Water and Time


Concepts and ideas tend to bang around inside my head once they gain traction on a synapse, and more often they not, they collide in big explosions – sometimes of clarity, sometimes of concern, and sometimes of both. That was the case this past week, when a Monday blog hop on stealth schooling generated a kind comment from a parent who said, “glad your kids have such great resources for learning!” I thanked her, responded to her request for more game ideas, and went about my day, little knowing that the word resources was just waiting to bounce into another synapse.

There wasn’t long to wait. The next night, I was reading and idly listening while Kath watched the TED Talks on education. Presenters from Bill Gates to Ken Robinson discussed the need to provide teachers with feedback, to maintain a conversation surrounding national education policy, to provide every student with an individualized education. Sir Ken was stellar as always, but it was his Death Valley anecdote that brought two disparate synapses together for me. In short, he discussed a rare moment in which it rained in Death Valley, after which the valley bloomed into floral radiance. Death Valley, he explained, was not dead. It was dormant. What it needed were two key resources: water and time. The educational system, and the students within it, he argued, are in the same situation.

And I realized something: these are the most important resources – and I have plenty of the one, but none of the other, to spare in providing my kids with a good education. So, unfortunately, there’s no time to wait.

Water and time make up a sound recipe for plant growth, so long as you’re not concerned with serving a salad tonight. Tonight’s salad needed rain months ago – not rain today, or rain tomorrow, or rain next week. What I began to internalize, as I listened to the TED Talks, was that, collectively, we’re discussing the educational system that’s going to be available for my grandchildren. For my own kids – fourth-graders by age, but enrolled in fifth and doing sixth-grade work – there’s little chance that the system will change in time to do them any good. Today’s children needed rain a decade ago – not a ‘partly cloudy’ forecast for the decade to come.

Although we can discuss our requirements as a society in the abstract, those abstractions come down to very definite and concrete circumstances and ramifications for each of us – and we’ve been hearing all the same conversations since our girls were in preschool. We can’t hope for rain in the desert. We need to carry the water out there ourselves. We’ve got all the water required – from our structured homeschool work to project-based learning and stealth schooling – but no time. We homeschool because we need a workable system right now.

My kids don’t get a do-over on this standardized test-centric boatrace; the philosophy of learning they develop now must carry them through their entire lives. If they learn to live on their heels, waiting for the next snow-shovelful of facts to be served up in anticipation of another Scantron form, if that conceptual set becomes their framework, that’s how they will approach their adult professional development. If they learn to live on their toes…well, let’s just say that K and I both exist in professional worlds where you’d better at least be on your toes, if not in a full-on leap, to stay competitive.

What the TED presenters are talking about is nothing short of a terraforming process. It won’t be livable in my kids’ educational ‘lifetimes,’ and may not be livable in the next. What we’re hoping for, collectively, is a public education system that is a real option for my children’s’ children. But that begins with clarity of educational mission, efficiency of educational funding, and commitment to preparing students for the world outside the school’s doors. At the moment, we have none of these.

Honestly, we don’t even know what we want to be yet. Gates’ talk, on providing a structured system of feedback and professional development for teachers, lined up statistics on which countries currently do so and how they perform on the world stage. The usual suspects were mostly present in the rankings, and the data seemed to correlate nicely, until you take into account that Finland – the oft-cited paragon for alternative schooling success – is one of the countries that does not provide such a system . So who do we want to be when we grow up? Finland, land of empowered individualization? South Korea, land of the ‘goose family?’ China? Iceland, our closest statistical cousin? Without a sense of where we’re going, there’s little sense in reforming anything. Reformation needs direction, and structure – and once again, we have neither. Put simply, if we had charted a viable national course for educational excellence – and we haven’t – it would take at least the better part of a decade for the results to appear. We haven’t so much as begun to sketch a map – in fact, we still seem to believe, at some level, that the existing course is working. (It isn’t.)

Discussing educational policy while my kids are in school is like discussing the finer points of breadmaking while the bread is in the oven. I’m sure there are going to be all kinds of wonderful outputs from the process, but they’re not going to change the finished product in our time. Our choice was a very simple one: wait, and hope, and fund, and promote, a sprinkler system for the desert…or fill watering cans and get to work on our own gardens.

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