Would the Joan Rubin School be an Educational Disaster?

Posted on August 15, 2013


Last week, Notes to Ponder shared this experience in the Comments here:

“I was plucked out of the mainstream school system in 1970, placed in an alternative school where we were encouraged to learn whatever struck our fancy.  An education experiment that gave IQ tests to all grade 3 students in the district, culling the highest scorers, then sitting back to observe what happened with self directed education of 8 and 9 year olds. FYI – it failed miserably, cancelled when I reached grade 7. The problem for us was missing basic grammar and math. :)”

Imagine my surprise when, just a few hours later, I ran across this article:  “Joan Rubin School Brings Democratic Learning to Boston.

According to school officials, students who attend the school will not be graded, nor will they be tested or separated into classrooms. There will be no mandated curriculum. Instead students will engage in “self-directed learning,” and will vote on what they want to do each day….  There is no real teaching … all the learning comes from the intrinsic motivation of the children.”

Well, this is a recipe for disaster!

I don’t necessarily have a big issue with the concept of “democratic learning.”  Guessing that it didn’t have much to do with politics, I looked it up and found a slightly different definition and explanation on every web page I found.  The common element, basically, is that students participate in directing their own education.  How much self-direction there is, seems to vary from one school to another.

Applied properly and with the teachers still firmly in charge, this could be a great way to get students excited about learning.  Special projects and interfacing with outside organizations comes to mind.  But… this Joan Rubin School sounds like it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, with the inmates running the asylum.   Apparently, no one asked Notes to Ponder to weigh in on just how that is likely to turn out.

The thing is, kids come into the world completely ignorant, and completely undisciplined.  Parents have the earliest responsibility to teach their kids some very basic things, and to supervise as they explore their world so they don’t end up drowning, choking, eating something poisonous, wandering in traffic, or burning the house down.

By the time they arrive at school, most of this kind of thing has hopefully been addressed, but face it, children are still woefully ignorant of just about everything else they will need to function in our society: reading, math, history, government, the sciences, a foreign language, literature… you know, all those subjects you probably hated in school and only studied because you didn’t get a choice.  If I had had a choice, I never would have touched math (among other things).  Had calculators existed when I was in elementary school, I really, really never would have touched math, thinking there was a machine to do it all for me (being an ignorant child, I would not have grasped the significance of “garbage in, garbage out”).  Turns out I use math quite a lot now, so I thank my teachers for forcing me to learn the multiplication tables and long division.

Give every child in the classroom a choice on what to learn (or not), and you don’t have democracy; you have chaos.  Let the children vote every day on what to learn, and you don’t have a curriculum; you have a disjointed, short-term tyranny of the ignorant, and a teaching staff that has abdicated its responsibility to actually teach.  I can only imagine the frustration of the kids who always vote in the minority and are dragged along into a day of some inane activity they would rather skip.  At least with a normal curriculum, you can expect to have some subjects you enjoy at predictable times of the day.  You can also expect to build steadily on what you have already learned, rather than flitting from one topic to the next like a drunken butterfly.

Then there is the declaration that there are no grades and no tests.  The whole point of testing and grading is not some kind of bureaucratic attack on our little darlings’ self-esteem; no, it is a necessary tool to determine how well the students are actually learning.  It is a measure of real progress.   No test?  No confirmation that anything at all has been learned.

What happens when these kids eventually want to go to college?  No grades, no transcripts, no grade point averages.  No curriculum and no tests?  How well will they do on the SATs or other college-entrance exams?  How well will they adapt to sitting in a formal classroom with an actual professor and an actual syllabus and actual learning requirements?  Worse, what happens when they want to get a job where someone tells them what to do, for how long, and to what standard?

Part of the intent of the “democratic education” model is to produce citizens who are ready to participate in a democratic society.  Fail to teach history, government, media and civics, and see how far that goes.

Brooke Newman, the would-be founder of this school, has this to say about skeptics like me:  “I’ve heard, ‘Brooke, you’re crazy. Kids better get used to it,’ meaning they should get used to sitting at a desk, or having people tell them what to do. That’s sad. Is that the world we want? Not just for our children, but for ourselves?”

Well, Brooke, it may not be the world some of us want, but it’s the one we have.  There aren’t too many people who will hire you to wander off and do whatever you want.  An education that teaches otherwise is just setting the students up for failure.