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_Have Schools Become Historical Museums?
© Dr Kathie Nunley 2016

My son takes trombone lessons from a man who lives 20 miles away. It's a bit far to trek every Monday afternoon, but I do so because my son very much enjoys playing trombone in his high school jazz band and Mr. Bailey was the closest trombone teacher we could find.

While Mr. Bailey has been teaching trombone and trumpet for many years, most of his income comes from his musical instrument repair business. If you need your clarinet re-corked, or an ultrasonic cleaning of your flugelhorn, he's your guy. The area band teachers refer their students to Mr. Bailey and he has had a steady business for decades.

On our drive home last Monday, I pondered whether or not Mr. Bailey would still have a viable business if schools disappeared off the planet tomorrow. Were it not for school bands, how many clarinets, trumpets, flutes and flugelhorns would there be in our region of southern New Hampshire? A hundred years ago, when town bands were quite popular, perhaps Mr. Bailey could have survived without the school band programs. But today, I highly doubt there would be enough to support Mr. Bailey's instrument repair business.

How many other industries today would be nearly extinct if not for our school system? Our schools have now become museums of sorts for many things once commonplace in our daily lives. Sadly, the world inside school has become so far removed today from the world outside of school, that it has become a foreign land that young people find harder and harder to participant in successfully and enthusiastically.

To get a sense of this, we need only look at this year's school supply list for a local elementary school:
30 number two pencils
small bottle of Elmer's glue
pencil cap erasers
one packet of Post-it notes
one box of colored pencils
one box of Kleenex
one package assorted colored construction paper
one ruler
one package: manila drawing paper
three spiral notebooks
one Mead cursive writing tablet
one pencil case
one black-and-white composition book for science
one red pen
one package of lined 3 x 5 index cards
a pair of safety scissors
five pocket folders with brads
loose leaf 3- ring notebook
three packages wide ruled notebook paper
2 boxes of 24-count crayons

It amazes me to note that with the exception of the Post-it notes and maybe the missing Big Chief tablet, the list is almost identical to the one I had when I attended elementary school, way back in the 1960s.

When I walk into an elementary school today, I also recognize the physical environment of the classroom. There is a large analog clock on the wall, colorful bulletin boards constructed out of butcher paper and cut-out construction paper, individual laminated student desks with work storage areas in them, wooden chairs, sitting on a linoleum floor, a whiteboard with the alphabet written in cursive running across the top, a wooden teacher desk in the corner with a computer on it, bookshelves lining one wall filled with a variety of children's books, a large basket in the corner with playground equipment such as rubber balls and ropes.

Other than the fact that the chalkboard has been replaced by the whiteboard and there is now a computer sitting on the teacher's desk, the classroom looks very much like it did when I was in elementary school all those many decades ago.

How is it that schools have managed to remain somewhat fixed-in-time, while the rest of society kept moving? Possibly because schools have always been centered around literature and the printed word, while society has moved on to the use of alternate narrative forms.

The written word was valuable for hundreds of years because it was the most stable and durable format we had available for recording ideas and information. Today though, we have alternate narrative forms that equal, if not surpass, the advantages of printed literature. Unfortunately, the concept of integrating alternative literary devices has instilled fear rather than excitement in many educators. Thus we cling to our old dogma.

The Chasm Between School and Home

If I reminisce back to my early grade-school years, I recall that anticipating the first day of school was an exciting time. I would eagerly gather my school supplies together. I would carefully arrange my pencils in my pencil case, insert it along with the lined notebook paper into my 3-ring binder, and it all made me feel part of the grown-up, real world.

For I saw all these objects used by the adults in my world. My father used a pencil and slide-rule to calculate loan rates and noted them in a spiral notebook. My mother wrote lists and letters on lined paper using a ballpoint pen. Our house was full of often-used hard cover books such as encyclopedias, cookbooks, science books and an assortment of reference books. The teller at the bank would carefully write my small deposits into the paper passbook I carried in and out with me. I would often accompany my father to the main Chicago public library where he would peruse the stacks while doing research for one of his projects. In other words, the tools used inside my school matched the tools I saw used outside my school.

My choices for amusement back then were simple too and what little disparity existed between school and home, favored school. Our house had one color television set which sat in the living room on a TV cart. We had our choice of three channels to watch, which consisted of game shows in the morning, soap operas in the afternoon, the nightly news at 6 PM, and a variety of different programs in the evening. Once a year, they ran The Wizard of Oz, which was always a much-anticipated event. If I wanted to talk to a friend in town, I could call her on the corded telephone attached to the kitchen wall. If I wanted to visit with a friend who had moved away, I wrote a letter.

Obviously our lives and homes today are very, very different. Nearly all of our students have their own personal laptop, Ipad, or at least share a family computer. The majority of them stay in touch with their friends either through social networking sites or by texting on their personal cell phones. The idea of going to the library to do research would seem ludicrous. In fact, it is the opinion of most students that if it cannot be found on the Internet, it is not worth looking for. Most of us rarely pick up a pencil and paper and the idea of using them to write a letter is a distant memory.

Television networks now run programs 24 hours a day with thousands of channels. Visual and auditory entertainment is available within seconds with the touch of a button. Access to information and entertainment is almost unlimited and instantaneous.

Close the Chasm

Forty years ago schools were an exciting place to be. It was the place that we could go to meet and chat with our friends. Books filled with information were stored in a library just down the hall. Technology meant that if you were lucky, there would be a filmstrip to watch during social studies class. And if you were really lucky, you got to be the chosen student who would sit beside the projector and flip the filmstrip to the next frame when the record player sounded the tone.

Teachers were a wonderful and appreciated source of information. The pictures in the textbooks provided us with a way to see our world, and even a brand-new box of 64-count crayons was an exciting possession.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a box of 64-count crayons or a teacher's lecture can no longer compete with the excitement of video gaming, graphic-arts software, and media technology. And yet somehow we feel justified in expecting students to be excited about signing off of their computer games, leaving their media-filled home, taking the music ear-buds out, pocket their cell phone for the next hour, and sit at the same laminated desk used by their grandparents. Then pick up a pencil, get out a piece of lined notebook paper and listen to a teacher talk in front of the room while the big analog clock stares down at them reminding how long it will be until they can leave and go back home, where the amusements and information is now kept.

Our challenge as educators is to embrace our shifting role from sage-on-the-stage to coach-on-the-sidelines. We need to accept the value of alternative ways of communication and the fact that we are no longer the sole, nor perhaps even the best source, of information. We need to rethink how to utilize the variety of media available today, which equal or exceed traditional ways to communicate the ideas of a culture and the knowledge of a society.

We must let go of the old dogma, lest we go the way of the dinosaurs.

About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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