On Revising Education.
  by Ryan Gantz

Education in the United States is totally screwed. I don't think that attempts to modify the current system are going to work. Charter schools are offering students and parents more choice, and they give freedom to educators to experiment with different teaching programs. But most states that allow charter schools limit the percent of the education budget that can be allocated to these schools. Home schooling is becoming popular, and for a damn good reason: home-schooled kids get smarter, faster. Everyone else (unless, like me, you had parents with the good judgment and wallet to send you to private school after 8th grade) pushes through public school, and hopes for the best.

The U.S. needs to completely rebuild education from the bottom up.  The solution does not involve "tougher standards".  We do not need to make students take tests to try and figure out what subjects in which schools are problem areas (as Massachusetts has been doing), though this could lead to some basic improvement. We need to reevaluate—even throw out—everything we think we know about what children ought to learn, and especially the methods used to teach it to them. But that's not going to happen unless a lot of people put time into convincing everyone that it needs to be done.

The problem is this:

Ask yourself, and ask everyone you know, what it is that a good education should do for a student. Ask, "When an 18-year-old graduates high school, what should he or she have learned?" In my experienced, at least 90% of the responses to this questions will be something like: "Well, I guess graduates should have a good grasp of the English language, written and spoken; in terms of math, basic math skills plus, at least, business math or algebra; understanding of the American History timeline", and so on. Blah, blah blah.

Yes, it would be nice if high school graduates knew all of these things. But that's a foolish goal. Such skills should be thought of as means to an end, as by-products, side effects that come through a broader approach. An absurd number of high school students are uninterested in math. And when they graduate, these students never deal with anything more than basic math for the rest of their lives.  You know who you are.  You're reading this now. All those years spent teaching you algebra and geometry were, essentially, a Complete Waste Of Time for yourself and your teachers. If it might be forgotten, why include it in the list of skills that must be learned? The goal of primary education, as I see it, is more or less captured in the following sentence:

A high school graduate should be a socially conscious citizen with problem-solving abilities and an appreciation for the benefits to be gained through various types of learning.

In reference to the importance of college, a friend of mine recently wrote: "I'd mandate that everyone learn to think critically about anything and everything that comes their way." This may not be an easy thing to mandate, but it can definitely be part of the goal as phrased in the above sentence. And, I think, it can be accomplished before the end of high school. Students who come to understand the importance of growth through learning—and who understand just how broad this term can be—will never lose that understanding again. People with critical thinking skills remain critical thinkers for life. However, those who come to believe that knowledge is comprised of categorized, compartmentalized academic bullshit with absolutely no practical application in life are not going to learn the value of self betterment until they get tangible life experience. I worked at a technical college in Phoenix for several weeks earlier this year. Every day I saw at least one 24 to 28-year old enter the admissions office saying, "I need to take my life somewhere. If I had understood what school could do for me, and what the diploma would represent, I never would have dropped out". Personally, I didn't come to value academic education as something relevant to my life until my final year of high school.

Knowledge can come in the form of processes, skills, or abilities. In its most unpractical and uninteresting form, it can be a list of facts, or a page of disconnected information. The amount of information in the world is increasing very rapidly. Some of this information is useful to me. Much of it is not. Don't bother giving me a list of facts and ideas that you think I should know. Instead, help me learn for myself how to choose, from all of the information and ideas, what deserves my attention. And, most importantly, teach me how to make what I choose relevant to my life, my point of view, and the world around me.

Life is not compartmentalized into hour long blocks of a particular subject. Life never has been.  If it had, humankind would have been eaten long ago, or died from sheer boredom.  We need to stop teaching things as separate blocks of independent stuff. Think about it. It's so ridiculous. A truly intelligent person is a person who can make connections between one thing and another, not a person who can think categorically.

Think about Sesame Street. Think about preschool. Preschool is designed to teach children things without letting them know that they're learning. Everything is mixed together: finger-paints, shapes, song, conversation, stories, naptime, all in one or two multi-purpose rooms full of neat stuff. Kindergarten is similar. But by 2nd grade everything is cut up, and soon afterwards we start administering proficiency tests based on tests designed 75 years ago for university-bound males.  That switch--from integrated exploring to compartmentalized presenting--is slowly killing our nation. We need to keep things integrated the whole way through. The key to doing this is to take advantage of the same unifying force used in preschool and on Sesame Street: The Arts.

And every parent in the country, and every teacher, and at least two thirds of the Department of Education, says this: "The Arts? Look, we don't need any more money put in the Arts! Our kids aren't reading! Our kids don't know history! Our kids aren't getting the scores in math!" You're missing the point. We need to find a way to connect all of these subjects together to form a continuous web of understanding. Older teachers, particularly, are steadfast in their belief that art is an extra thing, a bonus, something to be enjoyed after students' vocabulary sentences, "if you have time left.” These teachers believe this despite the fact that we live in a visual and audio world, one filled with movement, color, and overlapping concepts.

