Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Queer Education

When a son in his pre-teens acts effeminate, likes to wear dresses, or thinks of himself as a girl, most parents force the child to conform to society's preconceived norms. (There is more tolerance for girls acting boyish.) A New York Times Magazine article profiles some parents who question this orthodoxy. These parents give their children the freedom to be who they are. They take on the hard, at times socially awkward, task of protecting their children as much as possible against the social consequences of non-conforming. They postpone the big questions, “Is he gay?” or “Is he a transsexual?”, until the questions evolve into “Am I gay?” or “Am I a transsexual?”, or until they evolve into nothing.

Serious scholars will debate this topic, at length, in learned journals and at scholarly conferences. The debate will spill over in the popular press and in online forums. After all is said and written, this will be the outcome: these brave parents are developing the model for how all parents and all teachers should educate all children.

The primary purpose of our current educational model is to serve society, not to serve the individual child. Listen to politicians when they talk about education. It is about creating a competitive labor force. It is about economic growth. These goals appeal to parents, who want their children to do well, be able to provide for themselves and their future families, and have a successful and satisfying career.

By putting society's goals front and center, parents, teachers, and government officials think of children as empty vessels, to be filled up with knowledge and skills developed by previous generations that society deems important. At every step, educators evaluate how well students have absorbed the information. They award certificates, diplomas, degrees, and other distinctions that serve as entry tickets to the labor force. These are worthwhile goals, and the classical educational model has exponentially improved our standard of living.

Yet, can't we give children a break? Stop the rush. Give them time and opportunities to explore who they are and what they like to do. Expose them to as many different experiences as possible. Use grades and other assessment techniques not to rank children, but to observe their individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Teachers should help parents observe their children as they are, not as they wish they should be. After all, few parents are able to be objective about their children. Even if they do not intend to, they invest their own dreams and ambitions in their children, often squashing the child's own dreams and aspirations.

Let children tell us who they are, what they like, and what they are good at. They will tell us in their play and in their creative endeavors. Postpone the question “What would I like my child to be?” until it evolves into “What would I like to be?”

A child-centered approach to education does not fit the model of a teacher in front of a class of twenty or more students. The “sage on the stage” model completely ignores whether a particular child is ready for and/or interested in a particular subject at a particular time. It is moderately efficient to fill twenty vessels with the same information, and it is extremely effective at turning education into a chore that kills the creativity and natural curiosity of children.

Cultivating this creativity and curiosity should be the primary purpose of education from kindergarten through high school. Give them opportunities to work on a range projects of their choice. Introduce increasingly challenging projects, and let them discover what particular knowledge or skills they need. Let them learn new knowledge and new skills when they need it, when they are most interested in it. In this model, the teacher observes, guides, and points children to resources that are helpful. The teacher becomes a “guide on the side”. (See Clayton Christensen's book, “Disrupting Class”.)

To make this concept work, we must build a comprehensive library of online courses. Advanced educational software will take on the role of “filling the vessels”. As guides on the side, the teacher's role is to make sure a child takes a particular course at the right time: when the child is primed by curiosity and by the innate drive to finish an interesting project. As educational software evolves and improves, it will adapt to each individual child's learning style.

Adaptive, on-demand, just-in-time education will become an enduring facet of the information- and technology-based economy, and not just for children. Our fast-changing society requires a culture of life-long learning. Such a culture is built by adults eager to continue learning, no matter at which stage they are in life. Everyone will need access to this kind of educational infrastructure.

To prepare our children for their future, let start listening to them now.