Rethinking the US Education System

I was intrigued by the title of this blog piece, “It’s Time to Re-Think the U.S. Education System”, by Tammy Erickson for the Harvard Business Review. When it comes to our education system, I translate any use of the “reform” word as “business as usual”, which is ever flogging more “accountability” and “rigorous academic standards” around ever expanding high-stakes testing. All done supposedly to improve the education available to our young people, but in my thinking, really about increasing the business market for standardized educational materials and services.

But when I see “rethink” or “transform”, that’s when I at least take notice and give a look at what’s being proposed. When an institution is profoundly out of sync with the society it is supposed to support, “reform”, particularly the perpetual inside the box reform of the past three decades, just doesn’t cut it!

Erickson appears to be one of those business guru types, the “About” page of her business consulting website describes her as…

Focused on the changing workforce, demographic trends and how corporations can most effectively “engage” these employees – capture hearts and minds. That work lead to several years of research into generational differences, and the important clues they provide to understanding what we each want from work… My goal today is to help organizations and individuals develop a compelling view of the future, to discern and describe interesting trends, and provide actionable counsel. My work is based on extensive research, well-grounded and academically rigorous, and fundamentally optimistic.

I’m skeptical when anyone from the business community offers suggestions for improving the education system. Certainly one of our greatest contemporary entrepreneurs and business giants, Bill Gates, has a dubious record in the education thought-leadership realm. But he is perhaps the current poster boy for a long and inglorious effort by the corporate business community to try and “rethink” our education system based on “business efficiency”. An effort which I have documented in several previous pieces.

What I do find interesting in Erickson’s piece is that she indicates that she has conducted interviews with older youths about their school experience and and used that input towards her recommendations. So often I feel that we older adult types who wear the hat of parent, teacher, principal, or education thought leader, divine what we think is best for kids without asking and factoring in input from those kids. How many pieces have I read on education policy proposals that don’t indicate any input from the young people who are the subject of the piece.

Its that conventional adultist wisdom that reasons that since they are “children”, they are therefore incompetent and incapable of having a thoughtful opinion on their own development!

So since Erickson bases her “rethink” on interviews with older youth, I figured it was worth a read. Her input is coming from the younger Generation Y/Millennials, who are coming of age in these very difficult economic times. Because of that pedigree, she differentiates them from the older twenty-something Millennials (that would be my young adult kids and their peers). Erickson writes…

Children today, those born after 1995, are seeing a world that looks substantively different to them than the world did to members of Generation Y during their formative years. In an earlier post, I discussed how the global financial crisis and mobile technology have catalyzed the formation of a new generation. Because this new cohort is concerned about sustainability and living within finite limits, I call them the Re-Generation.

Some of the commenters on my previous blog pieces about generational issues (like between Baby-Boomers and Millennials) discount the whole exercise as an artificial and unnecessary separation that just breeds divisive “us and them” thinking. But I disagree, believing so much of who we are is socially constructed based on the milieu we grow up in. So it makes sense to me that today’s older youth, growing up amongst parents losing jobs (and lifestyles being scaled back as a result) plus teacher layoffs at school, would have a heightened concern about sustainable and finite limits.

So Erickson writes that the youth she interviewed expressed…

A disconnect between the way school works and how they function outside school. In some ways, traditional schools operate in ways that are foreign to the world in which today’s students live. They inhabit a technology-based world of multi-media, addictive games, and mobile access, of asynchronous activities and anywhere, anytime capabilities. Schools are very different.

Certainly my own kids in their youth and young adulthood inhabited that sort of tech-based world whenever they could. And they would complain to me that school for them was relatively speaking an information-impoverished environment that mostly failed to engage them.

Erickson cites a specific example around kids’ ubiquitous use of texting…

13 to 15-year-olds in my research thus far average 50 texts a day with peers and parents, but most are required to communicate with teachers via email or in-person. I recently had an animated discussion with a group of academics regarding the desirability of changing their traditional approaches. Many argued that they were preparing the kids for the real world — limiting the Re-Gens’ use of “kids'” technology, teaching them to communicate the way adults do. I understand their perspective, but frankly find it short-sighted. We are not preparing these kids for the world as it operates today.

That last sentence is critical for those of us parent or teacher types who see our role as directing our kids’ development. Maybe in fact they know better than us what they should be focusing on for their development. We adults should focus more on being trusted counselors when asked for assistance, rather than demanding to direct or co-direct.

And addressing that information-impoverished environment, Erickson calls out that kids express…

Boredom with the teacher-centered learning process. The kids I’ve interviewed all say that they wish their classes were more entertaining, interesting and fun. They are living in the most stimulating period in the history of the earth — besieged with information that they multi-process through a wide variety of technologies. But most schools require them to put that all away and ask them to focus on one, often-not-that-engaging speaker. Then they penalize them for getting distracted.

With all the ubiquitous contemporary communication media at their disposal, I have found that most young folks today that I talk to are generally very aware of the world around them and the likely context of their future lives. They want to be become functional, savvy and sophisticated adults. When they do display more childlike behaviors, I have found they are generally reacting to extreme stress by regressive escapist behavior.

So if you are a teacher or a parent, how long has it been since you have had that sort of discussion with the youth that you have an influence on? What are their answers and how do you summarize the trend within their responses?

And further Erickson points out a sobering statistic…

An average of 12% of all children in the U.S. between 3 and 17 each year are taken to ambulatory care visits (to physician offices, hospital outpatient and emergency departments) with attention deficit disorder as primary diagnosis.

