As a college sophomore, I can readily recall the trials and tribulations of learning. I grew up in Washington State’s education system, where acronyms like WASL accompanied state tests. Then I moved to California where STAR was used instead. Having attended 7 schools and studied under 11 educational institutions, here’s my humble opinion of where American education is and the direction it’s headed.
It takes a village to raise a child
Reading, writing, basic math. Can a teacher actually screw up elementary school? Yes. Take Robert Rosenthal’s study of South San Francisco students. He found that if a teacher simply expected a young pupil to be intelligent, he or she got smarter faster than the other kids. Rosenthal called this the Pygmalion effect: higher expectations lead to better performance. Equally important, the study found that an erroneous perception of student aptitude does not affect older children.
This means young students are at an extraordinarily formative phase of their lives. I see more and more brilliant kids being homeschooled or ferried into private institutions because the public’s teachers don’t have a vested interest in quality education. It’s not their kid, the pay sucks, and they cannot be fired easily. Where’s the incentive that distills the quality teachers from the free riders?
What About Tech?
Information technology will not enable elementary-aged children to forge their own path. Access to the internet provides too many temptations along with the potential to learn. Steve Jobs and Chris Anderson’s status as low-tech parents is a testament to the persuasiveness of product design and marketing teams. Why rely on qualitative endorsements though? Here are the numbers:
“Astonishingly, the average person will spend nearly two hours (approximately 116 minutes) on social media every day, which translates to a total of 5 years and 4 months spent over a lifetime.” (socialmediatoday.com)
If social media snares the average adult, it’s a tall order for a kid to successfully ignores the internet’s digital circus of toys and games without proper guidance.
There is no secret sauce or tech. Early in life, everyone needs an adult (parent, teacher, or guardian angel) to coax youthful curiosity out of them and nourish it. The most valuable gift an adult can give a child at this stage is an environment that extracts their natural talents in an enjoyable manner. Michael Phelps started training at the age of 7 because his mother noticed he fairly bounced with excess energy. A family friend of mine noticed his 10-year-old son’s quiet, inquisitive nature and placed him in coding classes.
The best mentors don’t get frustrated if the activity doesn’t fit the kid. I trained in diving, tae kwon do, soccer, basketball, and baseball before middle school. The message my parents taught me couldn’t be clearer: if I didn’t like my current situation, I needed to tweak it until I do!
In short, I don’t see elementary school changing substantially in either content or learning tools. At this age a kid just needs someone looking out for them.
Nothing could be as hard as middle school
Middle school is the stage where the utility of current education begins to drop off. Historically speaking, elementary and middle school served as the best alternative to having one’s kid work.
One motivation [for compulsory education] was the growing public concern over child labor and the belief that compulsory attendance at school would discourage factory owners from exploiting children. (source)
Obviously nobody hides their kids from factory recruiters anymore. This begets the question: Why does America still need compulsive education? Because kids need rigor in their lives. Because the skills they’re taught prepare them for entering the workforce. Because that’s the way it’s been done!
Many families don’t find administrators’ answers satisfactory. The number of homeschooled children continues to rise. And since kids have proven they can effectively run companies or train for the Olympics, the future will see an unprecedented boom in trailblazing youths who craft their own community of learners.
I sense an outcry for the “fundamentals” of education. Such a reaction is ill-founded. Once students hit their stride, school should not become a deadweight or hurdle on their chosen path. I grew weary of school’s lessons in 6th grade too. I was quite interested in two or three subjects, yet teachers inundated me with the “classics” instead. This feeling of homogenization will continue to alienate the brilliant minds of the future, pushing them to seek alternative reservoirs of knowledge.
What About Tech?
Teachers utilize technology in the classroom more frequently and thoughtfully now. However, I find that the fundamentals of many subjects change so slowly-if at all-that a smart board upgrade is a negligible improvement over chalk.
Technology in middle school (especially online teaching) will continue to grow its user base because it’s so cheap! The school pays one person to teach the material effectively, and now every student can learn at their own pace. Online education also prevents complaints about inequitable treatment and simplifies grading.
I empathize with all the furious teachers that sat a little straighter in their chairs. Online teaching for middle schoolers seems distant and cold; it lacks the personalized mentorship outlined earlier. But with cheaper technology, an increasingly globalized market, and inconsistent teaching quality tugging at America’s sleeve, there’s no feasible, better alternative.
