IDEA #8 A Balanced K-12 Curriculum
Few people would argue that our American way of life is satisfyingly well-balanced at any stage of life. I believe that our school system has a lot to do with that. In order to free up the maximum number of adults for productive employment outside the home and minimize the number of those adults employed to teach our children, we crowd 25-30 kids into a single room often with a single teacher. This is a prescription for chaos unless the children are required to sit still and keep quiet most of the school day. Then we wonder why our children and adults exercise too little, become obese and only want to passively watch TV when they're not working.
Again, I think educational excellence is essential to a democracy and is a mighty poor place to economize. So let's be idealistic for a moment and think about what our children really need in order to lead a satisfying, well-balanced life during their childhood that will set a healthy pattern for the rest of their lives.
First of all, we need to strike a better balance between active doing, passive receiving, and quiet reflection and absorption. That means kids need to have room to move, both indoors and out. At the primary school level (preschool through grade 3--see IDEA #7 below), nearly everything should be done with movement, mostly large muscle movement with gradually more fine, small muscle movement as the children mature. At the elementary school level (roughly grades 4-8), half of each school day should still be spent in motion (a mix of large and small movement, indoor and outdoor).
I wish I could remember the name and author of a tiny book someone once lent me about a small Japanese school started after World War II where the children spent the morning in the classroom and each afternoon walked as a group through the adjoining neighborhood, parks, and downtown with their teacher exploring everything they saw and heard in the world around them. I'll bet the graduates of that school still enjoy a more active, balanced, healthy lifestyle today. I'll also bet that teacher didn't have 25-30 kids to shepherd around town.
At the high school level (roughly grades 9-12), students should already be spending large amounts of their school day in workplaces as volunteers and apprentices. They need to be exposed first hand to a wide variety of career and service activities, both active and sedentary, indoors and outdoors. Only in this way can they begin to get a sense of where they fit into the world around them, what kinds of work interest them and use their special talents.
Secondly, our schools need to strike a better balance between receptive and expressive learning activities. The days are long gone when psychologists thought of children as being blank slates to be written on, or clay to be molded into whatever shape society finds useful. Today it is widely accepted that children come into this world with different personalities, paces, and perceptions. Those differences are only widened by their early relationships with caretakers in the isolation of our nuclear families.
By the time they get to school, most children have a lot to say about what they need and what they prefer. Parents are offering choices to their children: Do you want blueberries or strawberries on your waffle? Would you like to wear the yellow dress or the green jumper to school today? All that changes on the other side of many schools' doors. Children are expected to sit attentively and take in whatever the teacher/school board/textbook writers think they need to learn hour after hour, day after day. Correcting written work or listening to students read their essays aloud or having a consensus decision-making session on what project to undertake all take up too much of the teacher's limited time. Expressive subjects like art, music and dance are considered frills we can no longer afford in many schools.
Hence we end up with many youngsters who cannot adequately express themselves in a positive, constructive, creative way. This leads to incoherent frustration that comes out in graffiti, vandalism and violence. A democracy depends on the expressive skills of its citizens as well as its leaders. We need to take the time to allow our students real choices in the schoolrooms, real debate and decisionmaking about the things that are important to them in their daily lives.
Thirdly, our curriculum needs to strike a better balance between teaching children about the societies humans create (language, culture, history) and teaching them about the environment (universe, planet, ecosystems) that created and sustain us as human beings. These two facets of our knowledge and experience should be of equal importance. Knowing our essential nature and being thoroughly rooted in the web of life of which we are a part gives us a sense of belonging, of being a part of something greater than we are as individuals and as a single society among many. As the saying goes, We can only give our children roots and wings. Being grounded in nature is every bit as important as learning how to soar with the societies we imagine and create. Things that are of equal importance need to be given equal time and resources throughout our school years.
Finally, we need to strike a better balance between the abstract and the experiential. There is currently too much emphasis (time spent) on theories (stories) of history and on literature and too little time spent on researching the lives of everyday people in our communities and reading the biographies of the people who have shaped our culture. We need to teach our children how to make mindful choices, evaluate the conseqences of their actions, and share their experiences with one another. We need to help them see how the times in which a person is born, the large-scale events that shape history (technology, recessions, wars) interact with the unique personality of each person and can bring out the best or the worst in them. We need to help them learn from the precious, dearly-bought experience of their elders, their fellows and themselves.
Our goal in education, as in life, should be to find a daily balance that supports our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves. We need whole people, well-balanced and -centered, to be the productive participants in our democracy and economy. The daily lives of students as well as workers need to be reasonable, sustainable and satisfying. Only then will we have a society with a balanced, healthy lifestyle for every member.
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