I recently saw a picture of children working on handwork in their classroom. The classroom appeared uncomplicated, bright and pleasant – sparse, perhaps, but in no way austere. The children wore uniforms; the walls were bare except for some framed, classic art. Plants sat on the windowsill; natural light streamed through the large windows. I saw the students making something out of yarn - heads down, hands engaged, busy, focused faces. “This,” I thought to myself, “is the Petri-dish of education.”
Our world is immensely complex. If it isn't complex externally (as it is for most of us!) it is complex internally - the world without and within has exploded with options, diversions, distractions, and entertainment.
For the most part, I would say that complexity is morally-neutral. Options - numerous options - are great when it comes to culinary arts, fine arts, personalities, technological advances and scientific ingenuity. But, options are also overwhelming - and in the realm of education, I sometimes wonder if the expanse of options hasn't overburdened the system and led to diminishing returns as far as outcomes.
I have had my kids in various educational settings - one time, I had four kids in four different schools! Regardless of which options were better or worse, that was too much for our family to handle! My opinions about what was best for each kid quickly shifted after that year, as I sought to simplify our lifestyle. All that to say, I have seen diverse classroom environments.
I've seen different models, methods, bells and whistles, innovations, cutting-edge and traditional ideals in use. It is a matter of preference, I suppose, how we come to the ideals we hold - some based on observation, some based on ambition and hopes and others based on individual values. But I will say this in favor of Simple Education: with the complexity of the world as it is, I believe children grow, learn and thrive in an atmosphere that is uncomplicated, structured and focused.
I personally struggle to focus - even in my writing, I tend towards random rabbit-trails (shocking, I know). My kids, however, are growing and learning in an atmosphere that gives them visual calm, focused learning, un-distracting teaching materials, and rigorous academic standards to reach for (and the support of un-harried teachers to help attain them).
Many classrooms I’ve observed have been covered top to bottom by well-intentioned teachers with many worthy and useful items: colorful children’s artwork, charts, maps, lists, calendars, overstuffed bookcases, and more. The problem is that often it is simply too much! With items dangling overhead and strung across every wall, they ultimately create a subtle visual chaos that competes with the teacher and the material at hand for our children’s attention.
Visual clutter aside, the many other disruptions such as intercom announcements, bells, and other fidgety students are alone enough to induce a form of temporary ADHD. It is a near impossible task, it seems, to regulate a classroom, and I wouldn't begin to pretend to know how that is done, but I would argue that striving to create a Simple Education, where the classroom is a simple, calm, and inviting place that focuses the attention on learning, is a great gift to children.
I wonder if schools were to adopt a mindset of minimalism and apply it to the learning atmosphere, what might happen? What might the outcomes be? I know that as my kids grow and learn in such an environment, that I see the great gift it is to them in how they reflect on their days - on how they grow excited by the material and subjects they are learning – on how they never want to miss a day at school. I see how they express things like, "Why can't our home be more like school?"
Could it be, that with all the innovation, with all the advances in technology and using every exciting option out there, that perhaps we've lost something precious, engaging and simple - such as grade-school children doing simple hand-work while listening to a story being read aloud, by a teacher, with no screen in sight?
I know there are ideas about all the benefits of the gadgets that can be used in education. I am not an educator, nor a philosopher of such things. I am merely a mom watching my kids grow, learn and change. It is an amazing process - to be eyewitness to the development of active, engaged citizens. We've chosen to prize simplicity, to allow our children to grow and learn through their developing years in simplicity’s calming space because our minds and souls can only take on so much complexity before we reach an overwhelm and experience diminishing returns.
I like Simple Education. Our kids, especially, like it. They will be tempted by technology, complexity and all the world sets before us. We recognize this is the world we live in, and there will be a time for that, and often enough, it filters into our homes and daily lives too. But for now, for those few hours they spend at school each day, I welcome and protect their experience of simplicity. And I am rewarded with the delight of my seven-year-old looking into the night sky with excitement and exclaiming gleefully, "Oh look! A crescent moon!" It is the creation and preservation of the simple delight and wonder in the observation of the world around her, with a vocabulary to express it, that has led me to so value simplicity in their education.