a radical proposal

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the aged watch youth advance

To begin with, I would like to address some of the basic problems of maintaining an efficient school. You, my readers, already know the problems within the school, and within the classroom. Parents, by nature, try to be protective of their children. But every different parent has his own way. Some children are educated to believe they can do anything they want to do. Some believe that the school is a democratic institution. The teachers and the administration are seriously hampered in an effort to establish discipline in the class. Not only are punishments to be avoided. But it is often seen as unwarranted cruelty to give a ‘bad grade’ to a student, and it is taken for granted that everyone passes. Some parents may have excellent results raising their child that way, but when there are 25 students in a classroom, and occasionally even more, it doesn’t work. A school cannot be a democratic institution. Just as the police department is not a democratic institution, and all other state, county and city services have a hierarchy; in the same way, it is necessary for the school to have rules, and discipline, and for the students to know that it is not in their interest to break the rules. In the schools where I studied and taught, punishments of any sort were extremely rare. But students came to school with a great respect for the teacher and the school. They were self disciplined, and so did not need external discipline.

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a boys’ evening ball game

The law of the land, in most western countries, establishes that all children have the right to a state supported education. This is for the benefit of both the society and the child. But it is a fact, that all children do not have the same capacities for learning, the same intelligence or talent, nor the same motivation, health, emotional well being or psychological stability. I believe it is necessary to group students according to learning ability, before the 4th grade, and to organize classrooms in such a way that students of like capacities will be learning together in the classroom. This will prevent a situation in which gifted students sit bored in the classroom, while the teacher attempts to help students with learning difficulties to attain the level of the class as a whole. And it will also prevent the frustration of those with learning difficulties who find themselves continuously at the tail end of the learning experience, unable to keep pace with the better students.

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girl studying for the fun of it

I believe it is in the interest of the society, for all children to be taught reading, writing basic arithmetic, and the use of the computer until the conclusion of grade 3. After that, I would separate the students, according to their choice, either to study in a program oriented to prepare the student for a technical profession, or into another program oriented to offer encouragement and support for the learning of art, philosophy, history, or crafts. At any stage, from class 3 till the end of high school, a student should be allowed to change his educational direction. But this will require the enrollment in a preparatory course, before being allowed to join the other direction. Courses in the arts would include such subjects as dance, design, painting and literature, designing of games, appreciating the arts, and crafts, including crafts which are no longer considered essential to the society at large, such as carpentry, building, machinery, gardening, basket weaving, care giving and emotional support. As in the case of history and philosophy, such subjects would be taught for the sake and pleasure of knowledge itself, and not as professional training. And additional courses would be offered in nature appreciation, restoration of antiques, gardening, and cooking. Two separate categories of the study of arts would be the study of music and sports. For all students, there would be continuous opportunities to widen one’s horizons by taking supplementary courses, designed to promote as wide as possible a consciousness of general culture.

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children enjoying the computer at an early age

A program would be established in the school, in which students could earn pocket money by helping other students who were less developed in learning skills. The use of telephones or texting would be forbidden in the classroom. A series of dormitories or boarding houses would be attached to all schools, and would be specifically designed for single child families, or children whose families could not supply ample support.. These dormitories would be designed to encourage social responsibilities and an understanding of group dynamics, and a student’s continued study could be made conditional on participation in the dormitory arrangement. Students would not be forced to go to school, and their parents would be held responsible for their welfare as long as they were minors, unless those parents declared themselves to be unable to function as ‘parents responsible for their children’, and then the children would be referred to social services.

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learning to appreciate nature

Tests would continue, but would only test the capacity of the student to use those tools which he was taught in school. No attention would be given to personal taste, philosophical outlook, religion, or individual personality. All grades could be contested, and they would then be studied by an independent evaluation group of teachers, completely unrelated to the student in question. Libraries and computer study rooms would be available to all students, and in these rooms, silence and courtesy would be mandatory. A student could listen to music or other recorded audio material by way of earphones.

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two-dimensional sculptures on the schoolhouse roof

I am sure that some of my readers will disagree with different parts of my proposal, and others will have something to add to what I’ve written here. As aFrankAngle wrote in his fascinating study of school reform, recommended a few days ago on this blog, we are no longer in the ‘Industrial Age’, and our children are often inspired by pursuits having nothing to do with the traditional curriculum. Certainly, we have no interest in jailing our children in a school which holds no interest for them. When they grow up, they might find their happiness working as a DJ, or studying the history of ethnic migrations before the age of literacy. And so, if society has seen fit to guarantee the young student an opportunity of education, we should try to make that opportunity as attractive as possible, without limiting the traditional student in his education. If a young student desires to study medicine, or wishes one day to build a rocket that will fly to Saturn, he or she will have to accept the yoke of discipline. Because such knowledge is not gained by desire alone.

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80 responses to “a radical proposal

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more Shimon. The idea that a school is not a democratic institution is a vital first step. In some schools here, students are now involved in the recruitment of new teachers. Can you imagine the effect this has on discipline? Students employing the teachers? An absolutely crazy notion.
    A small cadre of liberal idealists who seem to live in some kind of utopia, separate to the rest of us, are in charge and they are wreaking havoc. These lovely, warm, cuddly ideas just do not work in the real world.
    It was a manifesto commitment of our last government to get more young people into university. Why? The number of students entering university prior to this was around 11% and all these students went on to pursue professional or academic careers. The number is now around 46% I believe, and we have kids with ‘degrees’ working in MacDonald’s. It makes no sense.
    Your solution Shimon does however make sense. Why keep a boy of 14 with no interest in academic pursuits in school studying the traditional curriculum? Instead, as you propose, it makes much more sense for him to be pursuing a more practical course of study. This, I’m sure, would deal with a great many of the current disciplinary problems we have in school and we wouldn’t have such a terrible shortage of plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers, carers etc. We still need to build houses and fix cars and care for the elderly, operate supermarket tills and serve hamburgers.
    I think where it all goes wrong is society views these jobs and the people doing them as somehow secondary, of less value, so the powers that be try to design education systems that ensure nobody ends up doing them. Thanks for your post Shimon.

