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What We Can Learn From Malala

Happy 2013 Deb,

I hope you had a restful holiday. I've been thinking about Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl from Pakistan who was shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting the education of young women and girls. Though the injury she suffered was considered life-threatening, she was released from a hospital in Birmingham, England, late last week, and it looks as though she could recover fully.

Her story is truly remarkable and it should be shared with young people all over the world, especially here in the United States. Recognizing that girls throughout the area in Pakistan where she lived were being kept out of school, Malala began writing about the importance of educating girls in a blog for the BBC. She also appeared in a documentary produced by The New York Times on girls' education, which made her even more of a target for those who see the education of woman as a threat to their power.

Malala's bravery in standing up for the rights of girls to be educated got me thinking about how little we do to get American children to understand and appreciate the importance of education. Unlike Malala, we live in a country where children are required to go to school by law. The challenge we face is getting our children to take their education seriously and to be motivated to learn. Ironically, despite the fact that so much of the focus of education policy has been on raising student achievement, we have done very little to help children to value education and to understand why learning is important. Something is wrong with this approach.

Sadly, too many American children take education for granted. Some cut school if they can; others drop out altogether. Of course, some are pushed out in subtle and sometimes obvious ways because their presence is seen as a threat to obtaining higher scores and better performance. But others leave or become disengaged because their experience in school has left them bored and uninspired. Rather than developing a love of learning, too often students become less interested in it the longer they spend time in school.

We have not done enough to make education compelling and important. We have also not focused on creating schools where children would be excited and motivated to learn. Instead, we have devised policies that motivate children by fear. We threaten them with failure if they don't get good grades and test scores, and we rely on pressure to motivate them to do their best academically.

For many American kids this strategy isn't working. The pursuit of education has been totally disconnected with things that truly matter like helping one's family, solving the problems facing a community, or using education to fight for justice. It is hardly surprising that many students, including many of those who do well, treat education as a chore, a burden, and an unpleasant responsibility foisted upon them by adults who seek to make their lives miserable.

This is the reason why I think that the example of Malala is so important. She was willing to risk her life to ensure that she and others could have an education. She understood that knowledge is power and that being educated was the key to participating fully as a citizen in her country. American students need to understand this, too. Even if no one is threatening their right to learn, they need to understand that education can be used to further justice and promote peace through understanding.

Perhaps we should move in this direction by rejecting fear as a motivator and begin tapping into the hopes and dreams of students to get them motivated and inspired.

Happy New Year, Deb.

Pedro

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