Despite revolutionary innovations in most industries (e.g., communications, medicine, transportation) over the past two hundred years that have forced firms to continuously adapt and improve in order to satisfy customers, the education industry has resisted change. There are over 55 million children attending one of over 132,000 primary or secondary schools in the United States. The overwhelming super majority (> 99%) of schools still adhere to the same traditional education model that was developed to provide loyal and obedient workers and soldiers for an industrialized nation. There is very little difference in the way ~5 million private school students, ~2 million public charter schools students and the balance of public school students are educated. Most of them still progress through school based on age groupings, most still receive most of their instruction through mandated lectures, most must adhere to standardized curriculum, most are evaluated by high stakes testing, and most have little to no say in what, when or how they will learn. Education research, however, has revealed that the traditional education model is not just sub-optimal, it actually inhibits the process of learning. We know that students learn best when, for example, they aren’t required to memorize facts, when they are allowed study what interests them, when they are in an environment that celebrates learning differences, and when academics aren’t the only measure of development. While some schools talk about embracing such education reforms, sometimes even going so far as to call themselves progressive schools, they almost always layer such reforms on top of a traditional schooling model. We must do better for children.
First, we should stop sending kids to schools. While it is possible for learning to take place in a school, it is also possible for learning to take place in a prison. And in many ways, schools are prisons. I don’t mean to make insignificant the oppressiveness of prisons, and at least children are able to be freed from the schools every afternoon (unless forced to spend hours doing homework), but in terms of learning and growing, compulsory education is akin to a prison. Instead we should immerse children in learning environments which may or may not be places that parents drop their kids off to be educated by others. Words have meanings, and many words have very negative connotations. School is one of them. And even with the best intentioned parents and teaches, the word school reinforces the notion that kids are to attend so they can have knowledge (or tests) shoved down their throats or dumped in their heads.
Second, we should take teachers out of the equation. This is not to belittle the hard work of millions of teachers, many of whom went into the profession with the best of intentions. However, they participate in a system that treats children like prisoners, or products being sent down a factory assembly line. The word teacher, like school, carries a negative connotation. And even if the children are able to transcend it, the parents and teachers most often cannot. The first priority of virtually every teacher is classroom management. Classroom management is essential in a traditional school where a standardized curriculum is being forced upon a group of children irrespective to their individual needs, learning differences or aptitude. There will still be a place for adults who care about the education of children and who help them learn – but they should not be called teachers and they should not see themselves as a the authority on how children should learn, especially considering that very few teachers understand how kids learn.
Beyond semantics, we need to create spaces where there are no desks for children to sit in while being lectured at, or even classrooms to constrain children. We should not segregate children by age, and we should not mandate that children adhere to a standard curriculum or force them to learn what we want them to learn. We should honor children for who they are, to include their unique experiences, interests, talents, learning styles and ambitions. We should assist them in creating their own learning objectives based on their interests, and match them up with the resources that will best enable that learning. This is how many homeschooling and unschooling parents are already helping their children prepare for rich, happy and enriching lives. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t become mainstream.
I am currently working with or in talks with folks who are trying to transform the concept of education from that of learning in schools during certain hours of the day, certain days of the year, for certain years of ones early life, to that of learning all the time no matter the age in a way that will eradicate the failed and damaging traditional schooling model. Thanks for hanging around with me on this journey, expect to see some interest developments in 2014!!