Many of us are no longer willing to allow the growth of what, in Last Child in the Woods, I dubbed “nature-deficit disorder” – the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature. During the past couple years, as I’ve spoken on this issue in the United States and other countries, I’ve been moved by the number of college students who come up to tell me that they’ve decided to change their career choice, that they’re now committed to bringing nature to the lives children (and adults) – including in education.
Environmental educators and others have worked for decades to reintroduce children to nature. But in recent years, too many school districts have turned inward, building windowless schools, banishing live animals from classrooms, and even dropping recess and field trips. But we are beginning to see progress. There have been a number of recent successes in the United States and elsewhere that may point to a cultural shift, reflecting a rapidly expanding grassroots children and nature movement – which has changed the tone of the public conversation.
The nonprofit Children & Nature Network ( http://www.cnaturenet.org ), for which I now serve as chairman, has tracked and encouraged more than fifty regional campaigns that are helping reintroduce children to nature. These campaigns, often focused on children’s health, will offer added power to a nascent, overdue movement for what might be called natural school reform. Bucking the status quo, an increasing number of educators are committed to an approach that infuses education with direct experience, especially in nature – one that redefines the classroom.
On September 18, the U.S. House of Representatives took a step in that direction, by voting to approve the No Child Left Inside Act of 2008. Approved by a bi-partisan vote of 293 to 109, the bill would require K-12 school systems to build environmental literacy, strengthen teacher training and provide federal grants to help schools pay for outdoor education. In coming months and years (whether or not the Senate version of the bill is approved) educators will be encouraged to return nature to the classroom – but the key to success will be if sufficient support comes to educators who take students beyond the classroom, into the rich environments of nearby nature: parks, farms, the woods and creeks and canyons adjacent to schools.
This approach to education is not new, and the definitions and nomenclature of this educational movement are tricky. In recent decades, the approach has gone by many names: community-oriented schooling, bioregional education, experiential education and, most recently, place-based or environment-based education. The basic idea is to use the surrounding community, including nature, as the preferred classroom. When it comes to reading skills, “the Holy Grail of education reform,” says researcher and educator David Sobel, place-based or environment-based education should be considered “one of the knights in shining armor.” Students in these programs typically outperform their peers in traditional classrooms. Sponsored by many state departments of education, a 1998 study documented the enhanced school achievement of youth who experience school curricula in which the environment is the principal organizer.
More recently, factoring out other variables, studies of students in California and nationwide showed that schools that used outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education were associated with significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. One recent study found that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent.
A nature-balanced life reduces many barriers to education, including stress and attention deficit. Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that the greener a child’s everyday environment, the more manageable their symptoms of attention-deficit disorder. Teachers could also benefit from natural education reform. Canadian researchers found that teachers expressed renewed enthusiasm for teaching when they had time outdoors. In an era of increased teacher burnout, the impact of green schools and outdoor education on teachers should not be underestimated.
One exciting development is the increasing popularity of nature preschools, where children learn to track wildlife even as they learn to read. Design approaches are central to the movement. “Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imaginations and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity,” says Robin Moore, an international authority on natural school design, who heads the Natural Learning Initiative. New schools must be designed with nature in mind, and old schools can be refitted with playscapes that incorporate nature into the central design principle. Another approach is the use of nature preserves by environment-based schools, or the inclusion of established farms and ranches as part of these “new schoolyards.” Norway’s departments of Education and Agriculture support partnerships between educators and farmers to revamp school curriculum and to provide more direct outdoor experience and participation in practical tasks.
Ultimately, K-12 education cannot be transformed without reforming higher education – which sets many of the standards and expectations for primary and secondary education. In higher education, greater public knowledge about the generational nature gap should educate policy-makers to require universities to teach the fundamentals of natural history, which have been displaced in recent decades, especially at research universities, by a patent-or-perish emphasis on microbiology and genetic engineering. Higher education can also more consciously engage students as researchers on topics involving the relationship between children and nature, and the opportunities that will emerge as nature takes a more central role in people’s lives.
In coming decades, environmental challenges will require fundamental changes in our lives and institutions, including the reintroduction of nature to the classroom and the young to the natural world.
