Swedish Motors

Tear Down the Walls

The Community as Our School

Pam Costain (photo by Sarah Whiting)
Pam Costain is a lifelong social justice activist recently retired from 30 years of nonprofit leadership, including Resource Center of the Americas, Wellstone Action, and AchieveMpls. (photo by Sarah Whiting)

As a former member of the Minneapolis School Board and former executive director of AchieveMpls, I have seen firsthand how today’s high schools do not serve the needs of young people. For decades we have been trying unsuccessfully to transform a 19th Century model of education to make it relevant for today’s youth. It is not working.

Anyone who spends even one hour in a modern American high school can easily see how many things are wrong. Young people are crammed into desks listening to a teacher lecture in the front of the room. There are 45-minute class periods, with little time to delve deeply into topics. Counselors and support staff are overworked. Graduation requirements focus on credits rather than competency. Wide swaths of bored students find their education irrelevant, despite a deep passion for social, racial, and environmental justice.

Demoralization, disconnection, and disengagement are rampant. It does not have to be so. But changing it will require a radical restructuring of schooling.

We must tear down the walls of our schools and send students out into the community to learn. Show rather than tell. Engage rather than describe. Invite participation in generating solutions rather than simply learning facts. Trust young people.

Provide educational experiences through internships, arts and media engagement, community service projects, career shadowing, and community building efforts. Invite students to monitor government and participate in public life by helping to design solutions to problems in their own neighborhoods or on a global scale.

When it is not possible to leave the building, invite the community in to share their experiences and knowledge so that young people continuously see themselves in the adult world, and so that adults continuously see and value young people. Build cross-generational dialogue and support.

The World As Classroom

The whole world can and should be the curriculum, since everyone is connected through smart phones, the internet, and social media. Our connected world allows students to easily and quickly personalize their learning, and to access the knowledge and wisdom of many people, cultures, and academic disciplines.

Teachers then become guides, mentors, and resources to help young people answer questions and imagine new ways of thinking and solving problems. As this is done, it will be important to help young people learn how to recognize biases and prejudice, how to appreciate multiple points of view, and how to think critically and compassionately.

As education becomes simultaneously more globalized and more personalized, the relationships students build with adults and peers will become ever more crucial to giving them a sense of identity and connection. Authentic relationships will enable young people to navigate a complex and rapidly changing world.

The education of the future must be more inclusive of all people’s contributions to culture, language, knowledge, human development, and progress. It must celebrate the richness of the human experience, instill hope for the future, and recognize the preciousness of all life on this earth.