Two Paths Diverge in the Halls of the Little Red School House – Which One Should We Take?

By Pamela Vaughn. Pamela, 59, is a retired educator from Pasadena, USA. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

Do we take the path of broadening the mind or do we take the path of preparing students for working life? Consider what broadening the mind and preparing for working life really means.

What does broadening the mind mean? It means to expand your way of thinking so that you are able to accept other people’s ideas and beliefs even though you may disagree. If we never venture outside the walls of our own little worlds, then our minds remain narrow. We become oblivious to the trials and tribulations others may face on a daily basis. If we do not respect people that think and live differently from us, then we will not have a desire to collaborate and problem solve to live peacefully in this world together.   Students must be taught that we can broaden our minds to understand other people’s opinions without compromising our own ideas. Let’s not forget the old adage, “Agree to Disagree.”

What does preparing students for working life mean? Traditionally, it means that students must be taught the basic skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic) required to enter the work force. It should also mean that an emphasis is placed on teaching physical and psychological health so that students can become healthy productive members of society that can support themselves and their families. To properly prepare students for working life, students should also be taught how to research, evaluate, form opinions, debate validity of other people’s research and opinions, problem solve and collaborate together on projects. Wait a minute! That sounds a lot like broadening the mind, doesn’t it? Well it is. These two paths that seem to diverge actually converge at the far end of the corridor of the little red school house.

Simply put, broadening minds should lead to preparation for working life. Education systems are failing at this. It is time for an overhaul of education systems. We can’t prepare students for every specific work and life situation – but implementing these 3 R’s (Relevance, Reflection, and Relationship) can broaden minds to help students in many work and personal life situations.

Relevance ignites a love for learning. Do you remember sitting in class and thinking, ‘Why do I have to learn this stuff anyway?’ Did you feel like most of what you were taught in school would never be used in real life? Well, you are not alone. If so many of us felt this way, then why are we still using an antiquated education system? Kids need to feel that their time is not being wasted with hours and hours sitting in a classroom learning things that don’t seem to connect to real life.

Let’s say that students are to learn about slope in math class. Typically, the teacher stands at the board lecturing and working out problems while the majority of students daydream about being somewhere else. To help students solidify learning, make real world applications, and therefore broaden their mind, the teacher could ask students if they think wheelchair ramps must be built to certain specifications. The teacher could challenge students to find out what the federal guidelines are and then have students conduct hands-on measurements at various wheelchair ramp locations within the school setting. The teacher then guides the students to calculate slope based on the measurements that have been obtained. If students find that ramps do not meet code, the teacher could lead students in a presentation to the school board. This would broaden students’ minds instead of having them undergo rote memorization of the formula for slope without ever fully understanding the application.

It is impossible to broaden minds when students don’t see real life application and are bored with the teacher’s method of presenting subject matter. I remember giving my 7th grade students a puzzle to solve as I was about to teach about desalinization. The puzzle scenario was that they were stranded on an island and becoming dehydrated. Students were able to use a knife, matches, and a metal tin found in a waterproof container in the now non-functioning life raft. They could also use anything else available on the island such as a coconut, drift wood, and bamboo leaves to figure out a way to get fresh water. Students were excited and collaborating fervently to find a solution that they would present to the class. Some said that they would just drink the milk from the coconut, but two groups did come up with an answer related to desalinization. They would collect salt water in the metal pan and put it over a fire that was started with driftwood and the match. They would take the large bamboo leaf and position it above the boiling salt water so that as the water boiled, the vapor would collect on the underside of the leaf and drip down into a bowl that had been carved from the coconut. The water collected in the coconut bowl would be fresh water because the salt would remain in the metal pan. This exercise broadened student’s minds and prepared them for the working life because they learned to collaborate and brainstorm to solve a problem. It also holds relevance as it teaches students a valuable skill in case of emergency.

What job does not involve having to deal with other people? Relationships in the classroom broaden the mind to prepare students for working life. Teacher to student, student to student and student to world are relationships that need to be cultivated in the classroom. Teachers must show students what it means to listen to and respect others opinions even though we may disagree. This is a skill that is necessary for working life so that we can empathize and understand other people’s opinions and reasoning, then we therefore broaden our minds as well as gain respect for those that are different than us. Teachers must model this behavior strategically. For example, a writing teacher might have students read their work in front of the class and then model for students how to provide constructive criticism to the student in a positive manner. Then the teacher will be able to ask students to provide constructive criticism to each other while the teacher observes that it is done in a constructive manner. We all know that when we go out into the working world, we must be able to express our opinions as well as accept that our opinions may not be shared by others. If teachers coach this skill, it prepares students for life.

We must teach that failure is not always a negative thing. It helps us to try and figure out what we did wrong so that we do not make the same mistake again. Failure can only help us be successful, however, if we reflect upon it and figure out what success would have looked like. Reflection is key to broadening the mind. At the end of each day or at the end of each lesson or project, reflection must become second nature. This strategy must be taught at an early age. Most work and life situations can benefit from sober reflection of what worked and what didn’t and brainstorming about what steps to take next. However, in order to reflect, students must understand clearly what is expected so that there is no question regarding what it means to be successful. Physical models, student samples, and teacher samples are vital. Telling students what is expected is not enough. For most, seeing is understanding.

With that said, will we “see” our education system change so that it actually benefits our students and therefore benefits our society and world? The US has a new Secretary of Education. Wouldn’t it be great if she were to conduct in-depth research of societies that have education systems that are superior in preparing students for work and life? Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to broaden the minds of all of our students so that they could be adequately prepared to collaborate effectively with other employees and authority figures? Wouldn’t it be great if students understood the importance of practicing reflection so that they are always striving for improvement? Wouldn’t it be great if teachers made lessons relevant so that learning was exciting and fun? We don’t have to compromise – the “powers that be” should broaden their minds so that our students can do the same and can be prepared for working life.

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