Monday, September 19, 2011

Minimum Security Prisons

by John T. Spencer

Someone recently commented on this blog, asking if an innovative high school was simply a "minimum security prison."  I'm not shocked by the comment.  Lately, it seems that teachers have been compared to slave-drivers, prison wardens, thieves and child abusers.  Yes, I've read about the industrial nature of schooling.  Honestly, I agree that there are some real issues with compulsory schooling.  But prison? Really?  How many people who make that comparison have ever known a loved one who spent time in both?

People can slam schools all they want. They can slam the system and complain about industrialization.  They can make charts comparing the similarities (walls, cafeterias, lack of free movement, design, etc,) But just as I don’t oppose home learning (as opposed to homework), I don’t oppose an alternative method of education within the confines of the school.

The social and cultural realities are that my students have parents who work two or three jobs and they simply cannot un-school or homeschool. I don’t get to choose my students nor do they get to choose me. We don’t get to chose standards, either.

But . . .

I can do documentaries, independent projects, murals, blogs and all kinds of learning that they find interesting.
I can advocate a humane, meaningful relationship to replace traditional discipline.
I can shift my pedagogy to problem-based and project-based.
I can do away with grades and homework.
I can encourage free movement.
I can have honest dialogue that leads to small acts of liberation.

Some would point to me and say that it’s simply a “minimum security prison.” And at that point, it’s not worth it. When we disagree on metaphors, it’s pointless to have a conversation. Maybe it is a prison. Maybe. But if it is, I would hope that a seed can grow under the industrial pavement and something organic is happening inside a place that is designed to be artificial. I would hope (and perhaps I am naive) that authentic learning can happen anywhere – even within the prison walls. I would hope that if we are stuck in a box, we can repurpose that box.

If it is a prison, don't we need compassionate people working quietly to subvert it?  Don't we need a few more Andy Dufresne bringing art and voice and beauty to a place that is so often at war against such things? 


  1. I believe I could write quite a lot in response, but I'll keep it to authenticity. In a model of authentic education, teachers make available the projects that teach the skills to learn what will be of value to students in their futures. One of these is the habit of lifelong learning, no matter what the learning. In a PBL school, choice and availability of materials is so critical, & it appears that you are doing so much in that way--authentic learning to support lives in the future. That's what some in prison do. They work to educate themselves for their futures. I wish it could happen to everyone.

  2. It is disturbing to hear that someone would call high school a prison. If the teachers and students are acting as such, I hope something changes the moral. Maybe more volunteers to actually liven up the school system. Take the burden on overstaffed systems. Students needs more positive interaction. The person with the negative needs to have an eye opener because teaching can be rewarding so can learning.

  3. I agree. It's been crazy to see some of the crazy prison rhetoric all the time. It's not that bad. Really.

  4. I guess that most jobs are prisons too - you are stuck in your cubicle or office or wherever for 8+ hours a day and told when you can leave and you have to follow rules and do what's right and be on time....oh wait, it's called life.

    I teach in an urban high school. It is less of a prison than where I worked as an engineer where we had more security and less freedom.

    Anyone comparing a school to a prison has never been in a prison. My father-in-law was a corrections officer and as a paramedic I have been in many prisons. There is no comparison.

  5. Thanks, Dave. I appreciate the perspective that you offer. I was taken aback by the prison metaphor, because some of the people who offered the most hope in my life were teachers.

  6. John,

    It's no where near a prison. There are rules and structure because that's how you keep things from becoming chaotic. Students will not learn without some sort of structure.

  7. Dave,

    Agreed. I hope my post came across as very clear that I don't see it as a prison. I've been called a prison warden, a slave driver, a thief and a child abuser by some very militant unschoolers. That's where this post comes from, really.

    Though I would toss out one caveat: any social institution can feel like a prison to a child (family, school, church, etc.) if he or she doesn't experience freedom. There are bad teachers out there who yell and scream and berate children. So, I don't deny that it's possible for it to feel like a prison.

    But if it does . . .

    my hope is that I can be like Andy Dufresne.

  8. I'm a teacher candidate in an Ed.M. program and cannot claim to have much experience in urban schools, but I have been observing one lately and can see where the analogy comes from, as I'm sure many of your readers can as well. I mean, cameras in every inch of the school, hulkish hall monitors, barbed-wire fencing... Obviously, a school and a prison are completely different institutions and when closely analyzed are different as can be. I think the point of such metaphors is to draw attention to the unfortunate situational circumstances that many urban schools deal with—not the quality of the teaching that happens within. Is it so pointless to have a conversation about conflicting metaphors? I find that discussing metaphors is a great way to understand where your collocutor is coming from…

  9. I'm not opposed to metaphors (I use them often). But they require deep analysis and they can often be overturned.

    I've used prison metaphors in the past (the use of uniforms, straight lines, gates), but I soon realized that my students saw the school (a middle school and not a high school) as a refuge more often than a prison.

    I'm still a strong proponent of progressive education reform. But I think the key thing is to ask what type of education is actually happening and how what type of approach the teachers are using. Is it allowing for deep thought and intellectual freedom?


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