Dr Paul Cummins is the Founder of Coalition for Engaged Education (CEE) - a non-profit organization that helps vulnerable young people realize their potential through education.
Cummins has been active in education for over fifty years, originally as a teacher and head of school then moving on to found six schools in the past twenty years..
Recently he has set up two additional schools - The Tree Academy for customized learning in Los Angeles and a Native American school in South Dakota.
What are the skills we need to be teaching our children?
The skills that students need to be learning in school today cover a huge spectrum.
Traditional skills are being able to read and read intelligently, and to write and write clearly. I think no matter what happens in the world, no how fast the world changes, those skills still need to be acquired by students. But they’re not acquired by preparing them for standardized tests and boring the hell out of students, and squeezing the joy out learning for everybody.
As we all know, the world is changing faster than we can even figure out what the new questions are, so we need to be developing kids who can think creatively. Consequently, one of the things in American schools at the bottom of the priority list, that I think should be at the top, is arts - places where kids can learn how to be creative, where self expression can happen in a joyful way and in an out-of-the-box environment. Our schools are just the opposite of that.
As the world continues to change there need to be these traditional skills, but there also needs to be new thinking and people who can think of new questions, rather than trying to answer questions on a test that someone else has already figured out.
How do the schools you have been involved with approach teaching these skills?
I’ve kind of insisted that in the curriculum of these five new schools there are common threads that run through them. In American education, and I suppose around the world as well, the focus is on the so-called ‘five solids’: English, history, math, science and foreign language. And in American schools it’s really only two that are tested and given any sort of strong currency: linguistic skills and mathematical skills.
I believe there are five other solids that have been budget-cut out of most schools or have been so diminished as to be ineffective. Those are the arts, as I mentioned, human development, where a certain attention is paid to emotional intelligence, community action - community service, community involvement, realising that we’re all part of a bigger world and not just on our own quest for an education, a job and a profit making life.
The fourth of the five other solids is physical education and I don’t mean just a football team and some cheerleaders, but I mean true physical education. We’ve got children who are out of shape, who are obese or can’t walk a mile without being out of breathe and so on, so I mean yoga and martial arts and all of that.
The fifth is environmental education. Everyone wants the planet to survive but we’re graduating generations of kids now, who have never been out in a forest, who have never walked through the redwood trees. There are kids who live two miles from the beach, it’s a big cliché but true, who have never seen the ocean. So we’ve got these young kids graduating who have no relationship to the natural world and consequently, when you talk about sustainability and the Earth as our mother, they don’t know what you’re talking about. Even if they intellectually know, they haven’t an internaliser, because they’ve never slept under the stars.
What is the role of the teacher?
The role of teacher is changing. The cliché that we all spout now is that the old-fashioned model is of the teacher as the dispenser of information and the students as the well that are filled up with all the information to regurgitate back on standardized tests. That’s the old model. That model is not really as prevalent as people are saying, but it does still exist.
If you go around public schools all across America, you will see a teacher standing at the front of a classroom whiteboard and rows of kids. You will occasionally see exciting schools where it’s project based, where it’s experiential. Where students are working in small groups, preferably with each other, and then the teacher’s role is the guide and the facilitator rather than the dispenser of knowledge - or partner with the students in asking tough questions and then trying to find the answers together.
The teacher nowadays isn’t playing the role of ‘I’ve got all the answers.’ The good teachers are saying ‘it’s a changing world and we all need to look for answers together. I don’t have them all, but we can maybe together find them.’ That’s a whole different atmosphere in the classroom.
Do you think standardized testing is an effective way of assessing learning?
The issue of assessment is a complicated one, but what we certainly know now is that you can’t measure the value, the intelligence, the motivation of every student, every individual, through a standardized test. We ought to just admit that that’s true.
People will give lip service to that in public school systems and in individual schools, but at the end of the day when you look at what they use as measurements they fall back on what the know, which is one of the bigger problems in education in general. But what they know doesn’t work in this changing world, so we need to come up with different ways of assessing students.
One way is ‘what can they create? What can they make?’ The only way you find that out is by giving them a certain amount of time and an environment in which, if they are creative, they could actually create.
If you are sitting in a classroom from eight or eight-thirty until three, then have afternoon requirements and then go home to four or five hours of homework, you have no opportunity to create.
One of my gurus when I was growing up was philosopher Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti once said: ‘without leisure, there can be no learning.’ Wow.
I write poetry - occasionally a good one, usually a lot of throwaways and mediocre ones, but I keep at it. I can only write poetry when I have big chunks of time to take a walk or to daydream or whatever. Schools today don’t know what the word ‘leisure’ means!
When I first became a headmaster, I attended a workshop with other school administrators conducted by a guy named Joseph Chilton Pearce, who wrote ‘Magical Child.’ He was kind of a leading educator then. They had done a study on the best and the brightest kids who had gone to Ivy Schools and they looked at their background. We were a bunch of principals and new heads of schools, and Pearce asked, ‘what do you think these kids have in common?’ We thought we were so smart. We went around the circle and Pearce said: ‘no, no, no.’
The only thing they could find that these creative, best, brightest students had in common was that in their childhood they had spent long hours open-eyed, staring into space. They were daydreamers! But in their daydreams things kind of bubbled up.
I gave the example of my own poetry - when I get some quiet time, occasionally something bubbles up and it’s worth getting down, and then I need the time to do it. I can’t do it if the phone is ringing and people are telling me to go to this appointment or that one. You can’t be creative in conditions like that.
It’s going to be a real challenge for schools in the future with all these things we want kids to learn, to keep in mind that we need to give them just some time to be.
What would be the best learning environment?
