Friday, March 16, 2012

Learning to Think

One of the things Cameron and I have always agreed on is that when we have children someday, we want them to be thinkers.

It bothers me to no end that education these days is synonymous with regurgitation of facts. I can distinctly remember in ninth grade being failed on a history paper because I did not agree with the original article's author.

Does it not scare anyone else that we're raising a generation that cannot think for themselves? How can we possibly expect them to make good decisions when we have taken the critical thinking skills away from them?

Every day I read news articles about how some young person has been caught with illicit drugs, stealing or generally making a nuisance of themselves, I can't help but feel sorry for them and wonder at how society let them down. Not all families are blessed with the opportunity to have one parent at home with the children and only a fraction of families with two working parents can afford exceptional childcare. How amazing would it be if the government offered decent care that didn't include children being set in front of a TV with pizza snacks?

I was fortunate enough to grow up primarily being cared for by my mother. I can remember doing art projects, going on nature walks, reading and acting out stories. I also went to daycare occasionally, and my experience there, while wonderful, was more run by Sesame Street and Barney (I can actually remember getting in trouble once because I told my care provider I didn't want to watch Barney because he was boring lol).

Kindergartens in the US are one of the "grades" that bother me the most. The translation is "Child's garden" but why do our classrooms feel like anything but that? I have yet to walk into a classroom that didn't have an over abundance of toys or seem overpopulated. Frankly, the argument that class sizes are growing because of overpopulation in the US makes me want to laugh. More children were born after World War II than in any other time in US history, and the children born during that time are among the first to have families with only one or two children. So why on earth are there classrooms with 30 children in them???

Honestly, my public school experience is limited to K-3 and high school, but I feel this puts me in a unique position. As a homeschooled child, I was able to advance at my own pace and take sick days without being penalized. I had the full focus of a parent (or tutor) when I needed and could ask any questions I wanted. In high school, I actually had a teacher tell me that no, he would not answer my question because it was "stupid" and everyone else in the class already knew the answer (yes this was the same teacher that failed me for having my own opinion).

My mother is now a high school English teacher, and I know from watching her that by law teachers are required to teach to the lowest denominator, in other words the child either having the most difficulty or moving at the slowest pace. In theory this sounds like a great idea and in theory the schools have it all figured out by offering different levels of the same grade (like honors and advanced classes as well as general or applied), however, I have been in many classes where I was either bored or completely confused and didn't have the teacher's attention in either situation.

I don't blame the teachers or the system. Human nature states that when we have a vested interest in something we will give it the most attention. That's why philosophies like Waldorf and Reggio Emilia state that "you are your child's first teacher". In Waldorf schools, teachers often stay with the same group of students from kindergarten through eighth grade and the class size is 10 or less. How amazing our educating system would be if public schools offered something like that! Teachers and students could develop a true bond and develop so many deeper interests simply because they know each other well and the class size wasn't astronomical.

(On a side note regarding class size: my math class my freshman year had 37 students in it. The classroom was built to handle a max class size of 25, although 30 could be squeezed in. We actually had students assigned to sit on the back counter for the first few weeks while the teacher moved around his supplies and desk. Despite the class size, he was actually one of the best teachers I had :) )

What bothers me most about public education (and I touched on this earlier) is that there is no room for deviation. The student is given a text book and expected to memorize the information presented to use on one standardized test or another. I personally remember truly enjoying learning Shakespeare and Latin as a child, but I hated it in high school. Why? The stories and language hadn't changed, what had changed was the method of teaching.

My mother encouraged us to understand the characters, to write personal stories for them, to dress up, to play act, to enjoy the plays. We wrote picture books for younger cousins, we saw the plays on stage, and even in our free time we pretended to be Sebastian and Viola. As for Latin, my brother and I once did a whole day of school writing in Latin, talk about having to think, algebra in Roman numerals was a challenge!

Will public schools ever offer opportunities like this? Not likely. The cost to change the machine would be too great. Of course, there are always those wonderful teachers that despite the system make learning wonderful. Like my freshman English teacher who taught us to waltz while studying Mozart (this same teacher also had the boys learn to write a Shakespearean love poem, a task they despised at the time, but their future wives will appreciate) or my chemistry teacher who let us bake cookies and popcorn (its a chemical reaction after all) and also let us blow up close to a hundred soda bottles with Mentos. If only all teachers were like these, if only education wasn't a race to keep up with the next student and a rush to college.

If only more teachers, parents, trusted adults asked children "How do you want to live?" "How do you want to get there?" and most importantly "Did you have fun today?"

In love and light,

PS. Of course all opinions are my own and you are welcome to yours. I'd love to hear what you think!

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