07 July 2011


As both a lifelong student and a former teacher, I am intensely interested in what goes on in the classrooms of our schools and universities. In the U.S., the public school system is broken, which handicaps those who go on to college. Compared to their peers in most developed nations and even many developing nations, American young people are culturally, mathematically, and scientifically illiterate. Things have gone downhill since I graduated from high school in 1965, and even since I graduated from college in 1986 (long story). Why is this?

My perception, based on anecdotal experience and on a number of studies, is that we as a nation have learned to settle for the mediocre, rather than setting high standards for every student and for every teacher. Too many students are willing to skate by, taking the minimum number of classes and achieving the minimum grades necessary to graduate. Too many teachers are equally willing to skate by, falling back on habitual, non-creative teaching methods and failing to improve their own skills. Too many school boards, and boards of regents, are complicit by allowing failing students to move on to the next grade ~ even going so far as to falsify test scores so that their school won't look bad (witness the systematic cheating done by over 200 Atlanta school administrators, principals, and teachers to artificially raise student test scores over the past decade, as described on the PBS Newshour).

It all revolves around teachers ~ how they are trained, how they are evaluated, how they are allowed to become calcified in their work. Jeanne Garbarino reports that in New York State, everyone is made a stakeholder in how well or poorly students receive an education. For teachers, this has translated into being evaluated based on (a) standardized tests for teachers, (b) locally selected measures of student achievement, and (c) other measures of teacher and principal effectiveness. In my opinion that's a good start, but only a start. While collective bargaining for pay and benefits should be maintained, academic tenure at all levels should be abolished. Every instructor should be evaluated every year on his/her teaching skills, knowledge of the subject, currency and participation in refresher courses, and especially on the performance of students. Grading should be standardized across the nation, and monitorred by independent oversight to guard against fraud. Standards for both students and teachers should be elevated, not diminished.

"The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done -- men who are creative, inventive, and discoverers." ~ Jean Piaget

Thus begins The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience, a critique and a love song by the ever-articulate Andrea Kuszewski. Drawing upon her own childhood story, and upon the general state of education in our nation, Kuszewski presents two hypotheses for why we are experiencing system failure, and what can be done about it, along with supporting evidence.

"Hypothesis I: Teaching and encouraging kids to learn by rote memorization and imitation shapes their brains and behavior, making them more inclined towards linear thinking, and less prone to original, creative thinking.

"Hypothes II: Teaching kids to ask questions and think about problems before receiving the solution encourages more non-linear, divergent and creative thinking, to produce better innovators, problem-solvers, and problem-finders."

I couldn't agree more. Teaching which is engaged, enthused, informed, and challenging, is infectious. Learning becomes absorbing and fun. Kuszewski goes on to describe a study done by Dr. Robert Steinberg, the goal of which was "to find out if it was possible to develop both teaching and testing methods that were a better measure of the quality and quantity of material learned over a college course. He wanted to see if by teaching creatively -- both using creative teaching methods, as well as teaching students to think creatively about a problem -- then testing for practical application of the material learned, if more learning took place .... His results? A huge win .... On average, the students in the test group (the ones taught using creative methods) received higher final grades in the college course than the control group (taught with traditional methods and assessments). But, just to make things fair, he also gave the test group the very same analytical-type exam that the regular students got (a multiple choice test), and they scored better on that test as well. That means they were able to transfer the knowledge they gained using creative, multimodal teaching methods, and score higher on a completely different cognitive test of achievement on that same material.

" .... So the good news is, the brain is plastic, and these types of thinking patterns can still be taught, even into adulthood. It may take more work to break habits of behavior the longer you've engaged in them, but the brain can still adapt to new ways of thinking.

"Here's something to consider: those last few studies involved college students. Can you imagine how much increased learning would occur over a lifetime if we started utilizing some of these same teaching principles in grade school? .... Rule-breaking, to an extent, should be tolerated and encouraged, and yes -- even taught. Teaching how and when to break rules and take creative risks isn't a neat and clean process -- it can get a little messy and errors will be made. But we should all be aware of this from the beginning and reward smart risk-taking, even if it leads to an error.

"You need to make mistakes in order to learn. If you never know why an answer is wrong, you will never be able to come across a novel situation and make a good decision on how to act. Making errors and struggling through problems is what increases cognitive ability. Spending time pondering a question, weighing choices, thinking about whether an answer fits, and why -- this is what drives positive change. That's what learning is. That's what our education should be focusing on."

Education reform is like the weather ~ everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Given America's gross negligence of the next generation of citizens, and given our falling behind so many other nations in education, health care, scientific exploration, and quality of life, it is far past time for casting aside our apathy. The pride we take in being the leaders of the world in education, science and math proficiency, technological innovation, high quality manufactured goods, and practitioners of freedom, is being rapidly overshadowed by our own tolerance for mediocrity. And it all starts in school. Your brain ~ use it or lose it.

Here's an example of a small step in the right direction ~ Five Amazing Games That Add a Third Dimension to Learning. Vast strides can be made by a single motivated teacher who is willing to engage in lateral thinking. My kind of role model.

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