Before we discuss funding, charter schools, voucher programs or any other of the systemic educational hindrances that dominate the media and political discussion, we ought to first have a discussion about what education is, what education is supposed to achieve, and how education can be achieved.
Education, fundamentally, is the process of learning.
As Henry David Thoreau once said, "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well." To that end, I would like to briefly discuss how I personally learn, and why I believe the way I learn is the same way almost everybody learns.
I consider myself to be quite a skilled individual (though the more I learn the more I realize I don't know). Over the past couple of years I have learned how to build websites, edit videos, use Photoshop, record music, DJ, engineer micro light aircraft, engineer a rudimentary electrical system, engineer a rudimentary water system, use tools, perform the basics of woodworking, run an e-commerce business, manufacture textiles... the list goes on. I know a lot of things -- as do each and every one of us.
The way I learned all of these skills (and others) was not by attending lectures on each topic and being tested on those lectures. It was not by following a course curriculum that culminated in a final exam or term paper. It was because I was motivated to accomplish a task, and I used the tools at my disposal to make it happen.
While living on a farm in Kentucky earlier this year, I set several goals for myself and the farm -- total independence from the power grid, the electrical grid, and the food grid, along with total sustainability. Now, I didn't succeed in all of those -- yet -- but I did manage to gain a lifetime's worth of knowledge in just four months. I didn't want to depend on the city for water (and it seemed highly illogical to pay for water when it was literally beneath my feet), so I thought of every possible way to extract water from the ground, and I researched them meticulously. I thought it illogical to pay for power when we had many ways to generate power on the farm, so once again, I taught myself and figured it out. Same goes for food.
I could have gone to four years of university and majored in Sustainability or Environmental Studies and still not learned all that I did by simply doing it. And therein lays the fundamental problem with education -- there is far too much talk about things (engineering, history, politics, math, science, etc.) and very little doing. I don't mean little science experiments that lead to a test at the end of the quarter. I am referring to genuine action. Give kids the task of getting their entire school off the electric grid. They will learn electrical engineering, critical thinking, city permitting, team building, math, science, you name it... in a single semester (or two)!
Let's stop talking about Urban Planning in schools, and start challenging kids to transform their local environments (for example). I recently asked a group of children to brainstorm with me how to change their local communities for the better. I didn't lecture them on the art and science of urban planning. I literally asked them their ideas as to how to transform their neighborhoods. The ideas they gave me were brilliant. "Let's make swings out of rope and wood and hang them from every tree we can find. That way people will come out of their houses to play, and they will meet each other, and they will see that their city is theirs to enjoy, not somebody else's to destroy." Or another brilliant suggestion from a local kid: "Let's dress up a ninjas (for fun) and in the middle of the night, go out and plant fruit trees all over the city. Then people will never go hungry, and they will take care of the trees and they will start to care about their cities. And then, in twenty years, the whole city will be a whole lot healthier because there will be fresh fruit everywhere, and it will be a happier place because people will actually care about the city's eco-health."
Honestly, I was blown away. Those two ideas are brilliant. In hearing these ideas I was awakened to the power and ability these kids actually have to transform the landscape of their city (Los Angeles). The implementation of those two ideas alone, I believe, could result in the curation of a social experience that lends to meeting new friends, caring about one's city, eliminating the "us vs. them" mindset that leads to littering, graffiti, and carelessness (believing that the city is somebody else's to enjoy and take care of).
Now, I challenged the kids I spoke with to go for it and, as the Nike slogan states, Just Do It! The process of making swings will teach the kids more about engineering in a week than a lecture they would be sleeping through. The process of planting trees in a way that they don't die will teach kids about gardening, permaculture, water and weather etc. And the public reaction to the implementation of these ideas, along with the local politics that might negatively react, would teach the kids more about psychology and sociology than they could ever learn in a class. Not to mention that acquiring the materials to do these projects would require thriftiness, budgeting, fundraising (possibly), and recycling.
Imagine if the model I just outlined -- giving kids a challenge -- and letting them figure out how to achieve it -- were the model schools operated on. In today's world, with the Internet at our fingertips, there is nothing one cannot figure out. If schools were to give kids challenges, or rather, let them figure out their own challenges, and then simply make sure that the kids have the resources they need (i.e. access to experts, access to the Internet), and let them go for it, kids would learn so quickly it would astonish their teachers.
And that is what has come to be known as "edutainment" -- the conversion of entertainment and education in such a way that the terms are no longer mutually exclusive. It is how I personally learn. It is how you learn (whether you know it or not), and it is the only way this generation of kids is going to gain the skills they need to make it in life (in terms of sustenance, income, happiness, survival, and spiritual well-being).
See, in the real world, science, math, engineering, electricity, history, language, business, and all the topics we learn in school, are not separate. They are all interconnected. And to separate them is to do a pointless injustice to our students. If one is engineering a windmill for instance, that includes engineering, science, math, management, budgetary understanding, and dozens of other topics -- each of which is taught as a separate discipline in schools, which is a very flawed way and 20th century way of teaching kids to view the world. By creating challenges, children will come to understand each of these disciplines in such a way that they are not mutually exclusive, along with the process of creation, success, failure, research, utilizing the Internet, working with other, and critical thinking.
I think it's time we rethink (or perhaps stop over-thinking) education, and truly ask ourselves: how did we come to know all of the things we do? And the answer, more often than not, will be through our experience of doing, not our experience of being lectured and tested.
Not only do I know that this model will benefit the children participating in it, but it will benefit the world. With today's media and political climate, there is so much talk and so little action it is astounding (and annoying). Want to end a war? Challenge some school kids to figure out how. In fact, I was talking to some kids about the Kony 2012 video, which urges people to mobilize politically to help end Kony's reign. I asked the kids the following question: If the option of our government doing anything weren't even on the table, how would you approach this issue? They replied with answers that astonished me once again: "Let's raise money and give working smart phones to the people there, then whenever Kony's people are going to do something bad, they will be on camera for the world to see. Nobody will murder women and children if they're being broadcast live to the world."
Therein lays the future of education... and the world.
A little less talk, a little more action, and a bit of edutainment, and I think I see how the world's children will come to realize their true potential and build the skill-sets they will someday need.