Before I go any further, a note on teachers: every school teacher I ever had was amazing. Every teacher I ever encountered was patient, compassionate, creative, and astonishingly enthusiastic about their work. In my experience, public school teachers are incredible human beings who do incredibly hard work. Ben doesn’t have a single negative thing to say about a single teacher he ever had, either. Teachers have our deepest respect and admiration. If you’re a teacher, this post is not meant to be criticism against you: you are doing important, often thankless work, and I’m grateful to you.
The qualms I have with classroom-style education have more to do with the systemic problems inherent in any attempt to educate children en masse, and not the teachers who work in the system.
So I’ve been talking about my and my husband’s experiences with schooling, and how these experiences have shaped the way we want to educate our own child(ren).
As I said in my introductory post, we still don’t know how we will educate our daughter or any subsequent children. We very well may eventually determine that public school is the best option for us as a family. We have a few years to make up our minds, and even then, we might change our minds.
But we are definitely drawn to unschooling — that is, a child-led approach to education, wherein children learn by way their own curiosity and natural life experiences, rather than through a curriculum imposed by adults.
(Whether or not we’ll ever be able to do this is another question. I suspect the greatest obstacle to homeschooling of any kind in our family will be my incredible need for alone time. I NEED alone time, and lots of it. We’ll see what we can figure out.)
I’ll say up front that it’s unlikely that we will ever send our kid(s) to private school. Our main reasons include:
(a) We’ll probably never make enough money to be able to afford it. My husband is self-employed and I’m a stay-at-home mom. Enough said.
(b) Most of our concerns with public school carry over into the private sector, since they have to do with the classroom setting and not the curriculum. In other words, our hesitation with public school is not so much about what is being overtly taught, but the way it’s being taught (i.e. one adult talking to a room full of kids of identical age, giving them arbitrary problems to solve which are unrelated to real life, and then assigning value judgments to their performance, etc). Most private schools replicate this model of education.
We’re not particularly concerned about the secular content taught in public schools, because we find that in well-connected families, children’s beliefs are usually more strongly influenced by their parents than by their teachers. Moreover, we feel that the beauty of Christ’s message — which we hope to make manifest in our home — is ultimately more powerful and alluring than any lies that might be spread outside of it.
Now that I’ve covered those introductory issues, I want to (very briefly) examine some of the qualms we have with mass education. This is just meant to provoke thoughts and questions on the matter, and is by no means an exhaustive study of schooling or education.
A Few of My Quarrels with the Classroom
Grades. As far as I can see, grades serve two main functions: (a) they act as a reward/punishment system, to motivate children to perform in a certain way; and (b) to sort children – i.e. to determine who’s smart and who’s not, and where they should go in life.
I’ve discussed the problems with rewards and punishments before: they distract from the real issue at hand; and they discourage intrinsic motivation (i.e. doing things for their own sake) in favor of extrinsic motivation (i.e. doing things for the sake of the reward); and to make matters worse, they’re actually remarkably ineffective at getting children to do what you want them to do.
I believe that children are naturally curious and want to learn. There is no need to use reward and punishment to coerce children into learning – they will learn things on their own if given the resources, time, space, and encouragement.
By contrast, I believe grades can – and do – dampen a child’s natural love of learning, turning the focus on getting approval.
And you can already guess that I’m uncomfortable with the way we use grades to label and classify human beings.
Tests. Written tests are perhaps the worst way to assess how much children know, how intelligent they are, and how successful they’ll be at performing important daily tasks. They cannot gauge intelligence, emotional maturity, or problem-solving skills. I, for one, am a spectacular test-taker, but not much a problem-solver. Yet written tests remain one of the dominant methods for assessing student knowledge.
Curriculum. My experience is that most of what is taught in the classroom is largely irrelevant to real life. Moreover, it privileges certain subjects (math, language, and science) over others (dance, art, music, practical life classes), assuming that these are more useful and will better prepare young people for the work force. This is becoming less and less true, however.
Crowd Control.* Due to the nature of the classroom setting, teachers have to expend enormous amounts of their time and energy on crowd control. So much time is spent getting kids to line up, moving kids from one classroom to another, getting everyone to quiet down and focus on the task at hand, etc., which I feel could be better spent doing more interesting, meaningful things. Like sleeping. (I’m only half-kidding…)
Age Segregation. In order to make teaching more efficient, and because we want everyone to learn and develop at the exact same rate, we segregate children into classes based on age. As a consequence, children don’t learn how to interact with people of different ages. We have a generation of teenagers who feel uncomfortable around babies and old people, children who are scared to talk to adults, and parents who feel disconnected from their kids.
* * *
For me, then, it seems the ideal learning environment would enable children to learn at their own pace, regularly interact with people of different ages, and have access to one-on-one attention from caring adults. It would eschew reward-and-punishment as a means to get them to learn, but instead would foster a love of learning, and would refrain from judging or labeling children based on their performance.
So far, I can’t think of an environment that better offers these things than the home, or an approach more appropriate than unschooling.
That’s just us, though. How about you?
*I’d like to give a shout out to my friend Rachel who gave me the language to talk about this issue.
* * *
Further Reading: The Beginner’s Guide to Unschooling – Zen Habits
Further Watching: Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk on Education: Does School Kill Creativity?
Image courtesy of Thomas Favre-Bulle