The new school – inspired by the Daily Prompt

I’ve been following the Daily Prompt for a while, and am pleased to have found something inspirational here.  The prompt I’ll be answering is this:

You get to redesign school as we know it from the ground up. Will you do away with reading, writing, and arithmetic? What skills and knowledge will your school focus on imparting to young minds?

This is a popular topic in our household anyway, and one I consider a lot.  Various people within my immediate family work or have worked in education, and of those who don’t work in a school environment, many of them will still have been involved in some sort of teaching within their job (my family includes a retired midwife, people who train others in a business environment and those who work in customer service, to name just a few).

Clearly, there are a lot of things schools do well.  Society would probably be failing quite drastically if they didn’t.  I’m not sure that any school could suit every child or person, due to the great variances within both nature and nurture, but if I had children who fit the idea of going to a “normal” school, this is what I’d want from it.

I’m going to start with the cold hard fact that every parent is limited.  As with many things, some are more limited in their skills than others.  Some weren’t parented well themselves, or really weren’t ready to be parents – I say it in this manner, because I agree with my own father’s assertion that nobody is prepared for parenthood.  But it’s not just about preparation and one’s own upbringing: within the grand scheme of things, we all come from a very narrow focus.  We are one person in a crowd of billions, and cannot possibly know what it’s like to be somebody else, to follow another path.  With that in mind, my school would work with the philosophy of enhancing each student’s life experience.

How would it do that?  Exposure.  One of my favourite parts about school – particularly as a teenager, when I was thinking about what I’d do beyond education – was hearing about what all of my teachers used to do.  Before they stood in a room and tried to teach my peers and me how to pass exams and reference correctly, many of these people were someone else.  And all of them – despite what they try and tell you – have spare time, other interests.  I was taught Critical Thinking by a former Professor of Philosophy, who had been born in Montana and raised by ballet-dancing parents (I always thought of him as a predecessor to Billy Elliot after this), was also an athletics coach and had an effortless manner when telling stories and making students think.  One of my English teachers had been a successful journalist prior to stepping into the classroom, and still found time to judge dressage competitions around her teaching commitments.  These are just two of many examples – I am very lucky – and as time has gone on, I’ve realised how vital these experiences are.

Children can have a very small view of the world.  They may or may not understand what their own parents do (who hasn’t heard a child describe a parent as “works in an office”?) and beyond that, examples of life and what to do with it come from the media they consume.  It’s often reported that these days many girls aspire to be a glamour model and boys wish to be a footballer – that’s a whole other blog post about gender and society right there – and that they wish to do these so that they can be rich and famous more than wanting to enjoy what they do.

So from this comes rule number one: my teachers will have lives.  They will be happy to talk about them.  They will have made mistakes and learned from them.  They won’t be perfect.  They won’t lie – I have met far too many teachers who think they know everything and are qualified to teach way beyond the subject that they actually know about – but they will guide.  Children learn from behaviour they witness, and I’d want students at my school to know that it’s okay not to have all the answers, but that if they want to find the answer, this is how they can go about it.

They will be encouraged to follow what sparks their interest.  It is important to me that they have a broad range of skills and learn from a wide curriculum.  Yes, I hated studying things I wasn’t good at or didn’t enjoy, but I would perhaps remodel these things so that they have an obvious practical application to later life.  Instead of being forced, as I was, to make dozens of miniature models of suspension bridges, children attending my school will perhaps have to furnish a home.  They’ll be packed into a tiny car with a tape measure and some money, taken to the nearest Ikea on a busy Saturday and instructed to buy a bed, table, chairs and some lights.  They’ll then have to construct all of the items.  Lessons learned?  The instructions don’t always tell you which things you do and don’t need, an electric screwdriver is one of the best things you’ll ever buy, money is tight when you’re a grownup but at least what you have at the end of it is yours.

On a slightly more serious note, too few children leave school with life skills.  Schools are certificate factories, as they answer to the bonkers standards set out by our government.  Has anybody who “works in an office” made use of quadratic equations since passing GCSE Maths?  Probably not.  But have they had to feed and clothe themselves?  Absolutely.  Domestic skills are important, as are lessons about health and hygiene.  Physical activity – particularly in our increasingly-small world – is a habit, something that, if it is part of your routine, it is far easier to maintain.  Many people I know who work in education will argue that this is a parental responsibility rather than a school one, but I refer to my earlier point about parents not all being equally equipped to assist their children.  So rather than perpetuate the problem within the ageing state, I would hope to solve it with education.

I think it’s time for a summary of what I’d like schools to do:

  1. Educate and inspire – the combination of teachers who have lived (and I don’t just mean they took a year off before university, spent three months of which hostelling in Thailand and the other nine working two jobs to pay for it) and good links with the outside world showing children that you can be an entrepreneur and a dreamer as an adult.  You don’t have to go to university, settle down in a job in “business development” or become one of the classic roles of teacher/doctor/lawyer.  Equally, not everyone can or will be a model or a footballer.  Kids will be given the skills to find what they truly love, and how to make it work for them
  2. Support – some homes aren’t very stable, supportive or loving.  Some kids have a lot on their plates: they may be carers, they may have their own health issues.  When they come to school, at the same time as it not mattering and them getting treated just as their peers, help will be available should they need it.  Some children need help to get through class and understand what they’re being taught.  Others need help just getting through the day
  3. Prepare – children are generally born into homes which have already been set up.  They appear at the dinner table and food is laid out magically before them.  Bills are something other people pay.  The fairies make sure they have clean clothes which are in good repair.  The dream ends at my school.  Children will learn how to budget, cook and run a home.  Because being able to do these things with unconscious competence makes getting through your day at work efficiently far easier
  4. Facilitate – this I haven’t yet mentioned.  Children are the future society, a place which is multi-cultural and also full of bad ideas.  Too few of my peers still lack their own opinion – informed or otherwise – on matters which are vital to the way our world works.  Religion, politics, health and society.  Children at my school will learn how it impacts upon them, how to understand these issues and how to make their own choices but – crucially – be sympathetic to the choices of others.  We stop teaching the difference between right and wrong when children are very small, we assume that we’ve covered this topic.  It’s the worst assumption to make.  Acceptance is important, as is integrity.  It’s a fine balance to strike, but my school will try

I suspect my school isn’t perfect – the ideals certainly come from a biased standpoint!  Hopefully in the absence of such a place, I can still try to impart these values somehow.

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