Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Why Education Is Broken

The American education system is a disaster, which is not news to anyone. Our students consistently rank at the bottom in mathematics, science and literacy, in spite of the fact that we spend more per student than most other countries. In fact, we now spend more money per student than ever before -- with diminishing results.

Our school system is in dire need of a 21st Century make over. The current system is a mishmash of history and it is starting to show it's cracks.

Agrarian Roots
For starters, the academic calendar is a living anachronism. The original academic calendar was set up around the agrarian calendar. Kids got out for Spring Break, not to get drunk at Daytona Beach, but to help with the spring wheat planting. Likewise, they got off for the summer to help with the August harvest, and the subsequent winter wheat planting. That's why school starts in September.

Yet all attempts to change the school year to eliminate summer vacation sends up storms of protest from children, teachers and the enormous summer camp industry. I'm in favor of a "3 months on, 1 month off" school year. I would also reduce the total number of classes per school day, extend the class period and condense the class so everything for the class is taught in one 3 month period. If we are really smart, we stagger this schedule between schools to avoid freeing all the teenagers at the same time too.

The Industrial Impact
Next, the Industrial Revolution added it's input. First off, the factories funded most of the early investments in public education because they needed minimally skilled laborers. The entire process of primary and secondary education is based around a factory model, even down to the shift-change bell. The entire system of grades (K thru 12) is nothing more than an assembly line moving students closer to a Certification of Minimal Skills (AKA a high school diploma).

Even the methods used to teach are largely sanitized, systematized, codified and controlled. There is little room for divergence from teaching plans sent down by the bureaucrats on high. Great teachers are hamstrung by the legal department's dictates. School boards are largely plagued by infighting amongst petty tyrants intent on protecting their meager fiefdoms from the evil specter of budget cuts. In short, the system is a disaster.

Fortunately, this won't last much longer. The Digital Revolution is here and we must change, and we need to start with education. I am not talking about small reforms, either. I'm not talking about more standardized tests or any of the other ridiculous measures being discussed. What is needed is radical redesign of the entire system from top to bottom. We need to embrace the realities of the new age we live in and prepare our students for tomorrow.

We need to orient away from the liberal arts model of education and pivot towards an approach that focuses on creating autodidacts. Schools need to be teaching critical thinking, analytical skills, computer programming, mathematics, problem solving, innovation and, more importantly, learning how to teach ourselves. It needs to leverage online learning resources from a diverse pool of ideas and opinions.

The truth is that no one can accurately predict the changes that are coming over the next 50 years. But until we can just upload knowledge into our brain, schools will continue to be important. If we are truly going to take up the challenges of the 21st Century, we must educate students who will at least have a fighting chance in that world.
 








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