The cover image for this post is the Pine Tree Flag, used by several Naval squadrons during the American Revolutionary War.
Here’s a few significant changes we could enact to make our education system better, starting with simple improvements to the current system and ending with radical redesigns from the ground up. I’m not an educator nor have I personally done a comprehensive study of different education models. So I’m not going to offer one definitive plan which I claim will magically fix everything. These are just some ideas we could look to for inspiration. I think we ought to try out several different solutions in various pilot schools, and take diligent notes on what works, what doesn’t and which strategies lead to the best outcomes for students. Then we should assemble a team of non-partisan experts in education to analyze the conclusions and build a comprehensive new model we could slowly, gradually implement (and tweak as needed) across the country.
Incremental Improvements in the Current System
In no particular order:
We do teach foreign languages already, but too late for it to be as helpful as it could be. Studies have shown that languages take better in a younger child’s brain than a high school teen. Instead of teaching bullshit feel-good myths like the first Thanksgiving and Washington’s cherry tree, or retreading US history three times, replace that time in elementary school to teach language. I feel we should only focus on real history and political science later in life when the students can grasp it. We should actually teach the Political Compass and other models of the spectrum, instead of boiling things down to a simple right/left binary. Actually teach the Six Party systems and how the political issues and party platforms have shifted over time. Part of political science/social studies education should be an intimate understanding of how authoritarian regimes arise and consolidate power, as well as how to act collectively to counter them.
We should teach important life skills–how to register to vote, finance management, getting loans, budgeting and balancing a checkbook, how to cook, how to change a tire, etc. Stuff that will actually help kids in the real world. Take the time away from regurgitating history a million time, memorizing math formulas exactly (you should learn how to do math but memorizing formulas is insanity) and/or gym class.
There should never be abstinence only sex education–we should teach children the truth about their own bodies (albeit at an appropriate age.) I know this would never go over well in a lot of places, but I’d love to see the acknowledgement of gender and how transgenderism is a thing. That would have helped me and some of my friends out a great deal for sure, anyway. While I feel it’s important, this particular suggestion isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on if it means getting the other points enacted.
I like the idea of allowing choice of what you read in English/literature classes. Instead of a set, rigid reading list with a teacher dictating the lessons and symbols, how about a choice between similar films, books, or albums. What I mean by “similar” is, a comparable comprehension level, maybe the same general themes, the same author and/or from or about a set time period. So, if curriculum is “Mark Twain” instead of forcing Tom Sawyer, let kids pick any Mark Twain book. Or if the lesson is “Ancient Greek tragedies” maybe allow the kids to pick between a list that includes Medea, Antigone, Oedipus, etc. Teachers could present their students with a quota to do some of each medium and/or each theme or time period within the year. Rather than busy work and memorizing plot details for the tests, students should just write am open-ended essay dissecting what the story was, what they author was trying to express, what it made them feel, what moments left the biggest impression and why, etc. Then after each round, a discussion in class about it where everyone must participate.
I’d like to see less emphasis on sports, and less glamorizing–borderline worship of–the football teams. A good start to combating this might be to impose a limit on sports budgets so that they may not exceed that of the humanities (art, music, theater, etc.) Frankly, I think divorcing sports teams from schools altogether might be an even better option. If it’s so important to parents that Timmy is a football star, they can set up local leagues which the kids can participate with on their own time. Merging the two creates mixed messages, confused incentives for the school itself, and encourages bad behavior from some of the athletes.
There ought to be therapeutic and psychological services available to all kids in all grades at all times.
Perhaps most importantly, repeal all Zero Tolerance Policies.
Thinking Outside the System: Alternative Models of Education
This section is composed of some alternate theories about education which we could possibly build a new and better model from. Of course it’s not a one-or-nothing thing here, we could potentially take bits and pieces from each. I’m not going to go in-depth and describe their educational philosophy in full because I don’t have the time and you can just click on the links to get it from far more comprehensive sources than I. I’ll just present some of the anecdotes I picked up on particularly strongly in no particular order:
The Waldorf education approach (aka as Steiner education after Rudolf Steiner) is worth looking into, and I would recommend developing it for wider use, especially for kindergarten. I like the way they thoughtfully switch up the curriculum as the kids hit certain developmental milestones, in keeping with the suggestions of several philosopher I’ve listed below. I also like the idea of keeping kids together in the same class all through elementary school so as to develop strong bonds among them.
I like some of the principles of Montessori education, including uninterrupted blocks of time and free movement around the classroom. Replace the regimented 8 periods every 45 minute system with more individual time management. Perhaps give the kids a yearly quota of credits they must schedule and participate in at their own choice once they reach high school, or at least longer periods per day but you don’t get to every class every single day. Switching gears multiple times in an 8 hour block, plus arbitrarily breaking subjects into bite size 45-minute segments every single day can’t be good for the learning process. I’d also advocate for some kind of pre-approved independent study as long as the educational merit can be explained and defended to inquiry.
John Dewey is right modern schools focus too hard on delivering knowledge (aka memorization) rather than taking into account student experience. When we do teach science, it should be in the vein of John Dewey’s system, based on inquisitive learning.