    • It seems to me that one of the biggest problems we are facing today, is a lack of respect for manual work, and work that does not demand a higher education At the same time, the institutions of higher education have become more like extended high schools over the years, and there is often the need to give preparatory courses, and remedial courses in order to help those who came unprepared. In many countries, unskilled workers are taking advantage of welfare services, and foreign laborers are brought in, to take the place of the unemployed. This type of lack of responsibility, on the part of the leadership, could end up boomeranging on the society as a whole, and cause endless misfortune. For the sake of a healthy society, it is in our interest to offer attractive alternatives to the young. Thank you very much for your comment, Chillbrook.

  2. Excellent blog. I work in a school which seems to operate this way. My classes are separated according to ability, not age. The work is highly individualized. Each child has a ten year plan supported by mid- range, short term and immediate goals.

    What is not addressed, or maybe what I disagree with is the notion that every child has a right to an education. They don’t. In fact, not only is it NOT supported by the constitution of any state or of The Union, but that forcing parents to give up their children to a government institution until the age of 16 Is as much an act of tyranny as a mandatory military draft.

    • I am not an American, conhippy, and have a limited understanding of the US law. But it seems to me that the constitution is primarily a skeleton, supporting many more laws and ordinances which govern the country. In a republic, laws may be established by the people’s representatives, that occasionally limit the freedom of the individual. Laws prohibiting smoking, or obligating drivers to wear a safety belt, are not included in the constitution, but they are accepted by society, whether we like them or don’t.

      • Yep. I get that. Using the rule of law to manipulate behavior that does not break the law, except the one which prohibits it (get it?) is a convolution of the Constitution. I

  3. It is interesting, I keep reading dear Shimon. Thank you, have a nice weekend, love, nia

  4. I wholeheartedly agree. The current western school system (in which I work) fails so many pupils in so many ways (through no fault of anyone’s directly, I hasten to add, as it is often not the teaching which is at fault). We need to prepare our children for a future of uncertainty, in which they will be required to think and act creatively, and independently. If you haven’t already come across them, I highly recommend the following TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html
    and

    thank you once again for a very interesting and though-provoking post!
    Emily

    • Thank you very much for the links, Emily. From the moment the society mandated universal education, it took on the responsibility for those children, and it certainly doesn’t work to pull them through a system that is unable to relate to the needs and differences among the children, and doesn’t take into account the necessity of those young people fitting into society and the work force, one they’ve finished going to school. Thanks for your comment.

  5. I too think a student-learning curriculum is best when created around their interests. I think there should be information made available to students to help them make wise choices as to what studies to pursue. So many young people have no idea what they want to do with their lives. Many grownups are living mundane lives as they are not in career fields that fit their God given abilities. Every individual has unique talents that can be quite amazing when properly nurtured.

    • Part of the problem, BoJo, is that though we, as adults, realize that in order to enjoy our lives, we have to take out the garbage, repair things that have broken down in our homes, and do some chores that may be boring or tedious, some children get the idea, that if they insist, they can live their lives without doing anything that isn’t pleasant. Some children think that childhood lasts forever. Some come from such a difficult background, that they have a negative attitude towards life itself, and some have learned their values from television programs and Hollywood movies. Of course, we do want to encourage inspiration and the unique qualities of each individual, but we also want to prepare them for the realities of their adult life. Thank you very much for your comment.

      • I remember mowing graveyards and the yards of the elderly growing up to make money. Plus a lot of farm work to boot! I wouldn’t take anything for it. I remember bankers begging my poor grandfather an ultra hardworking farmer to borrow money as they knew he would kill himself working to pay them. He never took it! 🙂

        I sure miss him, his word was very strong. He was a small man but his friends called him Hoss! 🙂 I’ve never met another man that would go to such great lengths as him to protect his name.

        I would carry him one mile down the road to the store and he would make me take money for fear he would have a heart attack if I didn’t with his temper! 🙂

        Thanks for the great reply!

  6. “Robert Frost once said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”
    I’ll meditate on this,Shimon.Seems a mite Utopian to me

    • An interesting quote, you’ve found, Kathryn. I see that when he speaks of losing our temper, he says ‘almost anything’. And though I’m a pretty self-confident person, I will freely admit that I have lost confidence on many occasions. Wonder where he said that, and what the context was.

      • I shall try to discover that. I recall when I had new students in seminars it would take a while for them to get used to having their ideas criticised without being personally offended. I suspect Frost was trying to say that we should attempt to be more open to others ideas when they differ from ours; not to take it personally. But that is hard.
        I think it’s in the nature of life we sometimes lose confidence….I sometimes would in the middle of a lecture do a hard problem I had not prepared so the students could see me struggle. And a few times I felt it was impossible to solve. Then I’d talk to myself and say encouraging things….and I managed. I taught like that to show them even highly educated people can’t solve all problems easily…and it was more interesting for me…..getting bored by one’s own teaching is not good..
        so I never used notes either. I enjoyed that,
        Sorry I have not really thought deeply about your ideas except to think they might work in a small country.
        And that the basic skills need more thorough teaching whatever path the children go on to later…good reading skills are still not universal here. That’s a lifetime handicap

        • Thank you for the explanation. I understand much better now. I don’t remember that I ever lost my temper in the classroom; neither as a student nor as a teacher. Your method of doing a new problem in front of students sounds wonderful to me. I certainly don’t think that the students need to believe that the teacher is infallible. Getting bored by one’s own teaching is a disaster. It is hard for me to imagine a student continuing to study, through the years, without good reading skills. That is the most basic demand of education.

