In the world of racing, you will never see a race between a Ferrari, a Volkswagon van, and a bicycle. The reason you will never see this is because the three vehicles are in completely different classes with regards to maneuverability, performance, and power. But if for some reason such a race were to take place, it’s pretty easy to determine the outcome. Barring unusual circumstances, the Ferrari would come in first, by a long shot, while the Volkswagon would come in second some time later. Eventually, the bicycle would cross the finish line too, but by then most of the spectators would have already gone home. There are no surprises with this outcome either, as most sensible people would not expect the van to perform as well as the Ferrari or the bicycle to perform as well as the van. This is an example of Common Sense at work.

The analogy of the race exposes the reality of our educational system today. One size fits all education ignores the realities that everyone has a different capacity and desire to learn. For some students, learning is both easy and fun. For others, learning is hard and unpleasant. And for the many in between, learning is neither easy nor hard, nor fun or unpleasant…it just is. But our school systems lump all students together, categorized primarily by age, and teaches them together as if they were all the same. Sure, we have some accelerated classes for the brighter students and remedial classes for the slower kids, but on the whole, the schools attempt to teach and promote kids in age groups with gained knowledge being secondary as criteria for advancement. The result is a student who either lacks the necessary skills to continue learning or one who is hopelessly bored by the relatively slow pace of learning. Yet the overriding concern to build a students self-esteem by pretending that all are equal in every way, which trumps the process of education.

Much of the problem lies with the false notion that kids who are the same age should learn at the same rate. But since all children are different, this is a generalization that is weak at best. We must also refocus our sights on the type of education that our students receive and have a clear-cut objective regarding the knowledge they are expected to obtain at certain points along their educational careers. By addressing these basic building blocks of education, we can begin to put our children back on the path towards an education that is appropriate to their abilities and desires, and in the process, we could probably more effectively use our education tax dollars.

With regards to the grade based system of classifying students, while from a social perspective this idea makes a lot of sense, from an intellectual viewpoint, we may be hurting kids more than we are helping them. At some point in their education, kids will begin to separate themselves according to their academic ability, creating amongst themselves a caste system of sorts that serves to segregate the students from each other. Those who are academically gifted may be shut out of the mainstream social activities, while those who fall below the academic norm may lose all interest in further education. Meanwhile, those in the larger middle go blissfully along, hardly being challenged to exercise their intellect or being pigeon-holed into pre-determined academic plans derived by parents and counselors who are determined to push students along the “college path” regardless of that students desire or aptitude. Rather than help our students master certain necessary areas of knowledge, we instead funnel them through to the next grade, hoping that they will catch up and flushing out their lives with abundant extra-curricular activities to make them appear better rounded as college prospects.

But the numbers of high-school dropouts, the low level of adult literacy comprehension and mathematic skill, the masses of remedial college courses necessary for students to get up to speed, all affirm the failures of our current structure. We need to find another way to categorize, instruct, evaluate and advance students so that they can all achieve the level of education they are capable of achieving. So where do we start?

Beginning at the earliest ages, from pre-school through the second grade, basic evaluations should be taken on each student as they begin to learn how to read, write, recognize shapes and colors, and perform simple mathematical calculations. Based on a students progress, beginning at grade three, students could then be separated according to their learning capabilities, offering students who are faster learners to move at a more accelerated pace while slow learners could be taught at a slower pace. By separating these groups from the students who are average achievers, we could remove the stigma and social cruelty that pits students against each other, giving all students an opportunity to focus on learning and not on jealous or insensitive peers. Such a move would also permit teachers to spend less time dealing with students who are disruptive due to boredom and less time helping individuals who were seriously behind the other students and more time teaching at a common speed that fits the capabilities of the class as a whole. All the while, students could shift from one learning path to another if their capabilities show that they have become more or less adept at learning. As students progress in their scholastic years, they would be periodically assessed to ascertain that they had mastered the skills necessary for a person with their capabilities and of their age group before they could move on to middle or high school.

Once in middle school, students could begin to explore the opportunities that await them as adults by engaging in more “real life” educational opportunities. (An interesting concept for instruction of these courses can be found in this post at Educational Whisperer.) Students would also begin to learn about civic responsibilities and ethics courses in middle school along with their academic lessons in math, literature, science, history, and art. At the end of their eighth year of schooling, students would be assessed again and interviewed to determine the course of their further education. Some students will not have the skills or desire to pursue a career that required a college education and could be steered into a course of education designed to teach trade skills necessary for life in the working world after high school. Other students would continue along the college path and go on to become scientists or doctors or teachers, among other things. In both cases, high school education would become more individually tailored to each students goals, while still imparting the necessary life skills like personal health and finance, and basic “living on your own” information. From high school, students would follow their paths to a university, a specialized trade school, or directly into the work force.

Finally, we must recognize that all students do not learn in the same way. Some are good at learning through the written word while others are good at learning through tactile experience. As such, schools should try to be more flexible with regards to the methods a student uses to gain his or her new knowledge. The goal is to learn, so the rigidity of how something is learned should be dissolved and the focus should become that it was learned at all. Teachers and parents should help their students develop learning methods that work for best for them and be judged on the final outcome.

Most children want to please their parents, and by extension, the other adults in their lives. As young children, this desire allows us to instill the qualities of respect and responsibility in them. But we must at some point return that respect when they become capable of choosing their own interests in life. By nurturing these abilities and desires, we help create a happier, more pro
ductive adult member of society. We must stop pretending that all children are the same, or that they can all learn the same skills. That simply is untrue and only blinds us to the real goal of giving our children the kind of education that they deserve.