Our education system: How did we get here? Where are we going?

Not very long ago most of us were farmers, and our children helped in all aspects of farm work. In that simple world, where children congregated from sparsely settled communities into one-room schoolhouses, the three Rs—Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic—were enough to get us by. The teaching methods were equally simple: memorize and drill. And if children still couldn’t get it, the accepted procedure was to beat it into them with a ruler to the palm, a cane to the backside, or worse.

Today, our world has changed beyond the wildest imagination of anyone living even 50 years ago, much less back in the times when the one-room schoolhouse was born.

The pony express, the peddlar with his wagon of goods, the itinerant portrait painter, the travelling minstrel show—all have gradually given way to technologies that were not even dreamed of by our own grandparents. The information revolution has transformed industry. Boards of directors whose members are scattered from Australia to Hong Kong, London, Paris, and New York, hold meetings through videoconferencing. No large corporation could operate for even five minutes without the thousands of interconnected computers that serve every aspect of business life, from scheduling production to enhancing “corporate culture.’’ Even the smallest retail store keeps its inventory and accounting records on sophisticated computer systems.

There are ‘’superlearning’’ tapes that make it possible to absorb a new language in 30 days. And adults have for years been taking interactive courses in everything from gourmet food preparation to HTML coding. People talk to each other in chat rooms and on message boards where instant translation has rendered cross-cultural and cross-national boundaries a thing of the past.

And yet, in the middle of this sci-fi vision come true, our schools continue in the pattern of centralized buildings, authoritarian philosophies, and teaching methods that are exactly the same as before: memorize, drill, and punish.

Yes, the one-room schoolhouse has metamorphosed into a multimillion-dollar, factory-like complex. The old potbellied stove in the corner is now a central heating system, and the oil lamps have given way to fluorescent lighting—even full-spectrum lighting, for the lucky ones. And teachers are no longer allowed to physically abuse their students.

But punishment, although it has never worked and never will, is still considered a viable method for enforcing both learning and discipline. Still, across the world, thousands of expensive schoolrooms stand vacant during the holiday season.

And—despite the strides that have been made in learning technology, despite the information revolution that has transformed every home and business in our country, despite our new understanding that learning in its natural state is both exciting and fun—most of our schools continue to enforce upon our children the weary drudgery that characterized learning methods accepted 200 years ago.

But it has been clear for a long time that our old ways do not work. In the words of Dr. Maria Montessori:
“Scientific observation has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment. The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity, spread over a specially prepared environment, and then refraining from obtrusive interference. Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done, as servants help the master. Doing so, they will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul and to the rising of a New Man who will not be a victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society.”

In line with this type of thinking and the opportunities offered by computers and the Internet, our school system is now in the very beginnings of a transformational process. Even those in places of governmental power have recognized that tomorrow is too late. The changes are taking place right now, and they will continue, not only through private schools and home schooling, as before, but through government-funded schools and in the private schools themselves.

How many children do you know who like to go to school? Not many, probably. Not today. But tomorrow will be a different story. We invite you to learn and perhaps even participate in this rebirth of our educational system.