Public Education: Start Again

If you could start from zero, what would public education look like?

Richard Louv and Nature Deficit Disorder

Posted by Stephen Dill on February 10, 2009


Richard Louv, author

Richard Louv, author

Recently Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, wrote in his blog, Field Notes From The Future, that he felt the “future is going to be better than it used to be.” Richard writes of the growing success of efforts of the Children & Nature Network to raise awareness through over 50 state and regional campaigns and the C&NN website. Their objective rings true: give children of all ages the chance to experience what you are teaching—hands on and in context—so that so much more is learned and appreciated than the one or more learning points of the lesson and the experience is so much more memorable. I responded in a comment, “Kudos on your efforts to date. You are so right, the future will be better–awareness has a way of improving things. The inexorable decline of the role of in-situ exposure as a key part of educating anyone, not just children, in the natural sciences–or physics, or accounting, or most any topic–is one of the many negative unintended consequences of the otherwise noble quest to provide basic education for every child that began as an incredible dream in the 18th Century. While our world will no doubt sustain the system of centralized, costly, inefficient schools for another two decades or more, I am advocating for the initiation of a reboot of public education to start over and redesign it from square one. If you could do that today, would your resulting system resemble much of what we have today?” 

I pose that question again to you. Everyone is either  an investor, client or an employee of one or more public education systems. If you could start from scratch, with no idea how it should look, who would it serve? How would it serve that audience? When and where would it serve it? This is the Ed Reform X Games. Starting over is hard to do! I encourage you to comment here with whatever comes to mind. No one can be wrong, for we are not yet in trials to determine what works best. But if the idea of going out into a field to teach biodiversity excites your imagination of the  public education of the future, then tell us. And then go read Richard’s book, for he cites hundreds more examples of taking education out of the classroom to a more open, resource-rich environment of learning. 

Thank you, Richard, for all you and the movement you have spawned has done and will continue to do!

13 Responses to “Richard Louv and Nature Deficit Disorder”

  1. I have the enviable job of working one day a week at our small community school with homelearning families. They come to use the gym, the library, the kitchen, the fun games and toys in the kindergarten room. I get to invite community members in to do pottery and other art with the kids, talk about geology and paleontology, sing and dance with us. Best teaching gig I’ve ever had! And now I know from our experience last spring, summer and fall in our pizza garden what my answer to your question would be …

    … If we’re going to start from scratch, let it be in a garden, or a farmer’s field. Let the kids run and dig and plant and water and run and play in the soil some more. Let them be there with plenty of loving adults who will help them tend the pizza garden and harvest the wheat with kindergarten scissors and take it home and hull it and then mill it together and make the most delicious pizzas in the world!!

    Let all their learning from then on stem from their experiences in the garden or field. And from visits to the forest for wildcrafting. And from daily or weekly walkabouts in the schoolyard and neighbourhood to see what’s changing and what’s staying the same, how the old friends are (trees, perhaps and the squirrels) and who the new friends are (migrating birds?).

    I’m with you — in my view, the education system’s incessant tweaking of curriculum at a time when complete transformation is urgently needed is negligent. Out with the 19th century irrelevancies! Banish anything contributing to the status quo that’s got us to the edge of climate hell. In with the knowledge, skills and new attitudes our students are going to need to create the best possible future for themselves in light of 21st realities. Let nature bonding and ecology and alternative energy and sustainable development, all on a foundation of ethics, respect and compassion, form the basis of our new curriculum.

    BTW, I disagree with you and Mr. Louv about the future. If we don’t start creating a renewable energy-based economy soon and get the world to virtually zero carbon emissions by mid-century, well, the future will become a thing of the past.

    Thanks for posing this important question.

  2. Julie,

    You paint a picture that so many of us would like to see. It starts a child on the road to learning as soon as they can be brought outside to the open air and sun. And that learning involves everyone in the family, the community, and—with connectivity through the Internet—to the world. Education is relaxed, fun, and not driven towards testing, but to the ideas and concepts that spark our interest and we become passionate about. Rather than some “completion” to our education, life is about continued learning and sharing what we have learned as someone new comes “to the farm” and asks a question.

    As an employer, I can hear my peers asking, “Pardon me, but how am I to know what this person knows?” And I reply, “How does a test score or a degree tell you any truth now? It doesn’t. Perform your own tests to see if the candidate either knows enough to contribute immediately, or is the kind of thinker who thrives in your environment, or is open to learning what you do in order to become a contributer. Experience and relationship tells you whether this is a long term member of your team.”

