One By One
The emphasis on content standards, for example, perpetuates the insane notion that somehow every student must be exposed to a summary of all knowledge. This idea remains a sacred cow, even though knowledge accumulates faster with each passing year and even though everyone over 40 has forgotten most of what he or she was taught in school.
The overuse of standardized testing is also irrational. The average student probably spends two or three weeks a year taking standardized tests--tests that don't enhance or even accurately measure learning. And many accountability systems are based on the questionable premise that we can make teachers teach better and students learn more if we threaten to punish them or promise to reward them. Such systems may raise test scores, but they're unlikely to improve either teaching or learning.
Promoting self-education should be the highest priority for schools. Nourishing young people's natural curiosity, building on their interests, and fanning their passions is a crucial step to lighting the lamp of learning for every child. But traditional classrooms rarely foster such an atmosphere.
Coincidentally, two commentaries in this issue--one by a "self-educator" and the other by a maverick teacher--capture the essence of this conflict and the potential solutions. ("Live And Learn," and "Behind Closed Doors.") They both describe teaching at its worst and its best, but writer Kirsten Olson Lanier--the self-educator--does it best in the first essay. She writes: "I recall that by 3rd or 4th grade it was clear to me that the really vital, onrushing streams of my intellectual life would flow outside the confines" of school.
On those few occasions when school appealed to Lanier, it was the teaching that mattered: "Under teachers who believed in me or who captivated my interest, I could learn anything, write anything, and think extraordinary thoughts."
Somehow we concluded long ago that we can only deal with large numbers of students if schools, curricula, and teaching are standardized and uniform. So we group students by age and force-feed them the same material. We know that kids have different interests and learning styles, and we know that they learn well only what they consider important or interesting. Yet schools ignore these facts and rarely make clear to children the importance of what they're learning. As a result, most children see little connection between school and the world they live in and consequently wind up placing little value on learning.
Teaching and learning are intimate, personal activities that tap the intellect and the emotions. If schools are to produce self-educators and lifelong learners, they must treat each child as unique and create an individualized learning plan tailored as much as possible to his or her interests. And they must celebrate diversity, encourage debate, and value the spontaneity and unpredictability of self-education.
"Impossible!" most educators and policymakers will say. "That would require radical reorganization of schools and the way we spend time and money." Exactly. That's the point. If the medical system can treat everyone as an individual and commit to the successful treatment of every patient, then why can't the education system?
--Ronald A. Wolk
Vol. 10, Issue 5, Page 8Published in Print: February 1, 1999, as One By One