The musical “Pippin” contains a song called, “If I Ruled the World.” I’m not crazy about the song, but I like the concept. Thinking about utopian ideals is fun and valuable even if you don’t have the wherewithal to rule anything.
I think about the perfect school. A small part of my musing comes from chafing against institutions whose aims I can’t entirely support, but a much larger part is thinking that, after more than 25 years teaching, I know something about what education is and how it should work.
In The End of Education, Neil Postman wrote that most schools get caught up in physical and practical questions about how to run things—how to integrate technology in the classroom, how to create a schedule that rotates classes or allows for a longer lunch, how to improve faculty to student ratios (usually without hiring teachers). They never get around to the metaphysical question of what students and teachers are doing there.
My perfect school starts with a metaphysical premise: education is impractical. Anyone expecting to be specifically prepared for work life or hoping to gather some particular body of knowledge had better go elsewhere. Schooling wastes all sorts of resources and can’t turn a profit (or even break even) because education is a fundamentally unreliable transaction. Seek effective economies of scale and control everything a school offers and still so much rests on the students and whether they understand and absorb what you are serving. Inputs and outcomes rarely match—sometimes the most inefficient and expensive way is nonetheless the best way. Sometimes tremendous expense yields a result that might occur much more simply and cheaply.
And there’s no universal answer, no single magic that works on every student. You have to keep the wand waving broadly and hope that somewhere someone feels charmed.
Which suggests to me that school should focus on training, mental exercise to develop, discipline, and generally groom brains. While addressing future jobs seems impossible, we can predict students will need to use their minds resourcefully.
I know people hate warm and fuzzy pronouncements like these because they don’t translate into bricks, dollars, or payrolls. They don’t answer how many desks are needed or how the school day times out. They don’t assure every student a reliable product.
Yet my thinking does lead to some practical possibilities for my perfect high school:
- Scrap the subjects system: Right now nearly every high school has classes in English, Languages, Math, Science, Arts, and History, but some of the most dramatic and valuable learning occurs between the classes when students learn to apply the thinking skills they use in one subject to another. We could offer classes with two concentrations—math and science, for instance, or art and writing.
- Cover less and uncover more: Why not have four required classes in high school instead of five or six? As each could be a combination of two traditional subjects, we could still expect students to cover all the traditional subjects while minimizing the plate-spinning most high school students engage in now
- Teach students to speak and think in languages earlier: Youthful brains soak up syntax and vocabulary unconsciously, and if students learn language earlier, they might take a literature class in their second language instead of English. If you wait until high school, they will have to muscle through, requiring grammar and drills to take in what they might have done more enjoyably and gently earlier.
- No grades: Grades encourage extrinsic motivation and academic bulimia inconsistent with learning. While grades allow schools to assess students in a nearly industrial way, marks often discourage enthusiasm. The end and not the means can come to matter most. As impractical and unwieldy as it may be, students deserve qualitative assessment. A student who is trying hard benefits much more from a conversation than an “C.”
- Look for teachers who are good at teaching: Combining subjects would require more flexible teachers, people more notable for their instruction than their knowledge. Obviously, instructors must know their area well to answer the questions students ask, but they should also model learning by grappling with the same “in-betweenness” students will face.
- Add choices: Students might perform better if they could navigate by their talents and interests instead of by a chart of requirements. We should reward students for pursuing their passions, not for their capacity to excel at tasks that mean little or nothing to them. The exposure we wish for students should be a wide range of mental activity: expressing, experimenting, decoding, figuring, explaining, solving, and other broadly applicable abilities. If every class addressed vital mental competencies, the subject would matter less.
- Make every class a laboratory: We often give students a thousand little pieces to assemble on their own time. Instead, we might greet them with a task that requires them to identify, develop, and apply knowledge necessary to achieve that task. Have a class stage a scene from Shakespeare or write an analysis of a recent event without any parameters at all.
- Less homework: Students don’t need more to do. Brain research indicates that a good night’s sleep does more for education than an additional hour of drudgery. While some homework may be a necessary evil, learning occurs in quiet moments of reflection too. Students need time to mull over what they’ve encountered. Drilling may be necessary and can’t always happen during class, but any homework should focus on relevance and, whenever possible, thinking comprehensively.
- Attend to surroundings: Learning can occur anywhere, but a warm and comfortable setting assures students that the school cares. The corporate school communicates something else—that what’s needed is simply a place to hold classes rather than a place to enjoy community and the common purpose of learning.
- Explain everything: Many students feel acted upon, and resentment arises from any obligation, but some student diffidence comes from poorly communicated objectives and rules that, without justification, seem arbitrary. Whenever and however possible and within limits, students ought to participate meaningfully in running the school. Schools exist for them after all, and not the other way around.
If this blog had more readers, I might worry about attacks on my plans as unrealistic, vague, or just plain loony. In case my proposal upsets anyone, however, I’ll put up one preliminary defense. When school starts tomorrow, I will reenter my classroom enthusiastically and do my best to take advantage of all that’s good in our current system.
I’m just dreaming, and you can’t fault a person for that.