Article by Richard Louv, Writer
Richard Louv is chairman of the Children & Nature Network and the author of seven books, including his most recent, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” (Algonquin). He is the recipient of the 2008 Audubon Medal, and has served as an adviser to the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award program, is a member of the Citistates Group, appears often on national radio and television programs, and speaks frequently in the United States and overseas.
Useful links for this article include:
o The Children & Nature network: http://www.childrenandnature.org
o Related research and studies: http://www.childrenandnature.org/research/Intro
o Toronto Star report on homework loads and play: http://www.childrenandnature.org/news/detail/canadian_report_advocates_less_home…
o New York Times article: Why are Schools Designed Like Prisons? http://www.childrenandnature.org/news/detail/why_are_schools_designed_like_priso…
o Finland education system: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/4033593.stm
o Track No Child Left Inside Act: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h110-3036
* Natural Learning Initiative: http://www.naturalearning.org/aboutus/rmoore.htm
There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.
– Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940)
If you drive around cities and suburbs in the U.S., you will notice that children no longer play much outside. As you observe streets devoid of children, your first assumption may be that they are at school or at parks competing in team sports. Gradually it dawns on you that as more green space is paved over, as inner cities are further neglected, as fear of strangers intensifies, children are relegated to worlds without sidewalks or main streets connecting them to a wider community of neighbors. At this point you ask, “Where do the children play?”
In the last 30 years the range of independent mobility for North American 12-year-olds has shriveled from one mile to 550 yards. Children have less privacy, yet paradoxically, more access to media. Current statistics indicate more hours are spent watching screens than attending school. Should we worry that growing up minimally engaged with plants and animals might prove dangerous to nature itself?
The UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre’s report on the well being of children indicated that of 21 wealthy nations in 2007, the United States was rated at the bottom of the list and came in last or next to last on three of six criteria–health and safety, behaviors and risks, and family and peer relationships. These statistics suggest that childhood itself is increasingly under fire as a worldwide demographic, cultural invention, and
social institution. Grim as the figures are, they only hint at the reality of growing up in a society disrupted by violence, driven by competition, and divorced from nature. As Brian Sutton-Smith, play specialist, has put it, “the opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”
How educators use and create spaces for children determines how the next generation experiences reality. Yet, in a world of high stakes testing, we may be losing not just recess but also those psychic locales where imagination and confidence can grow. That’s why we need collaborative pedagogies to look at where children and adults learn most enjoyably. Certainly practices of self-discovery where learning and play meld deserve to be treated with as much care by educators and families as the cultivation of literacy and mastery of math. Yet we know little, it seems, about the vitality recreation draws from sites of natural beauty.
Starting as a question about how the young process their own ecology, Secret Spaces of Childhood developed in 1998 at the University of Michigan as an investigation of cultural memory. Campus-community partnerships, coordinated by Residential College students, grew from our study of children’s literature. Curious about the power of fantasies like “Crusoe’s Island” or the “Secret Garden” to shape our core identities, I wondered how children’s stories change over time, and how images like Hogwarts or Tarbeach fashion feelings within society.
A two-day conference enabled a thousand children to celebrate Nichols Arboretum with performances and story telling. At the Residential College, architects, children’s authors, educators, storytellers, and artists discussed issues of environmental justice and the need to preserve sanctuaries for free play. Walls displayed illustrations from children’s books. Participants shared a sense of having been profoundly shaped by hideouts of their own making. Even the sole public zone in the exhibition, Gerald McDermott’s charcoal drawing of a medieval winding stone staircase at the Detroit Institute of Arts, conjured a “pathway to the infinite”: “We all have secret spaces…where we separate ourselves from the rest of the world, and incubate. We imagine ourselves into existence.”
Recently The Poetry of Everyday Life has provided me tools to plan and even document community-engaged scholarship, observing how and where children make their own structures, whether in shelter building, collage, poetry, or drawing. Seminar participants seek to understand the role of children’s voices in public and city life; to develop teaching, collaboration and leadership skills in school settings; to experience poetry as an imaginative response to local geography such as the Huron River watershed. Partnering with local children and their teachers, we embark on field trips, journal, write poems and make art about place-making, organize a poetry reading, and mount an exhibition at the Ann Arbor Public Library.