“The opposite of happiness is boredom.” -Tim Ferriss
The first few years of my high school were a time of generic course loads and bland groups. Most people tried so hard to fit in that they willingly gave up the best aspects of their personalities. My teachers contributed substantially to my personal growth during this time by keeping me excited. They set high expectations and encouraged me to break through plateaus in writing, science, music, and athletics. Instead of trying to fit in, I got to jump through the hoops and explore areas that intrigued me.
In the future I see high school becoming a time of specialization where people devoted to certain fields can take unique course loads tailored to their interest. School will become both more flexible in course offerings by accepting classes from digital platforms for credit. This will lead to a wonderful hybrid system where education in fundamental subjects compliments the unique interests of the student. Such systems already exist for high-level athletes in certain schools; the only difference would be specialized training in the brain instead of on the turf.
The most profound shift in educational technology will occur at the high school and collegiate level. The advent of platforms like Udemy, Coursera, and Kahn Academy means a student can pursue his or her passions in unparalleled depth.
Information technology has made the traditional classroom experience insufficient. I remember my dinosaur of a history teacher, who could immediately recite the date of any major event. Impressive? Yes. Necessary? One sec, let me google it.
Access to information is now the norm rather than the exception. Students that use timely information to solve real-world problems will shape our future, not the grade-chasers who can regurgitate information. This highlights how unhelpful grading based on rote memorization is. Let me repeat that, knowing more “stuff” does not adequately prepare students for the future. Dynamically tackling problems (which presupposes basic knowledge of the field) is the skill in short supply.
These teachers are here to make the world more complex for you -Bryan Stevenson
There is an increasing disconnect between students’ majors and the jobs they end up taking after graduating. They’re realizing that passion and excitement count for much more than rote memorization.
With the rapidly rising cost of upper education, on paper college is a worthless investment for those who don’t wish to be doctors, lawyers, or professors. However, there are important qualitative aspects of college that can make the experience worthwhile.
Exposure to Diverse Perspectives
Being around people who will respectfully and coherently disagree with my stance on an issue is a priceless gift. My peers force me to reevaluate my long-held opinions fairly regularly. This diversity also gives me a steady infusion of novel ideas in the areas I’m learning about. At elite institutions, this means rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful too.
Although out of plain view in public institutions, there’s a plethora of people and groups who want to see students succeed. The number of brilliant men and women who have talked to me because I’m a college student touches and astounds me. Having access to a library that contains a mind-boggling number of books doesn’t hurt either.
Nobody really cares what grades I get. Being on my own means I get to reap the rewards of triumphs and bear the brunt of failures. Responsibilities are stressful but lead to substantial personal growth over four years.
The average Joe will make unfair assumptions about students depending on where they went to school. Having a prestigious institution’s brand behind a student’s name will give the Joes of the world an inflated perception about their level of professionalism and competence.
The future role of universities could play out in a few ways. If colleges continue to expand their brand (via Coursera courses and extension programs), they might be able to create a new payment structure of high volume low-paying students. This would fundamentally change collegiate brands from exclusive ivory towers to public diffusers of quality information. Alternatively, the vagaries of Washington politics could change funding to reduce student cost, maintaining the current payment scheme.
Regardless of how colleges adapt, I predict an exodus of highly intelligent students into the workforce. With the ability to learn and connect effectively via the internet, people have access to novel methods of building a professional reputation. To these tenacious and intelligent individuals, college’s archaic incentive system is a poor fit.
The Future in 30 Seconds
Instead of no kid left behind, focus on giving kids advocates to help them flourish. Not failing isn’t the same as success. The fundamentals of a strong education haven’t changed.
Creating fiery passion and enthusiasm for a subject is the greatest gift an education can give. The kid who finds joy in working his or herself to utter exhaustion in their chosen field will achieve more than the one counting down the hours until they can be somewhere else.
The grading systems of middle school, high school, and college are archaically based upon the regurgitation of easily accessible information. Unless this flaw is remedied-or expenses greatly reduced-independent online courses will poach larger and larger numbers of students who care about problem solving instead of credentials.
Extra Tidbit: Three Things School Never Taught Me
- Life is not meritocratic. Talented individuals will frequently be passed over for people who either add value in unorthodox ways or are lucky.
- Life is not a zero sum game where somebody’s A+ comes at the expense of another’s F-. In the real world people go for win-win solutions.
- Rote memorization rarely helps people in the real world; passion and excitement take them much further.
Here’s some formative literature that deepened my understanding of the current incentive system of high school and college. I don’t presume to know your lot in life, so arm yourself with literature before making any major decisions.