Our schools are in serious trouble. The National Assessment of Educational Programs, for example, tells us only 35% of 12th graders are proficient at the 8th grade level, down from 40% in 1992, and 27% of high school seniors are functionally illiterate, and this despite grade school and high school spending which has more than doubled in the last 30 years.
What are the solutions that are proposed for such grevious problems? More school! The Commission on Skills of the American Workforce calls for longer school days, a longer school year, and universal preschool. (Time, June 25, 2007, p. 42)
The answer, however, lies not in the direction of more school, but less. Let me explain. Calling for more school as schools fail is a classic example of thinking inside the box. What we need is a more radical analysis of school leading to fresh solutions.
Schools were created so that we could learn, that we could understand and act on that understanding. Schools have no purpose beyond fostering that kind of understanding. What we want, therefore, is the least amount of school as an institution and the most learning. Now understanding is something innate and spontaneous in us. We see this all the time in children. They want to understand. In fact, they can drive us to distraction with their questions. They learn to speak a language, however complex, or even more than one language at a time, without formal schooling. We would never propose Ė at least not yet! Ė that we put our infants in school so that they will learn to speak properly. Given the results we saw above, if we did, we would probably turn into a nation of inarticulate people, and then the schools would demand more funding so that they could do the job properly.
Children want to learn, and we take this precious love of learning and subject it to an environment (schools) in which smothers it, but we are so conditioned to equate school with learning that when schools fail we demand more and better schooling. It is time to try something different. First comes a more radical analysis. Schools were created to foster understanding and learning, but little by little they grew bigger and more complex until, like any institution, they began to think more about themselves and their own perpetuation than the purpose for which they were established in the first place. It comes as no surprise, then, that schools are on the whole preoccupied with their finances, personnel, buildings, and so forth, and we can say that as schools as institutions increase, learning decreases. That is why the solution to the school problem of more school does not work. You canít really reprogram schools to make them produce more learning. Students are not the passive consumers of some generic educational product. They are free persons desirous of learning, and the mysterious act of understanding in them will ignite whenever and wherever it is given the right circumstances.
What can we do? We need to reverse our direction towards more school and aim at less school as an institution and more learning. But we canít expect schools to do this for us. The ability to learn is deep within our children, and it is our responsibility to encourage their development of this precious power. We canít say it is the schoolís job, or Iím too busy, or I donít know what to do, or I am not trained, and on and on. All that means is we donít want to deal with the problem, and the result of our failure to take responsibility will be seeing our schools continue to fail, and childrenís love of learning continue to be damaged.
Once we break the equation of school with learning and understanding, then countless ways to encourage this understanding will come to us. We can teach our children at home as long as we realize that we are not meant to create miniature schools in the home, nor are we to imagine that we are the teachers who must somehow implant the knowledge in the childís head. We can form simple groups of neighborhood children who will help each other to learn. We can integrate the lives of our children more into our own lives and let them see adults at work. We can devise apprenticeships, games, festivals and projects. We can help them explore nature, science and art, but in all these countless ways our job is to gently add tinder and blow softly on the spark of understanding that already exists in our childís mind.