Some explore the role of forts; others photograph and map schoolyards, theme parks, and designated “kid spaces” as these reflect class backgrounds and assumptions about the nature and needs of elementary school children. Or they examine and compare specialized curricula related to local organizations like Retired Police Horse Adoption, The Greening of Detroit, and Hands On Museum. Some document contested land use or a problem that prevents playing in the neighborhood (application of pesticide, recent crime, lack of access).
The project produced mini-documentaries about children’s “places of special meaning” and how “ordinary” spaces often inspire stories. It filmed children’s author Christopher Paul Curtis (The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963) in his hometown Flint speaking with schoolchildren about their experiences of play and place. Such sharing can help us look around and find common ground with others. Some of these children helped inspire Where Do the Children Play? airing on American Public Television through 2010 (http://www.michigantelevision.org/childrenplay ). As William Cronon puts it, “To protect the nature that is all around us, we must think long and hard about the nature we carry inside our heads.”
Article by Elizabeth Goodenough, Scholar and Activist in Children’s Studies
Dr. Elizabeth Goodenough of the University of Michigan helped produce “Where Do the Children Play?” a project that encompasses an award-winning PBS documentary written and directed by award-winning filmmakers Christopher Cook and Mark Harris for Michigan Television, a three-volume anthology, and an outreach campaign to promote outdoor play via community conversations throughout the U.S. Located at the Ginsberg Center in Ann Arbor, WDCP? builds partnerships with organizations such as the Alliance for Childhood, the National Wildlife Federation, and Children & Nature Network. In addition to A Place for Play: A Companion Volume to WDCP?, Goodenough’s books include Infant Tongues (1994), Secret Spaces of Childhood (2003), and Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War (2008).
More information at http://www.wfum.org/childrenplay/index.html
I don’t know about you, but I’ve met students whose eyes are lit and whose spirits are aflame with meaning and purpose. And I’ve met others who seemed mired in an almost pathological level of boredom and cynicism. What are the dynamics at work that lead some to thrive, and others barely to survive? What can be done to nurture the potential in the next generation?
Is it possible that, like a walnut carries within it the DNA it needs to grow into a magnificent tree, we all have within us a particular calling? If we were to contemplate the role of education as being to “educe”, or to bring forth, the wisdom, the courage, the creativity and the brilliance that are within each child, then how might that inform our way of thinking about it? Are there ways that conventional education sees kids as needing to be shaped and stuffed with cookie-cutter information so that someday they can be people? What if we could recognize children as little people, whole and complete in who they are, and needing the right soil, the right sunshine, the right loving attention, to help them manifest their particular gifts?
I grew up with pretty loving soil. My parents were committed to nurturing my gifts and helping me to believe in myself. Twice, our family moved specifically to be near to a particular school that my parents wanted me to be able to attend. Then, when I was ten, I became a home-schooler. Believing with Mark Twain that “you can’t let school interfere with your education”, I got off to an early start in taking responsibility for my own learning journey. My parents supported me every step of the way, as I became an entrepreneur with the launch of my own Bakery, “Ocean’s Bakery,” selling natural organic baked goods to more than 100 neighborhood customers door-to-door. As I grew a little older, I went on to facilitate two international youth summits in Moscow at age 14, and at 16 had founded YES!, an international youth leadership organization that I continue to direct now, 18 years later.
I believe that we all have a desire, in fact a need, to contribute to the world around us. As young people grow up, they come to realize that we are facing some fairly daunting challenges in the world. Typical schooling may teach about history and current events, but it often does little to help young people feel like they can be active participants in the world around them. More often, they tend to wind up feeling like cynical and passive victims. In a world with nuclear weapons, with a resource consumption overshoot that has us on a collision course with systemic environmental collapse, and with increasing numbers of people living in desperate poverty, there is little space for the most powerful generation in the history of the world to be schooled in a culture of apathy. A change in our culture of education is not only important to the well-being of the next generation, it may be fundamental to our survival as a species.
What, then, do I suggest?