  7. Excellent thoughts. We are overdue for change.

  8. Thank you for this reflection. Lots to consider!

  9. Hi Shimon,

    This is an interesting proposal. I believe that it is a good thing to teach at a student’s ability level. Both my kids attended their school district’s “Challenge Program” for gifted kids, and it kept them learning and challenged. They met other kids in the regular program in special classes, such as music or gym, and the kids all had something of value to share with each other as well, with many friendships forming between challenge students and regular classes.

    Education is so important for a society as a whole. I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell someone he/she isn’t smart enough to rate an education or a higher education, if that person would be willing to work at it, although I know there are countries where that happens.

    But if, at an early age, we can instill the love of learning, that would be provide motivation, a key to a good education, and a child’s personal development. We encouraged our children to follow their interests, and I am so grateful that they took an interest in the subjects that I love–writing, art, history, language. They both have a talent for science and math–it just isn’t what they enjoy.

    It sounds like that is what you would be doing for students in your program–giving them useful life skills and helping them to identify their interests and talents.

    • Yes, Naomi, I think we agree on the role of a good education. I’m the sort of person who looks at the glass half full, and I don’t think there’s any need to tell someone he’s not smart enough to do certain things… even though in sports it’s taken for granted that students are categorized according to weight, age and size. I see it as in the child’s interest to find something he or she can do, and can contribute to, and can enjoy. As you probably know, there are many more people who want to be stars in the movies, than are necessary. And most don’t have the talent either. I think it’s our obligation to the young, to help them realize their potential… and their limitations as well. Thank you very much for your comment.

  10. Some points I agree on, others I’m not sure. I do agree that it simply doesn’t work to have young people who are not respectful of others in a classroom.

    The biggest reform, I think, is not a standard, one-size-fits-all educational solution. The best way to educate is to encourage school choice and variety. This way people can gravitate toward the environment in which they can learn the best and the most. Homeschooling for some, the Socratic method for others, boarding school for a few, flexible distance learning for yet others, etc. This probably sounds like chaos, but I think it’s the best solution in the long run. Your version of school could also be one of the options that would work well in a certain population.

    I do wish more parents (and people in general) would take responsibility, though. Home-school or in-school, I’ve always stressed responsibility for the work and I don’t consider education a right. I know it has to be considered a right for legal purposes, much in the same way “all men are created equal” must be written down for the legal understanding of it. But, really, parents must stress that children do not have the RIGHT to be present in a classroom while disrupting others–or anywhere else.

    • I agree with you CMH, that a variety of schools and educational methods is advantageous. My proposal is for the majority who take advantage of the state supported public school system. I think that when the society passes laws that insure every child an education, the child then does have a right to be in a classroom. But if he is disrupting others, that is a problem that has to be dealt with too.

      • True. Still, I tend to think the right to be in a classroom becomes null and void once a child (and by extension, their parent) fails spectacularly in their responsibilities to the other students and teachers. I hate to sound so hard-hearted, but I’m very tired of seeing hardworking teachers and students burdened by people who truly cannot be bothered to conduct themselves in a civil manner.

        In some of the local homeschooling clubs, we witnessed children literally tearing apart a firehouse meeting room the group had been allowed access to for club events. The walked on desks, tore down blinds, spilled on carpets, and generally trashed the place. The parents did nothing, because “kids will be kids” while my own children sat back, appalled. “Mom, do something,” they whispered. What do you do with a bunch of grown-ups who feel entitled to behave any way they please in public? Put them in time-out along with their children?

        It’s a sticky situation. My sympathies lie with the educators and well-meaning parents still trying to bring up children to be kind/moral.

        • I don’t see you as hard-hearted at all. We have a saying here in Hebrew: ‘Those who are compassionate to the cruel, end up being cruel to the innocent’. If I had witnessed such behavior at the club, I would have immediately exited the place with my children. I don’t believe that such behavior can be excused (unless the children involved are suffering from some mental or cognitive disease), and I wouldn’t want my children to witness it. In the classroom too, I would not turn a blind eye to such behavior. There are times when we have to make difficult choices for ourselves and our children, when it comes to what company we are willing to keep.

          • We left as soon as possible, but this wasn’t a unique experience for us. That is a good saying. Our experience of local homeschooling co-ops, public and public charter schools has been educative. This is why I favor school choice. It allows the talented and well-behaved to form self-selecting communities.

            I do like your vocational focus for some, but I do worry about philosophy and history being set aside. People who are lacking in either history or philosophy are easily exploited. Then again, those same individuals may not absorb any of it, so I suppose it can’t be helped in the long run. At least they come away with a useful trade which is more than can be said for many people in the US–even with a college degree in hand.

            • Please don’t misunderstand me, CNH. For hundreds of years, philosophy and history was studied for the sake of knowledge, and the study was seen as a privilege. I have nod desire to put that aside, or to diminish the importance of such subjects. On the contrary, my wish is to free the school from the stigma of job training, and bring back a lot of subjects to the search of knowledge and understanding

            • Quite all right. No need for an apology. I appreciate your comment.

        • I wish you could put all this to a book and make sure the new president here gets a copy. It’s so very frustrating.

          • I am sure that the president has quite a few very able advisors. I think part of the problem is that the public is locked into a set of expectations, which are not always realistic, and that this is the cause of a lot of frustration. Also, the fear of child abuse, and damage to the ego of the child has brought about a situation where there is not enough discipline in the school, and this is something that is very hard to turn back.

  11. I like the idea of a child being taught re ablity rather than age, I think so much useless information is currently taught in schools today, information the is useless in a changing world.

    It would be wonderful to think that any child with a gift or talent would be picked up in your system, so many slip through the cracks.
    Re the dorm idea, I would be concerned that that could stigmatise the children selected…..they would be looked down on and maybe become the underdogs.
    Great ideas though, I suppose Govenments would all scream about caost and not see the bigger, longterm picture. Lots to think about here.xxxxx

    • Hi Dina. I have enjoyed learning so many useless bits of knowledge, that I see it as an integral part of life and learning. It is very hard to prevent stigmas and cruelty to children… because that’s the nature of human beings, unfortunately. But we should do our very best to prevent physical abuse of children, and to offer them opportunities to enjoy the learning experience. You’re right about the costs, but I do believe that in the long run, it is cost effective to give our children a good education. Thanks for your comment.

