, sort by need, for that is where help begins. But such sorting is not so simple. John needs this. Mary needs that. And sometimes, Jane’s needs lead us down a spiral from which we may never return. I recently went down such a path.

“Can’t avoid it any longer, Mr. Sy.”

“No, ‘spose not, kiddo.”

She had turned it in blank. Well, she never even started. I knew–we knew–there was no point. Her anxiety had come to haunt, so I just told her we could do it another day, maybe during the next day’s Access Time we could sit down and work through it together. But that day came and went (the ghosts still lingered) and so did three other Access Time opportunities. But yesterday, will intact, she decided we needed to get Performance #4 done. So we did.

We cleared off the corner of my desk; she pulled up a chair; we gathered our materials, and we set to work.

We set to work. But I didn’t walk for her, I walked with her. She needs me to. She is plenty able but her needs are a little different, so I meet her at her needs. She gets easily and confused and frustrated; her anxiety creeps along, settles in, and she shuts down. So we walk at her pace.

“Okay, kiddo, let’s go to the passage. Read it and look for the universal theme(s) that Elie is addressing.”

“Loss of Faith.”

“Great. Now, what is Elie saying about the loss of faith?”

“Um, well, in dark times, people question their faith, and…”

“Okay, let’s write that down.”

And she did, or she tried, and then she stopped. Wringing her hands, she began to recite “d,” “b” making symbols with her fingers.

“Dyslexia?” I asked.

“Yeah, she sighed. Elementary was awful. Teachers yelled at me all the time.”

Yelled. All the time.

“But you seem to be dealing.”

“Yeah, I just gotta slow down and focus. My fingers help. My dad taught me that.”

And so, we made our way, me giving little nudges here and there, her working with her hands to find her focus and avoid her anxiety. And many minutes later, her Performance was done. And done well.

With help. And, of course this brings questions. Is it learning? Did she do the work? Did I do the work? If we did the work, is it then invalid? Can she earn a 3 on the Performance since I helped her? Is it fair to the other kids? Will this prepare her for the future when she may not get help? Is teaching helping or is teaching testing?

Teaching has to be helping, right? If helping is not teaching, then why does it feel right? Testing has never felt right. Never. It’s always felt that it was something I was doing to the kids. Not with the kids.

Yesterday, I walked with her. I helped her. I taught her. And I think that is the essence of my job. Help.

Sadly, I cannot help all my kids in all the ways they need help all the time. But I will try. It’s all I can do. As for the other questions and criticisms that may come with my giving such “help,” I don’t care.

I. Don’t. Care. Not anymore. It’s my room, and I will help kids. That is my purpose. That is my why. And as the outside world puffs and proffers under the pretense of what is and isn’t “good teaching,” I will be here helping kids. I think it’s that simple.

My Pragmatic Journey to Voice & Choice in the Classroom

I thought I was doing everything “right”.

I had prided myself on unpacking standards, planning engaging, performative lessons and units that were well-paced and tech savvy; putting together complicated, ambitious projects and writing prompts with standards-referenced, multiple-tiered rubrics and criteria for students to meet or exceed.

Yet my journey to student voice and choice in the classroom was born out of an intense frustration that what I and my co-teacher were spending hours planning, and daily troubleshooting, just wasn’t having the impact we were intending. Students frustrated with technology, bored with a topic, or just not feeling like learning about the Reformation for three weeks would act out, speak out, lash out, just anything to get away from a classroom that, now, so obviously demanded that students care and learn about and think important what I, an adult with a history degree and a shelf full of history books, cared and found important and demanded they learn about.

But they didn’t care and didn’t think it was important and they weren’t learning (which is kind of the point of teaching) and by October I went home almost every night wondering if I was going to be a casualty of fifth-year teacher burnout. So out of that frustration I did what every tired parent has done in a moment of exhaustion and said “Fine, what do YOU want to do?!”, and it turned out to be the most important decision of my teaching career:

It turns out that, if you let themstudents will partner with their peers to research, create, and send a presentation to the school board about Eurocentrism in our history curriculum (and fume over the board’s complacent response).

Students will interview a local funeral director and present to the class a history of American attitudes toward death, dying, and an overview on the science of embalming and preservation, if you let them. (the same student later presented on existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre and read from Nausea in French and English so we could hear it in the original language)

Students will teach a lesson to their peers about the technological advances of the Roaring 20s, complete with a pre- and post-quiz Kahoot to demonstrate their classmate’s learning, if you let them.

Students will blog openly about controversial and deeply personal topics, post their work to an online audience, and solicit feedback from friends and strangers alike, if you let them.

What do you want to do?” was followed by “How are you going to do it?” and “With whom?” which was then followed by “For whom?”, “What will the impact be?”, “What tools or resources will you need?”, and “How will you know when you’ve gotten there?”

This kind of problem-solving questioning is how I learned to make molasses cookies and the same line of questioning that put human beings on the Moon. Too often, student voice and choice is singled out as an idealistic pedagogy, but it turns out that this simple set of questions can be used as a lens to look at almost any issue, topic, or problem imaginable, and with that set of questions came the simple but powerful permission to imagine.

I couldn’t let grading and evaluating and points and what was exceeding versus meeting and not-quite-there-yet interfere with deep, meaningful student learning because it didn’t matter what the rubric said or what the levels were: students were more motivated to learn, were more engaged in their learning, and sharing in their learning together in a way that hadn’t existed in my classroom before.

So how did I grade all of this? Well, I didn’t, really. I didn’t need to, and I couldn’t let grading and evaluating and points and what was exceeding-versus meeting-and-not-quite-there-yet interfere with deep, meaningful student learning because it didn’t matter what the rubric said or what the levels were: students were more motivated to learn, were more engaged in their learning, and sharing in their learning together in a way that hadn’t existed in my classroom before. I went from being a micromanager of student behaviors directed at teacher-focused outcomes, dreading each class period and waiting to see how these students could screw up my lesson plan, to a learning partner, sharing in the joy of learning with students, talking openly with them about their learning with no evaluative agenda, and learning alongside and from them as a result. I did less, students did and learned more; we were happier and had a healthier classroom culture.

I did less, students did and learned more; we were happier and had a healthier classroom culture.

Restoring Humanity to...Purpose (Changing the Focus of School)

The following is the transcript for our recent podcast. Listen here!

I was reading an article in The Atlantic titled “The Purpose of Education - According to Students” and the dialogue within was horrifying. “What do you think is the purpose of education?” One student responds, “....I’m seeing the role of school - of education - basically a pastime, like a public babysitter for whoever feels their children should be here.” Another, “....they don’t really teach you about how to go and get a job, how to live on your own, pay this, pay that, when you actually have to do it. Or actually prepare you for college and dealing with that.” And a student says, “You’re just learning to take a test. You’re not learning to actually be happy.” Quite frankly, I find it perplexing that this isn’t a bigger deal... (Slapik, 2017.)

Children are faced with a ton of pressure on what they will do when they graduate - and that pressure is exacerbated in their teenage years when while soul-searching they face depression, anxiety, and fear. The fear of judgment by others, but also there’s a kind of sustained apathy - which is brought upon by years of irrelevant schooling. Personally, my students seem more purposeless than ever.

Sadly, there isn’t a lot of history surrounding the explicit focus of purpose for students - perhaps due to its relatively new historical place. To define what I mean by “purpose”, I’m referring to a meaningful life’s work that you focus on - and you understand why this is your life’s work. It’s not an immediate goal - but why you continue to push forward in whatever you do. Prior to the modern era, most children went into a familiar field - such as what their family did, or simply married and had children. Only the very affluent would have much choice in their further education, and much of that collegiate experience was soul-searching.

The earliest substantial writings I could find of searching for passion in schools were studies of Dr. William Damon of Stanford University in the late 2000s. He wrote “Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life” which centered on the “directionless drift” that most students move through schooling with. He found that only 1 in 5 people from ages 12-22 could express what they wanted to do, where they wanted to go, and most importantly - why they wanted to do these things. Then, 60% had some purposeful actions, but didn’t have the time nor commitment to really care about them. And finally, 25% had literally no aspirations. These studies were conducted at the same time of many exploring meaning and psychological benefits - almost entirely in the late 90s and through today.

