Article 1 – Learning for Living, Living for Learning By Joe Rueff


With apologies to the ghost of Harold R.W. Benjamin, whose education classic “The Saber Tooth Curriculum”, was written in 1939 under the pseudonym of J. Abner Peddiwell, I decided to use the above title, modified from Benjamin’s statements, for this article because it sums up my philosophy of what education is all about. And wishfully, it should be the motto of every school in America!

We are now at least a month into the 2005-2006 school year. For those of you who are parents or students, how do you judge the school either you or your children attend? What are the signs of a good school? How can you, as taxpayers, if not an educator (or even if you are one) decide whether or not you are getting your money’s worth?

Fair questions you may say. Certainly they have been asked and placed on the front burner by politicos from Washington to our schools boards around the country. “OK,” you may ask, “what makes you think you have all the answers?”

I don’t. All I can do is point in the direction of the most important questions to ask. I can lay out the playing field, but I can’t run with the ball. The actions rest with you and all of the other “yous” around the country.

First, let’s define some important perspectives. None of us can “teach” anything. Our task, whether educator, parent, board member, community leader, or politician, is to provide learning environments that help students to learn. Learning is an internal task. It can’t be imposed on anybody. It’s something students have to do themselves, whether they’re in a formal school setting or adults committed to making sense out of what seems to be a chaotic world.

Dan Pink, in his book Free Agent Nation, states that K-12 public schools are irrelevant. If that’s the case then we are throwing billions of dollars down the drain. Let’s admit then that schools function only to keep kids off the streets until they can do something useful, usually after they’ve reached their 18th birthday.

But rather, let’s accept Pink’s statement as a challenge. Let’s look at what’s driving K-12 education and demand changes if we don’t like what we’re seeing. I’ve stated to others that it’s easier turning a battleship around in the Panama Canal than making dramatic changes in our educational systems. But I’d rather keep on trying than throwing in the towel.

Howard Gardner, one of our nation’s most renowned educators today lists the following concerns:

Instead of beginning (and, all too often, ending) with test scores, we should begin by considering the kinds of minds that we want to cultivate in our education system. My own reflections suggest that in the future, we need to cultivate five kinds of minds if we want to be successful as a nation and, more important, as a world. Those minds include:

▪ A disciplined mind, that can think well and appropriately in the major disciplines;

▪ A synthesizing mind, that can sift through a large amount of information, decide what is important, and put it together in ways that make sense for oneself and for others;

▪ A creative mind, that can raise new questions, come up with novel solutions, think outside the box;

▪ A respectful mind, that honors the differences among individuals and groups, and tries to understand them and work productively with them; and

▪ An ethical mind, that thinks, beyond selfish interests, about the kind of worker one aspires to be, and the kind of citizen that one should be.

No doubt, some measures for each of these could be devised, though I doubt that a paper-and-pencil or computer-administered, short-answer test will prove adequate. But the important point is this: Any country- and certainly one as prosperous and well-positioned as the United States- should begin educational discussions with a serious consideration of the kinds of human beings we would like to have and to be in the future.

And that is why the education ministers of the world remind me today of lemmings- marching confidently, but proudly and disastrously, into a sea of ignorance.

These concerns raise serious questions about what Learning for Living and Living for Learning is all about. The only way you can determine whether your school is promoting these goals is to visit while classes are in session. When I was in charge of program evaluation in the Elkhart, IN schools that’s the first thing I told prospective families when they were contemplating moves into the community. Don’t compare SAT’s; compare what’s going on in the schools. Seek answers to following questions:

▪ Are students engaged in classes? Does the environment reflect a place where students want to be rather than a place where the have to be?

▪ Do students work together in groups?

▪ Are the studies relevant to their lives? Are activities tailored to individual aptitudes and interests?

▪ Are assessments based on more than paper and pencil (short answer) tests?

▪ Is there a determined interrelationship between courses, i.e., does science contribute to what’s going on in history? Does literature relate to psychology? Can students see that all of these are valuable to them as individuals?

▪ Do students have the tools available to engage with the rest of the world? Technological gains make the possibility to link students to individuals and information anywhere in the world. Are they able to take advantage of these opportunities?

These questions don’t stop at K-12. They go on during the rest of our lives. We are called upon to continue learning whether formally in higher education, in adult learning programs, in corporate e learning/training, or on own. What it boils down to is whether we are willing to make that commitment. Are you?

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