American education is in crisis but it’s not for the reasons that you might think. Most people believe that the answer to the problems of education in the United States lies in higher academic standards, greater accountability among teachers, a more rigorous curriculum, tougher graduation requirements, and a concerted national effort to make U.S. schools competitive with countries such as China, Korea, and Singapore.
In reality, though, it is precisely these purported solutions that are the core of the problem in education today. The push for academic achievement in the United States has created a climate that is working only to damage our students’ ability to learn and grow in ways that can prepare them for the opportunities and challenges of life. Some of the problems that are part of this push include:
The origins of what I’d like to call academic achievement dysfunction or
“dysteachia” can be seen in several recent historical developments in American society. They include:
The solution to the above problems lies in a radical reorientation of America’s educational priorities. Rather than making academic achievement the primary focus of learning, we need instead to concentrate on the development of the whole human being. This requires a deep understanding of the stages of development that children go through from infancy to adulthood and an integration of human development theory with educational practice. Our guideposts for this undertaking should include some of the following key thinkers in developmental processes: Jean Piaget, Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, Rudolf Steiner, David Elkind, Howard Gardner, and brain researchers Marian Diamond, Harry Chugani and Jay Giedd.
As a way to guide thinking and practice in this area, I’ve suggested below that parents, educators, and policy makers pay close attention to four key developmental components; one for each of four levels of formal schooling: early childhood education, elementary school, middle school, and high school. It should be kept in mind that these four developmental goals are important at all ages, but are particularly significant at these crucial stages of growth.
Children up to the age of five or six should spend virtually all of their time in educational environments engaged in free play facilitated by teachers who have a deep understanding of a young child’s social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and creative growth. Formal math classes and reading instruction have no place in this scheme and are not developmentally appropriate at this age. Kids should be involved in make-believe play, building with wooden blocks, free painting, open-ended science experiments and math explorations, dancing to music, singing, sharing, exploring the outdoors, enjoying games, and just generally having a good time! These are the types of activities that provide the best foundation for later formal schooling.
Kids between the ages of six and eleven have left the chrysalis of the home and neighborhood environment and emerged into a fascinatingly complex and interconnected world that has its own rules, dimensions, structures, and customs, and children at this age want and need to know all about this amazing universe. So, children at this stage should learn about world cultures, human diversity, science, anatomy, national traditions, the arts, how machines work, computers, biodiversity, history, and much much more. Here is becomes important to teach the symbol systems of reading and math, but this should be done only in close conjunction with rich experiences of the real world. The best learning approaches are those that either bring the contents of the world into the classroom (e.g. making the classroom into a rain forest or micro-community), or going out into environments where they can have authentic “being-there” experiences (e.g. museums, ecosystems, historical sites etc.). Children should not at this age be subjected to learning facts and skills in isolation (e.g. Direct Instruction), or learn in ways that are artificial or inauthentic (e.g. Core Knowledge Curriculum).
Students at this age are entering puberty and undergoing a wide range of powerful biological, social, and emotional transformations. To attempt to ignore these changes, and simply charge ahead with an increasingly abstract academic curriculum, is to invite acute disruption in its many characteristic forms at this age including vandalism, violence, gang membership, drug abuse, sexual misconduct, bullying, truancy, mental health problems, and basic apathy. Students at this age require educational environments that put a premium on creating small learning communities, where a sense of belonging can be fostered, and affective learning, where the academic curriculum can be taught in direct relationship to topics that are intimately connected to the teen’s own life (e.g. learning history by interviewing grandparents, learning science by improving the local ecosystem, mastering literature by reading books with social justice themes, such as the holocaust and the civil rights movement). In addition, because young teens are going through a neurologically-based cognitive “spurt” in their thinking, where they can now “think about thinking”, they should be taught a wide range of meta-cognitive strategies in such areas as: how to read and study more effectively, how to solve problems in math and science, how to write computer programming code, how to cope with personal problems, and how to resolve conflicts in peer relations.
As students move into their middle and late teens, they begin to acquire a new level of maturity that is seen neurologically in the increasing level of myelination (insulation) of nerve pathways going on in areas of the brain (frontal lobes) responsible for reflection, self-control, empathy, and self-regulation (although these areas don’t fully myelinate until adulthood). This change is reflected in the laws of many states, where sixteen year olds, for example, can set up IRAs at their local banks, drive, and in some cases, even marry. The irony is that adolescents at this age are given many new adult responsibilities, but in the classroom, they still have to raise their hands to go to the bathroom! Learning at this age should be mostly outside of the classroom, in programs where they can take practice roles in preparation for adulthood. These include: internships, apprenticeships, service learning, job shadowing, cooperative education, entrepreneurial enterprises, and other real life learning experiences. Within the school itself, students should be involved in career academies, theme-based magnet or charter schools, or other programs where they can simultaneously learn academics in preparation for post-graduate study, and pursue one or more career interests through vocational training.
Our contemporary world is beset with many problems including poverty, disease, nuclear proliferation, regional wars, pollution, and mental illness. If we are going to prepare our students for life, we need to educate them as whole individuals, developing their physical, social, emotional, cognitive, creative, and spiritual selves. By narrowing our focus to simply academic achievement and raising test scores, we risk leaving our children and adolescents unprepared for the real challenges of the 21st century. How do we best equip our kids to deal with these problems? By worrying them to death about how they’re going to do on next week’s test? By threatening that they won’t graduate if they don’t muscle under and memorize the latest list of vocabulary words? By taking away their favorite activity if they don’t keep up their grade point average? By taking them out of the sandbox at age 3 and plunking them down at a computer station? Only by standing back from the myopic view and seeing our students in terms of their whole developing will we have a good chance of saving this planet and transforming it into a place that is safe for human beings and other living things.
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For more information, see my books: The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice