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Education Talk from Joyful Families Workshop

August 6, 2004

by Alexandra McNamara

Copyright 2004 by Alexandra McNamara. All rights reserved.

In order to evaluate what might be the best school or form of education for a child there are some basic questions for the parents to explore and discuss. There are no set answers to these questions, as they are some of the fundamental human questions. Different approaches to education stem from the widely differing answers to and perspectives on these questions. The appropriateness of a particular educational system or teacher for a child depends on how closely aligned are the parents’ answers to the teachers and administrators of the particular schools.

What is a human being? Regardless of the fact that philosophers have been mulling over this one for thousands of years, we can all consider it and contemplate the variety of responses that will come up in any group of people, even if they have the same general approach to life and belief systems. These answers can range from the most materialistic to the most spiritual, from “a human being is an organism which walks upright” to “a human being is a spirit temporarily housed in a bodily form.” Different people emphasize the physical aspect, the emotions, and the mental capacities of the human being as fundamental to “humanness.” This question can then be made more specific by asking, “What is a child?” and “How does a child differ from an adult?” This is the realm of educational philosophers and yet everyone who has spent time with children can have a valid view and opinion on these questions. The importance of these questions is that whether the child is viewed , for example, as a developmentally distinct sort of being from an adult or as basically a smaller and younger version of an adult will have a significant impact on the education philosophy developing out of these variances. There are many levels to these questions and the deeper the exploration the more fruitful can be the results of the process.

The next question is what is education? Some people will respond that education is the drawing out of innate capacities from within, based on the Latin meaning of educare, while others view education as a training for specific life tasks. Obviously education implies many things in our culture and both of these answers can be “correct” for someone, depending on the specific circumstances. Clearly the belief that a child enters school as a blank slate or an empty box needing to be filled with information and skills will produce an entirely different educational system than a perspective that views the child as a carrier of innate capacities which need to be awakened and nurtured appropriately. The nature of the teacher as authority will be entirely different in a educational environment which views the child as knowing best what he or she needs to learn and one in which a developmentally appropriate curriculum presented in a predetermined way is the more effective way to awaken the child’s capacities. Usually the answers to such questions and the ensuing approaches are not black and white, either/or, but a range upon a continuum of possible educational strategies. The parent’s beliefs and comfort level must be in congruence with the range present in a school being considered.

The third fundamental question looks at the needs of the parents and asks what support, community structures, input, or acknowledgment the parents require from the school. Some parents need to know that whatever school they have chosen will take full responsibility for their child’s education with little input necessary from them, while other parents require regular contact with the school, a sense of community, and perhaps educational and social opportunities in the form of study groups and gatherings. These are highly individual questions and there are no right answers, only differing degrees of congruence and meeting of needs. Parents’ needs can change over the years of children’s development and it is also useful to look at whether a school can honor these changing needs over a period of time. Can a parent be a classroom volunteer in the early grades and then leave their child in afterschool care in later years when the parents’ work schedules may be different? Is there an openness in the school to the wide range of parental circumstances that exist in a healthily diversified group of families?

In the light of exploration of these basic questions the parents can begin to evaluate different schools and interview different teachers. The formulating of these questions of course suggest more specific ones, such as “What is the educational approach that best meets the particular learning needs of my own child?” For example, a parent may believe wholeheartedly in an academically demanding and classically based curriculum, but if his own child only thrives in highly interactive, experiential and emotionally supportive environments then the child’s needs might not be met in the traditional, academically stringent atmosphere the parents would prefer. Similarly a parent may desire a highly child-centered “free school” sort of environment, yet her child may only be able to concentrate and learn in quiet and highly structured settings. A child may be have most of her needs met in a particular school, which may not have the parent activities and participation available that the parent would prefer. In these cases, it is essential to weigh out and prioritize the varying needs and preferences of both parents and child. In most cases, the needs of the child should be given the greatest weight in the decision making process. The education is after all for the child and not for the parent!

There was a time when any education was very much an affair handled within the family. Only the wealthy and socially elite received an academic education as such. Then with the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing social revolutions, a statewide universal education became the norm. When state schools were being established during the 19th century, growing out of the progressive ideas of that time, the educational philosophers, positing that because all children were entitled to an education, all children should be educated in the same way. Other underlying social and economic agendas, such as using schools to train children to become good workers in an industrial society, had a large effect in shaping the form statewide education took at that time. But this uniform, cookie-cutter approach to education was clearly not serving children by the mid 20th century. Educational researchers such as Jean Piaget, Gessell and others documented the differing physical development, intellectual capacities and perceptions of children at different ages.

