03/30/2012 04:23 pm ET Updated May 30, 2012

Imagining the Ideal School

If you were to drop an elementary school student from 1912 into one of today's classrooms, he would be positively frightened by the amount of innovation surrounding him: TI-82s rather than abacuses, iPads rather than notebooks, and YouTube videos rather than tutors. And yet, if you asked that student from 1912 to name his favorite part of the school day, he would probably give the same answer as a student from 2012.


Surely with all the tools we have in today's schools, we've figured out a way to make learning more interesting, so that kids actually like coming to school -- right? After all, wasn't it the original point of schools to awaken an interest in knowledge? Ralph Waldo Emerson put it best when he said:

If the [schools] were better, if they ... had the power of imparting valuable thought, creative principles, truths which become powers, thoughts which become talents...we should all rush to their gates: instead of contriving inducements to draw students, you would need to set police at the gates to keep order in the in-rushing multitude.

Although few would dispute that educators know more than they did a century ago, we haven't come that far from the model that existed back then, where the class sat in rows, teachers fixated on "keeping order," and students were treated like receptacles for information that got emptied on exam day.

Neatly-arranged desks, lectures from the front of the room, students passively taking notes -- these are still the dominant features of a classroom. Today's students have adapted to this poor learning environment by finding creative ways to hide their boredom, sleep while sitting upright in an uncomfortable desk, and navigate standardized tests. They know how to give eight different teachers the answers they want, but not how to discover their passions, create original work, or develop into emotionally mature adults.

It's time for schools to recognize that a one-size-fits-all curriculum, in reality, fits nobody.
I can imagine an ideal school where all students are happy to arrive each morning, feel engaged throughout the day, and leave with new and exciting knowledge. In this school, children learn not just academics, but also how to become healthy, fulfilled people. It is my dream to walk through this school's doors in my lifetime.

The tenets of my ideal school are good communication, emotional awareness, conflict resolution, and human connection. These principles would be present in the teaching of all traditional academic subjects.

Classes would be limited to fifteen students. The smaller size would allow teachers to provide necessary individual attention, but still foster a sense of community. Guided by the teacher, kids would vote on class rules and a student Bill of Rights at the beginning of the year, giving the class a sense of ownership over their daily lives. In contrast to today's environment, which encourages passive acceptance of the rules of a larger force that knows what's best for us, this school would recognize the innate power of each student. Kids would also complete individual learning surveys, giving the teacher a sense of each person's interests and disinterests, strengths and weaknesses, and goals.

Real-world projects would be a key feature of the school. Whereas the current school model teaches kids concepts in a vacuum (few children understand the practical use of an algebra problem, for instance), my school would create context for every concept. Every major lesson would have a project attached to it. Kids wouldn't just read antiquated poetry in English; they'd write their own poetry, have it bound into an anthology, and distribute it for publication. They wouldn't just watch period films in history class; they'd write and direct an original short film about an intriguing moment in history. You'd find kids designing websites, patenting new ideas, building bridges to scale, and raising money to donate to their local communities.

Teachers would develop lessons thematically so that they span every academic subject. A unit on poverty would see social studies teachers focusing on the economics of poverty, math teachers comparing the costs of living in various cities, English teachers contrasting Dickens' portraits of life among the London poor to portraits of the modern-day poor, and science teachers examining solutions for low-cost, healthy food.

Each day would begin with a discussion of the current class projects. Academic experiences would occupy the remainder of the day. To encourage independent discovery and learning, academic lessons would be split into two halves. The first half would be a basic skills seminar, and the second half an advanced class. Students could choose to stay the second half or to work on their current project, read, or pursue independent study. The "second halfers" would be the students with the greatest passion for the subject.

Once a week, students would spend the second half of the afternoon in Talking Time, an open forum for feelings on any issue, personal or school-related. These sessions would help to build relationships, foster the discussion of difficult issues, and congeal the class as a community. In the larger picture, Talking Time would strengthen communication rather than internalization, helping students to become happier adults.

In my school, the teacher would be an intellectual resource, project coordinator, and psychological coach, facilitating discussions and encouraging teamwork. Teachers would be required to complete training in conflict resolution, psychodynamic therapy, and empathy. The notion of teacher-as-taskmaster still so prevalent in today's schools would evaporate. Grades would not exist. Instead, teachers would write evaluations for projects, taking the individual learning style of each student into account. The motivation to work would arise, not from the extrinsic desire to make an A, but from the intrinsic desire to master skills, earn the respect of teachers and fellow students, and establish a positive self-identity.

In contrast to today's deficit-theory system, which anticipates the negative, using grades and disciplinary procedures punitively to weed out students who do not fit the standard model, my school would rest on the principle of positive power. Rather than simply being told what not to do, students would be praised for their strengths and encouraged to see the positive in others.

Bullying, in all forms, would be barely present. When kids understand how they feel and can relate to others in a shared human experience, the need to inflict pain on others weakens.

By treating students as respected individuals rather than products in an assembly line, we would allow them to believe in themselves and value their education. We would develop generations of self-aware, capable adults who know what they want from life. And we would increase the supply of our world's most valuable resource: happiness.