I wrote last time about the techniques of the One-Room school house — different ages learning in one room (at their own pace), one teacher with each student for his/her entire school career, and regular school stopping after 8th grade. With those ideas in mind, I’d like to tell the story of one successful innovator. I am reading Steve Job’s biography, and his educational background is quite interesting. It lends itself, I believe, to these principles I mentioned of the One-Room school house.
Steve was adopted. His real parents were graduate students, but his father was a Muslim, and didn’t think he could marry outside of the faith. His parents decided to give Steve up for adoption. But they had one criterion for the adoption agency — they wanted college educated parents. When the agency was unsuccessful in finding a couple like this, they settled for allowing him to be adopted by parents who promised to one day send him to college.
When Steve came toward the end of his elementary school years, it was becoming apparent that he was quite a bit smarter than most, including his parents. He had a great 4th grade teacher, who bribed him to do additional math problems with a giant lolli-pop and $5.00. He called her, Imogene “Teddy” Hill, one of the “saints of my life”. At the end of his 4th grade year, Teddy had Steve tested, and he tested in the mid-high school years. The school made the astounding proposal that he skip 2 grades so that he would remain interested and motivated in school, but he was a shy and socially awkward youth. His parent suggested he skip only one grade, but that still put him into middle school in a totally different neighborhood.
Steve started to get into trouble. He was pulling pranks and looked like he was headed for a life as a juvenile delinquent. Luckily he had great adults in his life that keep him in the right direction. His adopted father, who was a mechanic, often tinkered with cars in his garage during his spare time. He got Steve involved. His father believed in great craftsmanship, in that you do great work in whatever it is that you do. Steve really internalized this, and it was well known what a perfectionist he became, making sure his Apple computers were perfectly designed on the inside and out.
Steve was also lucky in that he lived in Southern California during the cold war years of the late 60s and early 70s. There were engineers up and down his block always taking on projects in their spare time, and getting very involved with the schools. They had electronics clubs and regularly gave presentations of what they were working on in the latest technologies. Steve developed some great relationships with these people and it introduced him to the potentials of technology.
When Steve graduated, he applied to only one college – Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which had a hippy culture that he liked. His parents had made a promise to pay for his college so they had to take on a lot of debt. Steve felt guilty about this, especially because he realized he was only interested in certain courses — those in technology and art. He dropped about out the college and audited the courses he wanted. The school permitted this because he was already a leader on campus.
So, what can be gained from learning about Steve Job’s educational background? The first idea is that, although young students need to learn the same basic information — the three R’s, they learn at different paces. However, in most cases, students will still do better when learning with students their own age, even if they are above or below them academically. With technology, we can have students learning at their own pace in one classroom. The second principle is that young adults do great when surrounded by caring, mentoring adults. We need to let students develop good productive relationships with adults, inside and outside of school. Unfortunately, schools these days are overly focused on test scores and achievement, rather than letting students find and explore areas of interest.
Lastly, the fact that school ended after 8th grade in the 1800s, should tell us that formal education does not have to go on throughout high school. Students should have choices — perhaps an apprenticeship, perhaps the ability to take courses of interest over the internet. We should explore these time-tested principles of the One-Room school house — there was no oversight or Department of Education in those days, but these schools were pretty good at producing well-rounded students that were ready for adult life.
Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life. Visit her site at www.learnthroughlife.com.