Monday, September 22, 2008

My beef with the public school system

More than 100 years ago Maria Montessori got it right. She believed that children learned through spontaneous self-development. If the right environment was provided for children to experience different challenges and learn new skills they would excell in ways that traditional education can't compete with. She also believed that grouping children by major growth periods was better than grouping them by 1 year intervals. In other words she instituted a multi-age, child directed classroom. A study in the Journal of Science in Sept. of 2006 upheld the belief that Montessori educated children do better academically and socially than their peers educated in traditional public schools.

I was a Montessori educated child. I taught myself to read when I was 4. My mother went back to school. She didn't have enough time to spend hours reading to me during the week. It made me mad. So... I showed her! I taught myself to read. Looking back, I'm sure that the hours I spent in school taught me many of the skills I needed to put it all together and really read. The teachers also took turns during the week choosing our language of the day. One teacher spoke Spanish with us, another spoke German, and yet another spoke English. We didn't just learn a few words or phrases of each language; we spent most of the day speaking to our teachers and our friends in whichever language was chosen for that day. Our teachers fostered mental flexibility and taught us to seek challenges rather than boredom.

And therein lies my beef with the public school system. Conformity seems to be the word of the day. If you're different there are all sorts of interventions the school's willing to help you with in order to make you more normal. If a student is falling behind the class there is help available to assist them with catching up. It's all very nice and seems to be in the students best interest but what I see is that the final result is to make everybody the same.

We are not all the same and it is damaging to believe we should be. I was an advanced student. That should be a good thing, right? In reality it was horrible. Being advanced meant that I got to do the same kind of homework for weeks while the rest of the class caught up. Hours worth of busy work, no challenge except to keep from turning my homework into paper airplanes and sailing them out the classroom door. In the beginning I loved school. By the time I graduated I was skipping more days than I attended. Of course, I was advanced so I manipulated the system so that most of the skipped days were school excused, but the reality is that I attended only 80 days of my senior year. Imagine how much better a student, and how much better a work ethic, would have been developed in an environment that rewarded individuality and provided constant challenge and opportunity for growth.

The school system (at least around here) is broken. It's not the fault of the teachers. They do an amazing job within the guidelines they're given. I believe that each and every person I've encountered in the Nampa School District truly cares about my child and wants to help him. I also believe that if they do get to help him become "more like his typical peers" they'll break him. There's an underlying belief that if we can just get everybody to the same level of (insert something here) the world will be a shiny, happy place and we'll all live happily ever after.

My son is different. He thinks at a different rate of speed, in different directions, and about different subjects than his "typical peers." Different isn't bad. It isn't even less than optimal. It's just different. He isn't broken, we don't need to fix him. We just need to help him learn. Amazingly, spontaneous self-development occurs when you allow a child to pursue his own interests in an environment that's supportive and rich in stimuli. Who would've thought it?

My grandfather, mother, and I are all scientists by education. By trade I'm a mother and dog person. By trade my mother is a microbiologist and my grandfather was a leader in the field of micology and forest pathology. I keep hearing that America is falling behind the pack when it comes to science and math. I'm not sure what education looks like in the countries with the best outcomes in these fields (ooh! research project!!) but I bet it doesn't look like American education today.

Successful scientists question. They don't follow the pack. They are amazing problem solvers. Clear linear thinking is required to insure that the scientific process is followed (and your results are solid). Abstract leaps of logic are required to tackle problems that no one has ever solved before. Einstein was not a normal student. Luckily he found good mentors who helped him in his education while he was still very young. It wasn't the school system that developed Albert's mind and love and learning. It was that amazing ideal espoused by Maria Montessori, spontaneous self-development. What if Einstein were "helped" to fit in better with his peers? Would he have followed the incredible road that led to his many discoveries in the realm of physics? Or would he have worked harder to learn basketball, to dress, and act, and talk like the other kids in his class? Would he have accepted that his classmates were his peers? Or would he have continued his quest for information and understanding that allowed him to meet his true peers?