    I hear others who cannot see how someone would be admitted to institutions of higher learning without test scores. (Yes, I foresee colleges evolving to still be valuable to a world where there are no school buildings in the public education system. But that is for another post.) I ask them to look to other nations now and to history for that answer. Applications will be backed by research papers already written in the field of the person’s interest. References will be supplied from key mentors and experts who played a part in teaching the candidate. People will be coming to these highly specialized groups of instructors from out of the work force, or while still owning their own businesses, so performance reviews will add to the candidate’s application.

    But these questions stem from an inability to drop away all preconceived notions of what the future will look like. For those who can clean a spot in their mind, sit down there and see themselves truly starting from scratch, imagine the world that Julie creates—and to a certain extent is living in her reality now. We will be a world of people who feel responsible for each other, all others, who will by virtue of how we become interdependent with the world to learn and grow, become a global society based “on a foundation of ethics, respect and compassion.” All of the other changes will come: new energy sources, new patterns of living sensitive to the resources we have access to, less waste, better transportation, and much more that we cannot imagine. But first will come a change in our perception and method of public education, so that as a nation, then a world, we are all more knowledgeable about, and responsible toward, our global relationship, dependency on each and everyone else, and potential for peaceful, joyful lives.

    BTW Julie, I really like your sign off (“… well, the future will become a thing of the past.”), I just hope it’s not true. Many thanks for your thoughtful input.

  3. K. M. said

    I came here from a google search for “public education U.S start”, intending to find when public education was established in the U.S. and google showed me “if you could start a new public education system from square one” at number 3. My immediate response was “I wouldn’t do it.” I have a post here that explains why.
    An excerpt:

    You should start from the natural state of affairs, where education like other services is a private service. Now ask “Should this service be made public?” Immediately several questions arise: How is this service (education) different in principle from other services? What sort of differences require a service to be public? Who decides what these differences are? What happens in the case of a disagreement? Note that none of these questions arise when the service is private. Individuals make all the decisions themselves, with no physical force being used.

    Suppose, for the moment, that you find the answers to these questions. Several other questions now arise. What constitutes a proper education? Should mathematics be a part of this education? Should astrology be a part of this education? Should religious teachings be a part of this education? What sort of clothing is acceptable for students (or teachers)? What costs are acceptable? What compensation is acceptable for the service providers? Should parents who do not accept the public answers to these questions be allowed to teach their own children? Should they then still be taxed?

    …Why is India a developing country (despite decades of public education) while the U.S. achieved near universal literacy with mostly private schools (according to this article in Wikipedia – “The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. In fact, the first national census conducted in 1840 indicated that near-universal (about 97%) literacy among the white population had been achieved.”)? The benevolent dictator arguement mixes up causes and effects. Freedom is the cause, progress (of which education is an indicator) is the effect (look at the history of Europe for example). The two cannot be interchanged.

  4. It always sounds good to completely start from scratch, but my method would not start there. The method I use for service in the public and private sector starts at “check” this would include understanding the “what and why” of current performance (e.g. purpose, demand, the response to demand, studying flow, system conditions and management thinking).

    Whatis not included in “check” are project plans, deliverables, timescales, cost/benefit analysis. This is command and control thinking, where you always must begin with a plan. Starting at “check” gives us a new place to begin.

    Ultimately, we would disepnse of the old measures (usually financial and performance targets) in favor of new measures. measures decided by the purpose of the service from the customer’s point of view. This shift to purpose and measures derived from purpose allows the liberation of method in a service setting. Method is what needs to be liberated in any system and the people that we engage are the ones providing the service and are closest to our customers. Working from targets (present method) constrains method and worse creates more waste as the target becomes the defacto purpose of the system.

    A fresh look would be in order for the education system . . . yes. Starting from scratch only in the way we approach the problem. I suggest systems thinking.

    You can read more on my website and download understanding your organization as a system at no cost. We need to change our thinking quickly.

  5. What a lovely notion, the idea of starting all over. It is a stimulating intellectual exercise that, I’m deeply afraid, has little or no relationship to reality.

    Oh, some district somewhere will take the plunge and try to start fresh without any of the old assumptions. Let’s even assume that they can convince the teachers to go along with, better yet, be part of planning the renaissance. Imagine that, administrators, teachers, and maybe even some entrepreneurs working together and moving in a common direction; I can almost see the sun shining through brilliant rainbows and bluebirds chirping the good news.

    But wait! We still have to convince the parents.

