One of my ultimate goals in life is to start a progressive school which focuses on developing a passion for living and self-knowledge in children. Schools nowadays have a rote, one-size-fits-all curriculum, which is conducive to learning for only a small percentage of students. My ideal school would be communication-based, blending aspects of social work, conflict resolution, team building, and traditional learning. Classes would be limited to fifteen students, a size small enough to allow individual attention but large enough to furnish the feeling of belonging to a group.
Creative projects would be the cornerstone of the curriculum, incorporating all the life skills that make this method of education unique. The class would be presented with a number of ideas at the beginning of each project, and would also have the option of coming up with their own idea. Some examples are raising money to donate to a charity, creating an anthology of short stories to be bound and published, starting a website, writing and recording an original song, and patenting a new idea.
Because of the amount of coordination required for each project, both successes and failures would inevitably spring up along the way, giving the children a meaningful experience of what it is like to work on a real-world project. The teacher would have an important role, psychologically coaching the kids through the highs and lows of the project and facilitating discussions to make them work better together and motivate themselves. Each school day would begin with a half hour of discussion of the project that the class is currently pursuing.
The rest of the morning would be divided between various academic lessons. However, instead of standard lessons, my school would introduce each subject as a useful part of the real world. U. S. history lessons would be justified by explaining to students what their lives would be like if we were still a British colony, and by showing them what school is like in countries where political freedom does not exist. Math lessons would be justified by having the kids run a school store, or by introducing them to other practical uses of numbers. In addition, academic lessons would be split into two halves.
The first half would be a basic skills seminar, and the second an advanced class. Students would be able to choose whether to stay the second half, or else they could leave to work on their current project, read, or pursue an independent study of another subject. The students who stayed – the “second halfers” – would be known as the students with the greatest passion for the subject. No grades or competition would exist. Rather, the motivation to work would come from a desire to earn the respect of teachers and fellow students and establish a positive self-identity.
Kids would also decide the degree to which they would like to participate. Involvement would be based on interest and the satisfaction of publically confirming their talents. In contrast to today’s system, which anticipates the negative, using poor grades and disciplinary procedures to discourage students, my school would have positive reinforcement as a basic tenet of its educational philosophy. Kids would be regularly praised for their good work, and taught to compliment others. Rather than being trained to avoid the negative, students would actively seek out positivity.
For the same reason that a child on a little league team doesn’t want to strike out, no child in my school would want to sit back idly and not learn – it wouldn’t feel right to him on a personal or a group level. Each afternoon, creative activities such as art, music, reading, and writing would take place. A portion of this time would also be dedicated to the current class project. Once per week, kids would spend the entire afternoon in “Talking Time,” where they openly discuss their feelings about any issue, personal or school-related.
These sessions would help to build relationships, foster the discussion of difficult issues, and congeal the class as a team. In the larger picture, Talking Time would help kids to become communicative rather than internalizing their issues, helping them to become happier adults. In accordance with this policy of positivity and openness, disputes between students would be resolved through a conflict resolution process. The skills of compromising and understanding another person’s point of view would be instilled in children from early grades.
Students would openly discuss their disputes in front of the class, with great fanfare expected for any compromise or peace offer made. In this way, positive attention would come not just from doing good things, but from correcting bad things. The only behavior that would not be tolerated in my school is bullying. In younger grades, aggressors would be dealt with in the normal positive way. If multiple instances cropped up, or if the problem was not resolved by the time the student entered later grades, their inclusion in the school would be reconsidered.
If these ideas could be successfully implemented, the learning environment in my school would be a fascinating self-journey, as useful for building emotional knowledge as it would be for sharpening academic skills. Learning would be a fulfilling, exciting experience, and kids wouldn’t have to dread school, as they do now. Most importantly, when my students graduated, they would have a firmly-instated sense of purpose that would make them better prepared for life.
Cynical speculators will comment on the impossible idealism of this system. How could these ideas ever work? My answer: through the flexibility of young minds. By the time a child has reached sixth grade, his brain is already hard-coded with ideas that he has learned from home, school, and friends. Starting a system of positive reinforcement, teamwork, and individualized learning at a young age would create the self-esteem, drive, and curiosity for knowledge that students need to be happy adults.
My system might sound naive to those who have been through the current school system, with its grades, disciplinary procedures, and forced learning, all of which can be devastating to a child’s self-esteem. But consider what it might have been like if we had all been taught that we could be great at anything we wanted; if we were respected in school rather than talked down to; if we were given the opportunity to follow the pursuits we spoke of with such passion when we were little. If all of that had happened, then the dream that anything is possible might still be alive in us.