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Thursday, 28 July 2011

School and Happiness

When I first entered the arena of schooling for my children I had some ideas on what they should learn but mostly I was content to sit back and let the teachers do their jobs.  Of course it wasn't all perfect.  The value of some of the things taught was questionable but I still thought that this was the way it was supposed to be.  Disquiet set in as I found myself unteaching the children after school and helping them learn how to tell the valuable from the garbage.  More and more of our home time was spent on things that I had (naively) assumed would be taught during class.   I started volunteering in their classrooms, had a few strategic visits with the principal, and began asking myself the purpose of education. 

That is a tricky question.  There are many purposes from creating productive citizens to teaching life skills, from preparing for higher education to training for a job, from developing academic skills and literacies to realizing potential.  These are all valid and worthwhile.  Many seemed to be, at least, an intent of what was going on in class.  And yet my uneasiness grew.  Why?  Because my children were not happy.  It was that simple.

I know that I cannot create a Utopia for my children.  They have to live in the real world and it is not all sunshine, kindness and happiness.  But we are not talking about being upset because they have to do homework instead of playing, or worried because a friend may be mad at them.  We are talking about deep down unhappiness.  Children crying after school.  Children not wanting to be there.  This is wrong - just completely wrong.

I will not go into the reasons for their unhappiness.  It was at the time irrelevant.  I could not, as a parent, just sit back and let my children be unhappy.  Whatever childhood is, it should not be that.  So I acted.  I found another (private) school.  We tightened our belts ( a whole lot), and we moved the children.  They not only were happy, they were learning, and that love of learning has stayed with all of them even as the adults that they now are. 

Despite being the principal of a private school, I thoroughly support the public system.  I believe that public education is one of the greatest gifts we can give our society and our children.  In fact, I have just completed my Masters in Education researching how to change the public system.  I do not advocate any particular teaching style or goal for education.  What I propose is a system which allows flexibility equal to the variety of children and families who use it.  I propose a system where children can be happy while learning.  We are not talking fun and games.  We are talking about seeing each child as an individual and respecting that when we, as teachers and administrators, guide them through the curriculum.  Children, and adults, feel happiness when they have some say in their lives and they are respected.  Shouldn't be hard to achieve. 

So, is your child happy?

Sharon Holzscherer

Mississippi School for the Arts

Thursday, 14 July 2011

A School of Many Rooms

I would like to propose a new model for schools. Perhaps the best way is to look at what we want for our children and work backwards from there. Debates about which cultures to teach, which voices to hear, which skills to develop, which “best practices” to follow are all based on a model of school as a place to implant knowledge. An educational authority decides what should be taught and how and then that plan is implemented. This has been the system for a long time and, as we all know, it is seriously flawed. The premise that what is good for one is good for all is so fallacious that it is laughable, tragically so. It is the assumption of the residential schools for aboriginals. It is the assumption for the marginalization of huge segments of society including anyone who is not of the desired “mold” or is not “teachable”. It is the assumption for the epidemic of learning disabled youth. It needs to change.

When a child is learning to walk, we do not teach that child the best way to achieve this. We do not give lessons or assign exercises. We demonstrate and support efforts but the child, through trial and error, will achieve the goal regardless of how we behave. (Please do not bring in mention of extreme cases such as physical child abuse. We are discussing the average experiences here.) The same might be said of learning. Learning is natural and happens all the time, despite the environment. Students are always learning if we define learning as acquiring new knowledge in the form of sensory input and figuring out new ways to assimilate and use that knowledge. This has been glaringly proven in the aptitude of children to video games, learned in an environment of ignorant parents and teachers. 

What if school becomes not a place to implant skills and values but rather a place for children to explore, in safety and with guidance, their world? Resources are centralized in a school including texts, computers, information, and teachers. Teachers are trained to recognize aptitudes, strengthen weaknesses, and be experts in their own area of passion. By passing through many different teachers, students see different perspectives and learn to recognize and appreciate many different viewpoints. They do not need to be exposed to all viewpoints in order to be open to them. Just as a child does not need to meet all people in order to understand that there are different personalities. They do not judge first but learn first. Judgement is an adult attribute, probably taught in school and at home. Bias is not inherent but learned.

Recently in the State of Indiana they removed the writing of cursive from their curriculum. The argument was that future generations would never have to write anything by hand. Now is not the place to debate their assessment of the value of cursive writing but I am appalled by their assumption that there is a limit to what children can learn. They seek to simplify the curriculum down to the few essential skills needed to excel at standardized testing and that is the biggest crime imaginable. They are destroying a generation of children for a goal they do not even understand. The only children to succeed will be those who do not attend public school. Unfortunately this has been true for quite some time with many geniuses in science, the arts, and public service coming from “drop-outs” or private schools.

