Educational Evolution

In recent weeks there has been a lot of media coverage of how broken our schools are and what we should do about it. The movie, Waiting for Superman, came out recently and provides a scathing view of our schools. The Today Show and Oprah featured educational topics for an entire week. Multiple newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts are featuring education as our latest hot topic. Obama has come out with plans for “Race to the Top” funding, even though he acknowledges that the problems in our educational system cannot be solved with money alone. According to Time magazine’s September 20, 2010 issue, there hasn’t been any real change in academic performance over the last 30 years, despite a 123% increase in per-pupil spending and a reduction in average class size from 22:1 in 1970 to 15:1 in 2007. Why not? Some of the comments I have heard and read over the past few weeks talk about poor teaching, dismal facilities, low expectations, lack of funding, inadequate materials, and lack of student motivation as basic problems we need to overcome. Some of the solutions offered range from longer school days/years, better teacher qualification standards, more focus on math and science, more parent participation, and more student commitment. Most of these are not new ideas. They have been recycled for many years and haven’t yet offered a solution. I don’t see a willingness to scrap the old way of doing things and figure out how to move education into the future.

We have a world of information at our fingertips; yet our school districts are still paying millions each year to textbook publishers. We have sound research on how children learn; yet the majority of teaching doesn’t incorporate that research. We say teaching is one of our most important professions, but we underpay and disrespect those doing the work. We know that students have multiple learning styles; yet our curriculum is designed primarily for auditory learners. We understand how integral play is to whole brain learning; yet a playful approach to learning has been sacrificed to the testing mania. There is a great need for people who are specialists in their fields; yet we continue to produce generalists with our general education model.

Has anyone bothered to ask the children what they want? What they need to succeed? I would imagine their answers would differ greatly from the majority of the solutions proposed by the top level education experts across our country. Why can’t we support children in discovering their individual passions, in staying true to their authentic selves? Why can’t our schools offer an individualized approach to learning? Technology has rapidly outpaced current learning models and has the potential to offer individualized learning to each and every student across our nation. Teachers could harness the power of the internet to mentor their students and facilitate learning that might actually prepare them for something they want to do in their adult life.

Sir Ken Robinson has said that our current educational system is modeled on the fast food industry. I agree, it is highly standardized, has a limited menu, the food has little connection to where it came from, and a steady diet will kill you (or at least your love of learning.) It focuses on a student’s weaknesses, rather than on their strengths. It teaches to the test; which forces teachers to cover so much material that students don’t obtain true understanding of what or why, just how to regurgitate memorized facts. This model is more about grades than learning. It dislocates students from their natural talents and abilities. It leaves little time for creativity (for both teachers and students.) Children who have diverse, specialized needs simply cannot thrive and achieve their full potential (socially, emotionally, or intellectually) in this environment.

We need a dynamic, individualized learning model, something more like the slow food movement. It should be diverse and ever changing, your menu would match your individual tastes, there would be a direct connection to the food source, and a steady diet would enrich your (intellectual) health. For gifted children, this may be the only learning model that works.

There are some private and charter schools that are providing a dynamic learning experience for their students, but the place it is seen most often is in homeschooling. When people find out we are homeschoolers, I hear questions like, “What about the STAR test? What about demonstrating mastery of the curriculum? What about their socialization?” Statistically speaking, homeschooled children score significantly higher on standardized tests than their traditionally schooled peers. Most of them are schooled by parents who don’t hold a teaching credential, yet they learn and retain more information than many of those taught by professional teachers. They tend to be better at empathizing and socializing outside their age group than the average instutionalized schooler. Is it any wonder that homeschooling is growing at such a rapid pace? Children and their parents are discovering that you can do amazing things when you get to do what you love.

Children often exceed our expectations when they get to have a say in how, when, where, and what they learn. Homeschooling is creating deep thinking, passionate learners. Universities are beginning to recognize the value of these homeschooled kids. They have a great deal of real world experience in a subject they love. They are intrinsically motivated and have experience in higher level thinking, creating, and producing. They know how to do research and can take a project from concept to completion. I read recently that Stanford accepts a greater percentage of homeschoolers than traditionally educated students each year. They understand that the best students are those who know how to think critically and work passionately.

But this free learning environment comes at a price. As a homeschooling parent, I can tell you that it is a time consuming, energy consuming, and money consuming occupation. Most of the homeschooling parents I meet went into homeschooling by default; there just wasn’t anything else out there that would meet their child’s needs. This isn’t right. We homeschooling parents pay our taxes too. Where is the fair and appropriate education for our kids? Why is our school system so rigid that it can’t adapt to meet the needs of all our children? Why can’t we create schools where all children are free to learn as they see fit? Why do we continually underestimate what our kids can do?

Kids can and do learn a great deal without direct adult instruction. I recently heard a TED talk by Sugata Mitra about his Hole in the Wall project He set up computers across a large number of rural villages in India and left them there for anyone to explore. He then regularly visited the sites where his computers were installed and found that, even in villages where everyone was illiterate, the children could teach themselves how to use the computer and access the internet. He found that after only a month or two, these children could read and understand basic computer commands. When he visited the villages after a few months, many of the children were power users and were requesting faster, better computers. He observed that, “an environment that stimulates curiosity can cause learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge.”

Is it really so difficult to be truly visionary when looking at how to educate our children? Can’t we find a way to foster individual interests and potential? To respect children’s right to pursue their passions? Give them time to play and create? Help them explore and discover their talents? Support their belief that they can be anything? Let them do meaningful work? Connect them to the world outside the classroom walls? I think we can. The key to successful schools is to fill them with motivated learners. All great learning develops naturally from authentic questions and ideas. Kids want to learn, but they have to see real value in what they are doing. We need to include kids as trusted equal partners in their own learning. We need to let kids dream of what they can be and then give them the power to achieve it.