  12. I agree discipline is really important and think that whip should come out again..;-)…School tests should relate more to show me you understand rather than just tell me as some kids can learn parrot fashion and others can’t…we should cater for all learning types!!

    • I agree with everything but the whip (smile), but I do think that if there’s no discipline, we’ll have to deal with children who come to school with knives and guns. And certainly, tests are meant to check if the student has learned the material. Thanks, Lisaman.

  13. I think you have some really good ideas here. It makes sense for school to be more about preparing a child for a future career and less about learning a hodgepodge of things that they have little interest or cares in. I think that it would definitely foster better attitudes, attention and interest in learning.

    Another thing I would like to see in schools would be the addition of more social workers/psychologists/councillors to support the children. I’ve found that having a single school councillor to support an entire student body to be fairly ineffective in the schools that I’ve attended. I think that having enough of them to enable giving one on one sessions and evaluations a minimum of monthly for all students would be excellent for finding mental health issues, solving bullying problems (from both the bully’s and the victims perspectives), and for helping to have an adult presence to be available to help support children emotionally. Being a teenager can be a very emotional and difficult time, and having someone there for children and teens to speak to can, ideally, save lives and much heartache.

    Thanks for another great post.

    • I would agree with your suggestion for more social workers, psychologists and counselors… but I think it’s very important to separate that aspect from the business of teaching. Perhaps these services could be provided after school or before. From what I hear and read, there is a great need for such services. Thank you very much for your helpful suggestions, livesinstone.

  14. Thank you for this Shimon; it’s taken so much time and careful, generous thinking to produce these ideas!

    And, for me,there are so many good ideas here, and some, I think, more ideal than applicable…or possible for some, but not all…what is important is that the discussions continue and experiments with new ideas continue.

    Online education is broadening a lot of opportunities for learners. Lifetime learning will become necessary (already is, informally) for adults to keep current with technology and employment…I think a lot of these things are happening in “splinters” and that may be the best we can do for a time. The evolution of the behemoth bureaucracies of “public” education will always lag behind the evolution of technology and needs of employers, it seems, so the employers will continue to bear the cost and responsibility of keeping workers trained.

    I fear the loss of arts and handcrafting skills, regardless of which plans are implemented nationally and globally, since the world has become so extremely “economically” driven. The value and appraisal of our lives, our work, our pastimes…seem driven solely by the wealth they yield. To suggest arts are “…taught for the sake and pleasure of knowledge itself, and not as professional training” disregards that someone has to be professionally trained in order to teach these areas and write the curriculum.

    (I think I’m really focused on this because of my own passions and because our republican Presidential candidate sees no value whatsoever in programs like The National Endowment for the Arts and has stated he’d stop funding such programs. The harsh Republican government of my own state has created such education budget deficits that the “arts” courses are being jettisoned in many districts.) There’s no “logical” reason that the arts should be considered “inferior” to the sciences, only that the expression of our emotional and spiritual gifts is not “valued” as wealth-generating or important to who we are as human beings.

    Sports, of course, are important, not really to teach “teamwork,” as coaches and supporters always say, but to teach about winning at everything…which creates good little soldiers for growing militaries.

    It’s frightening to me. I believe we’re creating vastly unhealthy societies as a result. So, I appreciate when someone as broad-minded as you, Shimon, considers these questions and actually creates a plan that can serve others’ discernment regarding education’s path and design.

    Thank you, again!

    • I do appreciate these comments and your whole approach, Catherine. Thanks!

    • I agree with you, Catherine, that there is a lot of room for discussion and improvement in my proposal. I just wanted to throw out some ideas to start the discussion. Online education opens up many opportunities, especially for handicapped students, or students living in remote places, and I do believe that in the near future it will be as available as the traditional classroom. We can’t ignore the changes going on in the world, and as you say, the handcrafts are losing a lot of their importance in the modern world. Often it is easier to throw away a good utility and buy something new, rather than repairing what is broken. I think, that regardless of political diversity, it is in our interest as a whole, to make it possible for each citizen to contribute something to the general good, and to enjoy his life and his work. We have seen in the past, how states who tried to impose an idealistic vision on the people, created a hell, even worse than the problems they were trying to avoid. Part of the work is being realistic about what can be done, and what human beings are willing to accept. Thank you very much for your comment.

  15. Wow! Such a great post and wonderful comments. Everybody has done some serious thinking on this subject. I’ll have to read it once or twice more to be able to fully comprehend and send a logical comment. That the kids here actually swear at their teachers shows you the terrible situation around us, and that the parents need some understanding. I fear that many of the parents are just not intelligent enough, or care enough to control their children. Banking on governmental baby-sitting. This is involved in the situation I’m trying to get my head to write to you for input. Medicaid and social welfare are related with this subject. I’ll be back.

    • I look forward to your further comments, Bob I value your opinions. I have always looked at the school as a training ground for integrating into society as a grown up. Sometimes, parents have great success with permissiveness and tolerance, as long as they are dealing with the children they love. But the same methods don’t always work in a class containing many different personalities, many of which think they are the center of the universe.

  16. I can’t help feeling the parameters are too tight. This is certainly a paper for discussion.

  17. Shimon, this is a truly thought provoking post and it is radical in many respects. I tell my students, and our sons, that school and parenthood are benevolent dictatorships where adults help children find paths in life. Without guidance, children end up ‘wandering in the desert’ and that can happen with guidance. Our role as parents and teachers, the role of elders in any society, is guidance through wise and prudent behaviour.

    Thank you for an excellent post.

