Cooperation and Character First in our Classrooms
What are we Teaching at School?
Let's start by taking a look at a typical elementary school. Children are rewarded for reading or doing homework regularly. Some are identified as Students of the Month, others are given one hundreds consistently much to the chagrin of their secretly jealous peers who have a hard time pulling a seventy out of their hats, and still others attend spelling bees (one must wonder what truly is accomplished in being a great speller), receive awards for excellence, obtain the status of honor roll for being good test takers, and get prizes for reaching a specific fundraising goal.
In light of this type of structure I think it's critical to examine the values children learn as they move (even if some move depressingly slow) forward through their elementary years. They learn that they should read to get a prize, compete with and ultimately beat out their classmates to have the best grades, gather the most honors, and win the most contests. All in the name of pleasing (no, not themselves, God forbid they should acquire any intrinsic motivation to learn!!) the system that would have them trained in much the same way various behaviorists trained lab animals.
How could this be that classrooms devoted to teaching love, caring, acceptance, cooperation, at the same time be pitting its students against one another in a race to be the best in a series of silly contests which often times define a school? No matter what school or system one speaks of, it will always be defined by the bell curve. Someone is always on top and someone is always at the bottom. The implicit message, which I believe is much more powerful than the lessons in character education that we teach in our classrooms, becomes that of watching out for your peers because they may be gaining on you.
What Should we be Teaching?
Now, imagine a school void of contests or special recognitions. A school that puts character and cooperation absolutely first and strives to create an atmosphere where children don't have to fear failure or loss of love and respect. A school where children don't have to worry about losing a game in PE, where they can take risks without fear of failure, where they want to read because they love to read not because they get a pizza for it, where they don't have to cheat to be the best, make others lose so they can win, but rather sit in a circle and hold hands and say simply we're all in this together. It sounds similar to what Robert Fulgham said in his insightful All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
This vision, even in light of the testing mandates that have irrationally defined the higher standards initiative, is attainable. Our schools are what we want them to be in every way. Instead of reducing children to numbers lets place more an emphasis on what values we want them to have and make every crack and crevice of our schools explicitly and implicitly send these messages out to them. The big ideas being unity over division, cooperation over competition, true desire over extrinsic motivation.
Ignorance can be bliss, but also can lead to the perpetuation of nonsensical ideals. It has. It is.