My focus and great concern for the past 30 + years in “education” has generally been keyed on what constitutes true education of “adolescents to young adults”, 13-25 years old and how truly inadequate contemporary education has proven to be for the vast majority of students.
Many years ago, 1984, I began working at a school for bright dyslexic students who came to high school with very poor academic skills and very low self-esteem and a sense of the futility. The structure of the school was framed around a more intimate form of teaching and learning, which was quite appropriate for the population. However, the premiere program in the curriculum was the outdoor leadership and experiential education courses, that were required for all students. These courses were a form of “rite of passage” that challenged students to come to grips with their insecurities and to learn to think through problems and collaborate with others to overcome the experiential challenges they were confronted with. The results of these experiences were very visible and clearly helped students develop the confidence and skills, to apply to the far more challenging academic expectations for a dyslexic student of college-bound traditional courses of study. The resilience, grit, confidence and trust-building learned through these experiences formed a life-long foundation for these students. For me, who was schooled in a very traditional, lecture and memorization format, it was a revelation which has stayed with me throughout my lifetime!
What I Learned
Adolescent students learn the best by doing and acting on ideas in a tactile and interactive form. It is just how the adolescent “homo sapien sapien” brain is wired. Remember the greatness of recess and the science labs and the field trips. They weren’t just breaks in the monotony of concentrated sitting. They were a release to do what comes naturally. To interact, collaborate, respond affectively to stimuli that were part of a natural expression of learning.
- Up until the Industrial Revolution in which the a mass population of basically educated individuals were critical to mass production and the drive to capitalize on rapid economic growth, learning was found in the apprenticeship and the hands-on demands of learning skills to get through everyday life. With the industrial model of mass production came the industrial model of mass education to teach the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. These skills are still essential for the modern person, however, the industrialized form of American education does little to educate students to develop the skills that can take the basic R,W, A into far more versatile and necessary realms of ability that humans will need to effectively manage the very disruptive and complex world of the future.
- It is the very skills embedded in school “Recess”, in a pickup soccer game, in working under the hood of an automobile, or hiking into the woods and camping out fishing for food and finding shelter that become embedded naturally into how an individual approaches life’s challenges. It isn’t these specific experiences (fishing etc.) that are necessary to build skills of creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, resilience and grit, but rather what they and other similar experiences require individuals to do; that is practice adapting, working together and pooling resources, in planning and thinking about circumstances that are both immediate and anticipatory, in creating imaginative solutions to complex problems.
- Future challenges unlike we have ever experienced, will require individuals and new forms of communities to bring to bear not only hard skills learned but also the essential glue of “soft skills”, to get the work done, well and with thoughtful understanding of the ramifications of their actions.
What Some Schools Actually Do
Schools are the singular place where consistent practice of these affective skills can occur. I know of several independent schools who use timber-frame building or school based gardens as tools for not only learning hard skills but even more significantly the soft skills necessary to pull off completion of the projects. It is through the planning, design, project coordination, construction and finishing, that mathematics, conceptual design and use planning, mechanical and engineering physics, are applied. It is also where the history of building design, cultural history, literature and science are blended into the exercise. As a result, students learn how to get complex projects completed and their historical and literary place in the human experience.
There are some schools that integrate the design of gardens and the types of food produced with academic learning about human nutrient, body chemistry, physical, emotional and cognitive health and brain development, with the biology of living cellular structures, with the literary expression of the wonder of life and human development, with the history of plant domestication and civilization, with an application of mathematics and food use and fertility and production.
In these contexts, students get the math, the science, the history, the writing skills, the literary expression, if learned this way; because it makes sense, has meaning and context, and is intellectually engaging. This is the way the mind of the adolescent works by answering the question of “why am I studying this stuff?” And throughout, students are also using those essential soft skills, which can only be truly learned by practice, over time.
My regrets for this society which has so much potential for a bright future, is the chronic dumbing down and shallow thinking about what education. Just reading writing and ‘rithmetic? This dumbing down is similar to what happened with Television at its inception; it always had the potential to be a powerful tool to elevate the social discourse and knowledge base of modern society. Programming could have exposed society to more thoughtful and fulfilling ideas and histories of the human experience, and thus elevate humanity to brighter levels of function and social care. Instead, it evolved into a capitalized, profit-making machine offering deadening and superficial “entertainment” for the masses.; very cynical and very destructive. A profound loss of opportunity that could have truly elevated the standard of the world cultures and enhanced human understanding for an effective and cooperative global community.
The future of the World and the success of Homo sapien sapiens will be very dependent on creating a new model of education which give the next generations the frames of mind, the soft skills, and the practice to come to grips with the future disruptions which are coming; at an increasingly rapid rate and unpredictable form. To manage the disruptions or to simply react and so succumb. It takes vision and a sense of shared mission; not fractious, self-serving rhetoric and status-quo thinking.