Today is the first day of school for my kids.  They guys are now a junior in high school and an eighth grader, going off with a bit more enthusiasm than I expected, to be honest.

Education is under fire from all fronts these days, in part because we all know, in our hearts, that kids are having experiences and learning things that often fail to connect up to their daily world- what is taught is not always placed into a larger context to help kids make meaning. The fault for this lies with politicians, parents, teachers and kids alike. Everyone is responsible in part-and here’s 5 issues that are part of the fundamental reasons schools are having issues:

1. We don’t make the process of education and its end goals transparent. How many times did you sit in class and wonder- what am I ever going to use this stuff for? This seems irrelevant to me. How many times did you ask a teacher this question, and they also seemed to lack a good answer? For example, sitting in geometry and learning to do proofs seemed particularly pointless to me as a student- after all, Pythagorus figured out his theorem by 495 BC, so “reinventing the wheel” and proving it again seemed pointless- we have agreed for almost 2,500 years he’s right, so, what’s the point? What I failed to understand then, and what teachers failed to give me was the larger picture. What they were “really” teaching me were things like logic, checking your work against that of others, proving that something was true and not taking it on faith, on top of the basics of geometry which is incredibly useful in everything from physics, to putting carpet in your house, to perfecting your goal kick in soccer. The proof and logic taught work in a subject area, even forming an argument or building a case for any position you have. I think if I had known more about why this elementary skill would be important later, and how it was a building block towards other things, I might have had more patience and interest with it.

2. We don’t let kids in on the secret-It’s as much about the process as the product. School serves many purposes, including as an incubator for citizens. (A point well made by Jeff Jarvis in the video below.) School is as much about learning social skills, getting along with others, even obeying a boss and delivering assigned work on time- as it is about the subject matter itself.

3. We forget to make it relevant. History, for some, seems arcane and not particularly “useful” as a subject area. Yet our current war in Afghanistan and the wars in the Middle East grow largely out of both cultural and geographic issues that have been problems for centuries, and weren’t helped by the way Countries were divided up after World War II and the end of Imperialism. But if you don’t understand things like tribalism, religion, culture, and the history of “who owned what and whom when” then what’s going on lacks the important context necessary to even begin to find a solution. Politics and history are much more intertwined than many a high school student might realize, but if we can’t help them connect the dots, why should they be patient when we tell them “this will be relevant some day.” When exactly is “Some day”?

4. Life and technology are changing faster than we can research its effectiveness. There was an article in the New York Times that decried whether technology expenditures were showing the rise in test scores that would “prove” that the tech was enhancing education. There were several folks who defended the spending on tech despite the fact that test scores were flat, for a variety of reasons, making very valid points. However, the problem is the question is framed incorrectly.

Kids will need to know how to use computers and digital tools now and in the future. How they learn to do this most effectively we may still be trying to work out. All of the new tools available are also new for many teachers, meaning teachers and students are learning together. This side by side learning experience is different from the traditional sage on the stage method of teaching, and it makes many teachers uncomfortable, because they don’t feel like they have sole control of the knowledge in the classroom any more. But while that makes teachers feel threatened, I look at this as one of the best things to happen to education. It means education is becoming, mor ethan ever, an exploration of the unknown. Teachers can help model what it’s like not knowing, making mistakes, not being perfect, and help students accept their own imperfections and that the underlying point of education is exploring and learning. With learning changing from being a linear to a semantic process, I’m not sure educators have much of a choice in this, but they will have to be comfortable with not owning all the knowledge in the room.

5. School is still the best way to collaborate and learn with fewer real world consequences. While I think more schools need to do real and meaningful project-based learning projects which can help their communities, let’s wait on this for a moment. Students have accountability in the form of grades, but largely, their work in school does not support the family financially. The same pressures of “perform or be fired” that permeate the workplace doesn’t apply in school. As a result, students and teachers should be more free to explore boundaries, make mistakes and experiment. Even in research institutions, scientists have goals and benchmarks they must meet that aren’t always the same pressures kids have in school, where learning and playing can be more in sync. Teaching kids how to collaborate with others, work together with others strengths to come up with exciting, new ideas and ask more in depth questions about “what if” and “Could we?” should be a major part of school, because it’s a major part of life. We need to teach kids to have a hacker mentality and to solve novel problems, rather than just rework problems already solved by a generation of students beforehand, unless it’s in service of building fundamental skills, like the Pythagorean theorem example I gave above.

Jeff Jarvis gave a great TEDx NY ED talk I’ve included, talking about school and possible models for school. While I think aggregation of knowledge and best lectures are fantastic, I think the fundamental relationship between teacher and student, student and student, and the trust they need to develop in order to explore, learn, make mistakes, and try again are fundamental to learning. Teachers have it all over parents, in some ways, because a kid wants to please their parents so much, they often are afraid to be as open and honest about success and failure as they can be with a relative stranger. Likewise, they sometimes respect strangers and their expertise much more than that of parents. (Who hasn’t had a kid, as young as second grade, say “Mrs. XYZ knows more about this than you do, Mom.” despite the fact that we have lots of life experience, too…)
Schools should be incubators for our kids. Incubators of ideas, incubators of information, incubators of citizens, incubators of society. It should be a place where ideas nurture and grow, not where conformity rules. But we’re going to have to come to grips that we have to change alongside the change, and we don’t have time to wait for the data to come in. We have to look at the preliminary, short term data and the big picture of our beliefs to make the changes our kids need now, not 5 or 10 years from now, where catching up will be impossible.

We know we need to do it. It’s time to find the will to bite the bullet and make it happen. Now.