Is Our Children Learning?

Thomas Friedman brings to light (once again) the ugly truth that the American school system is failing our children. On the one hand, this is so obvious, but on the other, I don’t think our national pride will let us really admit to this fact. Granted, we collectively seem to recognize that there’s room for improvement. But do we really realize that our high school students are ranked 25th out of 30 industrialized countries in math and science? That’s pitiful.

But what to do? That’s the question. Sure, I have my ideas, but so do lots of other people. The only thing that seems certain is that throwing more money at the problem and imposing tougher standards probably isn’t the answer. We’ve pretty much ridden that pony ’til it dropped. Perhaps, to paraphrase Monty Python, it’s time for something completely different.

David Wiley, who is a professor of psychology and instructional technology at Brigham Young University, thinks that universities will be irrelevant by 2020. At first glance that seems ludicrous, but the trends may bear lending him some mind share. Distance learning is increasingly popular, and education is one of the applications making a big push into virtual worlds. It is true that the physical campus is becoming less important for many aspects of the learning process. Granted, I don’t think that all the merits of a higher education are achievable in front of a computer screen. There would still need to be access to labs and equipment as well as some sort of social structure to encourage collaboration. There would even need to be access to sports and activities which are every bit as important to the maturation process as classroom work.

However, I’m inclined to wonder if there might not be other models for achieving those goals as well. Why not commercial ventures which rent lab space, equipment, and common student areas. You may not be there with all the kids you are in class with, but imagine the learning possibilities from having chemistry students from four different schools collaborating on a project, each bringing their class insights to the table. Similarly, college age sports teams may be organized by location rather than school.

On the schools’ side, there would be much less need for maintaining all that campus space. They could focus on paying for top faculty and other more direct value adds. They might even sell/spin off some of their athletic facilities and laboratories for the commercial shared use of the community. And for us parents, this arrangement has got to be a significantly cheaper option than the current setup.

If this succeeds at the college level, there’s no reason it couldn’t trickle down to the high school level as well. I’m not sure the model works well at the elementary level, but our schools don’t seem to be having as much problem there. Maybe a tweak to our current system is all we need for grade school.

Clearly this idea is overly simplistic at the moment. And maybe it’s complete lunacy. But the point is that sometimes when something is broken, the extant institution is not the one to carry out the reform because they can’t get far enough “out of the box”. I think we’ve given the education profession decades to straighten its house out. While I believe that there are individuals in the profession with the imagination and insight to conceive of something radically new, the institution will never adopt it. It’s too entrenched in the status quo. Something from the outside will need to push it.

In a way, No Child Left Behind was such a push. However, that didn’t work out too well. So let’s not give up. Let’s back-up, and try something else. And let’s do it before we are left with a generation of happy well adjusted self actualizing unemployed people.

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