A Crucible Moment in Education

There was some rolling of eyes in my community when President Obama announced he would like to see high school mandatory until age 18.  That’s because at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, my alma mater, where I’ve been teaching for the past 17 years, the standard procedure for students is to leave high school at about age 16, generally after 10th grade, and shift into our early college program.

Most Simon’s Rock students are motivated to step off the beaten path and try a different approach to college because they’re high achievers who are bored in high school.  A few come to us because they’ve been so socially mauled in high school that Simon’s Rock becomes not only an academic, but also a social refuge for them.

In any case, for my students, being compelled to stay in high school until they were 18 years old would have been torturous, and would not have improved their future chances of success any more than “dropping out” to try a more innovative form of education—early college.

President Obama’s instinct that staying in school is better than dropping out altogether is absolutely correct.  It’s just that if we’re going to compel kids to stay in school, we need to make their schooling compelling.

Lots of great minds have already weighed in on the question of how to make learning fun and meaningful, but somehow we do not seem to have made a dent in the great battleship Education, which is still plowing its way implacably through the cold waters of Teaching to the Test.

It’s true that there is a certain amount of knowledge that you simply have to be taught, in that passive sense of receiving information and committing it to memory.  For instance, the alphabet.  The multiplication tables.

And having got these basic tools, you need to be taught how to use them: how to read, how to manipulate numbers.  If you’re going to be a doctor, you need to be taught how human systems work, just the way an engineer learns how a mechanical system works, or a mechanic learns how a car works.  OK.

But beyond mastering these kinds of basics in any field, there are two things students most need to get out of their education: learning how to figure things out for themselves, and learning how important their educated selves are to their communities and the larger society as a whole.

In today’s networked world, we no longer need to have kids waste their time memorizing all the state capitols, or learning by rote anything that can be measured in a multiple-choice test.  What kids need to learn is how to find the information they need to answer the questions they have about the world.  They need to learn how to frame their questions, understanding that the way a question is asked will often guide or predetermine its answer.

Reading is still a fundamentally important skill, but what we need to be teaching kids is how to read between the lines.  How to see through propaganda that passes for “fair and balanced” journalism, for instance.  How to sift through multiple sources of information on a given topic, and understand the criteria for determining which source is most credible.

But even that is not enough. Students not only need to become active readers, but also nimble thinkers, capable of taking in a spread of ideas on a given topic, and responding with their own original thinking.  A society where kids only learn how to feed back to their elders old, predigested ideas is a stagnant society, and we can’t afford that kind of stagnation at this time.

And here we get to my second point: kids not only need to learn to think for themselves, they need to understand how important this activity is for our rapidly changing society.  And that means taking the skills they’ve gained through their education out of the school and the academy into the street.

Students at every level, even the littlest ones, will benefit from a much more active engagement with the social and natural environment beyond the walls of their classrooms.  Little kids should be planting gardens in their schoolyards and composting the remains of their lunch. In Waldorf kindergartens like the one my sons attended, kids partake in preparing their mid-morning snack, and in keeping their classroom clean and neat.

What kids learn through activities like these is the importance of collaboration to community—an invaluable life lesson that needs to start early and be reinforced in different ways as they grow older.

Instead of our current competitive test-based system, we need collaborative learning that anticipates the kind of team-based environments of the most successful communities and businesses.  Instead of seeing kids hunched on their own behind raised folders taking a test—no cheating!—we should see groups of kids assembled around a problem, working collaboratively, noisily, joyfully to solve it.

The task of the teacher in this kind of learning environment would be to set the kids ever more challenging and interesting problems, with clearly visible and defined real-world applications, and guide the kids to the tools they need to solve the problems and evaluate their successes or setbacks.

Lord knows there is no shortage of serious problems in our world today, problems that demand every ounce of our most focused attention to surmount.  We need to get kids out of their classrooms and into their communities, bringing their creativity, their intelligence, their caring and their wonderful energy to bear on the challenges that lie just outside their classroom doors.

The Obama administration has just released a major new report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, prepared by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, which brought together leaders in higher education from around the country to come up with recommendations for ways that education can help students become engaged, responsible local and global citizens.

The report concludes that given all the “pressing issues” facing us today—“growing global economic inequalities, climate change and environmental degradation, lack of access to quality health care, economic volatility, and more,” educators need to focus on “expanding students’ capacities to be civic problem-solvers using all their powers of intellect and inventiveness.

“The kind of graduates we need at this moment in history,” the authors say, “need to possess a strong propensity for wading into an intensely interdependent, pluralist world. They need to be agile, creative problem solvers who draw their knowledge from multiple perspectives both domestic and global, who approach the world with empathy, and who are ready to act with others to improve the quality of life for all.”

The report “urges every college and university to foster a civic ethos that governs campus life, make civic literacy a goal for every graduate, integrate civic inquiry within majors and general education, and advance civic action as lifelong practice.”

Specifically, the task force advocates developing service learning and community engagement programs that move beyond simple volunteerism to actually involving young people as active participants and innovators in making their social environments more vibrant, more responsible, and more equitable.

Sounds good, and sounds simple to implement, but as I know from trying to develop community engagement structures for students at my home institution, it takes staffing—and therefore funding—to provide the channels students need to quickly jump into productive off-campus programs.  Commitment to this kind of active learning environment needs to come from the top, and that’s why I am excited to see such an array of distinguished leaders in education come together as the signatories of this new National Task Force report.

Let’s hope some of that energy and enthusiasm will trickle down to schools and campuses all over the country, and soon.  The tone of urgency evident in the title of this report, A Crucible Moment, and in the President’s remarks about education this past week, is not exaggerated.

We are in a crucible moment in so many ways, and we desperately need to equip our young people with the skills and outlook they will require to bring us safely through the turbulence that awaits us in the foreseeable future as the globe heats up and pressures on human society increase.

