Yesterday I tried to point out how how odd it seems that our schools have remained fundamentally the same while so many other things in our society have changed dramatically. Today I’d like to think about the reasons behind this puzzling lack of progress.
Before I begin let me clarify that I am NOT simply talking about teachers- teachers are very small fish in the very large sea that is public education. While everyone can think of glaring examples of “that” teacher I believe they are the minority. And even “that” teacher probably didn’t go into teaching with that attitude- it came after years of battling within a broken system.
Many teachers become disillusioned when the techniques they learned in college or from the countless hours spent in workshops and professional development fall flat in the classroom. There seems to be a very large gap between the ideal learning environment and what is practical in an overcrowded, underfunded classroom where a standardized test is the holy grail. So, while raising standards for teachers is often touted as the way to save our schools I simply think that’s ludicrous. Standards for teachers have changed and continue to change all the time and while I do think we need highly qualified professionals in classrooms I don’t believe this is enough to solve the problem in our schools.
The Root of the Problem
Our schools need to change in fundamental ways in order to succeed. We need to look at what the most current research tells us about how people learn and retain new information. We need to recognize that everyone doesn’t learn in the same way or at the same rate. We need to focus on applying knowledge instead of simply memorizing facts. Teachers know this. They heard it early and often throughout their training and they see it in those ‘light bulb’ moments with their students. But there isn’t much space for it in the classroom.
How exactly are teachers supposed to allow students to progress at their natural rate when they are grouped by age? How are they supposed to support discovery learning when there is a test looming and skills must be acquired by a specific date? Where is there time, space, money or even enough adult supervision to support hands-on real world application of skills?
As long as we expect every child who is roughly the same age to have exactly the same skill set, we will fail. As long as we ignore the NEED of the developing brain to be stimulated with novel ideas and physical movement, we will fail. As long as we continue to have a teacher/student ratio that doesn’t support discovery based, cooperative learning, we will fail. As long as we standardize instruction instead of individualizing it, we will fail.
Let me be clear- the children are not failing, we are failing them.
The Politics of The Problem
Schools are politically driven. When people talk of reforming education they are usually politicians referring to tighter control over what we’re already doing, not true reform. No politician wants to be the one to stick his neck out and say, “We need an entirely new system.” People fear anything new and the last thing a politician wants to do is illicit fear in her constituents.
Furthermore the people at the political reins, the school board, often have little or no educational background. They haven’t been trained in classroom management, how the brain learns information or any of the other multitude of things that should be understood by those making decisions. I’ve been to quite a few school board meetings and most board members were concerned with two things: 1) public image and 2) the bottom line. I understand that both of these are important but they shouldn’t be the only thing that is important to the people in power.
The Lack of Knowledge about the Problem
The extent of what most people understand about learning is based on memories of how they themselves were schooled. However schooling and learning are two very different things.
We are fortunate enough to live in a time where new discoveries are made about the brain on a regular basis but, very little of this information is at the forefront of training educators. When even trained educators are not getting the information about these new discoveries in brain research it’s no wonder that the rest of the public is also unaware. This is why we have people saying things like;
“It was good enough for me.”
“I turned out just fine.”
“We need to get back to basics.”
People making these comments mean well but, just like the old curmudgeon clinging to his manual typewriter lamenting about these new fangled computers, they just don’t understand the advances in the science of how we learn. It’s time to correct that.