by Brittany Farmer

It’s a bright California winter day and Grace Noonan is dressing up her dogs. I’m interviewing her mother, Nicole Sanchez, Chief of Staff and Operations of Kapor Enterprises, Inc. and former Executive Director of Berkeley Alliance, via telephone. “Gracie, not now,” Nicole shouts.

And then, “Okay, go take a picture.” “She has one of the dogs in a cape and the other in a pink tiara,” Nicole tells me, laughing. Grace is an energetic ten-year-old who, like many kids, likes to do things her own way. Her sister Faith is a quieter, artist type who recently displayed her photography at a local gallery, her mother tells me with pride. Both girls enjoy reading, art and creating fantasy worlds.

The creativity they had, the excitement for learning, we saw that waning. The spark was going out.

But while the girls’ early accomplishments, interests and conversational skills (as I would later learn) suggest a high level of intelligence, they, like so many children, have struggled in the traditional public school setting. As Nicole explains, Faith started strong in her scholastic career, breezing through Kindergarten and skipping the first grade. Grace had a difficult time sitting still in Kindergarten, though she kept up with her peers. But things quickly began to change as the girls progressed through the system. While their grades and test scores were not necessarily suffering, something more fundamental was. Their father Patrick Noonan jumps on the call to explain.

“[After a few years in public school], we started to see our kids become dull,” says Patrick. “The creativity they had, the excitement for learning […], we saw that waning. The spark was going out.”

Patrick and Nicole decided to remove their children from public school in an attempt to rekindle their intellectual fire. Since then, the girls have re-enrolled.

Most recently, Faith has applied to a private arts school. The family’s journey in and out of the public schools reflects the many challenges children and parents face while navigating a system which struggles to promote creativity and critical thinking over rote exercises and static knowledge. The family’s journey also reflects the fundamental driving force behind the quest for educational reform: the desire for American children to be successful and, ultimately, happy in a quickly changing world.

The American educational system has been under fire for decades. The most recent reports show the United States ranks 17th in education among developed nations, and the cry for education reform rings loud in the news. While there is consensus that something needs to change, just what that something is is up for debate.

Since the 1970s, the common political stump speech has included calls to increase school standards, as measured almost exclusively by performance on standardized tests. However, experts like Sir Kenneth Robinson, a world-renowned educationalist whose TED (Technology, Education, Design) Talk videos on educational reform have reached millions, locate the problem with the educational system not in students’ inability to perform on standardized tests, but in the systematic ways in which the traditional school system squelches instead of fosters the creativity and dynamism of its students. Jacquie Turnbull, education and training consultant and author of “Creative Educational Leadership: A Practical Guide to Leadership as Creativity” (Continuum, 2012), puts it this way:

“Young people face a world where change is the only constant factor, where they will need to train and retrain as technology develops at an ever faster pace, where businesses have to adapt to global markets, and scientists have to grapple with challenging environmental, health and social issues arising from growth of the world population.”

Because the current educational system relies on an outmoded “hierarchy of importance of ‘subjects’,” and because reliance on standardized tests leads to “an inevitable side-effect of teachers ‘teaching to the test’,” there is a “general squeezing out of time focusing on developing a more well-rounded learning ability,” Turnbull explains. “I think there is a growing body of opinion that we are at a critical stage where education is not preparing all young people adequately for their future.”

The Sanchez-Noonan parents agree.

“[Filling out worksheets] is not how we want our kids to think,” Patrick says. “We want them to think very broadly.”

This “broad” thinking is what Turnbull calls “little c creativity”–the sort of “everyday resourcefulness that is not restricted to activities of an artistic nature [but] an essential life skill, something we are all born with, something that is demonstrated in human ingenuity in all its forms.”

A belief in fostering this creativity has in part fueled alternative education programs throughout the United States. Montessori schools, home schools, and “un-schooling” deviate most obviously from the public school norm and are the most prevalent forms of  alternative education.

