Lewis Mumford, an American sociologist and philosopher of technology, cities and urban design, once said, “Every culture lives within its dream.” Dreams define boundaries as they give our endeavours direction and purpose. Our cognitive ability to imagine what does not exist now, but what we desire, is amazing. First, we have to identify a need, and then we have to see opportunities to satisfy that need. Inspiration allows us to improve our lives, by imagining in advance what is possible, as well as the likely outcome of our efforts. Everything we do is the result of a dream, conscious or not. This ability to predict consequences is essential to our survival. Dreams matter.
When it comes to education, our dreams, or our philosophies, regarding child rearing and learning, drive all the machinery in our schools, as well as in our homes, because they define the means we subsequently create and use to educate our children. We have dreams of what we want our youth to learn and know, and what we want them to be and do. The point of education is not merely to promote student survival, but rather to promote students thriving within the world of childhood, as well as within the later, and larger, world of adulthood. Schools are merely the active manifestation of our dreams, values and philosophies. Dreams come true more often than we think. Indeed, everything created by humans that we see around us, everything, was merely a dream in someone’s head to begin with. We live according to our dreams, even if we are not fully clear about them, or successful in their realization. We need to be careful with what we wish for, and we need to be careful with what we do to get there. Even benevolent decisions initially intended to solve problems and improve conditions sometimes have unintended, unwanted, consequences.
Let us, therefore, begin by imagining the highest possible outcome of schooling—an ideal education to help children learn about the world around them and the world inside them, and to nurture their participation in, and contribution to, that world. A solid and rational foundation for learning needs to allow for congruence between children’s life experience at home and at school. It needs a holistic approach. It needs to promote children’s lovability and capability. So, let us imagine that children’s experience of school, all the way through the years, could generally reflect the effectiveness, as well as the delight, engagement, initiative and human connectivity involved in their discovery of life in the real world before entering school in the first place. It means, first and foremost, that parents and teachers would honor and trust the sense of curiosity that all children possess—the innate desire to examine and master their environment. Satisfying this basic drive in children does, indeed, lead them to action, and thus to learning. This process occurs with and without formal instruction, in every aspect of children’s lives, at home, at school, and elsewhere.
So, let us imagine that the nurturing and tender aspects of home life will be mirrored at school. This mirroring would produce congruency with the visibility, respect, warm-heartedness, individualization, talent development, conflict resolution, growing independence, and cultural participation that is typical of a healthy environment at home during the school years. Indeed, a child’s experience growing up, in all places, should be as a member of a large, extended family—a community that respects their individuality and creativity, that draws them out into the world to explore intellectually and physically, and that fosters their emotional wellbeing and social connections. The maturation process is all-encompassing, and all of these areas are related to one another, and are of equal importance. Parents put effort into providing stimulating experiences for their children, with people of all ages, within the home, in nature, and in their urban or rural environment. These children grow in a balanced fashion, and discover the joys of learning about the world they live in. Parents accept their goals as natural and good. These goals are natural and good for teachers in schools, too.
Considering the vast diversity amongst people even within the Western tradition, the personal attitudes and character traits that parents want for their children are surprisingly consistent with what teachers want for their students, and with what members of the general public want for citizens of their nation. To build trust, they all want integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, and self-responsibility. To build connection, they want empathy, compassion, flexibility, emotional responsiveness, and social cooperation. To build strength of character under duress, they realize the importance of persistence, resilience, initiative, and courage. To achieve balance, they value humility and confidence, autonomy and altruism. Certain skills and behaviours that demonstrate emotional and social competency are desired as well, such as being able to communicate and negotiate, self-motivate and self-actualize, participate in group endeavours and contribute to both their families and their communities. In other words, people of all ages need to learn how to master their environment, and partake fully in their own lives. That is a human drive. All of these personal qualities help them to do so. The best route to promote the development of children’s strength of character is to offer them the opportunity to grow in fertile ground, with the support and guidance of trusted adults. Therefore, these sorts of personal goals comprise a large part of the agenda that education addresses, and both homes and schools are charged with their realization.
Another part of our culture’s dream for education is that of moulding competent, autonomous citizens who are able to shoulder the task of taking care of themselves, so they can contribute freely and constructively to their culture. Therefore, the inhabitants of a Western nation need to understand, and live according to, the concepts of autonomy and liberty. These two dreams form the cornerstone of our democratic culture. So, ideally, schools and homes would encourage children to take opportunities to develop intrinsic motivation, to display initiative in seeking answers to their own questions, and to make decisions based on reason and moral responsibility. Individuals need to be self-disciplined in order to experience liberty, simply because liberty means freedom, or rights, intertwined with responsibilities. At a grass-roots level, liberty is exemplified by people living with a spirit of mutual respect. In a democracy, laws are intended to give citizens the greatest possible freedoms with the fewest possible restrictions. Liberty only exists in a state of balance. All places of learning should therefore allow young people to have plenty of practice in making meaningful and appropriate decisions to direct the course of their own lives, while honoring, and not interfering with, the rights of others. They also need adult and peer mentoring to evaluate the decisions that they do make, to refine their understanding of interrelated needs, and to achieve self-awareness.
