Why is it so hard to educate the next generation of citizens? Why do so many of our kids flounder and struggle? I’m a little wary of the can of worms this is certain to open – the topic is talked about nearly endlessly. As a society, we seem to have many to cast blame upon: the government for enacting things like No Child Left Behind and Common Core, administrators for making it harder to teach in any number of ways, teachers for failing to teach. students for failing to learn, parents for failing to care. There are many more arguments, not all of which I have the time or inclination to discuss. Any number of articles can be found to support any or all of those particular viewpoints.
I’d like to think about the problem in a different way – how do we make it better? Less government intrusion? More parent inclusion? Either of those may help to address the problem, but are not realistically going to change any time soon. What can change, what I believe has to change, is how we as school administrators and educators think about education. Too many kids are forced into conforming to what we believe education should look like. Why do we believe it? Probably because that’s what we grew up with. Everyone can probably relate to what today’s classroom (still!) looks like. 28-36 kids sitting at desks, watching (or ignoring) an adult they really don’t relate to at the front of the classroom with only a vague understanding of why a particular lesson is important to them.
I don’t say this easily – I work for a school district. It’s a little intimidating to admit something that we have been doing for years may not be working. It recently occurred to me however, that we really don’t know what education will look like 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Hopefully, it looks a lot more like the education my children are receiving every day. My kids, age 15 and 10, are both homeschooled. To many, this seems counter-intuitive as I work in and for the public education system. It’s a pretty common story on how our family got to this point actually, as we’re seeing more of our friends and neighbors make the same decision.
My son was in seventh grade when we decided to homeschool him. We did this for a few reasons. First, he was being bullied. He handled it pretty well, but it was hard for us to watch. I’m not one to coddle my kids, but I also won’t just stand by as they are prevented from learning in a safe place. The bigger reason was the actual learning space. This is not my current district, but I was working in the same district where he was attending school. Having been in some of the classrooms during the school day, I was shocked at how loud the rooms were. Kids just talk over the teach, not paying any attention. I couldn’t concentrate in the room, let alone expect a 12 year old boy to do so.
We’ve also always encouraged our kids to love learning, it was hard to watch that love have to take a backseat to the bureaucratic process. My son has always enjoyed learning new things. When he was in fourth grade, I bought a used pre-algebra book from the local community college for him to work in at whatever pace he wanted. His test scores in math and English were always in the 90th percentile or higher. So I was a little shocked to hear that all seventh graders at his school would be taking pre-algebra. I looked at the curriculum, he did some practice tests with my wife and did quite well. We asked about putting him into a higher-level math class. They wouldn’t even consider our request. So we brought him home just after Christmas break. My 10 year old daughter finished her school year and then came home prior to the following year.
I tell this story to make the point a little more clearly. My wife does not have a teaching background. She’s one class shy of completing an associates degree. She doesn’t hold a teaching credential or certificate. What she does offer is far more important: a genuine concern for her students (her kids!) and a love of learning. She was an art major and switched to engineering because she found she enjoys math. Some would look at our situation, despite those two key components, and say that she’s not equipped to essentially teach my kids the necessary subjects. We’ve found that this is irrelevant.
Our kids don’t need someone to hold their hand through a school day. They need a little direction, someone to monitor their progress, and someone to answer questions as they come up. This is where technology really becomes beneficial. With the resources available, they find answers to their own questions. When they ask us things we don’t know the answer to, we encourage them to write those questions down and research the answers. Last year, my (then) 9 year old daughter did a multiple page report on a local historical site. My son did a similar report that was appropriately longer and more detailed. It takes them both a couple of hours to finish their math, English, science, art, or any other core curriculum subjects on a given day. Then they spend hours reading, looking up answers to their own questions, and both kids have taken up computer programming. We’ve largely stopped telling them what to learn, and started showing them how to learn.
I don’t write any of this to say that our way is better or to gloat. I write this because I think it’s a different way of looking at education. We spend so much time talking about how to tweak the current education model and make it work, but very little time trying to determine if it’s worth saving. What if our teachers’ talents are better spent coaching and mentoring their students rather than lecturing? Why aren’t our high school age students finding answers to the questions that interest them? We spend a great deal of money on technology resources but, so far, they’re not really reaching their full usefulness.
I find, overwhelmingly, that our teachers, parents, students, administrators, even the controlling government agencies truly do want to see our students succeed. We have to find a better way to educate our kids and convince many of them that it’s worth their time, effort, and even frustration.
Teach them how to learn. Teach them why to learn.