Young learners deserve better than cookie-cutter methods

There has been a lot of talk lately about school core requirements, standardized testing and academic standards. Let me start by stating that I do not have a horse in this race — I am not a teacher, aide, administrator, school board member, politician or parent.

I guess first we need to decide on the purpose of education. My personal definition: it is to teach an individual what they need to know in order to not just survive but to thrive in this world. Before we decide just what those necessary subjects and skills would be, I think we need to determine what we mean by thrive.

We can probably agree what it means to survive — we need to have food and shelter, at the very least. We also need employment that provides enough income to cover basic expenses. Access to health care and a support system of family and friends is important to physical and emotional well-being.

Individuals who thrive would have all these elements in their lives plus other non-tangible facets. A sense of purpose, a feeling of contributing to the good of humanity — a mission, if you will, is a part of this. Something that gets you out of bed in the morning because you want to, not because you have to, is present in those who exist beyond just a basic level.

To enable people of any age to find their passion in life, we need to treat them as individuals, which means a cookie-cutter approach won’t work. School shouldn’t be a factory, continually churning out identical products and rejecting those that don’t conform to the standard. Yet this is what happens when we use the same teaching and testing techniques for everyone.

I cannot imagine trying to absorb information while sitting still for the majority of the day while someone talks at me — for even one day. Yet this is what we expect in school week after week.

Not everyone is the same and therefore might not learn in the same way so I think a variety of approaches would provide a much more comprehensive education.

I like the idea of hands-on participation rather than passive learning. I should mention that I have always been an avid bookworm, and to this day, when I want to take up something new, one of the first things I do is read about it. But there is a limit; eventually, I have to get off the couch and give it a try.

Along those lines, not all people have the same aptitudes. I’ve met amazing artists who can barely carry on a dialogue because their conversation is so hard to follow — it’s as random as popcorn. I have a brilliant mathematician friend who disappears incommunicado into his happy math place for days on end.

I once knew a girl who would most likely be described as a special needs child. She was home-schooled on her parents’ farm. She may not have been able to pass a basic standardized test, but she ruled that barn. She knew everything there was to know about her sheep and horses and how to take care of them. And she had no problem assigning chores to other kids or adults who entered her domain.

How about abilities that are necessary for getting ahead in life that are not taught in school?

Personal finance comes to mind — learning the power of compounding interest so as to not get ensnared with credit cards by their lure of instant gratification. Understanding how to create and follow a budget is a skill that is needed desperately but is also teachable.

Another one would be the ability to get along with people. There’s probably no way to quantify this on paper, but knowing how to interact with various personality types will enhance one’s success in life. Basic conflict resolution and mediation techniques could be taught. Students could learn how to resist peer pressure but also some diplomatic finesse to know when and how compromise is appropriate.

Maybe the question that needs to be asked is not so much what do you know, but what can you do with that information?

In an ideal world, your knowledge would enable you to both make money and support yourself, as well as make you happy and give you a sense of purpose. This intersection is the ideal sweet spot that I would define as thriving, and it is possible if we take the time to develop as unique individuals.

Stephanie Haines is a writer from Greenfield who now lives in Bloomington. She can be contacted through her website,