Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Making School Relevant

Looking back it seems like life during my school years, sports excepted, was about individual achievement: test scores mostly, and grades. My adult life, however, has been almost exclusively about working with other people to accomplish something. I think this is true for most of us, most of the time, be it in our job, church, hobby, or family.

If education is a preparation for life, then it makes sense to me to model our schools after what our children will actually find themselves doing throughout the rest of their lives: people accomplishing things together. And that's what young children tend to do when left to be themselves.

When I arrived at school one morning last year, I noticed right away that the outdoor classroom's chairs and benches had been rearranged. There was a chair in the sand pit and the benches were perched along its edges. I wondered if we'd had a midnight visitor, which happens in a city. I returned it all to its regular spots.

I later learned the truth when a couple of the boys started shifting the furniture, moving it first to the sand pit, then eventually up the concrete slope, under the lilacs, continuing the game they'd started after school the day before.

"Teacher Tom, this is our cabin."

As they hauled the furniture across the space, up the slope and then wrangled it into place, they chattered, argued, questioned, and agreed. They thought, problem-solved, joked, and listened. No one expected anyone else to obey. As their mutual vision began to take shape, others joined them, finding roles in the project.

When they ran out of furniture to move, they incorporated our planks, the marimba, a fire truck, and then they started hauling logs.

One of the most universal, time-tested, and I would argue valid, complaints that children have always laid at the feet of traditional schooling is the charge of irrelevancy. My daughter Josephine was on the staff of her school's annual art and poetry publication. She and another student were responsible for tracking submissions and managing the process of acceptance or rejection. As their deadline loomed, she regaled my wife and me with tales of their challenges, debates and resolutions, calling the final week "the most stressful week of my life." She had gone in early on a couple of mornings to get a running start. She had stayed late. They'd developed their own process that involved the prolific use of post-it notes, anguished over the language in their rejection letters, and drank too much coffee. As she told us about her week, I couldn't help but reflect on how incredibly relevant it all was. This is what the great John Dewey talked about when he wrote:

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

Josephine also said about the most stressful week of her life, "It was fun." That's what relevancy will do for you.

Instead of teaching children about the world, abstracting it into lectures, worksheets, textbooks or iPad screens, a progressive play-based eduction places children in the actual current of the stream of life, putting them where they engage directly with life itself instead of one step removed. 

That's how to make education relevant, which in this case means building a cabin with your friends at the top of the concrete slope among the lilacs.

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