Of Sasquatch and Schools

sasquatch in the woodsPretty universally, educators find themselves kvetching about parents who believe that because they went to school they are experts on education.  You know, like how dare they?  Why, after all the years of professional preparation, graduate degrees and credentials, not to mention the years of classroom experience, are we to suffer this presumption?

Like all good myths, including mermaids, Sasquatch, leprechauns and fairies, this one also fails to die because it has deep roots in illusion and history.

In the year 1800, our culture was agrarian.  90% of the population was involved in farming, growing our food, thus 90% (and probably more) of the kids grew up on farms worked by very tired parents and older children.  Before the organization of schooling, children learned from their parents – mostly moms – and the learning goals were to serve the task of farming and furthering the solidarity of the farming community, and in cities the goal was to succeed in some delimited trade, but still based on elementary reading and calculating skills.  As schools became organized in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the role of teacher shifted to mostly young unmarried women (powerless and predictable entities) who could be counted upon to instill these values in the hearts and minds of farm children.

kids in front of one room schoolhouseThe illusion here was that children were being taught by surrogate parents, in loco parentis, by the “controllable” teacher in the one-room schoolhouse overseen by the “educated class,” the local (male) mayor or preacher.  The reality was these farm kids were being taught by energetic adolescent and single young women who not only taught the 3-Rs, but also imparted a vision unique to the American frontier, one of achievement, great energy, and self-determination.  By the 1870s, Susan B. Anthony was fighting to bring to 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, and young women across the country were changing the face of the nation, their 41-year struggle ending finally in 1920.

Illusions aside, the fact remains these farmer parents paid these young teachers to teach their children as they themselves would be teaching them.  School was exclusively an authorized extension of parenting.  While the reality was undoubtedly much greater than this, the core parental assumption was that education was bounded by parental life experience.  Only.  This worldview is one we share with our parents and their parents’ parents, and it is only the “educator class” by means of professional inculcation and experience, which has learned that education is much more than a simple academic cloning of our students’ parents.

Today, a parent’s life experience includes his and her own personal experience with schooling.  They are to be forgiven for thinking schooling is still exclusively an extension of parenting.  All myths are etched into our psyches by the greater culture, for better or worse.  In our case, knowing the task at hand is much more complex than that, it is most certainly for the worse.  While parents head for work in highly networked, creative, tech-infused environments, when doing their best to represent their children’s welfare they find themselves uttering words like “Pencil and paper worked great for me when I was in school, so they’re good enough for my child.”  Pencil and paper, when polls suggest 84% of American workers need to use their computers at work. These parental attitudes toward schooling reflects perception grounded solely in myth, obviously having no relationship whatsoever to their daily workaday experience.  Today’s workplace is all about change and facile evolution of skillsets, quite different from an earlier core mandate of stability and social compliance.

While teachers today still participate in the parenting function simply because they are tasked with controlling the days of increasing numbers of young people, the days of bringing children to adulthood capable of living their parents’ lives is today considered failure in most educators’ eyes.  Our task now is to prepare children for a future in which we cannot describe the professions for which they are preparing.  This is crazy talk, right?

Maybe, but it’s a form of craziness our students have fully embraced, and they are not waiting around for our school systems to catch up.  The greater culture, the modern equivalent of the adolescent school teacher with a revolutionary heart, is feeding our students a vision of the future that is quite unlike anything the traditional school system is prepared to provide.

Out of simple self-preservation we adults who run our schools (and send our children to them) need to clear the dust of years from our eyes and see the future through the eyes of our students.   It has been some years since ed technologists formulated the task before us through the ISTE NETS standards, but the response from society has been a collective yawn.  Meanwhile, the kids are rocketing past us and finding alternatives to fifty-year-old pedagogy.  If the Pew Internet & American Life Project is indicative of anything at all, it is that students are finding learning and meaning in their digital world despite the educational system’s best efforts to suppress it to keep things comfortable.

Let’s pause and think about what we really mean when we say we “educate the future.”  Are we really?