I don't want to poke fun at it, but I do have this image that keeps coming back to me. When I think of the nostalgic call for educational days gone by, I see “Happy Days.”
Richie and Potsy and What’shisname, with their books under their arms, coping with school, whining about homework but cooperatively going to their rooms to do it at a warning glance from Mom.
Fonzie was the cool dropout — it’s acceptable in this idealized vision for motorcycling leather-jacketed greasers to drop out. Fonzie was, literally, too cool for school. Guys like him had jobs in motorcycle repair shops.
People seem to think everything was fine back then, so why all the hand-wringing about wanting engaged kids who follow their passions? According to educator and writer Ira Socol, public education has undergone many changes, but the structures and priorities of the system would seem very familiar to those educators who originally conceived it. The education we accept as "normal" now was not created for children as individuals who were all capable of critical thinking and creativity.
Recently I received a Tweet from someone who believes that since traditional education sent men to the moon, we should stick to it. I've been thinking about it, and talking with others and pondering what seems to me at first blush an entirely wrong statement, and gets worse when you start to pick it apart.
Here are 10 reasons why we need to move ahead, away from the idealized "Good old days" of education.
1. It was bad back then, too. The Happy Days version of the past gives us pictures of happy car mechanics and factory workers, having everything they needed in life. You don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to find the frustration of those who wanted something else but could not jump the roadblocks. Public education was never designed to develop creativity and critical thinking in all children; its just that in the old days, more people could make a living without those things.
2. “Tracking” of children labeled and dismissed them. In the name of teaching kids at the level that they were best able to cope, schools made choices about them, stuck labels on them that stayed throughout a student’s career. Tracking left kids no mobility, and no doubt about the educational contempt that was felt for them. (This kind of tracking still exists in many, many school districts. Often this sorting of kids is covert.)
3. Segregation. I don’t remember any African-American faces in Richie’s and Potsie's classes. Let’s not idealize a system that separated out the darker-skinned among us, and sent them to second-class schools.
4. Gender role stereotyping. In that grand period of human innovation, the Apollo Space Program, where were the women? Should we go “back to basics” so girls can go back to home economics and the boys to woodshop?.
5. There are no more factories. We can no longer support a system designed to find the 10% of people who respond to the top-down, verbal/logical/mathematical style of teaching and learning. Those students could rise to the top and run the world, while the rest can find factory or service work. This is 2012...what factory work? (In the autobiography of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, his father supported his family as the manager of the produce section of a local grocery store. His mother was a stay-at-home Mom and their house had a nice yard).
Kids simply need to be better educated now than they did then. Cherry-picking those students who thrive in the traditional model isn’t enough. We need our schools to operate under the assumption that every child is capable of becoming educated — not just trained to make do.
6. Families are under more stress. Middle-class wages have been flat or falling since the 1970s. There are women in the workforce now, with families needing two full-time wage-earners to get by. Then in the boom of the 2000s, income disparity between rich and poor became much greater. The rising tide was lifting the yachts but the going was rougher for the rowboats. Then, the Great Recession took place, and lots of families lost their homes and their jobs.
We hear a lot of blame put on parents and families for the fact that many children are not prepared for school in the way that school is prepared to teach. Financial stress, generational poverty and ignorance all contribute. In his book, “Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth Godin says, “I can’t think of anything more cynical and selfish...than telling kids who didn’t win the parent lottery that they’ve lost the entire game.”
7. We’ve undergone an information revolution. Teachers and textbooks no longer hold the monopoly on information. Kids today are fully aware of the free-floating availability of the answer to almost any question, while their teachers are still teaching them facts and our classrooms are still structured around the dissemination of information.
The Internet explosion and rise in cellular telephony has made it nearly impossible for teachers to compete for their students' attention. They must go where students are, and teach in ways that are equally exciting and engaging. In fact, kids could take the lead, and show teachers how to use the tools of interactivity to open their classrooms up and let in the world.
