Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Thought on Education

Ever watch a young child?

Other than getting fed, their defining characteristic is curiosity. They're driven to learn as much as possible about everything around them. That's how you survive, if you're a lion cub or a quail chick.
Curiosity is a natural passion. It cools as we start feeling somewhat comfortable on Earth, but it persists. If pressure from parents and schools doesn't kill it, it can last a lifetime.

Unfortunately, schools often kill curiosity.

The late Bob Wichert used to say, “Everything is in the hands of its enemies.” Schools usually are.
Schools should recognize that children have a natural passion to learn, although they may not care to learn exactly what your schedule says you're to teach them today. We all develop different interests and distinct characters; but the actual intellectual content of school's first six or seven years could be learned by an average 13-year-old in about six weeks.

That last fact is articulated by A.S. Neill, author of Summerhill. (Adapting his principles to a public school would be a real challenge; but so is adapting Christ's or Buddha's precepts to daily life in the 21st Century.)

Neill ran a private boarding school in England. Many students were rich. Many were “troubled.” They weren't permitted to harm other students physically, or fornicate. Otherwise, there were few rules. If a kid wanted to wander through the woods all day observing trees and bugs, fine. Kids have an innate compulsion to develop their minds and bodies. The point is mental development, not the alphabet or the date of the Battle of Hastings.

Summerhill held regular classes. Attendance not required. Most kids probably attended them. One kid never went to class, but when it came time for the exam students had to pass to go further in school, he decided to take it. In a few months he learned enough to pass.

Schools should recognize children's natural curiosity and use it, as a sailor uses winds and tides.
We can memorize the meaning of two-parts-hydrogen-one-part-oxygen, the presidents' names, and Hamlet's soliloquy; but the real deal is exercising and developing the muscle called “mind.”

Schools should at least adopt doctors' guiding principle: “Do No Harm!”

At present, do schools do more good than harm?

Watching kids who were home-schooled (like a young friend from a conservative New Mexico cattle-raising family, or our niece and nephew in the New Hampshire woods, off the grid in a straw-bale home their father built) I'm often impressed. These kids seem to sharper, brighter, and more focused.

Not everyone has the leisure or ability to home-school kids effectively; and I don't favor heavy religious indoctrination; but the folks running schools should be humbled by the comparison.
In India, an experimenter left a computer with bunch of kids in India. He left them no instructions; but when he returned. they'd learned – together – how to use the things. (They were slowed by having to learn enough English to work with the computers.)

He left some kids a problem to solve concerning DNA. When he came back, they'd hit a snag. He asked a young woman to help. She protested she knew nothing about science. He told her to encourage them. For a couple of months she kept repeating “OmyGod, that's amazing!” several times a day. They solved the problem.

Consider in this context the battle over standardized testing. A prime example of the tail wagging the dog, standardized testing ignores the uniqueness of each child; daily school attendance “standardizes” them more than enough. Adjusting teacher's salaries based on how their charges do on those tests compounds the damage. First, do no harm!
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday morning, 26 October.]

No comments:

Post a Comment