Over the weekend I debated whether or not to go and see “Waiting for Superman”, which opened Friday. This, as you probably know, is a documentary about the failings of the public school system and the charter schools which seem to provide a good alternative, but which are too few for the many children who might benefit from them. In the end, I decided not to see it. I’ve read so much about it and seen so many clips that, as my neighbor said, “I feel like I’ve seen it already.” Davis Guggenheim is a great film-maker, so I’m sure it is very well done and very moving to watch. But as all this media attention is being given to the state of public schools, the possibility of alternative charter schools and the revamping of the teachers’ union, I find myself wondering what it’s all for? When people talk about education, they tend to speak in generalities. Things like, “Promising kids a better future.” “Giving them a chance to succeed.” or, on the flipside, “Our students are trailing (pick a country) in Math and Science. We must do better!” Maybe the subject is too big to talk in specifics. It’s definitely a touchy subject, and as I write I am already hearing the counter-argument in my head. But here goes anyway.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite, Math and Science. What does it mean, in practical terms of the future, that our schools trail some other countries in Math and Science? The implication is always that somehow we will fall behind in fields of technology or research if ALL of our children do not score higher in Math and Science. But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that for whatever reason the majority of kids in schools are now interested in pursuing a career in the Arts. They don’t care so much about Math and Science. But some kids do, and those are more than likely the ones that will go on to be our scientists, researchers and technological wizards. So good for us, right? Why do all our kids have to score high in all the same subjects? And who determines the parameters by which their aptitude is judged? It is all very, very subjective. I would also say that, from my own personal experience, a few of the kids who were totally uninterested in school were the smartest. Their minds were too busy to be bothered with ridiculous things like long division. Kids like that fall completely through the cracks, and either go on to be lauded as “self-made” or become the Unabomber.
What is our system of compulsory education for, anyway? I don’t believe it is to give all kids a better future. That sounds extreme, but I really don’t. I think its’ purpose has not changed in the century or so since it was put into place; that purpose being to train the masses to fall in line and do as they’re told with the ever out of reach carrot of ‘success’ as their goal.
But what if? Suspend your disbelief with me here for a minute. What if tomorrow, when kids walked into their schools, they were told to hand in all of their textbooks and instead were asked simply to write on a piece of paper what they like to do most and what, at this point in their lives, they think they might want to do as an adult. ( I purposely did not say, ‘what they want to BE when they grow up.‘ I hope the answer to that question would be ‘an adult’. Americans tend to identify our entire being by our job or career, which I think is a mistake and part of the problem.) Some kids might say they want to work as doctors, others astronauts, architects, film-makers, mothers, or video game designers. Some might even say they want to manage a Wal-Mart, or work at Starbucks. As for what they like to do most right now, it could be anything in the world. (I know you are thinking they would all write down “play video games”, but they wouldn’t). Some would write, ‘Travel’, others might say, ‘play with my dog’. The point is, not every kid would write down the same answer. It is much more likely that their answers would all be different. So why do we insist that they all have exactly the same education and do well in all the same subjects?
What if these kids in my make-believe scenario were then given instructions to enjoy themselves, and were also given the opportunity to ‘shadow’ or apprentice someone in the very job or profession they wrote down on their paper? Maybe for just a few hours a week to start. The rest of the time they’d be on their own, meeting with friends or reading or yes, playing video games. They’d be encouraged to follow their interests and see where they led. Adults would be around, but only to facilitate or answer questions when asked, or to provide assistance when asked, but not to dictate. If possible, the kids could be at home with their families, but they could also be at an exploration center (formerly called a ‘school’) where resources would be available but not mandated, and they could spend time with whatever subjects interested them, whether for 15 minutes or 4 hours. No restrictions on when to eat or play – all those things would be available as well. (If you’ve ever heard of “Free Schools” they try to achieve this type of environment).
What if, after apprenticing for a few months, they realized that although they like animals, being a veterinarian is definitely NOT for them? Well, that would be fine. They could switch and try something else, or take a break until they came up with another job that sounded appealing. Along the way they would learn what skills are necessary to succeed in a given profession, and decide whether or not they jive with their own interests and abilities.
Do you think this would excite kids? I do. Imagine someone listening to what they really want, rather than just always being told what they must do. If they were allowed this freedom, they would learn math, and history, and everything else. Not all to the same extent or purpose, but because it would be integral to something they want. Testing would be a thing of the past. Experimentation and ‘failure’ would be encouraged. As Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” Tinkering clubs and inventors clubs would flourish as kids channeled their unleashed creativity into building or tearing apart and re-building. Bands would form, books would be written, and stores would be managed.
Can you imagine it? The old factory model – antiquated, out of date and dysfunctional – would be crushed by the force of millions of kids following paths they have chosen, helped along by their parents, mentors and communities.
So, Davis Guggenheim, with all due respect to you as a brilliant film-maker, I don’t see anything revolutionary in your documentary. It promotes the same path, newly paved. (Perhaps with good intentions, but we all know where that leads!) Instead, I’d like to end with a quote from Mark Frauenfelder in his book Made by Hand, which I am now reading. He says of the Alpha DIY-ers he’s met, “Their secret isn’t so much what they have as what they don’t have: a fear of failure. Most people loathe failing so much they avoid trying things that require pushing past their current abilities. It’s no coincidence that many of my favorite DIYers either dropped out of or never attended college. A few even dropped out of high school. Maybe they were lucky to have escaped the educational system; in school, mistakes result in punishment in the form of poor grades…. What I’ve learned from…DIYers is that mistakes are not only inevitable — they’re a necessary part of learning and skill building. Mistakes are a sign that you’re active and curious. In fact, recent brain research suggests that making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn.”
It is very telling that our government only gives money to those schools where kids make the fewest mistakes = high test scores. Those who ‘fail’, get nothing.
But oh, What If….