Prior to this, it was assumed that through schooling, students would find their purpose as they grew up - but there was no explicit intent to have students reflect on this matter, outside of the Free School movement and other counterculture and unschooling programs to the traditional public school system. In fact, since the 1960s and the US worriment of our place academically versus other countries, traditional education has doubled down on standardized knowledge through “back to basics” movements, calls for national standards reform, and accountability measures. Ironically, the beginning schools of the United States - which were more focused on community goals and serving the needs of its students - seem to have more intent toward finding purpose than the ubiquitous schooling models of today. In fact, we could arguably state that common schooling that from roughly the 1850s on, although having benefits in reading, writing, and providing a basic education for all, overtime seemed to more and more distance itself from finding purposeful actions for students (Sugimoto & Carter, 2015.)

Now, we live in an era where 1 in 5 kids have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. Students feel empty, depressed, and anxious. Suicide rates are rising - with a 40 year high among girls in 2015. Obviously, there’s a lot more to this than just school - we also need efforts toward normalizing mental health treatment and talking more about these problems - but it’s undeniable that for many of our students, school is purposeless. Not only does the content seem outdated and contrived, but they’re forced to sit through it for 8 hours a day, sometimes even forced to do it into late afternoons. It’s incredibly odd that we wouldn’t be focused on kids finding their place in the world. Perhaps that’s a grandiose question for a 14-year-old, but that’s the exact question they’re asking and seeking the answer to (Snow & McFadden, 2017.)

Much of the research I’m about to refer to is compiled from our previous podcast guest’s organization, Patrick Cook-Deegan’s Project Wayfinder, as well as Dr. William Damon’s formative work, Path to Purpose. Again, this is quite a new field, but the results are staggering and really, if you think about it, common sense.

First, in 2013, Patrick L. Hill, Rachel Sumner, and Anthony Burrow found that individuals who had proactive engagement toward finding their purpose had greater agency and openness to experience, which coincidentally resulted in greater emotional and social well-being. Whereas individuals who found their purpose through mostly reactionary means, as in, someone forced it upon them or they just happened to start doing something, were less likely to feel what they did mattered. Obviously, people that sought out finding their purpose and acted upon it were happier (Hill, Sumner, & Burrow, 2014.)

In the same vein, further research by William Damon, Jenni Menon, and Kendall Cotton in 2010, compiled how adolescents view their sense of purpose in their formative years. In summary, students spent little to no time on soul-searching, and in the hyper-communicative world of social media and advertising, with a frenzy of people telling you what you should be, students are stressed out. They’re told to find passions or things that interest them, but that’s often in spite of what they’re already doing in school (Damon, Menon, & Cotton Bronk, 2003.)

And it should come as no surprise that 9th and 10th grade students, according to the work of Jane Gillham, had greater life satisfaction and less depressive symptoms when they found meaning and love in their lives (Gillham et al., 2011.)

Another interesting note is Martha Sayles’ research, where she studied a diverse school system - accounting for gender, ethnicity, their egocentrism, and their purpose in life. Students who scored low in having a purpose or meaning to life were significantly more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as using dangerous drugs or drinking and driving. In addition, Anglo-American children reported having much less of a purpose in their lives and were drastically more prone to risky behavior than their minority classmates (Sayles, 1995.)

In a landmark study by Kendall Cotton Bronk, she found that adolescents had incredibly close ties between their purpose and their identity. The more teenagers understood their place in the world - the more purposeful actions they took - and the more they understood who they were. They would then take incredible steps to be the person they wanted to be - to meet their life’s purpose (Cotton Bronk, 2012.)

And there’s still a couple more highlights. Dr. Cotton Bronk then worked with Patrick Hill and Anthony Burrow in 2014 to find that grit - as in working hard to achieve your goals - had a substantial correlation with those who had a life direction and commitment to a purpose. Furthermore, those still confused about their futures tended to have very little commitment (Hill, Burrow, & Cotton Bronk, 2014.)

Finally, important research by Kyla Machell, David Disabato, and Todd Kashdan found that teenagers living in poverty, who often have increased antisocial and decreased prosocial behavior, can alleviate and escape from these mindsets by finding purpose in life - the ultimate resiliency factor - to develop skills and a mindset to achieve in spite of adversity (Machell et al.,2015.)

So...why focus on purpose? I don’t really know how someone could not answer....of course you would focus on purpose. In addition to all that research previously presented, there are hundreds of studies that correlate increased and better life outcomes - even mortality rates - to having a purpose.

The argument that arises is - do we need well-rounded people? As in, are there certain things that everyone has to know in order to be successful? Then, after we figure out what those things are - we then devote all that time to achieving and finding student’s life goals. Of course, in the modern school system - nearly 100% of our time is on what the state has determined as a successful, well-rounded person. No one wants to give up their valuable class time to soul-searching when they’re meeting their standards, and most teachers value their standards more than others - meaning they’re less likely to solely give up their time.

In order for a purposeful, meaningful classroom to exist, students almost have to hyper-specialize. They can’t find meaning from surface-level ideas - especially when those ideas are being thrown at them day to day in the same vein as their online lives. To deep dive into a particular topic - especially when that topic isn’t related to our core subject areas - is practically impossible in a traditional system. And we still will likely place value on some topics we believe everyone should know.

Personally, I think that the only takeaway I want 100% of my students to understand as a result of my American History class are tolerance and empathy - developing anti-racist, anti-sexist, and pro-diverse viewpoints. And I’m sure that most subjects have a key, underlying reason why they want students to know their subject. I’m not sure if my views of having a history major background influences what I deem important to all (after all, there are so many non-school subject majors who would bring something else to to the table) - but if we truly factored down our subjects, we could be providing students 80% of a focus on what they want to do.

This viewpoint is counter to a purely self-directed school, but in my progressive mindset I do believe that there is some value in “sparking curiosity” of young students through an effective teacher, but I do believe that the relationship should be consensual - you can’t force students into learning things. My fear of purely individualized classrooms - such as MOOCs and other ed-tech individualistic endeavors - is the loss of community. If one solely hyper-specializes to find their purpose, but never sees that connection to others or interacts with their peers, they’re essentially a robot, not a human with purpose.

All that being said, helping students find a purpose in school isn’t rocket science in terms of its actual implementation, but it is a bureaucratic nightmare when it involves giving up what’s already there. To teach purpose, we just need to let students explore the world according to their desires, present them with things that spark their curiosity, and provide resources for them to reflect and interact with each other. We need to value their thoughts and give them opportunities to specialize in projects that interest them, which they can then pursue with a mentor - the teacher - assisting them when they need it.

None of this works if students have to complete x amount of work each week in each subject, or are tested on a slew of mandated knowledge that ultimately is forgotten or irrelevant. Although it is surprising how easy it can be to rig this system in your favor - such as drilling for a state test a week before it is given for substantially high results, even when you barely cared about it in the months before.

Operating a class where you give students time - or even better - a school gives students time - to just seek out answers is worthwhile. Developing close relationships with every student where you know what their interests are - and help guide them on their journey - is life changing and so incredibly important. This isn’t supposed to be a “genius hour” or a fraction of school - it should be the other way around - the hour of time would be the mandated knowledge, with the rest being up to the individual or class.

All of this ties together with other topics of this podcast: grading, critical pedagogy, reformative justice, and various conversations with those looking to reform schools. The solution is just to listen, learn, provide time, and give decision-making to the individual needs of students - meaning schools all look very different to each other and have their own solutions to problems. Notably, that means that schools are listening to their students to develop their frameworks, not assuming or making judgment calls on what their students can do. But to the overall point, our major issue is in convincing legislators, school boards, administrators, and the public that this all matters. When you write or say it - it makes complete sense - but to actually change the cultural discourse of public education takes a lot of work.

