Ideal Education

Okay, I have been putting A LOT of thought into this concept, and it will most likely take many more posts to really flesh out. The reason I have not posted sooner is a fear of not explaining my thoughts coherently enough, so please bear with me.

Children are inherently curious and they love to learn. I see this every day in my 2 year old. Schools today do an excellent job at stamping out that curiosity, and in the U.S. at least, it is getting worse. I will address these causes and specific problems at another time. This is my thoughts on an, admittedly Utopian, educational system.

  1. Everyone chooses what, and when, they learn. If a child starts learning letters early, they can be in the letter class. If someone has a difficult time, they can re-take the class at any age, and as many times as they choose. (Preferably without stigma). This also gives people the ability to balance school with their own lives, whether that is being a kid (see Finland) or raising kids.
  2. Classes are broken down into small units. Rather than having to figure out how to teach letters, sight words, and sentence structure in one class, each student can move on to the next building block at their own pace.
  3. Each teacher creates their own curriculum. All classes on the same topic must cover the same material, resulting in the same end knowledge. However the path to that result can be wildly different. This allows for differences in development and learning styles.
  4. There is a certain level of knowledge required to vote. This would be very elementary. Reading, some basic understanding of numbers (to comprehend the facts behind the issues), basic political systems, and FINDING AND EVALUATING SOURCES for instance. Just the bare necessities to be an informed voter.
  5. Each job would have certain qualifications. Rather than having a bachelor’s degree that shows a person went to school for a certain amount of time and focused on a general field, they could say, ‘I want ___ job, I need to take these certain classes.’ This would make people far more qualified for the job they want.
  6. Education is free for all. No matter how high the level of education, if we want to move forward as a society, everyone needs to be able to better themselves without setting themselves back.
  7. No grades. You either know the information at the end of a course, or you don’t. I hate tests, so finding a way to establish this might be a challenge.

I hope that this brief outline gives an idea of how this system would function. I would love to hear input, and work with others to create a new system, and find a way to implement it.

 

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Homeschool or Traditional School?

When I talk about the possibility of homeschooling my children, many people are skeptical. Stereotypically homeschoolers are anti-social religious zealots. But is that the reality? As with many stereotypes, there are people who meet that description, but many do not. I would venture to say that most homeschooled kids do not meet that description.

When looking up information on line I am having a difficult time finding any support at all of the stereotype. I like to have information from both sides, but it seems that the only people who find it worth talking about are either homeschoolers themselves or have some reason to be biased. The information that I am finding cite numerous studies that support the idea that homeschooled children are better socialized than children in traditional schools, and have an easier time getting into college. I would like to know more about these studies, and I wish that they had larger focus groups. I also would like to know how these students were found.

If the children for these studies were found in homeschool support groups, they are already part of the homeschooling community that actively engages in the community. Many of these kids are also active in other clubs and activities. I hesitate to trust the statistics completely because of this possible bias. It is possible that there is an unrepresented amount of children who are at home, isolated from people whose beliefs do not agree with their parents’, perhaps even homeschooled to avoid discovery of abuse. This is obviously a worse-case scenario, and I doubt that there are very many of these, but the scenario just points out how biased the studies may be.

So far this sounds like a real downer on homeschool, but that is far from being my intention. I simply want to point out a few holes in the research. All of that said, I would like to homeschool my children because I do believe that it can be beneficial. The key word is ‘can’. Because the parents are in charge, the parents have control over how homeschooling turns out.

Many homeschool parents choose to have their kids learn through the community, which means that they built relationships with people from all walks of life, in many different settings. This is the type of thing that traditional schools have great difficulty with. Students spend most of the day with children their own age, learning social skills from people who are no more skilled than they are. Once they get out of school, so much time is spent on homework, that doing anything outside of school is a great challenge. There are many studies out right now about the levels of stress on students, even in elementary schools.

The differences between how homeschoolers and traditional students spend their days has a huge impact on their social skills as well as their maturity and goals. Homeschool students have more time to pursue the things that interest them rather than only focusing on the things that are chosen for them. This gives them a greater sense of personal identity, and a love of learning. I believe that everyone is born innately curious about the world, but the way that schools have traditionally taught takes all the fun out of it and makes it a chore. While homeschoolers may gain more in the way of study skills, I believe that it is this love of learning that contributes more to their success after school.

Many people who think that homeschool is a good thing, but don’t want to deprive their children of some part of the school experience, be that the rites of passage like prom, or the perceived social benefits, decide to supplement traditional school with home based education or outings. That is a great idea, and I wish that more people would do that. There is one flaw, however; doing this does not give all of the benefits of homeschool and traditional school together. You end up with all of the ups and downs of the school environment and end up with very little time to spend on this type of enrichment. When it is possible, it can help to negate some of the negative associations that students can get to learning, and give them access to more information, which is certainly better than nothing. Many people though choose to homeschool not because of the perceived benefits, but to avoid the common downfalls of schools.

