Friday, April 29, 2011

Educating the Minds of Children

Education is a thing held sacred in the minds of Americans. No matter what we sacrifice to balance the budget, we must educate our children. What if it turns out that the fortunes being spent in public schools are being misspent? Year after year, the leviathan that is public schooling adds more specialty services for more children who do not fit the mold, but more and more kids seem to fall behind, fall between the cracks, fall over. As parents we hurt for our kids who suffer the labels of being different, not ok, not like the others, whoever those "normal" others may be.

There already exists a system that has the potential to solve the problem--once and for all. How do we educate the bodies of our kids? Martial arts, swimming, gymnastics, ice skating, and many other opportunities that life offers. And not one of those is organized the way classrooms of the mind are organized. We do not expect all seven-year-olds to have the same skill at swimming or achieve the same belt in karate. We do not expect all eleven-year-olds to be able to do a giant swing on high bar. But somehow we have created an expectation that all six-year-olds ought to be able to sit in a chair for six hours a day listening to an adult talk to them, and read at a certain level.

What can we learn from the model that works? Kids progress through the ranks of a martial arts program or a Red Cross swimming program or a standardized gymnastics program according to their skill level, regardless of age. If an adult wishes to learn one of these skills, he, too, enters at the appropriate level. Why do we attempt to force all children to learn a standardized selection of intellectual material at a standardized pace? Granted, at some point, we begin to regroup them into levels of intellect, but it is with judgment--you are in the basic (not good enough), the regular (normal), or the advanced (too good) level, not at the white belt, the yellow, or the orange.....fact-based--you have a certain set of skills to a certain degree of proficiency, and without value-judgment--you are a better swimmer when you achieve a higher level, but you are not a BAD swimmer if you have not yet passed your test. Goodbye test anxiety.

Worse still, regardless of the appropriateness of placement, schools assume that each student ought to learn a given amount of material in a set number of lessons which take place over a set number of weeks. Gymnastics academies do not. In the various physical activities, students may be tested for skills every certain number of weeks, but not all are expected to pass--and there is no stigma attached to not passing; a student simply remains in her correct level until the skill set is learned and the test passed. Students can even drop out without penalty--find a level beyond which they are not capable of progressing or have no desire to surpass.

When students compete at gymnastics events, this competition is not part of the basic skills learning process--students compete with other students who have achieved the same level. Age groupings may be superimposed so that ten-year-olds are not competing with nineteen-year-olds, but it is not considered necessary for each competitor to be the same age. Skill matters more than age. Thus, skaters practice with those of similar skill levels, and compete on a larger scale with similarly graded skaters. Ranks are not graded on a curve; thus in daily education, students compete only with themselves to master higher levels of skills, not with one another to master them better. Goodbye back-stabbing competition.

And, last but surely not least, a skating program is chosen only partly by location--I may lean toward a more convenient program over a less convenient program, but my final choice will be made by how the program matches my young person's needs. This also helps assure a grouping of students who mesh well--their parents select a program based upon their own criteria, above and beyond geography.

There are many lessons to be learned from this model. Children in a karate class tend to cheer one another on at test time since they are competing against a skill set, not one another. Children can master skills quickly or slowly or even not at all. A given swimming instructor is good for your kid, but not as good for mine--I can switch schools regardless of where we live, if I am willing to be inconvenienced by a longer trip. Competition between students can be healthy--a way to demonstrate mastery, but not as a primary motivator. If it were to occur that students leave in droves due to a certain teacher, the administration would be free to reconsider his employment and competent educators could be recognized for their skills as dictated by the profit motive.

The conclusion to be drawn is simple. There exists a model for education that is proven, widely practiced, easy to administer, highly successful, and avoids all the labeling pitfalls of modern schooling. Why do we use a less effective method for educating our children's minds?

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