Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Proposal for American Education: Start Over

I teach at a university now, but I didn’t finish high school. Halfway through the 10th grade I insisted that my mother pull me out of school so I could take the GED and start college.

This was 1990, before standardized testing had completely taken over the schools, but even back then, high school was dull school. It was no place for smart, creative students – or, should I say, students whose intelligence and creativity had not atrophied according to schedule.

Because if I was smarter and more creative than some others, it is only because of my contrary nature. I did not aim to please. I was stubborn and independent. I didn’t want to fit in and be like the others. I did not respond well to authority. So I resisted what they were trying to do to me.

98% of people are geniuses at divergent thinking in Kindergarten, which means I started school, in Kindergarten, surrounded by smart, creative people just like me. By the time I left Elementary school, most of them had had their brains sucked out by the system.

The problem of American education is universally acknowledged, but we rarely consider how absurd it is to expect an education system designed for the Industrial Revolution to be of any value in the 21st Century.

It's no accident that it trains people’s creativity out of them. It's by design: it prepares them for stable lives working for single companies where they are expected to sit in rows performing mechanical tasks repetitively and reliably.

You can change the teachers and the tests and a million other things, but the school system, at its core, will still be a machine to turn minds into widgets, and it will continue to do so, even if we don’t need widgets anymore.

The question we should ask ourselves is this: if no education “system” had ever existed, and we wanted to design one from scratch, what would its goals be? And what shape would it take in response to those needs?

I have a few ideas.

First, most students, even students whose creativity has been drummed out of them, are not stupid, but neither are they cynical enough to believe that they would be prompted to jump through meaningless hoops for sixteen years with no reward. Those that graduate from college are convinced that – though they may have learned very little, though they may have little to no skills at all – they’ve done the jumping and so deserve “a job.”

The first thing we need to prepare our students for is this: there is no job. We don’t know what the global economy will look like in 2 years let alone 20, but we can reliably predict that there will not be scores of beneficent employers looking to hire cookie-cutter cadets from today’s dullschools.

The student of today is the free agent of tomorrow: she will need to be able to adapt to circumstances faster than they change, to catalog and market her ever changing and expanding set of skills, then transform those skills into the money she needs to live a good life.

She will expect to spend some time working and other time looking for work. She will need to think of her worth in terms of the money she needs not just to live comfortably “this week,” but how to save and support herself between gigs. She will probably be in a creative profession, because creativity is what computers and machines fail at.

Computers and machines have “jobs.” People, on the other hand, have ideas. And people do not wait until they’re 25 and holding a bachelor’s degree to start having them. People have ideas right from the start.

That idea might be a way to make money or a way to make beauty; it might be a way to discover something or a way to communicate it. But whether school is helping students to start a business, or put on a play, or catalog insects, or build a website, school should be a system of support for experimental and experiential creative ventures: student-conceived, student-managed, student-presented.

Young people should enter remunerative adulthood not with a transcript of grades, but a CV of accomplishments: a list of the projects they participated in, detailing their roles in each one. And of course all of this should be documented and recorded online for the world to see.

It’s easy to conceive of 3 or 6 week “project terms” after which students gather at a central location for several days to present their work and learn from one another. Some students might put on a show, others might demonstrate an experiment, still others might build machines, or hold a debate, or launch a product – the point is that their work will have value to others, and their reward will not come in the form of a ranking assigned by a petty authority; their reward will be the applause and interest of their peers and society at large, and the sensation of genuine creative accomplishment.

They will not learn basic skills in a conceptual vacuum, where all is abstracted and seemingly meaningless, they will learn them in the context of discovery. The most important skills to our future, it seems to me, are Recall (the ability to remember what has been read/seen/heard); Empiricism (the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, understanding how to test evidence, etc.); Focus (the ability to think about an idea or problem for an extended period of time without being distracted); Logic (the ability to turn premises into conclusions, or to analyze the premises and conclusions of others for faults); Empathy (the skill of basic human connection, of working well with others, but also of learning and understanding); Creativity, and Task Management (the ability to organize and perform multiple tasks as necessary to achieve a goal).

Each of these skills can come into play during any project imaginable, and the role of the teacher will be, in large part, to make sure they do.

Teachers today have a schizophrenic double-role as both tutor and gatekeeper: the person who must help the students learn is the same person who must reward or punish them for learning or failing to. But in this project-based vision of education, teachers will cease to be judges and become genuine mentors who help their students achieve goals. The failure or success of a project becomes a simple matter of whether “it worked” or not, whether others actually do find it interesting and important.

And in this system, failure will be frequent, and it will not be stigmatized, because everyone will know that you cannot do anything great by playing it safe. Only those who tempt failure stand a chance at doing something important. In this system, failures are just as important to learning as successes. 

In a project-based system, the mark of greatest success is simply doing something others find meritorious – and there is sometimes merit in glorious failures. Students can show themselves to be valuable in either case, and will then be invited onto new projects by others who value their skills, or they will have no trouble recruiting others for one of their own projects – or for a re-attempt at something that failed.

Teams of older students might invite impressive younger students to work with them on a project if that younger person’s skills will help them, or students from another part of the world might look up distance-participants who have the right skills and experience. Notice that both skill in navigating group dynamics and developing leadership skills are intrinsic to this system, as are communication skills, both written and verbal, both informal and formal, both in-person and at a distance.

Now, if simply impressing a potential employer is what the student has in mind, a history of accomplishment on relevant projects proving her creative value is far more powerful than a handful of “A’s.” But in the best instances, students’ projects will not just point them in the direction of meaningful life goals, but start them on their way. They will have a chance to actually contribute to the knowledge and culture of humankind, which means that “school” isn’t a game anymore – it’s a place where real, important work can be done.

This is my “Square One” vision for a better education system, a system that lets students be free and creative, and productive members of society, and learn. 

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