How do you open closed minds? How do you change a system of public education that has been in place for hundreds of years and is a cherished part of our culture? Richard B. Fuller said this: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." Really? What if you offer a new model and it is still resisted vigorously?

What happens when you show a simple way to teach reading, writing and math that doesn't depend on expensive textbooks or other commercially developed programs? What if you show that basic skills are learned better when they are not the main goal but a means of developing higher human powers?

Many years ago, when I was president of the Utah Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, I wrote a position paper titled, "Learning to Read Should NOT Be the Primary Purpose of Elementary Education." Can you guess how it was received?

Do I still believe, after all these years, what I said in that paper? Yes, even more so now than then. There are some things more important for children to learn in elementary school than reading, writing and math, and the exciting thing is, if we concentrate on those things, children learn basic skills better.

Four things more important than reading are: 1) a sense of self-worth that comes from finding and developing one's unique talents, gifts, interests and abilities; 2) the magnification of curiosity, inquiry and the ability to ask important questions; 3) the ability to interact respectfully with others; and 4) the power of imagination and creativity.

A couple of weeks ago, at an education conference in Portland, we heard Sir Ken Robinson tell of his vision for education. Professor Anthony Dallmann-Jones and I had just finished telling about Educating for Human Greatness, a presentation in which we told about the things that are most important for schools to be doing. Perhaps you can imagine our excitement in hearing Robinson emphasize, in different words, the things we had just mentioned in our presentation.

I've helped some students improve nearly three years in reading ability in one year by emphasizing curiosity, individual identity, respectful interaction and imagination. When I taught 5th grade, at the start of the school year, my 34 students' reading abilities ranged from one beginning reader, and a few at each grade level, all the way up to one student who was reading at 11th grade level. At the end of the year, each student had improved an average of nearly three grade levels.

How was this unusual development possible? Would it have made any sense to try to get all of the students reading at grade level, when a third of them were already reading above grade level? Why does the "Common Core" have teachers aim for grade-level check points?

My strategy for helping students develop unusual reading skills was to stimulate curiosity about nearly everything and then provide books and other reading materials on a wide range of subjects and levels. Ample time was provided for silent reading every day and students were invited to tell what they were excited in reading about.

This process resulted in unusual readers who loved to read. They didn't need to be assigned to read a certain amount of time or number of pages each day as is often done, making reading a chore. Nor did they need a commercially produced reading program and graded reading texts. Newspapers, donated National Geographic magazines, comic books and library books were all they needed.

1 comment on this story

What I did many years ago has now evolved and developed by some master teachers and parents into what we believe is a model, "Educating for Human Greatness," that makes the existing reality obsolete. The major goal is to help each student develop a purpose for existing to be a special contributor to society. This is achieved by parents and teachers acting as partners to help students develop seven primary human powers: identity, inquiry, interaction, initiative, imagination, intuition and integrity. It is a process that opens closed minds.

Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator, is co-founder of the Educating for Human Greatness Alliance.