Letter to the Editor: Self-directed education, not standardized tests, creates lifelong love of learning

Photo by Teddy Kelley via Unsplash, St. George News

OPINION — Public and charter school students across Utah will soon begin RISE (formerly SAGE) standardized testing. Year-end assessments kick-off with school administrators benevolently calling for vigilance over your child’s sleeping and eating habits to ensure optimum test-taking performance.

How did we get here?

While individuals and groups exist who desire upheaval to the antiquated industrial education model, the structure remains largely intact today with compulsion playing a central role.

My son still suffers trauma resulting from a car accident many years ago. Along his journey towards normalcy, a father cannot help but marvel at childhood resilience. It’s difficult to measure growth; in some areas he strongly resists letting go, especially swimming. We still lack that milestone.

In others, he displays incredible self-determination. He enjoys hopping on his bike to visit friends and insists making the quarter-mile ride to the chapel every Sunday despite parking lot traffic resembling I-15 during rush hour. He’s 5 and would rather bike home solo than wait for a sibling. Where trepidation may consume some is joy knowing he’s developing independence.

“Parenting” is a term I’m not particularly enamored with. I prefer gardener. Alison Gopnik’s book “The Gardener and the Carpenter” has broadened my parenting perspective. A gardener creates conditions necessary to grow, but doesn’t determine when, where, or how the flower blooms. Carpenters, in contrast, formulate precise measurements. The process is rigid, standardized, and controlling. They experience results too, but which method is superior for individual development and which for manufacturing furniture?

I’ve been writing code for 15 years and never memorized sorting and other complex algorithms. Unlike the nonstop focus on memorization in public schools, one isn’t expected to memorize everything perfectly in order to operate in the real world.

Recently, school-generated emails regarding RISE end-of-year standardized testing were blasted to parents. A few statements jumped out at me. One of which asserted test taking is a “21st century skill.” I refuse standardized tests on principle. They cannot correctly assess creativity, emotions, originality and imagination.

A child doesn’t really “learn” by participating, one is simply memorizing facts long enough to regurgitate on tests, which administrators use to report glowing results to school boards and parents. “See, your child learned…stuff.”

The other statement that caught my attention referenced a nonexistent review committee all RISE test questions pass through comprising “Utah teachers, school leaders, and parents.” I posed a question to a school administrator via Twitter because no legislator or public servant ignores constituent emails. Schools know full well when endless customer streams exist it does not matter. If you’re unhappy, it does not matter. Would you believe me if I told you my tweet was deleted? Poof! Annoying citizen go away.

More disturbing than administrative talking points is the level of parental apathy. Repeat misinformation often enough, and it becomes truth when nobody bothers to inform themselves on the subject matter.

Solitary voices are drowned out by colossal top-down factory machinery and forced to seek periphery methods of exercising influence upon family members. The more power and money centralized in one location, the faster things go rotten. We see this type of fruit manifested when youth nationwide are unable to pass a basic citizenship test.

Learning takes a back seat when my son’s intermediate school appears hyper-focused on district ranking linked to standardized testing participation. Things break down further when citing parental review committees no longer enforced today.

Opt-outers encounter constant threats of RISE alternative tests and testing schedules so complex even if one ditched and isn’t tackled by a resource officer, paper tests are waiting for the student upon return. Alternative tests are superfluous because teachers already know students’ academic standing. This begs the fundamental question which predates any testing policy squabble: Who’s responsible for youth’s individualized learning?

Carl Kaestle observed, “Society educates in many ways. The State educates through schools.”

Developmental psychologist Peter Gray and author of “Free to Learn” argues children don’t need to be “forced to learn; coercion undermines their natural desire to learn.  What they do need is opportunity.”

Summerhill, a “radical” 20th century experimental England “school,” has provided youth over 70 years of opportunity by educating the whole child. Attendance is optional. Founder A.S. Neill noted, “The pioneer school of the future must pursue this way if it to contribute to child knowledge and, more important, to child happiness.”

Yes, Summerhill maintained order holistically without descending into Lord of the Flies. Yes, Summerhill graduates did receive job offers.

What does your family’s version of Summerhill look like?

Self-directed education creates optimal conditions for life-long love of learning, whereas passive learning produces short-term knowledge necessary to earn grades and pass tests.

