The time has come to change the way we educate children in our public schools. There are signs that a vast majority of students are not even coming close to achieving their potential. A 27 percent national dropout rate may be but the tip of an iceberg of students whose potential for success are not being met. Many students never get an A or a B on a report card. Most students are educated at a low, C or D level of understanding. This is disastrous for those who drop out of school and too often enter the prison population. It is equally tragic for those who stay in school to acquire knowledge at a low level. Even those who get high grades may be deficient in understanding the real life application of subject matter content. They often aim for high grades rather than genuine learning and soon forget the material after the tests are given. The sad fact is that we do not have a public education system that aims to help all students master the knowledge they will need to fulfill their lives.
Teachers are not to blame for this. They have not been allowed to practice and grow as professionals. They are prevented from using their knowledge and creativity to work with parents and do what is best for each child. Instead, they are being held accountable for the impossible task of standardizing and making students alike in knowledge and skills. As a result, only a small minority of students master subject matter content at a high level. The "system" that has been handed down for several generations is not working as it should. The good news is that every child can excel in school, if we change the system - if we trust and hold teachers accountable for nurturing positive human diversity rather than human uniformity.
The bad news is that our school system is controlled by many who got high grades in school and want to maintain the system we have. They do not feel the need for any other way to educate than the one they experienced. This attitude also prevents them from looking for better ways.
What changes are needed to ensure that all students master knowledge at a high level of understanding? What must we do to prevent physical and emotional drop outs? One answer is to h elp every child see his or her unlimited potential and reason for existing to be a special, one-of-a-kind, contributor to society. Nick Vujicic (Pronounced Voy-a-chich) was born without arms or legs, no limbs. In his fittingly titled book, "Life Without Limits," Nick said, "The most important goal for anyone is to find their life's purpose despite whatever difficulties or seemingly impossible odds stand in their way." Nick also said this: "I'm here to tell you that no matter what your circumstances may be, as long as you are breathing, you have a contribution to make . (Wow!) "As long as you are breathing, you have a contribution to make!" Can we change our public school system to guarantee that every student feels s/he has a contribution to make? This may be the best way to prevent physical and emotional drop outs.
When I recently gave a keynote address at the annual Students At Risk Conference in Florida, I took along my barbershop quartet pitch pipe. I blew a low note, as the "key" note for the conference and asked the basses in the audience to hum it. Then I asked the tenors, altos and sopranos to hum a note in harmony with it. Two hundred people humming in harmony made a beautiful sound. I then explained that every person born on Earth has a voice as distinctive as their fingerprints - and that each voice is much needed. Schools should make provision for every child's voice, their talents, gifts, interests and abilities, to be developed -- and heard. Every Child Can Excel, if we nurture their positive distinctive differences.
Do we care enough about students to see the good in each one and draw forth the talents, gifts and abilities that are often lying dormant, waiting to be discovered? -- And make sure each student attains a high level of understanding? Here are some imperatives for you to think about:
First, we must change the fundamental purpose of education. Instead of having student achievement in an obsolete curriculum as the main goal and purpose of education, we can use hundreds of subject matter topics as tools to help students grow in the primary dimensions/powers of human greatness - and thus become contributors to society. The following priorities came from teachers of two schools in northern Utah where teachers interviewed thousands of parents for several years to learn of their most important needs for their children:
IDENTITY - Help students discover and develop their unique talents and gifts and see a purpose for existing to be special contributors to society. Help students value and expand their positive differences. Use talent shows and other strategies to help students discover and develop their special abilities. Make provision for every child to excel in something.
INQUIRY - Nurture curiosity and the ability to ask good questions. One reason so few students master knowledge at a high level of understanding is because of imposed, required learning. "People cannot learn by having information pressed into their brains. Knowledge has to be sucked into the brain, not pushed in. You can teach only by creating an urge to know." (Victor Weisskopf) This means that unwanted, imposed knowledge is shallow and temporary compared to knowledge that is sought by the student. The "Great Brain Project" was invented to help students develop the powers of inquiry. Students are invited to become "specialists," "experts," "masterminds," or "geniuses" in self-selected topics and master knowledge at a high level of understanding. Students can learn how to use 22 question-starting words to ask good questions. The first five, who, what, why, where and when, are keys to a deep understanding of almost anything. If you want to develop avid readers, stimulate student curiosity and create an "urge to know."
INTERACTION - Help students develop the powers of love, human relationships, communication and cooperation. Reading, writing and math are better taught as tools of inquiry and interaction than as "ends" in and of themselves. This is very important! It makes a big difference as to whether a student will stay in school and seek knowledge for deep understanding or drop out to become a burden to society. Students often develop an aversion to learning and start to withdraw from school when reading is taught with high pressure, direct instruction. Many years ago John Locke said, " This much for learning to read, which let him never be driven to. Cheat him into it if you can, but make it not a business for him. 'Tis better it be a year later before he can read than that he should in this way get an aversion to learning."
INITIATIVE - Help students develop will power, self-discipline and intrinsic motivation. This priority is best achieved when parents and teachers serve as guides and mentors rather than "sages on the stage."
IMAGINATION - Nurture the power of creativity in its many forms, including innovative problem-solving. Use the arts and other disciplines to nurture all forms of imagination and creativity.
INTUITION - Help students develop the sixth sense -- the power of the heart to perceive truth and develop emotional intelligence.
INTEGRITY - Teach the power of honesty and responsibility.
These seven priorities may serve as a framework for redesigning our system of public education. They call for teachers to perform as professionals and for parents to become meaningfully involved. Most of all, they provide for all students to excel and gain knowledge that is important to them at a high level of understanding. The time has come to make such changes in the system. Teachers, parents and administrators can begin now to tool up for the next school year.
Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator, is founder of The Educating for Human Greatness Alliance. He lives in Farmington and can be e-mailed at email@example.com