How to Escape Education’s Death Valley

Reference: Subject: Education

You may read the transcript here.

Here are the main points from this talk (May 2013):

(1) The legislation, “No Child Left Behind” is leaving millions of children behind. In some parts of the country, 60 percent of kids drop out of high school. In the Native American communities, it’s 80 percent of kids. If we halved that number, it would create a net gain to the U.S. economy of nearly a trillion dollars over 10 years. It actually costs an enormous amount to mop up the damage from the dropout crisis.

(2) America spends more money on education than most other countries. Class sizes are smaller than in many countries. And there are hundreds of initiatives every year to try and improve education. But most kids in American school are disengaged from education; they don’t enjoy it; they don’t get any real benefit from it. The trouble is, it’s all going in the wrong direction. 

(3) There are three principles on which human life flourishes: the first is this, that human beings are naturally different and diverse. Education under “No Child Left Behind” is based on not diversity but conformity. Its effect has been to narrow the focus onto the so-called STEM disciplines. These disciplines are fine, but they’re not sufficient. A real education has to give equal weight to the arts, the humanities, to physical education. 

(4) Kids prosper best with a broad curriculum that celebrates their various talents. The arts are important because they speak to parts of children’s being which are otherwise untouched. This narrow focus in education is like doing low-grade clerical work. This naturally makes them fidget, which generates various conditions under the broad title of attention deficit disorder, ADHD.

(5) The second principle that drives human life flourishing is curiosity. If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will learn without any further assistance. Children are natural learners. Teaching is a creative profession. Great teachers mentor, stimulate, provoke, and engage. But one of the effects of the current culture has been to de-professionalize teachers.

(6) The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. And part of the problem is that the dominant culture of education has come to focus on not teaching and learning, but testing. So in place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance. Testing should be diagnostic. It should support learning and not obstruct it. It should not be the dominant culture of education.

(7) The third principle is that human life is inherently creative. We all create our own lives through this restless process of imagining alternatives and possibilities. It’s why human culture is so interesting and diverse and dynamic. And, one of the roles of education is to awaken and develop these powers of creativity. Instead, what we have is a culture of standardization.

(8) Finland provides an excellent model for education. They have a very broad approach to education, which includes humanities, physical education, the arts. They don’t obsess about STEM disciplines and standardized testing; yet they regularly come out on top in math, science and reading. There are no drop-outs in Finland. If people are in trouble, they get help and support quite quickly.

(9) The high-performing systems in the world individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it is students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality, and their creativity. That’s how you get them to learn.

(10) The second is that they attribute a very high status to the teaching profession. They recognize that you can’t improve education if you don’t pick great people to teach and keep giving them constant support and professional development. Investing in professional development is not a cost. It’s an investment, and every other country that’s succeeding well knows that.

(11) And the third is, they devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done. Central or state governments do not decide, and go into a command and control mode in education. Education happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students. If you remove their discretion, it stops working. 

(12) Many of the current policies in America are based on mechanistic conceptions of education. It’s like education is an industrial process that can be improved just by having better data. There is this idea that if we fine-tune it well enough, it will all hum along perfectly into the future. It won’t, and it never did because education is not a mechanical system. It’s a human system. 

(13) There are alternative education programs that are designed to get kids back into education. They’re very personalized. They have strong support for the teachers, close links with the community and a broad and diverse curriculum. They often involve students outside school as well as inside school. And they work. If we all did that, there’d be no need for the alternative.

(14) The real role of leadership in education is not and should not be command and control. The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. We have to recognize that it’s a human system, and there are conditions under which people thrive, and conditions under which they don’t. And if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things that you completely did not anticipate and couldn’t have expected.


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