Service learning, parental engagement, cultural education, engaging older kids in helping teach younger kids (thus making their own learning come to life), expanded use of the arts and creative expression, cross-cultural exchanges (where kids from different communities visit each other and learn from each other), cultivating an environment of honesty and trust in the school culture (making use of circle sharing and other formats to encourage kids to talk about what matters to them and listen to each other with respect), on-site environmental stewardship (such as trash clean-ups, recycling programs, school gardens, etc.), conflict resolution trainings and programs, and space for kids to share about their dreams for the future. In general, kids need to spend les time listening, and more time talking. Less time absorbing, and more time creating.
As they get older, kids need space to explore issues like gender roles, race, class and power. We all inherit a legacy that includes the work and dreams, as well as the bigotry and fears, of those who have gone before us. Teens need a space to explore these dynamics for themselves, and to consider what kind of values they hold and what kind of people they want to be as they grow up. In time, cultural exchanges and even citizen diplomacy can be extraordinarily valuable.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then perhaps it takes more than schools to educate children. Perhaps it takes all of us. When we treat children with respect, they learn to respect themselves. When we set an example of living with consciousness and purpose, we help them to find their place in the world.
Article by Ocean Robbins, Youth Activist
Ocean Robbins is director of YES! – “Helping Visionary Young Leaders Build a Better World”, which he founded at age 16 in 1990. YES! has held 100+ week-long gatherings for young leaders from 65+ nations, and spoken in person to more than 650,000 people. Ocean is a 2008 recipient of the national Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service. He speaks widely at conferences and events. For more information about YES!, go to http://www.yesworld.org , and for more information about Ocean and his life and work, go to http://www.oceanrobbins.com
Business sage Edward Deming observed decades ago that an education system in which 50% of the students are below average is in serious need of a paradigm shift.
His point was that though mathematically correct, such a formulation is educationally misguided. The focus on high stakes testing perpetuates this unfortunate mindset. We “teacher proof” classroom instruction with scripted teaching devoid of the ARTS at the expense of innovative, meaningful student-teacher interaction. Young seekers are in danger of being consigned to an unimaginative wasteland, devolving into parched souls ill equipped to attain the full stature of their humanity and without the capacity to imagine, invent, improvise, re-frame problems, and transcend boundaries. In an attempt to prepare children for the “real world”, we have focused on transitory facts and technology at an early age, oblivious that whole industries become obsolete overnight. Our over-emphasis on information impoverishes the very faculties and capacities that should be being cultivated in future-oriented education.
The world needs confident, creative, visionary, and altruistic individuals. I am convinced that the educational approach best able to stimulate, develop and nourish such capacities is one replete and richly permeated with the ARTS.
Twelve Essentials – the ARTS Teach Children:
1) The ARTS educate and heal senses over stimulated from television, computer games, traffic noise, i-pods, etc. We filter out the richness of the world in order to cope, damaging the ability to perceive and discriminate the subtleties of quality, yet our conceptual life is rooted in observation and the forming of relationships between perceptions, and sensory-integration is fundamental for learning.
2) The ARTS teach discipline. Practice, focus, concentration, patience, precision, fine-tuning and accepting disappointment are critical counterpoints in our attention-deficient world.
3) The ARTS promote pleasure, self-esteem and empowerment.
4) The ARTS teach us that there are not single answer solutions, but many perspectives, levels, and interpretations. Life is more ambiguous than a multiple-choice test.
5) The ARTS promote appreciation for materials – think sable paintbrushes and Stradivarius violins – and the basis for “true-value” economics to a throwaway world.
6) The ARTS teach respect for artistry, craftsmanship, creativity and ultimately “Creation”.
7) The ARTS are a unique window on history, and a common language to appreciate various peoples and cultures.
8) The ARTS give us a whole, contextual vision. Design, patterning, harmony, balance, order, proportion and coherence are principles that contribute to ecological consciousness and whole system thinking.
9) The ARTS speak a language of the heart, reverse spectator consciousness and demand involvement. Passionate love for a subject leads to insight.
10) The ARTS are hygienic, bringing healing and harmony to our lives.
11) The ARTS give us a means to look at the darkness of humanity man to man. Great poetry, novels, paintings and music allow us to grapple with the unfathomable. Joseph Chilton Pearce calls criminality “a lack of imagination”.