Perhaps the next step is to bring up a discussion of purpose in school. Find the one thing that sparks educators to rise up and demand change - and maybe purpose is that calling. Each of these puzzle pieces in creating a relevant schooling system works in tandem with another - and once we find the discussion that ignites our local school - the quicker we’ll be reforming every notion toward progressive education.

Being the Serious Teacher Who Doesn’t Take Traditional Seriously

When your classroom doesn’t look like any other classroom — students are often overjoyed, but also bewildered. Why would I do anything when it’s not for a grade? If they’re not going to lecture, why wouldn’t I just goof off? If there’s not a test, is any of this information relevant? Educators face this scenario daily: by doubling down on progressive practice, their unwillingness to embrace the traditional delegitimizes their class.

In most schools, there is a small cluster of teachers thinking different — they’re letting students run their experience, they’re stepping back from the front of the room, they’re rethinking grades toward legitimate assessment, and they’re not cramming state-mandated standards. When a student reaches these classes, there’s a stark shift: no forced respect, no falsely perceived narrative of what one “needs” to know, no grades. This is a frustrating scenario — schooling has made many students unaware of what schooling should be. It’s not about them — it’s about passing a test, scoring top of their class, and dominating the ever growing college resume checklist.

Therefore, when progressive educators begin to embrace these methods — they feel like they’ve fallen short. As bell hooks explains in Teaching to Transgress, teachers attempting radical pedagogy fall into a trap —

“…when students did not appear to “respect their authority” they felt those practices were faulty, unreliable, and returned to traditional practices.”

After all, students are essentially holding everything back. It could be that the majority of each day — a very draining day — that teachers are beholding them to notes en masse, harsh solitude, and mind-crushingly boring topics. So yes — if you give students a break, let them be kids, and give them a lot of exciting things to do…they’re going to get really excited. It’s obvious when you reflect on it. However, in the moment it’s a grim reality — all of these well-researched frameworks are just turning my room into a circus!

 via  Flickr

via Flickr

It’s a challenge — and one that I’ve learned to love: educating children who have to come to school without forcing them to learn, and the majority of the time they’re ruled in other rooms. Every single year I deal with a sizable minority of students who will play video games in the corner for weeks — completely adverse to any content — because “well, it’s not for a grade, so I don’t care, I hate school!” I don’t shame or blame them, it makes sense. As a high school educator, I’m well aware of how ridiculous some (even most) of the content students are tested over is. While in this classroom, respect is earned, not given. That’s usually something teachers say to children — but it should be the other way around. We’re earning the respect of them — convincing them that we care, appreciate, and love them — that we want to guide their journey toward even more positive outcomes.

To accomplish this, I talk a lot about school. We have passionate discussions on what a grade really is, how sarcastic comments by teachers hurt their feelings (after reading through Alfie Kohn’s ‘Corridor Wit’), the history of our classrooms, and what our goals at school should be. Most students love this (they’re finally able to trash talk school!) and they’re also willing to give me a chance. There’s something to be said about being the “popular teacher” — often equated to the “easy teacher” (more on that later) — it shouldn’t be a contest, but when students see you legitimately as a trusting, caring individual who understands their situation — they’ll do what you suggest. And there’s a few who struggle to get there — students completely disillusioned will take weeks — even months — of one-on-one conversations and sparks of interest to participate. But all of this is better than the alternative: forcing them to care. After all, it would defeat the entire purpose of educating for positive change if you force them to.

It’s worth noting that “4.0 students” seem the most prone to rejecting a progressive mindset. My most daunting challenge are the ~20% of students who complete homework, read for other classes, and “get ahead”, rather than explore ideas in my class because it’s “not real” without a traditional playbook. For me, outside of just building solid relationships, the only solution is to design the most absurd, relevant, and over-the-top PBL scenario: designing works to help the community and having every professional I can think of come in; raising awareness for the undocumented laborer program who was willing to visit our classroom; building and designing mock rollercoasters for a local theme park contest. If the classroom is doing legitimately fun, relevant, and interesting work — everyone tends to jump on board. And ever present in any scenario in my classroom — students can opt out. Interestingly enough, the more I’ve given opportunities to not participate, the more participation I’ve gotten in return. When your classroom knows you’re doing all this for them, they’ll stay by your side.

Furthermore, letting students guide their path instantaneously makes your classroom relevant. I always mention that if you want to do something different, just ask! This leads to a lot of interesting — and not always fool-proof ideas — but that’s sort of the entire point of teaching. We’re here to guide, mentor, and assist through learning…which includes failure and ridiculous ideas. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to see kids doing a lot of frankly bizarre things in my classroom: building a life-size Barbie doll box, writing a (not-so-well researched) play on drug usage in the United States, or researching local golf courses and their impact on our community’s economy. These might seem random — but they’re all relevant to learning the history of our area. And each leads to a learning opportunity: why not connect this Barbie doll box to the exoticism of Human zoos of the 19th/20th century — this time related to body image and the role of women?; why not connect with a member of the local police to learn more about the opioid crisis?; why not make a proposal of how golf courses can improve the economy, and see why our lower-income areas never seem to have them? Each one of these micro learning opportunities sparks a unique desire to engage and foster a purpose to these projects.

 Making connections to deep points of understanding in history, such as the horrifically racist Human zoos of the 19th century, are easily connected and synthesized when connected to student’s experiences.

Making connections to deep points of understanding in history, such as the horrifically racist Human zoos of the 19th century, are easily connected and synthesized when connected to student’s experiences.

Motivation feels different. You have to know your students. Sadly — this gets conflated online to knowing their names, greeting them at the door, or recognizing them on their birthday. I would hope the majority of educators show basic human-to-human interaction with people they spend hours each day with. Instead, by knowing students I mean you learn about their goals in life, what drives them, what small and large events have happened recently or in the future, their family life, their struggles and successes. It’s very complicated and time-consuming — but this is the entire purpose of education. If you spend all your time doing this, your classroom will transform. The bonds of trust will drive students to work with you rather than for you — they’ll see you as a mentor, not a military sergeant.

And you’ll sometimes have to accept the situation you’re in as the progressive educator. There have been “free days” — where multiple tests were given in other classes, the day was long, it’s frankly just “boring” today, etc. “Let’s doing something small, or nothing at all, and play a few games. Spend some time with each other and talk.” Doing this may make you the “easy teacher” — but really you’re the teacher forming bonds. The break is just as important as “core class time.” I’ve never had as much engagement — in serious discussions or free play — after our class has just bonded together and relaxed. Learning communities aren’t entirely formed by “learning” together, at least not in the traditional sense — we form these communities by learning about everything: social interactions, getting up and moving, doing something entirely random, and of course — coursework.

Rebranding learning in the classroom is a necessity. Without doing so, you’re setting yourself up for failure. I know far too much teachers who attempt progressive ideas and give up after a month — the kids were too rowdy and well, rebelled. Mistakes will be made along the way, but the fight to implement progressive education will take a lot of unorthodox classrooms, willpower, and commitment to positive relationships. Once you double down and lead the way, you’ll reap the rewards.

Restoring Humanity to...Teaching (Critical Pedagogy) Script

The following is (likely a poorly written) transcript that served as the script for our podcast:

The founder of critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire wrote:

“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

Freire’s experience was unique for an educator. Born in 1921, he was raised by a middle class family albeit in one of the poorest regions of Brazil, and quickly became infatuated with educating those who were marginalized. Central to Freire’s understanding of education was his father, who taught him about his culture with authority, but remarkably with compassion and understanding.

During the Great Depression, the Freire Family struggled and moved to a poorer neighborhood in another area of town. Freire lost multiple years of secondary school in this struggle, and in general he was considered a mediocre student. Even when transitioning to law school at age 20, he struggled to maintain high grades as he had to work to help provide for his family.

