School as an Extension of Home
When students returned to our classroom from a COVID-19 enforced change to how and where we do school, I asked what they enjoyed most about doing school from home. The answers, not surprisingly for middle schoolers, mostly centred around sleeping in! But when we dug into it some more, we kept coming back to comfort, control over time and space, and flexible content.
This leads me to wonder, who might benefit from treating school as an extension of home? What are some changes we could make tomorrow, at little or no cost, that would dramatically improve the experience of school for kids? What can school learn from those who choose to “unschool” their children?
I framed these ideas using the “Four A-s” (Acceptance, Access, Abundance, Attention), a concept devised by Ira David Socol and pammoran. I also want to acknowledge the inspiration I’ve drawn from following unschooling advocates Carol Black and Tiersa McQueen (who uses the handle MotherBae).
“Kids who don’t match the faux norm of the middle class white neurotypical child, get beaten down so continuously, run into so many roadblocks, so many tripwires, that the school day is nothing but misery from start to finish, day after day, year after year. To quote a high school student, “it’s like a video game, except I hate it, and you can’t win.” — Ira Socol, The Four A-s in Moments
School that is traditional is conditional. Systemic barriers inherent in traditional schooling make acceptance of all children almost impossible. Omnipresent year-level standards, grades, behaviour charts, academic streaming, and homework all work to undermine the acceptance of children through comparison, competition, and ranking and sorting. Of course, none of these things is necessary for learning, yet they remain a feature of schooling.
The performance culture rife in many schools rewards passive, compliant, emotionless learning. Even our youngest learners are quick to realise that acceptance, attention, and respect are often conditional on their ability to obey, perform and generally please the adults in the room.
Children need unconditional acceptance to flourish.
“(Children) arrive at our schools with different talents, passions, skills, knowledge, relationships, dispositions, attitudes and experiences. Each and every child possesses a jagged profile of strengths and weaknesses. Each and every child has something worth celebrating and developing. Each and every child has a dream that is worth realizing. Each and every child has unique needs that we can help meet.” — Ira Socol, Pam Moran, Chad Ratliff, Timeless Learning.
When it comes to the unconditional acceptance of all children, does what we do match up with what we want to achieve? Which students are most likely to be accepted at school? Who is likely to be viewed as a liability? Why?
As Alfie Kohn points out, “Accepting students for who they are — as opposed to for what they do — is integrally related to the idea of teaching the whole child”. Kohn’s concept of Unconditional teaching is about rejecting performance culture and getting back to what school should be about, learning. The kind of deep, contextualised, complex learning that affects the lives of students, families and communities.
Unconditional teaching is also about rejecting the idea of some students being “low”. To use such a label is to perpetuate harm done en masse in schools and classrooms every day. Disabled kids, indigenous kids, kids from poverty, kids who have suffered trauma, kids who experience domestic violence, the same children who arguably have the most to gain from education, are repeatedly marginalised and left behind. Acceptance of each and every child matters because, as Ira Socol says,
“At-risk kids don’t come to school knowing less, they know different.”
When we honour those differences, when we look at children as if they were our own, and when we punch down on barriers that harm not only at-risk students but all children, perhaps then school can begin to claim to be meeting children’s needs.
“…What a child needs is love and stories and tools and conversation and support and guidance and access to nature and culture and the world. If a kid asks for your feedback, by all means you can give it; it would be impolite not to. But what we should be measuring and comparing is not our children but the quality of the learning environments we provide for them.” — Carol Black, Children, Learning, and The ‘Evaluative Gaze’ of School.
The dictionary definition of access is “the ability, right, or permission to approach, enter, speak with, or use; admittance.” When it comes to access to learning, does what we do match up with what we want to achieve? In my experience, school needlessly creates and compounds barriers to learning.
“Access means all students can fully access the learning and the opportunities they need. Full access. If they can’t read via alphabetical code you still need to get them what’s inside the books they want. If they can’t sit still in your classroom you still need to make them comfortable in a way that allows them to stay and be fully involved. If they can’t do your ‘math facts worksheet’ but want to compute their batting average, you need to find a way that allows them to do that. When access — to books, or math, or art, or recess — is denied to a child you are making them second class citizens.” — Ira Socol, Semi-Charmed Kind of Life, part I
A great many middle and high school students have unfiltered access to the internet in their pockets 24/7. Yet between 9 am and 3 pm, we limit how and what students can access via technology and digital tools, possibly because it is easier to withhold and ban rather than educate.
