February 1st 2016

Education 2.0

In some parts of the country, 60 percent of kids drop out of high school. In the Native American communities, it’s 80 percent of kids. If we halved that number, one estimate is it would create a net gain to the U.S. economy over 10 years, of nearly a trillion dollars. Furthermore, it actually costs an enormous amount of money to mop up the damage from the dropout crisis. But the dropout crisis is just the tip of an iceberg. What it doesn’t count are all the kids who are in school but being disengaged from it, who don’t enjoy it, who don’t get any real benefit from it.

The reason is not that we’re not spending enough money. America spends more money on education than most other countries. Class sizes are smaller than in many countries, and there are hundreds of initiatives every year to try and improve education. The trouble is, it’s all going in the wrong direction. There are three principles on which human life flourishes, and they are contradicted by the culture of education under which most teachers have to labor and most students have to endure.

The first is this, that human beings are naturally different and diverse. Education under “No Child Left Behind” is based on not diversity but conformity. One of the effects has been to narrow the focus onto the so-called STEM disciplines. They’re necessary but they’re not sufficient. A real education has to give equal weight to the arts, the humanities, to physical education.

The second principle that drives human life is curiosity. If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will learn without any further assistance. Children are natural learners. It’s a real achievement to put that particular ability out, or to stifle it. Curiosity is the engine of achievement. There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. What great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. The whole point of education is to get people to learn. The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. That’s it. The dominant culture of education however has come to focus on not teaching and learning, but testing. Testing is important, but they should not be the dominant culture of education. It shouldn’t obstruct it, which of course it often does. So in place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance. Our children and teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms rather than to excite that power of imagination and curiosity.

The third principle is this: human life is inherently creative. It’s why we all have different résumés. We create our lives, and we can recreate them as we go through them. It’s the common currency of being a human being. It’s why human culture is so interesting and diverse and dynamic. We all create our own lives through this restless process of imagining alternatives and possibilities, and one of the roles of education is to awaken and develop these powers of creativity. Instead, what we have is a culture of standardization.

The point is that education is not a mechanical system. It’s a human system. We have to recognize that there are conditions under which people thrive, and conditions under which they don’t. Our current system does not seem to grasp that.

We have to come to terms with the fact that the education system is dramatically outdated. We are essentially still following the same template that the Prussians invented in the late 1700s as the industrial revolution came along. It provided an education template which is analog to a factory model where children would be classed together in age related cohorts (their manufacturing date) and move down along a uniform timeline and curriculum (assembly line), until they have enough grades and results to either join the workforce or continue their education (a product begins to develop). This is the very definition of standardization and produces a great workforce if you know exactly what the populace should know and if you want to easily compare someone’s credentials.

They times are a-changin’.

As much as IT had an impact on most facets of our lives — it yet has to make a fundamental a difference in education. In part 2 of this series we will look at what classrooms of the future could look like and what are some of the barriers that we would have to overcome.