A Balanced Approach to Education

by Nancy Monson

Many schools are unbalanced (a reflection of our culture) and do not meet the deeper and broader needs of our children. The final results are the illnesses of this culture: health problems, depression, divorce, violence, selfishness, greed and materialism. If we don’t change the ways our children are traditionally being educated, the end result can only be the same (a fact difficult to look squarely in the face). If our goal as educators and parents is to end up with children who are 100% independent, whole and healthy adults capable of functioning harmoniously, and interacting effectively, in our inter-dependent world,  we have to look closely at all the needs of children and how a balanced system of education could and should be addressing those needs.

First of all, what are a child's most essential needs? They have basic organic needs for survival: food, clothing and shelter. They also have personal needs: emotional, intellectual and physical. Specifically, they need to learn, to think, to be curious and explore, to be loved, to receive affection, to play, to develop their unique capacities and to assert themselves. Lastly come the needs that are most often overlooked, especially in education, their spiritual needs. Children need life to make sense. They need to belong, to have a place, for life to have meaning, and to understand why we are here, why the world is the way it is, and know that what we do matters. Developing a love for all humankind and for our planet falls into this category, as at its highest level is unconditional, non-possessive and goes beyond the personal. It is a deep understanding, commitment, and responsibility to serve the future. To satisfy the hunger of their spiritual needs, they need experiences of connecting with others, working together and being of service to people they know, the larger community, and the earth. ALL of these needs must be nourished through a partnership between a balanced system of education and the home.

So, what does this kind of balance look like? To start, try writing down everything you think you would like your child to learn or experience in the first 18 years of life. While doing this think about what an intelligent, confident, balanced, young person might look like: well educated; strong academic background; appreciation and possibly some honed talent in the arts; physically fit with a knowledge of the body and how to keep it healthy; enjoys variety; holds caring relationships with all ages of people; has practical skills such as carpentry, sewing, cleaning, cooking and gardening; has good communication skills; holds a personal relationship to nature; uses contemplative practices; values and understands the need to be of service; can find peace, joy and contentment alone as well as be comfortable contributing to a team. The list could go on, and you could also include qualities that you would like your child to acquire by the time they are a young adult. Now, ask yourself how those skills and qualities might best be developed and nurtured? Any system of education that is too limited or restrictive, too specialized, over focused on the creative, or that puts too much attention on the development of the individual instead of also teaching teamwork, service and our ultimate responsibility to the inter-connectedness of life and the needs of the whole, will ultimately be unbalanced.

When you are looking at schools it is important to ask some questions.

  • Does the school address, in some way, all these aspects of educating the whole child? Is the school over focused, or only focused, on the acquisition of skills such as reading, writing and math?
  • Does the school value and support the arts and physical fitness, which are important for every child?
  • Does the school give children time to be in nature and explore? Earth education is truly successful when it is hands on, experiential, and personal. Children need to know and feel connected to the place they live in.  Is stewardship a reality or a concept?
  • Can the school tell you if children are given time to reflect, assimilate, question, and "be" with their own personal experiences? Is there any down time, or quiet time in the day?
  • What about important skills for living?
  • How does the school educate children about health and their bodies? Are those messages consistent in and out of the classroom? (What are they served in the lunch room, and what's in the vending machines)?
  • Where does the school stand on rewards and punishment and the issue of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation?
  • Are children challenged?  
  • Are they allowed to pursue their own passions, but also given guidance, support, mentoring?  
  • What develops every child's confidence, which can only truly come through self-knowledge?
  • And finally, a really big question: what does the school do to provide children with the skills to navigate relationships? How do they teach communication, conflict-resolution, problem solving, inclusion, compassion and team work?

We rarely take the time to reflect deeply upon our own education. What worked? What do you feel was missing? What do you wish you were taught? Are there things you never learned that you now struggle with as an adult? What areas do you have a strong dislike for, and why? There could be a whole range of things here, from knowing how to organize a home, managing time, cooking, academics, setting goals and then knowing how to achieve them, being able to reflect, meditate, having confidence and joy in the power and talents of your body, and being able to connect to your deeper feelings, longings and vision, to name just a few. Why can't YOUR children learn all these things?

I urge you to take some time to write down what you most want for your child, and then think about how your child is going to attain those things. Not everything can come from a school, but since children spend such a great deal of time there schools should be meeting our children's needs more fully, in a balanced, continuous system along the lines of directed, positive human evolution.


© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.

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