Saturday, September 01, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (What Schools Should Teach)

In this series entitled "Why I Teach The Way I Do," I've now written about what I think it means to be a citizen in our society and our proper relationship to the institutions we've created to help us manage how we are to live together as equal and free people. In doing so, I've written about the role of obedience, rules and their "enforcement," fairness, and morality

Today I write about what I believe children should be learning in school.

(I really intended to write more today, but my morning and afternoon just got filled up with appointments that call me away.)

What Schools Should Teach

Man plans, God laughs. ~Yiddish proverb

Outside of my life as a preschool teacher, I live mostly among entrepreneurs, my wife among them, a class of people who peer constantly into the future. They know for certain there's a lot of money to be made there, if only they can accurately predict what shape the future will take, what niches will open up, what unfilled demands there will be, what knowledge and expertise they will need, what will be plentiful and what will be scarce. Some of them have become quite wealthy, while others are still working for the big payday that may never come. Few of them ever stop being entrepreneurs in their hearts even if they do occasionally take refuge for a time in a mere "job." All of them have left a string of "failures" behind them: ideas that were a little ahead or behind their time, ideas that just missed, ideas that others executed better, ideas that had the rug pulled out from under them by an unexpected paradigm shift brought on by new technologies, macro-economic conditions, or other unforeseen difference-makers.

They are people who are familiar with the sound of God's laughter as they plan. These are people who live the Robert Burns poem:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain; 
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men 
Gang aft agley, 
An'lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, 
For promis'd joy! 

Predicting the future is an impossible task, as even successful entrepreneurs will confess. They may be deservedly full of their own glory, but when they tell you their stories, they are tales of ups and downs, exultation and misery, of mid-course corrections, mistakes made, and sheer luck. What these women and men will tell you is that they made it through hard work, of course, but when you dig deeper you find what that "hard work" is made of: creativity, flexibility, resilience, motivation, and an ability to work well with others. 

In the first post in this series I rejected the idea that the purpose of education is to prepare children for a future "in the military or (on) a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top," because, after all, we are a democracy.  If employers need workers well-versed in the habits of obedience or any of the other non-democratic skills, then they should be prepared to train them themselves because the proper role of schools is to prepare citizens for the challenges of self-governance, not in working for "the man."

Traditionally, when we think of schools, we think in terms of subjects like math, English, and science, which are all important and valuable, but the way we've gone about teaching them has largely reflected the top-down hierarchical model that is anathema to our democratic ideals. And, in fact, I would argue that this system of lectures and desks and textbooks and tests undermines the teaching of the only things we know for certain that the future will demand: creativity, flexibility, resilience, motivation, and an ability to work well with others.

And let me tell you, no one has ever learned these skills from a lecture or book: they are only learned through sharing the experiences of ups and downs, exultation and misery, mid-course corrections, mistakes, and a little luck, all in partnership with others. Experience may not be the only teacher, but she is the best teacher, and just as I want my school (and all schools) to provide children with experience in the skills and habits they'll need for self-government, I want also for schools to provide experience in the skills and habits they will need for an unpredictable future.

There are some who would have us prepare children for the world as it is and nothing more. That seems a rather impoverished idea for education. That is certainly not what our founders envisioned for the role of education in our democracy, but neither does it serve our children, especially young ones, who are still decades away from stepping out into the world entirely on their own -- a world that will be unrecognizable to them if we are only preparing them for the present. Better is to prepare children for the future, one about which the only things we know for certain is that creativity, flexibility, resilience, motivation and the ability to work with others will be at a premium. 

I want us to have a bigger idea for education, one in which it is more than a mere servant of the status quo, but rather a transformative force, both for individuals as well as society: one in which we don't prepare children for the world as it is, but rather for the world as it ought to be.

How we do this is what this entire blog is about, but in the coming days I will attempt to lift out specific examples of how we teach everything that is important through our child-lead, play-based curriculum.

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1 comment:

corey waldon said...

Hey Mr. Tom my name is Corey Waldon. I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I will be leaving a comment on your blog for a classroom assignment in my EDM310 class.

First off I think your blog post brings up some good points. In "what should school teach" I think you was right on when you talked about how school should teach more on creativity, flexibility and the ability to work with others. I think that as a society we all get caught up on learning the basic fundamentals of education but really don't show students how to use it in real life. I too believe that we must prepare our kids for an unpredictable future and to do that we must go beyond the basics and teach life lesson and how to work with others. I enjoyed reading your post and I hope to read more great work from you.

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