A slightly different developmental approach is espoused by Rudolf Steiner, who founded Steiner or Waldorf schools. He pointed out that the human being goes through developmental stages encompassing not only physical and intellectual development but development of soul and spiritual capacities and that this development is life long and not restricted to childhood. More recent educational research has revealed that children widely differing learning styles within the same developmental ages and stages and therefore require different educational approaches in order to optimize their learning. Howard Gardner articulated this idea of multiple intelligences in the 1980’s. Children manifest strengths in one or a combination of seven “frames of mind”: kinesthetic, visual-spatial, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

This recognition of differing learning styles and modalities, regardless of how they are counted and categorized, has become fairly main stream in some parts of the world. A good school will attempt to meet these varying styles by offering a variety of learning materials that stimulate the child’s senses of touch, sight, hearing, allow children to learn in small groups and alone and offer integrated learning experiences that provide a crossover from artistic to verbal to mathematical, for example. Recognition that a range of different intelligences is of great value in a classroom, so that children learn to interact with a variety of learning styles and develop those areas which do not come naturally to them, while still finding success in their areas of strength. This approach is present in a number of different school systems such as Waldorf/Steiner schools, Montessori schools, and Integrated Day schools, to name a few.

Increasingly in recent years, researchers and educators are finding that children have imbalances in their sensory and movement functioning. Children struggle with basic balance, attention, and auditory and visual development either to a greater extent than in former times or than was recognized in the past. It is unclear whether this is due to environmental stresses, decrease in vigorous free movement that used to be the norm, birth trauma, over stimulation or understimuation of the senses, nutritional deficiencies, or some combination of these things. Regardless, given the higher proportion of children needing strengthening of their sensori-motor systems, it is essential that schools have remedial or resource programs in place to give the extra support to these children. Often academic tutoring is not enough, because if the child is having difficulty with basic phyisical coordination, then learning to read may be more difficult, for a number of reasons, for that child. A good remedial program will include occupational therapy or movement components as well as academic support. Even if your child is healthy and balanced and has no movement or learning issues, if there are children in his class whose needs are not being met and who are therefore disruptive or requiring too much of the teacher’s time to keep engaged, then your child may suffer from the lack of adequate teacher attention.

In addition to children who cannot benefit from traditional educational approaches due to sensori-motor imbalances or learning issues, there are higher numbers of children being born who show extraordinary capabilities in some areas and are referred to in some circles as Indigo Children.

Characterized by heightened social awareness and sensitivity, psychic ability, high self-motivation, a drive for early autonomy, feelings of entitlement and “royalty”, ruthless honesty, extreme articulateness, and a lack of patience for those who are not equally honest and socially just. These children do not easily fit the mold of traditional education. They are the ones who break the rules, push the limits, question authority, and thrive in situations that offer them a combination of strong clear loving limits and creative freedom within those limits. Giving too much space and responsibility can be terrifying for them, yet not giving enough is stifling.

Most important they need to be recognized as the soul/spirit beings that they know themselves to be. They need to be acknowledged, listened to and fully respected. Some are extroverted and will act out in hyperactive and eccentric kinds of ways. Others are highly sensitive and introverted and need to be cared for and carefully drawn out and easily overwhelmed by groups or noisy environments. Both types are highly sensitive and do not necessarily do well in large groups and certainly will not thrive unless someone, either parent or teacher or both are aware of who they really are.

If you have an Indigo child, and you might recognize whether or not you do by the above description, then your search for the right school or educational setting becomes all the more challenging. However, your Indigo child will probably tell you in some way very clearly whether or not the situation she is in is serving her basic needs. These children do not tend to hold back from telling us what they need, unless they are of the very inward type.

We need to learn to truly observe our children, not as extensions or ourselves, not as the possibilities of fulfilling what was unfulfilled in our own lives, not as the expressions of our own ideals and beliefs. Rather they must be seen in their uniqueness, in the light of their own strengths and challenges, in the light of their own spirit selves.

Each child deserves the education most suited to him or her at the time. It is all right to change something that is not working in your child’s education. If you choose a school, which works for a while and then no longer serves, it does not mean you made a mistake. It means that you can allow your child to move on to something new. In some cases a school setting is available that truly meets your and your child’s needs over the long term. But equally there is for some children the need to constantly reassess, using deep questioning, intuition, and any expert advice you can find the right education for your child at the time.

Ultimately the responsibility for the child’s education lies in the hands of the parents, even when an excellent and trustworthy school and group of teachers is available. Parents must educate themselves, question, explore and be willing to constantly rediscover who their child is, what education is and clarify what they, the parents are needing from the whole process, in order to truly serve their child’s highest needs.

© Copyright 2004 by Alexandra McNamara. All rights reserved.


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