At Education Reimagined, we are always discussing the importance of collecting stories from education stakeholders who have experienced an “ah-ha” moment when the paradigm shift from school-centered to learner-centered education happens for them. Together, we can expose the unique roads we’ve traveled and unearth what is common amongst them all.
To continue our intention to collect these stories en masse, Education Reimagined’s Trace Pickering will be sharing his personal story with experiencing the paradigm shift as an educator.
Want to share your story? Let us know!
I enjoyed talking—not for the fun of it but for the life of it. How were we supposed to engage with anything if we couldn’t have a conversation about it, if it was just being projected at us from the front of the room?
Research and Outreach Fellow, Education Reimagined
While my peers beelined through “the Diag”—the University of Michigan’s central quad—checking their schedules and mentally mapping the path they would follow for the next four months, I stood along a dirt road halfway around the world, embarking on my own adventure into the unknown of New Zealand. With my fist closed and my thumb defiantly raised against pellets of rain that had been falling for nearly an hour, I wondered if I was really any better off than they were.
A silver hatchback with a long, narrow New Zealand license plate flashed its headlights as it crested the hill to my right. Finally. The driver pulled onto the shoulder and rolled down his window as I marched to the side of the car. “Where you headed?” he asked. Somewhere dry was what I wanted to say. “North, to Waimauku,” I replied. “Hop in, and throw your bag in the boot,” he said as he gestured toward the back of the car. I wrestled my dripping, fifty pound pack into the trunk and slid into the passenger seat.
The driver’s name was Nate, a slender man with sharp cheekbones and midnight eyes that looked as though they had seen lifetimes. As we drove through the hills of the North Island, where sheep outnumbered humans by the hundreds to one, Nate and I shared stories. I learned that he was a Zimbabwean filmmaker and documentarian who had fled from South Africa to New Zealand after a price was placed on his head. Who I was, though, was still something I was trying to figure out.
Nate was the first of countless strangers with whom I hitchhiked over the course of what would have otherwise been my first semester of sophomore year at the University of Michigan—a time during which I traded my textbooks for a foreign work visa and my backpack for, well, a much bigger backpack.
What had led me to be the rain-soaked, unkempt backpacker climbing into Nate’s car was this riling sense that I wasn’t actually going anywhere in my life. This was a feeling that had been stewing in me for as long as I could remember, but it was something that would take me years to realize and articulate. The knowledge and skills I had been diligently collecting like Monopoly properties for the past 15 years had never been applicable. I had been living in a world of concepts and theories, and wasn’t all of this supposed to help me engage with the world, rather than sit back and study it? So, I decided I would take my education into my own hands, and I purchased a one-way plane ticket to New Zealand, determined not to return until I found what I was looking for.
The story I didn’t quite know how to articulate to Nate begins in middle school on a set of folding chairs perched outside of the Language Arts classroom.
There, Ms. Schramm sat clutching the spiral bound book every teacher seemed to possess, the one resembling an accountant’s ledger, with students’ names and grades stacked beside one another, ready for quick comparison. On this particular day, we were finding out our high school class placements.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when she told me I would be in all “regular” classes. After all, every report card lamented the same observation: Josh shows potential but is too easily distracted by his friends. It was a fair observation, but I didn’t see it as problematic. In fact, I saw it as fundamental. I enjoyed talking—not for the fun of it but for the life of it. How were we supposed to engage with anything if we couldn’t have a conversation about it, if it was just being projected at us from the front of the room? How were we supposed to ask questions and see other points of view? How were we supposed to learn?
This placement felt different, though. It felt like a verdict. This was high school—the big leagues. Suddenly, I wondered if I hadn’t been taking things seriously enough. I didn’t want to be average. If I wanted to succeed, I needed to be in honors classes; I needed to be competitive; I needed to be better.
Frankly, I don’t think I ever really knew what I meant by “success.” Perhaps it was admission to a good (read: highly ranked) college or a good (read: high-paying) job afterwards, but those are the easy answers. In retrospect, this obstructive notion of success as something I needed to seek beyond myself blinded me to the possibility that it was something I could create within.
What I was experiencing is something my dear friend and poet extraordinaire, Lisa Hiton, describes as a sense of belatedness to one’s life. I was overcome by the sensation that I was late, that I had been doing the “wrong” thing and had suddenly recognized the “right” thing. Why hadn’t I realized this sooner? My life became about making up for the time I thought I had lost, the time I had wasted.
