THE BLOG

The Problem with School: We Only Teach the Mind

10/17/2014 05:16 EDT | Updated 12/17/2014 05:59 EST

I am sitting at my desk in the far corner of my kindergarten room. A room that is bright and inviting, full of interesting things to discover and explore. There is a play-kitchen center where children can use their imaginations to pretend they are a short-order chef or a store-owner. A puzzle and games center for problem-solving. A wooden theater for using puppetry in the telling of creative stories and singing songs. A writing station, a book area, an easel and a chalkboard. And there are lots of toys that can be used for a multitude of purposes for which the imagination holds no boundaries.

In my classroom, there are little people. Some of whom like to sing and dance. Jump, skip and run. Who love to talk and share and discuss and who will often have so many ideas bursting through their amazing minds that they will share things with me all at once -- their voices creating a cacophony of overwhelming sound.

In my classroom, we learn how to read and count. These foundations of learning are certainly a priority.

But we also learn (among other things) the following:

*how to grow a plant

*how to share our feelings

*how to be a friend

*how to co-operate

*how to participate in group activities

*how to respect individually-owned and classroom-shared property

*how to ask for help

*how to express ideas and feelings through play, through music, through art, through dance

*how to respect another individual's personal space

I think most would agree that these are worthwhile endeavours for learning, both in the kindergarten classroom and beyond. Yes, literacy proper and numeracy proper are valued here, but these ideals are not everything we believe is important for learning. For in this room, we place importance on more than just the children's minds: we value hearts and hands and feet and whole bodies.

Our learning is not just centered within our heads.

One way we accomplish this goal is through learning using the five senses. When we learn about apples, we don't just count them, we pick them and touch them and smell them and taste them. When we learn about plants, we grow them, feeling the dirt beneath our fingernails. When we learn about pumpkins, we plunge our hands into their slimy centers to discover the seeds that lie within. We don't just read about them in books or count manipulatives meant to represent them.

We discover them.

And to be honest, these things are really not all there is to the learning accomplished. For when we are learning about apples, what we are really learning to do is appreciate that food comes from somewhere, that if we don't grow food, we will have nothing to eat. We are learning that fruit growers (among other farmers) are necessary to our economy, learning to value and appreciate the important work they do and the products they provide.

And when we learn about plants, we are learning how to work together in community; learning how to share the workload so that everyone has a job. We are learning social responsibility and citizenship and ecological awareness. The same for the learning that takes place when discovering pumpkins: we are coming to see that we can take creative risks, even for the ones who have never done something like this before. For some have not ever experienced the joy that is pumpkin-carving. The joy that is a pumpkin seed bursting on their tongues. Our goal in learning is to make sharing and turn-taking a regular habit, and in so doing, focus learning on valuing and respecting one another.

In kindergarten, there has always been a strong emphasis placed on the whole child. The child's mind, their heart and their body. We don't separate the mind from the body or the heart from the mind, they all work together in harmony in this milieu. So when we are learning in kindergarten, there are always multiple, myriad lessons underway, the most important of which are not usually academic.

But I fear that in ascribing to the school format which we have inherited and adopted, one focused on standardized testing and outcomes, we are valuing only one aspect of the child: that is, their head. What could be defined as the cerebral. And while that is important and worthy, we are doing children a disservice if we are not appreciating the various aspects that make the whole child. Particularly for children for whom the cerebral is not their main area of strength. Their primary area of gifted-ness.

I would ask you to consider the following:

"The purpose of education has been debated for centuries. Many educators and child development experts argue that the overarching goal of education is to promote the highest possible levels of cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and ethical development for each child. The whole child movement is based on the proposition that education must move beyond preparing children to become "well educated" citizens who are productive participants in the economic system. Education must also cultivate in young people spirituality, reverence for the natural environment, and a sense of social justice. Education must inspire children's creativity, imagination, compassion, self-knowledge, social skills and emotional health. In this way, the term holistic education simply means cultivating the whole person and helping individuals live more consciously within their communities and natural ecosystems" (Miller, 2005).

Education that is holistic in purpose has at its focus yes, the intellect, but also the emotional composition, the social relations, the physical health and ability, the artistic sense, the creative capacity, and the spiritual potential. "It seeks to engage students in the teaching/learning process and encourages personal and collective responsibility on the part of professionals charged with student's development." (Kochar-Bryant, 2010)

I believe that all classrooms are at potential risk, all classrooms are at potential crisis point. We have sadly erred from the purpose of schooling in developing the individual as a whole in all aspects of one's being. But since we are now aware, we must make as our primary goal to preserve teachers, schools and curriculum that appreciate and understand the child as a person in all the aspects of their development. And we must encourage parents, teachers and educators to fight for what they believe in.

In my kindergarten room, we will (as we have always done): learn to count the desks, chairs and tables in our room and arrange geometric shapes into patterns. But we will also learn how to care for the materials and people with whom we interact in applying math principles to everyday living, always with the intent to care and invest. And in this room, we will also (again, as we have always done), value literacy goals like speaking and listening, reading and writing. But we will do so for a higher purpose than just a checkmark on a report card. We will value these foundational pillars for the ways in which they help us connect to the essential others in our world, having as our focus that learning is done so as to become the incredible friend, classmate, companion and group member we were meant to be.

This is the goal.

Nel Noddings (2003) has said that many of our schools are in a crisis of caring, failing to enable students to become caring, compassionate individuals as well as failing to model for them the same. Let us not fail our children in continuing to perpetuate the agenda that their mind was only made for the purpose of being a mathematical computer spitting out data. Or as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge.

Let us remember: the mind was made to care.