Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An Exciting, New Kind of School

The phrase education reform has a dull ring to it. No-child-left-behind sounds nobler, but actually turned out to be nothing more than a system to teach the test questions in advance to students who had no other motivation to be in school at all.

How about a school that encourages the child's natural curiosity and leads him or her to the appreciation of learning itself? How about a school that teaches botany and biology by actually allowing the child to experience the out of doors along with lessons from books? How about a radical new kind of school that doesn't measure children against one another, but, along with following a set curriculum, offers the opportunity to go as far as possible in the directions that interested him? Does that sound exciting? Does that sound new?

It certainly would be radical. In the minds of most experts, it certainly would be impossible.

In 1907, when it was believed that mankind was ready for a beautiful new way of looking at things, such a school not only seemed possible, it was ripe for birth. Innovations were being tried in all kinds of unlikely places. Dr. Maria Montessori, a psychiatrist in Rome, began her experimental school in connection with a settlement house in the inner city. And in the United States, an extraordinary woman named Marietta Johnson began her own school with a stipend of $25 per month given to her by her good friend Lydia Newcomb Comings, in the utopian community of Fairhope, Alabama.

That's her above, in 1938, the last year of her life, sitting outdoors on the campus where so many of her classes had been held. Her basic theory to reform the educational system of the day was based on her knowledge as a teacher that children are born loving learning and that school should be designed to nurture that love and not stifle it. She believed that children learn for the sake of knowledge and not to compete with each other or to gain rewards other than the sense of accomplishment from a job well done.

President Obama is well aware of what a good education is. “For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline,” Mr. Obama said, in a speech day before yesterday.

Marietta Johnson lived in a hopeful time, watching the turn of the last century with the eyes of an idealist. She and her colleagues believed that real reform would actually remake mankind in a finer image, and that education was at the heart of that change.

There is a museum dedicated to her work, and her school still lives, in the community where it was founded as a demonstration of what education can and should be.

If you're interested in Mrs. Johnson and/or her school and her ideas about educational reform, click on those links in blue above, or go to and order a copy of either of my books about Fairhope, Mrs. Johnson, and her school. You're in for quite a trip!


Anonymous said...

For some reason I never grow tired of this one!

One note-- if done correctly the curriculum evolves from one based upon state standards to one based upon children's interests. I never worry too much about whether or not the children are learning what their public school counterparts are
learning. The fact that they're excited about what they are learning is what's most important.

I got a phone call this morning from a records officer at a public school wanting number grades for the A's on a transferred child's "Permanent Record" card. I told her we didn't give grades and the letter grades on the card she had were merely a courtesy to the public school.

Left the poor woman speechless.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute! Do you mean there are no grades and tests in this school?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. A school founded on the principle that children are born to learn and enjoy learning. The woman was obviously insane.