Certainly there are legitimate ADHD diagnoses and appropriate therapies. But I fear that a significant percentage of that medication is more about trying to squeeze a round peg kid into a square hole school learning environment. I am ashamed to admit that that was the case with our own son Eric. We brought the issue of Eric’s problems in school to his doctor, who diagnosed mild ADD and was willing to prescribe Adderall, which his mom and I were willing to have him take. Reflecting later on the year he spent on Adderall, Eric said it did help him take tests, but also made him more wired in the afternoons and made it even harder to go to sleep at night.

Then I found this observation by Erickson particularly interesting and not something that I had considered before…

Kids have figured out that the adults in their world — whether teachers or parents — are not necessarily the most reliable source of knowledge. Adults can be wrong — or at least warrant double checking. Parents have told me that even very young children will ask a question, listen to the answer, then suggest that they Google it “just to be sure.”

I think that this speaks to a profound change in human society catalyzed by the Internet. It used to be we had to work with “knowledge gatekeepers”, including teachers and libraries/Librarians to get at much of the information and wisdom of the world. Now much of it is easy to access with Internet access and a few clicks of the fingers. First, second and third opinions on something are easily gained on the net, where we have previously accepter (or at least settled for) a first opinion from a parent or teacher.

Back when I was a kid in the 1960s, I was shy and particularly intimidated by adults, who I saw as iconic authority figures whose judgments were profoundly better than my own. Looking back, sometimes they had good advice and sometimes not, but I think I would have accelerated my own development if I had relied more on my own compass, rather than any direction setting from my elders.

But getting back to that profound change in human society catalyzed by the Internet, Erickson is speaking to it when she suggests…

Technology leads to a new role for teachers (and parents): that of a learning facilitator and coach, rather than of an authoritative source of information.

This fits in with my whole framing of human history, based on my extensive reading on the subject, as a grand evolution from hierarchies of control to circle of equals. Both teachers and parents transitioning from directing to facilitating young people’s development. From the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”.

Then Erickson’s queries shift to specifics about how older youth are perceiving the work world they will be entering and how best to prepare for it. She cites a…

Growing interest in pragmatic, job-oriented skills. Re-Gens are grounded and focused. The economy is one of their greatest concerns. Most that I’ve interviewed express an interest in learning more that has to do with “real life” — business, entrepreneurship, how to get a job, computer science, mechanics, robotics, electronics. Many are skeptical of the promise that a good job awaits if you just work hard and do well. They want to make sure they’re learning the right stuff now.

Being a big advocate of unschooling (all the things you learn outside of any formal education environment), I think the focus on “real life” learning is pragmatic and insightful. Where as teachers and parents, the conventional authority figures, might advocate more for attainment of as high an academic standing as possible (in terms of grades and degrees from prestigious institutions), these kids, even in their teens, are thinking more about jobs and job skills. The skepticism about academic work leading necessarily to a good job certainly makes sense given the times they are growing up in, and is probably pragmatic as well. That said, I do take her thoughts here with a grain of salt, this possibly being Erickson projecting her own business-focused framing on the responses.

Then she launches into a critique of our public education system that we hear a lot and certainly I and other educational alternatives thinkers share and tend to reiterate…

Our current approach to education was designed for a different age. It was modeled both on the interests of industrialization and in the image of it: specialization into separate subjects, standardized curricula, conformity, batch processing — by age group. The system was designed to leverage a “lock step” approach over set periods of time and using broadcast delivery methods to prepare students effectively for known jobs… The model worked well for 100 years because it matched between the needs of employers. But, as we all know, most of the jobs of tomorrow will not be industrial jobs. Even those in the manufacturing sector will require a knowledge-based set of skills and behaviors. The gap between the output of our educational system and the job demands of the current century is enormous — and growing wider. And the kids intuitively recognize the gap. They’re asking for a change.

I like her prose here for a sort of “elevator speech” critique. From my perspective as a “knowledge worker” I feel that my own schooling, particularly in high school and college, contributed little to the skill set I use for that work. My degrees mainly gave me something on my resume that helped me get the interviews that led to getting jobs (no small thing). As I’ve laid out in my series of “Unschooling in the Art of…” pieces, I feel like most of my job skills were acquired in my self-directed learning outside of school.

Her final point speaks more to her own optimistic vision of the path forward for education…

Happily, progressive organizations are responding to the push from the Re-Generation: for example, by enhancing the learning experience through the integration of technology, “flipping the classroom” so lectures are recorded for the student to watch at home while “school” operates as a sort of “base camp” or design hub for learning, grouping students by what they know not by age, or providing credit for demonstrated life skills through an innovative process we call “badging.”

I particularly like the second half of this paragraph with a reframing of school as a “design hub for learning”, where students are not age-segregated and limited to age-specific curriculum and engage in an evaluation based on skills required, like Scout “badges”, rather than numeric grading and ranking. But touting “flipping the classroom” as a flagship implementation of technology seems pretty lame to me. Sitting on the receiving end of lectures at home on the computer rather than at your desk in the classroom is certainly asynchronous, but still features a teacher in the directive, rather than the facilitative role.

So no big conclusion here, mainly just an interesting bit of input on our education system from the perhaps “progressive business” point of view. My biggest takeaway is to ruminate on this idea of kids perhaps having a diminished sense of the adults in their lives as trusted sources of information. There are a lot of places you can go with that, but not now!

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