    Ivon

    • I agree with you completely, Ivon. Though I do want to point out that because of the very fast moving changes in society, and in technology, sometimes the elders of the society (and I am an example), are unable to keep up with all that really matters to the younger generation. And the administrators of education have to be very aware of how the education they supply will affect the society as a whole in twenty years’ time. Thank you very much for your comment.

  18. So much of schooling in the K-12 system seems to be crowd control. High school in the U.S. is too long, especially for students who want to learn skills. Many young teens are ready for apprenticeships – they could grow in technical ability, learn adult behavior, and become productive. As it is, they are all corralled together, often wasting time, and indulging in behavior they should be growing out of. This long segregation from the adult world is not good – for the students or for the adults.

    As you noted, we need to engage the hearts of minds of children when they are quite young, before they learn to hate school (as many seem to do). We should be providing learning challenges that are attainable and that lead to further challenges until they begin to challenge themselves.

    • I’m very glad you mentioned the twelve years devoted to common schooling. I haven’t thought enough about that. But I do think it’s a very serious consideration. The youths of today, seem very eager to enjoy the independence of adults, and their awareness of the world around them seems to mature at an early age, thanks to the media and the internet. But on the other hand, they are often reluctant to leave the comfort of their parents’ home, and to take on the responsibilities of adult life. It might be very advantageous to shorten the long stretch in formal education, and devise some sort of bridging system that would give them the confidence to try their hand at work or other real life social dynamics from an earlier age. I really see it as a great failure, that so many students hate school, and believe that we could build institutions that would inspire respect, self respect, and honor on the part of the student. Thank you so much for your comment, yearstricken.

  19. I have been out of education for too many years to have an informed opinion, but what I am hearing from educators here is the same things that I heard forty years ago. As I said before, “public” is the concept that is wrong. Boy attends a private school in which there is no behavior problem. The students are motivated and well-behaved. There are seventeen students in his class. There were fewer last year and earlier. He has been in that school since he was three years old and knows most of the students in the entire school by name and knows all of the faculty and the headmaster, etc. The older children are assigned to younger children as mentors. The school grade levels are K-3 to eighth grade.
    Most of the children from that school attend the local Catholic high school, and almost one-hundred percent of them go on to college. Beginning in K-3, a great deal of emphasis is placed on socialization.

    I disagree that only children inherently suffer a disadvantage in an organized learning situation or that they are less well-socialized than other children. Dean was an only child. Kelli and Boy are only children. All three are more confident than I ever was, and I am a middle child. Dean was and Kelli and Boy are charming people who get along very well with others. I don’t quite understand the contention that an adult’s personality is necessarily over-powering since our children are as involved in family decisions as are we. Their opinions are valued. Ours are not autocratic households. However, our children are required to be clean, polite, and civilized. 🙂 Beyond that, most things are negotiable.

    I agree that a one-size-fits-all approach to education is ridiculously ineffective. I always believed that students should be able to choose either technical courses or academic courses at some point. I like your plan for that.

    Very interesting discussion.

    • What you say about Boy’s school sounds very positive, George. Unfortunately, I think we are very close to a fork in the road, after which all people of means will desert the public schools, and only the poor will take advantage of their services. But if we wish to live in a pleasant society, free of rampant crime and hatred fermenting below the surface, it is in our interest as a society, to help all of the citizens to find a worth while place within the society as a whole. Certainly, we want less people in jail, and less dependent on welfare… and more contributing to the general welfare, according to their abilities. As for single children, and one parent families, I have no prejudice against them. But if they are encountering difficulties within the school environment (and I have read of countless cases), then I think it would be in their interest to provide an alternative. Thanks a lot for your input. This is the sort of discussion that I hoped to see, and I am sure I have much to learn on the subject.

  20. Shimon, I sent Kelli to public school because I was a public school teacher. The schools here were fine, but there were children there who were actually violent. By the time Boy was old enough for school, the situation was so bad that nobody who could afford to do otherwise was sending their children to our public schools. It is a sad fact of life that we cannot believe that our children will be safe in our public schools.

    People of means in the U.S. have always sought private school educations for their children. I don’t know that a greater number are fleeing the public schools now. At least, I don’t think that is the case where we live.

    I agree that something has to be done to reinvent public education. However, as long as there is the level of poverty in society that we have now, and as long as the divorce rate is above fifty percent, the problems will continue to worsen. The public schools cannot fix the ills of society.

    I do not believe that our government has the will to change the traditional approach to public education. Unfortunately, we are facing draconian cuts to education funding in the next year or two. I hope there will be a solution, but I doubt that I will live to see it.

    • I am very sorry to hear how bad the situation has gotten there. Just as I would close a school down, if the plague appeared among the students, so I would close a school because of violence. I don’t believe that there is anything that can justify or excuse such behavior in school. Perhaps that explains the popularity of ‘home schooling’ in the US. I believe that a good school system is just as important as a good police force or army. It is part of the security of the city, state, or nation. It is society’s investment in the future. And I believe it is just as important to guarantee the education of the poor as it is for the middle class and wealthy. There is every reason to believe that there always will be poverty in a free society. All the more so, because poverty is relative in the western world. It is measured by the average standard of economic welfare. But even so, it is in the interest of society to bring up healthy and well balanced youth. Thank you for taking the time to explain the situation more fully for me.

      • Shimon. It was just on our news yesterday that Home Schooling is up by 4% this year.

        • It’s much easier for me to understand, after learning some of what’s going on in public schools. It’s a shame that people are driven to such an extreme, but if parents can’t trust the school to offer a protective and positive environment for study, it is probably better that they try to educate by themselves.

  21. Hello, Shimon! Sorry I’m late to comment here!

    All your ideas are worthy, interesting, well thought out, and most importantly: derived over time. You’ve done a great job of articulating your “radical” proposal! I don’t know that—in a perfect world—I would disagree with ANY of your thoughts. But please allow me to offer a consideration or two.