Education was core to Freire, so he began to teach a Portuguese language class shortly after obtaining his law degree. At the same time, he began to lecture trade union members on their rights and responsibilities. Soon after, his work became recognized and he was appointed to the Social Service for Industry as chief of the Department of Education and Culture.

In the Social Service for Industry position, Freire constantly involved parents and children into his conversations. He worked with families to solve issues of malnutrition and child labor and empowered families to take charge of their own problems, rather than rely on his organization. These were called “worker’s clubs” and were almost like small governments within themselves aimed at solving the needs of the working class. That being said, Freire was forced to resign after criticism of his open, democratic leadership style which was considered to be too soft.

Despite all this, he began to work with Alceu de Amoroso Lima and “new school” teacher Anisio Teixeira in building glass-roots schools. Together, they worked together to build K-Adult learning programs. They brainstormed a new system...aptly titled the “Paulo Freire system” - which utilized the again, aptly titled “Paulo Freire Method” where teachers, students, and families would build curriculums together, as well as use methods such as action groups, debates, and roundtable discussions to work through content as well as pedagogical problems.

This work brought Freire to teach part-time at the Universidade de Raceife, where he became involved with the Catholic Student’s Club, which was deemed a radical organization who fought for health, social services, housing, and more for the working class. They met with those living in slums to talk about their problems, help educate them for speaking up for themselves, and bring their issues to the proper authorities. Freire was determined to find a solution to his core issue: how to education all people.

Freire began to observe and write about one of his core problems with the educational model: people are being manipulated by their education - education isn’t coming from what they want, but rather the government or someone with something to gain. This will later translate to the “banking model” - which we’ll talk about in a second.

He continued to find ways to reform education and speak out about issues with the dominant culture controlling educational systems. He wanted to educate the illiterate to take charge of their own problems - by teaching them directly about what those problems were and giving them the voice to do so. Reformists and leftist groups helped Freire form the National Plan of Literacy Training, which had overwhelming financial support. However, in 1964, Brazil faced a military coup which ended all potential success of this program.

Freire was sooned arrested for his “subversive teachings” and exiled. He visited Chile, the United States, and Geneva to lecture on education and what was now deemed “critical pedagogy.” Returning to Brazil after some government issues were solved, he lived much of his life lecturing as a Brazilian professor, continuing to push for a “reinvention of power.” Often to the dismay of the government - who criticized him, among many others in a position of power.

Freire published many books in his life, most notably Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and served as an inspiration for many great writers, professors, and thinkers such as Henry Giroux, Antonia Darder, bell hooks, Paul Willis, Peter McLaren, and Shirley Steinberg. His connection with those who struggled the most - and his unwavering support even in his own personal struggles - has led many to appreciate and follow his teachings, even though his work has never been explicitly fundamentally supported by school systems, at least not on a large scale or for a long period of time.

So what IS critical pedagogy? Now that we know a little about the guy who started it, let’s analyze what’s all involved. If you’ve ever read Freire, you’ll know that it’s incredibly hard to follow - it’s been interpreted in different ways, it changes from book to book, it’s translated, and frankly, it’s very dry and academic. It comprises elements of Marxism and anti-colonial thinking, but it doesn’t support any particular point of view. And it doesn’t offer any explicit methods for schools to follow.

That being said, there’s so much we can learn from Freire’s ideas which have been built upon over the years. I’m going to attempt to define some of the key points:

The Hidden Curriculum:

These are the unwritten or unintended rules and lessons of schools. We often talk about the curriculum: lessons, activities, teaching methods, and more - but the hidden curriculum is what students may learn about themselves and others as a result of this work.

  • For example: School often teaches students that to be a “good student” is to become uniform and do what you’re told. Meet the rubric exactly, don’t talk when you’re not told to, and partake in a certain number of required courses, extracurriculars, and sports. The overall lesson may have been to prepare someone for college, but was the hidden message that you should never rebel? Never question anything or never find something you truly love to do?

  • One could think about how you’re not allowed to ask for help on a test, or work with others (that’s cheating) - but in the real world isn’t this normal?

  • Or perhaps you could go through an entire history class and only hear one or two, “safe” African American voices - making the implication that either African Americans rarely achieve or marginalizing this history for racist reasons.

  • Or maybe the rules itself reflect a hidden curriculum, maybe certain clothes are banned in inner city communities but not mentioned at all in the suburbs? It’s interesting to note how inner-city classrooms tend to have more uniform policies than everywhere else: this has cultural ramifications that are important to notice.

The Banking Model:

In a way, this is Freire’s core principal. The banking model refers to seeing students as empty vessels waiting to be filled by their knowledgeable teacher. He argued that the banking model, “attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.” Like other reformist thinkers of the 20th century, Freire believed the state-mandated curriculum to be destructive to student’s individualistic thinking.

This, of course, is widely present in schools throughout the United States. Freire describes teaching talking about “reality as if it were motionless, static compartmentalized, and predictable” - and that they “fill” students with narration - without any significance.

When the teacher is a narrator, students simply just memorize narrated content. These “filled’ students are now not only full of this mandated knowledge, which is often unimportant, but have been transformed to acting like a depository - they no longer question things or think outside the box. Walk into any classroom taught traditionally, especially a high school classroom, and tell students to learn whatever they want or do a truly creative project without bounds - they’ll give you a blank look. Hell, I’ve had students Google “how to be creative” enough times to make me want to revolt against the education system itself.

Furthermore, students in the banking model are seen as knowing absolutely nothing before a teacher enters the room - they’re ignorant and their cultural background, their history, their family life - everything is ignored. In a standardized education system, “know your students” often translates to just “know their name” or “find a way to give them their state mandated medicine in a creative way” - not figure out what they want.

In Freire’s own words, here are the dichotomies of the banking model:

To add, I love this quote: “the interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them.” Teachers often see their “bad” students as lazy and incompetent while those who do whatever they say as smart and great leaders.

The goal of education should not be to integrate those historically oppressed into this system, but to transform the structure itself so people can be themselves.

The Culture of Silence:

Continuing the oppressed and oppressor narrative, Freire described two societies: one that is culturally alienated and one that is dominated. The alienated society is dependent on those who oppress it, and their alienation is imposed by colonial rule and a culture of silence. As in, the alienated society typically does not have a voice - and rarely talks about its issues- and if it does, it is suppressed very quickly...often violently.

Freire made it his life’s work to giving a voice to this silenced culture. By giving a voice, this isn’t literally just letting them speak - but giving them the tools to recognize their marginalization and transformative power to creatively overcome their problems: for example, talking about their neighborhood’s history and government actions toward it, or about workers rights at their parent’s jobs. In more well-off areas, it would be humanizing the positions of those oppressed by society, and giving students tools to empower others rather than continue their marginalization.

Bringing up silenced voices is often political, as it goes against the will of the ruling class - it will talk about corporations, political parties, and the state standards. Freire did not believe education could be neutral - if one is going to empower students, they must take a risk by talking about power structures and politics. This risk is one paramount to recognizing the culture of silence.

These core tenants are crucial to reimagining our education system. But how would we ever put them into practice?

Critical pedagogy keeps being written about, people keep bringing it up...but how many of us actually attempt to transform our classrooms? To reimagine our system without the traditional teacher / student dichotomy is to go against almost every facet of a teacher training program, and to disrupt the narrative that communities mostly expect from their schools.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile to attempt to realize what this classroom would be: a teacher would work with students to construct a curriculum, and while a teacher would have their professional input, students would be in charge of making decisions. The classroom would explore problems in student’s lives, and hypothesize, as well as realize how to solve them. The classroom would be an extension of academics into practical life advice - it would explore political discourse and find ways to disrupt the narrative: whether students were the ones being oppressed or in born into a system of the oppressor.

