Every day 7,000 high school students drop out of school. Can you believe that? It’s true. And every year these dropouts cost the US government $90 billion. You might think they dropped out because they didn’t work hard enough. But they aren’t at fault; the education system is. Our current system of education is one-size-fits-all, but not all students are the same. Sir Ken Robinson is a creativity expert and education reform advocate. He says intelligence is “1. Diverse, 2. Dynamic, and 3. Distinct.” There is not just one single kind of intelligence, which means there cannot be only one kind of education. The current education system is no longer working and needs to be recreated.
The Edge is an independent education foundation…and its members have concerns similar to Robinson’s. Andy Powell was formerly CEO of Edge. He says that manufacturing models are now being used in education. It’s the equivalent of students being placed on a belt, giving them only a few certain things they can do. Powell has come up with six steps to change education, which include providing a broad range of curriculum to age 14, and helping students learn real life skills; helping students find their passion, and then guiding them through a path that would continue more specific learning; and at age 16, allowing students to choose their final pathway, enter a new one, or start work experience, and then get training through a job or internship. If these steps were followed, positive change would begin.
Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts has been taking what some might call a radical approach to education. Dr. Peter Gray is a research professor at Boston College. He’s done extensive research at this revolutionary school that prides itself on student-guided learning. Gray says that kids learn best from playing and exploring on their own, as they did in the days when we were hunter-gatherers. Before I share more about this extraordinary school, let’s take a look at the history of learning.
Before the agricultural revolution when we were hunter-gatherers, children learned to be successful hunter/gatherers by playing and exploring on their own. According to Dr. Gray’s research, for several thousand years after the advent of agriculture, the intention of education of children was, to a considerable degree, to squash their willfulness in order to make them good laborers. The idea of required public education began in the 1500s and continues to this day. The major force behind this kind of education was Protestant religious leaders. The goal was to teach children to read so they could learn scriptures and become good church followers. Eventually, Dr. Gray says, industry leaders came to think of education as a way to create better workers and “the duller the subjects taught in schools the better.” Then, national leaders thought that education was a good way to create good patriots and soldiers-to-be. Of course, along the way there were also people who cared about children. But Gray says regardless of what group it was, they all used one method: inculcation. You know what I’m talking about: Forced repetition and testing for memory of what was repeated. Clearly in years past, what a child was interested in or had a passion or aptitude for was completely disregarded. And in many schools even today, that is the case.
But that is not the case at Sudbury Valley School near Boston. As I mentioned earlier, the learning there is guided by the students, not the teachers, just as when we were hunter-gatherers. There are no classes at Sudbury, and a course will only be offered if a student organizes it. The students are free to do whatever they want while at school, and learning happens while children do what comes naturally to them: interact with each other and explore. Sudbury graduates say the way they were educated helped them prepare for the real world in a way that traditional schools could not. You might be surprised to learn that Sudbury students have no trouble getting into college, even though they were not tested and did not receive grades at their school. The education researcher Dr. Gray thinks that within 50 years all schools will start to look more like Sudbury. But he says in order for that to happen, people need to realize that, “Adults do not control children’s education, children educate themselves.” While it may take some time to get used to this model of schooling, it is wise for education to move in this direction.
In San Francisco is a school called Brightstorm that is headed in that direction. They’re redesigning what the traditional classroom looks like, literally. They don’t even have classrooms. To them, walls are a thing of the past. They hold classes both inside and outside. When inside, they are in a big open hangar. And, a lot of what takes up space in the building is work actually created by the students like a tree house and space dividers. This way, students are learning, but can also take pride in the fact that they contributed to the building of their school. Students are encouraged to design their own education, and the teachers aren’t really teachers. They only help guide students.
But most of our education system in the United States isn’t like Sudbury Valley or Brightstorm or High Tech High in San Diego, CA. The problem with much of modern day education is clearly summed up by Peter Berg, a teacher and educational consultant. He writes on his blog, “I remember sitting in a conference with a student and his parents, and I asked the question to the parents, Would you rather Jason (name has been changed) graduate from here being a well-adjusted, caring, compassionate, socially-aware person or a student who gets all A’s? When the parents answered all A’s, I knew I had an uphill battle.”
What needs to happen now is a return to the past–a “new,” old way of educating children and young adults where they explore and discover on their own or are taught to their strengths. The education system has not changed as fast as the world and society have. It’s stuck in the past, and as Sir Robinson says, the biggest thing in the way of a solution is that people think it will be hard and don’t want to do it. Right now you might be thinking, “This will never work out”–change our education system–and that’s natural and predictable. People do not like change and change on such a drastic level can be terrifying. Fortunately, there are many ways to change the education system. People need to start talking, and a conversation needs to begin. Conversation followed by action will, hopefully, create change.
We need to wake up to the ineffectiveness of the current one-size-fits all approach to education, and look it at not as though it’s wrong–but simply no longer working. Then start making changes to improve our learning environments. I propose that we take ideas from all of the contributors I’ve mentioned, and make one big plan that will totally reinvent our education system. What if we took Andy Powell’s steps and combined them with the models of Sudbury and Brightstorm? Imagine what would be possible. I believe we’d have a much better, much more interactive world of learning, where children are happier, more engaged learners with a greater capacity for critical thinking and creating. I would love to bring children into a world like that.
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Powell, Andy. “We Need An Education System That Excites Children.” Teaching Times.
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