Holistic Education Column
Making Educational Choices
For many parents, the days of routinely sending children to the local public school are over. We expect options, and we closely watch our children’s learning experiences to make sure that they are in an environment that truly nourishes the intellectual as well as emotional, social and even spiritual aspects of their development. If the fit isn’t right, it’s time to make a change. It is becoming increasingly common for children to move from one school to another, or in and out of homeschooling, at least once and perhaps several times during their young lives.
My own experience as a parent is still quite unusual (I happen to be an uncommonly well informed and demanding judge of educational options!) but I talk to other parents with similar stories. Our oldest son started in a Montessori preschool (which was cool for me since I had been a Montessori teacher a decade earlier) but it soon became clear that the classroom structure did not serve his rambling style, so we looked around and found a small preschool program that an extraordinarily gifted educator ran in her home.
As my son approached kindergarten age, I helped this teacher build her program into a model holistic elementary school, the Bellwether School (see www.bellwetherschool.org) , which Justin attended for two years. But we began to see that this more open-ended environment (which reflected my own educational philosophy) was enabling him to ramble without engaging in very much constructive learning, so we decided to transfer him to a Waldorf school, where he remained for seven years.
It was a strange experience, being the founder of one local independent school and at the same time a rather passive parent at another with a very different philosophy, but it seemed like the right arrangement for my son. He then attended a progressive boarding high school but spent his junior year in our local public high school and technical program to learn auto mechanics.
His younger twin brothers started out at Bellwether, tried two other alternatives (finding the Waldorf environment completely antithetical to their freewheeling learning styles), returned to Bellwether until they outgrew it, then, running out of options, were sent to our local public school, which, like many in Vermont, is a caring, child-friendly place strongly rooted in the community. One did well there for four years (though he often called it “boring”) and went on to a college prep boarding school; the other rebelled until we agreed to homeschool him during his middle school years. He’s now quite happy and succeeding at an alternative high school.
My story illustrates the need to attend to each child’s personal learning style and emotional and social temperament. I had to be willing to admit that my own carefully devised philosophy of education did not fully meet my oldest son’s needs. We had to recognize that even identical twins develop different personalities and learning goals, requiring very different educational environments.
Moving children around like this has some disadvantages, to be sure. Children find friends at school, and it is disruptive to their social life to leave friends behind and have to start over. We did find, though, that the boys stayed in touch with the best friends they’d made. And the experience of feeling comfortable and happy at a school (or out of school), rather than restless and resentful, seemed to outweigh the disruption—though this may not be true for all kids.
It is certainly a challenge (if not a disadvantage of this educational strategy) for parents to have to be so perceptive, so wise, to make the right judgments; how do we really know when it’s time to make a change, rather than giving our children more time to adapt to a place, which might be an important learning experience for them? I am willing to admit that some of our decisions might have been mistaken.
I believe that a flexible system of education, one which offers diverse options to all families and communities, would engage parents more fully in their children’s learning and in the long run promote intelligent, informed judgments about what best serves them. True, it is a challenge to provide such options in rural or impoverished communities, but this is a challenge that I think it’s time to take on. The days of standardized, one-size-fits-all schooling are coming to an end.
Some critics worry that that such availability of choice would spawn a nation of educational “consumers” shopping around for the best deals, being hypnotized by clever marketing and promises of academic stardom, with the more privileged and savvy consumers obtaining superior educational opportunities for their own children. But I envision a system grounded in a new set of attitudes and expectations about education. If we would put more emphasis on promoting human development and building a democratic culture, instead of the me-first competition that characterizes much of our schooling (and entire culture) today, parents would not be looking for “deals” or one-dimensional academic success—they would be looking out for the highest good of their children and their communities.
I do not advocate the privatization of the school system, enabling corporate entrepreneurs to build strings of McSchool franchises; rather, what we need is the expansion of options in a spirit of social responsibility and participatory democracy.