"Every adult likes to be respected and enjoys being given responsibility.
Truly controlling one’s own destiny is a powerful attraction.
Adolescents are no different from us in this respect.
Therefore, set them a clear goal, give them some sensible guidance…
and put the burden of learning on them.
Such responsibility will liberate energy now lost because of the impersonality
and the patronizing inherent in the lock-step approach of many schools."
We learn most efficiently when we are learning something we want to learn or recognize a genuine need to learn. The myriad elements of compulsion within our present system of public education stand in direct conflict with this simple reality. Within the normal school day, so much time is absorbed by meeting externally imposed requirements that students rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to pursue topics of personal interest. While it is true that talented educators can stimulate interest on the part of students, self-directed learning, fueled by curiosity, is a considerably more reliable means of promoting effective learning.
The best way to provide students with more time for self-directed learning, is to reduce the number of required classes and the number of requirements to be met within each class. Although there are some “reformers” who favor lengthening the school day and/or the school year, considering the nature of the problems within public education, “more of the same” is not the answer. An over-abundance of required courses and mandated standards and objectives within courses, combined with an emphasis on preparing students to do well on standardized tests, can only result in a standardized education. That is not a satisfactory approach to the education of free individuals in a diverse and democratic nation.
Mandated standards fall into two categories—content standards and process standards. Content standards are related to specific subject matter knowledge. Process standards measure a student’s ability to gather, process, and utilize information, and to communicate effectively. Proficiency with regard to process standards can be demonstrated with topics chosen by students, without regard to specific academic departments. Depending on the nature of the topic a student has selected, a single project could include content knowledge and process skills from any combination of the core subject areas—Social Studies, Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science. Content standards and the objectives related to them are subject-matter specific. They represent “essential” knowledge (in the opinions of the various educational “experts” who have served on the committees charged with writing them). In the process of developing content standards, there is a tendency for the educators on a committee to readily indulge each other with regard to what constitutes “essential” knowledge. By the time each member of a committee has tacked on his or her treasured bits of information, the list of mandated content standards is typically long enough to consume all of a student’s time within a course.
Developing an objective means of assessing the degree to which a student has met content standards is relatively simple. In most cases, a series of multiple-choice questions, with right and wrong answers, will suffice. Process standards do not lend themselves so readily to objective assessment. While a panel of educators may be capable of achieving some reasonable level of agreement with regard to the quality of expository writing, educational displays, videos, or other means of demonstrating the skills involved with process standards, a certain degree of subjectivity is inherent in judging these types of products. Thus, it is difficult, if not impossible, to devise a standardized test to measure mastery with regard to process standards. Although an effort is made to test both content and process standards, content standards tend to dominate most test instruments. The old chestnut—that not everything worth knowing can be tested and not everything that can be tested is worth knowing—applies here. Process standards involve skills that are critical for life-long learning and effective citizenship, yet we allow content standards and objectives to dominate instruction in most schools.
In the case of state-sponsored standards, the degree to which students have mastered the objectives or met the standards is often determined by means of a standardized test. The results of these tests are often cited as a means of comparing the effectiveness of various school districts, schools, and even individual teachers. As a result, most school administrators and teachers take the tests very seriously. Students are expected to devote a significant amount of time and effort to mastering objectives related to the bits of knowledge that are likely to be tested.
While the content standards and objectives that have been adopted throughout the nation represent knowledge that has some value and may be worth acquiring, it is important to understand that very little of what is mandated is truly “essential” in any meaningful sense of the term. Throughout history people have managed to lead happy and productive lives without knowing how to solve a quadratic equation or being familiar with the works of Shakespeare. Every adult member of our society knows full well that, as adults, we make little or no use of much of what we learned in school and that, as a result, many of the skills we develop atrophy, and much of the detailed knowledge we are forced to learn, quickly fades from our memories. While there is a great deal of intrinsic value in being well-educated, the memorization and regurgitation of isolated facts hardly qualifies as a good education. A brief review of the required classes that are included in the typical high school curriculum, and some consideration of the degree to which each of these requirements are truly essential, will indicate the possibilities for reducing requirements and allowing students to direct more of their own learning without sacrificing the quality of the education acquired by students.
