The author of this new book, Michael Reist, has spent his working life in education – in schools for 30 years and then, for the last 10 years, in tutoring children one-to-one. There is no doubt that he is passionate about the subject of schools and their failings, and while the book reads in parts much like a treatise on how schools could and should be in an ideal world, discerning parents who care about what goes on in school will find much here to interest – and potentially excite – them about the possibilities that might exist in schools if we only put our collective mind to the subject.
The reader does not need to delve far into the pages of this book to understand that the author is deeply critical of the status quo that exists in schools. He describes them as a “hermetically sealed world” that is “not open to public scrutiny and certainly not outside criticism”. Principals of forward-thinking schools are likely to disagree with this appraisal; but then they, like I, will most likely agree with many of the points that Reist makes about the purpose of schools and the need for us to focus in schools on children, rather than on systems (including curriculum and assessment structures) which have been built up over the years into seemingly inviolable structures.
Schools, says Reist – and he is right – should be about serving two main interests: that of the individual, and that of the common good. “Next to the family, school is by far our most powerful and influential social institution”, and there is a need therefore for schools to be “intentional communities”, providing for a more “holistic and fluid” preparation for the future. In some ways he advocates a return to a common core in schooling, but in many other ways he is arguing for a radical (or perhaps not so radical, depending on your perspective) move forward: “The traditional model of the teacher at the front of the classroom will need to come to an end”. Students learn best, he writes, when they are given a voice and the freedom to choose their own activities; “If the curiosity of the child could be harnessed at an early age, the process of learning would take care of itself.”
We have heard this before – the progressive education movement in the early years of the 20th century taught us to place children rather than schools at the heart of education, and to focus on the unique abilities of individual children as worth nurturing and growing. Although the language in Reist’s work reads in places like an antagonistic call to arms (he even uses the term “a children’s liberation movement” in the latter chapters), his desire to engage parents is well-intentioned and right. His reasoning is sound, based as it is on the work of Dewey et al, which in turn grew into the practices seen today in many educational settings around the world, and lived, not least of all, in a Dalton Education.
Parents are right to want to know what is going on in schools, and the more they can learn about how schools work, the more they can ensure that they will play a valuable role in the shared endeavour that is the education of the next generation of our society.
What Every Parent Should Know About School, by Michael Reist, was published on 17 August by Dundurn.