I have a lot to say about education – way more than I could ever fit into a single post.
I have two kids – my daughter is turning 18 very soon, and will be graduating from high school this spring. She heads off to college in the fall. She’s easy to educate, and would thrive in pretty much any education setting – she is engaged and curious. The way that we educate kids in the U.S. worked fine for her, although I don’t think that I would say that it was “optimal.” It was effective and adequate, and she has been very successful. She will graduate 6th out of about 400.
My son, though, is a different kid. He was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. His processing speed is extremely slow, however, which puts him in the category of kids who do not do well in traditional education. It is not that he can’t learn. It is that he can’t learn fast enough to keep up with his classmates in the typical, age-segregated, large, lecture driven, American classroom. He falls behind because the teacher can’t give him the time he needs for his brain to process the information.
Once a kid falls behind, there really isn’t any catching up, especially in science and math classes where a solid grounding in a concept is needed in order to move on to the next concept. The kid runs the risk of being labelled unteachable, and then relegated to the sidelines, to simply languish when the child is capable of learning. That kid is the collateral damage of an imperfect system. Collateral damage becomes much less acceptable when it is your child (my child) who is the collateral damage.
Because of my two kids – whose educational needs vary wildly – I developed an interest in educational policy. And because of that interest, I’ve read a number of books on educational policy. Books about homework, about homeschooling, about the history of education, and about alternative educational theories. The most recent book that I’ve read on the subject is Sal Kahn’s “One World School House”, which is well worth a read if for no other reason than he really tries to take a blank slate approach to educational reform.
For what it is worth, here is what I think:
The American system of trying to educate every child in the same way basically means that no child is optimally educated. My daughter HAS succeeded, but I wonder how much more she could have accomplished in a different system. We’ve removed my son from the traditional educational system because his needs were not being met to the point that he learned nothing for his entire fourth grade year. He is in a charter school/homeschool hybrid and is doing remarkably well, having met grade standards in both reading and science this year as he gets ready to embark on high school.
He will probably not meet the grade standards in math, which is the area that gives him the most trouble, but the amount of progress that he has made is simply staggering. And the beauty of his current school is that he does not need to be in lockstep – he can continue to work on the concepts until he learns them and can move forward. One of the hallmarks of his learning style is that he makes great leaps forward, and then plateaus for weeks, or even a couple of months, while his brain rests and accustoms itself to the new skills it has acquired. Once he is on firm footing, and has had a chance to rest, he’ll be ready for another great leap forward.
Lest people think that I am criticizing teachers, let me disabuse you of that sense. I love teachers. In my opinion, the problems within the educational establishment are generally not the fault of teachers. Education is a complex system, with complex problems that have complex roots. But we are educating our kids using the same structure that we put into place decades ago. Surely we can do better.