A Vision for Public Schools
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
In my last post, I wrote about dismantling our current system of education. But what do we build once it is dismantled? Let’s start with the end. Where do we want to go? We all want student success, but how do we define success? Better readers, mathematicians? Knowledgeable historians? Astute scientists? College and career ready? Surely, all of those things are important. Can we dig deeper than that? Can we take some time to examine what human beings need to flourish? We will go back to Maslow and let his Hierarchy of Needs, inspired by the Siksika (Blackfoot) way of life, guide us.
When human needs become the foundation for an education, our priorities change. Our metrics shift from the myopic obsession with basic skills to a far more holistic framework. That shift redefines the quality of a public education by how well it meets human needs. This shift has the potential to reduce suffering and increase joy and peace. We can then reverse engineer our school system to meet those goals. Focusing on human needs, we start reimagining schools as more than schools. They are community centers, medical/dental/mental health facilities. They prioritize health, social competency, and psychotherapeutic structures. Proper nutrition is emphasized with schools not only teaching young people how to eat for health, but providing them with healthy foods for breakfast and lunch. Schools build and sustain gardens so students can experience producing and consuming their own food. Physical education is not considered an "extra." It is an integral part of every student's and teacher's day. Time and space for daily yoga, aerobics, walking/running, resistance training, etc. is provided. Mental health services are provided at no cost to every human being in the building. Everyone is encouraged to meet with mental health counselors as needed. Guided by our current understanding of neuroscience and psychology, we develop a school culture and climate that is healing, compassionate, and inspiring. We prioritize getting kids outdoors to experience the natural world. We give them the time and space to slow down and play. In this system, "race to the top" refers to the top of a mountain, not the top of imperious goals set by people who won't be forced to play the dreadful game those goals create. Field trips are strongly encouraged. Exposing students to cultural diversity becomes embedded into each day. Students taste new foods, hear new music, watch new films, experiment with dance, and view/create all kinds of art. In the framework I'm suggesting, "no child left behind" takes on new meaning. It represents a culture where every child feels loved, accepted, connected, and safe. Understanding that ANY system of education inherently promotes narratives, values, and power structures, we take a critical look at how our current system, intentionally or not, reinforces various forms of oppression, including white supremacy. Built within the context of liberatory design, students are given the means to not only recognize systems of oppression, but the tools and resources to deconstruct them so they can build a better world.
A better world requires living with intention, in alignment with our humanity, and with happiness as a primary objective. We must be willing to slow down, be patient, and stop obsessing over test results. This does not mean we stop teaching basic skills or assessing student achievement. It means that we keep those things in perspective. They don't dictate every moment of the school day.
But, Todd.....this isn't realistic! It's some utopian vision that can't work in reality! There is no question that this won't be an easy system to build, but fortunately we already have intrepid educators doing much of this work. We can use their models as inspiration. Check out some examples below.
As a fierce supporter of public schools, I often find myself in a challenging position. I am constantly defending public schools, but I am also critiquing the current paradigm. The problem isn't the people. It's the system, and it's a system that produces a lot of misery. Within the current paradigm, people often feel they must start a private or charter school to escape the system, but that isn't the answer. At least it shouldn't be. One way to know if we are getting closer to the answer is to gauge how excited students are about going to school. Ask yourself where we stand on that measure now. How many students do you know who are excited to go to school? Heck, how many educators are excited about going to school? Our goal should be to produce a system where humans not only see relevance in what will happen in schools, but are motivated and enthusiastic about the opportunities and adventures each day holds.
The ideas I'm proposing aren't new. They're just lost. Dewey, Montessori, Steiner, etc. shared their wisdom long ago. But, in our hunt to meet economic goals, we lost sight of this wisdom and, in the process, sacrificed our other fundamental human needs. It is time for us all to recognize that the current system of education in America is long overdue for a significant upgrade that will reconnect us with the natural rhythms of life and a celebration of our humanity. If, instead of overemphasizing basic skills, we set an intention to develop the whole child, resulting in a healthy, happy human being, we will have radically transformed our definition of success. Guided by that intention, we can finally build the schools our students and their teachers deserve. Note: I serve on the Education Advisory Board for WholeHealth Ed, "an independent, nonprofit program and policy organization advocating for infusing a comprehensive whole health learning experience into American elementary and secondary education. Check out their library of videos here.