We live right next to what is considered to be one of the best elementary schools around. I don’t exactly know what ‘best’ means, in this scenario. What exactly qualifies it as the best? Is it because it’s a relatively new building with shiny red paint? Is it because kids score high on standard tests? Is it because it has a really awesome playground? Because the principal is really nice and knows the name of every student? Do the lunch ladies make really excellent tater tots?
All of the above are fantastic notions but none are at the top of my wish list when it comes to sending my children to public school. I want a school environment that encourages free-thinking, that isn’t so wrapped up in reading, writing and arithmetic that creativity and innovation are sorely lacking in the curriculum. I want a school that values curiosity over conformity, teachers that encourage my children to think for themselves instead of telling them to accept what they are told. I don’t want a school that employs teachers who rigidly assign homework because it’s part of the curriculum instead of allowing kids the time to explore areas of interest and trusting them to discover and seek information about what they enjoy on their own time.
It feels somewhat strange for me to worry about all these things considering that when I was a kid I think my mom was just thrilled to have me out of the house for seven hours a day without giving the teacher any sass, never giving thought one to whether or not I was thinking “outside of the box.”
But these things concern me. Your educational experience plays a huge role in who you become in life and yet it seems like most public schools are still stuck in a time when attention and silence were the benchmarks of a good student. That’s why I was so thrilled to read a letter written by a principal and sent home with students who just received their standardized test scores. Here is the letter in its entirety as it’s been passed around the Internet. I found it on the website of a third grade teacher, Mrs. Rycus, who loved it so much she shared it with the parents of her students and on her blog.
“We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you– the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best… the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.”
The letter thrilled me to my toes and immediately brought to mind one of the most excellent articles I’ve read on how we can modernize the classroom and rethink how we educate our children in the 21st century. The piece, called How A Radical New Teaching Method Can Unleash A New Generation of Geniuses, was written by Joshua Davis for Wired.com.
Davis sets up the problem of education thusly:
Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy. And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that students are material to be processed, programmed, and quality-tested. School administrators prepare curriculum standards and “pacing guides” that tell teachers what to teach each day. Legions of managers supervise everything that happens in the classroom; in 2010 only 50 percent of public school staff members in the US were teachers.
That paragraph illustrates exactly what concerns me about public education. “The fundamental basis of the system is fatally flawed,” Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, tells Wired. “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”
So where can inquiring parents find these schools that encourage both teachers and students to think outside the education box? It likely isn’t the school down the street. You can find these schools if you look hard enough, but you’re gonna pay because the kinds of classrooms that encourage personal exploration are usually not found in the public school system. So we put our faith in the public school system which is systematically flawed as it takes the manner of learning away from the children and places it squarely in the hands of teachers who are simply following an outdated curriculum set into place decades ago. And, as Joel Voss, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, tells Wired,”The bottom line is, if you’re not the one controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.”
This means that those of us who want to cultivate the kind of free-thinking that inspires a thirst for knowledge that leads to creative problem-solving in our children are going to have to work extra hard to supplement our kids’ public education. Taking an intensely active role in my children’s academic life addresses my immediate concern for how my children are educated, but what about the system as a whole? Wouldn’t it be a whole lot nicer if the educational model could get with the 21st century already?
We need to find a way to integrate free-thinking into the curriculum and encourage teachers to step back and allow students to figure things out for themselves instead of dumping information on them and considering memorization mastery of a subject. In the end, it’s not necessarily what our children learn that is paramount, it’s how they learn it. Yes, you can memorize a fact and regurgitate it on command but it’s how you learn something that ultimately dictates your ability to think critically for the rest of your life.
As Elizabeth Walling notes on Atheistnexus.org, “It is clear that if we rely on public schools to educate our children, free thinking individuals will become extinct. Free thinking is a foundational ingredient for success, invention, progress and culture. These things cannot be taught through a curriculum but through life itself.