By Susan M. Chilvers, Ed. D.
“Prevention is better than cure.” How many times have we heard that adage? We are urged to exercise to prevent heart disease, joint and muscle problems, and breathing difficulties. We are encouraged to eat right to avoid obesity, clogged arteries, heart strain, and a myriad of other afflictions. Millions of dollars are spent every year on gym memberships, supplements, and diets focusing on different elements of “healthy” eating, while at the same time we lament the costs of treating maladies that could have been avoided. We are an overweight, under-exercised nation, but we know a lot about being healthy and fit and many of us try to work toward those goals. We encourage children and young adults to be aware that their choices now will affect their future health. We know what we should do, but often we don’t do it. We may eat that piece of cheesecake but may feel guilty or believe that we should feel guilty.
Likewise with safety, which is mostly common sense. We tell children from an early age to keep their hand out of a flame, to stay out of the street, and to avoid strangers. We are constantly reminded to fasten our seatbelts and use car seats for young children. We focus on preventing something bad from happening rather than on repairing the problem after it happens.
SO, my question is – Why don’t we apply the same common sense and prevention knowledge to education?
Study the average mailings to schools with regard to workshop offerings and training courses for teachers. They emphasize dealing with difficult children, motivating non-learners, teaching this or that to create higher test scores, or dealing with bullying and social abuse—all cures (often expensive) for problems apparently created by the nature of individual children or their home environment. While I am not negating the effect of what goes on at home—who is monitoring what goes on at school or challenging the effect of schooling on the educational health of children?
Instead of using what we know about true education and learning, we continue with our bad habits and when things go wrong—sometimes horribly wrong—we try to fix them, blaming the students and not a deficient system of education. Here are a few examples.
We know that children learn to communicate by being surrounded by others who communicate, and they listen, observe, then imitate. What parent doesn’t talk to his or her child and totally encourage and support the beginning talker by showing delight at every word and new action demonstrated? We marvel as they explore their environment, discovering new things every day and give them as many varied experiences as possible.
We know from studies and sad examples of children abandoned in orphanages in their early years that lack of communication and interaction can cause severe damage. However, once children go to school we seem to ignore these good habits that nurture communication—confining them to desks, restricting talking and movement in the name of classroom management and discipline.
When problems occur, they usually are blamed on the individual student, who then may spend a lot of time in the principal’s office or be labeled with a learning deficiency and channeled into “remedial” programs. Sometimes these programs are individualized and creative, but they are usually only offered to students with a need for a “cure,” those who are too slow, too bright, too inattentive. They are seldom seen as a very healthy way to educate all children.
Another example is that of control. We know the effectiveness of empowering people in any situation to be in charge, make their own decisions, and work through consequences. But how many opportunities do we offer in schools for students to follow that particular path? Curriculum is created and imposed from “above” or outside with little to no input from students and few choices within the assigned projects, which may or may not interest the students.
Which brings me to another point—interest. Who does not know that having an interest in something makes it much easier to learn? Yet little effort is made in traditional education to harness interest, and boredom is often cited as one of the most frustrating things in students’ lives. In some children it results in “acting out,” in others, dropping out either mentally or actively. In some, the feeling of boredom causes them to describe their years of formal education as “putting in time” in an irrelevant system to gain access to profitable careers.
Is the goal of education to create interested, motivated, independent learners or to fill empty students’ heads with a prescribed quota of facts deemed necessary for an adequate “education”? If it is the former then I think we need to rethink our methods and put emphasis and money into prevention instead of “cure.”