Education, 1977

Under what conditions do we learn better, absorb and remember more usable information? Is it from having a general mandatory curriculum that we must know and have all the "right" answers on exams? Or is it from developing your own interests in an informal, non-structured environment?

When I was thirteen my family moved to Israel. The school there was a totally different type than the fairly progressive American schools I had been used to. Tichon Earoni Hay in Haifa, Israel was a conservative European school, where schooling consisted of formal lecturing, passive note taking, and exams. Teacher-student relations were most formal and involved minimal personal interaction.

The first day I put on my new uniform, a shirt of a faded, aging yellow color and a dull, muddy-brown skirt, complaining all along because I wanted to wear my bright pretty new dress.

Arriving at school I fell in line with my new classmates in the courtyard, where we stood very quietly for 15 minutes. Then in a vary orderly single file we entered the dingy old building. We were seated according to alphabetical order and introduced to our teacher whom we were supposed to address as "Sir." After that we received a huge pile of textbooks, one for every hour of the day, and class began.

There was nothing in the room but 40 desks with 40 students who looked exactly alike, sitting very quietly taking notes from the teacher's lecture. In the last 20 minutes of class the teacher dictated the questions he wanted answered by the next day, and the chapters we were to read.

The day progressed in this fashion. No one spoke, no one asked questions, we just sat like mindless extensions of our pens scribbling away. We went home, read our chapters, found the exact sentences that answered the questions, and wrote them down. For example, in French the question read, "Is the hat on the table?" You look it up in the chapter, find the exact answering sentence and copy, "Yes, the hat is on the table." Next question, "Where is the hat?" "The hat is on the table." "What is on the table?" "The hat is on the table," and so on, and so on.

I took it for a week, and then I couldn't take it anymore. I rebelled, and began disrupting classes. The teacher was droning on in his monotonous voice as usual. I had had enough. I threw my book across the room. The teacher looked up and asked me why I was throwing books. I answered back in my best put-on drippingly sweet-innocent voice, "But Sir, it's not my book."

He glared at me, then settled back into his oblivious monotony. I opened my umbrella. The teacher naturally asked why I had opened it. Sweet little innocent me answered, "Because, Sir, it's raining outside," as if he was asking an obviously ridiculous question.

All at once every umbrella in the room was open. Pandemonium broke loose. All the years of suppressed energy and hate came crashing out. Books were thrown, everyone was screaming and yelling.

The teacher stood bewildered, not knowing what to do. So I decided to show him. I ran up in front of the class and screamed, "If this class is not quiet in 5 minutes, I'll … !!" I stormed my way out, slamming the door as hard as I could. Of course this had no effect on the class except to bring gales of laughter and everyone screamed all the louder.

The only disciplinary action that was taken was that I had to see a "guidance counselor" once. He said that if I wanted to become somebody important someday I had to be good. Well, the way I felt about that was that I was somebody important right then!

I didn't learn anything all year except how to effectively disrupt classes. As far as the rest of the students, who like robots repeated the correct answers they had memorized the night before, they learned nothing either.

The object of that school was not to teach. It was to process nameless, spineless uncooked packages through the assembly line of grade levels eventually to spit them out into society wrapped in cellophane wrappers marked "smart" or "dumb." No one learned, and no one cared.

In comparison and contrast I take my senior year in Brookline High School where I opted to be in an alternative school. School Within a School, or S.W.S., was an alternative learning environment created within the public high school which students could choose to be in.

It was small, only about a hundred students and 4 full-time teachers, located on the fourth floor away from the main student body. We knew our teachers informally by their first names and most of us had warm personal relationships with at least one if not all the teachers.

The year started with a getting-to-know-each-other picnic and softball game. After choosing which classes we wanted to take, classes began. The rooms were carpeted and there were no desks, just comfortable old overstuffed easy chairs arranged in a cozy circle. We all curled up in the chairs, even the teacher, munching on fruit or candy and began talking about what we were interested in, sharing our ideas and experiences. After a while, this being the English class, we moved to sprawl out on the floor and wrote about anything we wanted to say in any way we wished to. Then we discussed what books we had enjoyed and what kinds of books we would like to read.

We, the students, were treated like intelligent human beings who had ideas and interests equally as important as the "educators" to contribute towards our learning. In other words we were respected as individuals.

It's a novel, wonderful feeling after years of being treated like irresponsible children. We all had something to say, and for the first time in our lives adults really cared. It made a difference.

Because they cared about us, we began to care about them. We found out that teachers were actually human beings; they had lives of their own and stories to tell and share. They weren't all knowing, overpowering, or above and beyond us little people. They made mistakes like we did, and of course they didn't know everything.

We began to develop a real interest in what people had to say and in what we wanted to learn. We found out that S.W.S. was our school, and we could make it what we wanted it to be. Most of us became actively involved in the learning process; speaking out about what and how we wanted to learn.

Assignments were geared towards individual expression and interest and left plenty of elbow room for expansion and change. Generally the material was relevant and of interest to all of us since we had a say as to what it should be and the teacher was in close contact with what was of interest to each student.

We also had a seminar program where anyone could teach: students, parents and other interested people. We had a wide variety of contemporary and personal issues to choose from, like Women in Society, Politics, Esoteric Psychology, Yoga, Modern Dance, Photography, and people were always bringing in new ideas. I taught one on communal living and Kibbutz life in Israel since I had lived on one and people were interested in what I had to say.

We were encouraged to explore and were guided along the way. We weren't told what to do but rather to expand what we were doing, or we were given new ideas to think and find out about.

Not everyone learned; some took advantage of the freedom and got by doing as little work as possible. But most of the students took advantage of the opportunities and explored, grew and learned.

I did more active learning that year than I had done in eleven years of school and obviously so much more than that year in Haifa. I read more, explored and absorbed more, and to an unbelievable extent developed my own abilities.

The issues were contemporary and relevant therefore interesting. My world became broader, my interests more varied and my knowledge much deeper. I spent the whole year in high-keyed excitement, actively involved in school and learning. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it. School became a part of my whole life, not just a part-time prison. I cried when we graduated, and I still go back to visit.

I think, most of all, that year I learned how to learn and that learning is fun. I carry that with me now and try to always be open to new experiences, new knowledge, new growth and reevaluation of the world around me.

It is therefore my opinion that I learned more in an alternative educational environment "where each individual could satisfy his curiosity, develop his abilities and talents, pursue his interests, and from the adults and older children around him get a glimpse of the great variety and richness of life." [Quote from John Holt in How Children Fail, 1964, p. 222]