12) The ARTS cultivate higher-level thinking and stimulate creativity. They invite levity through improvisation, imagination, inspiration, and even intuition. They foster the capacity to generate the hypotheses that advance knowledge
I invite educators to imbed the ARTS fully into the curriculum both as single subjects and integrated into all courses, not just as a reward. As Morris Tannenbaum, former CFO of AT&T, has commented, “Tomorrow’s scientists and engineers need grounding in the arts to stimulate their creativity, to help them perceive the world in new and different ways. If nothing else, a blending of the arts and sciences can cement a foundation for learning how to learn, a trait that is proving all the more critical at a time when knowledge simply won’t stay put.” For guidance in the implementation of such a program, I recommend looking to the Waldorf school movement founded by Rudolf Steiner, which has successfully practiced this approach for nearly ninety years.
Article by Gayle Davis, Educator
Gayle Davis is President and CEO of Rudolf Steiner College: A Center for Transformative Education and Arts ( http://www.steinercollege.edu ) in Fair Oaks, California offering programs in Waldorf education, Anthroposopical Studies, Bio-Dynamic Agriculture, Consciousness Studies, Eurythmy, and the Arts. She has worked at the College for over twenty-five years. Her interests include music, philosophy, educational reform, organizational development, and change management.
Re-thinking schools starts with re-thinking its fundamental purposes and function. There are, first and foremost, only two purposes that matter to me. Everything else is a luxury.
The first purpose of education is to do no harm to the individual children and their families, which includes leaving them a little better off than when they came to us. Let us leave them stronger and more loveable.
The second purpose is to inspire a generation of Americans to take on our collective task of preserving and nourishing the habits of heart and mind essential for a democracy, and, as we now see, the future of the planet itself.
The purpose of education is not: (1) to produce a small “leadership” political elite to lead us to the Promised Land or (2) to produce employees to fit into some particular niche determined by others, and surely, (3) it is not to produce higher test scores and give out more diplomas-which isn’t even a very good way to do the previous two things!
Democracy, and the kind of thinking that’s good for it, doesn’t just happen. It is not “natural”-like walking and talking. But it is not unnatural either. We need then to ask ourselves, what happens in schools that make for greater devotion and understanding of democracy and its place in our complex modern global world? An educational system that keeps this first and foremost on its mind will not have to sacrifice the so-called “basic skills”. It might have to place calculus lower on the agenda than statistics and probability, or modern history before ancient history. Maybe yes, maybe no. It may have to sacrifice the arts, or it may have to place greater demands on them.
But what a democracy-friendly education surely must do is change the way people relate to each other in schools, and how their voices are heard and taken into account. And the change we need is not tinkering on the edges, but fundamental.
What we do know is that creative and critical thought are not natural allies of multiple-choice tests or stereotype short-answer quizzes. The inventiveness we need cannot be left to elite few, because in a democracy such out-of-the-box thinking will be sabotaged by ordinary citizens and rightly so, if they are not well-educated too and become a party to the needed changes. We pay an enormous price for dismissing the impact of an alienated political public. We’ve even gone so far as to dismiss the need for the voices of teachers-viewing them as merely tools of reform, not at its heart. Our parents and teachers have replaced our financial and business leaders as the new “special interest” group. Thus the answers become increasingly divorced from the problems on the ground.
Let’s imagine how we’d design the life of youngsters from birth to 22 if we hadn’t got stuck in the traditional school model and just extended it for 10 more years? Let’s imagine how we might re-design if we spent more time listening to those in the real “know.” Based on what we know about human beings, how else might we ask the young to spend their precious time? Would we have cut them off from relationships with adults engaged in interesting work-and vice versa-for 12-16 years? Would we have labeled so much of the world’s important and critical work as “menial”, and “nonacademic”? Would we expect that efficient learning takes place by sitting till and listening for 5 hours a day? Would we have measured success by a multiple choice test rather than a “road test”?
We can’t change overnight, but we can begin to make sure that the policies we adopt do not strangle the innovation we need. Too many big-time reforms today try to “fix” the current system in stone-making it ever more standardized rather than ever more inventive. We need to ban the use of the word “rigorous” in schools – with all its unmistakable dictionary meaning of harsh and inflexible-and find a language that suits the task ahead of us.