As a pre-condition for people to behave autonomously and to manifest a social conscience and altruistic spirt, it is paramount that they develop a solid sense of empathy and self-esteem while they are young. They need to receive affection and respect, to know how to give it. So, the best way to give children psychological safety, as a basis of emotional health, confidence and wellbeing, is to respect their dignity and worth, and to encourage their adoption of values that promote caring for both themselves and others. Children also need to exist in environments where it is usual and comfortable to work with, and make meaningful connections with, people both younger and older than themselves. This is the way of the world: adults must deal with others of a variety of ages. So, an ideal school, like a home, must reflect this reality.
Wherever they are, children need to learn how to handle difficult social situations by developing empathic communication strategies. They need to really listen in order to understand others. They need to have a voice to express their own points of view. Being assertive in resolving issues feels more courageous inside, which in turn boosts people’s self-esteem and reinforces their expectations for good treatment from others. When they falter, themselves, it is important that they be able to apologize and make amends. This, too, takes courage. This sort of open communication also diverts negative emotion, and promotes win-win problem solving. Our youth need to truly believe that most problems are meant to be solved, and they will do so after participating in respectful and productive meetings that model that behaviour. Skill building, and the confidence that derives from this concrete evidence of capability, is most likely to occur in an atmosphere of encouragement and personal attention. In order to do this, we need to see children as individuals not lesser than ourselves.
Once more we find that the ideal process of schooling needs to resemble that of child-rearing, in which the needs of individual children are addressed. It is a complicated task to truly attend to the needs of unique individuals, and families do it best. To put things in context, families with 30 children of school age being cared for all day by one parent is not just a rarity. It never happens. So, in order to achieve the developments outlined in this dream of an ideal education, we need to understand that although genetics define potential, it is environment that turns potential into reality. Teachers creating an ideal environment would, therefore, shrink the size of schools and classrooms. They would take their students out into the real world. They would borrow from familial methods to assist each unique person in the community to develop to their fullest potential, as they all attempt to gain knowledge and skill. These familial methods begin with individualized and small-group experiences. Somehow, schools need to include, within their dream, the creation of these personalized interactions.
It takes serious thought to accomplish even this factor of face-to-face learning opportunities within typical schools, but it is an important factor in producing worthwhile learning. In past eras, parents accepted the reality that children needed to spend hours at the knees of adults in order to learn the myriad details that form a culture. In connecting with adults in this personal way, youth learned the wisdom of the previous generation. Lately, obtaining information about the world has become not difficult at all. Instead, there is an avalanche of information contained on computer sites, as well as through books, magazines, television, DVDs, radio and newspapers. Young people do not suffer from a dearth of information. What they do need, though, is help from adults to make sense of all this information. Neil Postman, a professor of Communications at New York University, spoke of this intellectual need, saying that young people require help to organize their avalanche of data and evaluate it for validity, usefulness and relevance. In small, responsive schools with small classes, it is easier for this sort of intellectual contact to occur, because it only happens when teachers have time to engage in individual and small group discussions.
This is particularly important for teens, who will soon be entering the ranks of adulthood, and need to be developing trusting, working relationships with adults, since they will soon be adults themselves. Moreover, teens face dangerous temptations, and need a strong sense of self and their values, in order to judge each situation realistically and to make decisions based on solid, logical and valid reasons. The pre-frontal cortex, which governs emotion control and planning with an awareness of consequences, is not fully developed until the age of around 25, so youth need help to learn how to analyze the issues involved in each decision, and to understand the processes of cause and effect. They need feedback from trusted adults to help them see the big picture of their lives. Within these relationships, adults wield influence, and not power and control. Youth can come to realize that they do have power over themselves, and that their role is not simply to obey or rebel, but to decide logically for themselves.
Luckily, each individual only needs to be one puzzle piece in the conglomerate that, together, we create into a complex nation that is proficient enough to function, and to solve problems, in an interconnected, richly satisfying, and multifaceted fashion. So, the ideal process of education would acknowledge the need for all individuals to be flexible and responsive to what we see before us. Beyond that, maturation itself tends in the same direction that we are headed—competency, connection, and the pursuit of knowledge. We just need to be good enough to set the mechanisms in place to not trample nature’s directive.
