Educators Need the Right to Try

After experiencing alternative learning methods such as Montessori, Carmen Rodríguez became convinced that the traditional system was obsolete. (Anna Samoylova)

The pace of 21st-century economies has imposed new demands on all aspects of life, and education is no exception. Blindly following instructions and memorizing dates and names is no longer adequate to foster the critical skills and self-confidence needed for the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs.

Over the past two decades, educational researchers have examined several alternatives to address the prevailing system's problems, but in practice, few have changes have been effected.

Carmen Rodríguez, an instructor of continuing studies at Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala, explains that the main obstacle toward improvements in education is regulation. Experimentation is the best way to identify better methods, she argues, and this is highly constrained by government mandates.

Rodríguez previously worked at the Council Oak Montessori School in Chicago and at the Acton Academy in Austin. She recalls that in elementary and high school she was a straight-A student and enjoyed learning. But in college she discovered other methods—Socratic dialogue and collaborative and project-based learning—and had such an eye-opening experience that she decided to devote her life to transmitting these alternative methods.

Her favorite system, Montessori, was able to flourish 100 years ago in Italy precisely due to the absence of a regulatory framework enforcing a single curriculum.

Modern governments with restrictive education policies, in contrast, are curtailing possibilities that we cannot even imagine. There can be reasonable standards shared by all schools, such as grading students or separating children of different ages, but testing models that defy ruling paradigms should be encouraged given the potentially enormous benefits.

As in other sectors, those with skin in the game—school owners, teachers, parents, and students, not government bureaucrats—are best suited to understand and improve on the system. Trying to shape education through regulation, which boils down to shaping children’s minds and determining their paths forward, is not only risky but arrogant and morally suspect.

In the meantime, we are condemning children to obsolete schools with a “culture of only having one right answer and one-size-fits-all approaches to learning, to thinking, to acting, and to responding to challenges,” in Rodríguez's words. Traditional education does not encourage entrepreneurial skills such as autonomy and creativity, and “does not allow any room for failure, which is key to learning.”

Moreover, regulatory barriers reduce the number of competitors and increase prices, particularly of the best schools. This is no small matter; bureaucrats have been perpetuating a system that is not only detrimental to bright students, but also to the poorest ones.

We owe the next generation an educational environment with legal certainty and limited government interference that spurs a variety of educational options tailored to the different needs of parents and students. 

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