Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand. Confucius 450 BC
With the conclusion of another school year it is now time for teachers, parents, administrators and legislators to reflect back on this past year taking note of what worked and what did not work as well. Think back to your own high school years. Can you recall your favorite worksheet from high school? For most of you I would guess the answer is probably not.
Now try to recall your favorite project or field trip? What was it? I would bet that this may be much easier.
Imagine if a summer swimming lessons were organized like your typical social studies or math class. First you would be given a textbook with instructions, readings and pictures on how to swim. Then you would be given a worksheet based on those readings. Next you might have a discussion about that worksheet during which time your mind might wander. Finally you would be given a multiple choice or fill in the blank test about how to swim. What would be missing is actually getting in the water and swimming. Does that sound absurd to you? Then why do we organize so much of our school curriculum in such a fashion?
In fact there is a reason. It is called efficiency and measurability. We want to move as many kids through the education system as possible and be able to measure the results with quantifiable data. Does this sound familiar? This is not that different from how we manufacture cars, microwaves or faucets. The goal is to create as much of the product as possible that is standardized and cheap. The problem is our education system is made up of humans who are anything but standard; not widget pieces, which are.
In reality, through-out history most of our learning and education has been through experience which is often imprecise and frequently accompanied by failure. Indigenous people learned to hunt, gather, fish and cultivate by doing it, not by being told how to do it. Many times mistakes were made, but those mistakes were then used to learn from. Generations of farmers learned from their elders by going out to the fields to prepare the soil, plant the crops and then harvest them when ready. Their children learned by observing, asking questions, participating and then imitating what they had learned. They built on the success and learned from the failure when possible.
In the trades, such as shoemaking or iron working, most of the skills crafts people needed for their particular vocation were learned by doing. This was called apprenticeship. Apprentices started by doing menial work for the craftsman and observing what they were doing. This often went on for several years. Then slowly they took on more and more responsibilities and harder tasks. Eventually they were given the opportunity to actually practice the craft until they became an expert. Once skilled at the trade they were then invited into the guild or union representing that particular trade to become a journeyman or Master craftsman. This was only after they had proved themselves worthy through the quality of their finished product.
This all began to change with the industrial revolution; a government philosophy called democracy; and the mapping of our country as it expanded. All of these new changes called for standardization. Factories had to have standardized machinery and workers. Land was organized and mapped on standardized grid patterns (clearly seen when you fly over Southern Minnesota). Then in the early part of the 1800’s schools became much more organized and to be seen as an important system that should be supported by the public. Therefore education, in the name of equality, began to become standardized. Horrace Mann (who has hundreds of schools named after him) was one of the first American education reformers who began to call for standardization, from how teachers are trained to how the public education institutions were organized. First it was buildings, then student desks and seating, then books, and then tests. And it went on and on until our public education institutions began to resemble what we have today.
By the late 1800’s, as the standardization of factories, maps, and schools were well established, John Dewey, an education philosopher proposed (along with other progressive educators) new ways to deliver education. Let the students explore, make decisions and build on the knowledge they already had. This new idea for teaching and learning was called the progressive movement and by the early 1900’s some schools began to reorganize themselves around this concept. Progressive schools had gardens and the students went outside frequently. Students helped with school chores. Math, reading and science were taught around real world topics, and frequently together, as it is in the real world.
While a number of schools and school districts organized around this new philosophy, it never fully took off. Progressive schools seemed a bit more disorganized and inneficient compared to the traditional schools. Standardization was too deeply engrained, in the same fashion as the modern factory.
Luckily there have been some remnants of the progressive movement still around. Some charter schools have revived progressive concepts. Waldorf and Outward Bound schools are organized around experiential and Project Based Learning. Exploratory learning concepts such as Montessori and Open Schools exist in some districts. And thankfully more and more schools are growing gardens.
As our world is rapidly changing with new technology and different ways of how we organize our economic work force, it is also time to move away from this factory model of education.
Think back to the opening question posed at the beginning regarding your favorite project. I believe we must re-examine how we have organized our overall public education system and bring back the concepts that are natural to how we learn. Let our children’s curiosity be nurtured; not categorized, standardized and extinguished. Bring back observation, exploration and reflection. Integrate reading, math, science, physical education, and the arts into real world themes. Organize our students into cooperative learning groups so they learn how to solve problems and create new ideas together. Let failure be viewed as a natural part of learning. Let our students make and create things and then write about those things they have created. Teach math and science through physical activities such as biking or track and field. Let them write poetry as they listen to the rhythm of water on the shore of a lake or stream.
If we do return to an education system that integrates learning through experience we will have an educated population that is ready to face and solve the diverse and complex issues that await us.