The question is how? The practical answer, within those ideal small schools and small classrooms, is to organize the structure around carrying out developmentally-appropriate practices. For instance, in order for students to learn concepts most effectively, they need engaging, real-life experience, independent and analytical thought, and discussion. Teachers also need to respect the reality that students learn at their own pace and should be working at material that is suited to their needs, abilities and motivations, and that seems relevant to their lives. Their exploration and examination should continue until they reach a stage of mastery consistent with their abilities, under individualized guidance and feedback from their trusted mentors. This demonstrates respect, and promotes personal empowerment—precisely the method to promote autonomy, liberty and the character traits we all want to see developing. This ideal approach would take time for teachers to engage in individual and small group discussions, yet doing so would ensure that graduates, as young adults, would actually leave school and home with certain academic knowledge and skills. In order to function as autonomous adults, they need literacy, numeracy, computer literacy, and understanding of history, the social sciences and the natural sciences. They need experience with art, music, dance, and sports. The curricula of every province outline the academic expectations of the populace regarding what is necessary or advantageous, in order for citizens to fulfill their obligations in a modern democracy that is integrated with the rest of the world.
Small familial groups of students have multitudinous advantages—such as diminishing the possibility for bullying, giving teachers a fuller depth of knowledge about those students’ needs and accomplishments, and preventing shyness and anxiety from overwhelming students to the point that they feel invisible in a crowd. Since students would actually receive the attention they crave, the likelihood is slight that neglect could stultify students’ academic achievement. Youth have agendas of their own, and need intensive interaction and independence. They need to learn what is safe and what is not, what is appropriate and what is not. Fear inhibits learning. An ideal school, small, relaxed and familiar like an ideal home, would prevent fear by individualizing instruction, reducing formality, and nurturing the vulnerability that trust requires. Then, young people can be emotionally free to learn.
Small, intimate educational groups also promote an appreciation for diversity, because students cannot escape each other—they bring together people of different races, classes, ages, genders and cultural identities into one peer group. Sometimes, students may find this hard, but it is better for their social growth. Even if students discover special friends amongst the crowd, they must still deal respectfully with the entire group. This enhances their ability to work effectively with others of different backgrounds and competencies, which is a useful skill for adulthood. When you combine this optimistic, cooperative attitude with their more developed “soft skills”, the result is even more positive. They are more likely to complete high school, and their transition to post-secondary institutions is smooth, because they have learned to monitor and conduct their own learning autonomously. They are organized, resilient, and self-reliant: they are prepared to handle the independence and initiative that these institutions demand.
Moreover, curriculum designers have to acknowledge and accommodate to the fact that the 21st Century will contain much that is unknown now, and it is hard to prepare for that specifically. In order for youth to connect with others to address the burning issues of their age, they need to care, and they need to discover their passions. They need to spend time out in the world that they are studying. They need in-depth analysis of their burning questions, projects and experiments on topics of interest. Therefore, ideally, they need opportunities to ask questions, and seek answers, to their myriad curiosities about the wonders of the natural world, about history and travel and about the cultures that define attitudes and habits and traditions. They need kinesthetic experience to explore the topics that intrigue them. The dream needs to include this open uncertainty.
Moreover, knowledge is not deposited like a lump sum in students’ brains. It is constructed internally from their experiences, and is achieved by all individuals through their own unique patterns of perception, motivation and timing. It is not within the tight control of the teacher. This is a much more active, autonomous approach, and requires the development of time management skills, effective study and questioning techniques, goal setting, and accepting responsibility for their own learning. Ideally, a vibrant academic atmosphere will respect the sincere search for truth, and the ambiguity that goes with it.
What is possible under teachers’ influence, is to utilize those small group discussions, individualized projects and meaningful relationships as a means to prepare students to think logically, objectively, critically, creatively and empathically. In this way, youth can become adept at solving problems in general. They will be the ones to deal with climate change. One day, they will create entrepreneurial ventures, technologies, and new sources of energy. They will take over from us the direction of industry and institutions, money and mores, the transformation of cities and towns, and all of the “wicked problems” that they have inherited from their ancestors. The future lies in their hands, and they need social and emotional intelligence to deal with this load and this vast opportunity. They need to be not just knowledgeable and skilled; they need to be wise. We have to prepare them for this. If we live up to the dreams we have identified, we will see that our youth become learners who are capable of both independent and collaborative ventures. They will make meaningful connections with people both younger and older than themselves, being able to share their experience and knowledge as both teachers and learners. They will have hope. Then they will use the power and confidence they have developed to face their challenges, create a life that is worthy of them, and cherish the earth they depend upon. An ideal education should promote all this as the overarching dream to guide and define us—who we are, and who we will become. It is a dream far bigger than we are, for the earth itself depends upon us. This dream for the highest possible outcome of schooling is worthy of our highest selves.