This rant has been brewing for a couple weeks, ever since I attended the 12th Annual North Country Symposium at SLU on April 7th. Well actually, it has been simmering below the surface for quite a while, but this experience brought it to the forefront of my thought processes.
The stated purpose of this years Symposium was to find ways our community could support our public schools in this time of economic challenge. Part of the morning consisted of presentations by Pat Brady, the Superintendent of Potsdam Central Schools and by Doug Huntley, the Superintendent of Queensbury Central Schools. Mr. Brady reinforced the dismal financial situation at Potsdam, but the numbers and formulas could easily be transferred to any North Country School. In fact, the local news has reported in just the last couple of days, local districts are cutting more staff and essential (but not mandated) programs.
Mr. Huntley presented creative programs and initiatives that his schools are implementing without any additional funding, because he recognizes that “one size does not fit all.” However, he still has to work within a system that forces that mode of operation on all students.
All of the presenters agreed on one thing: our students, largely, do not have the 'soft-skills' needed to become completely successful in the working world or in college. They all recognize that kids need to be able to think for themselves, collaborate with others, have time management skills, lose some of their 'entitlement' attitude, be able to think critically (opposite of following the herd), have communication skills (written, spoken and unspoken), and empathy. This is the part I have the most trouble with. If we know these are all essential skills, then why are we teaching them the opposite?
With the exception of those programs at Queensbury Schools (which isn't even local) and one program at the Potsdam High School, our system is failing a great number of kids. These are often brilliant kids who don't fit into that one profile we label “successful student”.
For the most part, the students who do well are the ones who have figured out how to jump through the hoops placed in front of them. They are not smarter; they have just figured out how to do what is required of them and do it with a minimum of fuss. They don't cause trouble or rock the boat. This is what they have learned in our “one size fits all” system. And, it is what I learned more than 35 years ago when I was attending school. After 'failing' fifth grade, I got really good at shutting up and giving people what they wanted. It also took me almost all of those 35 years to start unlearning many of those behaviors.
On the other side are the students, who don't fit in, who 'cause trouble', who 'think differently'; all of those square, oval, amoeba, or star-shaped pegs being forced into round holes. Where do they land in this scenario? Often in trouble, and many times feeling stupid or worthless.
It has been proven beyond any doubt that kids learn best in non-coercive, self-directed environments. These are the kids who acquire the soft skills. Youth who are able to make their own decisions about what they learn are the ones who retain the most information. It just makes sense! If you memorize material just for a test or because someone told you to, how much will you remember 5, 10 or 365 days from now? But if you memorize all of that stuff because you find it incredibly interesting, how much will you remember?
The goal of education should not be, standardizing our kids, rote memorization, or creating zombie like workers for a world that doesn't even exist anymore. We are more than that. Our kids should be learning how to learn. In tomorrow's world, what we know is not going to get us anything, except maybe winning a few games of Trivial Pursuit or if we are really lucky Jeopardy.
In the words of an awesome human being, scientist, and philosopher, Neil Degrasse Tyson, “Knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who only know what to think.”
If you know a kid who would benefit from an educational experience that supports and encourages independence, authenticity, flexibility, autonomy, collaboration and fun, please tell them about Deep Root Center for Self-Directed Learning. We are here to provide all of that and MORE!
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