Education without learning is like a barn without walls

Bird Droppings June 1, 2011
Education without learning is like a barn without walls.

“A truly educational community that embodies both rigor and involvement will elude us until we establish a plumb line that measures teachers and students alike as great things can do.” Parker Palmer

It has been many years since we as a family lived on Fisherville Road in Caln Township, in Chester County, Pennsylvania and had as a pet Jenny the burro. Needless to say as in many relationships a wandering jack burro named Roscoe showed up one day from across the hill and much to our surprise Roscoe Jr. was born June 1, 1963 or so maybe 1964 which seems such a long time ago as I sit here today babysitting my grand daughter. Funny how I remember June the first as one of my best friends growing up through elementary school has his birthday today as well so a very happy birthday to him old man of sixty two. At least till November I can pick on him for being older than I am.
It was back in Pennsylvania where I grew up being part Pennsylvania Dutch on my maternal grand father’s side and living on the edge of Amish country I have always been fascinated by the plain people. Growing up we had eggs and milk delivered door to door if you wanted in a buggy by Amish farmers who lived in the area. However there was an Amish tradition that always caught my attention, it was that of a barn raising. If by chance a farmer’s barn was destroyed by fire or storm the entire community would gather and put up a new one almost over night. This would be a traditional post and beam construction with huge wooden beams and wooden pegs holding all in place. Barns that were built to last and provide for their owners for many years save storms and fires which really did not take that many.

“Children come into the world with a desire to learn that is natural as the desire to eat and move and be loved, their hunger for knowledge, for skills, for the feeling of mastery as strong as their appetite. They learn an amazing variety of things in the years before they enter school, including miraculously, how to talk fluently in their native language.” Robert Fried, The Passionate Learner

“But despite the wonderful efforts of individual teachers who promote and celebrate intense and exuberant learning by students of every stripe and circumstance, too many young people, when they enter formal schooling, feel the passionate learning of their early years begin to decline, often with permanent results.” Robert Fried, The Passionate Learner

So here I sit watching my grand daughter at six months daily learning new and exciting things, dropping toys just so grand dad will pick them up being a big one today. Finding what whimper to issue to get the desired result from grandma or her mom or dad. I see learning is occurring in leaps and bounds and often in ways we still do not understand. But to compare learning and education to barn building that might be a stretch. As I sat down again this evening trying to complete my writing for the day I have been pondering through the day ideas for this concept. In the Amish way of building barns an entire community would come together almost without instruction each member going to their task. As beams were hewn and sawed and in each joint dovetails cut for the next beam to interlock all were focused on doing the best possible job. Some of the folks were fixing lunch and other ferrying tools and pegs to carpenters working overhead. All had a job and all participated. The end result would be a finally finished and very high quality barn.
Education has become a parody in many ways. Emphasis has gone from learning to passing an exam at some point in time. Many times the exam is not even over what has been taught in the class but arbitrary items selected by state committees that deem this piece of information to be crucial to a child’s success. I wonder as I look at Math I curriculum in Georgia and find I am unable to do many of the problems. So here I am working on a second doctorate and unable to do Math I high school problems. Alfie Kohn goes into detail on “what does it mean to be well educated” in his book of the same title.

“However if the term refers to the quality of your schooling, then we have to conclude that a lot of “well educated” people sat through lessons that barely registered, or are at least hazy to a point of irrelevance a few years later.” Alfie Kohn, What does it mean to be Well Educated

Perhaps within the semantics of what is education versus learning is where we have a point to argue. Kohn and Fried both see education as schooling and in most references to public schooling. They see learning in a different light. Learning is an attribute you take with you from an experience.

“Learning is active. It involves reaching out of the mind. It involves organic assimilation starting from within. Literally, we must take our stand with the child and our departure from him. It is he and not the subject-matter which determines both quality and quantity of learning.” John Dewey

Many authors will go back to progressive educator John Dewey and point to experience as the key in learning. More recently in my own involvement in the Foxfire teaching Approach Dewey’s idea’s have been borrowed from and over a period of nearly fifty years sorted and modified into Ten Core Practices. These are from the Foxfire Teaching Approach and are available on the Foxfire Fund website.

