I have worked as a teacher for over 15 years, working with both with children and adults, in private as well as in public schools. As an educational sociologist, I have done consulted and directed group processes with teachers in schools, and in preschools. One of the projects I am busy with at the moment, is leading a new course for teaching assistants at a community college. In this course, I am focusing on giving my students the tools they need, to go into the school system and make a real difference for the students they’ll work with, despite the school system’s terminal state.
See, in the course we often talk about the contradiction of how the education system, more often than not, is preventing and obstructing children’s abilities and opportunities to learn, through its very structures and foundation. Despite this, we actually know a lot about how children best learn today:
We know that children need stimulating, nourishing learning environments that spark their creativity and curiosity.
We know that children learn best when their individual learning needs are met.
We know that children learn better when they get to participate actively in the things they are learning, rather than passively receiving information from a teacher.
We know that children learn best when they are self-motivated.
We know that reward/punishment based strategies only work short-term, but actually are detrimental long-term.
We know that that relationships between students and teachers is essential to foster a supportive learning environment.
We know that the brain cannot take in information for more than 20 minutes at a time.
We know that the most optimal class size is no more than 15 students.
We know that children learn better, when they experience a higher purpose with what they are learning, and that what they learn is real and has meaning, outside the classroom.
We know that when children get to move during the day, they can more easily absorb information.
We know that playing music instruments or working on arts is supportive for children to integrate information in science and math.
We know that a dull, clinical classroom has a negative effect on students ability to absorb information.
And yet, in spite of this, we STILL decorate our classrooms clinically, without an ounce of inspiration or color. We STILL shove more than 30 students into a classroom at a time. We STILL teach, using long, boring lectures that students are expected to passively listen to. We STILL use punishment and rewards and call it “motivation.” We STILL remove more and more creative subjects from schools curricular. We STILL use a “one size fits all” model, and we call that “equal opportunity”, despite the fact that more students are falling behind than ever.
More students than ever are suffering from mental illness and stress. Youth suicide rates are through the roof. A country such as South Korea, whose students has the highest test scores in international tests, has also had the highest suicide rates for young adults. And that is a country that many other countries are modeling their education system after.
The gatekeepers of knowledge in the information age
Learning opportunities OUTSIDE of school, are on one hand extremely limited, with parents obsessing over safety and exercising far more control and monitoring of their children, than any past generation has before. At the same time, the advent of the internet has created millions of new opportunities for children and young adults to take learning into their own hands. Many students I have spoken with feels that their real education takes place outside of school. And the only value they get from being IN school, is the social interactions with other students.
Previously, a large part of the power that teachers held over children, was based on teachers being the gatekeepers of knowledge and information. And before them, it was the priests. These days, nearly ALL the information that has ever existed in any language or form, is publicly and freely accessible by anyone with an internet access.
This means that children no longer depend on adults to get educated. They can learn practical skills from YouTube, they can learn languages from language apps. They can start an impromptu business, a record company, or a television station right from the comforts of their teenage bedroom. They know that what they are being taught today might not be relevant in 20 years. They are starting to realize what a hoax college education is. They are starting to realize that they can do it themselves.
And as a result, we are one step away from children realizing that they don’t actually need school as it currently exist. And then what?
The death of the school system
What we are witnessing at the moment, if we were to zoom out to an existential level, is the collapse and extinction of the ancient dinosaur that the school system is, in extreme slow motion. The school system as we know it, is busy dying and it will inevitably die, most likely within our lifetime. For a lot of people, it seems preposterous (and probably unrealistic) to imagine the school system collapsing. But the kicker in all this, is that nearly ALL of us are products of the exact same school system; the school system that killed our creativity and independent critical thinking when we were kids, that killed our motivation and self-directed curiosity to learn. It is no wonder that we look at the world grimly and with apathy, or that we are feeling like walking zombies half the time, when that’s exactly what we’ve been raised to be.
For a lot of people, it seems preposterous (and probably unrealistic) to imagine the school system collapsing. But the kicker in all this, is that nearly ALL of us are products of the exact same school system; the school system that killed our creativity and independent critical thinking when we were kids, that killed our motivation and self-directed curiosity to learn. It is no wonder that we look at the world grimly and with apathy, or that we are feeling like walking zombies half the time, when that’s exactly what we’ve been raised to be.
New Perspectives and opportunities
If we dare to open up to the part of ourselves that still has the ability to wonder, we will see that there are other ways to facilitate a child’s learning process than what we currently know from traditional schools. There are lots of small, alternative schools being created, and there are even options that takes a child’s learning process entirely out of school, introducing a self-directed process where the child learns directly from being a part of life in a holistic way, also known as an unschooling. There are as many different ways of imagining a child’s optimal learning process, as there are children.
What you can do as a parent
My recommendation to parents reading this, is to take a very long, attentive and affectionate look at your child. Give yourself at least a week, preferably a month, to really observe and reflect on who your child is, how they best learn, at what pace and speed they are, what their interests are, where they need more challenges, where they are too challenged, and ASK yourselves whether the educational setting their are currently in, (or that you are planning to place them in if they are young), is optimal for them as the unique individual that they are. And if you end up realizing that the learning environment that your child is currently in, is not optimal for them to develop their utmost potential, I strongly suggest considering an alternative for your child.
The good news and the ‘bad’ news
The good news is that it can be an amazing adventure for you as a family, and you may get to see a child that previously was subdued and unmotivated, come to life with a curiosity and creativity you had no idea they possessed. The ‘bad’ news is that you too may have to reconsider your own priorities, and the life that you have decided to live, and you may find that you need to step way out of your comfort zone, to discover what life has to offer beyond what you ever thought was possible this life.
This process may start with our children, but it has to end with us.