    In the case of my youngest son, Sam (who you are aware has autism), school has been as much about learning appropriate ‘social interaction’ as it has been learning math, reading, writing, etc. And to learn ‘appropriate’ social interaction, one needs—especially so in the case where autism is present—a LOT of interaction with appropriate peer models (i.e. kids that are developing normally). Sam was “mainstreamed” kindergarten through 8th grade largely for that purpose—and it helped his social development immensely!

    My wife, Patty, works in an elementary school setting; 500-or-so children attend the school where she works. Honestly, a great many of the children who attend this school are from families that are undocumented: in the country “illegally” (a harsh word that a liberal like me is loath to use). Many of these children barely speak English—but more importantly, many are hungry as well. A free breakfast program, free-or-reduced-cost lunches, and snacks sent home with the child to be consumed over the weekend help with the hunger issue, but not completely: there are other hours in the day.

    For fear of being “found out”—and/or simply not being able to communicate because of the language barrier—many of the parents of these children are uninvolved. They also tend to move from city-to-city or state-to-state repeatedly: going to where the work is, or avoiding the possibility of deportation. In more ways than one, their children suffer as a result. This is sad—and these children matter!

    Yes, at least to a degree, your proposal does address both of these issues—I’m not saying it doesn’t. I love the fact that you put time, effort, and consideration into your thoughts—and that’s more [in my opinion] than many who make the laws/set education policy in America do. I’ve simply offered an additional consideration or two.

    Again, GREAT job with the proposal you’ve made!

    • First of all, George, It’s always a pleasure to get a comment from you, and no need to apologize if you can’t respond the moment it is published. We all have our lives to live, aside from reading blogs. You bring up two very interesting points. And I will try to relate to them, though a lot could be said about both.

      To begin with, I consider an important part of education, to include a sensitivity to other human beings, who are different from us. If there is only one autistic child in a school of 500 children, I would encourage his participation in school activities, and see that as an opportunity for the ‘normal’ students to exercise their patience and compassion. But I don’t know how disruptive he might be, and how much attention he might drag away from the business at hand. One of the big problems of education these days, is that many students are unable to focus on what they are supposed to learn. This is of paramount importance. It is very easy to refer all social problems, and concerns for the world to the school and the class room; to promote good causes, and to try and inspire the children to change the world for the better. But this sort of attitude is what brought us to the point of bankruptcy in so far as learning is concerned. I think that if everyone was seated in their chairs, writing notes about what the teacher is saying, and applying themselves to their books, it might not interest the autistic child… but in fact, that would be the only environment that could afford to adopt an autistic child. I think it is important for us to find solutions for people with handicaps, or those who are different, but not at the expense of the learning process.

      In the case of the immigrant children, who barely speak English, I think they need a completely different sort of education, and that there is no advantage in integrating them into a normal classroom until they learn the language well. This has nothing to do with the decision about how to relate to people who have chosen to find a haven in your country. That is certainly a moral and ethical challenge to society as a whole, and in a democratic society, the majority will have to decide whether to accept these ‘outsiders’ with compassion or whether to reject them. America was once a haven for those who didn’t find a home elsewhere, and included many minorities in its midst. In the years to come, there will be some great changes in the demographic composition of the world’s population, and it will probably mean a serious decline in the standard of living of those richer countries of the world. Americans might very well find themselves living more like the citizens of Brazil or Pakistan, than the way they’ve been living for the last 100 years. It is up to them to make the choices, and accept the responsibility for those choices. In all likelihood, the immigrant children will show more motivation, and will be willing to work harder to study than the regular American children. But I would put them in separate classrooms for learning, until they were able to integrate with the regular population.

      Thank you very much for your kind words. I hope I haven’t disappointed you with my reply. As you know, I have a great appreciation for the way you’ve stood by Sam’s side, helping him to deal with his disability.

      • Shimon, I thank you for your kind consideration of my points!

        As we learn more about each other you’ll find—if you haven’t already—that because of who I am philosophically, politically, and spiritually, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for me to separate the ‘social’ aspect from ‘pure’ education. If I see someone disadvantaged, hungry, ostracized, different, or disabled, my first priority is to ensure they are lifted up—as much as possible—to the level of their peers. In other words, I freely admit that I’m often looking at ‘other things’ first: things that wouldn’t involve ‘pure’ education.

        I’m not for a minute saying you don’t share or recognize my concerns, I’m just saying that this is how ‘I’m’ wired: to ensure the lesser are lifted up. Let me give you an example from my own family’s experience.

        When Sam was in middle school (8th grade, I believe) I had a strong disagreement with one of his teachers. In an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting my wife and I attended with this particular teacher, she stated that she wished to grade Sam using Pass/Fail, instead of A, B, C, D, or F. I asked her why. She said that it would make things easier for her, and it would keep Sam’s grade (she was assuming it would be low) from dragging down the class average and possibly making it harder for all the other children at college entrance time. I was absolutely furious at her remarks.

        I kept my composure and told her three things. First, I said that ‘all the other children’ weren’t my priority: Sam was. Second, I pointed out that ‘all the other children’ would have a thousand chances in life for every one chance Sam had, so I wasn’t too worried about their lives being ruined by Sam’s grade in her class. And last, I let her know—politely—that Sam deserved as much of her time as the other students in regard to grading.

        I really wanted to tell her that I thought she had a lot of gall to bring this up—as if she was doing us a big favor by letting Sam attend her class: a class he had every right to attend. But I held my tongue. The two of us sat looking at the other as if each were from a different planet. The others in attendance sat in [horrified?] silence. The teacher relented and agreed to grade Sam the same way she would grade the others. As I remember it, he didn’t do too badly in that class.

        That’s one example. I expect you might disagree with me—and I’m perfectly okay with that: you are someone who is trying to find a solution to an obvious problem and I applaud you for that. Again, I used this example simply to show how ‘I’m’ wired in this regard.

