Education for Everyone
Even since before I had children, I was interested in play. I did a lot of reading on how important play is to a child’s development and how children need time to play independently. It has always been important to me to allow unstructured time for my children to explore their surroundings and avoid over-scheduling them in a million activities.
After writing two articles on the importance of play, my She’s It editor, Dr. Carol Pate, put me in touch with a former colleague, Ana Marjanovic-Shane, a former professor of education and current independent scholar, who studies play and metaphor. Our hour-long phone conversation started off as a discussion on play, but quickly evolved into Marjanovich-Shane’s thoughts on the current American educational system. As an educator myself, this was a topic that fascinates me as well.
Marjanovich-Shane’s original focus of study was on metaphor and symbolic language, but she started to get interested in play. “Play is one step towards full symbolicity and full symbolicity is metaphor,” she explains. From there, I asked her about the shift in American education that has occurred in the last few decades. Kindergarten has become the new first grade and therefore preschool—formally a place for play—has become focused on Kindergarten preparation. Children as young as three are learning to write their names, which not all that long ago was the domain of Kindergarten.
Marjanovich-Shane laments this change. “I think that American education is like a jail of life,” she states. She believes schools are trying to “reduce learning to some kind of very structured, very narrow activity of repeating whatever somebody told you and being able to regurgitate that. Learning is so much more and trying to narrow down children to that one type of activity and then occupy their whole time with that is a crime to children and to humanity.”
She believes that American education is too entwined in politics. “There are powerful interests that are driving policy. The first step should be to decouple the financing source and the philosophy of education so that the public money would go to everyone but every school should be able to define their approach to education. Public money should be neutral to the education philosophy of school.”
During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump said that school choice “is the new civil rights issue of our time.” He supported the use of education vouchers—essentially a coupon, paid for by states, that parents can use towards sending their child to a school of their choice, whether public, religious or private.
Marjanovich-Shane supports this concept. “It usually is looked at by the proponents of the public school as kind of like a right wing and the religious school push to destroy public school. There is a price on education, on how much each child is financed by public school education so that’s kind of a voucher that goes right away to what we call public schools.” These schools are then “required to work in only one way. This is a monopoly of education philosophy. Every child whose parents pay taxes has the right to the same amount of money for their education. That the money should be given to people and that they should choose where their child is going to school.”
She also believes children need to be given more agency in terms of their education. “Children over 13 should choose themselves. What is good for each person is very easily determined. If you feel like you’re thriving and you love what you’re doing, that’s good for you. If you feel like you want to puke and just die intellectually, it’s not good for you. No matter how much other people think it’s good for you, it’s not good for you.”
Children need to have a voice in their own education. “In almost every other human activity, there is a feedback group. If what you’re doing is not good, you very quickly find out, either the people do not buy it or it breaks, so you have to change something in your own activity to be good and meaningful to the feedback loop. But to our public education and to the laws that children must be in education, we lose this public feedback loop because we have a captive audience to which we can do anything we want regardless of whether it’s good or bad.”
Some might point out that education testing provides the feedback on how schools and teachers are performing. Marjanovic-Shane disagrees. “Testing is a form of accountability and learning is not an activity that can be counted. You cannot be accountable to somebody else in learning and teaching. There is just an interaction between teachers and students where the meaning is made and the accountability of the teacher to somebody else means a betrayal.”
One of the problems I have always had with public education focuses on the lack of autonomy in the classroom.
Typically, someone decides the curriculum and the standards children must meet each year, which often does not take individual learners into account. Marjanovic-Shane agrees, “In education, the student is like a slave of somebody else and the teachers also, because the accountability goes to some people who decide curriculum or competences regardless of whether they know students in advance, regardless of vast differences in how people learn, where they come from, what they actually think.”
Marjanovic-Shane believes that schools should not be accountable to any external forces. She has worked heavily with democratic schools, where everyone from the students to the teachers meet and discuss and vote on every aspect of school life. She has devoted a lot of time to working with the Project Learn School in Philadelphia, an independent cooperative school. According to their website, at the school, “teachers, students and parents work together to create a progressive and humanistic community that promotes mutual respect, involvement and curiosity.”
Marjanovic-Shane applauds these schools. In public schools, “teachers are more accountable to parents and to society than the children. That’s not education. Children are interested in everything. We have to make them agents of their own interests.” Schools have to understand “the uniqueness of each person. Our schools today are about standards, which means everybody has to be the same.”
Scandinavian schools have often been cited as models in education, but Marjanovic-Shane believes that we shouldn’t mimic any other countries; that we know what needs to be done to improve education and should therefore invent a new system ourselves.
So what do children actually need to succeed academically? One thing that we should borrow from countries like Finland and Germany is the incorporation of nature into the classroom. “The Forest Schools are doing wonders for children. Children need to be outside and they need to explore nature, need to put their hands in the dirt. You need to have big libraries. Here they have cut down on school libraries, on librarians, on all kinds of resources. Rich learning environments make education better.”
She cites the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy as one we should incorporate. “They talk about environment as a third teacher. Because just the ability of a child to encounter a variety of materials, a variety of content, a variety of people, the practices, all of that creates a human environment.” If the environment is not rich, children will never receive a vision of what they can become.
Is the American educational system broken? Are we truly lagging behind other countries in terms of academic performance? Are we failing our children by pushing academics too early?
Not necessarily, but the bottom line is that our system is far from perfect. Educational scholars, like Marjanovic-Shane, who have studied what is best for children for years should be on the forefront of exploring the changes necessary to improve American education.
Stay tuned for more of my conversation with Ana Marjanovic-Shane on play and education…