Creativity, inquiry vital for human growth

COMPASS: Points of view from the community

April 30, 2010 

I'm middle-aged (46), and the so-called education crisis has been going on at least since I was a kid in school. That's more than 30 years of the media fretting about American schoolchildren who couldn't find various countries on a map.

I'm sure a lot of my classmates and contemporaries did miss out on learning the location of Yugoslavia and East Germany, or the exact outlines of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. On the other hand, they went on to invent the Internet, the cell phone and biotechnology.

The countries to which the surveys compared us, and found us so lacking -- especially in Asia -- continue to lag the United States in science, popular and high culture, and technological inventiveness. As the world economy has developed, our country has taken on the high-value creative work and those countries put together the products we design.

My iPod says on the back, "Designed in California, assembled in China." (I'd rather have the job in California.)

However, thanks to the educational reform movement, we're working hard to reverse that relationship. We're making sure we standardize what everyone learns, forcing factual content and rote skills on children as early as possible, often before they're ready, displacing time to develop creativity, problem solving or original ideas.

Flash forward from my days in Anchorage schools to my children's. I thought kindergarten was for learning about sharing, creative play and fitting into a group. Touring kindergartens to pick a school, I instead found children focused on the rhombus. Wise officials in Juneau and Washington had decided that was more important.

I listened in, with curiosity. What the heck is a rhombus?

Now politicians remain disappointed with the results of these decades of standardization, and want iron-clad national standards. They say that will make our children able to compete in the global marketplace.

They're deciding for my community, my family, my children, what's important to learn in life. They care more about competing with other countries than my children's full and autonomous development as intellectual and social beings. And they're prepared to use the power of the state to impose their will, even at the cost of our nation's tradition of federalism, individual freedom, and cultural diversity.

I don't care if my children can beat a child from Japan on a test, or in a corporate rat race. When I hear political leaders talk about preparing my children to compete, I know their values are not my own.

As I've argued more fully in my new book, "The Fate of Nature," the most important decisions facing humankind, including our ability to halt the destruction of nature, rely on our capacity to create new social norms within our communities -- norms that restore our connections to each other and the world around us. Schools are the places where communities create culture, and connections.

That power is being taken from us.

In Alaska, the cost in human lives diminished is already mounting. Children who know how to support their families from subsistence in the world's harshest environments are branded failures because they can't name the communicative and distributive properties of mathematical equations, and other jargon on the graduation tests. A third of them drop out.

The top science journals, meanwhile, tell us that these educational practices don't produce good scientists. Inquiry, creativity and unstructured exploration do. In other words, individual teachers and students working together in the real world. Thanks to reform, fewer and fewer Americans will ever experience that kind of learning.

And those surveys comparing us with other countries? The journals tell me they're often invalid in their methods and statistics.

We don't hear that from the media. The crisis continues, with its one pre-determined solution, unquestioned by superficial politicians and reporters. Maybe they never learned critical thinking skills, even if they could identify a rhombus by age six.


Charles Wohlforth is an Alaska writer and author of "The Fate of Nature" and "The Whale and the Supercomputer." He also has been a reporter and served on the Anchorage Assembly. Website: www.fateofnature.com.

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