Schools foster a very specific type of social outlook. Students are pressured to fit in, which makes it more difficult for them to ‘find themselves’. This is supposed to happen during the growing up period, but in our culture there is a struggle for people as they leave school and adjust to the real world, only to find that the person they were trying so hard to be has no place in that world, and they don’t know who they are underneath that. Homeschoolers on the other hand, never experience that massive peer pressure and, provided that their parents allowed them freedom, they already have all of that figured out, which gives them a head start in their post-school lives.

Teachers in traditional schools can try their best to study things that their students are interested in, and to share their own passions, but despite this, much of the time students are studying things that they have little interest in. Not all students are interested in the same things, and it is impossible to cover everyone, someone will be interested in everything, another student may find that his interests are never discussed.

What are some other reasons that parents choose to homeschool? In general it is to have more control over the things that your kids learn. This can be behaviors (bullying, maturity, study skills), ways of thinking (religion, tolerance), or really anything. There are some things that kids can learn in public school that they do not want their kids learning, whether that is evolution or intolerance of others, homeschool allows parents to teach their children what they want, for better or worse.

Many of the benefits that I see to homeschooling are really just logic, whether or not the studies are trustworthy, one can see that spending time with many different people means learning to communicate effectively with different types of people. It makes sense that if you are able to study the things that you love, you will love learning. But this does bring up a conundrum. How do you teach the things that a child needs in life but has no interest in?

That really depends. To me it seems that in order to be well-rounded, you do not need a high-school level education in every subject. More important than certain subjects is the ability to acquire information. First up is reading – this one is easy – let the kid read about things they find interesting. My mother is a librarian at a middle school. Every year she meets many students who tell her that they do not like reading. So she asks them what they are interested in and sends them to that area, or suggests something they might like. Even if that ‘I don’t like to read’ idea does not go away, they usually leave with a book or two and will come back – even if it means sneaking away from their friends to do it.

Study skills, like learning about quality sources, looking for differing opinions, and different ways to present the information (formal presentation, written paper, power point etc.) can all be taught, like reading, in the context of any material the child is interested in.

It is not so much the material that we need to know in today’s society, but the skills we use to acquire information and interact with the world. If you are not an engineer, math is only so helpful your day to day life. But you do need those basics. And those basics can be taught in fun ways. I will not even try to delve into that here, just run a search on ‘hands on math’ and you will find hundreds of ideas, even into middle school level.

In the interest of understanding quality sources, I would also put learning the scientific method in the category of life skills. Many people seem to misunderstand what science is. Science is not a collection of infallible facts, it is a system of best-guesses. Science gives us a way to consistently improve our understanding of the world by providing a framework with which to come up with new ideas and narrow the possibilities nearer and nearer ‘the truth’. All with the understanding that we will probably never know the full truth.

Beyond that, education can largely be child-led. As much as I think that people need to understand history, this is more about learning about cause and effect. The people who make decisions need to be well versed in the past so that they can use that to make informed decisions. That said, if history is taught in fun ways, and focusing on a child’s interests, everyone should be able to find some sort of history to teach. After all history is just a collection of true stories, and what child does not like hearing stories.

The other thing that I would like people to have more knowledge of in general is different religion. There is a great emphasis on learning one’s own religion, and I think that is fine, but in order to have an understanding of others, we need to understand a little about their beliefs. I understand that this may not fit into everyone’s interests, but as a protection against the dangers of acting on a misunderstanding, if the lessons of forming an opinion only after doing research, which can be taught with any subject matter, I think that the worst aspects of ignorance on this can be negated.

So homeschool or traditional school? That decision rests largely on the type of people the parents are. If they will use homeschool to isolate and indoctrinate their children, I do not believe that is good for the children or society, but if homeschool will be used to give the children the opportunity to learn to love learning, and find their place in the world then if you can do it, go for it!

That said, from a practical perspective, how do you make it work? Unfortunately, no matter how much the parents might be amazing teachers, or might benefit their children, if they cannot afford to have one parent stay home with the kids, homeschooling is usually not an option. Some people might be able to find a way to have each parent work opposite schedules, or have the child in the care of others for some of the time. This takes a very large commitment, and often rests on a delicate balance.

Homeschool can be an amazing experience, and that I wish everyone could have, but not all parents are suited for it, and even more cannot fit it into their lives. It is unfair that something that has so much potential is only an option for so few. It is also unfair that the stereotypes may prevent people from ever trying something that could be so beneficial.