The most effective, exciting learning environment is when you walk into a school and it has a sort of democratic model, a project-based philosophy behind it. As you walk in the excitement is kind of palpable because you see students are activated, they’re active, they are doing. They are not passive learners in the exciting environments. There are schools across the country, or right here in Los Angeles, that are doing that.
But there’s another ingredient which leads me back to the other five solids as well, and that is the kind of joy that comes out of working on art projects. So when you come into a school where there’s singing and dancing and there’s student artwork on the walls, exhibits and concerts, it’s palpable when you walk on the campus.
I’ve taken Los Angeles Unified School officials on tours and one of them, who ran for State Superintendent of Education, after his tour looked at me and said: ‘wow this is the gold standard, isn’t it?’ And I said: ‘yeah, but it could exist in every public school in America if we looked at our priorities.’ One of the priorities should be that when kids wake up in the morning, they are looking forward to going to school, because it’s a place where they experience a certain amount of joy, excitement and an opportunity for self-expression. Whatever their talents are, there’s a place where they can find some expression.
The curriculum has to be rich and diverse for every kid to find where he or she can plug in. But if you just limit it to just math and reading skills, then the kids who is brilliant in music or in robotics projects sit in class all day long bored out of their minds, and we are losing their talents.
So a joyful atmosphere, a creative atmosphere, an atmosphere of self-expression, cooperation with the teachers and occasionally asking the students what they’re interested in, instead of it being totally adult-driven.
I hasten to add, I don’t want it to be all fun and games, because I’d like students who graduate in the twelfth grade from any school in America to have read a couple Shakespeare plays and be able to. To have read Dostoyevsky or Faulkner or whoever, and be capable of reading that. If it’s all project based and making things and so on, then the writing and reading skills could be diminished. That’s something we have to attend to. In my dotage, I keep thinking the important thing is balance.
What role do you think government should play in education?
The role of government in education should be to try and provide the quality for every student in America that each student would get if he or she did go one of these first rate independent schools.
Now, what the Federal Government contributes to education in each of the states is pretty small, so poor states don’t have a lot to spend and wealthy states do. But no matter what they spend, it’s at least a third of what independent schools are spending. So the money and the resources, I believe, are there in our country. I just think our priorities are screwed up. I think the amount of money that we spend on defence is obscene and all it does is lead us to one problem after another.
We are in kind of an arms race with ourselves where we build this to sell to someone else, and then we have to build something even more fancy. We have to keep feeding the military industrial complex industry and we are not providing our children with the quality education that they should be getting. The money is there, it’s just how we allocate our resources that’s screwed up.
What was your favourite moment in your own education?
Did I have a favourite moment when I was a student?
Yes, I did. My freshman year at Stanford, I was a terrible student, because I came from a high school where I was bored and all I cared about was sports and girls. I got into Stanford when you could still get into Stanford with a relatively strong pulse and a little bit of pull from your father and so on. So I wind up in Stanford in Western Civ with this teacher who just tore me apart day after day and pointed out my ignorance to me.
I think he liked me and saw something in me, but I remember the first time I ever raised my hand and answered a question - he was sitting on a kind of podium looking down on all of us in the class. He looked at me after I gave my answer and he had this sneer on his face as he said: ‘what a pedestrian comment.’ I had to run across the street to the library after class to look up pedestrian, but I still didn’t quite understand.
Well anyway, to make a long story short, every day Daniel Smith, that was his name, would point out my ignorance to me. One day in the Spring of my freshman year, the topic was something about marxism and I was reading everything I could to show Daniel Smith I wasn’t stupid. So I read this little book by Sidney Hook and he asked this question, and I put my hand up and answered it. He looked at me and almost smiled and went: ‘yeah.’ Great moment. Daniel Smith acknowledged that I wasn’t a complete idiot.
I don’t recommend that as a teaching technique, but it worked for me and it was a great moment. I guess that if you extrapolate from that, the greatness of the moment was a teacher affirming a student. The affirmation could have probably come sooner, but it doesn’t matter.
The next 100 years
The next 100 years of Finnish education should… continue to play the leadership role that it’s been playing. But in order to do so, it will have to continue to keep looking outside the box, because one of the great dangers of success is encrustation.
Leadership sometimes has a short life if the leaders themselves don’t continue to grow. So one of the things that Finland could do is to have their own kind of commission with groups of teachers and administrators who travel around the world looking at best practices everywhere on the globe, bringing that back for discussion. Maybe exporting teachers to low-income regions to help the teachers there, or maybe bringing teachers from around the world to Finland. It could be a two way street where Finland is going out into the world, but also bringing the world to Finland where teachers get the training they need.
I’m writing a book right now titled ‘Engaged Education.’ I just published one called ‘Confessions of a Headmaster’ which the title promises more than the book delivers. It’s not a racy book, it’s an educational confession. But in Engaged Education I actually talked about Finland and I talked about the four qualities of Finland that we have upside down in the United States. So Finland looks for first rate teachers, pays them well, gives them extraordinary teacher training and then gives them the freedom to be creative in the classroom. In the United States we do just the opposite. We get the bottom third of college graduates going into teaching, we don’t pay them very well, we don’t give them good training and then we put them in the classroom with straight jackets and say ‘teach to the test.’
So Finland has got the ingredients to continue to be a world leader. One of the things that I think is going to be a major question for the world to look at is the whole issue of poverty and what can we do about it globally. Finland has the advantage of being a relatively homogeneous society. The United States is so diverse, so we don’t really know how to deal with these and our class sizes have gotten larger because of that. Finland has a wonderful opportunity here to maybe take that on as a twenty year project - global poverty, what could be done about it? Global miseducation or lack of education, poor education for girls around the planet, there are so many big issues that maybe there could be a long-term project of bringing the best creative minds to look at these issues.