Thursday, December 28, 2017

How I Would Start To Transform Public Education

I often write here as a critic of normal schools with their compulsory top-down, standardized curricula that devalue the interests of our youngest citizens in favor of adults deciding what, when and how children are to learn. It's a system that flies in the face of what we know about how human beings are designed to learn, a product of the Industrial Revolution that has continued more or less unchanged to this day, perpetuated by habit rather than an ongoing, rigorous application of the science. The evidence is clear that if we truly want well-educated citizens, ones capable of thinking for themselves, of questioning authority, of standing up for their beliefs and values, people who are sociable, motivated and able to work well with others, then we would have long ago transformed our schools into places where children direct their own learning.

Sometimes I like to imagine what that would mean. More and more Americans are opting out all together, choosing a version of homeschooling or un-schooling that works for their families. Others have sought out alternative private schools that employ, say, the Waldorf method or Reggio Emilia or perhaps even the democratic free school model of places like the Sudbury Valley School. These are all fine ways for individuals to opt out of normal public education, but there is a limit to how many of us can afford the price, either in terms of time or money. No, it seems to me that a real transformation of education in America, one that includes all children, must be a public one: well-educated citizens are a public good, one that is vital to every citizen in that it is the only guarantee of our grand experiment in self-governance. So what I'm thinking about here is a true transformation of public education, which, I believe, is necessary if our democracy is to continue to thrive.

If we get rid of schools as we know them, it seems to me that we will still need something "like" schools, safe places for our children to spend their days. Unless this transformation in education comes as a part of a wider transformation in our society, one that does not require so many two-income families, "schools" will need to continue to serve this function. Indeed, I reckon that the school facilities that we've already built will work just fine as a starting point: large buildings with lots of room and, typically, with a fairly substantial amount of land surrounding them.

Neighborhood children of all ages would arrive at these "schools" in the mornings just as they do today and, as in the democratic free-school model, they would be free to pursue their own interests throughout the day with the support of "teachers" whose jobs would be re-defined to more closely resemble that of professional play-workers, adults who spend their days loitering with intent, not intervening or directing, but available to step in, minimally, when needed.

There would, of course, continue to be the cafeteria, a place where professional cooks prepare and serve meals, the difference being that these kitchens would be open to the children to participate as their age and interests (e.g., chopping, stirring, measuring, serving) allow under the guidance of the kitchen staff. Likewise, there would be a garden and greenhouse tended by professional gardeners charged with supplying the kitchen, and who would also likewise make room for children interested in any or all aspects of that process. There would be a functioning workshop where professional carpenters would build the furniture and other items needed by the school, another place where children of all ages are welcome. These transformed schools would be home to musicians and other artists, mechanics, engineers, computer scientists, psychologists, athletes, handy(wo)men, nurses, custodians, accountants, yoga masters, and other specialists, each going about their real work while also always making space for young apprentices of all ages, role-modeling, supporting, and teaching, allowing the children to explore as their ages and interests dictate.

But, of course, the children would not be limited. If a group of kids take an interest in, for instance, building a rocket, the more experienced children (which would likely most often be the oldest, but not always) would lead, while the adults would be there to help with locating information or securing materials.

These "schools" would not just be for children. Neighborhood seniors, for instance, would also be invited on campus to spend all of part of their days, sharing their skills and wisdom, while also participating in meals and serving as audiences for dramatic and musical performances. In the evenings, parents would be encouraged to not just fetch their kid and rush off, but to rather spend their evenings there, together with other families, dining, dancing, reading in the library, or puttering around the workshop or garden, and otherwise hanging out with their neighbors, creating community.

Each neighborhood school would be "owned" by the neighborhood, in the way that our cooperative school is owned by the parents who enroll their children. Each household would have an equal voice in how their school operates, managing the funds to best serve their community, democratically creating a school that most perfectly reflects the aspirations and dreams of the people who live there.

These transformed schools would be, like our democracy itself, grand experiments, each one continually evolving to serve the needs and interests of the neighborhood, and especially the children. I envision them as standing at the hearts of their neighborhoods, around-the-clock gathering places, based not on commerce, but upon the shared interests of the people who live in the community: places that serve as models of real self-governance in action. I imagine that children who are raised in this type of environment will grow into the sorts of citizens we most need.

This is just a thumbnail of how I see transformed public education in America. There is so much more to talk about. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: