I Am No Longer Willing to Let Traditional Schooling Hurt Our Children

By School board member Lisa Cooley | Cross posted at The Minds of Kids 

If you’ve been paying attention to the confused jumble that has become the "education reform" movement you’ll often hear this cry:

"The failing school system is a result of the lack of competitiveness of the U.S. compared with that of other nations. A slipping-away of the supremacy of our country."
But we have to ask ourselves, is that really the problem? Especially when we consider that countries like Finland rose to the top with a spirit of collaboration rather than competition. Furthermore they hold out their hands to languishing nations like ours when it comes to learning.  Could it be instead that our focus is out of focus? Success is all in how you define your goals. The focus of educational change won't be good enough if the improvement of the mental and emotional health of children is a side effect to the great purpose of "being competitive again."

If we focus on creating healthier and happier children, not only can we achieve the same ends, but we can also have economic competitiveness.

The reality is this...
We don't need to reform education. We need to reinvent it entirely. The only recognizable thing I see remaining is the buildings (in some cases), and the commitment to education in the form of public funding.

The reason we need to pack it in and start over...
As "Teacher of the Year" John Taylor Gatto told us in his Op Ed to the Wall Street Journal more than a decade ago, kids are being harmed.

Too melodramatic?
I don't believe it is.

We know this:

  • High school graduates are, more and more, ill-prepared for either college or the working world.
  • There is an epidemic of student disengagement.
  • Kids weigh more and have more health problems than they ever did.
  • Sleep requirements of teenagers are ignored in most middle and high schools.
We know this by observing schools and kids and teachers, and we draw our own conclusions about problems and solutions.

The more popular targets of blame, like teacher tenure, or solutions, like more charter schools, don’t get to the heart of the issue. To get to the heart of the issue we must question everything about what we know as school. So let's do just that.

Questioning School
  • We require children change to fit into school, rather than creating schools that fit the needs of children - When we don't accept and value children for who they are, often, they don't turn their resentment outward. When a parent rejects a child, the rejection turns inward and wears away at their self-respect and confidence, often turning into depression. Educators have the same responsibility, and if we fall short, we have to accept that there will be similar consequences.
  • We require kids to learn what WE want them to learn, when WE want them to learn it - We make kids learn stuff they don't care about. We do it every day, in every age group. Don't be fooled by the appearance of compliance, even cheerfulness. Kids want to be happy; they tend to look on the bright side and eventually separate their passions and strengths from anything to do with school. This takes a cumulative toll on kids, and results in a detachment between students and the adults in their lives.
  • We give them no say in the rules that govern them - In most schools, students have little to no say in the rules that govern them and which often make no sense. These rules are usually made by authority figures who don't take the time or have the interest in learning their needs. Sometimes this is turned outward, in rebellious behavior, acting out, bullying. We also ought to worry about those kids who do not display the negative effects of this educational coercion. They go along and get along, do their homework, get decent grades, and feel disconnected from the flow of school. Do these kids put the blame in the right place? Often not, because they don't know there is anyone to blame other than themselves. We need to think more about the loss of self-respect, sense of alienation, even depression, that this system engenders.
  • We tell them the purpose of learning is to get good grades - Getting good grades – something that every parent wants their kids to do – is not a simple issue. Education experts like Alfie Kohn and Joe Bower and career experts like Dan Pink have provided a mountain of research that demonstrated the adverse affect on learning that grades impose. If you have two groups of kids, and you tell one of them, "We're going to study this subject. There will be no test. Would you like the hard version or the easy version?" The answer is: The hard version. The second group is told. "We're going to study this subject. There will be a test. Would you like the hard version or the easy one?" This little experiment has been repeated often in educational research. Group Two always chooses the easy version.We think when we want kids to get good grades, that they will work, learn, reach, and grow. Turns out the quest for good grades means none of those things. It makes kids value a carrot instead of learning. They get a hard lesson when the leave school, get a job, or go to college.
If we agree that schools are built on a foundation that is shaky at best, what would happen instead if we did things differently?

What would happen, if only...

  • Kids got to pick their teachers?
  • Kids got to pick their topics of study?
  • Kids got to pick the ways in which they pursued their learning of that topic?
  • Kids got to do work that was worthy of the real for real audience?
  • Kids had time to discover and learn deeply about that which they are passionate.
In this scenario, a big A on top of a paper would carry much more value. And how much greater would the happiness be if this paper, into which so much hard work was poured, was put on a blog or other online space where it could be read and receive the feedback from a larger audience who was interested in this topic?

The results of the traditional school scenario
In today’s accountability-driven environment of high stakes tests that rarely assess anything meaningful for success, students are not often given the time and resources to follow their own passions. They have only the carrot of the possible grade to get them through the stifling indifference of studying without heart. I have often heard the counter-argument: “I only learned so-and-so because they made me, and I loved it.” Fine and dandy, but if they make you and you don't love it you should feel free to drop it like a hot potato.

On the other hand, the pursuit of knowledge and skills through student’s passions and strengths increases the possibility that they will come to a more solid understanding of the real world than if coercion continues to rule over those who have absolutely no power or voice or control over what happens to them.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Education further bring clarity to the results of the damaging practices of public school on the kids we are turning out into the world. We are graduating young people not prepared to succeed in the world they were born into. Why are we so stumped at how to respond to the sinking of the U.S. in the global scale of competitiveness? Why do we subject our kids to more tests, more grades, less flexibility, and no latitude for the innate differences between kids? This clearly isn’t working.  We need something very different.

A new way of thinking about school
School is harming our children. We're going from bad to worse.

  • We need to insist on schools that value children for what is inside them.
  • We need to stop planning, processing, talking, arguing and hashing it out.
  • We need the transformation to be big, and we need it to happen now.
  • We need to stop structuring school in such a way that students have to contort themselves, body and mind, to fit into its tight spaces and start designing schools that meet the needs of children.
Unfortunately we don’t traditionally think of schools in this way. As a result, our kids leave the land of high school unprepared for the world of work. Those that choose college are often exposed to the kind of rigorous work deserving of the name. Their unpreparedness for life after school can be a bit of a shock. And who did this to them? Who did this to the kids unable to perform well in the work world? We did. Adults. Those of us who work to perpetuate an unhealthy, harmful system of education.

We can’t continue to ignore the drive to learn that exists inside every child. We can’t keep making them chase after carrots, as though they had real value. We can’t do this because sooner or later they will find out that the world that waits for them has no use for carrots, and would prefer employees who innovate, make connections, ask good questions, think independently and work well with others.

When we don’t prepare them for that world, we are not doing our jobs and that is no longer acceptable. We know what we need to do. So let’s get started.
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