Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle has made a nice little video about Den Demokratiske Skole in Roskilde, Denmark:
I’ve had the pleasure to know the founders/staff and the fortune of spending some time in the school (it was pretty funny seeing Christina and Niels with an English voice-over rather than just talking English!)
I could quibble about some details of how the school was presented but it was mainly just nice to see positive media coverage of a Sudbury school.
Me and Sabine have both been itching to travel, and so we’ve been kicking around ideas for where we want to go after we finish our degrees. This morning we came up with a really exciting idea: a world tour of learning.
Basically, each station on our way around the world would be a place where we want to learn something. We were already discussing getting a driver’s license in Massachusetts, USA (because I have family there and it’s much easier than it is here or in Israel), and we have also been thinking of spending some time in Israel in which I could learn Arabic and Sabine could learn Hebrew. We might also, for example, go to learn how to cook a proper curry somewhere in India, learn to tango in Argentina… Who knows what else we might come up with.
Of course, we’ll also have to work somehow at most stations on the way, to fund the next leg of the trip… But every job would be a learning opportunity.
We’re thinking of what we can make out of this idea… It might also be something we want to blog about and publicize, to attract attention to all the non-traditional ways a person can learn in today’s world. It’ll be a while before we can start (we each have at least a year left for our degree) but I imagine I’ll be posting more as our plans develop.
For a while now I have been very conflicted about what I want to do after my BA. The two main options on my mind have been on the one hand to (somehow) become a full-time activist for democratic education (or perhaps for human rights), possibly along with some translation and writing to make ends meet; on the other hand, I could continue with my studies and move towards an academic career in linguistics.
For a very long time I’ve wanted to be an academic, but when I decided to start studying it was important for me not to think too far ahead and take things one at a time. I wanted to stay open to other options, some of which, I knew, could not have even occurred to me at the time. As the degree gets closer and closer I know I have to at least decide what the next step will be. There have been times when it was clear to me that a BA was not enough, that I’d need at least an MA to satisfy my curiosity. At other times (in particular when I get annoyed at the university’s structure) I’ve wished to just be done with it as soon as possible and go do something else.
What makes the whole thing more difficult is that I find both fields absolutely fascinating, and both engage me in a way that makes use of my skills. Activism stands out to me as a particularly worthy way of spending one’s time, because activism means working for the greater good (or one’s vision thereof) and would have a clear goal. The goal in linguistics is less clear to me, and I know that the best one can do is create, or help improve, a model that is useful for understanding the phenomena of language — hoping to achieve total understanding would only be a recipe for disappointment. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking and speaking about democratic education since I was thirteen, and I don’t think it’s much good to advocate it as a graduate who hasn’t spent much of their adult life outside the movement.
In the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about one way of seeing things, a way that had occurred to me when I started to study but I somehow forgot about in the meantime. The idea is essentially to make a hobby into a career, and work on something you believe in in your free time. In my case, the hobby-career would be linguistics — a pursuit that is valuable to me simply because it’s fascinating and fun. I could be an activist on my free time, as time allows.
I’m far from done figuring this out, but this approach seems like a good one. Going into a career without any lofty expectations would allow me to spend time on something challenging and enjoyable, while pursuing more lofty goals on my free time would let me continue being part of something I consider really important, something that seems to make a real difference in people’s lives (which, outside of academia, linguistics rarely does).
I’m writing this just because it is on my mind and I feel like writing. I should actually be doing my computer science homework. I’d appreciate thoughts on all this, especially if they come quickly enough to distract me from my homework!
It is sad to see, in our age-graded society, that many if not most children and adolescents have few opportunities to get to know and to interact regularly with children who are much younger than themselves. If we want young people to grow up to be compassionate and caring, we need to allow them to exercise those capacities; and to do that we need to break down the barriers we have erected to keep young people of different ages apart. We are designed by nature to learn to be compassionate by observing and caring for littler ones while we ourselves are growing up.
This is a bit of a followup on my previous post. After ranting about the degree requirements, I realized I had entirely neglected one of the worst things about how this semester is structured: I hardly see my classmates anymore. In previous semesters, thanks to the abundance of linguistics courses, we all saw one another regularly, developed cliques and friendships, and always had people to talk to about school and about linguistics.
Unfortunately, none of my classmates are taking the same classes that I am, so I also end up sitting in classes where I know nobody, feeling disoriented and isolated like in the first weeks of my first semester. We’re all still more-or-less in touch… But everyone’s very busy, and although I still regularly see some of my classmates, it’s not nearly as often as it used to be.
