What is Education?
According to the Education Act of Ontario: “The purpose of education is to provide students with the opportunity to realize their potential and develop into highly skilled, knowledgeable, caring citizens who contribute to their society.” I would argue that this defines schooling. Education is so much more.
Education happens all the time, all around us, particularly with children. Education is a lifelong process whereby we learn. From the first words to the last task on our bucket list, we are being educated. We are educated by parents, teachers, storekeepers, police, older siblings, friends, relatives, and a myriad of other people whom we meet. We are also educated by situations and observations. Descartes said that we are thinking beings. We are also learning beings. We can't help it. We are always learning.
What is School?
School is a formal institution which teaches a given curriculum. This can be academic, skill building, career training, etc. Just as your health and your doctor are not the same, education and school are not the same. A school is a part of education but only a part.
What is a Good Education?
This has been debated for years and will continue to be debated because we all want different things from life and for our children. It is up to each parent or guardian to decide what makes up a good education for the child. But it is up to our society as a whole to decide what role our public school system should play in providing that education.
Many Goals : One System
How can you achieve many different goals under one standard system? This is the problem that the Ontario Public Education System has struggled with for many years. And it is a problem which cannot be solved within the structure of the current system. As many have explained before, the public school system is based on a manufacturing model. (Sir Ken Robinson – Changing Education Paradigms) Given the raw material, the goal is to turn out the finished product with the most efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Thus we apply theories of best practices and maximizing resources. Works with lumber, oil, cars. Not with children. It is like trying to produce a lovely wooden dining room table at a car factory. It comes out all wrong.
Children may be raw material, in some sense, but none of them are the same. So why do we keep on feeding them into the same system? Because we are shackled to this system. It is the one that failed us. It is the one that is failing our children. But it is familiar. It is time to do away with the familiar and embrace something different. In order to do that we need to change the very way in which we look at education.
Remember the characteristics of school: 1) children sorted by grade (age); 2) one teacher for each group of 30 or so children; 3) teachers deliver the material and assign the work; 4) students are to do what they are told and be respectful. That is the ideal situation, for the traditional school. And it works for some, if the goal is a child who can listen well, follow instructions, and attain outside goals for outside rewards (grades or diplomas). Listening well is a good trait as is following instruction. But I have an issue with attaining goals for outside rewards. This means that the child is not learning for himself but for others. That kind of learning does not develop the individual that he is or could be. That learning produces the end product that the society thinks it wants. What it usually does not produce is a happy child.
To get back to characteristics of school, there are some other things which seem to be constant: 1) boredom, leading to 'zoning out'; 2) confusion, leading to 'zoning out'; 3) pressure to conform, not just from peers but from the system itself which rewards certain types of learning (oral and visual) and discourages other types (tactile and kinesthetic); 4) disengagement of students because they are not interested in the subject matter or are not ready for it. All of these characteristics lead to a great deal of time and effort being spent with the net result that little learning is going on. I heard a great quote about how sitting a child in a classroom and claiming that you are teaching her is like throwing marshmallows at a child and claiming that you are feeding her. In order to learn, children must be engaged. That is so blatantly obvious. And so is the fact that children are only engaged with subjects that interest them. I don't mean teaching mathematics by using skate boards as your example or teaching writing by texting on smart phones. Children are not that dumb. They can easily spy the lesson amidst the surface paraphernalia. I mean let the children learn. What they want, how they want and when they want.
In today's schools children learn to blindly obey, without being allowed to question why. They learn to do the minimum amount of work to achieve a goal, since being punctual with assignments or doing more than asked is seldom if ever rewarded. They learn to wait while others catch up or until someone can explain in a different way what was just taught. They learn that being different is bad, being subservient to adults is good, that you can only be creative within the boundaries laid out. They do not learn to take responsibility for their work. They do not learn self-discipline. They do not learn to always do their best. They do not learn how to be happy. They do not learn to love learning. School is a necessary trial to get through. How sad.
Let's start with a whole new model. Keep the school buildings. They are institutional and bland but they are already there so we might as well use them. Ideally we could use any structure or even location. Keep the teachers. They have been trained to deal with large groups of children, a skill that many parents lack. They also have a broad understanding of the many different ways that children can learn. They are also a wonderful resource as guides for safe and purposeful education. Keep the resources. The books are another wonderful resource. The computers can be very useful as tools for exploration and information. So the physical structure remains intact. What needs to change is the imposed structure within the school day. Since it is an impossible challenge to produce many different goals with one system, let's get rid of the system. Who knows best what a child wants to learn? The child. Who knows best what a child should learn? The parent, in consultation with teachers who may have broader experience on how to achieve specific goals.
