The World Has Changed – Shouldn’t School? Two Things Every Parent Should Ask About Their Child’s School Experience.

The world is changing at a blinding speed. We all know that and can feel the impact of the pace of change upon our lives.  If we pause to reflect upon the last 35 years, the shifts have been cataclysmic and historic.  The Osborne 1 – the computer considered by most historians to be the first true portable computer – was produced in 1981.  The World Wide Web as we know it was introduced in 1991 by a computer programmer in Switzerland named Tim Berners-Lee.  The first mass produced cell phone was the Nokia 1011 made in 1994.  Facebook was founded in 2004.  Twitter was launched in 2006.  Instagram was created in 2010.   The Tesla Roadster was first delivered to customers in 2008.

Meanwhile over this same period of time, we have seen the automation of myriad jobs that used to be done by humans.  According to Forbes Magazine’s Wolfgang Lehmacher (2016), the U.S. has lost 5 million factor jobs since 2000 – largely due to automation.  Yet we rely on technology to make our lives easier and more comfortable – whether it be following our GPS to our next destination, making purchases online, reserving a table at our favorite restaurant, ordering an Uber, or finding a suitable mate.   We spend the bulk of our work time each day using electronic devices with screens, then most of us relax, read or get entertained via screens at home or at the movie theater.

In short,  how we work and how we play looks unimaginably different than it did in world of 1980.  There is perhaps no element of our lives that is very similar to what it was 35 years ago – except one:  School.  The experience of school, generally speaking, is remarkably similar to how it was back in 1980.  To be sure, most schools are now internet connected and students today have access in varying degrees to technology. Vast amounts of federal and state dollars have been spent on building school infrastructure, creating standards and tests, training teachers  and creating systems of  accountability.  The charter school movement has gained momentum as cities and school districts try desperately to increase test scores.

Yet despite money, the political rhetoric and the many attempts at education reform, including No Child Left Behind and Common Core – the Concept of school has remained – astonishingly – almost unchanged.  The vast majority of students, for example, still matriculate on yellow school buses to school, where they spend most of their day going from class to class when a bell signals that it is time to do so.  They sit in rows of desks and listen to a teacher deliver a lesson, the content of which may have nothing to do with the content in the class they just came from or the class they will go to next.  For each class the students must discern what the teacher will ask on the test – so they can master the material in the fashion that will result in the best grade.  In addition they must take numerous other state and national standardized exams each year – not really for their benefit – but so the school can meet administrative and parent expectations.

This is the way many of us experienced school, and either because of habit or out of fear of what might happen if we change, we send our children and adolescents off to a school experience that looks and feels the way it was for us a generation ago – or more.   This archaic school paradigm we are so attached to however,  is no longer viable in preparing our young people for life and work in the 21st Century.  According to the 2015 international PISA test, American students are still in the middle of the pack when it comes to reading and science proficiency – and the results in math placed them near the bottom of 35 industrialized countries. (Emily Richmond, The Atlantic Dec. 2016)

Meanwhile, school has increasingly  become a stressful and dehumanizing experience for most students.  According to a NYU study published in August, 2015, nearly half (49%) of all public high school students reported feeling a great deal of stress on a daily basis and 31 percent reported feeling somewhat stressed.  (The results for private high school students were not that different.)

The “arc of history” has been a long one for education in America.  It will take time for wholesale innovation to take hold – and that will come as a result of both bottom up initiatives on the parent and local school board level as well as continued visionary leadership from those who are charting a smarter, healthier and more student-centered  way forward.  Indeed there are a number of inspiring and trailblazing programs across the country, including High Tech High in San Diego, Mc2 School in New Hampshire and Montessori high schools such as Clark Montessori (public) in Cincinnati, Montessori School at University Circle (private) in Cleveland and New Gate School (private) in Sarasota.  We can look to these and other models for inspiration and guidance as we forge a pathway forward that supports the development of students as individuals.

In the meantime, regardless of whether your children attend public or private school, and regardless of the age of your child, there are a two key questions every parent should ask:

Is my child or adolescent learning how to think?  It goes without saying that learning how to fill in the right bubbles on a standardized test is not the ultimate preparation for life in the complex global society our young people will enter.  Teachers, administrators, schools and sometimes entire school districts are under tremendous pressure to meet testing requirements and to demonstrate improvement in test scores.  But what do thedr test results truly show us and what are the tests actually testing?

The development of thinking skills requires the ability to connect things – to see how one concept is embedded in another, to link ideas together and to integrate content in one subject with content in another subject.  The ability to think means the capacity to sort through information; to compare and contrast that information in an effort to determine what is most verifiable.  It also implies that one can listen to another point of view and appreciate the valid points in an argument which one might disagree with.  Most importantly, thinking skills are about creating ideas that are unique to the individual – ideas that nobody else could have because nobody has the same constellation of Talent, Passion, Drive and Discipline.

Ask your child or adolescent what they are learning at school – and ask them what the new concepts they are learning  mean to them?  Invite them to envision new solutions to problems.  Engage them in a dialogue based upon questions you yourself are interested in.  Encourage them to read and to investigate topics of interest to them.  Allow them to try out different experiences to see what might spark their minds. And above all, keep a dialogue going with your child / adolescent about learning itself and the other things you place at the top of your value system.

Is my child’s / adolescent’s heart alive ? When one has to sit passively,  day in and day out and year in and year out,  listening to information being conveyed by teachers who are mostly presenting in a lecture format, the excitement about learning can wane.  More often than not, the classroom experience is not set up to to give space to the things our child or adolescent might be most passionate about.  Only infrequently can they truly follow what they are interested in because curriculum targets have to be met – and as a result learning is often a “mile wide and an inch deep.” As a result students often arrive at university, if they get there at all,  not at all sure of what they really want to pursue – and all too many drop out after their first semester or year.

Our Passion is what keeps our hearts pumping.  It is like the air we breathe – and we must preserve the heart of our child / adolescent by ensuring it is still alive with Passion.  Passion means so enjoying an activity that we can lose track of time and place because of the sheer joy of doing that thing.  Our child / adolescent may well have a Passion for certain academic subjects, but at the same time what may really drive them could be an activity that is outside the realm of academics.  Ideally they can pursue that Passion during extracurricular activities at school – but if not, finding a way for them to pursue that Passion elsewhere could be key to their overall well-being and outlook for the future.  If they feel their Passion has to be delayed until other “more important” academic obligations are tended to, then they could be deprived of the soul-nourishment they need to gain the stamina to meet those obligations.

Check in frequently with your child / adolescent about how their experience at school is going – especially in regard to what truly excites them.  Pay attention to their “affect” when engaging with them about their day or their week.  Try to be a good listener without uttering too frequent judgements or criticisms.  Sharing your anxieties about their current progress is not bad as long as you express how much faith you have in them in the end.  Discuss with them their goals for their future and try to support those goals – however divergent they may be from what you may have wished at one time or another.  Remember that by being able to pursue their Passions they’ll have the enthusiasm and Drive to accomplish many things – and that without those opportunities, their heart will not have the nutrients it needs to thrive.

At the Oneness-Family Montessori High School of Washington,  we are developing the concept of USP™ – Unique Student Potential – the unique constellation of Talent, Passion, Drive and Discipline within each individual.  We’ve identified 15 Habits of Learning essential to the development of every student’s USP – including Thinking Habits, Social Habits and Personal Habits.  In the spirit of Maria Montessori our goal is for each student to find their voice and develop the gifts they came into the world to share. 

Learn more at http://www.onenessfamilymontessorischool.org

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