It Started With a Question

I participated in the PERY Conference last weekend at Nova which included a showing of The War on Kids. After lunch we broke into smaller discussion groups to discuss the rights and roles of youth and the direction that we should take in terms of education and schools. I chose to sit in on the discussion regarding the future of our schools.

I decided on this subject because that is the question that’s been on my mind since last year when a parent, after reading our blog, stated that we were critical of the ed reform movement but had nothing to put in its’ place.

At the time I responded with the piece entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” and stated basically that first schools need to be adequately funded and secondly that we could look towards alternative education schools in Seattle and the successful programs that have developed within those laboratories of education as a starting point.

So, I went into this group hoping to find more answers to that question.

I sat and listened while students, parents and teachers were talking. I let my mind wander and started to consider the question of what kind of world are these students stepping into? It certainly would be far different from the one that I had entered as a high school graduate on the road to college and a career as, I thought at the time, a psychologist.

I started to think about the differences in those two worlds, my world as a high school graduate in 1970 and the one that our high school students are in today.

Even though we traveled a lot as a family when I was growing up, my world for the most part included my school and neighborhood and even though we lived in Los Angeles, my social and physical spheres were small. We had television and radio but there was no CNN or internet. We had the LA Times, Look and Life magazines to keep us “up to date” on what was going on. The term “diversity” was not in our vocabulary or words like “environmental” or “cutting edge”. Relative to now, our knowledge of the world was limited and yet my daughter goes to school in the same type of school system as I did forty years ago. As the world has changed, we still think that the model that was developed to answer the needs of educating the youth of the industrial age somehow sufficiently responds to the demands and expectations that will be placed on our children, as if time has stood still.

Well, time has not stood still but our educational system has. And ed reform as we know it now is just more of the same old approach but worse. Now instead of educational factories, we have more efficient, state of the art educational factories thanks to computers. There is enough data now on each student thanks to tests such as the MAP test that teachers can receive up to 90 pages of information on each student in terms of their knowledge, skill sets and where they should go from that point in time providing the teacher with predetermined lesson plans all with the click of a mouse.

Like I said, more of the same, but worse.

Now, let’s take a look at the world that our students will be stepping into in 2010.

Our world today is global. We can communicate with anyone anywhere in the world at any time. There are no longer any boundaries. My daughter is just as likely to work in another country as she is to work in the United States. Our world is far more fluid and connected than the one that I grew up in. Information flows from one subject to another and from one person to another. We have to almost instantaneously connect the dots to stay on top of information as it comes to us and then synthesize it so that we can then communicate to others.

This is not a world where you just fill in the dots in response to a one sentence question. This is a world with layers of information that need to be sifted through quickly, synthesized and then responded to intelligently.

So what tools do students need to face this new world? Because they will be crossing borders on many different levels they will need to have flexibility and the tools in place to receive information, synthesize it, make determinations and then decisions.

They will need to be creative with their solutions and they will have to be able to think on their feet. No one will be there to tell them what to say or do. There will be more than one answer to a question and 50 different solutions to a problem. They will need to be able to sift through those possible solutions to figure out the best one for that particular situation and all this will need to be done quickly.

They will also need to have the confidence to know that there are different answers to a question and that, because they have done it many times before, will be able to devise the correct response to that particular challenge or situation.

Now, how exactly does the educational system that we have in place today prepare our children in public school to meet these demands? By teaching them that there is only one answer to any particular question? By implying that questioning that answer is not part of the lesson plan for that day? By only looking at the provided material without making connections to other life experiences or areas of knowledge? By not having any time to explore options and areas of interest that might spark a child’s imagination? By not allowing a child to think for themselves or go at their own pace?

We have put a very inflexible system into place with RTTT. Four exams a year here in Seattle, a curriculum that is the same in all classes in all schools, “Coaches” to ensure that all teachers teach the same material from the same books and the threat of firing a teacher if they do not have all of their students “performing” at a certain level based on test scores. (1984 anyone?)

But our world, the one outside of this alternate reality that we call public education, is completely different and we as adults know that..

We know that we are all constantly challenged everyday with information coming at us at a fast pace and we are expected to respond on our own. There is no one there to tell us the “right” answer. There are jobs that do not demand the intellectual challenge that I have described but those are not the jobs that will be available. Factories are closing and there are only so many service jobs available. This is our brave new world and our children are ill-equipped to face it if we follow the model of more of the same but worse.

Creative thinking, synthesis of information, flexibility, being able to adjust to different cultures and ways of thinking, these are the skills that our students will need to succeed.

Based on my own experience I can say that my education in architecture prepared me for the real world in the sense where you learn how to think, how to synthesize and come up with a conclusion or solution. Other areas are the same, scientific research, engineering, mathematics, medical diagnosis, product design, to name a few. You learn the process of evaluation, bringing in other knowledge, synthesizing what you have, communicating with others your thoughts and ideas and then providing solutions.

And during my education in architecture, there were no multiple choice tests. Even the solutions in my math and science laden course of structures could come from many different directions. There was more than one way to solve a problem in structures.

We need the sort of courses that encourage and provoke thought and challenge students to solve problems from many different directions with a wide range of knowledge. Being successful with this, our children will go out into the world with confidence that they need to face any challenge and succeed.