The “back to basics” strategy, operating with kids' full attention, teaches small skills first, and brings the big picture into focus later. This is the topsy-turvy pedagogy of most American classrooms: we teach kids to hit, throw and run before they ever get to see a game of baseball. But outside of school, kids are seeing the big picture. It's there for them to see and experience. The genie is out of the bottle, and education has to catch up.
8. The world is changing too fast to NOT educate for innovation. The job title, “Website Producer” didn’t exist twenty years ago. Neither did hundreds of other job titles. The world of work is changing faster than it ever has, and yet the K-12 curriculum has barely moved. How can we prepare kids for job requirements that don’t exist today?
We can’t. Rather, we need to develop a course of study for kids that develops their ability to innovate. Tony Wagner’s new book, Creating Innovators, gives us some surprising insights into how this is done. Through interviews with young innovators, their teachers and their parents, he has developed a formula for creating innovators: Play, Passion and Purpose. (For Wagner, people who say, “It’s not supposed to be fun” are dead wrong. Fun is important.)
9. "Engage me or enrage me". When I was growing up, television was the enemy of education. We knew that TV existed to sell products; we knew that it dulled the mind and wasted our brain power. Ah, things were so simple then!
Add video games to the mix. It was only in my last year of high school that I encountered Space Invaders, the first really popular video game. A lucky friend had stuff like Breakout Blocks and Tennis on their TVs. Good times.
What we call “distractions”-- video games, television, smartphones, YouTube -- are central to the lives of most of our kids. The educational value of the endless ability to explore the information available to kids is plain to them, if it isn't to us. Are kids bored when they are surfing, downloading music, talking on gaming message boards?
The educational value of the more complex, sophisticated video games is entirely lost on my generation as well, because we don't play them. We see the surface of them, the images, the fighting, the crime, and we don't look at the back-end, the complex and demanding nature of the games. A mantra of hard-core video gamers is, "If I ain't learnin', it ain't fun."
School is not. Whatever your feelings about video games are, whatever emotions we have when we see a kid who spent the whole weekend trying to level up, whether you see games as wasted time or intensive learning, the solution is clear: we must make school a place where kids can pursue the learning they want and need the most, in the way that they choose.
The above leads us to this point: we must ensure every child has an internet enabled device for use at school and away from school. Schools don't need to provide it for all, just those who don't have it. Knowledge is power and this is 21st century knowledge.
10. Advances in our knowledge of the human mind make top-down teaching obsolete. There have been huge advances in our understanding of the brain since I was a child in school. The one I want to focus on has to do with the development of mastery. The brain is a lazy organ; before it works, it needs to understand why. Students push themselves through learning and acquiring new skills when they are motivated, or ignited, fully understanding what they will gain.
According to Dan Coyle in The Talent Code, developing mastery in any area has three components: ignition, master coaching and deep practice. Deep practice is the component that actually makes the skill happen. It is defined as practice that pushes the learner against the edges of their abilities. It is marked by frustration, a feeling of being out of your depth and control. But it is this action that physically creates stronger and faster neural circuitry. Because it is an unpleasant process, the ignition that drives one through the hard parts is absolutely essential.
This is a fact that is absolutely ignored by the traditional education system. We are so concerned that kids learn what we regard as important that many of us believe that the the most critical learning takes place when the student is unwilling. But the wiring of the brain tells us that the unwillingness to learn actually prevents the learning from happening.
Those who can’t see the success of a passion-driven education often cite instances where this pushing was beneficial. There might be circumstances when a parent or caring teacher, one who thoroughly knows and understands a student, can successfully push a child to learn something that he is unwilling to learn. But pushing kids to do work that isn’t meaningful to them should not be the foundation of the public education system.
In any system, there will be outliers; those individuals who transcend time and place and circumstances to rise above with tremendous success. It is a statistical mistake to focus on those outliers as proof that a system is working...but that's what those who call for "back to basics" are doing.
Instead, we must pay attention to ordinary children of ordinary parents and ask, how can we design for them the best education we can? We can do it when we let go of nostalgia and mistaken pictures of better times, and create a system designed to allow joyful success for all students, no matter who they are.