September 20, 1990

Exceptional Schools

Being cute and clever doesn't count for as much in the adult world as knowing how to do things does. It is COMPETENCE that produces true self-esteem.

I recently watched a TV series on schools. The media people took their cameras into several schools that had "turned things around" and were delivering "quality" education where little of worth had existed before. With one exception, I found them a bit disappointing.

I don't mean to minimize the accomplishments of schools that have converted blackboard jungles into gardens where kids are happy and learning. To me, however, that is only a first step and, unless they go further they will have failed many of the kids; certainly not all. All that some kids need is encouragement and they will go on to do wonderful things on their own. What's more, all of those schools have gotten the parents involved in the education process. This will make a profound difference because it is the parents who can most influence their children to accomplish. To these school's great credit is the fact that they have all gotten their charges to love school, to read write and cipher and they have fired some of them with ambition.

What I had trouble with was that most were "teacher centered". The education process revolved around a charismatic teacher who posed the questions, knew the answers, and rewarded the kids for agreeing with her. It was, in essence, the "gumdrop method" which rewards correct answers with candy or other goodies. And there is no question that the gumdrop method works, particularly in the lower grades. Gumdrops make happiness and happy kids do learn.

As I watched the teachers and pupils, I wondered what would happen to the kids when they no longer had a teacher who said "Very good, Johnny, that was the correct answer."

In simpler cultures, children learn the skills that they will need to stay alive. In our super-specialized culture, we often teach our young as if we expect every one of them to grow up to be a school teacher.

I would have been content with what those schools did, but for the existence of the City Magnet School in Lowell, Massachusetts. A "magnet school" takes its students from the whole city, in contrast to a neighborhood school. This one admits kids in proportion to the ethnic and racial percentages in the city, and takes them on a first come, first served basis.

This school is different. Instead of the educational process being centered on the teacher, it is centered on the students, with the teacher more-or-less in the background.

It takes a very competent teacher to create this kind of rich learning environment and to ask provocative questions. It is much harder to do than to lecture. The goal, however, is for the student to learn, not for the teacher to teach. When the student takes an active part in the process, he will learn more than if he is simply a vessel to be filled with information. And he will enjoy it.

They call it a Micro Society school. Kids (Kindergarten through 8th grade) have conventional classes in the morning and "Micro" in the afternoon, where they apply what they learned in the morning. They have a complete community with a government, court, a bank, theater, newspaper, stores, factories etc. The kids run it. They print their own money, do business, pay taxes and tution, and so on. It is the adult world in miniature. Their schooling does not make better students; they learn how to be adults. These kids know how to write a check, can figure out what is worth buying and how much to spend for it. What the teachers do is to teach the kids how to do things and then let them do it. And they not only do it well, they help one another. They learn to work together; which is what much of the adult world is all about. As I watched them, I saw them less as children than as young adults.

The kids got their rewards from their own accomplishments and the accomplishments of the group. There was praise for accomplishment, but it was of the subtle kind that we adults prize. Instead of "That was very good, Johnny" it was "Your story was exciting" or simply a smile from the teacher. More often, the praise came from the students themselves.

In the Micro Society school, children have a chance to learn those things they will need as adults. The child who wants to go into sales, learns how to sell and what makes a business work.The one who wants to be a writer, or printer, or computer programmer, or craftsman, doctor, lawyer etc. learns what he needs as well.

All learn what they have to know to be citizens in a free society. One important aspect of this is learning how to get along with people from different cultures and people who think differently about many things. The City Magnet School has a very diverse group of students, which mirrors the racial and ethnic makeup of the city.

The kids in this school do very well on standardized tests. This would be expected, since most kids who are led to believe that they're "special" will do well. There are, however, no tests for the really important things that a child learns, nor will there ever be. The real test of what the school accomplished will be how these kids do in the real world. I believe that most of these kids will do better than they would have had they gone to a standard-type school.

In short, when these kids leave school, they will be young adults, not larger children. They will have acquired the only thing that I know of that produces true self esteem: COMPETENCE.

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