October 20 – Big Birthdays in American Education

Posted on October 20, 2014

Birth of the first public school

This is the Mather School at the "turn
of the century" - that is, the early 1900s.
On this date in 1635, the Mather School was opened in Massachusetts. It is the oldest public elementary school in the United States – actually, the oldest such in all of North America!

Back in the early 1600s, the people of Massachusetts hired a schoolmaster to each English, Latin, “other tongues,” and writing. Now Mather School includes instruction in reading, writing, math, music, art, physical education, science, library, nutrition, and computers.

Birth of an education reformer

Also on this date—but in 1859—the psychologist and philosopher John Dewey was born in Vermont. 

He ended up being one of the most important voices for progressive education, and his writings have been assigned to generations of teachers-in-training.

Public education, progressive education

There are two ideas behind public education:
  1. All of society benefits if its people are educated.
  2. Education shouldn't be just for the children of the rich and powerful – it should be for everybody.

I agree wholeheartedly with both of those ideas, but I still do not like what public education has grown to be: compulsory (which means that kids HAVE to go, by law, unless they go to a private school or legally homeschool), standards-based (rather than children-based), oriented on rewards and punishments (although both have been shown to discourage deep, long-lasting learning), and test-crazy (and when I say “crazy,” I mean really crazy!).

It's strange to say that all the countless educators who said they loved Dewey's ideas about education, and assigned education students to read his books, seemed to me to ignore his biggest and best ideas about education:

  • Education is interactive; students must not just passively “take in” curriculum, but must experience, interact with, and explore curriculum.

  • Education isn't just about learning facts; it's about learning how to live. Therefore, schools should be places of choice, of democracy, of blossoming self-reliance.

  • Education isn't primarily about acquiring a pre-determined set of skills and knowledge, but rather it's about learning about oneself, about one's talents and passions, and developing to one's full potential.

  • Rather than having teachers stand in the front of the classroom doling out bits of information, teachers should become facilitators and guides as students do active inquiry.

Public education and progressive education are both great ideas—it's time we combine the best of both ideas and entirely re-make education!

Also on this date:

Heroes' Day (Mashujaa Day) in Kenya

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