The Montessori model is a comprehensive educational approach based on a global observation of children’s needs. According to the North American Montessori Teachers Association’s website, “The Montessori environment contains specially designed, manipulative ‘materials for development’ that invite children to engage in learning activities of their own individual choice. Under the guidance of a trained teacher, children in a Montessori classroom learn by making discoveries with the materials, cultivating concentration, motivation, self-discipline, and a love of learning.”

There are 4,200 Montessori schools operating in the United States, 4,000 of which are private, typically requiring tuition. Turnbull gives a few examples of other institutions that have re-envisioned the school system:

“Diploma Plus, the alternative high school model operating in 8 states of the US and serving 4000 formerly disconnected youth ignores the tradition of ‘advancement toward graduation by time in seat’,” she explains. “Rather, if the young people learn quickly, they’re moved on to the next stage; if they need more time,they’re allowed it. It’s a philosophy that contends that  individual personal development is crucial to learning progression. Turnbull continues: “Wales (UK) has seen the introduction of a new curriculum for 3-7 year-olds, the Foundation Phase. It builds upon research that shows children do not begin to benefit from formal teaching until the age of 6 or 7, and incorporates features of Scandinavian ‘forest schools’. The initial evaluation of the Phase shows a positive impact on the well-being of children and, significantly, the active learning approaches and use of the outdoor learning environment are helping boys to be more engaged in their learning.” 

“They’re both initiatives that overturn assumptions about education that were previously held inviolate. […] In both the examples above, the children and young people are experiencing an environment that is encouraging openness to learning, unfettered by the more formal structures of traditional education. It’s an environment that has more potential to nurture their ‘natural’ creativity.”

Homeschooling has many variants, but often follows traditional curriculum, though the hours and environments in which students learn are decided by their parents. Many parents also choose to home school for religious reasons.

A derivative of homeschooling, called “un-schooling,” combines aspects of Montessori and homeschooling. Un-schooling follows the general principle that children lead their own educational endeavors outside of an institutionalized environment, while parents provide adaptive lessons and material support. This style of alternative education received widespread adaptive lessons and material support. media attention in 2010 with the ABC Good Morning America segment

Extreme Homeschooling: No Tests, No Books, No Classes, and No Curriculums.

Adherents to “un-schooling” criticized ABC’s coverage, which depicts the movement as an irresponsible free-for-all where children are dangerously unprepared for the “real world,” as overly simplistic.

Lee Stranahan, filmmaker, writer and un-schooling advocate, wrote a response in the Huffington Post entitled “UnSchooling: How Good Morning America Got It All Wrong,” which characterizes the news piece as hyperbolic, hysterical and a “hatchet job […] that was so hopelessly biased that it’d make Rupert Murdoch blush.” He uses his son, who was unschooled for ten years, as an example of the potential success of the movement.

The Sanchez Noonan family decided on the un-schooling approach for their daughters Grace and Faith, with similar results to Stranahan’s, thus far. Instead of enrolling their daughters in the first and fourth grades respectively, Patrick and Nicole began educating their children themselves. While Nicole worked during the day, Patrick was in charge of fostering the educational atmosphere, though both parents shared responsibility on nights and weekends.

Once presented with a less structured, more physically engaging environment, Grace and Faith’s excitement for learning returned. “It didn’t work for me to sit in class all day,” Faith says. “I like homeschooling in general better.”

“I didn’t always have to be at home,” says Grace. “I could go climb a tree. Like in Camp Mosaic”–a week-long camp Grace attended as a field trip with her current public school class–”you learn in the middle of nature and it’s fun. You get to play a game, and you learn stuff, and it’s really fun.”

Patrick, like many parents, educators and students, noticed that when the girls weren’t worried about getting up early, studying for a test, filling out a worksheet, dealing with bullies at school, and sitting in the back of a crowded classroom, they not only had more “fun,” they learned better. Their happiness was tied to their intellectual growth.

“Happiness is the root of creativity,” Patrick says. “In order to learn, to experience, to develop a drive to grow and be creative, you have to be happy.”

Eventually, Faith decided she would like to try public school again, and Grace agreed. Their parents obliged.

“We try to let [our kids] lead us because we feel like, within reason, [this approach] will lead them to success,” Patrick says. 

