The Future of American Education
Transforming our K-12 educational system to meet the needs of the next generation
I was at the Apple Store in Midtown, Manhattan a few weeks ago. While I was waiting for my appointment, I walked around a bit and stumbled upon a group of pre-schoolers using Swift Playgrounds while an employee attempted to demonstrate the program and the iPads to the people who might actually buy them (i.e. parents).
Except the parents were nowhere to be found.
They had dropped their kids off at the iPad station (where they would be under the supervision of a responsible adult) so they could shop for accessories and try out the new iPhone.
Here’s what they missed:
“This is Eric,” the employee told me when I struck up a conversation about Swift. “He’s 4!”
“He’s 4?” I asked, a bit surprised. “He’s writing functions.”
“Oh, yeah!” she answered. “He’s been here for about 30 minutes. He’s really plowing his way through the program.”
This kid was writing functions by himself while a few other kids (ranging from toddler to young child) did the same. Eric’s parents eventually called his name from afar and told him it was time to go home. He put the iPad down and ran off.
Maybe he’ll be a software engineer one day.
Or maybe he’ll never see another line of code.
What are kids learning at school, anyway?
K-12 education is in urgent need of reform — there’s little dispute about this. And so is higher education, but that’s a topic for another day.
Ask any teacher what they think about their state’s curriculum or their school’s commitment to teaching 21st century skills. Ask any parent if their child’s individualized education programs (IEPs) are being followed. Ask any administrator how long the average teacher stays in the system before moving on.
Education hasn’t changed much over the past few decades. The changes in K-12 education have been superficial at best, and higher education has arguably changed for the worse, despite a number of opportunities to make positive changes.
At the K-12 level: home economics and shop classes disappeared, kids stopped playing Oregon Trail and learned how to use Microsoft Word, kids stopped learning handwriting and learned how to type, and the Common Core standards placed a greater emphasis on critical thinking skills.
The intentions were honorable, for the most part, but the implementation fell short.
Buzz words like rigorous and grade-level are thrown around like candy, but even on a good day, teaching rigorous, grade-level coursework is not the same as ensuring that all students are developing the skills and competencies that they’ll need to thrive — not just survive — after they graduate.
Here’s what kids are NOT learning:
- foreign languages
- computer science and programming
- real-world written and verbal communication
Multilingualism is a skill that kids deserve to have.
Approximately 20% of American students learn a foreign language in school, compared to more than 90% of European students.
English is a global language, but bilingualism is a global skill.
When we consider the data about educational inequality across the United States, it becomes even more important to consider who exactly is missing out. Bilingualism should not be something that only certain populations get to achieve.
This student with a learning disability learned 5 languages. Don’t assume “certain kids” can’t do it.
Computer science is another area for improvement.
It’s true that schools have started using technology in the classroom — but I’m not talking about having students type their essays instead of writing them, and I’m not talking about using a SMART Board instead of a whiteboard.
I’m talking about teaching kids to code.
Like Eric, young kids are more capable than we might realize. They will rise to the challenge, especially when they are having fun. Kids CAN and DO learn computational thinking, and these skills are transferrable to a wide variety of disciplines.
Computer science courses should not be electives that gifted students get to take when they ace math, nor should they be “special programs” that appear at schools in certain zip codes. They should be foundational courses that accompany the math and science curriculum.
Kids should learn about entrepreneurship.
It doesn’t matter that they’re too young to start a business. They might not be ready to launch a startup, but they are certainly ready to learn how to collaborate with others, how to plan multi-step projects, and how to finish things that they start.
We can teach entrepreneurship without overhauling the curriculum. In a 3rd grade math class, transform a unit about money into an interdisciplinary unit in which students must open a restaurant. Let them come up with a business name, create menus and marketing materials, “order” supplies and food, set menu prices that would yield enough profit to pay their “expenses”, and culminate in Restaurant Day.
If this sounds oddly specific, that’s because it is. My third grade teacher did this and it was the most memorable educational experience I’ve ever had. I reached out to her recently and was saddened to hear that Restaurant Day was eliminated from the curriculum 10 years ago so that students could have an extra period of essay writing.
There’s no excuse for not teaching kids how to communicate.
It’s 2019. Though it’s way too late to jump on the “how to write an email” bandwagon, it’s better late than never.
We should be teaching young students how to switch between informal English and academic or professional English, depending on the circumstance.
We should be teaching students how to make professional phone calls, how to pitch ideas to potential collaborators, and how to use language effectively. Enough with the argumentative essays. We’re spending 12 years teaching kids how to write a claim and a counterclaim without any regard for the things we’re sacrificing and the opportunities we’re missing.
And for the record — there’s no reason that high school students can’t routinely write on platforms like Medium. Let them write about things they enjoy. Make it a part of the curriculum. Teach them to communicate with their intended audience. Give them a platform to share their ideas and to learn from others.
The problem is…
We’re not teaching for the future, and it’s not teachers’ faults. There is plenty of room in any curriculum to challenge students and to equip them with real-world skills that may be far more valuable than what they are currently learning.
We can offer more survey courses at the lower elementary levels. We can expose students to a variety of topics in liberal arts and sciences while making room for subjects that, according to research, really should be started at a young age. Language, computer science, and music, for example, should be started young.
Why? Because kids who develop the right skills early in life can learn anything.
It’s time to re-evaluate what we teach, how we teach it, and whether it helps students in the long run.
The future of education is already here.
Kids can take one-to-one foreign language courses online. Kids can learn to code on an iPad. Kids can learn anything from YouTube, and they can launch their own online businesses before they’re old enough to have a bank account.
The future of education is already here — it’s just not taking place in the classroom.