We need to face the reality of a modern school system that doesn’t recognize children as individuals, but rather as cogs in a machine that feeds the education industry.
Drawing on Plato’s allegory, imagine some people who live in a cave, their backs to the entrance. They are unable to turn around, so their view of the world is shadows on a wall. They play, talk, eat, read, study, always facing the back wall. They can see other people playing, talking, eating, reading and studying, but only as shadows. These shadows are being cast by the sun behind them, which they cannot see. The shadows are the peoples’ reality, for they are not able to turn around.
If they were to be turned around, they would see a world they would not understand: trees, the sun, clouds, fields, etc. What they would see by turning around is a different reality than the one they have experienced. It is the world of pure fact.
This summer, my family has been travelling in the UK and Germany to visit family and friends. Many of my friends have connections to the education industry. I say industry deliberately; an industry being the production of goods or related services within an economy. The modern schooling system has become an industry, where the currency is children and children’s scores. Children’s test scores have become the currency that governments use to measure success against other schools from areas within the country, and against governments across the world. This currency is not used for trade but for political points that they will use towards re-election.
What I hear time and time again from friends is that they are worried, tired and stressed. Friends who are pulling their hair out worrying about their children’s education or their own jobs within the machine that is the modern schooling system. The teachers and administrators are people who passionately care about children, who are stifled by a system that puts test scores, accountability and metrics above the needs of the actual child.
I often reminisce with a friend of mine, whom I taught with at a public school 19 years ago. We often share stories about our time being on the same teaching staff, although now he is incredibly frustrated about where things are for him. He feels that there isn’t time anymore to know the children he teaches. Too much of his time is taken filling in data for the education industry, of which he is a part. So much of his time is taken trying to meet standards that are set by people who do not know the child. He is a wonderful teacher and he finds time to connect with children when he can. Before visiting with him, I read a beautiful letter one of his graduating students wrote him this year, where she outlines the huge impact he made on her life. With teachers like him, school was a place she could take refuge from a difficult home life. He is only able to do this because he works ridiculously long hours, squeezing in time for connections like this one between the hours he needs to fill in paper work. This story sadly, is one I hear time and time again.
Testing is Big Business. For companies like Pearson it is a billion dollar industry and they have such political influence that they act like ‘quasi-government agencies’, as Diane Ravitch wrote. See this article . And it is a business that feeds and controls the education industry. Companies make money from testing, and the testing can only be very narrow in terms of content and outcome. So far, there is not a test that measures important matters such as confidence, interests, passions, or opinions. So, they test for Math and English skills, and the ability to regurgitate facts which students have been told. Grading tests on a national level requires that the tests be easy to grade, so they tend to be multiple choice because a machine can easily mark and record the data.
As Charles Chu writes in this blog piece entitled: “How to Be a ‘Great Student’ and Learn Absolutely Nothing at All”
“This is what happens when you make learning about competition, scores, seconds, metrics and targets. All the complexity and wonder of learning is neutered reduced to numbers on a page. Education is no longer about learning, but about faster calculations, higher scores, competitive rankings.”
What we are losing is an education system that puts the child at the center. ‘Child-centered’ has actually come to be a catch phrase used by many schools, but sadly, most are far from that. A child-centered approach should be exactly what it says. Child-centered should mean that we get to know the individual needs of every child – teachers who know them well, a curriculum which is driven by their needs and interests, and a learning environment where they make real decisions about how that environment is run.
Because I am deeply involved in education, whenever I meet a child, I tend to ask them about school. Most answers are non-committal and fairly neutral: ‘School’s OK’, ‘I hate school’, ‘I get through it OK’, ‘At least I have friends’, ‘At least I’m good at sports’, ‘At least I play in the orchestra – I like that’. I rarely see a child’s face light up when I mention school. It seems to be seen as a journey they just need to get through. I might occasionally come across a child who says, “I really like school”. I relate comments like this to Stockholm Syndrome – feelings of trust or affection felt by victims of kidnapping or hostage towards their captors. OK, that might be a little harsh, but I bring you back to the Cave allegory.
So many children, parents and educators, through no fault of their own, are facing the back of the cave. They see the modern educational industry as ‘how it has always been’ and ‘the only option’. Therefore, I would like to share with as many people as possible that if they choose to turn around, they will see a reality for which there are alternatives. There are schools that have been around for countless years that offer an approach or philosophy that is truly child-centered. Many of these schools such as ours, Glacier Lake School, offer financial aid; but in a lot of cases, cost is still a barrier for families. Governments need to be brave enough to recognize this and either change the public school system towards a genuinely child-centered approach, or help families to send their children to a school where this is already the philosophy.
What do you think? It would be great if you could share your thoughts and experiences of school and the school system you or your children experience. Please share your comments below.