William Deresiewicz made a keen observation regarding colleges that “are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horse power, an incredible work ethic, and no idea what to do next.” In the end, he observed “all the values that once informed the way we raise our children—the cultivation of curiosity, the inculcation of character…let alone any emphasis on the pleasure and freedom of play, the part of childhood where you actually get to be a child—all these are gone… We are not teaching to the test; we’re living it.”

Coercion is not the only form of teaching. For myself, the antidote to “living the test” is travel. Travel provides personal growth immersed in new lands and foreign cultures. Travel inculcates an attitude of inquiry by becoming a citizen of the world, rather then a citizen of one country or state.

Defining a “trip” varies by age and perspective – to the average adult, a cross-country flight is a trip, yet to my 5-year-old, his first unaccompanied bike ride home can be quite the adventure. Human development occurs best at the smallest structure, which is individual and family.

When properly executed, alternative education methods like unschooling provide so much more than the stereotypical time-off for parents while kids binge on Fortnite.

Gray said the following:

The choice of self-directed education is not an abrogation of responsibility on the part of families but an embracing of responsibility. In such families, the initiative and direction of education come from within the child, but parents and other adults help by proving the environmental contexts and security that children need to optimize their abilities to educate themselves.

In state-run schools, children are tested on something because one day they might possibly need it. Through travel children are learning something because they need it right now.

A recent journey to Seoul, South Korea, provided growth and bonding unreplicated in classrooms. It was just my son and me, half a world away, in a foreign land with a language barrier. On the third day, my then 11-year old was made subway navigator. I stopped him at the top of the stairs, informed him of our desired destination and said, “Go!”

Without a moments hesitation he unfolded a map and studied it diligently. He looked up at the digital subway sign and began formulating a plan. Nothing from dad except complete silence. Choosing the wrong route could result in delayed arrival. His desire to reach the destination led to feeling incentivized to arrive quickly and thus empowered him to figure out a way.

Children are capable of educating themselves when outside influences don’t extinguish the flame of learning. The same cognitive processes prompting every human to crawl, then walk, then learn a language before kindergarten will lead to further self-learning if left unencumbered.

Erin Kenny reminds us it was a German educator, Friedrich Fröbel, who coined the word kindergarten (children’s gardens) and opened the world’s first outdoor kindergartens more than 150 years ago with the belief that young children learn best when playing in nature, away from an emphasis on too many numbers and letters.

State legislatures from both parties engage in political tomfoolery propping up “school freedom bills” as pretend change marches on legislative session upon session. Meanwhile, at the local level, voters are lulled with “for the children” pleas for new bonds for new schools with cameras perched over new computers all the while flood gates hold back information while a predetermined trickle is allowed thru.

Why not free children’s minds? Why be content driving a one-lane collectivist pedagogy of educating youth? Parents can reinsert their child back in the drivers seat by withdrawing consent, standing firm and championing individual autonomy.

Gray adds, “We are now living in a world where there’s way more knowledge out there that any of us could possibly learn, and who’s to decide whats most important for any given child? Don’t we want people to grow up learning different aspects of that knowledge? Why should everybody learn the same little slice of all the knowledge, skills and information that schools have decided this is the slice everybody should learn?”

Schooling advocates lump individuals desiring autonomy ranging from standardized testing to major overhaul into a binary choice between school choice vs. income inequality disparity. Somewhere along those lines I will be painted as uncompassionate toward teachers, public schooling or poor children. This diversion should be avoided, and conversation must center on collectivism vs. individualism in order to spur a catalyst for change.

What if a dad prefers “gardening” and rejects bureaucratic functions like test taking as a 21st century skill? Are standardized tests integral to a child’s developmental foundation? What if the foundation is misguided or outdated? These ‘off-limit to ask school board’ questions are essential to unmasking the charade.

No, the 21st century skill plaguing youth is taking back control of their educational destiny. If only I could hold an unschooling dad assembly. Opt-out of standardized testing today. Next, discuss with your spouse ways to becoming more trustful gardeners. Gather your family together and choose individualized, self-learning pathways which provide immunity from testing, seat-time, and letter grades.

Finally, from Summerhill, “People are always saying to me, ‘But how will your free children ever adapt themselves to the drudgery of life?’ I hope that these free children will be pioneers in abolishing the drudgery of life.”

Submitted by RYAN SCHUDDE, St. George, Utah.

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

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