Most high schools require two or more years of math—which typically includes algebra and geometry, at a minimum, and sometimes trigonometry and calculus, as well. Outside of the classroom very few students are called upon to utilize any but the most basic math skills. Knowing how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and how to work with fractions and percentages are useful skills. Functioning independently in modern society requires the ability to balance your checkbook and to complete, or at least understand, your tax returns. Other skills requiring a basic understanding of math also come in handy, for example, being able to compute the cost per unit of items in the grocery store, or to measure ingredients while cooking or baking. On the other hand, the vast majority of individuals in our society make no use whatsoever of the concepts and processes that are taught in advanced math classes.
Our nation needs individuals who are gifted in math and science in order to maintain our position as a leading economic and military power. A relative handful of talented mathematicians and scientists have made the discoveries and done the work that has kept us at the forefront of the technological revolution. Individuals with the potential to contribute to scientific and technological progress, tend to be self-motivated. They do not need to be required to learn. They may, in some cases, need financial assistance to pursue post-secondary studies. It is in our national interest to see that individuals who are blessed with the ability to expand the frontiers of human knowledge be given the opportunity, and the financial support if needed, to fully develop their abilities. More than anything, they need as much time as possible to engage in projects and activities generated by their own curiosity.
Many of the most interesting and best-paying jobs in our economy require advanced math skills. This type of work is challenging and stimulating, and tends to be amply rewarded, both in financial terms and in terms of job satisfaction. It is certainly in the best interest of an individual with the potential to meet the requirements of these jobs to fully develop his or her mathematical abilities. On the other hand, there are some students who struggle with math, no matter how hard they try. We do not need every member of our society to develop the skills, or acquire the knowledge, needed to be a rocket scientist. There is no rational justification for forcing youngsters who have not been able to master basic math skills to take advanced courses in mathematics. A student who has great difficulty mastering basic concepts is never going to succeed in advanced classes where basic skills and knowledge are prerequisites. They are not likely to find themselves involved in a career or occupation requiring the knowledge or skills gained in higher level courses. Forcing them to take such courses is not only unnecessary, it is cruel.
Science classes should focus on process standards. The most important objective in science is an understanding of scientific methods. This understanding can be developed by allowing students to utilize scientific methods as they conduct experiments and study self-selected topics. They should be encouraged to report results and share what they have learned with other students. In this way students will learn from one another, developing their communication skills in the process. Qualified instructors should be available to advise students as they design and conduct experiments. Adequate supervision would be necessary in some cases, to avoid dangerous or harmful unintended effects.
We should entice, rather than force, students to study science. Students should have the opportunity to attend lectures, labs, and demonstrations, but attendance should not be mandatory. Videos should be available for students to view individually, or in groups, with a teacher available to lead a discussion of the video or to answer questions, if called upon to do so. Any individual with a shred of curiosity will be able to find plenty of food for thought within the broad subject matter of science.
The natural focus of English/Language Arts classes is also process skills. Increased proficiency in communication skills is both an integral part of becoming well-educated, and one of the most important benefits of a good education. Any person involved in the process of getting a liberal arts education should be reading and writing continually and doing so under the tutelage of a qualified instructor is beneficial for most students. The typical requirement of three or four years of Language Arts instruction is, therefore, not particularly onerous.
The problem in Language Arts courses, is that we fail to take advantage of the freedom, inherent in process standards, to allow students to decide what to read, or to select the topics about which to write. Most of the books, short stories, and poems that are to be read and discussed by students are selected by teachers or committees of teachers. Typically, an entire class reads the same selections at the same time. If the reading is done during class time, the entire class reads the material at the same pace. The teacher then lectures about, and/or leads the class in a discussion of, what has been read.
There are three serious flaws in this approach. First, no matter what reading selections are assigned to a class, they are not likely to be of interest to all of the students in the class. Secondly, some students might need more time to read (or perhaps re-read) the selections in order to understand them, while others will not. Finally, discussing what has been read is critical to deriving as much meaning as possible from a reading selection, but the typical high school English class has far too many students to facilitate the active participation of all of the students in a discussion. In most classroom discussions only a few students participate actively and enthusiastically. A few more participate if called upon by the teacher. Many students only listen. A few may not even bother to do that.
The primary improvement we could make with regard to Language Arts requirements would be to allow students more freedom to select the books they read and the topics about which to write. This could be done within each English course or by offering a variety of courses focusing on different areas of literature and different types of writing. We should develop lists of recommended readings. We should encourage students to contribute suggestions of their own to these lists and to write short reviews in the process. We should allow groups of four to eight students to select a reading and then lead them in a discussion of the material. Students should be guided through the process of conducting a discussion—learning to formulate questions and select ideas and concepts within a reading selection that they would like to discuss—so that they could engage in meaningful discussions on their own.
