Who Is Ultimately Responsible for Learning?

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How long will we continue to limit the learning of our children by our need to be in control of it?  The new ELSE Education Act replacing NCLB, should have included an apology from the Congress for all of the mischief that the NCLB led to in spite of its good intentions. It was an inappropriate response to a misunderstood somewhat phony crisis that sincere, but misguided leaders, media, and pundits passed without research or evidence that it would work.  I would suggest that even with its passing that we erred in not having a funeral or time of mourning to reflect about its impact upon our ability to understand its weaknesses, but even more important to reflect upon why and how it failed.  For me its overarching shortcoming was that it failed to recognize the role of who is doing the learning in all aspects of learning, schools, and classrooms.  Powerfully supporting this notion is Annie Dillard in her reminiscence or childhood in An American Childhood, where she writes:

“Mother regarded me warmly.  She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down.

“She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?), and I had mine.  She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself.

“I had essentially been handed my own life.  In subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasms, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, not visit the salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play the piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection with me, or my poetry collection or stamp collection or rock collection.  My days and nights were my own to plan and fill.

“When I left the dining room that evening and started down the dark basement stairs, I had a life.  I sat to my wonderful amoeba, and there he was, rolling his grains more slowly now, extending an arc of his edge for a foot and drawing himself along by the foot, and absorbing it again and rolling on.  I gave him some more pond water.

I had hit pay dirt.  For all I knew, there were paramecia, too, in that pond water, or daphnia, or stentors, or any of the many other creatures I had read about and never seen: volvox, the spherical algal colony; euglena with its one red eye; the elusive, glassy diatom; hydra, rotifers, water bears, worms.  Anything was possible. The sky was the limit.” (Annie Dillard in An American Childhood (1987), page 148-149.

In the narrative above Dillard is speaking of the time when you cognitively realize that you are of age, you are responsible.  That you are no longer a child, but are now becoming responsible for your life or destiny.  That can be a scary as well as invigorating time in one’s life.  It also marks a distancing and separation from your parents, in the respect that you are no longer merely an extension of them, but now you are a separate being.  Before that the family and society are more responsible, but after that you are the one who will sign for your learning and life actions.  It used to happen around the 8th grade when we got confirmed and replaced knickers with long pants or cut our long hair into a more utilitarian length.  I recall that I was a different person at the end of 6th grade than I was at the beginning of 5th.  A critical eye and reality had developed.  Dillard addresses this question:

“What does it feel like to be alive?” (Dillard, pg. 150) or (in a sense to become your own truth, and responds), “Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang on to the ring.  It is riding the planet like a long way downstream, whooping.  Or, conversely, you step aside from the dreaming about some fast loud routine and now feel time as a stillness about you, and hear the silent air asking in so thin a voice, have you noticed yet that you will die at some point?  Do you remember, can you remember?  “Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, just a weekend in the country.” (Dillard, pg. 151)

It is so important to get this experience of life clearly understood.  Further, though there are common elements, no two people experience it in exactly the same way.  It may be a flash of insight or happen so gradually that you are not sure when it occurred.  It may scare you to the point of despair or make you as giddy as a Saturday night dance.  It is both simple and complex and to a large degree an internal awakening we become aware of and realize what the teacher meant by taking responsibility for our own actions.  Many people can help prepare and support us, but it is a journey that we each take alone and often do not reflect upon very much, because we are too busy existing.  Yet, it is at the heart of how well we become human.  In that way it is a common part of the journey that we all experience in our own way often very privately.  Still it can be very out loud at times and we may then also serve as a small spark that lights our own imaginations for the rest of our lives.

Therefore, as we seek to reset a new educational agenda we will do well to consider the key questions.  Right at the head of the list, how do we release the power and imaginations of all of our children to learn using their talents to make life a richer and deeper experience for self and the worlds where they live?  There is no best test, practice, or standard; there is not a magic path, no app will solve it, and there is no cheap way.  It is a collaborative effort that requires us to care for our students and take the time to know them as we prepare them to take responsibility for the care we will all need in our retirement.  It is one generation preparing and the next to care for life and pursue hope for the future.  It is the serious work for parents, educators, leaders, and the society.  It is the most important thing that we may do in the next decade.  To understand the need and act upon it to help children relish becoming citizens in it.  So I am asking you to join me in passing on the sense of responsibility that I assumed all those years ago as you seek ways to care about helping our children take responsibility for the future.

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