Treating school as an extension of home would mean embracing access to all digital devices to help drive learning forward. If a child makes a reasonable case for using a particular device or digital tool, getting to “yes” should be our default answer. Technology is a great equaliser when it comes to students being able to access, comprehend, and use content knowledge. As Pam Moran notes,
“We need to do everything we can to invest in digital equity not just because of COVID but in spite of COVID & we need to affirm equity through philosophy, policy, professional competencies, & practices to ensure each child is supported thru attention, abundance, access, acceptance.”
Audiobooks, podcasts and text-to-voice count as reading. They are not a lesser version of paper or print. Children should be free to choose the input method that allows them to independently access and comprehend information. Providing access to assistive technology is setting a child up to become a life-long learner.
Does what we do match up with what we want to achieve?
Kids should have access to the full scope of the curriculum. Limiting access to concepts and siloed subjects because they have been designated to certain grade-levels is an invention of school. In “The End Of The Rainbow”, Dr Susan Engel advocates for the use of complex and ambitious ‘endeavours’ instead of topics or subject-based activities.
Supporting a range of young people to collectively tackle a complex problem, issue or endeavour using their unique strengths and weaknesses remains a wasted opportunity of school. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, great teachers are those who can recognise and utilise the strengths of the learners in front of them to create transformative projects and experiences.
“Abundance represents what we hope surrounds every child. That doesn’t mean things — it means primarily what we can give without any financial strain.”
— Ira Socol, A Semi-Charmed Kind of Life: Part I
Abundance is about immersing children in opportunities to construct their identities and become the best version of themselves. Whether we want kids to be trustworthy or self-regulate or become powerful learners, does what we do match up with what we want to achieve?
Abundance is about giving kids back their time and space. Kids must have access to their learning time, for at least part of every day. Forget Genius Hour, Ira Socol advocates for a “direct instruction hour in genius weeks”. Creating pockets of opportunity each day for students to pursue learning that excites them, gets them through the door each morning, or just brings a little joy.
Abundance is also about creating comfortable seating and learning spaces and giving students choices about how, where or even if, they want to sit. Building spaces flooded with natural light, quality outdoor views, or access to the outdoors, is abundance. It’s about dramatically shrinking the comfortable spaces teachers claim for themselves and returning them to children.
“What we should be measuring and comparing is not our children but the quality of the learning environments we provide for them.” — Carol Black
Trust is abundance. When we trust children, they learn to be trustworthy. In my experience, when we create opportunities for kids to make real decisions about learning content, their use of time and space, and the use of technology and tools, we have little to lose and everything to gain.
All children have extraordinary stories to tell if we take the time to listen. All children have gifts and talents. Our job as educators is to create opportunities and experiences that allow kids to shine.
”Most of all, attention is the act of treating every child as the full human being they are, celebrating their gifts, helping them grow up their way, holding them when they need support, and listening to their hearts.” — Ira Socol, Semi-Charmed Kind of Life: Part II
Attention is greeting kids at the door. It’s cultivating an engaged and empathetic community through “Smiles and Frowns”. It’s co-designing learning and assessment with children, not for them. We can do school to children or we can do it with them, the choice is ours. It’s about creating opportunities for students to engage in Socratic discussions, searching for answers to problems and ideas and topics that matter to them.
It’s about talking less and listening more.
“If you google “attention” and “student” you’ll find thousands of articles on getting your students to pay attention and very little on paying attention to our kids. But, why would I, as a kid in your class, pay attention to you if you are not paying attention to me.” — Ira Socol, The Four A-s in Moments
To wrap up: many of the barriers to learning that exist in school are inventions of school. We should continue to ask ourselves, does what we do match up with what we want to achieve? School has much to learn from those who reject the idea that learning only happens in school. We must push back on the performance culture that harms children.
Treating school as an extension of home, giving kids choice, comfort, and greater control over their time and space doesn’t require spending large amounts of money, it just requires the investment of attention, abundance, access, and acceptance.