I think this might be more than just a bit of a discomfort for us third-years. It seems like a deeper design flaw in the program. It just so happens I saw a TED talk last night where Steven Johnson talks about where good ideas come from. A big point is that they tend to come from informal interaction in which different people’s thoughts meet and mix. Thinking back on the most excited ideas me and my friends have come upon during our studies, most of them truly seem to have come up either at bars or in living rooms. And this semester? We’re not all working on the same things anymore and we don’t see each other all that often. Studying isn’t only less fun this way, it’s also less creative and produces less interesting thoughts and insights.
I also saw another TED talk last night which seems vaguely relevant to all this, and I felt was very worth watching: Dr. Brené Brown on Connection. (Hat tip to Don Berg.) It’s a curious talk in that Dr. Brown starts by talking about how “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” and ends with advice that could have almost come from a New Age mystic. But coming from a serious researcher who has been examining the issue for years, it makes quite a different impression.
I can only recommend watching it. I’ll leave you with that for the time being.
Lately I’ve been having a very hard time accepting the structure of the university program I am in. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I certainly have not been happy with the requirements this semester.
Over the four semesters I completed so far, I mostly took courses in linguistics. They were not all exactly my cup of tea (only about half of them) and I don’t have to repeat what I think about being tested at the end of every semester, but for the most part I was happy to jump through the hoops, knowing it was progressing my understanding of the discipline and domain of research that I had chosen. My fascination with linguistics and language grew over time as I learned more, understood more, and appreciated new ways of approaching the subject matter. I could accept the expectation that all of us learn a little of all of it, even the approaches we are not interested in pursuing.
However, the way this BA program is designed is a little strange. After the 4th semester, there are no linguistics courses anymore. For the last year of our studies — the year in which we are expected to write our BA thesis in linguistics, mind you — the plan is to take courses from the three different lists of more-or-less elective courses. In total, the program requires 180 ECTS credits throughout the six semesters of study, corresponding to the unrealistic total of 900 hours of class and self-study time per semester. (Hardly anyone at the university, student or instructor, takes this requirement seriously. It seems like something the Bologna process dictates and the universities do their best to fulfill, mostly on paper.)
90 credits — half of the program — are to be obtained in linguistics courses, including 10 credits for the thesis. The other half is composed of:
30 credits: courses you get by lottery (from your first few choices) from other departments, university-wide, usually limited to introductory offerings
30 credits worth of courses from an “obligatory electives” list, which lets you choose from exactly 70 credits worth of courses from other departments — introductory computer science (20), inter-cultural communication for Russian (10), philosophy of language (10), the languages of Africa (10), the system and history of German (10), or basic Hausa (10)
30 credits worth of “key qualifications” courses, being a strange mixed bag of courses offered by different parts of the university on a basis which is not quite interdisciplinary as much as it is simply unrelated to any of the disciplines of those who might take the courses. Luckily, 10 of these credits have to be taken in a language course and the other 20 can be semi-officially replaced by language courses.
I have a feeling this is a case of good intentions gone amiss. There is apparently a social norm of going straight from highschool into university if you were in the academic “gymnasium” highschool system — which you are selected for at the age of 10. As a result, most beginning students have no clue what they’re getting into. So it’s probably doing many students a favor to force them to get a taste of other disciplines before giving them a degree, and indeed the majority changes to another program, or quits, by the second year of studies. But perhaps it’s just cruel, seeing as those of us without wealthy parents have two semesters of grace in which to switch majors, after which financial aid is no longer available.
But I digress. The point is that the structure of this program — not the content — is crushing my interest and desire to complete it. I can’t emphasize enough how this is not a matter of content. I feel like those 80 credits worth of linguistics courses both gave me an excellent, broad understanding of the discipline (and sub-disciplines) of linguistics, as well as giving me a chance to develop real interest in research.
The problem is that the structure of the program makes it entirely impractical to continue pursuing that interest. It’s not just that I have to take some other courses. It’s that a student like me, who is engaged in extra-curricular activity and dependent on financial support, can’t realistically do much besides the required work.
Right now I feel trapped. I am working as a tutor in the introduction to linguistics, and as a research assistant in a language documentation project. I decided to take these jobs both in order to stay involved in linguistics and to work towards more financial independence. I’m very glad I made that choice, and I think it is entirely in line with what engaged and serious students are supposed to do (faculty seems to agree entirely). Yet with all of the time and effort my work requires, I’m struggling to keep up with the computer science coursework, and just desperate to devote more time to reading linguistics literature and perhaps work on some research of my own. (With theoretical grammar as my primary interest, research is thankfully something I can do without any special equipment.)
