Steve Nelson’s Bill of Educational Rights from First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk


Steve Nelson’s Bill of Educational Rights from First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk

The following excerpt, “Bill of Educational Rights” is from author Steve Nelson’s book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk.
Education / Policy & Reform / Philosophy & Social Aspects of Education / Charter Schools
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Bill of Educational Rights

Parents and concerned citizens should demand the following things from every school. Consider it a Bill of Educational Rights. Turn this list into a petition and circulate it among all the families in your child’s school. Send it to the school board, the principal, local legislators.

The undersigned insist that our school(s) and all teachers:

  • Recognize the broad consensus that early childhood education should be primarily dedicated to free, imaginative play;

  • Provide arts programming, recognizing that the arts are critical to all learning and to understanding the human experience;

  • Provide ample physical movement, both in physical education classes and in other ways, recognizing that exercise enhances learning for all children;

  • Exhibit, in structure and practice, awareness that children develop at different rates and in different ways; that strict age- or grade-level standards and expectations are meaningless and damaging;

  • Acknowledge the large body of evidence that long hours of homework are unnecessary and detract from children’s (and families’) quality of life;

  • Exhibit genuine affection and respect for all children;

  • Honor a wide range of personalities and temperaments;

  • Encourage curiosity, risk-taking and creativity;

  • Cultivate and sustain intrinsic motivation rather than relying on elaborate extrinsic systems of rewards and punishment;

  • Understand that brain research supports active learning, engaging all the senses;

  • Understand that children are intelligent in multiple ways and that all these intelligences should be honored and developed;

  • Listen to each child’s voice, give them real experience in democratic processes, and allow them to express their individuality;

  • Know each child well, appreciate the unique mix of qualities each child brings, and never demean, discourage or humiliate any child.

The simplest test is this – is your child happy and does he/she look forward to school most days? If not, you and your child have the right – the obligation – to demand change. Children should not be subjected to stressful and punitive schools. As I write, a nationwide “opt-out” movement is gaining momentum. All parents have the right to say “no” to stressful, meaningless tests, to keep their children healthy and happy.

The uniform, factory approach to education has never served all children well. The cost is immense. Children who develop more slowly in early years are dismissed as less capable and may internalize this misjudgment for a lifetime. We neither recognize nor nurture children who are brilliant in ways that don’t conform to the IQ-style of education and assessment. As a result their growth may be stunted and their potential to contribute to society is truncated. The extrinsic structures that drive compliance and conformity inhibit intrinsic motivation. One of the greatest satisfactions in life is the endless opportunity to learn and grow. When school is a stressful or unpleasant experience, aversion to continued learning is an inevitable consequence.

We should allow our children to grow naturally, not force them into early, unnatural tedium. We should treasure all children’s originality, not press them into intellectual or social conformity. This requires igniting their imaginations, cultivating a love of beauty, and instilling a fascination with the natural world.

We desperately need our children to love the world and its people enough that they will save it.

Our purpose should be to sustain curiosity, strengthening children’s intrinsic desire to continue learning for a lifetime. We should affirm each child’s intelligence, giving all children the freedom to construct their own lives without judgment.

Pursuing these purposes does not contradict the declared intentions of education reform. Rather, it achieves the purposes of education reform. Tedium, stress and conformity are the enemies of both individual satisfaction and social progress. Imagination and beauty are the things that enliven each individual life and advance civilization.

I began by claiming that we are living in a time of unprecedented existential risk. The risks are amplified by surrendering control of education to those who profit from the compliance and control of conventional education. Can we change the world if our children believe climate change is a hoax or that evolution is just another theory? Will the world be safer if schools teach a whitewashed version of history, declaring America “exceptional” and inculcating blind faith and nationalism? Can we expect future generations to change the world if they are not encouraged to challenge conventional wisdom?

The qualities nurtured through a progressive approach to education are the things that animate meaningful lives and promise the greatest contributions to society.

And, above all – first do no harm.

About First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk develops a comprehensive argument for the importance of progressive education in light of the world’s increasingly severe challenges. Current educational practices, particularly in the United States, instill conformity and compliance at a time when authority must be challenged, skepticism must thrive and our students must be imaginative, creative, empathic and passionately alive.

The book traces the origins of progressive education and cites the rich history and inarguable science behind progressive practices. Nelson argues that a traditional or conventional approach to education has dominated as a matter of political expediency, not good practice. The book provides an unsparing critique of current policy and practice, particularly the excesses of contemporary education reform.

Using anecdotes from his many years as an educational leader, he makes the case in an engaging, colorful and accessible style. In the final chapter, Nelson offers a Bill of Educational Rights, hoping teachers, parents and all citizens will demand a more joyful, constructive and loving education for the children in their care.

Book Reviews

“This is ultimately a hopeful book.  Steve spells out a vision of real education reform that we just might be ready for now. His Bill of Educational Rights, based on the best of what is known from science and theory about human development and children’s learning, should be our manifesto.” – Matt Damon, Actor, Writer, Producer

“This optimistic, anecdotal book offers useful ideas for changes in education.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Parents, teachers and those who support better educational opportunities for all of our children should start by reading Steve Nelson’s First Do No Harm, Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk.” –  Jonathan Pelto

“This powerful, entertaining book is both a beautifully-expressed explanation of progressive education and a searing indictment of contemporary education policy and practice.” - Amazon

“Essential reading for every parent, teacher and policy maker.” - Amazon 

“Steve Nelson knows full well that freedom begins between the ears.  He negotiates this space with clarity, charm and precision.  Ultimately he shows the reader how a good education is the mirror image of a proper democracy.” – Colum McCann, Author of Let the World Spin and National Book Award winner

“Written in direct, jargon-free style, and using his vast educational experience, Nelson makes a compelling case that much of current educational reform is wrong-headed. A great, thought-provoking read.” – Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Professor, University of Delaware, Co-author with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells us About Raising Successful Children

“This book exceeded my expectations. It is "must" reading for all educators, regardless of their field of expertise or the institutions in which they teach.” - Amazon

“Nelson combines experience, knowledge, wisdom and brilliant writing as he invites us into school the way it should be. Using progressive education as his platform, he demonstrates how education can nurture engaged and motivated children who actively discover their world and grow up to be good citizens. Sound like a pipe dream? Read on.” – Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Temple University

“This powerful, entertaining book is both a beautifully-expressed explanation of progressive education and a searing indictment of contemporary education policy and practice. As a teacher, I appreciate the inspirational, good-humored tour of contemporary research and theory. As a parent and an activist, I appreciate the Bill of Education Rights, outlining what we should expect from our schools. As a citizen, I appreciate the clear vision for what education can be — humane, equitable, meaningful and joyful.” Amazon Review, Amazon.

Steve Nelson, Author NewsGarn Press