Thursday, December 5, 2013

Educational Reform for the 21st Century with 100 Year-Old Revolutionary Ideas

It is obvious to many, if not most people that there are serious flaws in our educational system. Different countries have taken various approaches toward guiding students into becoming the sorts of citizens that each country's officials desire to create. In some instances, that may mean schools and policies that put religion front and center, or limit access to education for certain demographics (such as girls). Historically, schools have been used as a means for generating a functioning working class, reinforcing dogmatic beliefs and otherwise cultivating a populace that will support the statusquo.

Between wars in the preceding century, various educators and philosophers, primarily in Europe, but also in the United States, began to think of other ways to educate the "whole child." This meant moving beyond simple rote learning and memorization and, though they may not have fully understood it yet because the science was not established, working within actual neurological developmentally appropriate stages of each child's intellectual and emotional growth. Key among the influencers of their time were three individuals who established long-lasting and somewhat overlapping movements: Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and John Dewey.

The Pioneers of Progressive Developmental Education

These pioneering individuals were each deeply affected by the upheavals in Western society during their lifetimes. The impact of World War I, most significantly, caused many people of their time to re-evaluate human priorities and become more proactive in creating a future that was geared toward peace and individual development.
While World War II might be sighted as a failure of this mission, it should be considered that such movements take many years to take hold and face resistance every step of the way.

While Montessori Schools thrive, they are generally relegated to early childhood centers and few carry the philosophy through the twelfth grade. There is good reason for this, as the Montessori system works extremely well for young children and in classrooms where the age difference is quite small, but becomes trickier when older students begin to outpace one another or class sizes become too large. It is not so much a flaw of the system, however, as an unmanageable situation for most modern schools.  Steiner Schools, or Waldorf Schools as they are commonly known in the USA (named after their first benefactor, the Waldorf Astoria Cigar Company), are among the world's fastest growing school movements in spite of implications of a "cult-like" origin that often has opponents comparing the schools inaccurately to movements like Scientology. While Steiner himself held somewhat peculiar beliefs by modern standards, at the time he was lecturing and creating the foundation for his schools, it was quite ordinary and even fashionable for people to explore and take seriously the kinds of mysticism he believed in. Stripping away the man's personal beliefs, however, it is interesting to see that modern neurological science has increasingly supported the framework that he was incapable of putting into purely scientific terms due to the limitations of the age in which he lived. Because of this proven style of learning, more people migrate toward Waldorf every year and many public charter schools have tried integrating the philosophy as well. Dewey, as the American voice in educational reform at the time, was mostly devoted toward creating an informed and prepared participant for the Democratic Process. All together, these three great teachers created the foundation of what became known as Progressive and Developmental Education, something that much of our current system's emphasis on things like Common Core and Standardized Testing has left on the wayside.

Here are some simple ways of looking at where the different movements intersect and how that shifting modern focus toward these areas could help bring our current students to a higher level of learning. Steiner and Dewey agreed on the use of the Scientific Method as integral to teaching, largely through guided self-discovery. By having the proper tools (both physical and intellectual) to analyze the world around them, students were more apt to effectively learn by going through the process of discovering answers or, in some instances, discovering the questions. Dewey and Montessori agreed on tailoring lessons to the individual child's pace. While this may seem out of sync with a system designed to push students through based solely on random birthday cut-off dates, it has been shown that most young children who lag behind (for instance, late readers) will generally catch up with their peers and equalize when allowed to progress in a nurturing environment. Montessori and Steiner agreed on slowly introducing concepts and regulating the types of teaching materials used in order to simplify the experience, especially for the early years.

Points of Agreement Among Progressive Developmental Philosophies

Each of the three philosophies agreed on a few central tenets that remain important today: Students should learn by doing, they should be educated for peace, the educational experience should be split equally between teachers "teaching" and students discovering through personal involvement with their lessons, and that involving all the senses in a hands-on experience more fully involves and opens the student toward more complete learning. Yet, looking at our "modern" educational system, these concepts have clearly not been implemented as the foundation of a typical public school's approach. While "Zero Tolerance" policies might be held up as an example of educating for peace, the opposite is in fact true. These ZT policies are often akin to Jackbooted enforcement, blindly applied without leeway and certainly there as punitive measures rather than educational ones. Most classrooms appear to follow the pattern of lecture-homework-test rather than the hands-on, sensory approach that is more significant in terms of actual understanding for the student.Without understanding, there is no actual learning and memorization alone does not instill an understanding of concepts. In fact, memorization in order to pass tests has been shown to offer no lasting benefit for most people who will simply either forget the information or never be able to apply it under real life circumstances. Key among all of these, perhaps, is the concept of learning by doing. Certainly, it is daunting to attempt this with every concept or every lesson, but by pairing down the information being crammed into emerging thinkers, it becomes possible to manage while creating self-teachers in the process (also known as life-long learners, passionate thinkers, and the leaders of the future).

Physical and Emotional Side-Effects of Modern Education

It does not stop there, however. Many recent studies show that the students of today are suffering from high levels of stress and signs of sleep deprivation. This is more of a problem in the high school grades, but begins to show up as early as first or second grade or even kindergarten in many cases. The cause for the stress is completely manufactured by the rise of "standards" that are often unreasonable or, more accurately, simply being expected through force rather than a refined teaching method that would make the resulting success more probable. Homework that is busy work only forces repetition, which may have its place as a minor tool but should not be relied upon as a means to an end. Homework that is presented out of context is a setup for failure from the beginning. And homework that is not self-motivated will never be received in an effective manner. Beyond the myriad of follies with much of the homework being assigned, the sheer volume of it for many children is simply causing them to choose between sleep or completion, with no escape from the stress. Failure, for many, simply is not an option (nor should it be), but that leads to unhealthy choices. Parents frequently do not understand how different things are for their children as compared to when they were in school, and may blindly support their school's policies. There is, however, a relatively simple and scientifically sound fix for a good portion of this combined problem: adjusting the hours of the school day to accommodate adolescent sleep patterns.

Most parents at some point realize how difficult it can be to get their high school aged child out of bed in the morning. Many remember their own trials of early rising or struggling to stay away through the end of final period. Add in extra-curricular activities, homework and a bit of well-earned decompression time and many students are not getting to bed until midnight or later. It is well-known that everyone goes through sleep cycles during the night. Some children, especially young ones, may seem to function well by going to bed later and getting up early, but this is a byproduct of a condensed sleep cycle, not a natural and healthy one. A small child who normally needs eleven hours of sleep might be jumping out of bed after seven hours simply because of having gone to bed too late. Scientific studies have shown that most teenagers need between nine and nine-and-a-half hours of sleep to function properly, certainly to have brains that are rested and ready to not only absorb, but process complex information; for a significant percentage of high school students, six hours is far more typical of what they actually receive. This should, therefore, be a top priority for schools: ensuring that it is not only possible, but highly likely that students will be able to come to class physically or biologically  prepared to learn. There is little more basic than this. By adjusting the start time of school to a later hour, most student's biological clocks would be better accommodated. These learners would come to class in a physical state that would promote learning.

The "solution" to modern educational woes, therefore, could be hyper-distilled into two key elements. Number one, ensure that the physical/biological nature of the students is prioritized. Number two, involve the students in the experiential process of learning (and via developmentally appropriate methods and timing). They would, simply, learn better, be better students, get better grades and be happier in the process. It is a win all around.

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