“When will our schools attend to the needs of the individual student?”
What if we could create the perfect public school, sort of a Harvard for K-12 students! What would it look like? What kind of teachers would be ideal for such a school? What kind of administrators would it require? What kind of physical facilities, including classrooms, desks, electronic gadgets, smart boards, labs, gyms, cafeteria food, etc.. would this ideal school contain?
As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said more than a 100 years ago, the perfect school would have to reject students at the gate for lack of space and resources to educate the multitudes of youngsters eager to learn. As it stands today, I am a witness to it, most students come to school because they have to, not because they want to. Can we blame them? Are we offering the right environment to learn, the right tools, or even the right teachers? When we enter a classroom, we see 25 students neatly ordered in rows taking notes (or pretending to), listening to a lecture, reading a chapter in the book, or watching a video in biology. Are all engaged emotionally and academically? Are all motivated to learn and improve their knowledge of the world? Except for the video, my own classes 50 years ago were exactly the same: boring for the bright students and difficult for the slow thinkers.
The perfect school would ask the students to be actively engaged in their own education; they would participate in the decision making process, in the running of the school through a student council. Even 6 year olds can offer their input; they have a vision of the world that has been lost by adults. They would remind us of what education is really about; not the accumulation of data, but the patient development of a personal philosophy of life that would include self-esteem and respect for the other person’s point of view, all the while having fun and learning.
Each classroom would limit the number of students to 12-15 individuals free to roam around the learning center when necessary and anxious to listen to the teacher during instruction time. The kids would feel secure in discussing topics, asking questions, and researching on their own to fill gaps in their comprehension. The teacher (s) would have time to address each individual case, making sure that respective skills, learning disabilities if any, and linguistic limitations are taken into account when evaluating the student.
Today’s schools, both private and public, are based on fear and punishment. The ideal school would erase such policies and focus on the positive. Discipline, instead of being exo-discipline, would become self-discipline with the help of parents. Plays created and acted by kids would emphasize the personal responsibility that modern society demands from each participant. I see band members coming to school at 7 am, anxious to practice; the same applies for football and other sports. Why not for academics? Because the contents of math, English, social studies and science do not connect to the real world. There is not enough cross curriculum activity and the students are turned off by classes that do not seem to relate to their daily lives. The perfect school would make sure that the learning process take place in a clear and understandable context. Several teachers could combine their efforts to give instruction on the same topic seen through different angles. Planning a long trip by car on U.S. roads could easily include geography, math (miles per gallon), English (written description of the country side), science (chemistry and physics of the climate and air quality), and biology (animals and plants in each region).
Is it possible? Is it expensive? Doing nothing and watching kids drop out of school or getting high school diplomas after 4 traditional years of the same one-size-fit-all method is what really costs us as a nation and as a society. Instead of arguing the merits of evolution vs. creationism, we should focus on modernizing education and preparing our children for the 21st century.. and beyond. That is truly the last frontier.