Eliminating the state-mandated curriculum requires a large risk with a gigantic reward. Yes, there is, of course, almost no way within the public model as a lone teacher to do this without instant calls for resignation, but one can subversively teach content relevant to student desires while feigning ignorance to authority or teaching the bare minimum when forced. We need to recognize actual problems in the world and talk about them - and we must reject the neutral, milquetoast curriculum in favor of one that engages students through what they want. How do we do this? It’s actually quite easy...ask what they want. That takes a lot more work than saying it - and you realize - but every time we have students developing our curricula, we’re doing something right. Before you teach something, let students accept or deny it. Let them analyze what activities your doing and what projects you may propose - give them time to not only tinker with these ideas, but reject them entirely if they hate it. Let them give out entirely new ideas and develop that curriculum with them.

This is easier with younger students. You’ll see the effects of the hidden curriculum and banking model with older kids - they won’t know how to react to your ideas. They may think you’re lazy or don’t know what you’re doing if you ask for proposals...they may not know how to think for themselves. In fact, the process of developing the curricula together will probably be a stronger learning moment, full of learning everywhere, that will equate to more than they get from what they envision.

Freire’s work never gives a step by step, so it’s difficult to offer direct solutions outside of just saying: communicate openly. Don’t think that “student choice” means that you have a preset idea of what students will do, but are offering options. For me, the hardest hurdle to jump in defeating the banking model when Freire says, “students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher.” Designing a classroom that’s really open - where discipline, norms, content, and learning is all agreed upon - it’s hard to do. And to couple that with mandatory seat time, compulsory education...well that seems like a catch-22 in of itself.

Simply stated, in my opinion the best way to adapt this pedagogy is to be radically open and take radical risks. It’s not a small step of maybe letting students help out with a unit here and’s introducing them to the class with a blank slate, communicating to them what the purpose of the class is according to the state, explain the history behind these decisions - heck even explain the banking model - and give them the tools to take charge of learning. That requires room for mistakes, many hours of lost (air quotes) “content time”, and tons of collaborative work. Deprogramming students really has to go beyond one classroom - multiple teachers have to work together over multiple years - especially in high school - to train students not to be trained. Kids naturally learn - they won’t stop respecting you if you give them the tools to be self-sufficient, albeit you’ll need to earn their respect rather than force it.

Administration must let students not only have choice in their classrooms, but choice at large. Students should be in meetings, they should have a student council that isn’t just the best students as handpicked by teachers, but a random assortment that represents the entire student body that can reform at will. And they should have real voice - they have to be involved in every step of every process. It’s possible in a public school, it’s just that no one really cares, doesn’t believe children can handle it, or are too self-absorbed in their teaching. There’s nothing, outside of a very few choice topics like IEPs, that students and families can’t bring a perspective to.

The more people that understand critical pedagogy and apply it to their teaching, the more drastic the change. So many educators are turning to books or ed gurus who preach to make their teaching better - but better teaching should not translate to doing the traditional model better. If we’re doing that, we may as well say we’re just really good at forcing kids to do something. It’s an interesting trait to be sure, but it’s not liberating - it’s not really caring about kids - it’s not really the point of education. If we believe that education provides the means of empowerment for anyone, then we must instill values at every level that reinforce openness, communication, and recognizing real problems in our communities.  

A radical pedagogy subverts authority - and the irony is that schools are authority - they’re extensions of the government. Therefore, there’s no denying that giving voice to students has an explicit risk in the school’s designated purpose; every level of one’s community not only must have a seat at the table, they have to know why they have a seat at the table. Parents, students, community members, teachers, all must recognize the principles of critical pedagogy in order to understand they’re being oppressed by the system - if not everyone agrees with these principles, a subversive group will dismantle and work against all progress that could potentially be made. Establishing an actual learning community takes time, effort, and diligence, and won’t happen overnight.

Families are important too. They’re so often lost in the mix outside of a random email each semester. Some PTOs give credence to school events, but they often are glorified fundraising groups. Why are families not involved with every level of a school and constantly in communication? After all, they’re essentially the backbone of each child’s life - educators are just there to assist. Therefore, parent education programs on critical pedagogy - as well as constant ways for input and assistance - are needed for a educational revolution.

Teachers must band together for changes like this. If administration won’t budge, or if they’re only willing to offer a consolation prize, stick together and fight. If they continue to not care, go someplace else or bring in a third party. Radical change requires radical action. Essentially, to enact these changes, teachers are rebels. They’re fighting for what’s just - they’re really fighting for their students. They’re not talking about how research demonstrates that greeting students increases their test scores....they’re actually giving students real opportunities. It’s so tiring to see article after article talking about how to teach better when it could be translated to how to control better - we need teachers who care about kids to the point where they give up the often ill-regarded label as “teacher” and become “educators” - which in my opinion can mean so much more. An educator works with the entire community to educate and liberate and that guides others to a better future, not the top-down authoritarian figure that dictates what a better future is.

Often times we few standards as the “what” and we reach them in the “how” - critical pedagogy rejects this entire structure. It’s not about doing the existing structure in an interesting way or to sneak in some student passions every now and then, we’re actually uplifting the entire narrative in favor of “here’s what the state says you should do, I’m telling you this because of these concepts of critical pedagogy that I think you should know about, now what do you want to do about it? And what do you all want to learn today?” Essentially, we need to make learning communities to learn to fish, not fish for them - and everything in between.

Cited within:

“We all do what’s best for children.”: The Banality of Educative Statements

If the goal is to unite everyone for a common cause, let’s rally together: “We all work everyday doing what’s best for children.” “We care about kids.” “We work tirelessly for our students.” Frankly, I’m tired of statements like these. It’s the perfect copout to any argument, a safety blanket for failing at innovative practice.

There’s a fact at the end of the day: either one adopts practice backed by strong research, the cutting edge of what we know works for students — or they don’t. The status quo is not good enough, and although we all — assumably — care about students, that isn’t enough to satisfy drastic change. At almost any conference I hear those words at an attempt to get everyone on board and accept mediocrity. It’s easy to keep doing things as they’re done. If one is taking the easy way out (and knows better), are they still doing what’s best for kids? What if they’re wishfully ignorant?

Demanding change is a different beast than desiring it. We can hypothesize and read book after book that present equity in education, gradeless learning, student-centered schedules, interest-based ideology, restorative justice, and critical pedagogy — but to enact it requires many to fall in line. Teacher autonomy is only as strong as the pedagogy that supports it. We expect that everyone does their research and works their hardest, but of course that’s not always the case. There are people that are right and wrong about their classrooms. And yes, only you know your students and that drives practice, but there is often a grandiose assumption of what this means and an unnerving connection to a teacher’s already developed curricula. Not all educators are exemplary — the act of going into this profession and doing whatever (even if you’re putting forth huge amounts of effort) should not make one shielded from criticism under the guise of heroism.

If educators aren’t united and constantly pushing forward — together — then two or more schools will exist: one that has teachers reimagining the classroom and the others doing decent work. Sure, one can do traditional well, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing what’s best for kids. Of course, this comes across as insulting — but I don’t think it should. Toxic positivity envelops education, we aren’t allowed to critique those in our profession without attacking “heroes.” In the same way that those attempting to reform the criminal justice system are judged— those critical of educators are seen to attack core principles of humanity itself.

Essentially, a leader should not waver to banal statements to make everyone feel safe. In the same way a band shouts the current location in their concert, releasing a quote that celebrates all teachers, regardless of what they’re doing, is guaranteed to gain support of the crowd. But there’s many issues — a degree of uncertainty and risk is a central tenant in progressive education and some will achieve while others falter. However, a safety manifest in staying safeperpetuates traditional teaching which is not what’s best for children. Is it wrong to criticize an educator who actually isn’t doing their best?

Perhaps it’s the combination of lack of respect and constant judgment that leads many teachers to celebrate these ideas. Endless pressure from the superhero mentality (which I’ve previous written about) has poisoned many to the point of giving up and, understandably, generic positivity helps foster support. Culturally, any teacher without consistent positive reinforcement would almost have to be doing incredibly poorly.

