Stop the Experiment

Education is too important to languish in an antiquated system

The person: It was as dean of the American Conservatory of Music that composer and musician Aaron Stern first began questioning how universities and schools teach. He came to believe that our current model of education blocks the creativity, innovation and lifelong curiosity that musicians—and all human beings—need for fulfilling personal lives and careers. Encouraged by his mentor and friend, the musical icon Leonard Bernstein, Stern created the Academy for the Love of Learning—a nonprofit “think and do tank” that seeks to shift the way people and organizations learn, in Santa Fe and beyond.

The plan: Stop tinkering with an outdated school model, and start talking about types of learning that will help Santa Fe thrive today.

How it works: 170 years ago, an ambitious Massachusetts politician named Horace Mann launched the boldest experiment ever conducted on our nation’s kids. Inspired by his tour of militaristic schools in Germany, he led a movement to corral all young Americans into standardized, age-quarantined schools focused on discipline and obedience. 

Six or seven generations later, his experiment is still running—and it's not working.

In Santa Fe, despite teachers' and administrators' heroic efforts, around half of the students who enter high school don't graduate. Worse, many of those who do graduate have spent their years so focused on passing tests and juggling academic subjects they fail to develop what Stern calls the new basic skills: innovation, courage and creativity—the skills today's young people need if they are to help us right our political systems, restore the environment and create the vibrant, "creative economy" to which Santa Fe aspires.

But teaching those skills in a Horace Mann experiment, between ringing bells and mandated curricula, is like trying to raise apple trees in a car factory: The conditions don't promote the goals.

"What we need," Stern says, "is to change the conversation."

A crucial part of that conversation, he says, involves realizing that humans create learning rather than receive it. You don't remember the proofs you copied from the chalkboard in 10th grade geometry, but you do remember the first time you fell in love, which awakened you, filled your senses, pushed you to say and do things you'd never thought possible. That's learning—or, as the academy defines it, "transformative learning."

The academy—among many others, including local transformative education guru Paquita Hernandez—has created structures through which people can experience this enlivening, "fall-in-love" type of learning, and pick up knowledge and skills along the way. Last year, the academy shared its model with over 1,500 people here in Santa Fe, and seeks to expand substantially in 2012.

“I don’t believe we’ll see any major changes in education in Santa Fe until a critical mass of people from all walks of life have experienced what transformative learning really is,” Stern says. “Then we will be ready for new forms.”

Bottom line: It’s time to explore openly what we want learning to look like in our city. With SFR, I’ll be working with the academy to present schools, programs and communities that have found graceful ways to slip out of the Horace Mann experiment and reimagine what learning can be.

Seth Biderman is under contract to provide research and writing for the Academy for the Love of Learning.

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