Note: below is a response to a friend who asked how to apply Space and Learning to conventional schools.
It is a very good question. It is also a very difficult question. I don’t have a definite answer. Here are some of my thinking of how we can approach such an issue.
John Taylor Gatto, who has been teaching in the public schools for around 30 years and awarded Best Teacher of New York City and Best Teacher of New York State, finally had to quit teaching
in public school. He said then that he couldn’t continue hurting children anymore (http://johntaylorgatto.com/aboutus/john.htm). Throughout Mr.Gatto’s career, he has been very active designing various projects to soften the compulsory schooling’s damage to the children, and help children still being able to learn somehow. But even he had to finally quit. So we have to be very aware of the great difficulty of doing this in compulsory schools.
Secondly, I think we need to really understand what is learning and what is teaching. Here I will try to give a greatly simplified version of what I think is learning and teaching since this should be another topic by itself. Learning is to adapt to and expand space in the process of playing. Teaching is to align yourself with the students’ space, get students exposed to the new space, open up the space up a little for them, so they can explore the space by themselves. (I have very rich learning experiences. But my teaching experience is very limited.) I think an example of a great teacher is Socrates, who was very good at asking students questions (In the tradition of Zen, Koan would be those kinds of questions.). I feel his asking questions is to help the students opening up the space a little bit. My posts on my blog hopefully can provide more details on my thinking on learning and teaching. I think understanding learning and playing can help us greatly understand ourselves, and thus a very good Buddhism practice.
If we clearly understand what is learning and teaching, we then can see what are really wrong with compulsory schooling, and thus how we can work with it to counteract those negative effects it has on children’s learning. For example, as you mentioned, schools are test-oriented. How can the teachers put less emphasis on the testing score, especially its humiliating effects on children who are simply just not ready for the subject yet? Also schools occupy too much of children’s time. Children really need a lot of time of their own to build up their space. If their lives are occupied by following someone else’s orders or schedules set up by someone else, they gradually lose the sense of building their own space. So how can we work hard to get children more free time of their own? Schools isolate children from real life for a really long time. How can we have them more exposed to real life experiences? There are a lot of things we have to think about. Mr. Gatto had done quite a lot of projects in his teaching career trying to give children real education. I think we can borrow some experience from him. I remember his book Dumbing us Down tells a little about what kind of projects he had for his children when he was fighting the school within the system.
From my own experience in my middle school, I benefited a lot from some free thinking teachers who are really very practical, independent and innovative, experimenting with various ways of teaching the subject. It was really a good learning experience to see the teacher very passionate about the subject, very creative in designing various ways of teaching the subject, very honest in getting the feedback and continuously improve the teaching. And we students love this kind of teachers! I mean ALL students love this kind of teachers!
I am developing Natural Learning as a set of thoughts and practices that can be applied to various environment in different scopes. Hopefully we can work together to see how Natural Learning can be applied to schools like yours.
It can be very difficult work since compulsory schools are designed so that only a very small percentage of people can survive it.