Editor's Note: Think Before You Leap

First, see what students really need. Then we can figure out how to fix our schools.

First, see what students really need. Then we can figure out how to fix our schools.

On a recent trip to hunt up something for dinner, I popped into a food store that recently opened in my neighborhood. It's one of the new mega markets, about the size of an airplane hangar, that's designed to satiate every epicurean desire.

The essentials were there, of course, but just up the aisle from the eighteen variants of orange juice and rows of glistening rotisserie chickens, the store also offered a bustling deli, a bakery, two ATMs, a photo-processing center, a faux French café, and video commercials at the checkout. I quickly forgot what I was looking for -- not that I had a clue how to find it anyway. Thank heavens a perky employee in a bright blue vest was handing out maps.

It's odd, really, that the average supermarket has changed more in the past five years than the average school has advanced in the past fifty. Though both are concerned with the allocation of shelf space (whether in warm bodies or warm doughnuts), the supermarket has leaped into the future, while most schools haven't changed much since the Eisenhower administration. Many urban districts haven't even built a school in decades, and the old rattletraps they use often cannot accommodate the activities and equipment new programs and modern technology demand.

But before we think about how to make our schools better -- as indeed we must -- we better make sure we're asking the right questions about what we need. Poet Rainer Marie Rilke once urged readers to "be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves," and that's what needs to happen as we design tomorrow's schools. Too often, when a discussion is dominated by the question "How?" we dash toward the immediately attainable ("We need more PCs!") and postpone the question of larger purpose ("How can we teach students to be critical thinkers when they go online?").

Great questions do many things: They invite expansive thinking. They allow for diverse possibilities. They seek answers rather than masquerading statements. They stimulate discovery. They often result in additional questions. Hopefully, they lead to clarity and insight.

Just as supermarket magnates realized that when people shop for groceries, they want to do more than stock the fridge, we need to understand that the final result of a dozen years of education isn't just a gilt-trimmed diploma. It's about creating a brighter and more compassionate society. First, however, we must devote as much energy and thinking to our schools as we do our food emporiums.

Improving our public education system is the great social experiment of this age, as important as the civil rights and suffragette movements were to earlier generations. Improvements must start with individual teachers and classrooms, as they did earlier with segregated lunch counters and men-only voting booths. We need agitators, organizers, leaders -- people with enough guts to say that things must change. What role will you play?

Editor in Chief
James Daly

Jim Daly

This article originally published on 10/18/2006

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