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To School or Not to School?

Posted by on May 10, 2013


Today, we are off to see our oldest son, Aaron (15), compete in the county track championships here in western Washington. He is only a 10th grader, but on the varsity high school team. He runs a 4:38 mile and is hoping to break 10:00 minutes in the 2 mile. Yes, we are proud of him. Not just because he is fast, but because he has stuck with something and put in a significant amount of hard work and sacrifice to emerge as a true sportsman who has the respect of his coach and other athletes. I am proud as I watch him (and usually only him) shake every other competitor’s hand after the race. We will see how his sweat and tears pay out today.

We came home to the U.S. primarily because of Aaron. He really wanted the American high school experience. So far, it is working out well for him. He is taking AP classes and getting mainly A’s with a few B’s. He is practicing the SAT already so he can score high for college admittance. He hopes to have his Eagle Scout awarded by the end of his 11th grade year. By all indications, he should get into a good university. He likes the structure, the social life, and the challenges. So, I guess the return home has been good for him in many ways.

He wants to be an engineer or architect. Great. Those careers require a college degree. To get into a good college requires a solid education in specific areas, like math and science. Therefore, a structured program serves this goal best. We do not want to rob him of his dreams.

Our youngest son, Elijah (11), is also doing well in school. He gets A’s and B’s too, but struggles with the nuances and intricacies of middle school. He very much wants to go back to England. Part of his stress is his age, middle years are tough, and part of it is his personality. He loves to be outside with his hands dirty and his imagination running free. He loved traveling and exploring new places while learning. People and places come and go and he seems fine with that natural order of his world. He is the polar opposite of his older brother. We do not want him to forever be in the shadow of his super-star sibling, so we struggle to find ways for him to excel and find his niche. Such are the trials and tribulations of parenting.

He wants to work with animals in some capacity. Great too. His career path may not require a college degree. He may benefit more from hands-on training. We do not want him to burn out in school or not get the experience he needs.

As educators, my wife and I have many conversations about schooling. We both taught middle and high school (at the same schools even). She has moved into teaching and administration for online schooling and I have moved into international and higher education. During our combined 30+ years in education, we have seen many different pedagogical theories, approaches, and ideas come and go. I jokingly tell people that if we could take the best of what we have seen and put it together into one school, then we might create an awesome place for students to learn.

One issue, however, that we struggle with is the concept of a one-size-fits-all model of education. Some children, like Aaron, crave the organized formal education style. They want to be with peers in a social atmosphere where they learn and explore common themes together. Others, like Elijah, want individualized experiential learning opportunities where they are free to learn what they want, when they want, and how they want to acquire knowledge. Maybe, as most psychologists agree, our personalities are largely set by our genetics.

Children have an amazing capacity to adapt to all sorts of circumstances. Aaron was fine with home-schooling, but not great. Now that he is back in a formal American school, his is flourishing. Elijah was very content being home schooled, but now struggles with the rigid and social aspects of school. How to accommodate both learning modalities? How does any school cope with all of the other learning styles that exist? Should all students just learn to deal with whatever education serves? If you ask 100 educators or parents, you will inevitably get 100 different answers. So, how, or should we, reach a consensus? All of these questions are being asked by educators, parents, and politicians not just in the U.S., but all over the globe.

In Europe and Asia, education from pre-school to college is largely controlled by the government. National curricula are favored over local control of schooling in these regions. The primary advantage of national education systems according to proponents is that the government can ensure an equal education for all students with measurable outcomes, hence the phrase in the U.S., “No child left behind.” Opponents assert that national education programs do not compensate for all of the diversity found in a large multi-cultural nation, like the U.S. They also contend that the nature of large government bureaucracies is not responsive enough in a rapidly changing environment. I have written about the education systems of England and Germany in earlier posts.

There is no shortage of education theories. Seminal theorists, like Dewey, Illich, Brookfield, Mezirow, Gardner, Locke, Piaget, and Vygotsky just to name a few, have all contributed to the rich tapestry of education theory. Each theorist has a slightly different view of how people learn. No one theory dominates education. Also, theories fall in and out of favor over time. Who is right? The problem is that no one theory completely, accurately, and concisely explains human learning. Some theories are not easily implemented too. To further complicate the issues, as we learn more and society changes, educational theories will continue to proliferate.

I firmly believe that as a society we need to ask ourselves what we want from education. Is it college preparedness? Is it developing future citizens of society? Is it job training? Is it individualized growth? Is it free day-care? Maybe, it is all of the above. However, until we decide on outcomes we will continue to go nowhere. Once we determine outcomes, we can define goals, develop metrics, allocate resources, and monitor progress.

I highly recommend watching this video on the history of education in the U.S. to understand how we got to where we are in education. Basically, we have an outdated education model in desperate need of updating. We are not alone either. When I was teaching in Europe and Central America, I saw the same dilemma. Fortunately, I have seen hope in some exceptional schools and programs around the world. Check out The Green School, for example. Also, check out The Big Picture School. Traveling is a powerful educational tool. Read this article from Jessica at Wandering Educators.

Like most parents, we want to provide the best scenarios for each of our children so that they can reach their full potential. We do not want to rob Aaron of his high school experience if that is what he wants and works for him. Conversely, we do not want to restrain Elijah if granting him educational freedom provides him with adequate skills and knowledge. We are proud of both of them. More importantly, we recognize that they are very different learners.


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