Oprah: SOS on Schools

glb_headshotLIVING FOR CHANGE
Oprah: SOS on Schools
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, April 18, 2010

Four years ago, before Bing/Bobb proposed demolishing neighborhood schools, this April 23-29, 2006 column projected schools in which our children learn by doing. It is an idea whose time has come.- GLB

On April 12 and 13 Oprah sounded the alarm about the worsening crisis in our schools. On both shows she was joined by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, who have made a multi-million grant to develop small schools in Milwaukee.

“It is going to take activism.” Oprah insisted. “We can’t just sit passively by and act like it’s OK.”

She began by exposing the glaring inequities in our public schools, e.g. an inner city Chicago school lacks even minimal toilet facilities while a suburban school enjoys a Olympic-size swimming pool.

Again and again she cited dropout figures. One million teenagers drop out every year: 50% in the inner city; 30% nation-wide. This includes lots of whites. E.g. a Shelbyville, Indiana, citizen describes the local mostly white, state-of-the-art high school as a “dropout factory.”

The main reason for our failing schools, Oprah said, is that in 2006 we are still stuck with a 1956 model. Gates called our school system “obsolete.”

I agree. But we need more dialogue on what we mean by “obsolete.”

By “obsolete” Oprah and the Gateses apparently mean that our schools are falling behind other nations in teaching the high level skills needed in today’s society. For example, as Oprah pointed out, inner city high school seniors study 8th grade math.

On the other hand, by “obsolete” I mean that the learning processes created for the age of industrialization don’t work in our post-industrial society. A hundred years ago expanding factories required semi-skilled workers who followed orders and respected authority Information came mainly from books and newspapers. So the learning process was structured around cognitive skills and obedience.

The result was the “Command and Control” schools that Bush wants to restore through his No Child Left Behind Act. They are as “obsolete” as his pre-emptive war strategies.

Nowadays change is taking place so rapidly and so much information is available that what our children urgently need are learning processes that prepare them to make responsible choices in creating change and in grappling with excess information. They need to participate in creating change.

That is why Martin Luther King Jr. urged direct action projects for young people “in our dying cities.” Project-based education gives the student responsibility for designing and researching a project and a plan of action. Instructors are facilitators who help students with their projects instead of requiring students to take an interest in topics handed down to them.

That is why Canadian educator George Siemens recommends learning processes that develop our right-brains, e.g. conversation, story-telling, cooperation. (gsiemens@elearnspace.org)

At the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom School in the South Bronx, five ‘habits of mind’ are stressed:

  • helping students learn to critically examine evidence.
  • to be able to see the world through multiple viewpoints – to step into other shoes.
  • to make connections and see patterns.
  • to imagine alternatives (What if? What else?)
  • to ask “What difference does it make? Who cares?”

These five are at the heart of all the work, along with sound work habits and care and concern for others: habits of work and heart. The curriculum affirms the central importance of students learning how to learn, how to reason, and how to investigate complex issues that require collaboration, personal responsibility and a tolerance for uncertainty.

In a 1977 speech on “The Next Development in Education” Jimmy Boggs recommended school gardens and greenhouses where young people learn how to
grow food and restore their relationship to Nature and school kitchens where children cook and serve their own food, in the process learning more about nutrition and budgeting.

“Why shouldn’t young people in each school have the responsibility for caring for the trees, the playgrounds and roads in their neighborhoods?” he asked.

Oprah urged everyone, students, teachers, parents, citizens, to become involved in updating our schools. These examples give an idea of how we can each help replace the obsolete learning processes that are pushing out our young people.

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