Helping the children


By Frank Wessling

How did we learn?

All of us of any age: how did we get the knowledge, the skills, the habits that got us to this point in life? Whether we’re happy with where we are or not, every one of us has spent a lifetime learning. We discovered everything from how to ride a bike and tie our shoes to why the moon seems to change its shape and which stories of saints and heroes and explorers most inspire us.

Next question: how did school contribute to this process of development? Which of our teachers remain in happy memory and what were the school environments that nurtured something intangible in us, something of our spirit? Was it the camaraderie and excitement of sports? The music room? The comfort of not only friends but of peers in knowledge and interests?

Governor Terry Branstad has tried to get everyone in Iowa reflecting on questions like these so that we have “world class schools” and our children are prepared for “the jobs of the future.” This state was once first in the land in education. Year after year our school children’s test scores were at or near the top among the states. That was almost half a century ago, though. As the world changed, we missed something, and our children fell behind the children not only in other states but in many other countries.


What did we miss, and how can we push back into leadership? Those are the issues driving the governor’s Iowa Education Summit which brought hundreds of people to Des Moines this week. Earlier, a series of “Town Hall” meetings around the state tried to stimulate ideas that might go into proposals for future policy and practice in education.

We should all hope and pray that this initiative succeeds in making our teachers and schools better while engaging us as citizens and parents who see learning as the priority for all children. The latter emphasis may be as important for success as providing – and paying for – more time and resources for teachers.

One thing that changed from a half-century ago was the elevation of “fun” and entertainment in the environment of childhood. There is much less purposeful work in children’s lives today: no regular chores, no requirement to meet demands from outside one’s immediate interest, no duties. If the home has few or no expectations and standards of performance, the school has to work harder to excite pride as well as interest in learning when it’s difficult and requires concentrated work.

Exceptional teachers and administrators, especially charismatic teachers, will meet this demand. But the exceptional — by definition — is not the common, and it’s the common classroom, the ordinary situation that needs improving. Whatever is done for education policy, nothing may be more important than raising the prestige and modeling role of the most effective teachers.

Meanwhile on the home front, we can all help the children by treating them with more respect as full human beings. We need to tell them in so many ways that their job is to grow up. This generation is allowed to feel that childhood and childish things have enduring value as such, not as a growth period. This is a perennial temptation which earlier generations were able to overcome because the adult world required early work from children.

It was once obvious that the goal of childhood was to become adult. That isn’t so clear now. Childhood isn’t only a grim workhouse, of course. It requires play and free exploration and dreaming. What has happened over a couple of generations is a loss of perspective and balance as labor-saving technology upset that older world of work which could put children on a natural path into adulthood.

As school people struggle to make a better learning environment for 21st century children, all of us need to be serious in our expectations of children. They need responsible adults in their lives; adults who expect them to grow up and who give them good experience in what that means.

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