Yesterday, my mentor teacher broke the class up into four groups about five students each and sat them in different parts of the room, with the instruction that they were to define the word “family” as a collective. Each group was given about ten minutes to work together and come up with a consolidated definition to share with the rest of the class. The purpose of this activity, it had already been explained to me, was to get the kids to challenge traditional and accepted ideas of what a family is, with the goal being that by the end of the class we would come up with one collective definition which would be able encompass our own learning community.
As we circled the room, listening in to the discussions and helping groups who were feeling stuck, my mentor teacher pulled me to the side and told me that he already had a basic sense what the groups would come up with. He predicted that virtually every group would describe the family as a small, nuclear unit, and would include blood or legal bonds in their definition. He also predicted that once the definitions had been shared and the class had had some time to debate, the class’ final consensus would shift to be that a family could be as small as imaginable, or as large as all of humanity. It would include multiple kinds of communities, not just those ones defined by the state or through tradition, and would maintain at its core the value of sticking together and caring for all members of the group, no matter what. “I’ve done this exercise enough times that I pretty much know what the outcome is going to be. But it’s not the outcome that interests me. I want to see how they get there. That’s what is different every time, and that’s what really tells you about who you have in your class.”
This simple pronouncement told me a great deal about the teacher that I am currently working under, but also about the wisdom which guides experienced educators, a wisdom which seems totally lacking from the conservative initiatives dominating current education reform. The obsession with “achievement” and “measurable skills” resulting from both Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind–which are forcing teachers to slash and standardize originally creative curricula, and bending entire school districts to the whims of private testing companies and wealthy organizations–is based entirely on the assumption that learning is about end results. Statistics, growth percentages, test scores and college entrance are not only believed to be trustworthy measures of education’s success, but are deemed the only substantial ways to evaluate the worth of our learning communities and the abilities of their students. Adhering to these beliefs not only limits the creative power and radical potential of the learning process, but sells our students out, handing them and our communities over to the fulfill the needs of the ultra-wealthy and conservative. It imagines education, through credentialing and careerism, as a tool for the continuation of current political and economic orders, instead of a site where those orders might be totally broken down and recreated.
Another teacher who I greatly respect once told me that the most common mistake young, progressive educators tend to make is trying to radicalize their students by talking at them. This error assumes that students do not understand the world of which they are a part, and need to have radical perspectives explained to them in order to get them. An approach which is just as radical in pedagogy as curriculum allows for students to take the lead, honoring the perspectives which they are already in the process of forming, and lets them arrive at radical conclusions and ideas through their own struggling, not as the result of our lecturing. Not only, this teacher argued, do kids tend to take discussions in radical directions without anyone’s guidance, but allowing them to do so gives them ownership of their learning, respecting it as a community process, not a measurable skill. The assumption that learning occurs when we tell students what we want them to think and then have them to spit it back at us is exactly the mistake that statistical and standardized forms of education make. The most powerful and valuable things–like justice, for example–are difficult to define, and even harder to “achieve” measurably or conclusively. Learning, in the truest and most potent sense, happens through a collective process of working to understand a new idea, and allowing for students to make it their own. This type of learning is impossible to measure, and making a commitment to it in the face of conservative reforms is a truly revolutionary act.