None of this is meant to assault well-to-do educators or imply that all choices I’ve made are correct, but to simply stop the dialogue of “everyone is doing their best for children.” I don’t think we should buy that — if everyone is doing their best, then what’s the point of any change? Wouldn’t we constantly be pushing toward separate outcomes? Doesn’t one — or even a mix — of sides have to be correct? We must stop coming to terms with easy, comfortable argument conclusions and keep up a constant stream of doing better.

Accepting the Status Quo: Teaching Without Bias

“Best practice” is defined as keeping politics separate from teaching: avoiding personal viewpoints, remaining neutral, and listening to all sides. It is ironic that the place most adverse to political influence is a cornerstone to literal constant discourse and indoctrination. The majority of educators — especially those who teach Humanities where these discussions tend to take hold — firmly believe they shouldn’t showcase their beliefs nor let students have any inkling to what they are.

It is my view that we should do the exact opposite. That isn’t to say that teachers should brainwash students to single-sided stories, rather it is irrational to teach from neutral footing. Frankly, to remain neutral is a single-sided story. One can’t teach without bias. In every curriculum, choices exist which fundamentally form a biased viewpoint: book selections, discussion questions, test prompts, project ideas. Indeed, the choices encouraged by the state (how many standards reflect certain perspectives over others, which selections are “best” for children) are heavily invested in by political voices.

To remain neutral is to accept the status quo. As a history teacher — if I quietly take my state mandated medicine and remain neutral — I am explicitly defining the historical narrative as an event-to-event story with little pushback, a few (hand-selected, safe) minority voices, and a series of wars with their benefits. Little attention is paid to those who fought against corporations and the military (socialists(!)) nor really any voice discrepant to the annals of the victors.

It’s saddening and more so, frightening that bringing up feminism, understanding Wallace Fard Muhammad, or analyzing our current political situations to those of the past is “taking a stance.” Perhaps I misunderstood the entire point of learning our history, but I would assume that the application of our knowledge — recognizing historiography and the debates it entails — while simultaneously providing a view to the historically oppressed — would be the point of history class. Taking a “stance” by presenting more of the story is just good teaching, not politicizing.

 Wallace Fard Muhammad

Wallace Fard Muhammad

Furthermore, in the same way most news media accepts all positions — a teacher who “remains neutral” in a class discussion suggests that all student opinions are factually the same. However, some positions are more correct than others. This is not rejecting student voice or promoting a political stance — it’s educating. Isn’t the purpose of education to inform? Facts, figures, and data is valuable and we must ensure that students can not only have informed opinions, but recognize that some issues aren’t debatable — for example: institutionalized racism is a problem in the United States, undocumented laborers are people often fleeing horrific situations, and there is a violent gun problem. None of these topics are political — but the fear of bringing up something serious, something that matters, is so foreign to the milquetoast education system. It fractures the “safety” of the “neutral”, perfectly laid out curriculum that assumes little is wrong, no problems are still present, in society.

Likewise, we shouldn’t accept prevailing notions of “safe teaching” as politically uncharged. In English, consistently teaching “classics” (the vast majority written by white males) exacerbates an often disregard for reading among those disillusioned with this hidden narrative and refuses to acknowledge current literary works discussing problems today. A simple note of this is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas being banned in multiple school districts. Cited as “inciting sexual behavior” and its “rampant” use of curse words, these same districts are fine with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It seems likely the concern is on the book’s critical viewpoint of racist police violence. Again, this is inherently political — but by ignoring The Hate U Give and staying safe, we are being political by blindly passing off the work.

This carries into STEM fields as well. Science classes are weary of tackling environmental justice such climate change or overbearing, under regulated pesticide producers. Instead, we’ll just “remain neutral” by talking about how climate works. And math classes are dumbing down the purpose of mathematical thinking by never applying any content learned to what it could be used for (prisons, poverty, immigration, public health, “IQ testing.”)

These stances are often deemed “radical.” To recognize actual problems in the world and talk about them is somehow “far out” while making bland, single-sided trivia lessons “engaging” through over-the-top lessons is “being a passionate educator.” In no way is this implying that all schools should take a liberal stance, although it is noteworthy to recognize many of these issues have a liberal slant — but just introducing critical discourse to any topic makes automatic relevance and importance.

Much of this is a fight against the hidden curriculum — a rejection of the assumption that what we’ve always done is neutral, correct, and historically upstanding whereas any new idea is outlandish. Authority and conformity is easily trained when learning is passionless and, for most of the time, pointless. If students never see relevancy — e.g. have any foray to why what they learn matters in the real world — then how can we expect them to apply it? A “good citizen” is one who readily accepts what they’re given — someone who rigorously plays the game of school to function happily as an ignorant “academic”. Therefore, we can’t assume that when one introduces a problem to the classroom that they’re a “radical” — they’re just doing their job well. Students are questioning the world around them, they’re questioning authority, and they’re engaged. What else could we want?

“Let’s get to work!”

“On day one, I’m going to learn everyone’s name and play a game. After all, the binders and syllabus can wait!”

Students love school the first day and begrudge it the rest. Teachers plan their beginnings to be engaging, then “get to work.” Isn’t it odd how easily this aligns? When a child is not forced into endless, substantiated curricula and learns about their peers, moves around, and is excited to be there — they’re engaged.

Perhaps the most egregious claim made by traditional educators is the equation of work and learning. “If you want to succeed, you need to put the time in!” Of course, the implication is that any success in life is due to a 4.0 GPA, perfect attendance, and a “do what you’re told” mentality. Most define learning this way — even subconsciously. Often I’ll find myself telling students to “stay on task” without recognizing the hidden message that I’m managing workers, not leading a community.

The connection between labor and learning is as obvious as it is damaging to everyone. A child begins to see imaginative, creative thought as “extra work” and adults are slow to pursue taxing new endeavors. What used to be a place of wonder, a classroom is a production center. When adults come across a row of books, they think of the time commitment and workload rather than the mysteries that are kept inside.

In reality, we’ve conceded that learning is not energizing — it is the antithesis, something categorically lumped in with doing the dishes. Sure, many teachers believe their commitment to fostering engagement, but how many of us reinforce workplace policies and terminology? Get to work, be on task, sign in on time, don’t fall out of line, ask questions (but don’t waste our time), do everything you’re told to. To imagine a place beyond this is actually quite difficult — would a compulsory public school be able to “control” without these policies? Is “control” — the center of workplace protocol — inevitable?

Why do almost all students show up day one engaged and ready to learn? Many are happy to see their friends — but there’s also a willingness to try something new, a desire to go beyond a 24/7 life with one’s family. It’s a new opportunity, a new community and space to explore. No matter how many times they’re let down, I find students excited on their initial return. Therefore, public school educators are assigned a difficult endeavor — we must create a learning community without corporate foreboding…when our children did not agree to be there. How can we redefine our classroom?

Let’s reimagine how we view learning. Even the most apt teachers still see their “course load” as such. Not a lot of interesting things, but myriad work. First, that mindset must change. An educator goes into their room to inspire through passionate claims and a desire for their students to change the world. Instead of day two being a return to reality, why not develop a place where we fight to keep day one spirit alive all year? But being passionate is just the start. A spirited teacher without any changes to traditional protocol is essentially a master of manipulation — they find ways to make children learn. Engaged teaching is more “fun”, but results are a mixed bag if they actually makechildren learn more (Motz et al., 2017). However, when we begin to change systems, we truly enact change.

Here’s what we’re going to do today.” > “What does everyone want to learn more about?”

“You need to get this done by the end of the period.” > “Here’s something you may all like to look at.”

You definitely need to know this, it will be on the test.” > “What questions do you all have? We have tons of time to explore.”

A substantial change relies on shifts. A movement from tests to creative assessment, grades to feedback, standards to learning, compulsion to inclusion, production to community. Each is in opposition to the desires of the mainstream traditional framework. Realistically, it is impossible without masking the components of what’s really going on in your classroom. After all, if you didn’t hit 80% of “your content” and had zero grades in the books, what would a principal think?

