The first revolution in public education will occur when we stop educating for human uniformity and start educating for human variety. This revolution may be a few years away because our system recently adopted the "Common Core State Standards," another reform based on making students alike in knowledge and skills. These standards are a reflection of a centuries-old mind set — a cultural mental block that prevents significant progress in public education. This block is a strong belief that all people need a minimum amount of the same knowledge and the same skills in order to survive and compete in our society.
One big problem with this kind of thinking is that the Common Core Curriculum was developed by people far removed from the students it is supposed to help. Ralph Waldo Emerson said this, "The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and only he knows the key to his own secret." Why do people tend to forget that each person is born unique and different from all others? Can any person decide for another what his or her needs are? Can people in another state decide what all students in Utah should know and be able to do? Can people be standardized like stoves or refrigerators? Is America great because of the uniformity of its people or because of their diversity?
While I was principal of Whitesides Elementary School in Layton, Beth Moore taught first graders how to read using the respect approach. She would invite students to draw and paint pictures and tell her about them. Mrs. Moore would then label the pictures with the student's words, "This is my family," "This is a picture of our family camping at Bear Lake," or "This is my friend, Susan, eating an ice cream cone." Mrs. Moore would then invite the students to show their pictures to the class and read their own words.
Each week students would take their pictures home to read about them to their parents. As time went on, the pictures got more involved and the stories got longer. Students learned to read well, at the right time and pace for each one, by reading their own words! They soon learned to write letters to other students in the school and mail them at the school post office. The letters would be delivered the next morning by a rotating group of student mail carriers.
Another element of respect is respect for each child's curiosity. If a child is curious about hummingbirds, ocean liners, turtles, quilting, clocks, insects, butterflies, computers or whatever, teachers and parents can help by finding reading materials that fit each student's curiosity, and providing lots of quiet time for reading. Respect for a child's questions is a fundamental part of good education. To stimulate and magnify a child's curiosity may be the best way to teach reading. When a child has an insatiable curiosity about something, s/he almost can't be stopped from reading about it.
Inquiry-centered classrooms are alive with curiosity and imagination while others are often dull and boring. At Whitesides School the teachers and parents helped students develop inquiry skills by inviting them to become "specialists," "experts," "masterminds," or "geniuses" in self-selected topics. Students made lists of questions they would like to learn about topics and kept adding to the lists as they investigated deeper and deeper. The "Great Brain Project" was extremely valuable, not only for gaining parental support and meaningful involvement, but for helping students develop reading and writing as powerful tools of inquiry.
Respect for the needs of individual students is a giant step up. After interviews with thousands of parents, the teachers at Whitesides identified seven human needs that call for respectful education. They found that students would grow more in basic skills, if the skills were taught as tools to help students grow as individuals in these seven human powers: Identity, Inquiry, Interaction, Initiative, Imagination, Intuition and Integrity.
In this short paper I have tried to show some of many examples of why respect is better than trying to standardize students with the common core. Extraordinary teachers show respect as second nature and they are frustrated and demoralized when they are required to standardize students. Utah has so many good teachers, our great state could lead the nation by redesigning public education to meet the many diverse needs of individual students, if teachers were invited and encouraged to do so. Educating for Human Greatness is one respectful alternative to the Common Core.
Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator, is a co-founder of the Educating for Human Greatness Alliance.