 

Education in Finland

Much has been said of late about the amazing success of Finnish schools. In many ways they are the antithesis of U.S. schools. Everything that we have done in an effort to improve our educational system, Finland has done the opposite. To many Americans the system would seem to be counter-intuitive, but the results are a proof of concept.

Recess – In Finland students spend around one third of the day at recess. This may sound like a lot, but when you consider that this is broken up into many small breaks, it can sound more manageable. These frequent breaks make the day less monotonous for students. After each 45 minute lesson, students go outside for a 15 minute recess. This success of this routine is backed up by the science. When the human body sits for too long, the brain begins to shut down. Obviously students need their brains working at their best in order to make the time in class as effective as possible. Allowing students time to move and play gives them a chance for their brain to stay engaged in the class work.

This has also allowed the school day to be shorter. Students spend only around 4 1/2 hours in school a day. They also start school later; while publicly funded day cares are available at younger ages, mandatory school does not begin until age 7. Despite what many people might think, less class time has not had an adverse effect on education, but may be contributing to its success.

One surprise however, is that even with so much outside time, Finnish students are not getting that much more physical activity. While free play is of more value to getting students less distracted in the classroom than teacher directed play, it may be necessary to integrate some structure to prevent kids from spending this time in sedentary activities.

Testing – In Finland, student assessment is left up to individual teachers until graduation, when a single, comprehensive test is administered. This saves class time for instruction. Testing would also conflict with the intention of getting students more active. Formal testing is a stressful activity. Students free of this stress are able to get more enjoyment out of school. When you enjoy something, you are more likely to prize it, remember it, and value it.

Teaching – In Finland, being a teacher is such a lucrative career that only 1 in 10 graduate applicants are accepted for the required master’s degree program. Incomes for teachers are on par with other professionals. Teachers are a highly valued resource, and given far more respect. Teachers also have more freedom to make their own decisions for their classroom. While they are given a generalized curriculum, they are free to tailor the lessons to their students. Teachers are trusted to keep their students on track and find ways to give them the assistance and attention that they need. Students are not held back for poor performance, but are instead given special attention. This way they are not stigmatized by their peers. They are able to avoid repeating the same information, which would make anyone bored.

Administrators – Those who are in charge of making decisions about school policy are recruited from within the educational system, instead of from the outside. This means that they are largely former teachers. They understand the struggles, and they understand the students. This means that they are better equipped to make decisions that will be beneficial.

Public Funding – Rather than having funds drained into private schools, and allowing vast disparities between the education of the haves and the have-nots, Finland had only publicly funded schools. This means that anyone who has an idea has only one place to enact it, so that everyone receives the benefits. Schools do not have to compete with one another, but are encouraged to work together, as are teachers. This team mentality allows everyone to succeed, rather than only those on the winning side.

Finland has a lot that they can teach the world. The experiments that they have undertaken prove that more is not necessarily better. Having a balance is the best way to achieve success.

 

Living History

History is being largely ignored in primary schools, and by the time it is introduced, the old names and dates methodology that has turned away so many from the discipline is still the primary teaching method. History is vital to know. It allows you an understanding of cause and effect on a large scale. It can help shed insight into how people will react to certain circumstances. History provides essential case studies for various sciences. Living History is a great, fun, hands-on way to explore these ideas. Living History is basically the idea of meeting people who lived at a certain time in history, and participating in activities from the time. It provides a way to combine all the senses into one experience, making the lesson more memorable. Meeting people (actors) provides stories, which are a great way to relate to other people.

When I started college I was not really sure what I wanted to do. Studying theatre was a no-brainer for me. But I wanted to do more. I decided on history, not because it would help my career, but because I enjoy it. If you had asked at the time, I wanted to be an actress. My last semester in school I took a history class that I did not really know much about. The description was very vague, I’m not even sure why I took it. In the end I am glad that I did. It was a Living History class. I had always been intrigued by Living History since I visited Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown Settlement. Maybe even before that, from El Rancho de Las Golondrinas near where I grew up.

I had always tossed off the idea of making a living doing Living History though. From what I know, Williamsburg hires high school students for summer work, while Las Golondrinas uses volunteers. This does not necessarily set up the most knowledgeable people in the field, which is unfortunate. On the other hand, the SCA is only a hobby, and is full of people who are very passionate about learning and sharing information in their spare time. Today I am hopeful that I can find a way to combine so many of my passions into a single career. I want to be part of the education that helps children grow into successful, thoughtful adults.