1 • From the beginning, learner choice, design, and revision infuses the work teachers and learners do together.

2 • The work teachers and learners do together clearly manifests the attributes of the academic disciplines involved, so those attributes become habits of mind.

3 • The work teachers and students do together enables learners to make connections between the classroom work, the surrounding communities, and the world beyond their communities.

4 • The teacher serves as facilitator and collaborator.

5 • Active learning characterizes classroom activities.

6 • The learning process entails imagination and creativity.

7 • Classroom work includes peer teaching, small group work, and teamwork.

8 • The work of the classroom serves audiences beyond the teacher, thereby evoking the best efforts by the learners and providing feedback for improving subsequent performances.

9 • The work teachers and learners do together includes rigorous, ongoing assessment and evaluation.

10 • Reflection, an essential activity, takes place at key points throughout the work.

Beyond the traditional classroom is one of teacher and students working together to both learn and interact and both be students in learning. There is a community aspect to this type of approach to teaching. There is interaction within the class and within the community. I have said over the years it is as if the teacher walks in the room and asks after telling what is to be covered now how are we going to do it, rather than we are going to do this period. It is getting students to be actively involved and showing them that we are all involved and all can make this better.
Mary Aswell Doll in the introduction to her book Like letters in running Water, includes in her thoughts her interdisciplinary studies with religion and psychology that help probe the inner workings of soul. It is only through coming to terms with inner understanding that we can address outer concerns. It takes inner looks to stir and fire up the imagination and to build and develop ideas and expand learning. So how does someone get to a point of wanting to build a barn the right way and not simply the quickest or just because we need to build a barn by these plans. It takes innovation, creativity, and taking the theory and making it into practice. William Pinar noted Curriculum Theorist states that;

“Teachers can become witness to the notion that intelligence and learning can lead to other worlds, not just successful exploitation of this one.”

It has been a few years since I was introduced to Robert Fried’s books in a book club put on by our then principal Steve Miletto. Robert Fried starts his book with a statement from a teacher he had interviewed.

“I believe I make a difference not only in helping kids connect math and science to their lives, but also in understanding how to reach their goals in life – how to be somebody.” Maria Ortiz, science teacher

This is what is about making a difference with kids showing them there is more to education than just school. Fried in his text offers an idea of what a passionate teacher is all about.
“Passionate teachers organize and focus their passionate interests by getting to the heart of their subject and sharing with their students some of what lays there – the beauty and power that drew them to this field in the first place and that has deepened over time as they learned and experienced more. They are not after a narrow or elitist perspective, but rather a depth of engagement that serves as a base for branching out to other interests and disciplines.” Robert Fried

It is about passion and bringing that to the class room and passing it on the students so as Fried states “it will serve as a base for branching out”.
There is no limiting to curriculum or to education unless we impose it. I recall from reading many years ago that Henry David Thoreau told his friends when he left teaching he needed to be a learner first and then and only then could he be a good teacher. We need to set the example and be learners and in doing so pave the way, lay the tracks for each of our students. Perhaps I am a die hard hippie of the old school, in reality I personally do not believe the corporate schooling agenda will continue and perhaps that is only wishful thinking. I wish I could predict a time, before any more children are left behind and many schools can recover. The late Syndicated columnist Sydney J. Harris wrote in the late 1970’s of how education was like a sausage stuffing machine and should be more like culturing a pearl. We are taking away the essence of who the child is; this essence is what is missing and what is being left behind. In an effort to leave no child behind, all are having bits and pieces being left behind. So can the knights of real education survive the onslaught of the dragons of standardized testing and taking over of our schools? Can we continue to spill so much as we try and fill the liter bottle of each child? I might add can we build a barn of learning that can withstand the onslaught of education? Please keep all in harms way on your mind and in your hearts.

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