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Leaving Every Child Behind

As we head deeper into the “silly season” of an election year, all the old position papers on education are being recycled. John McCain touts market forces for school improvement. Barack Obama endorses more accountability and higher standards. School boards speak of efficiency (to pass bond issues) while teacher unions speak of commitment (to earn higher pay).

But the simple fact is, our public school system is irretrievably broken. It doesn’t need to be tweaked. It needs to be tossed.

This system is the dysfunctional remnant of a bygone era. It is a nineteenth century model, imported from Germany, that emphasizes punctuality, obedience, and rote, repetitive work suited to turning out assembly line workers. In short, it teaches kids to fill jobs that have long since moved to China, and are now heading toward Bangladesh.

In an era in which collaboration, creativity and adaptability are vital to success, most schools remain authoritarian, banal and inflexible. They separate and alienate children from community life, even as integration and relationship are ever more important to a cohesive society. Schools remain linear and left-brain oriented, although imagination and self-direction are far more critical to problem solving. And they are competitive and elitist, separating children into “winners” and “losers” through designations such as Advanced Placement, VoTech, and Special Needs.

Despite frantic efforts by schools, districts and states to cook the books with inflated test scores, lowered standards and underreported drop out rates, all objective data says our schools are failing our children. But never mind test scores and assessments, which are all about politics and nothing about learning. The single most important indicator is as simple as it is harsh – our young people are turning their backs on school in record numbers and walking away without a backward glance.


Because we’re failing to engage them. Because they don’t see what we offer as relevant to their lives and futures. Because – despite entire libraries of data that tell us how to engage the human brain in ways that support learning – we blindly persist in teaching the wrong things, in the wrong ways, at the wrong times.

What’s the Goal of the System?

There’s a rule in systems dynamics that says to understand a system’s behavior, diagnose its purpose. If the purpose is uncertain, analyze its patterns of behavior and see what beliefs, choices and structures underlie them.

Take the typical school schedule – roughly 8:00 to 3:00, five days a week, 180 days a year, closed for summer. Why? Because it’s convenient for adults. We start and end at times that accommodate bus schedules and drivers’ contracts. We go five days because that’s the work schedule for most families. And we close for summer – originally because kids worked in the harvest, now because staff contracts say so. (And part of why we perpetually underpay teachers is, “Because they get the summer off.”)

But any neuroscientist can tell you that body rhythms of high school age teens cycle from about 9 am until midnight. (And any high school parent can tell you their kids would qualify for “legally dead” at 7:00 a.m.) A better schedule for their brains to optimize learning might be 10 to 5, four days a week. We run the schedules we do because it’s all about us – not about learning.

As to curriculum, we’re still teaching core subjects prescribed prior to World War II. That was fine in 1930, when there was only so much bandwidth in the world and knowing X percentage of it made one a literate person. (At least literate enough to work on an assembly line.) But today, there’s exponentially more information available on Wikipedia than even existed in 1930. And we live in a very different world that calls for very different skills. In an era of nuclear weapons and jihad, for example, which seems more relevant – calculus or conflict resolution?

Why do we insist on delivering content that’s largely irrelevant to students’ lives? Again, it’s all about us. We tend to believe that whatever we learned is the mark of a literate person. That’s why parents and administrators consistently stonewall true reform. It was good enough for us (and we turned out OK, by golly!) so it’s damn well good enough for our children.

And our pedagogical models? Same thing. It’s all about us. More specifically, it’s all about the convenience of teachers and administrators. Standing in front of a class and lecturing is largely useless for imparting information, typically providing 10 percent retention or less. But it’s easy. Using standardized tests is essentially worthless in assessing true learning, but again, it’s easy. You can grade them with a machine.

True learning, on the other hand, looks a lot like chaos. People are running every which way in their excitement to find out what they want to know. They’re building things and tearing things apart. They’re scribbling on whiteboards, walls and scraps of paper. They’re asking questions, jumping online, running to the library or the science lab or outside to make observations or run experiments. They’re bombarding teachers and each other with questions, testing assumptions, trying things out, making mistakes. It can be messy, maddening and exhausting for “command and control” teachers, but it works!

The most basic thing neuroscience tells us is that emotion drives attention and attention drives learning. The human brain is designed to learn. It wants to learn. In fact, it needs to learn. Why do we throw prisoners into solitary confinement as extreme punishment? Because a lack of contact, stimuli and curiosity is painful. It drives us mad.

So, examining what, how and when we teach, what can we infer about the system’s purpose?

Sadly, the answer is that our schooling system seems primarily intended to baby-sit our children – to warehouse them during parents’ working hours and to keep them out of an already saturated job market.

Warehousing is increasingly necessary because the share of wealth controlled by the vast majority of households in America has declined steadily since the 1970’s. In most families, both parents must now work to stay afloat. (If there are two parents.) There’s no one home to care for kids, so schools get the job by default. (Hence, a major force behind the push for schools to take on “out of school time”.)

Keeping young people out of the job market is considered necessary (though unspoken) because if the roughly two million 16 to 18 year olds in the US were to compete for employment, the already underreported jobless rate would go through the roof. Even though most modern service jobs can easily be performed by 16 year-olds with minimal training, we keep them in school because in a downsized, outsourced economy, there’s nowhere for them to work.

The third leg propping up the status quo is the desire on the part of far too many school officials to keep collecting enrollment money from state and federal governments to support an immense – and largely useless – bureaucracy. In a modern school, to paraphrase John Steinbeck, you can’t shoot a marble “knuckles down” without hitting an administrator, consultant, or “education specialist”.