Freedom of Expression; Costumes and Dress Codes

A few days ago I was reading a blog by a teacher about the day after Halloween. I did not save the link, and I should have. One of the students wore a cape to school that day. The teacher kept considering telling the child to take it off, but she noticed that a child who is normally awkward and clumsy was far more confident. The article seemed to be written in order to pride herself on doing a great thing for this kid, as it seemed to help him in the future as well. No students even mentioned the cape, although teachers did do a double take. I think that all of this is great. But in the end, the teacher, while she did compliment the cape, told him not to wear it again. I cannot figure out why.

I wore costumes to school every day. I got a lot of flak for it from my peers, but it allowed me to be who I am. In high school, people who did not know me by name knew me as Little Red Riding Hood because I always wore a red cape that I had made. Today there is a lot of discussion about school dress codes. They are being attacked for being sexist, and even for creating the very over-sexualized environment they were created to fight. I agree with all of those points. The rules are often stated in ways that target girls more than boys. They are nearly always more strictly enforced with girls than with boys. By making such a big deal of it, we are teaching young kids to look at one another’s clothing and bodies and question “Is that enough clothing”, “Shouldn’t they cover up more?”, and “Why, what is wrong with this outfit that I have to change?” We are saying that what they wear is more important that who they are, and more important than why they are at school.

Some of the rules are unfair to certain body types. In my district short and skirt lengths were determined by arm length. A silly rule since some girls were completely within regulations and still showed ass when they sat down, while I broke that without ever being questioned since my skirt was plenty long because my arms are long.

This is not the message we should be sending kids. We need to be encouraging them to look beyond the clothes, and beyond the body to what a person is really made of. When we focus on the clothes, the person gets lost. This encourages people in our society to dehumanize one another. This allows people to do things to people without feeling regret. Whether that action is teasing in school, or physically assaulting someone. We live in a society where we do not have the luxury to personally meet everyone that we interact with. This means that we cannot afford to make any of the interactions we practice with those we do know contribute to that dehumanizing effect.

The point of many dress codes is to avoid ‘distractions’. This is ridiculous. The fact that a girl’s skirt is a little short, or that a boy’s pants are too baggy (showing my age a bit) should not be allowed to be a distraction in the first place. A teacher notices that someone is leering, call them out. If they persist, they should be sent to the office. Not the person they were looking at. We should not be teaching children that others, girls especially, should cover up so that people looking at them can feel more comfortable. We need to be teaching children that people have different tastes and make different decisions. We need to be teaching children that they are responsible for their own actions.

I went to a middle school with a more extreme dress code, called a Uniform Code of Dress. It was not quite a uniform, but very close. We had 2 colors of pants or skirts we were permitted to wear, in one style, and 5 colors of polo shirts. This was initially instituted to prevent students from wearing gang colors. My friends and I were so out of touch with that world that we could not even tell you the names of the gangs active in our area, let alone what their colors or signs were. I would probably have worn gang colors a lot without realizing it, as many people do.

This system ended up in a lot more time tied up in determining if students were within regulations or not. Not only were we measuring if the girl’s skirts were actually longer than their finger tips to also trying to determine if someone’s pants were the right color. My first dying project was adding coffee to the washing machine while washing a slightly lighter skirt that had been called white too many times to make it more khaki. After I left the school, it was decided to keep the style restrictions, but lift the color rules. So the entire reason for the Uniform Code of Dress was thrown out the window.

During this period I was very frustrated with the rules because I could not express myself. I took to wearing what I call “happy socks”, or the ones with bright colors, pictures, or separate toes. I took a lot of time braiding my hair on the car ride in so that it was as weird as possible. In trying to find ways to express myself I tested the limits that no-one had thought to make. But I also lost something. The goal was not about me being me, but rather about being strange or drawing attention to myself. I still wear the happy socks, but the hair took too much work, and did not really mean anything to me. Later I turned to doing elaborate masks in makeup, which worked when I had an hour and a half bus ride each morning, not so much once I started driving. I kind of miss the masks.

There is another issue that is gaining attention these days. Gender identity. I think that this ties in perfectly with this topic. In high school I had a gay friend choose to wear a skirt one day. I honestly did not even notice it until he mentioned at lunch how much shit he was getting. He had chosen to do it in part to find out what the reaction was. He committed to going a full week. Of course when he stopped, the people around him may have felt like they won, but there is no point in continuing something on the principle of proving someone wrong.

I do believe that clothing is a key way to express who you are. I look back on that as inspiration to be myself no matter what since I cannot wear costumes to work every day. These days wearing a full costume is rare because I am lazy and getting all dressed up to go shopping doesn’t really feel worth it. Childhood is a special time, you do not have to worry about what bosses or clients think. If we allow children to express themselves when they are young, they will be more accepting when they are older, and they will have a better concept of who they are. I do not think that expression should be restricted unnecessarily, to me it is a part of Freedom of Speech. It is a human right.