Cory Roush

Dissonance and tension plus reflection and resolution equal intellectual growth

"Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar" - What Can We Learn?

"School is temporary. Education is not. If you want to prosper in life, find something that fascinates you and jump all over it. Don’t wait for someone to teach you; your enthusiasm will attract teachers to you. Don’t worry about diplomas or degrees, just get so good that no one can ignore you." - James Marcus Bach, "Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar"

An aspiring public school teacher, posting such heresy? A product of the public school system, appearing to endorse the idea that diplomas and degrees are somehow unnecessary? That's right, and I'm warming up to the idea that this is perfectly acceptable and not at all hypocritical. Why? Because it's not our job to protect the public school system, at least not in its current form. No matter how old your students are, your devotion to promoting a lifelong love for learning is paramount to everything else.

I used to see self-education and formal education as being two sides of some kind of eternal battle. Watch as high school dropouts form multi-million dollar corporations and pursue their dreams, all the while slamming their former teachers for trying to crush their dreams! And watch as the schoolteachers all shake their heads and sigh, hoping that their students don't hear all of this hogwash about schooling not being necessary!

Only in the last year have I come to the conclusion that the best way is to not divide ourselves into supporters of formal education or self-education, but to combine the two into the most effective engine of learning and development ever imagined. If teachers are going to do that, however, we have to be cognizant of what self-education requires and provide that for our students.

“Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar” might just be the best place to start on this path. It is a very detailed look at the methods and techniques used by a successful software tester, speaker, consultant, and author, who dropped out of high school and pursued his interests in technology. He uses the buccaneer metaphor unashamedly, invoking images of a daring pirate setting sail on society’s sea and looting for treasure: in this case, more information about the world around him. He describes the eleven essential elements of self-education, including some that I found most important to our jobs as educators:

Authentic problems – Often, the kinds of problems and questions that we ask students are meaningless, irrelevant, and no one cares about the answer, not even the teacher. Instead, the problems that we should be asking students to solve are the ones that involve their environment, their friends and family, their hobbies and interests, etc.

Experimentation - Students just need more time to practice the skills and concepts that they are learning in our classrooms.

Dialectical learning – Imagine yourself in a traditional classroom: how often do the teacher and students engage in a spirited debate about the validity of their thoughts and ideas?  In the worst classrooms, the teacher (a.k.a. the expert) has the right answer and the students are desperately grasping for it. And even in some of the best classrooms, we don’t give students the opportunity to toss their ideas out there without feeling as if they will be criticized or made to feel inferior by their classmates (or even their teacher’s) reactions.

Bach describes many methods of self-education throughout his book, and to describe each one of them would be too much for one post. There is, however, an interesting form of self-assessment that he outlines in one chapter, and I saw immediate implications for the classroom in it. After reading a guide book on clams (because, as we all know, a person’s interests don’t always align with what’s written between the pages of the academic content standards manual) he tested himself by writing down as many facts as he could. After he compiled a good list, he went back and checked what he had recalled for accuracy. Where his schema matched up with reality, he felt an immediate sense of satisfaction at having grasped some understanding. His inaccuracies, however, felt less like incorrect answers and more like holes in his thinking that needed to be patched up. From there, he could have sought out more information to correct his misconceptions and steer the rest of his education on clams.

Why can’t we do the same in our classrooms? There is so much valuable information that could be attained from a formative self-assessment like this one; what do our students know? What do they think they know? What didn’t they fully grasp, and how can we help them to better understand it? Can a multiple-choice test with predetermined questions and answers accomplish the same thing? Never.

I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of this book. It’s a short read, less than 200 pages total, but it could provide you with an incredible new perspective on the students in your classroom that you know are capable of learning (all of them) but are disengaged, unmotivated, and on the track to being “failures” in the eyes of a broken system of education (most of them, if we don’t do something soon).

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