Self-directed learning is often difficult or impossible without the ability to read challenging materials with a reasonable degree of comprehension. Many young people today do not read anything beyond what they are required to read in school. In some cases, they are unwilling or unable to do even that amount of reading. Reading aversion is a serious affliction and it is a growing problem. Many students are caught in a vicious cycle. Since they do not read well, they do not like to read. Since they do not like to read, they rarely do. Since they do not read regularly, they do not read well. Requiring them to struggle through materials that do not address their needs, and that they do not enjoy, only reinforces their negative perceptions of reading. If we hope to help them break out of this cycle, we need to help them find books and magazines that match their interests, leaving the final selection to them. That is the most effective way to develop and nurture a genuine appreciation for reading.
The freedom to select topics to write about is even more important. It is difficult enough to write well when you care about what you are writing. The writing process can be excruciating when you have no interest in the subject matter. If students are allowed to select their own topics, they are much more likely to invest the amount of time and effort needed to develop the ability to communicate effectively in writing.
Coaching is the critical form of instruction related to writing. When students have taken the time to write an essay, poem, story, or paper, they deserve much more feedback than a few brief comments and/or letter grades on a paper, when it is returned to them. Teachers should provide constructive criticism in a one- on-one session with each student who is interested in developing his or her writing skills. On the other hand, students who want nothing more than a grade, should be given nothing more than a grade. If students do not wish to be graded, they should not be graded.
Humans are social animals. We want to communicate with one another. If we hope to cure students of reading aversion and nurture a love of reading, we must make the reading process enjoyable and/or thought-provoking. Giving them more freedom to select topics to read and write about is the surest means of accomplishing this important objective.
We must also eliminate the arbitrary division of learning into math, science, language arts, and social studies. Intra-disciplinary projects and assignments should be encouraged. We should encourage students to select topics to study that include various combinations of any or all of these disciplines. If students are being graded, they should be awarded credit in all of the classes related to a project. Teachers from the relevant departments should work together to providing coaching or other assistance, as needed or requested. While Language Arts teachers may focus more specifically on developing communication skills, reading and writing effectively is important across the curriculum.
The social sciences address most directly the goal of helping students develop the skills and acquire the knowledge needed to function as an informed citizen in a democracy. It is in our common interest as a nation to promote an understanding of, and appreciation for, the values and ideals that are necessary for democratic government to be effective. The social sciences are also the most logical place to address the task of socializing individuals. An understanding of the “social contract,” including both our rights and the limits on those rights, can be learned through encounters with the police and the judicial system, but our schools offer a less expensive and less painful way to learn these same lessons. Even with these vital tasks to be accomplished, there is considerable room to reduce requirements.
At most schools, history classes dominate the Social Studies curriculum. As a result, the primary contacts of most students with the social sciences are long, slow, forced marches through history, memorizing names, dates, and isolated bits and pieces of knowledge along the way. Most students are introduced to both world history and American history in the upper elementary grades. At the middle school (junior high) level and/or in high school they are required to take classes in both world and American history again. Students who go on to college after high school are often required to take survey courses in history yet again. A survey course in history can be helpful in providing a framework for understanding the chronology of the development of the modern world and the human race, but instead of forcing students to repeat this journey, albeit at a somewhat more complex level, two or three times, we should pick an appropriate age for a single pass through the history of the world, with a particular emphasis on American history as part of the course. This would allow more time for other courses within the social sciences that have more relevance to the lives of students.
While history offers some valuable lessons, a history course is not the only way to learn those lessons. Examining contemporary problems in courses such as Economics and Government frequently involves examining how those problems have been addressed in the past. Most of the important political and economic issues we deal with have a long history. When placed in the context of contemporary issues, the lessons that history has to offer often seem considerably more relevant. Comparative studies of political and economic systems should include frequent opportunities for students to discuss and debate issues of interest to them.
Psychology and Sociology are typically offered as electives, if they are offered at all. Psychology courses help explain why people think, act, and feel the way they do. Comparative studies of cultures and religions can nurture an appreciation for diversity, as well as providing students with an opportunity to examine their own values and beliefs. The dominance of history courses in the social science curriculum leaves little room for the study of these other disciplines. Many high school students would undoubtedly find some of the topics covered in elective courses very interesting and relevant to their own lives.
