The Water We Swim In

Every aspect of life carries with it certain unspoken assumptions. (A business meeting, for instance, requires a tucked-in shirt; a movie theater assumes viewers will refrain from talking; a waiting room means cordiality–but rarely conversations–with strangers; and schools require classrooms with walls.) If we are successfully assimilated, we move through our lives without giving these things a second thought. We are like fish in a fishtank, and culture is the water.

It is only when we step outside our culture that the assumptions of the majority become immediately apparent– or transparent, like an overlay. It is in these moments that we have the opportunity to see the water we are swimming in. What assumptions have I been unaware of? And how does the culture I have been swimming in look different now?

During my Fellowship, I have had the chance to engage with a number foundational philosophies at the heart of Community-Based Learning. My own personal perspective on each of these is evolving. What is presented below is a snapshot.

Questions to consider, as you play with the ideas that follow:

  •  Do agree with the assumptions/philosophies?
  • How different are the assumptions/philosophies about teaching and learning that currently exist in schools?

  • Real-world learning is complex.
    • Everything is naturally cross-disciplinary. (Where for example, in the building of a bridge, does one separate civil engineering from art and design?) School is the only place where knowledge, concepts, and meaning is carved up into distinct disciplines.
  • Active, engagement should happen now.
    • Rather than being prepared for “citizenship,” “community-involvement,” or “career success” in some abstract, distant future, learning should be facilitated as if learners are involved citizens, with evolving skills–ready to engage with real issues–now.
  • Intrinsic motivation is the engine.
    • “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

   – Dorothy Parker

  • Learners need time to explore.
    • Adolescents are still discovering who they are. They need space to make discoveries and to make these discoveries meaningful. Relevant learning is often inductive.
  • We all learn all the time.
    • Limiting “credits” to hours in which learners are within our walls, or in front-facing chairs, does not honor the various times and pathways to growth in which learners grow.
  • Learners should show what they know.
    • Assessment that is shared, performed, and demonstrated in context, for an authentic audience, is the best way for learners to show what they know–and how they’ve grown.
  • Mentoring is powerful.
    • There is only one way for young people to learn how to be a successful adult: spend time with adults. The traditional school system is designed so that students spend most of their time–for 12+ years–with other young people, instead of with adult mentors.
  • Relationship matters.
    • One authentic, caring relationship with an adult can be more powerful in terms of someone’s growth than dozens of other transactional relationships.
  • Partners are out there.
    • Community members and organizations care about supporting the success of younger learners; they often haven’t had a chance to authentically partner with schools.
  • Teaching and learning must change forms.
    • If students are to actively engage in integrated, real-world learning, and if what they are able to do is to be demonstrated authentically, learning environments will naturally shift to include space outside the classroom walls, and the role of the teacher will shift to include collaborating, facilitating, advising, etc.

As a coda, I’ll share that I continue to struggle with these ideas, especially in my own teaching practice. The clearer my belief in these foundational assumptions becomes, the more obvious it is how far I have to go in order to live them out.

What is stopping me? What are the barriers to shifting my own teaching practice?

What are the barriers for each of us?

One Response to “The Water We Swim In”

  1. mauriceabarry

    Good question you posed there at the end. Frankly it is a question we need to ask ourselves every day. It is only when we acknowledge our own biases that we can deal with them honestly and, maybe, come to accept the vast differences that exist in our modern society.


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