Of course, child-lead education is not easy, nor is it available to most families. While providing children with individualized, fun-filled and self-directed education may be ideal, not all parents can afford to stay home educating the children. And, not all families are equipped with two college-educated parents who can act as intellectual moderators.

“[Un-schooling] is a very romantic idea,” Nicole says, “but it’s difficult.” “And un-schooling is a privilege, and we acknowledge that privilege,” Patrick adds.

Though there are many criticisms of alternative education, whether it is Montessori schools, alternative private schools, home schooling or un-schooling, its inaccessibility is perhaps the most valid. Public school remains the only feasible form of education for most children.

For this reason, it remains the most important site for learning, and the most important site for reform.

So what would it take to really overhaul the schools, to foster creative spaces and transform education? What would new, scalable models look like, and what would be required to create them?

“We need a massive infusion of resources,” says Patrick. “Much higher taxes, cultural appreciation for teachers, alleviation of poverty, and a focus on creating good learners, and creative, innovative kids.”

“We need a multi-sector partnership of business, government, the non-profit sector, public schools and citizens digging into the community,”

Nicole adds. “Schools need to become the hub for social life, health, childcare, recreation and job training. Basically, they need to be the life of a neighborhood. In order to see things change, we need to dramatically change what a school looks like so it is a service center, like a university.”

“Or like Google campuses,” Patrick adds. “We need to develop a model that will be the best model for creativity and dynamism.” Nicole has worked with many organizations trying to establish a version of this model in Berkeley, California, but it has not yet come to fruition.

“We tried to create a partnership between the university, school system and city government in Berkeley [through the organization Berkeley Alliance],” Nicole says. “Our hope was to address economic and health disparity, to start. Because [another problem with the current system] is that our schools act like so many things are equal, but it’s just not true. Berkeley public schools are good by standard public measures, however, what you have, [like most places], is truly two school systems within one system, and it falls predictably along racial and class lines.”

“But we kept running into politics and the immovable sense of ‘this [the current system] is how things are done.’ It wasn’t one person who was saying this. Actually, it was an art form to be told ‘that can’t happen.’ It got so overwhelming for people who only saw things done one way.”

Nicole argues that this large-scale mental road block about educational reform is culture-driven.

“We grew up in working-class families,” she says, “with adults who worked hard but hated it. We’ve seen the repercussions of living a life that you’re obligated to live, but that you dread. And yet there is an American cultural myth that work is miserable, but you have to do it anyway. The other myth is that [misery in the school system] is a rite of passage, but that doesn’t have to be the case.”

Turnbull looks at resistance more broadly: “The difficulty in bringing about change in education is that everyone has a view on what education should be like. Everyone has been through a process of education and their experience good or bad will influence their perspective. So ‘traditional’ ideas are more likely to hold sway, for politicians also who will have one eye on the voting public.”

“It also has to be admitted that creativity is a word that comes with baggage; the ‘raising standards’ regime may be driven by the idea that too much creativity in education is the reason for standards falling in the first place. On the other hand, it would be unfair to the children and young people concerned to experiment with initiatives that are not based on evidence. Every paradigm shift needs a weight of evidence behind it before a major change.”

It seems that the weight of evidence is growing by the day, as is public dissatisfaction with the current system. This generation may be uniquely poised for change.

Turnbull again:

“It’s become a practice to attempt to identify the unique features of each generation: Generation Y for instance is the current 20-somethings who are credited with a different approach to work than the previous generation. For Generation Z (those currently at school and college) it’s speculated that this will be the generation to transform education. They are the first generation who will have grown up using technology from infancy, the first to be part of a truly global community. Most significantly, the pace of economic and social change will dictate that they develop as independent, adaptive learners, and that their education is not defined by number of school-based years.”

“All we want is for our school system to provide the values and support to create smart and knowledge-thirsty human beings who will live in a world where they will have to compete and change,” Patrick says.

“And we want to maximize happiness,” says Nicole. “That’s our family motto.”

It’s time for the public school system to address these parents’ hopes and, for the future success of this generation, adopt their motto, too.