Yes, small is good. But, aimed at the wrong “ends”, it’s just another shifting of the chairs on the sinking Titanic. Yes, technology is useful, but…Yes, better teacher “training” is good, but…Yes, observing the impact of our work is critical, but…Yes even more money is good, but…
But, none will matter until we are prepared to tackle the “what for?” And on that question we are all experts. On that question we don’t want anyone to lead us to the Promised Land; we want to lead ourselves, with our families, neighbors and children right alongside us.
Article by Deborah Meier, Writer
Deborah W. Meier is currently on the faculty of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education as senior scholar and adjunct professor as well as Board member and director of New Ventures at Mission Hill, director and advisor to Forum for Democracy and Education, and on the Board of The Coalition of Essential Schools. She is active with the In Defense of Childhood organization http://www.indefenseofchildhood.org . Her books, The Power of Their Ideas, Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem (1995), Will Standards Save Public Education (2000), In Schools We Trust (2002), Keeping School, with Ted and Nancy Sizer (2004) and Many Children Left Behind (2004) are all published by Beacon Press.
More information at http://www.deborahmeier.com
Our system of schooling was shaped by a particular worldview, a mechanistic/technocratic mindset that gave rise to the age of industrial and imperial expansion that began in the mid-nineteenth century. It is increasingly apparent that this historical era has spent its creative energies and is now on the verge of decline. Another worldview is emerging, one concerned with sustainability, interconnectedness, and celebration of human diversity. It is a holistic worldview, which brings with it entirely different ideas about education.
The growing interest in educational alternatives-Montessori and Waldorf schools, homeschooling, “democratic” schools, Quaker education, charter schools and various other approaches-represents a leaderless, self-organizing revolution riding the incoming wave of this new worldview. I think it is a genuine social movement, which will eventually replace our current system of schooling with a decidedly different form. Unlike the standardized routines of industrial-age schooling, these alternatives engage young people in an active, meaningful, caring relationship to the world and encourage them to participate in building a just, compassionate, sustainable culture.
Although the movement comprises diverse educational methods, it is unified by five foundational principles:
1) Respect for every person
Maria Montessori said it well: the child is the builder of a unique human personality, driven by a creative force from within to engage the world inquisitively and purposefully. Human beings are naturally endowed with both the capacity and the imperative to fashion an individuality that will experience and live in the world in ways that no other does, and we require autonomy and security in order to fully achieve this potential. We carry the seeds of our highest aspirations and potential evolution within our own hearts. The purpose of education is to nourish these seeds.
The education revolution reflects an openness to the complexity of life. To live in balance means holding our beliefs with humility, remaining open to aspects of reality that are dissonant or surprising, recognizing that all manifestations of reality are contingent rather than final. This principle enjoins us to approach each learner with sensitivity and flexibility, not with ideology and method. A public system of education seeking for balance would no longer be a coercive monoculture; it would provide diverse alternatives representing various philosophical and cultural possibilities.
3) Decentralization of authority
Today, truly important decisions that affect the lives of millions are made by political and corporate elites, not by citizens engaged in public deliberation. The standardization of schooling, the frenzied pursuit of accountability that leads to prescribed curricula and textbooks and relentless testing, was not driven by those most intimately involved in the educational endeavor -teachers, parents or young people-but by corporate CEOs and powerful foundations and the mass media. No Child Left Behind (sic) is the educational policy of a technocratic empire. The educational alternatives movement represents a striving for grassroots, participatory democracy-decision making on a human scale.
4) Noninterference between political, economic, and cultural spheres of society
Philosopher Rudolf Steiner (the founder of Waldorf education) argued that a society is healthiest when its three primary functions or spheres-economic, political, and cultural-are allowed to maintain their own integrity, without interference from the others. He observed that in modern times, economic enterprise has spilled over its proper boundaries, so that every aspect of our lives, including education, has become a commodity-something with a market value rather than intrinsic value. The education revolution seeks to return teaching and learning to the cultural sphere of freedom and creativity. Those who have left public schooling for independent alternative schools or homeschooling are not simply out to privatize the educational system, for this is still to treat learning as a commodity in the marketplace. Rather, they are intuitively responding to the awareness that genuine learning is an organic, spontaneous, and deeply meaningful encounter that requires autonomy from the political and economic forces that have taken over public education.
