I read some disturbing statistics the other day. They came from a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and they suggested that while U.S. educational institutions now spend more per student than other developed nations ($15,171 annually, on average, including both public and private funds), the United States trails on a great many measures of success, including early childhood education, test performance and college completion.
Analysis of the report by Reuters and other media outlets noted disparities in the amounts being spent to educate wealthy and poor populations, with resultant achievement gaps. It also noted that the United States’ future global competitiveness — which relies on innovations and insights from the younger generations being educated now — is being put at risk by the inadequacies of our current approach.
Clearly, there’s a great deal of opportunity for improvement here. And happily, creative alternatives are already being tested and proven out at schools like those featured in “Growing Healthy Kids.”
While we continue to expand productive new models like these, however, there is more we can do. A good deal of it starts at home — with how we teach our children to learn and grow even in the face of evident challenges, and with how we model the learning behaviors we want our kids to emulate.
On some level, the education each of us gets over the course of our lifetime is a reflection of the ownership we take over what we want to know, and who we want to be. It’s a reflection of the effort we make to learn, to nurture our natural curiosities and to embrace the patterns of learning that work best for us.
Clearly, learning is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Some learn best from being shown, told or instructed, while others (including me) prefer to investigate, study and experiment on their own. Some learn most effectively in stimulating classroom settings, others in quiet isolation or outdoors. Some do well with words, others with numbers, pictures, physical objects or music.
Perhaps one day, we will have an educational system that takes all these learning styles and intelligences into consideration and that is equally accessible to all. In the meantime, I think our best bet is to embrace as much personal responsibility as we can, holding both ourselves and our children to high standards, even (and perhaps especially) when circumstances are not ideal.
At home, that may mean modeling healthy behaviors for our kids, including choosing whole, nutritious foods over junky ones; getting daily physical exercise; and making adequate sleep a priority. It may mean setting appropriate boundaries around work and play; putting strict limits on TV and recreational screen time. It may mean demonstrating an avid interest in continual learning and personal growth, insisting on high standards of integrity and dedication in all we pursue.
Because if we don’t do these things, how can we expect our kids to? And if we don’t teach our children the value of these standards, who will?
Inevitably, we will struggle at times, and so will our kids. We may fail to live up to our own or others’ prescribed standards, and we may experience the consequences of our shortfalls. And that’s OK. Kids need to understand that life presents us all with challenges and adversity. Sometimes life serves up pass-fail situations and delivers real consequences for failing. I think it’s best for kids to learn this at an early age.
In fact, I think that imparting the ability to deal with adversity and failure is one of the best gifts we can give our kids. Because, after all, it’s not so much the difficulties we encounter that define us, but the way we respond to them.
Ultimately, all of life is a learning opportunity. It’s also an opportunity to actively cultivate what Viktor Frankl called the “last of human freedoms” — the power to “choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Fall is a good time to reflect on the choices available to us for the remainder of the year: How can we develop our own and our families’ well-being through more conscious choices? How can we help each other overcome our areas of challenge by leveraging our best strengths and developing new ones?
Within the muddle of our present limitations, there are always creative ways forward. It’s up to each of us to take personal responsibility for finding them, one learning experience at a time.