The BackShop Journal

A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Back to School: Fun or Ennui?

In most European countries, September 1st is the day when children start school. It can be an exciting, but also stressful event. There are some benefits from school, but detriments seem just as extant, especially regarding the focus in learning. Unfortunately, most children consider school an annoying hassle. Does it have to be that way?

For Christian parents, the period when they have to choose a school for their child is often a time of great dilemma. Some countries offer home schooling as a choice, some have Christian schools, but most countries are not as lucky. And problems with public schools are multiple. First of all, in public schools Christian morals have all but completely disappeared from the curriculum with the separation of church and state. Most European countries offer a choice between religion and ethics, but, even if the child chooses to attend religious classes, the quantity and quality of the instruction in them are often low. And what students learn in other classes can be defined as memorising facts. Also, they are explicitly and implicitly lead to believe that career and money is the only goal in life worth achieving.

Other than the almost complete neglect of moral upbringing, school is just plain boring, especially in those teacher-centered classrooms where students just listen to their teacher and copy in their notebooks for more than half a day. And if you don't answer correctly when the teacher asks you in classroom, you are put to shame! Most schools are thus very effective in killing creativity in children.

On top of everything, children don't learn as much. In the United States, for example, a student can walk out of high school not knowing how to find Africa or Australia on the map, not distinguishing between World War I and the Cold War, and not being exposed to a single foreign language and culture. Is the problem in students not putting sufficient effort, teachers not trying hard enough to make them learn something, or the educational system? Whatever the reason, eighteen and nineteen year-olds know how to use various applications on their touch phones and a whole variety of swear words, but they do not orient themselves in space, time and in different cultures.

Schools have a lot of unnecessary subjects, but not the ones that could be used in life, like how to make friends or how to deal with hormones. Even without the desired moral education, a child could nurture creativity in classroom, learn how to cooperate with peers, and get prepared for many challenges of the adult world. In general, schools teach us what to think rather than how to think, so we just learn only how to assimilate and blend into society. Just look at any history textbook: You will see that Europeans populated the Americas, but not that a mass genocide against the natives also took place. Alternatively, if you look at the Food Pyramid that hangs on almost every classroom wall, you wouldn't learn what is healthy, but what is profitable.

EXAMPLE OF FINLAND

At least in this last respect, some countries are making bigger and bolder strides than others. Finland, for example, has climbed the international education ratings by investing in highly competent teachers, recognising the huge importance of early childhood education, giving local schools the autonomy to address local needs by decentralizing administration, and guaranteeing a uniform and free education for all students, including meals, transportation and school materials. As a result, Finnish students score higher than most of their peers on international assessment tests, despite peculiarities like having minimal homework and tests, and also a curriculum that puts a big emphasis on music, art, and outdoor activities.

Finnish educators emphasise the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to education, reflected in the concept of “phenomenon-based” teaching, which results in classes on broader topics. Phenomenon-based learning takes a very different approach to education, dropping the classic divide among subjects like math and science. Instead, students take one particular phenomenon or concept and look at it through multiple lenses, applying it to whatever subjects pertain to it. So, students in Finland no longer study just one subject like physics, but a whole range of subjects that relate to one topic, taking a more interdisciplinary approach. For example, students could take a look this week at the European Union, which could incorporate languages, economics, history, and geography, and then look at climate change the following week, which might involve science, environmental studies, economics, and policy.

The teacher-student relationship has also changed fairly dramatically, as students take a combination of online and in-class courses. The dialogue between students, peers, and teachers shifts as well, as students are encouraged to speak more openly and share information. The structure is less hierarchical and more team-based, greatly differing from the classic “teacher instructs student” mentality. The teachers and faculty members are now not the only ones designing the lesson plans and assessing what students have learned. Engaging students more in this activity shifts testing away from the traditional written exams, and evaluates students' overall, stress-free performance.

Perhaps this reformed educational system does not make students' capabilities uniform, it does not teach them how to lead moral lives, it does not even eradicate bullying and injustices that sometimes stay ingrained for life, but it does have a potential to eliminate the greatest deterrent to enthusiastic school-going. It makes school a lot less tedious.

Svetozar Postic

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