        Do I expect that my way is the only way? My answer is, no. Do I wish there was a system in place where the needs—education AND social—of ALL children would be met? The answer is, yes.

        Well . . . I could go on and on, but I suspect we’ll have other conversations on this subject; I’ll save the rest for other posts.

        All the best! —George

        • As you know, George, I follow your blog, and read your words. I appreciate your values, and especially, the way you’ve chosen to relate to Sam. And because I do know that you are a man of spiritual values, I have to say, that I don’t believe that any of us are ‘wired’ to make certain ethical or moral choices. This part of our nature is known as free choice, and everyone has to make his own choices.

          It is hard for me to understand the full import of your discussion with Sam’s teacher that you’ve described here (because I wasn’t there), but I think there was a misunderstanding between yourself and the teacher. I believe that one can’t grade an exceptional student using the same standard that is used for the class as a whole. Is Sam able to read and write today? Does he read books? Does he study on his own? Do you think he will be able to hold down a job when he’s an adult? My best wishes to you, and Sam, and Patty.

  22. it’s possible this comment was already made, but i’m too lazy to read up.

    we should group students by ability in math especially because math is a skill. there are no varying degrees of right or wrong in math. however, with language/writing, we can have varying degrees, so it’s okay to vary the achievement level. i’m not saying it’s better, but i’m saying it’s okay.

    we (“we” meaning in the US) mix kids of various levels for several reasons. one is that we’re afraid to hurt a child’s self esteem if they know they’re in a class of lower-level students as opposed to higher-level students. we also mix them because sometimes the higher students will help the lower students, and sometimes kids learn better from each other than from adults.

    again, i’m not saying it’s a good plan, but at least it’s not just a random thing.

    • From my experience, the ability to learn is the most recognizable and measurable skill, and though people have different tastes and preferences, in a good environment, a good student is usually able to learn everything. When I taught college, I encouraged a number of students who volunteered to give help to high school students. Students don’t have to be in the same class to offer help to those who are having learning difficulties. But in every class, there are those who are more successful, and others who have to work harder. I have grave doubts about the importance of self esteem (I don’t know whether you read that post, but we had quite a discussion on the subject). Even in the finest orchestras, musicians are seated according to ability, and there is always the possibility of working your way forward. I believe that the concern for the self esteem of young people might have the opposite effect of what we are working for. It’s very good to see you here again, Rich. Thank you very much for your comment.

      • “the possibility of working your way forward” is only relevant in relation to the motivation in the individual. unfortunately, as you’ve suggested, the concern for self esteem has dampened the motivation in our children. if we keep putting pillows beneath them before their butts hit the floor, they won’t know what it feels like to fall, and thus, they won’t know what it feels like to stand up and take a bow either.

  23. This is a very interesting concept and I should love to see a model of it implemented to test results. You address important issues here, such as the error of combining students of all ability levels and interests, leaving much of the classroom disenfranchised a great deal of the time. As a student, my heart went out to those who struggled terribly and lived with embarassment and humiliation, while at the same time I struggled with the frustration of a very slow pace to accompdate them that did not challenge me or permit me to grow to my potential.

    My only concern is not to create a system where “class” carries over to the attitude of I am better than you. For one year my school separated students in my middle grade by ability, and although they called it A, B, and C, it didn’t take us students five minutes to determine that those letters represented bright students, average students, and struggling students. It caused much conflict and hurt that year, and I believe some children fell into the trap of believing they were sentenced to accomplish no more in life.

    What I love about your plan is the concept of learning becoming a matter of desire, and challenge, rather than enforced aquisition of knowledge. If we can teach a child to love learning, he will grow up to be wise, and a valuable member of the community. If you ask those who have done well in life how they felt about school, most will say I think that they loved to read, loved to learn, etc, though perhaps didn’t always love the more respressive aspects of formal schooling.

    You have put a great deal of thought into this, Shimon, and I think you are on the right track!

    • There is a lot more to life than learning abilities. On the sports field, that same student knows exactly where he stands in relation to others, without developing an inferiority complex just because of that. I believe that respect is the key to a healthy education, and it goes both ways. But it is no favor to the student to mislead him about his work or his accomplishments. There is room, in the world of learning, for a great variety of tastes and interests, and every student should be able to find things that excite him and give him or her pleasure. Thank you for your comment, Josie.

  24. I am a friend of Bob Hayes. He introduced me to your blog, and I have been alternately entertained and challenged by the comments from you and others. This is my first blog response, and I’m a bit hesitant, but here goes. Hope I don’t embarrass you, Bob!
    I became an elementary teacher in 1964, and remained in the regular classroom for 31 years, in spite of having graduate certification in special education (learning disabilities and behavior disorders), administration and supervision. I never regretted that decision. I taught in ‘standard’ self-contained classrooms and an open classroom (18 years). In all, I taught grades 1, 2, 3, 1/2, 2/3 and for a few years in the open classroom, grades 1, 2 and 3 combined. I see various plans put forth in the blog responses and think: yep, been there, done that. I have many thoughts on the matter of education, but it’s a many, many-layered subject, one that can be discussed for HOURS face-to-face, let alone by the written word. My fondest teaching experience came during the last two years I taught before I retired. A friend for whom I had much respect, once challenged me, saying when I went for my PhD, I should use this model for study: fill the room with books and lett each child choose a book on his/her own and they will level themselves. I decided to do that very thing (though I never finished my PhD). It was wonderful. The classroom management was complex, but every child read one-on-one with me three times a week for 15 minutes (or so). Note: in a regular reading group, each child gets approximately 2 1/2 minutes per day, according to a study I read. I brought my old rocking chair from home for the children to use while I sat in an adjacent teacher chair with my evaluation sheet for each reader. I could check/correct/teach skills in comprehension, inference, ability to decode, expression, etc, and have a real and genuine conversation with each child. Meanwhile, other classmates not scheduled to read with me on any given day, read to each other, tape recorded each other, video taped each other (old days, those tapes, but all we had), and/or read with volunteers (mothers, older students drafted from grades 4/5, or just volunteers). The children absolutely loved it. BTW, my children also did phonics, English grammar, old-fashioned writing process and spelling. I tried the ‘new’ approach in my state one year and found my class (same students as the year before) sorely lacking in what I consider essential skills. I went back to tried and true.