By the end of my freshman year of high school I had been promoted to all honors classes, and all AP’s by my senior year. I was the Chair of the Student Advisory Board, an editor for the school newspaper, a tutor to underclassmen, and a varsity athlete. I would arrive at school by 5:30 a.m. for morning swim practice, go to class, hit the water again in the afternoon, and leave school at 6:00 p.m.—knowing full and well I’d be burning the midnight oil to catch up on reading or write an essay or that was due the following day. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” I would say half jokingly, half pridefully to friends in the newsroom as we commiserated about schedules and assignments. Not even a stress-induced stomach ulcer during my junior year was enough to convince me I was pushing myself too hard.
My life felt less like a series of decisions and more like a prescription. Sure, I enjoyed swimming; I felt expressed writing for the newspaper; I was learning in my classes; but the standard to which I was holding myself was not my own. In fact, the standard wasn’t even written anywhere, but it was widely understood. There was a set of expectations—a potent amalgamation of parental pressure, community comparison, media messaging, and good old fashioned, zero-sum competition—that my peers and I experienced like a second coming of age. It wasn’t a choice to live this way; it was a necessity.
That we have created a system in which parents must surrender their children in hopes of an undefined “better life,” rather than one in which they can learn, engage, and grow with them, is a displacement of our very humanity.
Research and Outreach Fellow, Education Reimagined
My parents had moved to the affluent, North Chicago suburb in which I grew up not for the home in which we would reside or the neighbors on the other side of the fence, but for the schools which I would have the privilege of attending. My education looked much different than theirs, and we had no shared language to talk about my school experience. Standardization was the name of the game, and from kindergarten through 12th grade, a battery of tests and ambiguous scores were the only measure by which they could get a sense of my progress.
Dinner table conversation, while there was still time for it, was more about how I was scoring and performing than how I was learning. And, as I grew older, our ability to have conversations about school grew threadbare. When I was in third grade, they nearly had a collective heart attack when I revealed I hadn’t done my homework one night. We all worked diligently around the kitchen table until what felt like the wee hours of the morning, making sure it was complete and making me promise it would never happen again. In hindsight, their reaction was less anger or disappointment than it was fear of me falling behind in a game in which losing was not an option.
By middle school, the content was beyond their ability to offer me help, and by high school, I felt more like their roommate than their son. Even my grades were difficult for them to understand—it took some convincing in high school that a 5 on an AP test wasn’t a bad thing. Yes, Mom and Dad, I get college credit for it, too.
Looking back, I know their intentions were well placed. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is, I was surrendered. I was surrendered to a system that promised to equip me for success and allow me to understand the world in new and dynamic ways, even if it meant my own parents couldn’t join me in it.
By virtue of the zip code in which they chose to purchase a home, I was not only granted access to opportunities and resources unimaginable in public districts on the other side of the city, but I was also given something a majority of American children today lack (often because of their own zip code and the color of their skin): the sense that the system is on my side.
This is but a microcosm of the great tragedies our traditional model of education evokes. The idea that we have created a system in which parents must surrender their children in hopes of an undefined “better life,” rather than one in which they can learn, engage, and grow with them, is a displacement of our very humanity. Do we really want an education system that closes parents off from their child’s learning after age 11? Don’t our parents have more to provide?
I cringe when I think about the first resource I consulted when I began looking at colleges to attend—the U.S. News and World Report university rankings. While scanning the list, I did the the mental math of my application materials—I compared my GPA, ACT, SAT, and AP scores, factored in extracurriculars and volunteer work, and added the innumerate variables like letters of recommendation, personal statements, and my school’s existing relationship with some of these institutions. After all of this lopsided arithmetic, I drew a line under #25 and declared nothing below it would be acceptable.
I ended up applying to a total of 15 schools—three safeties, four targets, and eight reaches. Aside from their proximity in ranking, there was very little connecting them. Some were urban, while others had more traditional campuses. Some had enrollments over 40,000 and some under 10,000.
In this process, I became poignantly present to the fact that the 13-year-old boy who sat beside Ms. Schramm, clad in his pink Abercrombie polo and spiked hair, knew more about who he was, what he wanted, and how he learned than the 17-year-old honors student I prided myself on being.
