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A crucible moment in education

There was some rolling of eyes in my community when President Obama announced he would like to see high school mandatory until age 18.  That’s because at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, my alma mater, where I’ve been teaching for the past 17 years, the standard procedure for students is to leave high school at about age 16, generally after 10th grade, and shift into our early college program.

Most Simon’s Rock students are motivated to step off the beaten path and try a different approach to college because they’re high achievers who are bored in high school.  A few come to us because they’ve been so socially mauled in high school that Simon’s Rock becomes not only an academic, but also a social refuge for them.

In any case, for my students, being compelled to stay in high school until they were 18 years old would have been torturous, and would not have improved their future chances of success any more than “dropping out” to try a more innovative form of education—early college.

President Obama’s instinct that staying in school is better than dropping out altogether is absolutely correct.  It’s just that if we’re going to compel kids to stay in school, we need to make their schooling compelling.

Lots of great minds have already weighed in on the question of how to make learning fun and meaningful, but somehow we do not seem to have made a dent in the great battleship Education, which is still plowing its way implacably through the cold waters of Teaching to the Test.

It’s true that there is a certain amount of knowledge that you simply have to be taught, in that passive sense of receiving information and committing it to memory.  For instance, the alphabet.  The multiplication tables.

And having got these basic tools, you need to be taught how to use them: how to read, how to manipulate numbers.  If you’re going to be a doctor, you need to be taught how human systems work, just the way an engineer learns how a mechanical system works, or a mechanic learns how a car works.  OK.

But beyond mastering these kinds of basics in any field, there are two things students most need to get out of their education: learning how to figure things out for themselves, and learning how important their educated selves are to their communities and the larger society as a whole.

In today’s networked world, we no longer need to have kids waste their time memorizing all the state capitols, or learning by rote anything that can be measured in a multiple-choice test.  What kids need to learn is how to find the information they need to answer the questions they have about the world.  They need to learn how to frame their questions, understanding that the way a question is asked will often guide or predetermine its answer.

Reading is still a fundamentally important skill, but what we need to be teaching kids is how to read between the lines.  How to see through propaganda that passes for “fair and balanced” journalism, for instance.  How to sift through multiple sources of information on a given topic, and understand the criteria for determining which source is most credible.

But even that is not enough. Students not only need to become active readers, but also nimble thinkers, capable of taking in a spread of ideas on a given topic, and responding with their own original thinking.  A society where kids only learn how to feed back to their elders old, predigested ideas is a stagnant society, and we can’t afford that kind of stagnation at this time.

And here we get to my second point: kids not only need to learn to think for themselves, they need to understand how important this activity is for our rapidly changing society.  And that means taking the skills they’ve gained through their education out of the school and the academy into the street.

Students at every level, even the littlest ones, will benefit from a much more active engagement with the social and natural environment beyond the walls of their classrooms.  Little kids should be planting gardens in their schoolyards and composting the remains of their lunch. In Waldorf kindergartens like the one my sons attended, kids partake in preparing their mid-morning snack, and in keeping their classroom clean and neat.

What kids learn through activities like these is the importance of collaboration to community—an invaluable life lesson that needs to start early and be reinforced in different ways as they grow older.

We need to get kids out of their classrooms and into their communities, bringing their creativity, their intelligence, their caring and their wonderful energy to bear on the challenges that lie just outside their classroom doors.Instead of our current competitive test-based system, we need collaborative learning that anticipates the kind of team-based environments of the most successful communities and businesses.  Instead of seeing kids hunched on their own behind raised folders taking a test—no cheating!—we should see groups of kids assembled around a problem, working collaboratively, noisily, joyfully to solve it.

The task of the teacher in this kind of learning environment would be to set the kids ever more challenging and interesting problems, with clearly visible and defined real-world applications, and guide the kids to the tools they need to solve the problems and evaluate their successes or setbacks.

Lord knows there is no shortage of serious problems in our world today, problems that demand every ounce of our most focused attention to surmount.  We need to get kids out of their classrooms and into their communities, bringing their creativity, their intelligence, their caring and their wonderful energy to bear on the challenges that lie just outside their classroom doors.

The Obama administration has just released a major new report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, prepared by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, which brought together leaders in higher education from around the country to come up with recommendations for ways that education can help students become engaged, responsible local and global citizens.

The report concludes that given all the “pressing issues” facing us today—“growing global economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation, lack of access to quality health care, economic volatility, and more,” educators need to focus on “expanding students’ capacities to be civic problem-solvers using all their powers of intellect and inventiveness.

“The kind of graduates we need at this moment in history,” the authors say, “need to possess a strong propensity for wading into an intensely interdependent, pluralist world. They need to be agile, creative problem solvers who draw their knowledge from multiple perspectives both domestic and global, who approach the world with empathy, and who are ready to act with others to improve the quality of life for all.”

The report “urges every college and university to foster a civic ethos that governs campus life, make civic literacy a goal for every graduate, integrate civic inquiry within majors and general education, and advance civic action as lifelong practice.”

Specifically, the task force advocates developing service learning and community engagement programs that move beyond simple volunteerism to actually involving young people as active participants and innovators in making their social environments more vibrant, more responsible, and more equitable.

Sounds good, and sounds simple to implement, but as I know from trying to develop community engagement structures for students at my home institution, it takes staffing—and therefore funding—to provide the channels students need to quickly jump into productive off-campus programs.  Commitment to this kind of active learning environment needs to come from the top, and that’s why I am excited to see such an array of distinguished leaders in education come together as the signatories of this new National Task Force report.

Let’s hope some of that energy and enthusiasm will trickle down to schools and campuses all over the country, and soon.  The tone of urgency evident in the title of this report, A Crucible Moment, and in the President’s remarks about education this past week, is not exaggerated.

We are in a crucible moment in so many ways, and we desperately need to equip our young people with the skills and outlook they will require to bring us safely through the turbulence that awaits us in the foreseeable future as the globe heats up and pressures on human society increase.

Keeping our kids in high school until they’re 18 is only a good idea if high school becomes a meaningful, active learning environment.  Let’s do what needs to be done to make that so—or let’s come up with another model.  Early college, for example—a good idea whose time may finally have come.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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