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Connections: The 'Quiet Crisis'

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A recent federal study described as a "quiet crisis'' its finding that America's gifted and talented children are not being sufficiently challenged in school. They're bored. The people we write about in this month's features would not be surprised by that finding. Nor would they be surprised if research found that most average students are also bored in school. Indeed, when high school students were asked in the mid-1980s what they liked best about school, the answer given most often was: "Nothing.''

Boredom is not a natural state for the young; children are curious, inquisitive, and ardent learners who acquire impressive skills and knowledge before they ever come to school. So what happens in classrooms that turns their curiosity into boredom? Could it be that children (like the rest of us) find it difficult to learn something they have no interest in and see no reason for learning, such as the principal products of foreign countries, the dates of great battles in ancient wars, the arcane principles of trigonometry? As Chicago journalist and humorist Peter Finley Dunne's Mr. Dooley said about school more than half a century ago: "It don't make no difference what you study, so long as you don't like it.''

At Sudbury Valley School, near Boston, the motto might be: "It doesn't matter what you study, as long as you like it.'' (See "Classless Society,'' page 20.) This private school is so wildly unconventional that one is tempted, at first, to dismiss it out of hand. There are no required classes, no grades, no curricula, no schedules. Students do whatever they want, whenever they want. Sudbury is based on the premise that everybody wants to learn and that children, if given their freedom, will learn what they need to learn. As if to prove that point, 90 percent of Sudbury's graduates attend postsecondary schools, mostly the colleges of their choice, even though Sudbury accepts all applicants--including many who have been labeled "troublemakers'' at their former schools--and provides no transcripts.

MIT Professor Seymour Papert, the subject of our cover story (page 16), would probably be inspired by Sudbury Valley School. He argues: "The institution of School, with its daily lesson plans, fixed curriculum, standardized tests, and other such paraphernalia, tends constantly to reduce learning to a series of technical acts and the teacher to the role of a technician.''

Like the founders of Sudbury, Papert believes that children build their own knowledge as they interact with the world around them. In the 1960s, he invented Logo, a software program that lets kids use the computer "to work with and to think with, as the means to carry out projects, the source of concepts to think new ideas.'' Much of the knowledge schools teach will be available through computers, Papert says, so if schools do not transform themselves, they will wither and fade away.

Although the story beginning on page 26 is about the tragic fall of Foxfire founder Eliot Wigginton, you can hear echoes of Sudbury and Papert in the description of the Foxfire movement. Struggling to capture the interest of rural high school students in his first teaching job in the late 1960s, Wigginton created Foxfire magazine--written, edited, and produced by his students. Out of the effort grew a pedagogy rooted in the belief that students learn best when they are engaged in meaningful activities that they choose themselves. His professional life in ruins, Wigginton now prays that his personal failures will not destroy his legacy. Foxfire has lighted the lamp of learning for thousands. The approach, he says, is "an attempt to answer persuasively the universal student question, 'So what's the point of all this? What do people do with it in the real world?' Rather than explaining to kids what it's good for, we figure out ways to just do it. Through the doing of it, they acquire the skills to do it again.''

Having to teach students who have no interest in learning what is being taught must be a kind of purgatory for teachers. Richard Plass, the subject of "Sweet Inspiration'' (page 32), doesn't have that problem. With the blessing of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, he is a pied piper, leading his students in a real search for real answers to authentic scientific questions. Passionate, full of energy, always learning himself, Plass is a role model and an inspiration. He has turned out 202 semifinalists in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search, probably more than any other teacher in the nation.

To paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead: In education, the main cause of failure is boredom.--Ronald A. Wolk

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