I agree with William Heard Kilpatrickthat teachers should act more like guides and shouldn’t focus so much on memorization. Paulo Freire has similar theories worth looking into, and I like his line about how students shouldn’t be treated as banks to be filled. That’s why I recommend a greater sense of individualism and autonomy for students and teachers alike. Let teachers go “off the book” a bit, experiment in response to the needs of the unique kids they come in contact with. Let the students learn in their own way–maybe they don’t like boring lectures, it doesn’t mean they’re not smart or they need ADHD medication. Stop teaching to the test, regurgitating the approved curricula without fostering any kind of deeper understanding or intellectual curiosity in the next generation.
I like John Locke’s interpretation of the tabula rasa where, not only is the individual born as a blank slate but “they should have the freedom to author their own soul.” I also strongly agree with him that positive associations with learning are important. School should be a positive, encouraging environment rather than a negative, conformist, authoritarian one. Rosseau also argued in favor of always being honest and respectful towards children, and letting them be more independent in their study after twelve or thirteen. He advised that setting puzzles or “traps” for children to solve would help them learn critical thinking, self-reliance and the consequences of their actions. In keeping with these ideas, we could start by letting the teens sleep in later to coincide with their natural sleep schedules. That and not letting the teachers talk down to the students and treat them like prisoners by default would be a nice start. Stop burdening the kids with an insane amount of busy work and homework–studies show it doesn’t help the learning process, and various other countries with better education stats than ours don’t use it.
Avicenna (aka Ibn Sina). Among other things, Avicenna was a believer in the idea of teaching children gently and in gradual stages throughout their development. He felt that education should focus on the growth on the individual as a person as well as preparing them to be a productive member of society. Among the differences between this philosophy and our current course, he felt students should begin specialized education to develop their unique skills around age 14.
John Taylor Gatto has written extensively on how the current model of schooling is detrimental to the psychological well-being of children as well as its instillation of authoritarian conditioning. We could use his work as a guide for how to go in the opposite direction.
I like the idea of using the Socratic method to teach, by asking questions. Finally, I can appreciate Aristotle‘s idea of emphasizing both the practical and theoretical aspects of the subjects taught.
An Additional, Controversial Recommendation
While perhaps not practical due to the inevitable student or two who’d have a bad reaction, not to mention being a political non-starter…in a perfect world I think we could also take a page out of Timothy Leary, as well as Robert Anton Wilson and Aldous Huxley. Specifically, High School should end with a psychedelic trip as sort of a final exam for one’s educational career, as a the ultimate exercise in self-actualization. It’s a test with no right answers, and the only goal is to experience your mind’s capabilities when running at its full potential with all neurons firing. It’s a unique mind-opening experience which often inspires feelings of empathy and togetherness towards not only your fellow man but nature. These are perfect qualities to instill in people whom we hope to be caring and inquisitive as they enter the real world.
If used correctly, psychedelics can be a powerful tool for introspection, ego-death and self-improvement. To put it in terms of the aforementioned tabula rasa, the idea of a young child’s mind as a blank slate, it would then be the perfect final step in the student examining the identity they’ve fostered over their education. Psychedelics can, if used properly “reset” people’s preconceived notions, biases and unwanted personality traits. In a sense, this could serve as a resetting of the student to their earlier tabula rasa one last time, with the knowledge of their academic journey, to reprogram themselves as they see fit to.
If our schools were more warm, productive and free-thinking (as all the philosophers I’ve listed believed they should be) then that would give the students a fantastic foundation for their trips to be the final push to build them into enlightened people going forward in life. There were a hell of a lot of people I knew in those days, from the anxious introverts to domineering bullies, to the well-meaning but often abrasive kids, who really could have benefited from a dose of ego-free self-reflection and the freedom to reinvent yourself which can come from that experience.
But, similar to teaching about transgenderism as part of sex-ed, this is far far from a hill I’m willing to die on, and I’d be happy to forget it if it means we take a page out of some of the other philosophies I’ve shared. I know including this particular section will unfortunately cause potential supporters of my earlier suggestions to write me off, but it’s what I genuinely believe could benefit students.
In summation, the majority of these points could be simplified into this general guideline: move away from teacher (more like administrator) centric models of education into student-centric alternatives. Instead of educational essentialism and educational perrenialism, we should put more emphasis on the values espoused by experiential education and progressive education. If the ideas I listed above appeal to you, you’re already an advocate even if you weren’t familiar with the terminology.
Maybe a good compromise if nothing else is the younger kids (primary school) should have a perrenial education-inspired curriculum to give some kind of structure and uniform foundation for core subjects. Then as students get older, (secondary school, maybe even just high school) phase out perrenial for progressive models as they have a general knowledge to be curious about and discover more in their own way. I like the idea of the New Lincoln School and how that had lesson plans which were broad enough for each student to focus on a different aspect of it. We should allow curricula like that by secondary school kids.
I know my thoughts on education reform are kind of broad, but I’m too far removed from the role of teaching to say definitively which specific model or curriculum is the best–and to do so would largely defeat the purpose of these grassroots/bottom-up education theories anyway. The point is that applying some if not all of these principles would at least be a good start towards solving the issue. The way we do things now isn’t our only option, and it’s clearly not working.