Friday, May 2, 2008

Building A Better Schoolhouse

While revisiting old issues of my favorite shelter magazine, Britain's version of Country Living, I came across an article on community-based education, "A New School of Thought" (CL September 2003). I'm always astonished at how long the Brits have been at stuff that seems cutting edge here (or that hasn't even been broached)--everything from microwaves to mobile telephones to permaculture. But then, they've been around a lot longer than we have, so it really shouldn't be all that surprising.

At any rate, because I'm constantly being reminded about how utterly awful the American education system has become, and what a joke "No Child Left Behind" has turned out to be (even if I really understood what it meant, I'm not sure I could be convinced that it's been even slightly efficacious), I'm always startled when an alternative already exists, happily chugging along despite my oblivion.

According to the Human Scale Education website, the group describes itself as "an education reform movement committed to small scale learning communities based on the values of democracy, fairness and respect." The article notes that member schools--many of which were taken over after the government had decided to shut them down and bus children off to bigger, more "efficient" comprehensives, often quite far away from their villages--don't even have to follow the national curriculum, nor submit to standardized testing regimens, although many do. Mark Davies, principal at the Bishops Park College secondary school in Clacton, UK, offers a nice history of the movement and a blueprint based on his own school in his article, "Less is more: the move to person-centered, human scale education." The whole thing sounds so utterly democratic as to be intuitively obvious, so why haven't we done something like this here?

A Google search tying "Human Scale Education" with "United States" doesn't bear much fruit, because all of the articles that turn up are from Britain. What comes closest are articles by America's bad boy of education, John Taylor Gatto, who shook things up a decade or so ago. My favorite of his essays, "The Six Lesson Schoolteacher" appeared in the Fall 1991 issue of The Whole Earth Review, and I remember reading it while I was in Chicago, studying for my comps and on my way to becoming a teacher myself. In it he describes what was--and clearly still is--going on in public schools: the regimentation and focus on standardization that is all too painfully killing the imagination of our young people and creating a Nation of the Bored.

As it turns out, however, some of the earliest efforts at reform occurred right here in the US and have been used to help promote similar efforts in Britain (see this Parliamentary memorandum on Human Scale Education). Since about 1991, a movement has been afoot to create smaller, more democratically operated schools in this country, especially in Chicago, where the public school system adopted a small-schools initiative that remains in place today. The system still oversees the schools themselves, but the idea that smaller schools produce better educational results--or at least better options--seems to have taken hold.

Around here, "charter schools" seem to be the response du jour. According to a clearinghouse website, "charter schools are innovative public schools providing choices for families and greater accountability for results." The fact that they are funded and assessed through the state indicates that the autonomy level has to be somewhat lower than that enjoyed by HSE schools in England. And although charters seem to be a viable way of addressing concerns about one-size-fits-all educational "packaging," some local charter schools have had difficulties ranging from bad management to inferior test scores; but a report from the National Center for Policy Analysis notes that overall, Texas charter schools seem to be enjoying a measure of success. Again, however, rather than being independent entities like HSE schools, charters are held to Texas testing standards. It would be interesting to discover whether the vaunted innovation is focused on genuine education, or simply on finding different ways to get kids to do better on tests.

The high-stakes standardized testing obsession needs its own discussion, but what it does to our children was driven home to me just a couple of days ago in a Dallas Morning News article, "Texas Schools Testing Ways to Ease TAKS Anxiety." (TAKS is the acronym for Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills--which seems to do neither. It should more accurately be called the Texas Attempt to Appease Bureaucrats because it has nothing to do with knowledge, and measures only those "skills" that can be memorized.) Why anybody thinks it's appropriate to place children into a situation with the potential for such trauma is way beyond my ken.

I've often said that if I had it to do all over again, I'd home-school my kids. They both started out in Montessori, but transferred to public grammar schools, and both turned out well enough. The saving grace probably lay in the fact that both their parents participated in their educations--by volunteering in the school library, coaching Odyssey of the mind teams, leading Junior Great Books groups, and such. I'm not sure many parents today have (or make) enough time to invest in creating educational communities, which is truly a shame because this is where our salvation may lie. It's not enough simply to attend the soccer matches or the band performances. We have to become active partners with educators, and must make the value of a broad-based education visible to our children. They need to know that education is part of who we are as parents--and that it's not just something we inflict on them because it was done to us.

