Increasingly, we see stark evidence that evolving and adapting our educational system is not just about America’s future, but also that of Planet Earth.
Who we choose to educate, how we educate, and why we educate represent critical questions facing this country and the world. The increased filtering and narrowing of curricula may result in learners who take tests well, but who are ill-equipped to think on their feet as the solution finders we need for the rest of this century. To work on problems from global warming to nations in dispute, the world needs the next generation of diverse thinkers, inventors, designers, and bridge builders. It does not need adults who are good at four choices – one answer work.
To date, America has generated more solution-finders in engineering, health and medicine, technology, environmental sciences, applied sciences, and space exploration than any other country in the world. We’ve grown a space where exceptional talent can emerge and become part of a pool of creators, inventors, designers, engineers, builders, producers, and makers. We need to create learning spaces where educators can work as close to the classroom as possible to scale work that promotes choice, creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thought. How kids gain access to learning opportunities designed to do this kind of work is far less dependent upon identified, one-size-fits-all standards than kindling a passion to take kids beyond the learning horizons that limit their potential and the possibilities of their dreams.
As Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon, author of Catching Up or Leading the Way, commented in a keynote I heard just this past week, the great American public education experiment resulted in a system that’s been built overtime through mass localization – an “accidental” system of formal and informal learning options that allowed kids to become confident, curious, imaginative, collaborative, and creative. He believes that the ever-expanding national standardization of curricula and testing has led to a new education culture in which we have eliminated courses and activities that once led to a “think on our feet” citizenry of shade tree mechanics, garage inventors, and Bell Lab innovators. Instead, we are moving rapidly towards a China-centric education plan of specification, dullness, and a drive to narrow achievement options. If we stay on this path, we likely will lose the most important race we may ever run; a race to sustain the entrepreneurial spirit of America’s citizens.
PISAMath Scores and Entrepreneurial Capability:
Yong Zhao presentation slide to Va Supts May 8 2012
For the record, Zhao’s not talking about every kid growing up to create her own business. He’s talking about every learner working and playing in learning spaces designed to systemically support them to develop confidence, curiosity, and imagination along with a healthy dose of collaboration competency. Of course, we know this doesn’t occur in isolation of knowledge building, but he questions who owns the process of determining what knowledge is important to the child in Hawaii versus Tennessee? Who should make that decision? The Federal government? Test prep and administration companies? Private sector virtual and charter companies? States? Or local communities? Zhao believes that a return to mass localization puts the onus of responsibility right where it belongs – in a community’s hands.
The current spin of political, media, and special interest groups on what’s wrong with America’s public schools distracts us from making cogent decisions about America’s education direction. Unfortunately, people who have the capability and knowledge to engage together in framing direction often are redirected away from this conversation by forces that have much to gain from the financial or political side of education and little to lose in the near term. Far-sightedness has never been a strong suit of those who carry the ball for directing U.S. public education decisions. The federal government’s increased efforts to reform public education via No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Innovation Grants, and Common Core have been akin to the committee that set out to build a horse and ended up building a camel.
However, perhaps there’s a light at the end of the tunnel beginning to shine. From parents like Mary Ann Reilly who wants more for her own child to students who made public the “pineapple” test madness, we are seeing a unification of support to turn the current runaway train of a testing machine around. Principals in New York, superintendents in Virginia and school boards in Texas are aligning with a rank and file push back against the extent to which standardized testing has taken over the nation’s schools. While reversal of the current state won’t happen over night, there is a growing sense of hope that change will come. Every day there’s new evidence that attention is being paid, the recent action of the Palm Beach School Board, for example.
I’m not hearing anyone say that assessment isn’t a part of what competent educators do well. I’m not hearing educators promote a laissez-faire approach to curricula and instruction. I’m not hearing anyone say we should ignore well-developed research coming from the field of neuroscience and pedagogy.
I am hearing more and more parents, young people, and educators say enough is enough with the mass standardization of the processes of education.
If we’re building widgets, standardization is a good thing. If we’re building the next generation of solution finders, it’s not.