Keeping our kids in high school until they’re 18 is only a good idea if high school becomes a meaningful, active learning environment.  Let’s do what needs to be done to make that so—or let’s come up with another model.  Early college, for example—a good idea whose time may finally have come.

Leave a comment


  1. leavergirl

     /  January 28, 2012

    “Keeping our kids in high school until they’re 18 is only a good idea if high school becomes a meaningful, active learning environment.”

    When pigs fly.

    Early college seems like a much better idea. And unschoolers like it too.

  2. Well said, Jennifer – thanks for posting. I think you are right when you identify that the two things students need most are “learning how to figure things out for themselves, and learning how important their educated selves are to their communities and the larger society as a whole.”

    You go on to encourage getting out of the classroom and engaging in meaningful learning and service experiences. I wonder, therefore, if a classroom is necessary at all? As leavergirl mentions above, I wonder what your thoughts are on unschooling?

    You write that “What kids need to learn is how to find the information they need to answer the questions they have about the world.” I think this kind of innate curiosity about the world is the essential touchstone for life-long learning. I worry, however, that many schools do not value students questions, teaching instead a pre-determined curriculum that focuses on standardized tests. Students learn quickly that mistakes are bad, curbing their ability to experiment and be creative, both key to meaningful learning.

    I’m interested to hear your thoughts, as my wife and I discuss similar questions about our 5-year-old twin boys. Do they need formal education? Are we courageous enough to trust them to guide their own learning?

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 28, 2012

      Hey Dominic, good to hear from you! My feeling about homeschooling is that if you have the time to devote to it, and will enter into the spirit of it joyfully, it would be ideal for your kids. Since I had to work while my kids were young, I sought out a small school where they’d get lots of individual attention–the Waldorf school was the closest thing to family I could find; though now I am very interested in Montessori as well. Kids need to engage with other kids, so homeschooling has to include plenty of collaborative learning opportunities with other homeschooling families; the homeschooling networks in many areas are really fabulous these days. But then your guys have each other too….

      If I were you, I’d be very tempted to give it a try!

  3. Hi Jennifer, you came to the same conclusion I did with the notion of compulsory education till age 18 across the Union. The idea sounds good at first. But veteran educators know that the students who were likely to dropout will only feel imprisoned to remain in school…

    Moreover, it costs money…a lot of money. Monies that the federal government is not suggesting it would pay, since POTUS ask for each state to align their compulsory education laws to age 18. It would have to be state & locally-funded.

    For the remainder of this decade, we are all going to have to make a fierce and deliberate effort to determine what is “readiness”…albeit for college, career, commerce, citizenship, service, or life. Readiness may be achieve at age 15…if so, what’s next for a ready 15 year old? That is what states need to figure out.

    As education and practice of learning becomes less time/space dependent, we need to unshackle the notion that students need to be in school till a certain age. We need to build the pathways that enable them to pursue their own success at their speed of thought.

    Where I do agree with POTUS, is that we need to stop this business of making it easy for students to dropout of school. I submit that disincentives may be more practical and affordable. For example, make a teenage driver’s license provisional until graduation. If the local education agency does not report to the state that the student graduated by a certain date, his or her driver’s license automatically revoked. This puts the burden of learning squarely where it belongs–the family..and more precisely–the student. The city will make a fortune as these students rely on public transportation for mobility. See sustainable and affordable…no federal or local funding needed.

    I believe in local, sustainable solutions. I am not a fan compulsory education just for the sake of hitting an artificial age milestone without the readiness for life to succeed.

    Thanks for sharing this with me and the ‘Crucible’.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 29, 2012

      Given how attached teenagers are to their cars, at least in rural/suburban areas, that drivers’ license stick would be a very effective truancy officer indeed!

      But in general, I agree with you that the whole cookie-cutter mold of education, where kids are thrown in together by age and given a standard set of expectations, just doesn’t make sense. My nieces attend the Bridge School in Middlebury VT, where mixed-age classes are standard, and they have done incredibly well there. I don’t know how an idea like that would scale up, but it might be worth some investigation to find out.

      Yes, I agree that we need “local, sustainable solutions.” But I also appreciate Federal support for innovative ideas, which is what I perceive this Task Force to have provided. Localities, left to themselves, will not always do the right thing…witness how hard so many localities fought–and still fight!–desegregation….

      Thanks for sharing your response here at Transition Times!

  4. leavergirl

     /  January 29, 2012

    Strange nobody comments on the obvious. One of the reasons schools exist is to keep kids out of the workforce. Since the workforce is rapidly shrinking, it makes sense for the government to promote raising the age and make it hard to get out of school. It has nothing to do with education. And the kids who are unsuited to the model will see two more of their years wasted. Forcing them to stay in school via driver’s license? Just another way to harass the population and breed disrespect for the laws, imo.

    Btw, unschooling is not homeschooling. It’s trusting that the kids are expert learners already, and providing support for their activities, just as parents do prior to 5 or 6. If I were to live life over again, I would try hard to be born to parents intending to unschool! 🙂

    I am not trying to create the impression that schools never work. Some kids like them, and some kids are lucky to attend schools run by smart, wise and humane people. Most kids, though… not so much. If we are persisting with the govt model, why not give each child a yearly check, to be spent as the family sees fit, on public or private schools, or homeschooling or unschooling? The deadbeat schools would be gone overnight…

  5. Here Jenny is, being as wise as she was when she changed my life in the classroom and turned me on to minority literatures and serious personal inquiry. I was never the same. Every student deserves that kind of experience.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  January 31, 2012

      Oh Ashley, it was and is a privilege to work with you on our common interests! You are so right…every student should be so fortunate as to have a Simon’s Rock-type experience in their teen years….


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