We have got ourselves entirely confused what education is. United States scores are terrible. Finland scores are near the top, and they spend less time in school than Americans do. Watching a documentary on Finnish schools shows a lot of what they do right that we don’t.
I think we have to start by understanding what we want to achieve and how humans take in and process information to become educated. It works best with children because their minds are sharp, they carry less prejudicial baggage, they are more sensitive and less scarred, and they are of an age at which self-improvement is a naturally important focus.
Education is a process of awakening and enlightenment that a person does within a cultural and social framework. It is a process a person does for him or her self, but within a supportive and resourceful framework. Human brains are incredibly flexible devices. As a child, through experimentation and support, begins to develop a self-image and to see what kinds of pursuits are most entertaining and fascinating, he or she begins to grasp the nearly sacred body of knowledge preceding, and to see themselves as an emerging part of that knowledge, as sacred themselves as the tradition from which they are emerging. They also begin to see areas in which they are especially gifted, and they begin to see how comparison between their own development and that of others leads them to a collective synthesis of where learning goes. Education taken in this sense becomes a 100% successful growing up into oneself. Children learn dignity and self-respect.
We have lots of models of what successful support mechanisms can be and how they function to build up a child’s awareness of his or her own abilities. You may have noticed this bears no resemblance to what we see in our public schools. I have tried all my life to be a “real” teacher as opposed to a “school” teacher, and have arrived at the conclusion that teaching isn’t really a profession in the sense of something that is done to students. It is perhaps a profession in the sense of an operatic stage manager, in which we want to manage a lot of mechanisms and settings, but not how the plot line is interpreted and brought to fruition by the players. I think of a few successful stage settings and something about how they worked.
Socratic education worked because it stimulated people who wanted to be there by asking leading questions. It was a sort of companionship of people seeking answers to questions, where it was understood that struggling with questions leads to more questions, and eventually some sort of philosophical framework. The group was held together by one luminary who was perceived to be more advanced in his ideas.
Tolstoyan education worked because the facilitator was helping the students do something they had already expressed an interest in seeing done. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was clear the serfs would have to be freed somehow, and Leo Tolstoy was interested in creating a school for the children in his village. He made a tour of schools in Germany, France, and Italy, and discovered he hadn’t learned a single useful thing. So when he started his own school, the obvious project was to help the students learn to read and write. The parents, who had had no such opportunity, were mostly in approval and felt that learning to read and write would be opportunity tor some sort of advancement past growing cabbage and rye. So Tolstoy set up a school room with a blackboard in it and told his student that together they were going to write a story. He knew the peasant culture in central Russia was very rich in fanciful stories. He asked for a suggestion of what the story was about and wrote that down on the blackboard. Then he showed how to read what he had written. Then he called for the first sentence, and wrote that down, and showed how it was constructed. Every time he added a sentence, the whole thing had to be parsed again and read aloud. After a few chapters into this story, half his class could read what they had written, and were able to practice writing what was on the blackboard. Tolstoy never told his students to do anything; he just asked questions and demonstrated how he wrote what they said. The emphasis was not on what Tolstoy knew, but on what the kids knew, as the story progressed. Word got around what he was up to, and educator observers flocked in from great distances.
It reminds me somewhat of the attitude and technique used a hundred years later by Sylvia Ashton Warner to teach angry little Maori boys how to read and write English, something of which their parents were not particularly approving.
In the United States, one-room schools a century ago worked because they were comprised of small, walking-neighborhood students who knew they could learn from their peers, by themselves, and that the school teacher was a resource usually too busy to help immediately. They also respected the teacher and their parents, and felt the teacher and parents respected them.
Free Schools, nearly a half century ago, remind me of Paul Tillich’s famous suggestion, “Don’t throw answers at unasked questions.” A question I have not researched is why the Free School movement went out of vogue when the alternative was to return to the public schools which worked for so few. I taught in one of those Free Schools for a couple years. We always had a morning assembly with various news, ideas, and announcements by any and all, and then the population broke up into play groups of their own determination. When kids expressed interest in reading and writing, they got as much help as they wanted. Some kids started reading at five and some at ten, but by the time they were twelve they all read and wrote competently. Every American president seems to have to weigh into our public education problems, as far as I know without the foggiest idea what they were doing. My work at that Free School reminded me that the recent idea of having all students reading and writing by the third grade is pretty crushing, and fortunately was dropped like all the other political contributions. “Leave no child behind” guarantees that all will be left behind except for a few outliers who didn’t need any help anyway, and knew it.
John Dewey was an early proponent of sensible education, but his ideas seemed not to have interested the architects of our mandatory, class-structured, mass-production cannery-style school rooms. When we started lining up kids in rows and columns and grades, so that each class would be working on one thing in one way and all simultaneously, it couldn’t possibly work and never did. Henry Ford pioneered making cars by mass production, but whoever got the idea that technique could be used to produce enlightened and stimulated human beings missed his calling.
John Dewey is still praised in the readings encountered by prospective school teachers, but the machine is not influenced by teachers, or by teachers of teachers, but by politicians and successful manufacturers. Many of the out-going and aware kids reach puberty with the understanding that this whole school business is a racket run by adults to keep the kids off the street and to teach them to follow directions. We reinforce that with police in the hallways. Thus we are doomed, until we pull out of that, because the mutual respect between kids and adults is gone. High School students polled a decade or so ago said their chief objective was “to go along and get along”. The miracle of all this, to my way of thinking, is that kids learn a vast amount in those years they are compelled to go to school, as if to spite the adults trying to run their lives.
But missing in elementary education is artistic discovery, development of personal identity and self-respect, and learning to recognize the extraordinary abilities of themselves and each other. Once we thought the development of our children was our greatest investment in the future. But one reason teachers now are paid so much is that there is so much to keep the lid on.
No standardized test ever proved a thing, other than some theory of the writer of the test, and kids tend to know when they are being taken for a ride by the professionals.
It has been interesting trying to be a good teacher when the struggle was to find an aegis that respected the genius and the individuality of kids. The search does seem to be chimerical.