Imagine a start to the school year where, with a circle of new acquaintances, you develop the baseline expectations for the room. Together, you discuss and form the basis of your class, explaining your expertise but provide decision-making to the room. This serves as your community, and as a collective you organically move from interest to interest — providing ample time, discussion, and freedom to move and explore, taking steps forward and backward. You still factor in interesting activities, readings, and projects — but it’s a result of what your students are interested in that day, not something predefined. Everyone doesn’t always agree, but there is time for self-expression as well as communal compromise.

When grades are due, you assign everyone an A (or if that’s too noticeable, let students self-report.) When it’s standardized test season, give a “crash course” on test skills. (Students will perform shockingly well with no content knowledge, which should provide a solid basis on why these tests are ludicrous.) When an administrator is present, throw in a lesson plan — students are always observant in the atmosphere of an observation.

Students simply learn more this way. Retention is maintained when students see value in what they’re doing as they’re using it — either mentally or experientially. Although teachers may recall tidbits of what they learned in school, they don’t generally find a purpose to explore these ideas further. Most would find our content completely relevant and worthwhile, while other subjects are circumstantially important at best. After all, we took the time to specialize and major in it. However, we must step back and let students utilize our knowledge and the many resources at their disposal to explore what they want to. It’s a ridiculous assumption that every student will find all our content eventful when most adults in the building don’t remember much of it. We must see learning as a process happening all around us — weaving from topic to topic with no hierarchy of deemed importance due to a particular mindset of “schooling.”

The change that’s central to all this is trust. It’s relatively easy to dismiss all protocols of traditional education and “cheat” the system. There’s rarely someone actually keeping track of what’s going on day-to-day — as long as test scores remain relatively normal and no one is screaming in your room, it’s all fine. A real barrier is recognizing that you’ll trust children enough to do this. You must innately believe that students desire learning, will work without commands, and care about their education. The negativity that surrounds most teacher workrooms would wholly communicate that we can’t. They’re rowdy, they don’t listen, they’re “low”, they won’t do anything. As prefaced, they are not willing to “work.” But in this radical shift, would students revolt without control or morph into a learning collective?

Recognizably, not all are going to comply without forced compliance. Removing the reigns will allow a complete rejection of authority and a chance for these students’ voices to be heard (often for the first time without being instantly silenced.) We mustn’t be afraid of critical voices, thought, and actions when we create a space that desires exactly that. It would be futile to imagine a community of learners who are open to expressing their ideas while simultaneously expecting that they all never reject the compulsory nature of their experience. This isn’t a sign to give up, it’s a sign to formulate more ways of building community. We must listen and compromise, not reject and control.

A community is something lost in schools — a faux sense of learning has gone the way of completing as many tasks as possible to please an ominous government-mandated presence. We must recreate the adage of “work” and push toward authentic thought.

Is the factory model a myth?

This week we invited Jennifer Binis to our podcast. We came in contact after Jennifer messaged us on our usage of imagery conveying schools serving as “factories” to train children into serving authority. This led to some back-and-forth on Twitter - which is probably the worst medium for any form of dialogue. Therefore, we decided to meet up and share our views.

 (our poorly drawn interpretation of the factory model)

(our poorly drawn interpretation of the factory model)

Much of our podcast, which you can listen to hereseemed to run in circles and perhaps confuse more than clarify. I respect Jennifer and the goals she’s pushing toward and we “agreed to disagree” at the end. Throughout I felt like we had the same point, just different means of getting there — but I wanted to outline my thoughts in writing, both to organize and make clear. All the following is written from my perspective — so be sure to listen to the podcast to hear both sides!

It’s my view that the factory model did — and still continues to — exist in the United States. At its core, the model refers to the creation of a standardized, ubiquitous model which trains students to listen to instructions and overall, be submissive to authority. Notably, the factory model isn’t all of education history — there’s obviously way more that occurred. Rather, this is an in-depth look at a particular narrative that took hold.

In long form, there’s much more context. The factory model doesn’t necessarily mean that every person is trained to work “in a factory” (although this was the case for many regions in the Industrial Revolution — where this system was placed on a massive scale). It’s a representation of white male capitalist imperialists who wanted obedience and compliance from citizens. Standardization would be infused with capitalism to create the ultimate workforce. And this has bled into our current schools — we’re centered around control, using a traditional structure to tell children what to do, how to do it, and then expect the same uniform result. In general, very few institutions have made changes toward progressive thought, despite pockets of teachers and some alternative schools.

To say that the factory model doesn’t exist has three major problems:

  1. It ignores the explicit pursuits of capitalist/liberalism/neoliberalism influence on education.
  2. It implies that reformers of the past have been successful in changing the trends of compliance-training in schools.
  3. It overlooks the historical record and influence of industry.
 Horace Mann

Horace Mann

The factory model narrative tends to begin when Horace Mann travels to Prussia and is astonished by their systems of order, control, and engagement — bringing these ideas back to Massachusetts and pushing for their integration into the beginnings of the compulsory education system. Interestingly, Mann was aware that Prussian education had been criticized for the exact things the model is today, but he rejected this was happening. In response to an English magazine’s editorial attacking the Prussian doctrine, Mann explicitly argued against their claims, which were the following:

“…the whole plan of education in Prussia, as being not only designed to produce, but as actually producing, a spirit of blind acquiescence to arbitrary power, in things spiritual as well as temporal, — as being, in fine, a system of education adapted to enslave, and not to enfranchise, the human mind.” — Seventh Annual Report of Horace Mann, 1843

Particularly, Mann was impressed by the system organization. For example, he states,

“They are uniformly divided into class-rooms, and an entire room is appropriated to each class; so that there is no interruption of one class by another. But the rooms themselves are small in every dimension, excepting the distance between the scholars’ seats and the floor.” — Seventh Annual Report of Horace Mann, 1843

As Mann returns to the United States, he reports his findings and shares similar thoughts in his biweekly published Common School Journal:

“A report comes to you that a man has failed in business. Examine his affairs; ten to one, you will find them in utter confusion. He had no order, no system; and, of course, he knew not where he was, but what he possessed, or what he was doing. Order is essential in all business; in none more so than in keeping school.” — The Common School Journal Vol. 2 1843

It’s not that Mann wanted students to work in industry. In fact, his main goal was to promote economic equity (for white males). However, as standardization was introduced to our free market system — it became readily apparent that business principles would be integrated. In fact, business principles had already began to circulate. This was documented by Alonzo Potter in the mid 1800s, when he stated the purpose of public education was,

“To make men (a) more industrious (b) more active and systematic…more economical, as producers and preservers of property.” Later he said, “The most certain means of developing the industrial resources of a country, and promoting its growth and prosperity.” (Burman, 1983)

Furthermore, John Kingsbury — a popular author at the time who would best be compared to Doug Lemov (“Teach Like a Champion”), wrote in Lectures on the Failures of Teaching that,

“Teachers ought to possess sufficient knowledge of business affairs, to give them influence with practical men.” (Burman, 1983)

The structure of schools changed as well. It wasn’t only students having an increasingly narrow-focus on regurgitating knowledge— capitalist methods seeped into managerial practice. In The School and the Schoolmaster, an anonymous New York philanthropist who published the work offered the suggestion to hire female teachers, making education a “cheap system.” (Potter, 1842)

An important point throughout education history is that there was pushback. However, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban explain in Tinkering Toward Utopia, their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful in enacting major change:

“ Policy elites — people who managed the economy, who had privileged access to the media and to political officials, who controlled foundations, who were educ. Leaders in the universities and in city and state superintendencies, and who redesigned and led org. of many kinds — gained a disproportionate authority over educational reform. These leaders inside and outside educ. generally shared a common vision of scientific management and a similar blueprint for reorganizing the educ. systems.” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995)

Again, there is no implication that every single school in the 1800s was training people to explicitly work in a factory — rather, most schools had influential businessmen who organized districts for efficiency. Because this model was so intertwined with money, it would make sense that business owners would want well-rounded employees that not only had base knowledge, but were able to obey and follow instructions. This is not far off — and one could argue it is worse — from today. Our school systems are so intertwined with neoliberalist thought that Henry Giroux refers to it as the “military-industrial-academic complex.”