How’s this working? Well, we’ve spent roughly $3 trillion on “school reform” over the past four decades and not gained any traction, so you make the call.

Creating New Models

Bucky Fuller observed that we don’t create real change by fighting existing structures, but by building new structures that are more attractive and functional. Then the old ones die of simple neglect.
So what kind of model would be more attractive and functional? And, more importantly, what kind of model would protect, foster and engage our children and young people while effectively preparing them to thrive in an uncertain and rapidly changing world?

First, it would be a “whole child” model, based on a goal of making sure every one of our children is safe, healthy, loved, affirmed and fulfilled. It would not separate economic, social and educational arenas, but view each of those as essential pieces of a whole system whose goal is whole children.

It would embrace Einstein’s observation that, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” So this new system would have a new mission – helping families and communities raise and educate healthy, capable young people. It would be a locus of child advocacy and its loyalty would be to the well-being of kids, families, communities and the planet, rather than to administration, curriculum or political correctness. It would be an integral part of the community, not a separate entity.

Because the work of raising healthy children begins long before the commencement of structured learning, it would start with making sure every child is welcome and wanted. (That’s a polite euphemism for effective and accessible family planning and reproductive health care.)

To make sure every child is ready to learn when “schooling” does start, prenatal care, and child and maternal health care would be universally provided, along with education and mentoring to instill and expand parental skills. Nutrition programs, environmental health programs, and affordable, accessible day care and preschool for every child are also vital.

To make sure schools are ready to receive kids who are ready to learn, they would employ a very different model from today. First, it would start at a later age, typically about seven, when children become neurologically capable of abstract thought.

Contrary to trends in the US, where academics and testing now begin in kindergarten, studies show that starting children on academic studies at an early age generally does not increase performance. All too often, the opposite occurs. Children who are not cognitively capable of logical thinking tend to self-identify as being “bad at school” when they cannot meet the demands unfairly placed on them. That self-imposed (and system reinforced!) label often follows them right through school until they bail out.

Anyone concerned that a “delayed” start on academics will limit a child’s later performance need only look around the world for reassurance. Finland, which is consistently rated as the most creative society in the world and regularly scores highest of any OECD country on international academic tests, starts formal schooling at age seven. Prior to that time, kids are in pre-school and quality day care.

The focus with those younger children should be on reinforcing their love of learning and helping them develop social skills. Just as anti-social behaviors in young children are associated with later learning difficulties, acquisition of “pro-social” skills is closely associated with later success.

The pre-school ages are a time to identify physical, neurological and emotional deficits, and remedy those to the greatest extent possible through interventions from nutrition, counseling, movement and play therapies, to visual and hearing correction.

Once formal learning commences, it should be student-directed, immersion or “expeditionary” based and community-centered. And it should occur in safe, comfortable, environmentally benign settings. Facilities must be well lighted and toxin-free, with child-friendly proportions and high indoor air quality, all of which have been shown significantly to increase learning, and student and staff health.

“Teaching” in these whole child contexts would not be “stand and deliver”, but more on the lines of facilitating each learner’s success. That means helping them identify strengths and weakness, connecting them with mentors and coaches, helping them find things that fascinate them and gain the skills necessary to pursue that attraction.

And we absolutely have to avoid trying to instill what learning we value based on our own experiences. The US Department of Labor says students in school today will have between 10 and 14 jobs – by the time they’re 38! The jobs we tend to train them for likely won’t exist by the time they’re ready to fill them. The jobs they will hold likely haven’t been invented yet. (Ever know anyone 10 years ago who was training to be a biomimeticist, paleo-astronomer, nanotechnologist, podcaster or eBay marketer?)

Instead, we can help them gain the necessary social, emotional and intellectual skills to move seamlessly through the overlapping and often messy realms of their future – work, play, partnership, citizenship, parenting, health, service. We can help them learn to make sense of the world and their place in it.

We can help them understand complex systems, envision their desired futures and facilitate change. We can help them gain the interpersonal skills necessary to initiate and maintain healthy relationships, and the intrapersonal skills necessary to sustain themselves through times of uncertainty and struggle. Most important, we can help them become proficient at thinking, learning, unlearning, relearning and communicating.

Core content would support all the above, and might include environmental science and sustainability, yoga and meditation, travel and adventure. Kids can still learn calculus and chemistry if they choose, along with how to bake, dance, play music, make movies, write poems, build fires, sew clothes, use a compass, design a fort or tree house, nurture a garden, raise critters, build and program a computer, navigate in the wilderness, create a business . . . In the process, they’ll acquire the math, reading and communication skills all those demand. And because they’re invested in it – because it’s theirs – they’ll be good at it.

Throughout, we need to re-envision who our learners are. Because in times of drastic change – which will be the rest of our lives – “students” will be everyone. We must all gain, enhance and maintain those skills if we are to succeed in living the lives and creating the futures we hope for.

Schools must become centers of community to support this. They are already the most extensive (and expensive) pieces of public infrastructure in most communities, and are generally the least utilized. So why not integrate pre and post-school care, family health services, adult education, community technology access, cultural activities, sports and nearly any other content needed by the community for its well-being?

We are in a stage of human history where vision, compassion, communication and creativity are far important than traditional literacy. Re-envisioning what learning is about and redesigning our schooling system around that provide the single most powerful avenue available to help us navigate an uncertain future. And to begin to create the kind of future our children and grandchildren deserve.

JOHN GOEKLER is the founder of Change Factors, a training and consulting firm in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His work is applying complexity science to help individuals and organizations learn to act with greater clarity and effectiveness to create a better future for our children, our communities and the planet.


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