What Our Kids Need

I think about what students learn in school and I feel disheartened.  I don’t feel we are getting our money’s worth when it comes to education.  A very large percentage of the kids in our nation are graduating high school completely unprepared for a happy life. They’re not ready for healthy relationships, a boss, responsibility…many aren’t even ready for college. Correct me if I’m wrong but preparation is in fact the purpose of school, right? The purpose is not to just keep kids busy until “real life” starts. Parents seem to be trading sports and academics for just knowing how to cook your own dinner, fix things around the house, wash clothes, and do things for your neighbors.

I recently watched a movie by Carol Black called, Schooling the World, which showed many of the most negative consequences of traditional education in areas that are coined “underdeveloped” by the West. We, in the West, have become convinced that our way of life is more advanced, therefore better, than theirs so we’ve decided to push our own approach onto them and develop them. Many of the indigenous people of these cultures believe our rhetoric and sell land or homes to send children to the best schools in order to give them a chance at this life. Those children lose contact with their family, lose many of the skills and awareness of the world they came from, and often end up in entry level jobs that don’t require schooling anyway. Her message was primarily about how important it is to let other cultures develop on their own, in the way they see fit. But I wanted to apply her ideas to our economy. I started thinking about the skills that every child should know in order to live an informed and healthy life. I came up with a few things.

The first thing that comes to mind is the need for skills with tools. Everyone that comes through our school system should have had ample opportunities to try and build something with hand tools: hammer, nails, material, screws, bolts, and so on. Another thing that comes to mind is electricity and plumbing. Almost every single one of us lives in a house with both and we may be able to save a lot of money by fixing some of the problems that come up ourselves or being able to talk with a technician without being taken advantage of. Furthermore, we may recognize a poorly constructed home or apartment and keep looking, saving ourselves headaches in the future and forcing landlords or sellers to stop cutting corners when it comes to repairs.

I’m not talking about pre-planned lessons where everyone creates the same birdhouse. Those templates have a place, and I think it’s in a filing cabinet so no one can find it. I’m talking about open access to new or reclaimed materials and the time and space to just try things out. I’m talking about a teacher who knows how to let kids be bored until they discover their own creativity. And when the bored kids come to the teacher and say, “What are we supposed to be doing?” She can simply say, “There was no assignment. If you’d like to use the materials for a project you are welcome to them or you can sit and do nothing.” Let’s pretend they choose to do nothing. If you’ve spent time with kids you already know they won’t be doing nothing for long. If you think I’m wrong then I would challenge that you’ve never given them enough time. Boredom is only threatening to authority, but it is the waiting room of imagination. A person who is bored, if they are allowed to, will start imagine, fidget, roam, and eventually they will create their own entertainment. Sometimes they will choose unhealthy activities to entertain themselves and the teacher can remind them of the boundaries they’re allowed to operate in.

Kids learn so much about the world through creating and building things from materials. They learn about cause and effect, the permanence of errors, size, weight, sharpness, friction, vibration, entropy, etc, etc, etc, all without even opening a book. What’s the point of learning how to convert customary measurements to the metric system if you’re never felt the difference between an ounce and a gram? They learn even more about themselves: What they are capable of, what is difficult for them, what they like doing, what they don’t like doing, what they like to talk about and who they like to relate to.

Another skill our kids need is some level of computer programming. I think kids, not just the kids that are interested, but all kids need the opportunity to program something. Again, not a structured lesson on programming basics…that’s boring. Much like Maria Montessori taught, give the students reasonable and working tools and let them explore how they work. If you doubt the validity of this approach take a few moments to listen to the work of Sugata Mitra and his experiments with kids who have never even seen a computer.

I want to turn education on its head. I’m sick of hearing about kindergartners doing worksheets and first graders having homework. I’m tired of hearing about fourth graders who are bored with school and fifth graders who have to write a research paper about something they haven’t had a single thought about before. These kids need to be doing real work that impacts their school, their families, and their community. I want to start hearing about kids who are building things, taking things apart, working together, getting dirty, drawing, dancing, acting, and playing. And it’s not about “being a kid.” It’s about living a life that’s fulfilling. If you have a desk job and it’s not that great, that’s exactly what your child is subjected to every single day at school. It’s a desk job.

I’m not saying there’s a problem with desk jobs, but they’re much easier to appreciate when you get paid for them. I love what Alfie Kohn says in a few of his talks. There’s this pervasive idea in education called “BGUTI” or “Better Get Used To It.” Life sucks and so does work so the earlier kids “get used to it” the better off they’ll be…right? I don’t think so. BGUTI isn’t just illogical, it’s kind of a mean response to anyone’s frustration. A more appropriate approach to education is to get kids good at what they need now so they’ll have time to train more on what they’ll need later.

We keep focusing on skills that kids don’t want to learn. Of course there are problems with school engagement. What else could we expect? What of the better scenarios we can hope for is the student knows enough of what they want to do and wants to pay attention so they can get a good job. But these kids would likely do well in any program because they want to do well.  The kids in our schools have this unquenchable thirst to create. Some want to create music, theatre, dance, and art while others want to create structures, machines, tools, and income. We can tap into their creativity and their work ethic by giving them materials and tools, stepping back and supporting their attempts to create. In the process they will learn what it’s like to be mentored, how to be patient and embrace failure, how to ask for help, how to focus on a task that isn’t actively entertaining them, and how to feel the reward of a completed idea. Those kids will take valuable skills into their homes and jobs for the rest of their lifetimes. They can approach their adulthood with the confidence that my generation lacked, because someone will have believed in them enough to let them learn on their own.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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