The first time I visited the University of Michigan was like trying on someone else’s glasses—I’m sure it worked for some people, but it gave me a headache. It was large and gray, red cups littered the lawns, and the size of my tour group was overwhelmingly the same size as my graduating high school class. I surprised myself when I decided to enroll there. My life up until this point had been more about option than choice: swimming or gymnastics; newspaper or choir; AP English or AP History. There existed an implicit set of requisites, within which lived the impression of choice. So, where I chose to go to school didn’t seem to matter if I was going to be checking the same boxes regardless.
In this process, I became poignantly present to the fact that the 13-year-old boy who sat beside Ms. Schramm knew more about who he was, what he wanted, and how he learned than the 17-year-old honors student I prided myself on being.
Research and Outreach Fellow, Education Reimagined
My freshman year was a glorious disaster. On paper, I was doing well. I was succeeding academically; I was involved in clubs and scholarship programs; I was competing as a Division 1 rower. But, doing well wasn’t the issue, and I had a knack for mistaking proficiency or talent for passion. Internally, I was writhing in the uncertainty of it all. Academically, I switched my course of study three times in just two semesters, from pre-med to communications to computer science. Socially, I withdrew. I resigned myself to believing frat parties were the only way to “go out,” so instead I would pretend to be sleeping when my roommate returned from class, ensuring he would leave his things and quickly depart, leaving me to wallow and binge How I Met Your Mother.
By the time the year ended, I couldn’t imagine ever going back. I was confident that Michigan simply was not the right place for me. Within a week of returning home to Chicago, I found myself in a recruiter’s office, ready to enlist in the United States Navy. I needed a way out—of this place, of my mind, of this life—and I needed it now.
As I sat amongst the wood panels of the recruitment office, clutching a pamphlet depicting ethnically ambiguous women and men in uniform, I listened to the gunnery sergeant in the office at the end of the hall barking something about physical fitness test scores. Whoever was on the receiving end was surely covered in spit.
I knew I was in the wrong place, and I was grasping for an answer that would absolve me of asking the questions I needed to be asking: What do I want from my life? Who and how do I want to be in this world? What do I want to create?
A Different Kind of Classroom
Two months later, I stepped off the plane in Auckland, New Zealand with no idea of where I would go, work, or even sleep that night. And for the next five months, I let one experience inform the next as I traversed the country’s islands, north to south. My first job on a biodynamic vineyard led to my next job assisting a local beekeeper, which led to working as a farm hand, which led to landscaping and forestry. I quickly realized that none of this work was independent from the rest. There was an inherent connection between the people and the land, the resources they gathered from it, and the care they put back into it. It wasn’t just about learning how to do the job, but also about learning why the job needed to be done and the impact it would have on the community and ecosystem around it.
An organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) allowed me to do this work in good company. Essentially a work-stay program, WWOOF-ing allows travelers to connect with local families and receive food and lodging in exchange for labor. For weeks at a time, I was welcomed into homes eager to share with me their culture and traditions. I learned to cook using local ingredients and tend to land that had been providing for families for generations. I learned the significance of the Maori haka and the spartan rules of rugby. Most importantly, though, I learned to listen differently.
Listening was no longer an individual act of making things smaller, of selectively searching for relevant information and discarding the rest, or even of finding answers. Listening was a collective act of sharing and making things bigger—our wonders and curiosities, our insights and connections, ourselves.
A New World of Possibility
I returned to Michigan ready to not only ask myself new questions but also listen differently to the answers. What am I curious about, and how can I explore it further? How do I learn best, and how can I create those conditions for myself?
I found my place in the Residential College, a living-learning community of creative scholars who balanced independent study with interdisciplinary projects. And, I found within it a group of peers and professors who supported the way I thought and engaged with the world. I created for myself a course of study that revealed and made accessible an exploration of the interconnectedness of things I had felt in New Zealand. From Shakespeare in Rome and Renaissance Poetry to Symphonic Musicology and Architectural Drawing, I was pushing the boundaries of my thinking and finding new ways to bring that thinking into the world.
It would be a few more years before I would know to distinguish what I was experiencing as a paradigm shift. And, to be sure, I would continue traveling to new places and trying on different ideas of what my life could look like. But, I was learning to be differently in the world. I was learning to embrace my wandering spirit not as a way out of anything, but as a way of creating deeper connections in my life. The sense of belatedness that had been lingering in my life and infiltrating my thoughts, feelings, and relationships was gone. In letting go of the person I thought I needed to be, a whole new world became available to me, a world in which the questions could matter more than the answers and my curiosity could be my connection to the people, places, and ideas that made that world worth living in.