How to reform education

May 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

Education can seem ceaselessly mysterious, simultaneously one thing and its opposite, impossibly complex until it becomes quite simple. Accordingly, no aspect of the process goes unexamined. Reformers study things with quantum specificity. Educators puzzle over curriculum, learning styles, and how much, and what kind, of homework to give. We worry that we exaggerate the importance of standardized tests until SAT time, and then we realize we haven’t emphasized them enough. In the course of pondering lesson plans and new buildings, we consult architects, psychologists, and design theorists. Schools offer Yoga. I’d bet that someone has written a PhD examining the ideal location of a teacher’s desk, perhaps titled something like: “Authority Communicated Through Structural Placement: On the Pedagogy of Classroom Furniture,” and I’m sure it would include the latest research on the brain and, in particular, the pre-frontal cortex, which would still not be developed enough.

A lot of this thinking and wrestling is very healthy — and fun. I love these conversations and I’m in education, in part, because of its mix of tradition, innovation, and imagination. At the center of everything is a deeply philosophical, non-formulaic pursuit to draw the best out of the human being. Education is multidimensional and paradoxical; it requires an eye on the past and and an eye on the future. It is an intersection of specialties, a bridge between the changing and unchanging.

But as another academic year comes to end, and as I reflect upon my year and the latest trends in education reform, I find that there is one thing that is not mysterious. Amidst the voices calling for new this and different that, I see once more that there is no curriculum, there is no lesson plan, there is no piece of technology that can replace or supersede a supportive, loving home environment. Sometimes this might be a traditional two-parent home, and sometimes not. Regardless of the particular makeup, when a child comes from a stable and attentive family, everything else is secondary. Students find ways to overcome obstacles. They find ways to succeed. They learn how to take charge of their own academic life. They navigate temptations and, even if they occasionally succumb to them, they don’t fall away.

When a student doesn’t have a loving home, all the technology in the world, all the latest methods or theories in education reform, can become meaningless. The students who struggle most are those whose parents are not involved in their lives. These are parents who don’t know their children’s friends, who don’t monitor Twitter or Facebook accounts, and who don’t know who their child is becoming. They are the parental equivalent of the “watchmaker God”: they bring new life into the world, and then recede, failing to intervene when it’s most crucial, making far too many assumptions about the capacity of their children to direct their own lives.

In education, then, the most revolutionary reform is not the technology of the iPad. It is the technology of the dinner table. It is a place where children arrive knowing that they will be loved unconditionally, a place where kids are asked about their day, and about their friends, and about the vast range of observations and influences that roam through their mind, trying to take root in their soul. It is a place where students are constantly called back to the best version of themselves, to dignity, to virtue, and to the larger arc of life’s purpose.

Posted by Matt Emerson.


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§ One Response to How to reform education

  • Hi Matt,
    Thank you for your thoughts above. How true they are. This encourages me, as an educator of students with culturally diverse backgrounds, to forge ahead making family connections at all costs.
    Sharon Klein

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