5) A holistic worldview
From a holistic perspective, the primary goal of education is not to transmit authorized portions of knowledge but to help students experience a sense of wonder and passionate interest in the world, along with habits of open-ended inquiry and critical reflection. Possessing these qualities, holistically educated people can engage the world purposefully, creatively, and transformatively.
Taken together, these five principles constitute a thorough rethinking of the assumptions and beliefs underlying the present system of schooling.
Article by Ron Miller, Educator, Writer
Dr. Ron Miller has been involved in the educational alternatives movement for more than twenty years. He has written or edited nine books; this essay is adapted from his latest one: The Self-Organizing Revolution. He has founded two journals and is currently editor of Education Revolution magazine, published by the Alternative Education Resource Organization ( http://www.edrev.org ). Ron established the Bellwether School in Vermont and is now helping to organize a Quaker school there. Meanwhile, he teaches history at Champlain College. His contact information and writings are featured at http://www.pathsoflearning.net
So, how does K-16 education need to change in order to prepare young people to become effective participants and change agents in the 21st Century?
First, a disclaimer. I teach in the “inner city” of Los Angeles, so my perspective comes from a place where, as near as I can tell, not many people are expecting those, these, OUR, inner city children to be “change agents” or “effective participants” in the 21st Century. By “inner city” I mean un-academically educated, non-middle class, not generally a part of the American mainstream, whether perceptively or concretely. By middle class I mean academically educated, and a part of mainstream society, and literate. I do not want to get too heady into why I think inner city kids are not perceived as agents for change in the future, but I do think it is important to note that my opinions are based on my experiences working in an overcrowded, over 100-year-old, hardly diverse and VERY ISOLATED – from middle class ideas and resources – middle school in South Central Los Angeles for the past eight years. Most of my students are Latin American, with a small percent being African American. I am solidly middle class, brought up with educated parents, went to summer camp, and was read to often, and always, as a child. The arts were a central part of my academic upbringing. I have a lot to learn from my students and their families. And they from me.
To dispel some common myths and assumptions: Urban kids are just like non-urban kids in almost every way: They are eager to learn, eager to do things and eager to get their hands into things. They don’t like to be bored, they don’t like to be in trouble, they don’t like to be disrespected or yelled at or ignored. They don’t like to read textbooks and they jump at the chance to play music, do art, perform in plays, and they LOVE science. They love to APPLY math. They are silly, and funny, and test me and don’t like to sit in their seats for too long. They like to eat, chew gum and write notes in class. They like to have hobbies and lots of colorful things to create with. They like to be class clowns, out-wit their teachers and their peers and they like to be loved and encouraged. They like to feel comfortable and challenged and try out new things. They like to show off for each other and they like to be popular. They like to take care of each other, especially when it really, really counts, and they will. I’ve never had a discipline issue on a field trip, or a tagging issue or disrespect of elders. They think that the way they live is the way all people live. They like themselves. They are normal.
How they differ from their middle class counterparts: they most often have un-academically educated parents; they don’t get to go to camp; they have too many kids on their campuses; they don’t get enough field trips; their parents work really long hours, or have lots of stress, and sometimes see school as day care. They have a really boring curriculum in school. The slightest infringement is met with the threat of citation or even arrest by the school police officer. Sometimes their classes are interrupted in a “search and seizure” manner to confiscate their pencil sharpeners which have “blades that can be used as weapons.” Sometimes this makes them cry. They live far from the beach. They can’t play outside. They often have close family members in prison. They don’t have books at home. There are no bookstores in their neighborhood. They have to be “extraordinarily extraordinary” to succeed and go to college or even have that choice. They can’t just be normal and succeed academically. They are very strong when they do succeed. They often don’t know they have these things working against them. They often have very strong family support mechanisms. Their families have huge social networks. They often know how hard their parents work for them. They want to be kids anyway. They speak at least three languages: English, Spanish and/or Black-inner city English and they often must translate between two cultures. Standardize test that!!!!!! They travel between here and South American countries often. They have foreign relatives with foreign ideas. They get to visit them. I have seen my students go out of their way to make a child they’ve never met, on a field trip, feel comfortable on a play ground. I’ve never had a discipline issue on a field trip. I’ve seen them come to each other’s aid without hesitation when one of them was feeling uncomfortable or in distress. They have a sensitivity I don’t remember seeing when I was a sixth grader, and I certainly never hear about it on the news or mainstream media. There are so many things I don’t see because I am not living there.