    Parents, it turns out, are deeply suspicious of any major fundamental re-imagining of school. This is the main reason that charter schools, for the most part, are just more intense, sometimes more focused versions of your everyday public school.

    It seems parents like the 10-hour schooldays because it provides that much more free childcare coverage for working moms and dads, but as soon as ideas like student choice and child-directed education start flying about the parents fly off the handle and out the door.

    Okay, but this is an intellectual exercise, not a pragmatic one, right.

    I repeat that because if it were a discussion of pragmatic reformations of education we’d have to account for all those pesky poverty-stricken inner-city kids who, while desperately in need of open space and access to nature, have little safe access to it.

    It is, in fact, in the inner cities and, paradoxically perhaps, the rural areas where all discussions of education reform trip over themselves and fall.

    In inner cities there are just too many kids to scrap the current system and start over. No one in their right mind is going to put the million or so school children in NYC out onto the streets whilst the school buildings are torn down to create new educational open spaces.

    The rural areas have lots of space but not the concentration of students to make use of it the way it might be used elsewhere. That students who live in open space will need to be bussed to other open spaces for educational purposes is mind-boggling.

    So, if it won’t work in inner cities and won’t work in rural areas, who will benefit from this re-imagination of education? Why, it’s the wealthier suburban kids whose schools, for the most part, are not the real problems we think about when we think about the problems of or caused by public education.

    One can no more restart the education system than one could restart fire service, policing, sanitation services, the military or any of the other similar major social-service agencies.

    Change in education, like in most aspects of life and public policy, is and will remain far more evolutionary than revolutionary.

    Tis a pity, for sure.

  6. […] Education: Start Again? My Twitter friend Stephen Diil in his blog Public Education: Start Again […]

  7. Ira Socol said

    I’ve thought of this a great deal, even wrote my “version” not too long ago. I come at this from a few perspectives.

    One is that, luckily, I got to be part of a completely “rethought” school as a high school student — a school without age-based grades, without grading, where science credit came from interning in a city hospital lab or developing a small heritage farm in a city park. Where history credit might come from wandering Manhattan, social studies credit from re-envisioning a downtown or interviewing the homeless in Grand Central’s tunnels after midnight. See this for a pdf regarding a similar school in Philadelphia.

    This taught me some key things: Kids bring the world with them into school. They bring their interests, passions, problems. “School” should be about leveraging that, not denying it. Schoolwork should be the safe place to experiment with the world – the place where we get to play and work out the details of our real learning, 99% of which happens outside of school.

    School should never be a place of subject divisions – for some kids that heritage farm was science credit, for others history, for others both. Of course.

    School should not be a place of time constraints. Periods, semesters… that’s stupid. Human interest and human learning does not stop and start when bells ring.

    But I also know that I like schools as a physical place. It hasn’t always been “nice” for me, but even that free school really benefitted from our mostly empty “White Room” (an ex cafeteria) where we could gather, be safe and away from the world that had hurt us. I’m a massive fan of the technologies which smash the walls of school, but sometimes, those walls protect and defend. We should not lose them.

    And I know that school needs to be a place focused on “what” not “how.” “How” disables – read this book this way, write this way, sit in this chair, come at this time. “What” enables – show us how you know? what u’ve learned? Do it your way.

    Quick thoughts, but they’ve been bubbling up for decades.

    • I like your “version” Ira! I am not sure I see as much separation as you do, for I think the integration into the workplace and the home is key to the lifelong education mindset that is so crucial to constant growth in all measures. But in concept – a “home base” that serves as the catalyst for thinking is a useful tool. I would still bring the community in regularly so that it isn’t seen as ‘refuge from adults,’ but rather ‘the place where I first started to find my path amongst my peers’ that over time becomes the place they go back to teach or mentor (another form of teaching). The Boy Scouts is an example of such a model. So many of the adults in a troop were once boys and young men in the same or similar building. Now they return to teach skills and values they learned there.

      My challenge to you and all is how do we affect such change? Can we gain the attention of the President? Only a global mandate could overwhelm the two unions in the way: parents and teachers.

  8. If I were to start over – and I really think starting over is preferable to trying to tweak the existing model, which simply cannot adopt the required shape – I would start at the back and work my way forward.

    I would ask myself “What is it FOR?” Why do we educate kids? What is the point of it? I think we have lost sight of the answer to this/these question/s. In order to find the answer, we need to be speaking to people from all sorts of sectors currently not engaged in this discussion: corporate employers, university faculties (although they could do with a makeover, too), criminologists, psychologists, societal and religious leaders, etc.

