On Learning from the Knowmads…



On June 25th, I had the privilege of following the Knowmads around on the day in which they were examining the effects of capitalism on education. The Knowmads are a small group of Riverdale Country School rising juniors and seniors who participated, this past June, in a two-week summer course, entitled Capitalism and Its Critics. The course was designed as an interdisciplinary workshop and structured thematically to examine the implications of capitalism on various aspects of our culture and institutions. We all met at 10 a.m., flash-mob style, in the Grand Central terminal to start our day of interviews and discussions. Here are some of the insights and observations I gathered from shadowing the Knowmads.

Capitalism and Its Critics

Capitalism: friend or foe? Is capitalism humankind’s greatest achievement, responsible for harnessing the world’s resources for maximum benefit, or is it a catastrophic development in human history that has sacrificed creativity and compassion for the relentless accumulation of wealth?  Is there “wisdom in the markets,” or is capitalism just a way to rationalize unbridled greed?

Capitalism will be under the microscope during a two-week interdisciplinary workshop bringing together students and teachers to investigate the history, meaning, and impact of capitalism in our lives today. In addition to examining capitalism from a theoretical perspective, we will look at how capitalism is portrayed in film, music, and literature. Students will formulate their own research questions and present their findings at the end of the workshop. Students and teachers will spend considerable time “in the field,” researching and interviewing subjects for their research question.

My experience with the Knowmads confirmed what I had imagined when I first heard of the workshop: a group of teachers and students, engaging deeply and freely with what teaching and learning mean and how might they rethink those definitions to better suit their needs and those of other students and teachers. But there’s more to the concept, as the students taught me through their conversations, questions and behaviors. Knowmad means ending the perceived and institutionalized segregation between Knowledge and Learning in the classroom and every day life learning–academic or otherwise. The Knowmad concept is about better preparing students for the challenges of school and life; it means giving them the tools and the freedom to experiment as we nurture their sense of agency in creating new tools and developing innovative ways to use them. Taking the learning experience outside the classroom, as the Knowmads did, created the necessary space to gain some perspective on what works and doesn’t work about the ways we teach and learn.

The idea that teaching occurs only in schools and classrooms creates the erroneous assumption that we do not all collectively share the responsibility and duty of teaching all children we encounter through our own behaviors. Our first meeting of the day, with Leo Casey of the United Federation of Teachers, really drove that point home. Before meeting with Mr. Casey, Jed Silverstein, one of the Knowmad teachers, gathered the class to give them some last minute tips on how to stay respectful even as the students ask potentially thorny questions. After telling us a little bit about UFT and his own work within it, Mr. Casey opened up the discussion to the student’s questions. One student, Benny, expressed his concern that unions and tenure might lead to keeping mediocre teachers in schools for longer than they should be. Benny phrased the question very thoughtfully and respectfully, putting into practice Mr. Silverstein’s tips on asking smart respectful questions and showed a genuine interest in hearing Mr. Casey’s take on the matter. All of this makes Casey’s response all the more surprising–he evaded Benny’s question and when he found that Benny was not just ‘some kid’ he could shake off, he became outright aggressive and unprofessional, telling Benny that he ‘didn’t understand what he was talking about and was just regurgitating things he had heard or read and not understood’. While I was appalled by Casey’s behavior towards Benny, I don’t mean to single him out. I think that what he did is something that we are all guilty of to varying degrees. We think and debate passionately about education, learning, teaching, the well-being of students yet there are times when we fail to translate these concepts into real life opportunities for teaching the students we come into contact with. As the concept of the ‘global village’ moves from an abstract academic concept to an evermore tangible aspect of contemporary life, it might be time to remember the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.”

Later that day we met with Ian Rowe of Girls Prep. Mr. Rowe told us about the Girls Prep model in particular and Charter Schools in general. He gave us a tour of the school and explained the lottery process through which all students must go through if they hope to get into Girls Prep. The day of the lottery is an emotionally intense moments for a lot of families that come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and who view getting their child into a charter school as the only option they have to give them a decent education. (For a poignant portrayal of the process, watch Waiting for Superman). Mr. Rowe shared one particular anecdote that had really affected him. On the day of the lottery, one of the fathers came up to him and told him how before his daughter had even been born, he and his wife had dreamt that she, if it were a she, would attend Girls Prep, which the family could see from the window of their low-income apartment. The father told Mr. Rowe, how, ever since his daughter had been born, the parents had pointed to the Girls Prep building and told her that one day this is where she would go to school. Unfortunately, on the day of the lottery, the child’s name was not selected and she was unable to attend Girls Prep that year (her name did get drawn the year after).

This brings me to my next point, which is that the concept of the ‘classroom’ doesn’t mean anything in contemporary America. The classroom as a space, a set of furniture and resources, and an environment that nurtures growth and opportunity simply does not exist as a single entity; there is too wide of a disparity across schools and educational opportunities. Contemporary education is not democratic. Like the Riverdale Knowmads, I had the privilege of attending a school with immense resources, The Lawrenceville School, while other students, a mere 15 miles away in Trenton, NJ, were dealing with gun violence, overcrowded classrooms and a dire lack of resources.  We live in a world of gross inequalities, with the gap between rich and poor growing wider still. We can talk ad nauseam about rethinking economic and political systems. We can stage protests and call ourselves the 99% or the 1% and fight to keep our ground, whichever side were on. But in the meantime an entire generation of students is growing up and only a small fraction will enjoy the benefits of a decent education. We need to rethink the learning model entirely. We need to find ways to instill a standard and quality of teaching and learning that goes beyond physical resources. It is high time we move away from thinking of the classroom as a physical space in which we perform static roles as students and teachers. We need to rethink the role of the classroom, not as a space or a stage for rote assimilation of knowledge, but as a mindset that shakes assumptions and broadens perspectives on both sides of the teaching divide.

A final observation from my day with the Knowmads is how deeply absurd and wasteful it is that we, as adults and policymakers, activists, and proponents of change, make such little use of our children’s potential in rethinking and redesigning the future. The systems and patterns we have built no longer work. The scale of our consumption has far surpassed our resources and we are feeling tangible and devastating consequences, global warming chief among them. It is time to admit failure and collectively redesign our future so that it is more inclusive of our collective needs as humanity and as individuals, as well as the needs of our planet and the many other animals and forms of life that we share it with. Children, of all ages, provide an immense, and until now, noticeably untapped source of inspiration and direction in rethinking and redesigning our future. Small children have unbound imaginations and a very immediate, very aware sense of their surroundings, which often leads them to express deeply empathetic and authentic insights about the human condition and relationships. Older children lose a bit of that immediacy but develop deeply analytical, fresh and fruitful perspectives on the world and events around them, as did each of the Knowmads I met that day.

It is time to rethink the learning environment and experience. It is not about one-way lectures or rote transmission of knowledge. Learning is a creative act in which the ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ engage in the exchange of ideas that results in both party thinking a little bit more deeply and differently about their own world. That’s what learning is, it’s a give and take and it shakes assumptions on both sides.  Children of all ages need to be involved in rethinking what tomorrow should look like; they have deep insights on the world in which they are embedded. As Brian, one of the Knowmads said, “I’m going to live in the future so I want to know what’s going on.”

Visit our Facebook page for pictures of my visit with the Knowmads


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