At our school, over 90% Latin American, and in our district, English tests are the litmus for how” intelligent” a student is considered to be, what class level they are placed in and what extra-curricular subjects they are allowed to study. For example, the music and art options – and they are not many and they are a recent addition to our curriculum – are offered primarily, if only, to the “English-only” and honor’s strand of students. Humanities are an “elective” class that is taught by English teachers to a strand of their students that fall into the above categories. This means that if you are a beginning English learner, thus a low tester, you do not get subjects outside of math, science, history and English. Subjects, incidentally, taught via Sixth Grade English Level Text books. This approach also disregards any aptitude in math, as students are placed in ALL subjects according to their English levels. I believe this is done because it is easier for the administrative process.
So, what do our students need? From the school, and district, they need us to educate them with the vigorous assumption that they are intelligent and eager to learn no matter how low or high their level of English. They “ALL” need music, drawing, sculpture, wood working, singing, music, theater and CREATIVITY – in all sizes and shapes, every day and every year and these subjects need to be considered as important as the “testable subjects,” math, English, history, etc.
What they need from “US.” The greatest challenge our urban kids face is that their parents are largely less academically educated than their middle class counterparts. Inner city kids are more isolated. I do not believe that a lower economic status naturally leads to a lower educational level. I do think, however, that it needs more attention to correct the tilt. We need to start thinking about all kids as OUR kids. Schools need the parental attention the middle class schools get. We need middle class parents volunteering in inner city schools. And I don’t mean to overrun the cultures that exist in those schools, but to bring the academic presence up. I’d love to know more about Hispanic culture. I need to incorporate more of my students’ parents’ strengths and interests into my classroom. We need parents who know how to participate to show the parents that don’t know, how. The inner city is woefully over looked by the middle class. I called Big Brothers Big Sisters to get help for some of our boys who needed a positive outside influence I was told that there are NO volunteers for South Central! There are none within the South Central community and none outside willing to come in? There are over eight million people in Los Angeles! Are they all saving Darfur or adopting kids from China? My colleagues who teach in independent/private schools can’t get rid of their over-achieving “helicopter” parents fast enough. I’ll take them. I want parent aids in my class room to help with field trips, organize fund raisers, science fairs or theater productions. I want them to show our parents how they can be involved. And it’s not that our students’ parents don’t want to help, many of them don’t know what it looks like. They do not come from academic backgrounds.
Please, find a school near or far from you that your child does NOT attend and volunteer. Become a class rep for an urban school. Organize a PTA. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister to an urban youth; there are NONE in South Central. Help get the word out in urban areas that Big Brothers Big Sisters even exists. There are mentors within the inner cities! Volunteer to do a reading program after school. Help get a theater department going. Organize a science fair. It’s not money we need, its participation and education. Head up a garden. Do some landscaping. Organize parents to get homework clubs going. And do these things with the parents of our students who really do want to be a part of what their child is doing but in many cases do not know how. WE need ALL of OUR children to be willing and enthusiastic participants of society. And OUR children really DO want be WILLING and enthusiastic participants in OUR society, and WE need to show them how, by being WILLING and ENTHUSIASTIC participants ourselves, in OUR own society.
Article by Sonja Williams, Public School Teacher, Circus Performer
Sonja Williams attended Highland Hall Waldorf School from kindergarten through 12th grade, and graduated with a BA in History from UCSB after years of academic experimentation at six city colleges. She has been teaching since 2000, and loves to travel, cycle, and perform in the local circus. [Sonja is GMJ guest editor Joan Jaeckel’s daughter.]
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