    I’m not sure any other teachers would like to tackle such a project, but it was wonderfully rewarding, all around. Being cautious, though, I gave a standardized reading test each grading period to make sure I wasn’t cheating the children, and, know what? They did just fine! One last small story: at the beginning of the second year of my ‘project,’ I wasn’t ready to start the individual reading during the first week, so I thought I’d just have reading groups until I could get things organized. The children grumbled at the idea, and about two minutes into the first reading group, they collectively put their books on the floor and went back to their seats (I taught a lot of think-on-your-own skills, too). I just laughed, said, ‘Okay! Okay! We’ll start tomorrow.’ We did, and all was well.

    • Shimon, Now you can see why I’m proud to be her friend.

    • It is a pleasure to meet you Myra, and all the more so, because you’re a friend of Bob’s. You certainly have the relevant experience to understand the difficulties that we are discussing, and I agree with you, that education is a many, many-layered subject. I am sure that your students still remember fondly what they learned in your class. Thank you very much for your comment.

  25. A fascinating read Shimon. And just as my government proposes to change the way exams are done for 16 years olds this week, again I think why tinker on the edges and not seriously sit and think about the long-term education of kids, it’s the short-termism and the constant looking back that witholds any real change. It’s been an education reading the responses here, and I appreciate you expressing your ideas and thoughts, for presenting them to us for discussion. Thank you

    • Thank you Claire. Usually my interest in education regards college students, with whom I worked for many years. But after writing a sort of general article after reading a couple of books on western education, I got so many responses and mails, that I started thinking about it a lot. This is the result. Meanwhile, I’ve learned much more about the subject.

  26. “But it is no favor to the student to mislead him about his work or his accomplishments” – I heartily agree! It has become common place in this country in recent years to pass students to the next grade level even if they were unable to complete the coursework for the current level. Thus “promotion” means nothing other than promoting incompentence. It shows in the students who are graduating with limited skills and knowledge and in no means prepared for employment in the real world. The goal much be to learn and achieve, and to find our role, not just to be moved along on the conveyor belt! I like the options you present here!

    • Unfortunately, this new system of handling school gives the impression that the number one objective of the school system is to perform some baby sitting, to keep the kids out of trouble, rather than insist they learn something. And as you say, the great disappointment comes when they are unable to find a job and support themselves. Thank you for your comment, Josie.

  27. Shimon – If I remember correctly, we discussed this last December.

    I too, believe that we need to start separating students, based on realistic parameters, into academic and vocational paths. My experience raising my son in a US school construct was that the overarching belief was that every student was going on to Harvard. Not achievable, nor realistic.

    Too, I’ve lived in a small town in the outback of Australia, watching the local school system at work. The system seemed focused on feeding the youth into the local tourism industry, rarely pushing a student forward to university in the larger cities.

    There needs to be a balance between the two. They do it effectively in many “civilized” countries, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the most troubling aspect that I’ve observed is that once one is placed in a path, there’s no opportunity to cross over to the other path. So even if a child is identified early on as a vocational path student, there is no chance that the child can develop into a scholastic student, regardless of the demonstrated capability as s/he matures.

    That’s almost as much a travesty.

    • Yes, we did discuss this same problem then. At the time, I didn’t realize how widespread these school problems were. As a result of an article I posted, I suddenly got a lot of mail, from many places… and it seemed that people were really having a hard time with the school system. I wouldn’t put too much hope in those ‘many civilized countries’ that you mention. It seems like there are a few that have a really effective school system. But most modern countries are having problems.

  28. George Weaver suggested I check this post out. I and my wife have both recently retired from teaching. One of the problems I have seen over the years with fixing or reforming the education system is that society is not in agreement with the purpose of education or how much it should be valued. Businesses and industries are looking for “employees/workers”. Often the definition of education sounds more like training and acquiring employable skills.
    Governments are willing, especially if it increases votes to create education initiatives, but they never provide sufficient resources to maintain those initiatives. When they fail, the teachers are blamed and a new initiative is introduced. Teach long enough and the initiatives create a sense of deja vu.
    Finally, the classroom reflects society/the community. The students are products of their personal/family culture. There is great diversity in ability, motivation, and expectations. To meet this set of diversity effectively requires money, especially in smaller communities. In Ontario Canada, the resources for each individual school are based largely on student numbers, with some adjustments for students with special needs ( not all parents are willing to have the children identified/labelled as special needs.& not not all all special needs are recognized as requiring adjustment) This allows the government to rationalize opening/closing facilities and how much money is allotted to each school in terms staff and physical resources.
    Until a society is willing to acknowledge the true range of human diversity within the community and be willing to supply adequate funding to meet the needs generated by that diversity, the choice of subject matter and methodology becomes just another set of initiatives that show up every 3-5 years on the political calendar.
    Sorry for the length of the response.

    • Thank you very much for visiting the blog, elmediat, and for your comment. Since there are many pressing issues that are related to education, as well as the needs of society as a whole, it is true that there has been some confusion as to the understanding of just what education really is, and what the objectives of public education might be. Moreover, I agree with you, that public institutions reflect the values of society as a whole. At a time in history, when hyper-materialism has become more or less ‘standard’, it is not surprising that education would be seen as ‘acquiring employable skills’. I believe that the great advances in technology should (and will eventually) enable us to offer more opportunities to the individual, including the handicapped. But it might take a while till the society as a whole will learn to appreciate these possibilities.

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