Brandon Dutcher | May 27, 2015

Combating a culture of ‘disengagement and compulsory learning’

Brandon Dutcher

In an interesting and insightful blog post, Rob Miller, longtime principal at Jenks Middle School, recently reflected on “all the parallels between being an airline passenger and daily life as a student in a typical middle or high school classroom in America today.” He points out that, as a student:

• You have to line up at the door and wait for permission to enter the classroom.

• You are crammed together with too many other students in a space which provides minimal ability to move and interact with others.

• You are told where to sit and have no option for upgrading your seat.

• You must SIT upright in a hard, uncomfortable seat for hours each day.

• You are not allowed to choose who sits next to you.

• You are told when you can get up and when you cannot.

• You are only allowed carry on bags of a certain size or dimensions.

• You are not allowed to bring in any food or beverages from outside the room.

• You are not allowed to use your electronic device unless given explicit permission.

• You often have to do your work on a tray table that is too small and ergometrically unsound. If you happen to be left-handed, well … good luck with that!

• You cannot use the restroom without permission.

• You often are unsure of the “destination” of the flight. You simply know you’ll be on-board for fifty minutes.

• You are forced to listen to an adult talk to you about information that often has no meaning or relevance to your real life. There is really no time to ask many questions so you’re expected to pay attention and get it the first time. Keeping that in mind, the adult will then be able to say he or she “taught you how to use your flotation device.” Therefore, it will be entirely your own fault if you “drown.”

• You have to rush through crowded hallways to get to your next “flight.”

• You have no right to argue with any of the flight crew at any time.

So kids, on behalf of the captain and crew, just sit back and enjoy your flight. We know you have no choices but appreciate you flying with us anyway.

Like the airlines, we expect you to fit in the same seats, follow the same rules, learn the same things, keep your mouth closed, and just do your best to endure the learning experience. And we ask it from you hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

I cannot imagine why some kids don’t like to come to school, can you?

A depressing analysis, to be sure. It explains “why they’re not eager to learn … to take risks … to trust,” one retired schoolteacher added in the comments section. Some of our education practices “simply take the love of learning away,” another teacher lamented. “Beginning in the 9th grade they quit,” added a former state lawmaker. “One in four just say no.”

Mr. Miller’s airline comparison is apt (though I happen to prefer the prison comparison myself), and I’m hoping public-school educators and advocates will leave some comments below on how to improve the culture of public schools.

One teacher isn’t sure it’s possible. Michael Godsey, who has “spent the last four decades exclusively at public schools—either attending them, coaching at them, or teaching at them,” is concerned about public schools’ general culture of “disengagement and compulsory learning.” He fears that it may be impossible to change that culture “when everything is both free and compulsory.” And so even though “public schools have my tax money, my lifelong employment, and almost anything else they need of me,” he sends his own daughter to a private school.

Others are embracing a different educational culture altogether. In a fascinating article (“The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids”), author Jason Tanz introduces us to Samantha Matalone Cook, a work-at-home mom who wears a nose ring and blogs about feminism. She lives near the UC Berkeley campus with her husband Chris, the lead systems administrator at Pandora. “The world is changing,” Samantha says. “It’s looking for people who are creative and entrepreneurial, and that’s not going to happen in a system that tells kids what to do all day. … Well if the system won’t allow it, as the saying goes: If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Tanz continues:

“Do It Yourself” is a familiar credo in the tech industry—think of the hobbyists of the Homebrew Computing Club hacking together the personal computer, Mark Zuckerberg building the next great communications medium from his Harvard dorm room, or Palmer Lucky soldering together the Oculus Rift from spare parts in his garage. Progressive education is another leitmotif that runs through tech history—Larry Page and Sergey Brin have attributed much of their success to the fact that they attended a Montessori school. In recent years, Peter Thiel has launched a broadside against higher education, and Sir Ken Robinson’s lecture, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” has become the most popular TED Talk of all-time, with 31 million views. Now, all those strains are coming together to create a new phenomenon: the techie homeschooler. …

“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’” [Jens Peter] de Pedro says. “If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

Lisa Betts-LaCroix personifies this attitude pretty well. … “We are going direct to learning,” she says. “We don’t need to hold to this old paradigm of top-down, someone tells me what to do.”

Indeed we don’t. Despite Mr. Miller’s claim that students “have no choices,” they actually have a large and growing number of choices. Oklahoma’s charter and virtual school sectors are expanding. There are nearly 30,000 Oklahoma students in private schools (some using vouchers or tax-credit-financed scholarships), as well as thousands of Oklahomans being educated at home. And as Oklahoma policymakers continue to open education to “the mix-and-match customizability of the Information Age”—first with course choice, and eventually with education savings accounts—fewer students will be trapped in a culture where they simply have to “endure the learning experience.”

Brandon Dutcher Senior Vice President

Brandon Dutcher

Senior Vice President

Brandon Dutcher is OCPA’s senior vice president. Originally an OCPA board member, he joined the staff in 1995. Dutcher received his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Oklahoma. He received a master’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in public policy from Regent University. Dutcher is listed in the Heritage Foundation Guide to Public Policy Experts, and is editor of the book Oklahoma Policy Blueprint, which was praised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman as “thorough, well-informed, and highly sophisticated.” His award-winning articles have appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, WORLD magazine,,, The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, and 200 newspapers throughout Oklahoma and the U.S. He and his wife, Susie, have six children and live in Edmond.

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