It makes me furious that in order to receive my BA in linguistics, I am expected to now more or less put my interest in linguistics aside and focus on hoop-jumping.
As some of you may know, as of last Thursday I’m taking time off from my work on EUDEC Council, until the end of 2010. This makes some much-needed room in my schedule for dealing with these requirements. Hopefully it will also give me more time to blog.
I do not expect to make a habit of personal, emotional posts like this one, lacking a clear and general point. It’s just something I had to write about today. At any rate, comments are open and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on all of this.
A few years ago my husband and I attended a lecture by linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann, presenting a provocative theory: the Hebrew we speak today is closer to the European languages of the early Zionists than it is to classical Hebrew, even though most of its vocabulary is Hebrew; therefore, Zuckermann proposed, it would be more accurate to call it “Israeli” than “Hebrew,” letting go of the romantic notion that Israelis today speak the language of the Bible. Our conversation about this idea went on for days after we came home, sweeping up the whole family; later, Michael even wrote a term paper about it.
So it was only natural that when I saw the translators’ association to which I belong had scheduled another lecture about the genealogy of Modern Hebrew, I asked if anybody would like to go with me. Perry said he would and we both looked forward to a pleasant evening in Tel Aviv. I dutifully registered in advance. Next to Perry’s name I added: “14 years old.”
On the hour-plus drive we discussed the upcoming lecture. The speaker was a researcher who was studying the structures of spoken Hebrew and was going to present us with her findings as to whether they had more in common with European languages or with Hebrew, and whether, indeed, this language was Hebrew. Perry was already inclined to believe it was not, because he cannot understand the Bible without an intense explanation or translation: he welcomed the new translation of the Bible into Modern Hebrew and has begun reading it.
At the registration desk a colleague of mine searched for my name on the list, crossed it out and started writing me an invoice. I noticed the total she had entered, and started to protest, “what about him?” – but thought the better of it mid-sentence and shut my mouth; if minors got free admission, who was I to argue?
During the lecture we tried not to disturb anyone with our excited whispering and exchanges of meaningful looks of agreement, surprise or exasperation over certain points in the presentation or behaviors by members of the audience: one woman stormed out not ten minutes into the lecture, shouting at the speaker: “Shame on you!” for doubting the unbroken chain between ancient and modern Hebrew. Another translator prefaced a question about the effectiveness of correcting linguistic “mistakes,” by saying: “If my 15-year-old son had his way, he would spend his whole life lazing in front of the computer and television,” which elicited a room full of nods and sighs of agreement. Perry and I rolled our eyes at each other and clenched our teeth, as if to say: “Just look how people talk about children.”
On our way out of the room for the break, one of my friends turned to Perry, and asked in a kind but patronizing tone: “So, did you fall asleep?” More awake than ever, Perry replied with a startled: “Huh?”
Suddenly I started seeing a pattern: my friend was assuming Perry wasn’t there of his own will but was forced to suffer in boredom while he waited for his mother. As if a child couldn’t possibly come to a lecture out of interest, just like we did. Could that be why they hadn’t charged him admission? Just by looking at him and noting he is of school age, did everyone take it for granted I made him come because I didn’t have a babysitter? Did the organizers let him in for free as a favor to me, allowing me to use an extra seat because they thought I had nowhere else to park him?
It reminded me of the story about the guy who comes to a movie theater box office carrying a crocodile under his arm, and says: “Two, please.” The teller says: “Sir, don’t you think you should take that crocodile to the zoo?” “Thanks,” he answers, “but we already went this morning.”
Sitting down in the lounge with our refreshments, we analyzed the evening. We agreed that people were so upset by their preconceptions’ being challenged that they hardly let the lecturer speak, interrupting her with questions and comments from the beginning.
The next day I sent an e-mail to a colleague whom I had seen at the lecture, with some information she had asked for. On a personal note, I added: “My son really enjoyed the lecture and would like to come to future events.” To which she replied: “That is SO funny! What an adorable geek!” I answered: “What is funny is that everybody thinks he came with me because I didn’t have a babysitter. He really came because he was interested.” She replied, by way of apology: “My son’s a geek too.”
But Perry does not consider himself a “geek,” nor is he considered one by others. The idea, I gathered, is that it is unusual, and what’s more, uncool, for a teenager to pursue intellectual interests, especially at an “adult level.” The geek label implies that such a child is probably uninterested in sports, music and girls, socially awkward and unpopular, living the lonely life of the misunderstood, his best friend being his computer.
