The child on Church Hill
As I was walking down Church Hill today the potential of our nation torpedoed toward and then past me in the form of a vigorous 8-year-old girl. Her feet pounded the pavement, her wide golden eyes locked with mine, and then she was gone.
“Who knows?” I thought. “Maybe that girl will do humankind a great service someday — find the cure for cancer or Parkinson’s disease, or broker peace in the Middle East.” The girl’s intensity was startling.
The schools she attends will do much to either squelch that vigor or harness it in the service of the finest work of which she is capable.
Education systems around the world are striving to learn how to bring out the best in all their children in the hopes they can solve the immense global problems we all face together.
The United States is not currently a leader in primary and secondary education, and while we still boast many excellent colleges, a smaller percentage of our students graduate from them than is true in many other countries, including Australia, Japan, Switzerland, and Canada.
The culture of a school is apparent when a visitor passes through its entrance doors. Schools vary enormously in this country. Some nurture the kind of energy exuded by the child on Church Hill; others repulse it.
Of any year’s crop of 8-year-olds, some among them will mature into brilliant scientists, artists, inventors, peace negotiators — if we provide them with an education designed for them to do so. Such an education centers on the development of creativity and intellect and on topics that matter in the world, such as climate change, alternative sources of energy, war and peace, the creation of beauty, languages, intercultural communication.
All too often when I enter schools I do not feel the robust energy of children. The air is silent. Children’s eyes avoid those of adults. Youthful bodies are still — or trying to be.
The puzzle of how to contain many young bodies in a building for hours on end while nurturing vigor of intellect and purpose is really not an easy one to solve. No country on earth would claim it has figured out the perfect model of education.
What separates the United States from many other countries are our insularity and our complacency. We don’t have study groups traveling the world, seeking the most effective ideas to emulate, in the manner of Singapore and India. Most school districts here have only a vague interest in looking outward at how other districts — let alone nations — are tackling the question of schooling. We try to do it all ourselves. Is this an outdated remnant of the old pioneer spirit?
Many of our teachers question why we need to teach languages and create a global curriculum since English worked fine enough for them. Meanwhile in Finland every child is proficient in three languages and in most of the rest of the world all children master at least two. Three and four languages are not uncommon.
Further, our work in the primary years is more likely to center on the kinds of activities we all enjoyed while in school — building a model of the solar system, for instance, or making a poster about ancient Egyptian culture. In Australia or Ontario, meanwhile, students are comparing global patterns of bird migration past and present and sharing their data via technology with students halfway across the world — in a language not originally their own.
The vigorous 8-year-olds in New Zealand and the other top education nations stand a better chance of growing up fulfilled than do those of the United States because their education systems have accepted and embraced the need for fundamental change.
In the United States we say it is not possible to transform our school system quickly because it is too big. We say that Finland and Singapore are small countries, which makes it easier to create change. Certainly that is true. Korea is small too, and so is Poland.
What about China and Canada though? They are sizeable, and their education systems have been greatly transformed in recent decades. Further, if we look at education reform on a state-by-state basis, Finland at 5 million people is much larger than many states, including Maine.
Our lack of resolve in transforming our education system is both a personal loss for our individual children, and a national loss. At present we still enjoy the fruits of a population raised in an era when the United States was the world’s primary superpower and boasted the best education system anywhere. We are about to enter an era dominated not by the United States but by a group of powerful economies — those of India and China, for starters.
We need to free ourselves from complacency and join the world in the quest to raise children able to meet the international challenges we all face together. Tweaking the current system with mandates like the Common Core will not do it. We need serious transformation of our schools if we are to benefit from the gifts of children like the one I passed today on Church Hill.