Gyre & Gimble Fool: What’s the Point of School?

It’s rather hard to understand! Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

This weekend I enjoyed a spectacular school adaptation based on Carroll’s classic work and – in addition to the admirable production and performances – I found that two words from the play resonated with me from my own school days. To “gyre” and “gimble” refer to spinning in a circular motion or constant spiral – as in a maelstrom – and this vague meaning can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary definition dating from the 15th century. The irony of the perplexing language of “Jabberwocky” is that it can, with careful interpretation, be relatively easily understood. Many of the absurdities we continue to perpetuate in schools today, however, make less sense than Carroll’s complex dreamscape, and may prove even more elusive if understanding is our objective.

A Brillig, Vorpal Piece of Slithy Thinking
Among the nonsenses currently permeating dialogue on global education is the need for “personalised learning”. It feels almost as if this is something that is being considered for the first time. As I watch the Mad Hatter sharing tea with the March Hare, it strikes me that the seemingly preposterous language of Carroll is not so far removed from contemporary discourse on schools today.

There are clearly aspects of schooling that may contradict the essence of making learning personal, but surely the individual educational experience, the connection between teacher and student, the learning activities that we devised for students … were always essentially personal? The core philosophy of our middle school has long been that articulated by Edward Hallowell in his book, Finding the Heart of the Child: “A child’s emotional development is as important as his or her intellectual growth. What does the child want? A person, a connection.”

The thinking – not uncommon in many schools, though perhaps less prevalent than it should be – is that the relationships between the people in the school setting must be strong, healthy, and caring in order for learning to flourish. This is also true of the relationships between adults in schools and one of the most damning indictments of traditional hierarchical approaches to school leadership. Again, it’s that thing called school culture. Is this what we mean when we talk about personalized learning? From Socrates to Erasmus, Rousseau to Dewey, Steiner to Montessori … we have arrived at a point of absurdity of our own, a grand, tautological epiphany of the fool: learning should be personal.

Beware the Jabberwock!
It is pertinent and right to speak of personalising learning if we really mean to take advantage of the whole range of technologies available to us today to customize educational programs to meet the needs of the individual, but learning, when it is genuinely happening, has always been personal and never more so than today. Any consideration of what personal learning means must lead us back to that age-old question: what’s the point of school? We could spend hundreds of hours on the philosophical underpinnings of this question, but what we cannot dispute is that answers to the question that are the same today as they were just a decade or more ago must be suspect, if not dangerously flawed. If our schools are truly student-centred, then what is it that students want from school? We know all about unavoidable college requirements, the jabberwocky of credit hours and cramming for examinations that no school enjoys, but what is the essential essence of what makes school personal for our young people today? In this past year, I made a point of noting some things that students have told me about their prior and current educational experiences that I think illustrate the essence of how we must understand personalised learning in meaningful ways:

“The teachers used to talk at us all the time, non-stop, but they never actually spoke to us.”

“Can you remember what it feels like to sit at a desk for a whole class, just listening? Have you any idea how much I just want to scream?”

“So, I get the practice part of homework, but when I understand the concept or idea the first time, why do I have to repeat it twenty times? Who made that the magic number of knowing?”

The truth is that we intuitively know what the word personal means and we understand that in order to make learning personal we need to make connections with young people, we need to make learning meaningful in contexts that are relevant to their current and future lives, and we need to stop doing things that we innately know no longer make sense. Young people want to do math and science, not observe it; they want to write for real audiences on blogs, not write the autobiography of a pencil; they want to address real-world problems in society today, not memorise the past; they want to create, explore, build, move, and express themselves and, most of all, they want to grow in an unshackled environment. Being talked at, sitting passively, engaging in rote learning – the vestiges of a pre-digital past – are no longer acceptable. There is no need for debate here. Our students are no longer listening. For them, learning is only ever personal, and, in order to engage them, to really help them grow, we need to keep the words of Alice in mind: “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”

Learning is always personal. It is easy to say that we should personalize learning, customize it to fit the needs of each learner. How are schools to do this?