Perry knows what a geek is; he just played one in a teen musical about geeks and jocks, the American high school stereotypes. But such categories have never meant much to him. From the first grade Perry has been attending Sudbury Jerusalem, where students are not divided by age and mix freely with each other and with the staff. They are free to pursue whatever interests they have at a given time with whatever means available: play, books, the Internet, but primarily conversation with other children or adults.
Maybe it is because of this upbringing that Perry has never internalized a hierarchy of subjects of interest and activities, rating them as childish/adult, work/play, serious/frivolous, cool/geeky. He has always flowed with his interests, at times devoting intense attention to one thing and then moving on to another. In the early years of school he was very interested in climbing on door frames and walls and leaping from high perches; we nicknamed him Spiderman. He went through an Ancient Egypt period and still likes to go to the museum and decipher hieroglyphics. He spends a lot of time playing the piano. He has a rock band with some school friends. In the last couple of years he has become politically aware and sometimes comes to demonstrations with me.
Perry is still a child and we treat him like one: we support and protect him, attempt to know where he is at all times and keep him safe. But the status of child should not be a barrier that keeps him out of the adult world insofar as the environment in question poses no danger to him. He is just as mentally capable as any adult of hearing a lecture about the Hebrew language, and a lot more open-minded than some language professionals.
Sometimes we are startled to be reminded we live in a world where adults have such a skewed view of children: if they spend a lot of time on their computers, like us, they are presumably brain-dead. If they show signs of interest in their culture, they are freaks. I suppose the ideal, non-threatening child, in this view, would be penned up in his classroom with other members of his ilk, dutifully performing age-approved tasks dictated by adults – but not too enthusiastically.
Many people my age are uninterested in politics. They don’t vote, they don’t take part in social and political movements, they just don’t care. I wouldn’t call it selfishness; sometimes it’s jadedness. And the reasons are probably not simple. But I think one reason is the way we relate to authority.
Like any social structure in which a small group holds all authority, traditional state schools create a dynamic by which students learn to see authority figures as distant, unreasonable, and often malignant. As a result, students disengage. The individuals involved are not to blame, it’s the system that is broken. But that broken system teaches the students the wrong lessons, and twists the way they see authority. I think this might have far-reaching consequences for society and for democracy. Continue reading Problems with authority→
As you can imagine, I read the whole thing on the spot. I fully recommend the entire article, and it’s not long.
I’d like to comment on a few things in the article. I’ll quote them in the order they appear:
Science and the school system
“We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken.”
Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, […] In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.
[…] many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.
These paragraphs (emphasis mine) show a recurring theme of the article: the school system has not been learning from science. This is, indeed, “striking and disturbing”. But I can’t say I’m surprised. In my encounters with “education sciences” in Germany, I have to say I did not get the impression that they are very scientific. As my friend Sören Kirchner of tologo often remarks, they seem to be more in the business of reinforcing a philosophy than that of empirical science. Because “education sciences” are wedded to the traditional school system (in Germany at least, the educational sciences faculties are where accredited teacher training takes place) they typically seem rather unmotivated to produce true criticism of the beliefs that drive the traditional system. The truly critical — and I am glad to know a few such people in the faculties of a few German universities — are the exception, not the rule.
The traditional school system has stuck to the same basic paradigm since it was conceived during the Industrial revolution. Society is deeply invested in that paradigm, since the vast majority of us have been through that system, and rejecting the validity of their assumptions about learning means rejecting the validity of how we spent many (unpleasant) hours in childhood. Making that kind of concession is not easy. At this point, improving education is a matter of revolution, not evolution.
Context, relevance, context!
“What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” said Dr. Bjork, the senior author of the two-room experiment.
Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time.
I will have to remember this next time someone tells me that students in a democratic school won’t learn anything properly because they aren’t forced to stick to a topic for 45 minutes in a static context. This research strongly suggests that the constantly changing, dynamic atmosphere of democratic schools is a terrific boon for learning. This seems right in line with the thought that having a relevant context is crucial for learning: when you learn something because it is interesting and relevant to you at that moment, you learn it better. Classrooms have a hard time providing that kind of context. A school where students explore things freely allows that relevance to happen all the time.
[…] cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.
Tests are a learning tool? I guess you really do learn something new every day! I wrote a little about testing in July, and indeed as most people do, I treated testing as mere assessment. I stand happily corrected.
In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.
But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.
It’s good to know that testing can actually help you learn things, but if this is their usefulness, this is not reflected by the way they are treated in schools and universities. I can only emphasize what I’ve said before: the importance of exam grades must be abolished. Then perhaps tests can be useful. Making test grades important only encourages the kind of learning that gets forgotten.
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