Instead of looking at curriculum as a moving van of things that need to be installed in a child, see curriculum as a building with limitless doors. Some lead to small rooms, some to huge rooms, and many to other doors and stairways leading further and further. Teachers are situated in those rooms to warn about unsafe doors, to help organize the information in that room, to encourage when a student gets lost, and to share their own expertise about the contents of that room. Students come and go at will, wherever their interest and passion takes them. I can hear the traditional educators leaping from their seats in dismay. What about mathematics? What child would ever voluntarily choose to enter a room of mathematics? And my reply would be – very few. But why should there be a room full of mathematics? Mathematics is a tool. It should be in many rooms – all those dealing with trade, marketing, design and architecture, engineering, physics, statistics, size and volume, art, etc. And theoretical mathematics should have a space where those who love the clarity and ideas of the mathematical constructs can play. Literacy will be in all rooms, helping communication between people within the room and anywhere else in the house. Simple literacy for simple ideas, more complex literacies for more complex ideas. Numeracy when dealing with quantities and spaces. Foreign language when seeking to read or understand another person or culture. Visual literacy and multimedia literacy when an idea cannot be adequately expressed in words. All children will be literate to the full extent of their capabilities and none will be sitting in a room they hate. 

What if children do not want to learn? That is like saying children would choose to not walk or run. Children cannot help learning. Children do not hate to learn; they hate school. So how do we know that they are learning? How do we assess them? The voices of the threatened status quo educators cry. You know they are learning the same way you know that they are breathing. They are alive therefore they are learning. What you do no longer control is what they are learning. And where is the danger in that? Might they be learning to build bombs? Possibly but with the guidance of a professional teacher they will understand the uses of bombs and their role in history. Might they be learning how to analyse and criticize their government? We sincerely hope so. That is the very foundation of a strong democracy, as Socrates pointed out so long ago. Will they be learning the teachings of Islam? What a wonderful way to seek solutions to global problems. This will be true globalization. Students will have access through technology to all the great thinkers of the world and they will have learned the skills, through constant modelling of their teachers, to critically assess them and apply that knowledge to their own lives, societies, and cultures. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Outside the Box

What does that really mean?  Outside the box?  We use the expression all the time, normally when complimenting someone for an innovative idea.  We know that creative thinkers are in high demand.  We want our children to think creatively.  That is why we support arts in education.  But what box are they talking about?

It is not just the box of conformity or the box of the "same old same old".  Those boxes are just convenient and easy.  Anyone can be creative any time they want.  They can come up with a better mousetrap or a different way to do something.  The difficulty is in the level of comfort.  Just as our comfort foods are ones which remind us of the security of childhood, our boxes are safe.  If we act as we have always acted then we can predict the results.  We may not like the results but at least we know what they will be.  This is reflected in the aphorism "Better the devil you know than the one you don't."  The problem is that with this attitude you will always be stuck with the devil.  There is no chance to exchange it for a better result.

Einstein said that the surest sign of insanity was to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result.  If it didn't work the first time, it won't work the second or third.  So what does this have to do with education?  It is a personal reaction to the oft heard line "I survived public school, so my kids can, too."  That to me is a kind of insanity.  If school did not work for you, why would you ever inflict the same on your children?  Because it is known?! 

The largest impediment for people, beyond financial, putting their children into private school is this concept of stepping out of the box of the public school system.  There are accusations of elitism.  There is censure because you are implying criticism of a public institution.  There are warnings that you are permanently harming your child by not allowing them to experience public school.  That's right.  You are not allowing them to experience bullying, overcrowded classrooms, monotonous curriculum, a huge bureaucracy which will never even know the name of your child beyond a listing on a student record.  Yes, you can find good teachers.  Yes, there will be good experiences.  But if overall your child does not enjoy school, or even more hates it, then it is time to leave the comfortable failing box. 

Nothing is more important than our children.  They will be spending 14 years in some form of organized education.  Maybe it is time that we take a risk, check out the other options, and make sure that our children are happy.  How can we possibly raise self-confident, happy adults if we as parents are too scared to try something different?  They learn by imitation.  If we want a different result, then let's try a different path.  Is there really anything worse than a disillusioned unhappy child?  Especially when we do have options.