The World's Education Problems

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Three years ago I was in Athens, Greece.  It was a fantastic experience, speaking to educators about reformation and transformation of teaching and learning.  But it was also remarkable to see where much of the civilization I know began. 

I live in Colorado, USA.  The oldest, man-made thing I have ever seen in my state is from the 1800’s.  While there were indigenous people there long before that, most of what they created or built is not something I was taught much about during my own school years.  However, as I walked through the Acropolis museum, seeing statues and art from the Hellenistic period or possibly dating to the time of the Peloponnesian war, it was indeed remarkable.  But one thing really stuck out to me.  I came across a drawing of a classroom.  It was not exactly as we see today but it was very close.  There was an elevated teacher, students at desks, etc. It makes great sense for the time. Those that could both read AND afford books were instantly ‘teachers’ but due to poor acoustics and the scale of 5-10 people, a smaller space was needed so that the teacher could read to the students.

But as I was reading through my journal from the time, it still floors me that after centuries our classrooms still look like this!  Why would we still treat teaching and learning exactly the same today as our ancestors did, even though we know so much more about the brain, how we best learn, or what conditions should exist so as to solve problems?  Why would we continue to talk at our students, for hours on end, assuming they can remember what we have said or what we have asked them to read, even though we know there are significantly better ways?

In my visits to almost 40 countries in the past decade, I have found that almost everyone feels education is in crisis.  The classrooms of yesterday exist everywhere today and yet most reasonable people agree that our students are not learning to solve problems, think critically, attain job skills, nor utilize creativity in a world that demands these things more than ever.  Almost every society pushes learning on their students based on the notion that memorizing facts will lead to the ability to solve problems which can be seen via tests taken and scores received.  Yet at the same time, almost every society seems to be left wanting more from their graduates who do not seem to have the capacity to think outside of the template or memorized formula so as to apply or relate their education to real life.  (Check out last week’s blog for more on all of this…)

I recently returned from Asia where I witnessed students asleep on pillows in their classes because learning does not end when the school day is finished, instead being tutored long into the night.  I have seen college classrooms in the Middle East where only a few students attend a lecture and hand out notes to the other students who memorize what they read so as to pass their exams.  I watch in my own country as parents struggle with sending their children to private versus public schools, desperate to find a solution that does not destroy curiosity or a love of learning.

How can we fix these things?

No single book, let alone blog can tackle every aspect of reform.  But I was excited to have shared a few insights with Greek educators, specifically related to teaching and learning. And those concepts are still relevant three years later (and likely will be for a long time). I’ve continued to beat the drum around all of these for years, so let this serve as yet another important reminder.

Do first.  This should be the mantra of the 21st Century educator.  So often in our schools we tell first, assuming that our students will care what we tell them to learn or understand.  Instead, we should ask our students to do something.  Find a problem, hypothesize a solution, or create an issue – these are the foundations for learning.  Then, when the student needs to know how to accomplish the task, how to create the product, or how to fix the process guess where they must go?  They go to the instructor, to the text, to subject matter experts, or to research.  The opportunities for teachable moments in this model are rich.  In the old model of tell first, students have no need to be curious, weave learning from various subjects together, or utilize creativity.  They only need to follow directions.

Stop lecturing.  Dr. Eric Mazur of Harvard placed a device that analyzed brain activity on his students  for one week.  The results were amazing.  Students brain activity went all but dead during lectures.  In fact, the brain’s response to a lecture is identical to the brain’s response to a television program.  Just this past week, an American Science journal reported that students who are primarily lectured at are not only bored however.  Those students are at a significant disadvantage to students in an “active learning” style classroom.  Students in an engaging education environment get higher grades on exams whereas students who are in lectures for the majority of their schooling will fail 1.5 times more often.  The bottom line is clear – lectures are better for the teachers than for the students.

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Give choices.  Dr. Richard Light, also of Harvard, asked over 1,600 students about their schooling experiences.  The first question related to an overall satisfaction score.  Primarily there were two large clusters of satisfaction scores: 6-7 and 8-9.  However, it was the next question that provided an interesting finding.  When these students were then asked how they decided what classes to take when they first began their degree, there were two important distinctions.  Generally speaking, the students who reported less satisfaction (6-7) with their education said something similar.  They chose classes that were requirements or pre-requisites.  They got the “bad” classes out of the way, so they could try to concentrate on the “fun” classes later.  This advice seemed to come from many places such as advisors, professors, parents, or even siblings.  However, the students who reported more satisfaction (8-9) with education gave a different answer.  These students said that they always tried to take a class that was interesting or “fun” – every semester.  They took classes that they would enjoy all along the way.  By exercising this choice, they seemed to have a very different outlook on their education than students who did not feel empowered by the ability to have some say in their educational path.

These three concepts all work together to promote a better teaching and learning framework than is typically used today.  While there are many more areas to tackle when trying to reform education, these can be proven via research.  Just as many new models and concepts have backing through neuroscience or behavioral studies, these conceptual frameworks change education positively.  They are not based in tradition or assumption, but in measurable success. 

We can fix education.  Many cultures have made major strides in transforming broken education models.  While no system is perfect and no culture is ever satisfied with how they educate their children, there are some who do a better job than others.  But generally speaking, most cultures seem to fall into one of two categories.  They either have no meaningful education system or they have a broken education system.  Those in the latter category seem to rely less on research and science to fix their problems and more on politics or debate.  And so, old ways of teaching and learning are perpetuated while new, better methods are ignored. 

So let us not ignore these, or the myriad of other solutions any longer.  Let us be the generation to fix these problems.  Our future depends on it.

Good luck and good learning.