Re-Thinking Education at Fusion Academy

By Tyeler Viel, M.A. MFT

Back-to-school time is upon us. You can almost taste fall; the air carrying a promise of colder evenings filled with various extracurricular activities.

When I think back to my first day of school, for any school year, I can still remember the nervousness, excitement of all the opportunities to come, and the feeling of my new, not-yet-broken-in shoes still a little tight on my feet. Weeks would go by and I’d find myself in the chaotic whirlwind of classes, bells, and piles of homework. I loved the social time with friends, but I hated the anxiety of trying to keep up and finding time to have the teachers really explain the material I wasn’t grasping.

It was in the middle of my freshman year in high school when I started to develop an anxious tic. What my parents and I didn’t realize at the time was my stress was beyond “normal” and I was experiencing what so many students across the country face: an Anxiety Disorder.

Now, armed with my Masters in Family Therapy, I understand how the body manifests anxiety in so many different ways. I know the anxiety I was feeling wouldn’t have been as burdensome in a school that could have met me where I was at both emotionally and academically. To have classes with less pressure on test taking and more time to get really curious about subjects I was interested in would have allowed me to succeed in greater ways than I thought were possible.

Seth Godin, a renowned author and speaker, asks the question, “What are Schools For?” In his manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams (What is School For?) found by clicking here, he addresses various points that we should consider in how our traditional school model needs to change.

Our school system still looks very similar to how it was designed 100 years ago. In the early 1900s factories were worried about losing their child laborers. An idea took root that educated kids would actually become more “compliant and productive workers.” Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it came from the need during this time to invest in the economic success of factories. Seth states in his manifesto,

“Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.”

This system worked back then. It created productive workers with the needed education to do the jobs. But, we should ask ourselves now, what is the purpose of school today? What do our younger generations need to know, experience and be capable of understanding in order to make society better in the years to come? Are we providing this in our current educational model? I pose these questions for us to get real about education and spark discussions that can create change.

Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally renowned speaker on education and creativity, says, “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed.” If you haven’t watched Sir Ken’s phenomenal TED talk on “How Schools Kill Creativity,” the most highly viewed TED Talk of all time, then you must watch:

Through his comical language and style, he challenges us to think about how we can change the way we educate and use more creative outlets in educating our children. Every time I watch his TED talk, it makes me ready to lead the education revolution with my flag held high. My other favorite video by Sir Ken is an animated version of one his talks that uses creative images in describing how we need to change the education paradigm:

To create Fusion Academy, our Founder Michelle Rose Gilman challenged the status quo. Over 25 years ago, Gilman knew something wasn’t right with the way kids were being taught and saw the importance of making sure there were creative outlets available to students. To this day, every Fusion campus includes a state-of-the-art music studio, mixed media art studio, and yoga room. Sir Ken Robinson stresses that creativity in education is as pivotal as literacy and that we need to treat it with the same weight.

At Fusion, we see the impact these creative outlets have on our students. In as little as three months at Fusion, 83% of students were confident in their ability to learn the material as compared to 27% at previous schools. Further, 81% of parents believe their child is more confident since attending Fusion. We know this confidence comes from meeting the student where they are, finding creative ways to connect with them, and helping them truly understand and learn the material. Through electives and creative expression modules of our wellness program, students find their passions and gain confidence in pursuing them.

One of my personal favorite stories is about a student who loved skateboarding. He always had his skateboard with him, decked out with graffiti and stickers, but school made him incredibly angry. Before coming to Fusion he struggled with math, and made it known to whoever would listen how much he hated it. He would even say that he could never be smart. He dropped out of his previous school and refused to go back.

Starting at Fusion his math teacher knew this about him, but also knew skateboarding was this kid’s art, his passion. Working closely with the art teacher, the math teacher and student developed a skateboard ramp using mathematical concepts related to basic trigonometry. The student-designed and then showcased his skateboard ramp to the entire school, complete with tricks to show off a little. Talk about an engaged, empowered, and curious student!

We look at our current education system and we see so much uniformity and conformity. We have such unique and creative souls eager to learn, but they are often squashed with a rigid educational model that teaches to the test and isn’t able to customize to each student’s learning needs. I think of what would have happened to that student if he had been stuck in his previous school, hating math, thinking he wasn’t smart, and it breaks my heart.

Schools struggle with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that are necessary for helping students find the support they need. I experienced this first hand in a previous career as a school-based therapist. I knew the teachers cared, but just couldn’t figure out how to meet the individualized needs of every single student, even when given the right tools. I know this isn’t an easy thing to do, but to help our kids succeed we must. Godin says it best, “the current structure, which seeks low-cost uniformity that meets minimum standards, is killing our economy, our culture, and us.” That’s not what we want for our children, is it?

So. Feeling overwhelmed? I get it. I see the same giant boulder we have to break down and reassemble differently in order to move it. However, the exciting thing is that conversations about re-thinking education are happening across the country. You can join in with a small group, larger forums, or digitally on social media. There are schools teaching kids differently. There are schools figuring out ways to customize and reach students in ways that ignite the student’s curiosity in learning. It is possible.

At Fusion, we believe in the power of each individual student’s passions, strengths, goals, and learning style. We’re able to personalize education for each of these and we hear from our students and families that we are changing lives. We want to keep the conversation going and share the resources that are available so future generations don’t get stuck in an old education model.