On great new ideas for schools

I don’t get as excited as I used to about great ideas for new schools.  I may seem  like a bit of a Grinch about the whole thing so I thought I’d clarify.  It’s not that I don’t think the ideas are great.

Great people have great ideas for schools and how to make them better.  What makes these ideas great is that they are based on something that really matters and means a lot to the people who come up with them.  This is how all great things are born – out of inspiration and connection.  One person might be committed to ecology and environmental stewardship, so the school’s curriculum will be interdisciplinary and will incorporate math, reading, writing, and science into outdoor projects.  Another person might be passionate about the arts, so the school will have an arts focus.  Someone else is devoted to social activism and outreach so their school will have a strong component of community service.  There’s no end to the great, inspired ideas.

But every time another one comes along, one thing remains fundamental: a handful of adults will teach a large group of children or teens a series of things those adults have decided are important (based on a cocktail of historical priority, current regulations, and personal commitment).  This material will be useful and/or inspiring to some of the students some of the time.  Each school will survive or it won’t, and others will be modeled after it or not, but it will be considered a success if some of the students some of the time are successful by whatever measures the adults have chosen.  That’s as much as we demand.  We want every kid to thrive, but we don’t expect or demand it. We’re willing to tolerate some.

In order for lasting, applicable learning to happen, students of any age need an authentic connection to the learning.  This kind of connection can’t come from someone else’s idea of the one great way for everyone to learn.  The connection has to originate with the learner and that learner’s experience and interaction with the world. It’s true that from time to time the two can sync up – an adult’s great idea for a school works just right for a kid. But so far it has happened only at that level of some, and while we keep trying and trying, many kids are getting more and more apathetic while they sit waiting for us to find a size that fits all. It costs them their vitality and it costs the rest of us all that these kids could offer if they had the chance to join us early in their lives as thinkers, doers, participants, contributors. (If you have or know any child who is better than you at something, you can begin to imagine the cost of keeping that capacity in check.)

If we were to give our own minds and creativity to freeing and nurturing specific individual connection and engagement in our kids, we’d set the full measure of human potential loose on the world.