Since the days of our planet’s earliest civilizations, the education of children has been a hallowed undertaking. The first American public school opened it’s doors almost 400 years ago, and still the definition of a good education, and how to achieve it, is the subject of debate.
When designing systems I find it helpful to start with the end product in mind. What does the product of a good educational system look like? As the parent of three teenagers, a long time educator, and a future school leader, here’s what’s on my list:
- A huge curiosity and a love of learning.
- An ability to meet challenges with enthusiasm and creativity.
- A solid core knowledge on a wide variety of subjects, and an understanding that that knowledge is never complete.
- An open-mindedness and appreciation of differences.
- A good self awareness and a self esteem that is independent of the approval of others.
- A servant/leader mentality.
How do we go about creating a system which encourages those traits? Ideally, we start before our children ever become part of the system; we support a society where all children begin their lives on a level playing field, where everyone gets to school fed, rested, and healthy and children and parents know that participating fully in education really can lead to a fulfilled life.
Once children become part of the educational system we work hard to instill in them an excitement for learning. We create schools where children love to be. How do we do that? We educate them in beautiful environments, rather than in the institutional buildings we house our schools in today. We follow children’s natural inclinations and allow interaction with the outdoors and nature. We surround our children with incredibly prepared adults who feel excitement about learning and teaching on a cellular level. We follow our children’s curiosity and feed, rather than stymie, their desire to learn about things that interest them. Instead of teaching compartmentalized subjects, we teach thematic units with real world connections, pulling from all disciplines. There are no bells signaling the end of one subject and the beginning of another – we give our children long, uninterrupted work cycles which encourage concentration and allow for explorations and trips down the rabbit hole and outside of the box. We don’t confuse memorization with learning. We allow concrete understanding before we move to abstraction. We allow our children to see that knowledge and discovery is the reward; that growing synapses and expanding horizons is the bounty; we don’t march them onstage for ribbons, or bribe them with treasure boxes. We don’t make them equate success with making their parents or their teachers proud; we let them discover that the most profound happiness is found in self satisfaction. We don’t pit them against each other in their academic ventures, we help them to see that when one does well, we all do well. And as we empower our children in unfolding their own personal greatness, we also foster in them empathy and understanding of each other. We expect not only a self discipline around learning, but also a responsibility of kindness. We model and instruct in grace and courtesy as surely and emphatically as we do in academics.
The societal microcosm of the classroom extends to the entire school; administrators, teachers and children smile and greet each other in common areas, pick up trash they find, they open doors for each other. Visitors on campus know that this is a community full of vested stake-holders. Parents are welcome and made to feel that their contributions are vital to the success of the school. This is no drop-off/pick-up school. This school puts demands on its families, and gives them many opportunities to meet those demands, be it reading in classrooms, making materials at home, participating in the organization of after school or weekend events. Creating a well educated child after-all means that families and schools must work together because a well educated child benefits everyone.
The well educated child is an absolute possibility. It just takes a group of people to stand up and say this is what I want for my child. On a local level, it happened in my community, when a group of parents started a Montessori charter school and required full participation from its members. That school grows and goes from strength to strength because it is meeting a need – the need for well educated children.
The model is entirely possible in all our public schools. We just need to seriously weigh the value to our society of well educated children and then put the foundations in place. We hire inspirational figures to lead our schools and then trust them to do that. We require that only highly educated and passionate teachers interact with our children and then trust those teachers to guide our children in their learning. We remove the shackles that currently bind them and give them all the supports they need to do the heady work of inspiring our children, including good pay, and freedom from the institutionalized joy-killing manacles of our current system. We put money into creating beautiful environments for our children to learn in. We loosen the constraints of curriculum and kiss goodbye to the corporations who make money from publishing ever changing, always limited text books. We require parental involvement. We make the education of children a “whole village” affair.
Idyllic? Entirely. Unrealistic? No. When we provide an educational system to our children which inspires and excites them, and prepares them to be part of the creative workforce needed for our future success, we reduce unemployment and crime. We reduce the need for prison systems and welfare systems. When we provide an educational system which teaches our children to be good humans and citizens of the world, and create an educational paradigm which involves the entire community, then we reduce hate and violence and war. Think of how much that saves our society, and not only financially.
A well educated child is our responsibility as a society, and until we realize the importance of that child, we are destined to fail on so many measures of societal success. Without that well educated child we will never reach the full potential of our humanity. We need to know that it is possible. We need to know that it is essential. We need to demand it.