We would be well-advised to shift our emphasis away from the study of inert knowledge that characterizes most history courses and toward process standards within the broad range of social studies topics. Fully developing the skills needed for informed and effective participation in civic affairs is considerably more difficult than most people realize. Spouting opinions is easy, reasoned consideration of a variety of viewpoints is much harder. Anyone can shout down someone with whom they disagree or engage in name-calling. It doesn’t require any special skill to simply contend that the person with whom you disagree is wrong, simply because you are “right.” Listening carefully and patiently to the ideas and opinions of people with a point of view that is in conflict with your own is much more difficult.
We need citizens who are capable of disagreeing reasonably, who can discuss and debate an issue in a rational manner. People with these skills are rare in our society. The ranting, raving, and name-calling that dominates many of the “talk shows” on television and radio, purporting to provide a discussion of civic issues represent a serious threat to democracy. Our schools should take a leading role in providing an effective antidote to the venom that is spewed on these types of programs.
The give and take of a well-moderated discussion is an excellent way to develop critical thinking and communication skills. Students should be exposed to, and given the opportunity to participate in, reasoned debates on a regular basis. Social Studies classes are a logical place for these discussions to take place. Here again, the element of compulsion is not necessary. By sponsoring forums and debates (open to the community, as well as to students) and ensuring that they are conducted in a civilized manner, our schools could accomplish what is needed in this regard. We should allow students to select the issues and topics they wish to study and discuss, as well as the forums they wish to attend.
Beyond the core academic subjects, high schools typically require students to take a number of other classes including physical education, fine and performing arts, foreign languages, etc. These requirements should be eliminated entirely. We don’t need to require students to participate in sports, sing or play music, receive art lessons, or learn “practical” skills. If we provide them with the opportunity to engage in these activities, nearly all of them will do so of their own volition. We should organize intramural leagues in various sports, open up the swimming pool at schools that have one, let students join a choir or band, give them access to instruction in the fine and performing arts, and let them enjoy these activities without being coerced into participating.
The educational opportunities we offer should be available upon demand rather than presented as a series of demands. There is a world of difference between encouraging students to take a class and requiring them to take a class. There are only so many hours in a school day. Reducing the number of required classes and mandated standards is an absolute necessity if we are going to allow students more time for self-directed learning. This does not mean that students will be left on their own. Effective guidance from teachers, counselors, and parents should be available and students should be encouraged to take advantage of such guidance, but ultimately the choices regarding what to study at a given time should be left to individual students. Allowing students the freedom to direct their own course of study is the key to nurturing the love of learning that is an essential component of effective and efficient learning.
With freedom comes responsibility. Minimizing the number of required courses and mandated objectives would shift a considerable amount of responsibility from teachers and administrators to students and their parents. Students have grown accustomed to being told what to learn. They will need time to adjust to a system that lets them make important decisions about the nature of their educational experiences. At Summerhill, Neill noticed that new students went through a period of “lesson aversion” and that there was a direct relation- ship between the length of that period and the degree to which a particular student had come to hate school and learning.
There are certain to be some students, particularly students who are already in middle or high school, who will be unable to make the adjustment. It is even more likely that, at least initially, few parents will have enough faith in their children to allow them to participate in a Summerhill-type program. As mentioned previously, parents would have the option of keeping their children in a more structured program. That does not alter the fact that students who are self-motivated, who are able to handle the responsibilities that come with freedom, and who are truly interested in becoming well-educated, should be given considerably more latitude to direct their own learning. We should allow those parents, teachers, and students who believe in freedom the opportunity to demonstrate that coercion and compulsion are not necessary components of the educational process.
We should focus on process standards, rather than content standards. Educators have always debated, and will always debate, about what knowledge and which skills are most essential, but even if we could temporarily reach a consensus on the matter, the fact that our knowledge is constantly expanding, combined with the limits imposed by time, precludes a final resolution to the discussion and debate about what students should know and what they should be able to do. As we continue to add to our knowledge, and as history continues to unfold, the choices about what should be taught can only become more and more difficult. This will be the case regardless of whether it is students, parents, teachers, or curriculum writers making the choices.
Reducing the number of required courses and requirements within courses will not alter the fact that life has a tendency to impose requirements of its own. Our focus should be on helping students learn how to learn. People who know how to gather and process needed information, have the ability to acquire the additional skills and knowledge that prove to be truly “essential” as they live their lives.