Opinion

What are schools for?

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In junior high school, and high school, two “guidance” counselors told me I should drop out of school. I was never going to make it to graduation, they said. Failure was inevitable. Why not just hasten the process and drop out?

Those counselors came to mind this week, ironically, in situations where I was learning new or revisiting favorite ideas about improving education in 2019 and for the future.

My grandson, Grafton, is 5 1/2 years old. He is in pre-school now. The several times I’ve walked his school halls and glanced in on the classrooms en route to picking up Grafton, I often think of my school experience and wonder what will be Grafton’s school experience?

My root frustration with school was I knew early on, starting when I was just a few months older than Grafton, what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a drummer. There was no encouragement for that at school, and not much at home either.

While some may dismiss my desire as the fanciful wishes of a kid, I did become a professional drummer. And I later combined my musical skills with a second desire to be a professional writer, by working as a music journalist.

Grafton is starting school at a great time in history. He can have what author Seth Godin calls a “precise focused education instead of mass batch stuff.”

Godin has written a number of insightful books about marketing and the internet. Recently, Godin launched his Akimbo podcast. This week I am re-listening to Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams” podcast episode, in which he invites us to examine, “What are schools for?” Then Godin gives a mini-history of US public education. During the Industrial Revolution the push for public education was not to train kids “to be the scholars of tomorrow.” School was used “to train factory workers, to teach obedience, and to train us to fit in,” Godin said.

Today, argues Godin, we are at a cultural crossroads. “We say the only thing we care about, the only place we’re willing to cross the street to go, the only thing we’re willing to buy, the only person we’re willing to vote for, the only stuff we’re willing to talk about, is interesting. Is art. Is new. Will touch us. It is valuable.

“And then we spend all of our money and all of our [school] time teaching people not to do that,” Godin said.

With internet technology tossed into the education mix, Godin tells us, “for the first time in history we do not need a human being to stand next to us to teach us to do square roots. Because the internet connects us all.”

Godin outlines eight aspects of education that will change when we ask and answer the question: What are schools for?

The changes include: Students having homework during the day, and watching world class lectures at night on any subject available to anyone with an internet connection. During the day students sit with a teacher, ask questions, do their work, explore.

“It’s stupid to have the same lecture, handmade, given ten thousand times a day across the country when we can get one person to do it great for the people who want to hear it,” said Godin.

Have open book, open notes all the time. Godin believes, “There is zero value in memorizing anything ever again. Anything worth memorizing is worth looking up.”

Measure student experience instead of test scores, said Godin. “Are we asking our kids to collect dots or connect dots? You can only teach kids how to connect dots by putting them in a situation where they can fail.”

Godin says, “Grades are an illusion. Passion, insight are a reality.”

Lucky Grafton. Now is an exciting time for education for people wise enough to make the best of it.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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