The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives. ~Robert Maynard Hutchins

A brief examination into the history of public education in America reveals signs of seasoned debate. Since the dawn of our industrialized educational system there have ostensibly been two schools of thought responsible for influencing the direction of learning and for inspiring decades of educational reform.

One view subscribes to our seemingly innate desire to organize, categorize and measure. This general movement has attempted to standardize our approach to an equitable and testable education system for all. The other school of thought tends toward a more holistic style of learning, in consideration of the theory of multiple intelligences, with greater emphasis on hands-on, critical thinking and alternative assessments.

When I think back to what I remember most about my K-12 educational experience, it is certainly not the standardized testing that calls swiftly to mind. I remember playing soccer on the blacktop during recess, writing and acting out a play with my peers in fifth grade, borrowing my mom’s sequined red dress from the 1960’s to perform a Billie Holiday lip-sync in front of my sixth grade class in honor of Black History Month. I remember running against Lauryn Hill for eighth grade class president, facts that I memorized about gun control for a debate in tenth grade, and the dangers of getting behind the wheel as demonstrated by a 1950’s black and white film that captured some of the most horrific traffic violations far beyond what I could ever conjure up in my own imagination.

I suppose this makes me more of a bodily-kinesthetic learner or someone who learns better by doing, moving and touching. I try not to let my own learning style bias my thoughts for how others learn best but after spending the past ten years working with youth in environmental education and outdoor, applied, place-based learning I’d be hard pressed to say that I haven’t seen this style reach and inspire a broad spectrum of learners.

The questions for me are “what is it that we really want kids to learn in school” and “what is it that we want them to be able to know or to do by the time they graduate from high school”?

Advocates believe that in order to truly live in a democratic society that it is the obligation of our schools to prepare us for citizenship. At a minimum this should include the ability to gather information, evaluate information, make informed decisions, and take action to address identified problems. Desirable characteristics include the ability to cooperate, practice fairness, respect diversity and multiple perspectives and find balance in proposed solution.

The Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA – also known as the No Child Left Behind Act) is the nation’s essential legislation for public education that has existed since the 1960’s. The ESEA is reauthorized every five years or so to guide our educational practice and priorities. On March 13, 2010 the Obama administration released its blueprint for revising the ESEA, which includes a “well-rounded education” throwing attention to the arts, environmental literacy (through the inclusion of the No Child Left Inside Act), and innovation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The last time that the ESEA was reauthorized was in 2001. This extended time period may well be attributed to disagreements regarding No Child Left Behind and what our representatives think is worthy enough to include in this next round of education reform.

The point is that education, like most of our societal systems, are riddled with opinion and debate. Every expert or self-proclaimed enthusiast thinks that they know what’s best for our country, our schools, our teachers and our students in light of or in spite of research that promotes or refutes the claim of its practice. I wonder if the greatest challenge confronting education reform lies in our belief that we really can create a one size fits all system.

My vision for education is one that takes research, accountability and opportunity into consideration while placing emphasis on the holistic development of each individual, helping them attain their true potential and empowering them in becoming an active member of our society. This type of education includes:

  • Personalized learning
  • Scientific inquiry
  • Systems thinking
  • Project- and Place-based learning
  • Service learning
  • Using the environment as an integrating context for learning (environmental education, education for sustainability)
  • Critical thinking, problem solving, decision making
  • Empowerment

Teachers, classrooms and schools across the country are participating in and leading innovative educational practices that embody this vision while increasing the academic achievement of students. Follow the links below to explore examples of how despite the increased attention on standardized testing coupled with decreased funding for our schools there is still profound inspiration in the practice of possibility.

The Oregon Environmental Literacy Plan: Toward a Sustainable Future






Comments are closed.