Friday, August 31, 2012

It's Time to Re-Think the U.S. Education System

by Tammy Erickson  |   8:00 AM August 27, 2012

Children today, those born after 1995, are seeing a world that looks substantively different to them than the world did to members of Generation Y during their formative years. In an earlier post, I discussed how the global financial crisis and mobile technology have catalyzed the formation of a new generation. Because this new cohort is concerned about sustainability and living within finite limits, I call them the Re-Generation. Clearly the experiences these Re-Gens are having in school are also influencing the ideas they're forming. And, although there are some encouraging signs of change, several major challenges stand out from my ongoing discussions with today's 11-13 year olds.
A disconnect between the way school works and how they function outside school. In some ways, traditional schools operate in ways that are foreign to the world in which today's students live. They inhabit a technology-based world of multi-media, addictive games, and mobile access, of asynchronous activities and anywhere, anytime capabilities. Schools are very different. For example, 13 to 15-year-olds in my research thus far average 50 texts a day with peers and parents, but most are required to communicate with teachers via email or in-person. I recently had an animated discussion with a group of academics regarding the desirability of changing their traditional approaches. Many argued that they were preparing the kids for the real world — limiting the Re-Gens' use of "kids'" technology, teaching them to communicate the way adults do. I understand their perspective, but frankly find it short-sighted. We are not preparing these kids for the world as it operates today.
Boredom with the teacher-centered learning process. The kids I've interviewed all say that they wish their classes were more entertaining, interesting and fun. They are living in the most stimulating period in the history of the earth — besieged with information that they multi-process through a wide variety of technologies. But most schools require them to put that all away and ask them to focus on one, often-not-that-engaging speaker. Then they penalize them for getting distracted. An average of 12% of all children in the U.S. between 3 and 17 each year are taken to ambulatory care visits (to physician offices, hospital outpatient and emergency departments) with attention deficit disorder as primary diagnosis.
Shifting sources of authority. Kids have figured out that the adults in their world — whether teachers or parents — are not necessarily the most reliable source of knowledge. Adults can be wrong — or at least warrant double checking. Parents have told me that even very young children will ask a question, listen to the answer, then suggest that they Google it "just to be sure." Technology leads to a new role for teachers (and parents): that of a learning facilitator and coach, rather than of an authoritative source of information.
Growing interest in pragmatic, job-oriented skills. Re-Gens are grounded and focused. The economy is one of their greatest concerns. Most that I've interviewed express an interest in learning more that has to do with "real life" — business, entrepreneurship, how to get a job, computer science, mechanics, robotics, electronics. Many are skeptical of the promise that a good job awaits if you just work hard and do well. They want to make sure they're learning the right stuff now.
Unease regarding global standing. Even the youngest students in my research are aware they will face competition from individuals educated in other countries. It's a legitimate concern for those in the U.S. where 15-year-olds are outperformed by their peers in many other nations. U.S. students rank 23rd in math (just above the international average score), 17th in reading, and 32nd in science (well below the international average score).
Several years ago I heard the noted economist Lester Thurow ask an audience to name the greatest invention in U.S. history. Hum. . . The light bulb? Telegraph? Cotton gin? Polio vaccine? Frozen food? Sliced bread?
None of these. Thurow argued that the most significant invention in U.S. history was the public education system established in the early days of the industrial revolution. When U.S. textile owners recognized the need for an educated workforce and forced through legislation requiring young people to attend school, the U.S. created, he argues, its single greatest asset. Education that was paid for the by taxation, compulsory to everyone, and free at the point of delivery, was a revolutionary idea.
From his perspective as an economist, Thurow argues that this unique educational system produced a workforce that was perfectly matched — in both skills and behavior — to the burgeoning needs of the new industrial economy. Students emerging from this system had both the right knowledge (reading, math) to perform the industrial jobs and the right behaviors (punctuality, focus on specific linear tasks) to form an efficient industrial workforce.
Thus our current approach to education was designed for a different age. It was modeled both on the interests of industrialization and in the image of it: specialization into separate subjects, standardized curricula, conformity, batch processing — by age group. The system was designed to leverage a "lock step" approach over set periods of time and using broadcast delivery methods to prepare students effectively for known jobs.
The model worked well for 100 years because it matched between the needs of employers. But, as we all know, most of the jobs of tomorrow will not be industrial jobs. Even those in the manufacturing sector will require a knowledge-based set of skills and behaviors. The gap between the output of our educational system and the job demands of the current century is enormous — and growing wider. And the kids intuitively recognize the gap. They're asking for a change.
Happily, progressive organizations are responding to the push from the Re-Generation: for example, by enhancing the learning experience through the integration of technology, "flipping the classroom" so lectures are recorded for the student to watch at home while "school" operates as a sort of "base camp" or design hub for learning, grouping students by what they know not by age, or providing credit for demonstrated life skills through an innovative process we call "badging."
What are your kids learning at school? What programs do you admire?

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