A New Era of Learning

One of the things that has been largely absent from the ongoing discussion regarding the fate of education in Shelby County, as well as the rest of the nation for that matter, is the question, “How do we best educate our children for whatever the future may hold for them?”

Answering that question is really difficult. When I began my education, in a small Northeast Arkansas town in the late 1970’s, education consisted of “the three R’s” Reading, writing and arithmetic. That was the focus of everything we did. Through about 6th or 7th grade, as a general statement, the first 9 weeks of class consisted of review, and the last 27 was a slow slog through new material.

One thing I remember about my first 8 years of schooling was that I liked math a lot. In 5th grade I had a math teacher that basically said “The 5th grade curriculum is all review. We’ll finish this book this year, but you can go on ahead at your own pace if you want.” That year everyone completed the 5th grade book in a measured way. I and about 5 other students completed the 5th grade book, the 6th grade book, and made it about half-way through the 7th grade book…which began introducing Pre-Algebra concepts.

What I gained from that year in Mr. McKinney’s 5th grade class was a love of math that sticks with me to this day. That love carried me into an advanced math program after we moved to Little Rock in the mid-80’s and kept me in Math classes through my senior year in High School, even though I had finished all the graduation requirements.

In today’s highly structured educational climate, I don’t think any teacher would feel empowered enough to allow their students to take their own initiative to move ahead at their own pace. For that matter, considering all the additional paperwork and rules that have been passed down, largely unfunded, from Federal and State governments to school systems and teachers, I don’t think teachers have the time to create opportunities that encourage students to strike out on their own and accelerate their learning. Instead, we have relied on a testing regime so stringent and punitive that every student suffers from the rigidity of a system that is largely confined to teaching to a test, the standards of which, are largely arbitrary, and not at all reflective of the rapidly changing world these students will encounter once they leave High School.

The truth of the matter is, while there has been a large push for “educational reform” that reform has been mostly focused on reinforcing an educational system modeled after the manufacturing economy that rose from the industrial revolution. Even though that “manufacturing economy” is gone, and likely not coming back, the educational system designed to support it remains.

Last weekend, two articles caught my attention that focus on education. In one, Wendi Thomas looks at the current situation for local education and sees possibilities for the future. Those possibilities are only bounded by our ability to dream up new ways to think about education.

The other article was written by Deborah Loewenberg Ball, Dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. In that article, Ball looks at the costs of our patchwork thinking regarding education reform. She also points out a reality, long ignored by both policy makers and the public, that creating a standard with no support, and expecting new outcomes is unrealistic. From the article:

What we need instead of a new war is a realistic action plan to build a system that can deliver good education to the 50 million school-age youth in this country. The Common Core Standards, which specify a set of learning goals in mathematics and English language arts, are an important first step. Armed with unprecedented agreement about what students should know and be able to do, we must now build usable resources to support the teaching that it will take to help all students reach those goals. Tests of students’ progress are needed, but to be useful, they must be geared to the actual curriculum. Useful tests must provide information not only for evaluation but also for instruction.

And we need a new system to equip the huge workforce of teachers in this country with the skills and knowledge needed to teach this curriculum effectively. Firing those who cannot do it, and hoping that the rest figure it out on the job — or just increasing salaries of those who do figure it out — will not make large numbers of teachers more effective.

What Ball points out in this snippet is something anyone who has looked for a job recently knows intuitively. We don’t live in the same world our parents did. While our society relies on credentials (High School Diplomas, College Degrees, Professional Associations, etc.) more and more those credentials don’t fit the needs of employers in our economy. Further, even if those credentials do fit the needs of some employers, those needs are shifting faster than our ability to shift credential requirements. In short, while we are experiencing some of the highest unemployment in decades, there are some jobs out there (not that many, but some), unfilled, because people lack the foundation to meet the needs of a new economy.

The same holds true for educators. In an environment where the educational needs are constantly shifting, and policy makers and politicians are imposing new regulations and expectations on those educators, doing so in a “sink or swim” environment ultimately does a disservice both to the professionals that have spent their lives in the service of education, and the children they’re seeking to educate.

It seems to me that, rather than focusing on some outmoded idea of “education” we need to be focusing on the concept of learning. By focusing on “education” we are, in effect, doing the same thing to our workforce as a whole that we’re doing to our teachers, telling them to “sink or swim”. As a result, more and more are sinking. The challenge for reformers is not just to teach kids how to swim, but how to thrive living a life in and around the water where the tides are not only constantly shifting, but completely unpredictable. To do this, our educators must be equipped with these skills, which also means we have to stop blaming them when they don’t have the skills we never before expected them to have in the first place.

What this requires is a shared sense of responsibility from all of us, in a world that’s more fragmented than ever before. What this should tell us is that a “standardized experience” in this fragmented world does a disservice to those who will eventually inherit it. Our emotional reflex is to double down on standardization when that standardized world no longer exists. We have to realize we can’t standardize our way through an uncertain future.

We have to equip our educational system for future uncertainty by focusing on constant learning and critical thinking skills. These critical thinking skills will better prepare our children in their lives going forward by giving them the tools to seek new learning opportunities to propel them forward, rather than resting on information that is either out of date or ill informed. We have to teach our children to be active learners rather than passive “instructees”. That can’t just come from schools or teachers, it has to come from all the social institutions we encounter.

In addition, parents have to accept that the world in which they received their education bears little resemblance to the world we live in now. Education today cannot mirror the experience of the 70’s or 80’s. The needs of our economy and our society have moved beyond the basic education that the system we were educated in provided.

This represents a massive shift in thinking for people, but it is a shift that is critical to the future of our nation and our world. By doing things the way we’ve always done them, with little tweaks here and there we’re no longer standing still, we’re falling behind. The sooner we can force ourselves ahead of the curve, the better we can individually and as a society, navigate the uncertain future that is ahead of us.

As creatures of habit, we are uniquely ill-suited for this task. It’s always easier to do what we’ve done and expect similar results. However, we don’t live in the world we once did, and those past results are an inadequate preparation for the future.

If we want our kids to be prepared for the future, we have to stop educating them for the past. Giving them the tools to continually learn and grow is the best preparation, and a good lesson we should take to heart for ourselves.

Just because the future is uncertain, that doesn’t mean we can’t be better prepared or equipped for uncertainty.

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