Collective Intelligence in Action

taking kids out of school

School systems often point to families like mine as examples. We prioritized outdoor play, read aloud daily, took our kids to museums, did chores together, and had a family dinner every night. Still, school didn’t really work for my kids. Our five-year-old could read well but still had to complete endless pre-reading worksheets along with his kindergarten class; our eight-year-old’s teacher kept insisting he be medicated for ADHD symptoms we never saw at home; our eleven-year-old was expected to do grade-level busywork although she tested at high school and college levels; our teen was bored by AP classes and hassled by bullies at school.

I dug in, unwilling to give up. How else, I reasoned, can institutions evolve without people pressing for changes from within? Ever since my first child entered school I’d headed PTA committees, volunteered in classrooms, and participated in fund-raisers hoping to effect some of those changes.

Sure, there were a few parents who weren’t fond of my gentle rabble rousing. I never quite shook the negative impression some people had of me as that mom who changed the yearly ritual of first grade hot dog night to first grade popcorn night, or as the one who turned down free Sea World field trips for my kids because I didn’t want them to learn about marine mammals as captive performers.

But all of us parents grumbled in solidarity; united in misery over so many tests, so much homework, so little play. It wasn’t lost on us that we were railing against the very structures that we also “had” to enforce if our kids were to succeed in school. These were overwhelming constraints indeed, many tied to big money.

Corporate influence was present everywhere. Free nutritional posters sent by candy manufacturers on cafeteria walls; software offered by petrochemical companies for science classes; math materials provided by credit card companies. Channel One beamed commercials along with daily snippets of news wrapped in PR-speak.

Parents felt helpless to stem this tide. So did teachers and administrators, who insisted they couldn’t turn down free resources when budgets were so tight. (They’re right. Overall funding for schools nationwide has dropped from 2008 to today due to state and local austerity measures.)

For several years I volunteered as the parent liaison with the district’s food service contractor, but this private company was so focused on profits that fresh produce meant little more than mealy apples, shredded lettuce, and tasteless baby carrots. All my efforts simply resulted in a wider variety of similarly unappealing offerings. When parents demanded that the school stop allowing the sale of chips, ice cream bars, and candy at lunch time the company threatened to back out of their contract altogether. And our offer to develop a school vegetable garden? Turned down. No extra time in the academic calendar for kids to get involved.

Add to that the effect of big money on local schools:

  • Over 20 million dollars are spent on lobbying by the world’s four largest education corporations to sway policies toward ever more student assessment, effectively trapping students and teachers in a testing mill that steers several billion taxpayer dollars back into those companies.
  • Extraordinary profits are made on grading software, data tracking, e-schooling, for-profit charter schools, even GED testing and teacher licensing exams. That’s pretty much how we’ve gotten to our current test-crazed educational system.
  • Decades of standardizing and testing has demoralized teachers, stressed students and families, and dropped public opinion of schools so low that it’s easy for hedge fund managers, education corporations, and other private interests to steer ever more taxpayer dollars into for-profit charters and cyber schools,

But my kids attended a good elementary school with highly motivated parents and positive changes did happen. For example, parent volunteers instituted and ran an annual Art Day, a glorious new tradition. One full school day each year we parents arranged to put artists in every classroom. They demonstrated their work and gave kids hands-on experience. Teachers took students from room to room to learn from sculptors, potters, cartoonists, printmakers, wood carvers, calligraphers, weavers, painters, and others. The whole building was alive with creative enthusiasm. Even then, with so much educational richness available, some teachers didn’t allow children to participate in this all-school program until they’d finished their homework or written “I will keep my hands to myself” 20 times — these kids left in the hallway were, not coincidentally, often minority students.

Although my optimism had waned, I still held on to a shred of hope that there was value in working from within the system to change it. That ended the day my oldest son was threatened by a gun-carrying student in the school hallway. The next day we became homeschoolers.

I may have been slow to react, but that’s often the way collective intelligence looks on an individual level.

We humans form institutions for the value they offer to society. Collectively these structures function with an intelligence based on what works. Ideally, whatever works persists and whatever doesn’t work fades away. But sometimes institutions become resistant to change or change in ways that make them more rigid and therefore less responsive. When that happens, people who work for or are served by that institution tend to suffer. It usually takes a certain amount of irritation, unfairness, or real misery before people step back and take a look at the institution itself. Suffering has a way of making us more fully aware and more authentically invested in change. So we react. We resist, compete, struggle, debate, discuss, break away, collaborate, and reinvent.