    Secondly, I would ask myself “What does the perfect school leaver ‘look’ like?” What is there profile? What skills do they have? How do they approach life and its challenges? In order to answer this question, we need to have the answer to the first question. Like everyone else, I have my own views of what the answers would be, but it really needs to be a collaborative process.

    Then and only then do we start looking at how we can make it possible for the children of our society to reach that point. And we don’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, because kids are not made with cookie cutters and one size actually fits one (if you’re lucky!).

    I have no intention of suggesting what the result would look like, since we have yet to answer the first two questions. Knowing the solution to an undefined challenge/project/whatever is what an ex manager of mine called ‘the zone of absurdity’. One thing I do know is that it would look very different from the model we have today!

  9. Kim L. said

    It must be a sign that I came across this post today. Granted I arrived a little later than expected. I have been reading the same books mentioned here and have come to ask the same questions. I WANT to start education over from scratch and I have designed a model based on my own answers to these questions. I would love to share my ideas with seriously interested parties.
    I will say that striving to achieve the bare minimum requirements of a sound basic education will not brighten our future. Our current education system is politically correct and to create something outside of this box is-sadly- frowned upon. It is my mission to make my dream a reality. A reality where learning is individualized for all learners.

    • This is a very long-term project, Kim, there is no such thing as “late” around here! By all means, feel free to present your ideas here. And while you are at it, please tell us more about your comment “…striving to achieve the bare minimum requirements of a sound basic education will not brighten our future.” The definition of “standards” and “requirements” seem fairly far away from starting at scratch, but maybe you’re there. I look forward to discussing your vision!

  10. Kim L. said

    What I meant by that comment is simply our current system at times appears to offer minimal opportunities for exploring. We are tested and held accountable for meeting what I perceive as mediocrity.
    Imagine a core curriculum that represents the most basic education. Add to that a set of standards that are relevant to our global age. These would form a curriculum map for learners from age 4 or 5 to 18 or older. This map would be the foundation for an electronic and flexible mastery system. Think of it as a sort of checklist that follows each learner and allows for electronic portfolios, projects, and video log reflections maintained by the learner. No grade levels or age groups. Learners are grouped by mastery of content, etc. This would allow for individualized courses of study and differentiation. A 6 year old may be in an Algebra class with a 15 year old because both have mastered previous content and are ready to master the same objectives. I realize this is taboo, but how often do we go shopping or out in public and encounter only people our specific age? This concept in itself is what I find missing in our schools today. Cultural and generational collaboration.
    Also, every learner would be appropriately challenged and given the opportunity to pursue an education of their interests. For example, let’s assume The Lyndon Wisdom Tree Cohort is open for business. New entrants with a lesser amount of achievements would be a seedling. Once constant mastery of the content has been established, they become sprouts. Roots are learners who have mastered the basic core curriculum and standards and are ready to pursue more. A yew (or sapling) is ready to participate in community service of his or her creation or choice, and begin fundraising. A learner is branching when they begin mastering 21st century skills and become innovative thinkers in global competencies. May even include a second language. Majestic is sort of a graduation status that includes completion of college level curriculum that interests the learner, and a type of intern/externship involving business, schools, or a global market. Proof of mastery would be in the portfolios, reflections, and mapping software checklist.
    This is the outline. I have so much more to add. In my heart I see this new form of school as a means to put our children in the forefront for innovation, intelligence, and a sense of pride in their education. They should be allowed to learn as much (and more) as they want to and not be tied to or restricted by our current system.
    I would love to hear input, questions, and guidance. It is difficult to express my ideas here. I hope they at least give a decent glimpse of my intentions. 🙂

    • Kim, thanks for overcoming any difficulties you might have had in conveying your outline for us all, you have done well. Your idea of a curriculum map makes perfect sense, and your “electronic and flexible mastery system” is a very accurate descriptor for the lifelong transcript I picture everyone having access to in the cloud or carried on an embedded chip or thumb drive. Fundamental to your vision is the freedom of choice and self determination, directed learning driven by an individual’s interest and passion, rather than age and societal expectations. This is one of the first stumbling blocks for those open to considering a new system. Amazing how imbedded in the world’s people is this perception that everyone needs to know the same things at the same time, taught in largely the same way, isn’t it? And while I admit that it’s easy to conjure images of aimless wandering, the proof that there will be order is in all the instances of homeschooling, freeschooling and unschooling around the world.

      I look forward to working with you to bring your ideas to this forum, Kim. Watch for an email soon so we can discuss how best to present them.

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