I said last night that I have a suggestion on how to ‘fix’ compulsory education in this country, and some of the problems caused by semantics that label kids from a young age into one category or another. This originally appeared in a post titled “What If”, published on October 4th in case you are interested in reading or re-reading the whole thing.
“What if tomorrow, when kids walked into their schools, they were told to hand in all of their textbooks and instead were asked simply to write on a piece of paper what they like to do most and what, at this point in their lives, they think they might want to do as an adult. ( I purposely did not say, ‘what they want to BE when they grow up.‘ I hope the answer to that question would be ‘an adult’. Americans tend to identify our entire being by our job or career, which I think is a mistake and part of the problem.) Some kids might say they want to work as doctors, others astronauts, architects, film-makers, mothers, or video game designers. Some might even say they want to manage a Wal-Mart, or work at Starbucks. As for what they like to do most right now, it could be anything in the world. (I know you are thinking they would all write down “play video games”, but they wouldn’t). Some would write, ‘Travel’, others might say, ‘play with my dog’. The point is, not every kid would write down the same answer. It is much more likely that their answers would all be different. So why do we insist that they all have exactly the same education and do well in all the same subjects?
What if these kids in my make-believe scenario were then given instructions to enjoy themselves, and were also given the opportunity to ‘shadow’ or apprentice someone in the very job or profession they wrote down on their paper? Maybe for just a few hours a week to start. The rest of the time they’d be on their own, meeting with friends or reading or yes, playing video games. They’d be encouraged to follow their interests and see where they led. Adults would be around, but only to facilitate or answer questions when asked, or to provide assistance when asked, but not to dictate. If possible, the kids could be at home with their families, but they could also be at an exploration center (formerly called a ‘school’) where resources would be available but not mandated, and they could spend time with whatever subjects interested them, whether for 15 minutes or 4 hours. No restrictions on when to eat or play – all those things would be available as well. (If you’ve ever heard of “Free Schools” they try to achieve this type of environment).
What if, after apprenticing for a few months, they realized that although they like animals, being a veterinarian is definitely NOT for them? Well, that would be fine. They could switch and try something else, or take a break until they came up with another job that sounded appealing. Along the way they would learn what skills are necessary to succeed in a given profession, and decide whether or not they jive with their own interests and abilities.
Do you think this would excite kids? I do. Imagine someone listening to what they really want, rather than just always being told what they must do. If they were allowed this freedom, they would learn math, and history, and everything else. Not all to the same extent or purpose, but because it would be integral to something they want. Testing would be a thing of the past. Experimentation and ‘failure’ would be encouraged. As Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” Tinkering clubs and inventors clubs would flourish as kids channeled their unleashed creativity into building or tearing apart and re-building. Bands would form, books would be written, and stores would be managed.
Can you imagine it? The old factory model – antiquated, out of date and dysfunctional – would be crushed by the force of millions of kids following paths they have chosen, helped along by their parents, mentors and communities.”
And finally, my last few words on ‘gifted’. I suggested a few days ago removing this word from the lexicon, but only because of the way it is used. I truly believe that all children are gifted – some are gifted academically; they are great at book learning. Others have artistic gifts; I just read about a kid who is a piano prodigy. He’s 9 years old. Or the kid who paints and sells his paintings for thousands of dollars. I think he started painting at age 5. Some are gifted in sports and become Olympic athletes (Michael Phelps comes to mind) And still others are gifted in ways that are not, perhaps, generally recognized; they may be gifted with machines. A cousin of mine was miserable in school and struggled to get anything above D’s, but he is truly gifted when it comes to motors. He can take apart the engine of any car, truck, tractor – you name it, and put it back together almost with his eyes closed, repairing it in the process. Now THERE’S a useful gift! Or they are gifted with animals and become the Horse Whisperer (or the Dog Whisperer).
Giving all children equal opportunity to discover their own particular gift is not the same thing as treating everyone ‘equally’. That is what our current compulsory educational system does. They treat everyone ‘equally’ by expecting everyone to learn exactly the same things the same way. You either fit in or you fail. That is not what I would wish for anyone. What I would wish is what I wrote about in “What If” – that everyone could follow their interests and passions while living life. Learning would then be effortless and automatic. The only thing I would add to what I wrote is that part of learning is daily living. See, being academically ‘gifted’ is not an automatic ticket to success and happiness. Sometimes it is a recipe for misery if all you know how to do is books. Along with following our ‘gifts’ we need a healthy dose of daily life. As unschoolers we follow our passions but also learn to do the laundry, cook meals and find our way around our neighborhood. We do this not as a ‘lesson’ but as part of living. It is not a ‘chore’, it is life.
A quick thanks to everyone who sent in comments responding to my ‘Can someone please remove ‘gifted’ from the lexicon’ post. And I mean everyone. Both the pro and con – all the comments were thoughtful, intelligent (and sometimes very funny!). Keep them coming!