In the second half of the 19th century, we begin to see the workings of a full-fledged factory model. One superintendent exclaims,

“ the due classification and grading of the schools is but the application of labor that prevails in all well-regulated business establishments, whether mechanical, commercial, or otherwise. It is not only the most economical, but without it there can be little progress or prosperity.” — H.C. Hickok, 1862

And to add, an author states,

“The false idea accepts acquisition of knowledge as its aim, culture, and scholarship as its ends…the true idea claims the training of every human power and susceptibility as its aim; an energetic, varied, and joyous activity as its end; and the life of a successful businessman, an influential citizen, of a working Christian.” — Alfred Holbrock, 1872

These records are consistent. The more one explores the process of teacher training, district policy, and publications — the more infused business principles are apparent with educating children. To exemplify:

“The foreman of a factory is required not merely to keep his eye on the operatives, and to report at stated periods how busy they have been, but he is required to inform the stockholders how many kegs of nails have been made….in a given time, and the amount and condition of unfinished material still on hand…If we examined carefully the annual catalogue of any school of high order, we find, that in its make-up it is near akin to the annual report of the factory manager…” — A.L. Wade (A Graduating System for Country Schools), 1881

And finally (my emphasis),

The school is a business institution, created for specific purposes. It should be conducted in all of its management upon the principles of business. Its business is to assistas being one of the many corporations created and fostered by the State. These ends are served when the attending learners are acquiring sound knowledge in the science and the arts; where they are learning to respect authority; when they are cherishing a proper self-respect; when they are understanding their relations to their peers; when they are establishing the imperative habits demanded by business; when they are founding all their dealings on the general principles of law, morals, and religion.— Seventh Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of California, citing Professor J.H. Hoose (1876)

These are the roots of our systemic model of industry and education. Through the early 1900s, the “efficiency model” proposed by Frederick W. Taylor’s “scientific” approach to management promoted a greater loss of humanity in both business and schools that replicated it. As Professor Maduakolam Ireh explains,

“Taylor’s system was swiftly taken up by business and, shortly thereafter, education with several conditions coalescing to spur the quest for scientific management in industry, education, and beyond: economic philosophy of free enterprise and a growing concern over how to design America’s system of schooling for a diverse society undergoing an influx of immigration.” (Ireh, 2016)

There’s no denying that this narrative exists and many others have listed source after source that demonstrates this history — hence why so many great progressive voices refer to industry, factories, and capitalism and their connection to schools, including Angeline Stoll Lillard, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, Alfie Kohn, Howard Zinn, Deborah Meier, Edward Krug, Joel Spring, Daniel Pink, Tony Wagner, and Ted Dintersmith — among many others.

This leads us to the discussion between Jennifer Binis and I. Central to the debate was the usage of the term “factory model.” In Jennifer’s view, she stated that to use this terminology has many worrisome points, which are the following:

The factory model isn’t true.

This was the main point that Jennifer and I seemingly spoke circles around. In my view, just because the factory model does not include certain elements (e.g. explicitly talking about race or people pushing back against the system) does not mean the narrative is inaccurate. The model is meant to target a very specific idea: the connection of business and schools leading to control/compulsion/compliance. It’s not a “history of education” — it’s demonstrating a particular element of industrial-influenced, en masse compulsory schools, and therefore it intentionally excludes history at certain points. At the same time, I don’t think that most progressive educators when using the factory model believe that schools “looked like factories” as in physical appearance (one could go to an old schoolhouse and recognize this instantaneously) but instead how the curriculum trained its students for factory-style labor. Yes, this has overlap with greater narratives such as assimilation, segregation, and the vast annals of history — but that doesn’t mean that the narrative is incorrect.

In the same vein, the “factory model” is an analogy to the greater narrative that existed and even though it is not literally “the schools have smokestacks and produce steel” — it’s meant as a summative understanding (students were prepared to work and be controlled — which industrialists wanted), similar to how the “banking model” of Paulo Freire doesn’t mean students literally are holding onto coins.


Reformers fought back against this system and they’re not usually spoken about. But I don’t believe this is because they’re being silenced from history — rather it’s due to the factory model being seen as negative — we’re talking about the grandiose problem of economics controlling the system.

The factory model ignores white supremacy.

I agree with this standpoint. To me, the white supremacy of industrialism and imperialism is implied, but there’s no denying that when speaking of this model that educators rarely factor in race or sex. However, I don’t believe that discussing the narrative is mutually exclusive to talking about white supremacy. For example, if I’m talking about the factory model I’m not saying white supremacy did not exist — and vice versa.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore the issue of oppression in education — it’s incredibly important — but that doesn’t mean that work done by reformers of the “factory model” is inherently bad. Although some schools who exploit those most vulnerable, such as inner-city “preparatory” charter schools, are the large proponents of the factory model — we still can reenvision what school looks like so we would all prosper.

Certainly when speaking of the model, oppression is mostly ignored — but I don’t think this is meant to silence or hide a particular story. I believe people are focused specifically on the compulsory nature of widespread capitalist principles in education — which sometimes blends with the lenses of assimilation, imperialism, and segregation. Therefore, I think we should explore all narratives and not single out the factory model as incorrect as a singular lens. I consider the model a small branch of greater problems facing our society (racism, sexism, classism.)

The factory model is safe.

I reject this notion entirely. Progressive education is still fringe by most accounts — to really rebel against compulsory obedient work which includes standardized testing, grade systems, and the entire teacher/student relationship, would quickly lead to dismissal. There are many teachers, public school movements, and alternative schools doing great work throughout the country, but the vast majority are traditional. “Innovation” at a typical school is simply doing the factory model better. (what discipline tech tool will encourage compliance?; how can we use iPads for worksheets?; how will we grade people more efficiently?)

I think it’s safe to say that calling it white supremacy is undoubtedly less safe, but that shouldn’t lessen any of the work people are doing. From a practical statement, I would rather invite as many into the fold as possible by explaining this particular narrative, which is gaining traction through easy to read books, professional development organizations, and social media, and then introduce how this relates to a grander story of race, sex, and class. By throwing out the terminology and replacing it with a “less safe” term, we would instantly lose a huge portion of educators who aren’t comfortable yet with that terminology. I recognize this is centering the change of education on white teachers, but in order for realistic change to occur we can’t attack/alienate potential allies or take a step too dramatic. Otherwise, people will naturally dismiss themselves to their bubbles — potentially becoming more divided and self-righteous in their increasingly opposite causes. The factory model can serve as an introduction to the “umbrella” of larger societal problems.

The factory model promotes white male charter school founders.

Sadly, this is true to an extent. Many use the model to attack traditional schools and improve the lives of those well-off. However, a few bad actors shouldn’t imply that everyone who attempts reforms is vile. In the same breath, we wouldn’t assume that mismanaged public schools would imply that all public education must be rejected… Nor would I instantly characterize every white male educator as not having a strong solution for public schools. A critical lens must be taken for any initiative that affects children. Incredible work has been done by those inspired to end the factory model — especially in the vein of democratic education.

And yes, there is an issue with reforms that promote progressive thinking being focused in affluent areas. Again, this doesn’t mean that progressive thought is inherently incorrect or that the model is overwhelmingly for the rich. Many democratic and progressive schools are located in inner-city neighborhoods or were started with the intention of serving low-income students. That being said, the factory-model implications of influxed capitalism also harm progressive movements, as well-intentioned progressive institutions aimed at serving those less fortunate as they become the organizations they fought against. (For example, many Montessori schools which now feature ludicrously high tuition rates.)

In conclusion, after reading this and listening to our podcast, hopefully this makes at least some sense. I understand Jennifer’s sentiments and believe we both have the best intentions in mind for children — with different ways of expressing our goals and interests. I sincerely hope we all push forward in making real change in education.