How I Came to be Slow

I love learning, but I grew up hating school. So, naturally,  I became a school teacher.  I believed I could change the world by changing education, one class, one lesson, one child at a time.  For over twenty years I taught  in urban public schools. I taught nearly every academic subject, from science to social studies, literature to math.  I taught  every level, preschool through grade 12.  Like any teacher, I made significant impact in the lives of the students under my guidance. My career in schools has been rich and varied.  The only dull moments were rare minutes of rest afforded by regular and relentless administration of state mandated standardized tests.

During my twenty-odd years of classroom experience, I continued to love learning, but  I also endured bureaucratic hurdles of nightmarish proportions.

As educators, we were mandated to teach our children to be quick, clean, and ever more like everyone else. This was all fine and good, but it seemed that much of the real learning that took place in my classroom was subversive.  Passionate inquiry, natural to young human beings, is unpredictable and messy.  Learning meanders. Learning isn’t often easily measured. Learning takes place outside of classroom curriculum. Learning is often slow.

I loved teaching, but I love learning more. I wanted to contribute in the areas of arts and writing. Now what?

I left my modest, but comfortably compensated, tenured position to develop my own personal learning plan.  I examined curricula from what I believed to be the best schools in my chosen field (multidisciplinary fine arts) and I found that the most progressive programs tended to be

·       interdisciplinary

·       based on personalized learning plans initiated by the learner

·       situated in “real world” settings

·       guided by mentors who are practitioners in their fields

All this individualized interdisciplinary, learner-based programming sounded great. I was all ready to sign up, until I realized that

·       these programs are expensive.

·       many programs require the students to locate and recruit the engagement of experts who serve as their mentors and instructors.

·       these mentor/experts earn only a small portion of what I would be paying the institution.

·       in the age of the Internet, information is plentiful, accessible, and cheap. Universities no longer are the sole gate-keepers of knowledge.

·       the academic degree, in and of itself, might have little impact on future career options.

The rebel in me wondered: If the student is doing all the initiation and coordination of their own learning, why go back to school? Do I really need those letters behind my name? Couldn’t I hire my own adjunct faculty and advisors? Isn’t it possible to create my own community of practice dedicated to learning?

My experience in teaching in public schools taught me that no one learns completely on their own, least of all extroverted creative types like myself.  Not only would I have to create my own curriculum, I would have to create my own community of learners who would offer me support, critique, and guidance. I would work with my own self-selected mentor/practitioners. I might even have to create my own alternative to those coveted letters behind my name.

I would develop a model for learning that I could put to work for myself, and then offer what I’ve learned about learning to others.

This learning might be slow. It might even take a lifetime.

NEXT: A brief review of my adventures in Slow Learning over the last five years.