The written word will never disappear, but I believe that its role will change as time passes. Words are incredible because of the way they can be specific and/or suggestive at the same time—they can ground the reader in fact, or let the reader create a scenario herself.  But text is always serial and sequential: it is written to be read in a straight line, one expression after another (with the possible exception of Finnegan's Wake), and for that reason I feel that text is becoming less relevant. Our brains are much better at parallel processing—multi-tasking different kinds of perception at the same time—then they are at learning through linear text. Daily experiences like walking through a sunny crowded street or watching a band play give our heads much more to process. Life simply isn't serial the way that prose is.

For a long time, ability to understand written word has been the mark of intelligent civilization and an intelligent mind. And because of that, education has become biased toward those of us who are better at thinking verbally. But close to half of the human population are primarily visual thinkers. There's a book that I wish everyone would read called Envisioning Writing by Janet Olson. It's full of examples in which 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students who have poor writing skills are asked to draw before they write; the teacher then asks the student non-suggestive questions that prompt the student to describe what he or she has drawn. The results are consistently impressive for both the more visual and the more verbal thinkers. Before the exercise, the students' stories and character sketches are frequently awkwardly phrased, lacking focus and details. But after the exercise, the rewritten pieces are so good that you want to cry. Constructing concrete linear text can be a very abstract process, and visual exercises always ease this process, especially for younger students.

Education should make strong use of each of the elements involved with daily perception. Why do you think TV is so hypnotic, especially for young kids? It's passive, its fun, and it stimulates different parts of the brain at the same time. In contrast, my spelling test stimulates, uhh... one, or possibly none. I certainly don't connect with a list of words that are hard to spell the way I connect with a good CD or an episode of the Simpsons.

Most importantly, the school should constantly interact with the surrounding community. Schools must be open institutions, encouraging participation from anyone who has knowledge, experience, or a point of view to share.  and community go hand in hand very easily. It feels good to get an A+ test hung up on the wall, but it feels better to have teachers and parents and visitors walking around looking at your drawings and projects, smiling and discussing. The dynamics of family have changed a lot during the last fifty years: more often than not, both parents work full time. Many children are raised by single parents. Less time for casual discussion with adults means less time that a student receives feedback on ideas, and less frequently will he connect ideas and creations to the people around him. I believe that the school should be the place where families come together as a community. Once parents and neighbors are a regular part of the education process, students will cease to view school as an academic place separate from the rest of their lives. The student can begin connecting the ideas taught in school to the events happening outside.  

We retain facts when they become engaged with other facts and concepts in our mind. And we will retain students when they become engaged with other students and people, both in and out of school. Remember, compartmentalization is the enemy. The longer we can delay the onset of classes divided up by subject, with bells marking hour-long periods, the better. I believe that a student who has been led to discover the connections between seemingly unconnected things will retain this ability.  And then, perhaps, mid-10th grade would be a good time to let the student choose from traditional course blocks. Hopefully, no grades or quantitative test scores would ever be necessary. Colleges are paying less attention to scores these days anyway.

And so,  here's a day of school:

Mrs. Applebee's fourth graders are learning about redwood trees. Her classroom has one big semi-circle table, and this morning it is covered with the magazine cutouts and photographs of redwood trees that the students have been passing around and discussing. There is a scale model of an average sized redwood tree and a house, built by a parent using N scale train modeling supplies. Mrs. Applebee asks questions about the size of the tree relative to the house. In the real world, the house is 25 feet tall, but at 1/110th scale, the model is less than three inches high. How do we figure out the height of the tree? (this is part of a larger unit on multiplication, fractions and ratio concepts).

Next, the photos and magazine clippings are put away and out comes the construction paper, crayons, and glue.  Before they begin making pictures of trees, the students watch a short news documentary about the girl who recently lived in a redwood for two years, protesting corporate deforestation. Students are asked to think about the cutting down of trees, the girl's facial expressions, and the words she speaks after descending from her redwood. Mrs. Applebee shuts off the television, and puts on some jazz during drawing.

They go outside into the city and compare huge pieces of redwood bark to the trees in the park across the street.  They make crayon rubbings of the bark. They take a picture for the class website, (which aunts and uncles and grandparents love). They learn about the location of the forest on a map. Tommy's mom comes in before lunch with slides of the old days working in Redwood National Park.  They read Shel Silverstein's Giving Tree with their first grade little-friends, and write about the people in their lives who have given them great things. They discuss the ways of determining the age of a tree. Any questions raised by students are discussed. They read about deforestation and learn some vocabulary words.  They sing a John Denver song or something. After gym, class ends early because it's time for parents and local folks to view last week's hip-hop projects, celebrate a couple of birthdays, and talk about the mural they've been planning to paint.

You see what I mean. I believe it is almost always possible to integrate subjects in this way. In fact, it is my understanding that the Waldorf and Montessori schools have been working at it for years. Sure, such an approach is not without its problems: some students aren't interested in trees; some kids just don't like to draw. Disciplinary trouble makes teaching and learning difficult. But if aides and parents join the teacher in the classroom, it's easy to explore other types of alternative creative projects, and to lower the student-to-teacher ratio. With extra time, money, effort and action, schools can easily grow into communities. And a student connected to a supportive community is not easily lost.