Perhaps the HSE people have the best idea for this world: education formal enough to provide kids with a common cultural grounding, and some fundamental quantitative and qualitative skills in maths, communication, literature, science, history, geography, and philosophy--as well as some experience in life skills, craftworking, and community-building.

Rather than being wholly anarchistic, where they simply learn what they want when they want it (which is more or less what happens in my utopia), the alternative would be to help them acquire what they need it roughly when they need it--or at least as soon as they're capable of grasping it. What I truly object to is force-feeding a standard curriculum of predigested information that leaves them with a transcript full of evidence that they can memorize facts, but a head full of nothing consequential. Boredom only happens when children haven't the skills to put their imaginations to use, and this is where we're failing them miserably.

William Morris often talked about education in terms of the whole person: training the heart and mind for worthwhile work. As he put it in his long essay Signs of Change,

In a duly ordered society . . . young people would be taught such handicrafts as they had a turn for as a part of their education, the discipline of their minds and bodies; and adults would also have opportunities of learning in the same schools, for the development of individual capacities would be of all things chiefly aimed at by education, instead, as now, the subordination of all capacities to the great end of "money-making" for oneself--or one's master. The amount of talent, and even genius, which the present system crushes, and which would be drawn out by such a system, would make our daily work easy and interesting.

The huge suburban education-factories being built today, in cahoots with the Testing Regime, have conspired to turn our children into carbon copies of one another, bereft of imagination and condemned to boredom if they're not continuously entertained. And while we may neither need nor desire to return to the one-room schoolhouse of old, perhaps by following the examples of the small-schools initiative and Human Scaled Education movement, we can rear more creative, engaged children who embrace learning rather than seeing it as the next best thing to a prison sentence. It might then be possible to relegate the word "boredom" to the ranks of the obsolete words in the dictionary.

Photo credit: "Amish Schoolhouse" by Irving Rusinow, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Margaret said...

Great post! One of the things that appeals to me most about William Morris is his educational philosophy. I was homeschooled until I was in my junior year of highschool, and I think the freedom it gave me to develop my interests and skills was invaluable.
On a side note, the city where I live (Edmonton) is the only city in Canada with charter schools that are part of the public school system. I've been extremely impressed with the results--consistently higher test results and an opportunity for all kids to have access to education that is usually for the priveleged few.

That being said, I'm still not sure whether I'll homeschool when we have kids. I honestly can't even imagine sending them to school before they're in third grade or so, no matter how good the schools are.

GEM said...

Owl - I was weaned on the Summerhill philosophy as a young teacher, and entered into a job in the public school system in the early 70s with tempered idealism that was soon shattered by what i perceived as a programmatic way to credential the young for filling jobs in the outside society, or going on in post-secondary learning, also programmatic that had more to do with credentialing than true education. While our son was a srudent in the public school system, he survived relatively unscathed because of our engagement with his learning throughout. If i had to do the parenting thing again, i would home-school and set up situations with persons of expertise in fields that were appropriate to our child's interest at given period of his life. I have long held a dream of very small community schools (not the current business model of schools as a holding pen) where children's natiral interests and capacities are taken into consideration when determining what they needed to learn at any given time. Learners should lead what is taught, not teachers - the innate learner's curiosity cannot be successfully satisfied and kept engaged under current systems in operation. The constant testing is a mere sop to the public to put at ease unclear opinions about what constitutes true education. Statistics to numb opinion, not point out needs for change. G

Owlfarmer said...

Thanks to you both--and I think your solutions are absolutely on the mark. I have a friend whose daughter will be entering public schools when they return from Germany, and she's in a quandary about how to handle the situation. It would be wonderful if we all belonged to communities where we could school our children at home and rely on one another's expertise, and on public institutions like museums to provide the kids with an education designed to stimulate their intellectual development instead of stifling it. I once taught a dissecting class to home-schoolers at a local nature-center, and the kids were a joy to instruct: curious, excited, and not the least bit squeamish.

The presence-in-the-building solution worked for us, too, and I've already suggested this to my friend. Another helpful measure is to enroll children in schools with diverse ethnic populations, and then lobby for parent involvement and facilities improvement (because many of these schools are under-funded and parents know little about what they can do to help).

If I ever have grandchildren, it looks like they will be home-schooled by me at my daughter's request. I'm already preparing nature lessons . . .