More and more we see people resisting the structure of institutional education in its current form.

We are choosing to integrate learning into our daily lives and our communities. Our choices show the sort of fluid responsiveness that shifts ingrained beliefs about what education is and what it can be.

This is collective intelligence in action.

Whether we intend to impact the larger civic good or not, the collective intelligence of our culture is continually refined as we seek out more conscious and life-enhancing ways to live. It takes a small percentage of people to change a cultural mindset. Often it seems that this kind of wider awareness can’t come soon enough. But as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

changing education is collective intelligence in action

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Article originally published in Tipping Points, a publication by the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

18 thoughts on “Collective Intelligence in Action

  1. I was studious, precocious and severely bullied. I wish I’d been home schooled, despite succeeding in the test-based standard academic environment of the 60s and 70s. I think I’d have become a more confident and balanced individual, traits I only managed to develop when I was in my 30s…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Laura, I applaud you for taking on action to carry out changes within your children’s school system. You actually did the “walk” not just “talk the talk”.
    It must have been frustrating to hear from your eight year old’s teacher tell you that she needs medication for ADHD when you clearly saw no signs at home. What does that tell you about that teacher? Or the environment in which your child was in?
    Why is it that money takes precedence almost all the time? Why can’t big companies see what we see, which is the best for the future? We as a world need to change our framework of thinking.
    I’m impressed that you and the other parents took on the initiative to arrange to put artists in every classroom.
    I was shocked when I read about the gun incident, and you basically were left with little choice but to homeschool your children.
    I think your post has been the most thought-provoking one I’ve read so far.


  3. A third of my high school class was functionally illiterate when tested in the 10th grade. We had no AP classes, but plenty of opportunities for violence. Among the few students in the “advanced” classes I wasn’t one of them, perhaps because I blew a standardized test somewhere along the line, perhaps in part because my socio-economic status didn’t suggest I belonged there. After the 10th grade, though, we were allowed to take electives and so it turned out I was “college material” after all. I joined every club and team that made sense (and that didn’t require the payment of money) and was president of most of them. And so, with plenty of hard work and lucky breaks, I ended up with an education that got me into college. I had a lot of catching up to do once I got there, but I was hungry to learn and it all turned out all right. Homeschooling was not an option for me. I did plenty of self-teaching, but my school, with all its flaws, was my only vehicle out.

    Fast forward. We homeschooled both our children. We had the ability to do it and it made sense for us. We could tailor their studies to their abilities and their interests. We homeschooled our daughter all the way through high school and she’s now a college graduate. In the 9th grade our son transferred from homeschool to my old high school (we joke that he was expelled from home school). He preferred the structure of “regular” school and the fact that it wasn’t as demanding. He too went on to graduate college.

    Three different stories with three different educational experiences. Bottom line for us is that all kids are different. I know some well-intentioned homeschooling families who kept their kids home so they could use the Bible as a science textbook. Likewise I know plenty of parents who would have been wonderful home-educators, but who have bought into the myth that an institutional school is necessary for a good education. In each of those cases it seems to me the children didn’t get the best quality education (although it is definitely not my place to make that judgment). I’m convinced that kids generally will get a better education if homeschooled, but I’m also convinced that many parents aren’t capable of it (either because of their work or because they aren’t suited to be educators). As much as I would like to see homeschooling become the norm, I don’t like the idea of ghettoized schools filled only with those who don’t have parents capable of homeschooling them. That’s a tension we’ll have to work through.

    OK, sorry to ramble on. Loved your post and it triggered many memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Bill. Three wonderful examples of why learning has everything to do with the needs of the learner and the community around that learner. I hope my post doesn’t imply that every family should homeschool. The rise of Democratic schools and non-profit community learning centers are a wonderful alternative. And the opt-out movement can start to change schools from within, although the make-bucks-off-education forces just got far more powerful with Ms. DeVos’ confirmation to head the Department of Education.

      (I’d be fascinated to hear the story behind “We had no AP classes, but plenty of opportunities for violence.” Perhaps a post on your site?)


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