To determine how a day should go, look at most kindergarten classrooms. There are areas for different activities. The book area for quiet time. The block area for constructive play. The house area for imaginative play. And others. So design a school on the same idea. Each teacher creates a space filled with his or her passions. These would include not only the curriculum topics but any interest that any individual teacher might have, be it butterflies, hockey, fishing, stamp collecting, or zombies. But the key point is that these are the passions of the teachers, not constructed for the interests of the students. Children can spot a fake very easily. They will know quickly whether or not the teacher is sincere. It is amazing how quickly students will be drawn to a real passion, even opera. (Here I speak from personal experience with a class of Grade 7 and 8 students.) Allow students to wander as they will as long as they are in a classroom under supervision. Teachers don't teach, guide. Just stand there and answer any questions or help with solutions to problems which may arise, or talk about butterflies to anyone interested.
Total chaos is the result. I would agree. But there is nothing wrong with chaos. We seem to think that children left to their own devices will be destructive. Maybe we all were influenced too much by “Lord of the Flies”. Truthfully, children left unfettered by adult restrictions quickly work out rules of conduct. Children have a very strong sense of fairness. We are told that children need a quiet studious atmosphere in which to learn. Actually they learn a lot more when interacting with others and playing with objects. And there is always the quiet book corner to which those overwhelmed by the chaos can retreat. You will sometimes find me there because another passion is books.
Next challenge I hear coming from the doubters: my child will spend the whole day playing a video game. Which is okay, as long as they are achieving the set goals. Oh, goals, you say! That's better! But who sets those goals? Why, the child, of course, in consultation with parents and teachers. The more children control their education the more they are invested in it. They set the goals which are meaningful to them and then they are motivated to reach them. Obviously the younger the child, the more input from adults. But children as young as eight can understand the value of learning to read or understand numbers. They set the goals, they set the plan to reach the goals, they provide evidence which can be assessed to demonstrate that they have achieved the goals.
Children learn. They can't help it. Every minute they are learning. But when they are sitting in a class, being taught a subject they have no interest in, they are not learning what we think they are. They are learning how to entertain themselves without getting caught (texting each other, throwing spitballs, doodling, etc.) I remember writing many Star Trek fan fiction stories while I was supposedly learning history or literature. All of us can recall how we spent our time in class. Seldom was it being engaged in the subject matter. Yes, there are exceptional teachers who can inspire many students but there would be much more learning if the students actually chose to be there.
If you want evidence that this is so, you can look at programs in the United States like The Agile Learning Centers or Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning right here in Ottawa. Or, better yet, talk with people who homeschool. There are thousands of them and their children are all happy and learning like crazy. Learning can be fun. Therefore, school can be fun.
I think that we have two choices. We can continue with the existing system which provides well paying jobs for many and is familiar and has left several generations now with a dislike for school and education. Or we can take a chance and work out a system which will still provide those jobs but which will also better serve our children. Why are we so convinced that something must be hard and dreary to have value? Why do we continue to send our children to schools that aren't fun? Why do we think it is a silly dream to have fun while working and learning? Are we really so fated to be miserable? A resounding NO!
I have my own experience teaching for over a quarter of a century. Comments from past students: “Thank you for showing me that school can be fun.”(Grade 7) “I have never worked so hard in my life, or had so much fun.”(Grade 9) “Thank you for allowing me to blossom.” (Grade 9) “The best teacher that I ever had (Mrs. Holzscherer) allowed me to be me – as silly as I am.” (Grade 8) I have never worked within the public system, despite having a Masters of Education. I could not reconcile my own experiences with the way that children learn and the way that teachers are expected to teach. My own children only attended the public system for a few years.
Creating a system which treats each child as an individual and allows them to explore the world as and when they see fit is not a pipe dream. It can happen simply because we live in a democracy. The government has no incentive to change the system. The boards of education are doing their bit to keep everyone within financial guidelines and accountable. Teachers need to do what they are told to keep their jobs. The only source of change is the mass of parents who know that the child they send to school is not like any other child and should not be treated as raw material in need of molding into a finished product which will blindly do what it is told. How much are you willing to do for the happiness of your child? Learn about other systems. Learn about other options. Join groups like OPERI in Ottawa. Watch the videos of Sir Ken Robinson. Talk with other parents. The more you learn the more you will see how the Public School system in Ontario cannot work. Tell your local MPP that you want to see significant change. Not the bandages of the last twenty years.
We all have different expectations for our children. We all want them to learn different things in different ways. But I think that we can all agree on one thing. We want our children to be happy. So ask yourself this one question: Is your child happy at school?
Sir Ken Robinson http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms
OPERI – Public on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/1416370692001490/
Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning http://www.compassteens.org/
The Agile Learning Center NY http://nyc.agilelearningcenters.org/