What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?

I originally wrote this several weeks ago, but I'd like to publish it again in the hopes that I can help advance a more serious (and genuine) conversation about education in this country. Before we move any further down a path to "reform," we need to take some time to talk about what, exactly, our goals are for our children.

"What does it mean to be well-educated?" This is another one of those simple, but complicated questions I consider daily. Whenever I summarize my view for others, I say something along the lines of, "An educated person is someone who has the habits of mind, hand, and heart to adapt to whatever life might throw at him or her." So what does that mean?

Well, for starters, it's a lot broader than simply being prepared for the work force. My whole body cringes whenever I hear politicians and other public figures talk about education as though its most important (or even sole!) function is serving the needs of the economy. Of course, making a living is important. But one major reason we try to educate all of our citizens in America (something most other countries make no attempt to do -- including many of those we're unfairly compared to in those misleading international rankings!) is to prepare us to act as full participants in a democratic republic. Likewise, I believe that education can and should be personally fulfilling, allowing us to appreciate life more by giving us the power to do things like read for pleasure, or compose music, or better understand the world around us, and so on and so forth.

To me, a good education is about developing:
  • Habits of mind like curiosity, analysis, criticism, problem-solving and creativity.
  • The ability to make things, to satisfy a need or just for fun.
  • The capacity to love yourself, other people, and the environment; and to find an appropriate balance between your own needs and the needs of the group and/or the natural world.
That's way more than can be accomplished in the school day, which is one reason why I reject the idea that teachers and schools are the only ones responsible for educating children.
-- parents, teachers, community members and institutions -- has a role to play, and one of our main goals should be to work together to ensure that this happens.

During the school day, however, we can do a lot to achieve these goals. The best classrooms and schools I've seen/worked in embrace the idea that their job is not to fill students' heads with facts and information, but to help them develop certain skills and habits that will be useful in a wide variety of situations. Some do it using project-based learning, where students are continually engaged in a collaborative process of researching, creating, and presenting their learning to others. Others integrate all aspects of the curriculum through the in-depth study of a topic (Ancient Greece, the local watershed, etc.) or questions generated by the teacher and/or students. They take the time to teach and review certain skills to ensure students "get it" whenever necessary. But students spend most of the day actively approaching their learning the way it happens in real life -- where knowledge isn't broken up into subjects, where you have to work with others, and where you must draw upon several skill-sets and bodies of knowledge simultaneously in order to solve problems.

I think there are a lot of ways to provide children with a rich, useful education; there is no one "right" answer that will work for every child or every school. I do believe there are some wrong answers, though, and that's why I do what I do.

For starters, the schools that I'd call "great" assess students frequently to ensure that they're progressing, but their instruction is not "data-driven." After all, if you're trying to develop students into productive, whole people, there is no one measure -- and no valid number! -- that can tell you if you've done that. Great schools do not spend three months of the year on testing, and they certainly don't base all of their instruction on measures as narrow as the ones required by state and federal law. Rather, they observe students all the time, examine the work they produce, and offer ongoing feedback and adjust instruction as necessary.

These schools also operate collaboratively, and recognize that all stakeholders' input can be valid. They don't persecute and blacklist teachers for having differences of opinion or philosophy, or retaliate against them for involving parents in important decisions. They share responsibility and accountability, rather than concentrating power and control into a select few people's hands. (They also make sure that there is enough time for such collaboration to take place; the norm at these schools was for teachers to have 90 or more minutes of planning time. In Denver, for example, teachers get 45 minutes. Whatever additional time is needed has to come from their own "free" time. How many parents out there like the idea of their children's teachers sacrificing sleep and/or lunch to get their work done? Fatigue and low blood sugar... A productive combination, no?)

Finally, good schools aren't forced to treat children or teachers as objects to be standardized. They don't necessarily expect that each student will graduate thinking, talking, and acting like everyone else in the class, and they don't expect that all teachers will practice in exactly the same way. I think that's a really important point to be emphasized. Right now, our school "reform" regime is pushing to make students, teachers, and schools increasingly alike -- by adopting the same standards, pushing for certain types of performance on certain tests, and trying to identify and "scale up" teaching practices and interventions that increase test scores. This will never be a successful process -- human beings are not widgets, and they won't all fit the same mold.

And would that be desirable, if it were possible? I look back at the other part of my view of a good education -- "to adapt to whatever life might throw at him or her." What would happen to a society of people who have been trained to think and act exactly alike? Monocultures in farming are dangerous because when plants are genetically identical, anything that can destroy one of them can destroy them all, causing famine or other problems. Monocultures of thought could be equally dangerous -- what will happen to our democracy if we create students who are uniformly incapable of thinking critically? What will happen if we encourage students to specialize in a certain field, in a world where people's jobs and roles in life change every few years? What will happen if we train children to be dependent on "21st Century" technology, and something happens to render that technology useless? Individuals and societies need to have a wide range of capabilities in order to survive when -- not if -- the world around us changes. I don't see how that can happen when school systems are bribed or forced to submit to one way of doing things.

But that's enough from me. What do you think it means to be well-educated?