What We Really Need From Public Education
The debate rages on about so many things in public education. The size of classrooms, content of curriculum, whether grades should be granted or a pass/fail system is better. The role of vouchers. How much teachers should be paid. What principals should know how to do. Whether school boards help or hinder educational progress. Whether federal or state mandates should govern testing and how to deal with outcomes when they do.
What we need from public education is for kids to learn how to learn. It’s as basic as that. They need to learn the systems we use to make meaning of things and to communicate with each other. They need to learn the symbols of these systems—numbers and letters—and how symbols are put together with directional markers such as addition or subtraction signs and punctuation to convey information. Rules govern these systems and kids need to be taught what they are.
They need to be taught the rules for living in a free society: how to understand their rights, appreciate their responsibilities, and be aware of how their choices can impact the freedoms and responsibilities of others. For this, they need to learn right from wrong. Good and bad are by-products of decisions that life takes care of whether we understand them or not.
As an example, one of the rules of living in a free society is driving on the proper side of the road. There is a right way. If someone were to decide that he would rather drive on the other side of the road—the wrong way—and that as a free citizen he should be able to do so, he would soon discover that it was a bad decision.
Kids need to learn how the natural world behaves—things like climate and wildlife and the properties and elements that make up these systems. They need to be taught the concepts of independence, interdependence and collaboration. They need to know the facts of how our Nation came to be, what the words of our Forefathers were, and the context within which these words were spoken and written. It is becoming more and more necessary to learn about the world—its geographies, climates, cultures, and rituals—because like it or not, we are global citizens.
At some point, children need to learn how their bodies and minds develop and how to take care of themselves in order to give their own systems a chance to function well.
Teaching the fundamental operating mechanisms of life today is what public school education should be about. It is, after all, the foundation for equal opportunity. Let’s teach kids how to learn so that no matter what profession, culture, country, or contribution they seek, they have the wherewithal to figure things out, make decisions, and take reasoned and purposeful action.