Making a Scene of Traditional Education

The kind of Christmas present my Dad likes.

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide. “ – Barack Obama, Sept 8, 2009

“The American system of education is broken. America has been wrestling with the problem of declining student achievement ever since 1983, … The United States truly is a nation at risk—our graduation rate ranks 19th among top developing countries.” – Newsweek  Aug 2, 2008

Here is a scene that ambitious parents are quite familiar with. A father, seeing that his daughter is finished with all her homework and extracurriculars for the evening, asks her to complete some additional math problems. She’s in 5th grade and it’s always good to get a little more practice in long division, his thinking goes. Developing basic math skills is always going to be helpful in the future – she’ll still have time later to fool around on the computer and do other “non-educational” activities, also known as play.

Everyday, in classrooms across the nation, children are memorizing the dates of important people and events, learning facts about plants and cell walls, using certain math functions again and again on very similar problems, and trying to understand what the theme of the book they are reading is about.

On the face of it, these seem like wholesome and important educational activities. They remind us of our own schooling, something that we may reflect on fondly, (or not), but nonetheless are ways we teach our kids. My concerns is in particular with their familiarity. The activities these students are involved in reflect an outdated model of learning where students are drilled to spit out facts, solve specific problems and write pseudo-intelligently about a fictional story.

Education is supposed to prepare children for life. What are we sending our kids into? A society that has suffered greatly from an economic recession that has forced millions of Americans to search desperately for new jobs. A society that says the average worker will have 10-14 jobs before the age of 38. A society where bad meetings destroy collaboration and productivity. A society that suffers “death by Powerpoint”. A society continually shaped by the advent of new technologies like smartphones, Facebook and solar/wind energy. A society with a 50% divorce rate and $972 Billion dollars of credit card debt.

Will the ability to quickly do long division be useful in this society? What about the knowledge of when Christopher Columbus “discovered” America? Unlikely.

I believe in the next 20 years, we must radically alter the way we educate our children. We have a responsibility to ensure that our educational system prepares our children for the future and right now, it does not.

Schools need to teach students how to:

·         Understand and harness their personal learning style and strengths

·         Discover, evaluate, digest, synthesize and apply information and skills as needed.

·         Communicate effectively through speaking, writing and other forms of media

·         Work together with other people one-on-one and in groups on shared projects

·         Understand how begin earning , manage and grow their personal income

It can be argued that schooling does this: by writing a report for history, they are learning how to research, write, and collaborate as part of their learning. But the fact is, the explicit benchmarks are still based on academic knowledge more than these “life skills” and students still graduate on the basis of  test-taking ability rather than their “do something” ability.

None of this is easy – new curriculum must be made to teach students how to apply for jobs, how to behave at work, how to ask for a raise. Exit examinations and graduation requirements must reflect a focus on skills and abilities, rather specific knowledge. Group project learning should be the cornerstone of the new educational system. These things take time, effort and will face severe criticism from many parties.

To be fair, I understand that drills and special classes are necessary for students who struggle to read and write or don’t understand basic math concepts. But by and large, we are short-changing our children by acting like it really matters that they know that an ant’s anatomical structure is the head, thorax and abdomen versus the danger of compounding debt or the way to write an effective work email. Clearly teaching the latter two would produce a dramatically better society than the first. And I was a biology major too!

Here’s a scene that may be less familiar: a father, who works as a data analyst, asks his college-educated son about a statistical concept. The son, while unfamiliar with the idea, does a bit of online research, discovers several credible articles on the topic and proceeds to teach his father what this concept means, along with graphs and examples to illustrate particularly confusing aspects of the concept.

When the amount of available human knowledge is growing at a eye-popping rate and every employee needs to be on top of all the changes within the company or industry (or be let go), then our educational system must explicitly develop and evaluate students on their ability to learn things, apply knowledge, develop new skills to get things done with other people.

It’s been said that the only major aspect of society a 19th century person would recognize about the 21st century is the classroom. Let’s create a new scene, a new vision for educating a new generation.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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