Schools for Doers, Not Watchers

I have had occasion when involved in the planning for school construction to feel thoroughly like I was in a minority of one, holding out for the good of the children. I was therefore heartened when I read this article from Education Week that asks whether today’s schools are turning out a generation of observers instead of doers (you might find you need to register on the website to read the article).

I was, on one occasion, part of a very heated discussion when the design for a multi-purpose hall was being debated. The architect had prepared a design containing two basketball courts adjacent to each other. I liked this.

Suddenly, up came a voice – “Where will the spectators sit? If we only have one court, we can put banked bleachers either side for the spectators.”

My heart took a lurch. This went against every instinct I had about how schools should organize. However, on the drive home later that day I found myself thinking about all the other times when seemingly innocuous decisions in schools are tantamount to enticing children to grow up to be a generation of ‘watchers’ who get the thrill of success and achievement vicariously – observing and celebrating the achievements of others;

a) House point systems under which less than 10% of the students are really responsible for which House wins, but all celebrate as if it was their achievement,
b) Drama or dance performances where the entertainment experience of the watchers is given higher priority than the learning of the participants,
c) A whole school ‘party’ because the 11 boys of the soccer team won a tournament,
d) The formation of a ‘school band’ that puts a handful of children up on a teetering pedestal whilst every other student by declaring themselves an ‘adoring fan’ can throw themselves in to the whole experience as though they had achieved something great.

The media has encouraged watchers to believe that they have earned the right to be part of the action. For example, I get troubled when spectators make cat calls at rugby matches in an attempt to impair a kicker’s ability to score a penalty – they believe that they have a right to be a part of the game!

A generation of watchers would be the very opposite of everything that the world requires from the next generation. We need a generation of young people with the courage, the creativity and the wisdom to do things, to change things, to make things happen, to want to operate on the world, not passively waiting to be operated upon by it.

That’s why I don’t want bleachers for school basketball courts. I want twice as many children to be able to play matches at the same time, doing, engaging, actively learning and preparing to be doers in the world.


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