Our American school system was based on a vision of normalization. In fact, Horace Mann’s model for a teacher’s college was called the “Normal School.” (Learn more here and here.) The mission was/is to conform students — shaping them into neat and tidy citizens — and to produce a labor force for the industrial age.
First of all, we are no longer a workforce of laborers. We no longer produce things, we produce ideas. (There is no second of all, but that statement alone should trigger someone to reconsider training a child for an obsolete goal.)
For the purposes it sought out to accomplish, it worked. Sort of, kind of. And maybe because it worked, (kind of, sort of) it stuck. Today, the United States offers a public education to anyone and everyone of school age. The problem is that there aren’t many options. You can choose between the various public schools. Some are better than others. You could even branch out and try a charter school or a private school. The rare family will seek out something even further off the beaten path — a Montessori school or a Waldorf school perhaps. That’s five options. I can literally count that on one hand.
I believe that the options should be innumerable. Learn however feels right.
In her TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned against telling a singular story. She began her speech by comparing the circumstances of the Western literature that she was first exposed to (white, blue-eyed kids that ate apples and played in snow) versus her reality in Nigeria (where people ate mangoes and “we never talked about the weather because there was no need to”). She grew up and exposed herself to African literature, which stretched her understanding of her home continent. Doing so, she says, “saved” her from the “danger of single story.”
Similarly, it is problematic to ignore the ENORMOUS spectrum of children and their individual needs. Each child is a different circumstance. The danger of a single education system is that of limits. We limit the student when we subject them to an education that isn’t custom fit. However, a custom tailored education is impossible as long as the common core is still around to flatten a child’s reach.
The really brave parents look into homeschooling, free schooling, or unschooling. I didn’t mention these options because so many families are uninformed about the possible alternatives. Many homeschoolers still abide by the common core, for example. We limit the various forms of learning when we try and stick to standards created by strangers; standards that often don’t fit that specific child.
One unschooler I really admire – a young Canadian woman by the name of Idzie – didn’t learn to read until she was 8 years old. The Montreal Gazette said this about Idzie: “She was never forced to go to school and follow a curriculum, yet has a love of the written word to which few her age can profess.”
By opening our eyes to alternatives, we discover the “many stories” which Adichie applauds. We avail students to possibilities that can rescue them from an education which does not work for them.
For so many children, this means allowing them to run free, make mistakes, and learn at their own pace. Self-directed learning liberates a student from the irrelevant pressures of the common core while opening them to a world of their own.
Adichie recognizes the “many stories” of the world. We need to follow her footsteps and recognize the diversity of our students. They come from different values, different backgrounds, have a myriad of learning styles, and each one of them is capable of something great when provided with a personalized learning environment. Once we can accept that each student must have the freedom to choose how they learn, we will, as Adichie says, “regain a kind of paradise.”