Conformity makes it easier for those in charge to stay in control. In a school system that lacks parental involvement (even though the school welcomes parents, most don't visit regularly) the teachers either need a new method for teaching or they need the majority of the students to be somewhat similiar in learning styles and needs. Heaven forbid we shake the system up enough to try something like Maria Montessori's education model. A world without grades, the sky would fall!


Mrs. B. Roth said...

I agree with you. Move down here, let's start a montessori inspired free for all educational co-op thing. Wouldn't it be nice to have some big warm room with space to run around and burn off energy, but a place to sit and read books about everything, a place to nap, and endless supplies for art projects and no worries for paint on white carpet or couches? You just show up at this place with all the kids, lunch is provided, maybe there are a few teachers, but moms are teachers there, too: one mom reads to kids who want story time, one mom runs with kids who play tag, one mom makes sure no one eats too much past or paint, some mom helps with numbers and counting and geometry and trig. There's space for playing in dirt and growing plants. There's class pets for learning biology and kindness. Plenty of cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes ... a place designed for kids to just be kids ...

*big sigh*

You make me want to stop telling my kid to stop being weird - weird is fine, he gets it from his parents anyway ... I hate being torn between wanting him to fulfill his potential and fit in.

So much in our country is falling apart - economy, school, morals ... I worry and try to prepare my kids to live in this insanity, there are easier ways, if I was just brave enough to jump in.

Janet said...

You move back here! Idaho's one of the least restrictive states in the nation when it comes to most anything including educating your children. We are blessed to live here where there are so many other people who support our freedom of choice.

I think you Montessori style co-op sounds like an excellent idea. If it were cheaper (or we weren't so poor) I'd enroll my children in the Montessori elementary school in Meridian. That method of teaching works so well it's always been a mystery to me why the public system doesn't use it.

Amy said...

I think the problem with our education system is it's focus. When you think about the sciences and what we are lacking, people seem to think that means more math, more hard sciences and a stronger focus on the basics. But I think we are actually loosing our creativity.
Schools are spending so much on sports and PE to fight the trend of obese children, or so they say. I think this could really just reflects the whole sports hero and movie star obsessed society we are becoming. As a heavy child I found that the best defense was actually my sense of self worth. I really wasn't ever picked on for my weight because I believed in my self and my talents. PE never taught me to love a sport and be active for life. Did it for you? No what gave me my confidence was my family support and having things I was good at.
For me those were the "elective classes". Now don't get me wrong, I did very well in school, but music was my passion. I had been singing in school choirs for as long as they were offered and even longer at church. I took piano lessons for years. I also enjoyed Year Book, and several other extra curricular activities. I know you, think I'm rambling and forgot where I started but I haven't. Bear with me just a little longer.
When I went to apply for colleges I was surprised at the fact that not only would colleges and universities send me info on their music programs, but they all also sent me info on their math and science programs. Because as school districts are cutting funding to music and art programs, when they see PE and the "basics" are more important, they seem to be ignoring the well documented correlation between music and mathematical abilities. They aren't seeing the possibility that we are losing ground in the sciences because we are losing the forward and creative thinking that is needed to see the future possibilities!
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is the only track to follow to become a great scientist, I'm just saying I think that schools have forgotten that this is even an option. Not everything is about the "basics", those "extra" subjects are important because not everyone learns in the same way, And by limiting the choices I think you are cheating some of these children out of the sense of self worth to say,"I can change that"

katie said...

WOW!!! You guys are awesome!!! I'm ready, let's start this school! And, LOL about PE.

Can we have cute plaid uniforms, tho?

Janet said...

Amy- you're absolutely correct in your assertion that good scientists and math nerds are creative. I think you captured the idea I was trying to express with much better words than I did.

Katie- Land's End pleated skorts all the way!!! I think the matching maryjane shoes should be required for the girls too.

Jake camping in the living room

Jake camping in the living room