And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. (Isaiah 58:12, King James Version)
I could start this article with a statement like, “The education system needs reform,” or, “Our schools are in desperate need of change,” but I’m not going to do so. You’ve heard those phrases and thousands of others many times before, most likely any time you hear someone talk about the state of education in the United States and the world.
When I began my career in education, I hadn’t listened to the cries for change and reform that were shouted from the rooftops by every political campaign, tech billionaire, and business owner at anyone willing to listen. I was still under the belief that the education system we have that encourages students to get good grades, go to college, and get a career that would set you up for life was still the right system and was serving those that followed the plan with great lives.
I was wrong. Ever so wrong.
We are beyond a crisis in education, not only in the United States but around the world. We chase after test scores that are deemed a measure of the intelligence of students in the system but really are just measures of meeting a set of lackluster goals that inspire no creativity (Zhao, 2012), foster no great achievement, and encourage our young people to do the bare minimum to achieve mediocre goals and live a life below their potential.
The education system is responsible for so many failures, so many shattered dreams, and so much unrealized potential that it has become an easy target for politicians, titans of industry, and the general public. Teachers are ridiculed for not being professionals and schools are looked upon as the source of more trouble than tranquility, more social ineptitude than social goodwill, and more houses of inadequate learning than bastions of achievement and far-reaching goals.
Yes, we are responsible for the issues we have. All of us. Teachers, administrators, politicians, business people, academics, the everyday citizen. The sooner we take ownership of the mess we’ve allowed to fester and grow in the world the sooner we can get about fixing it and crafting an education system that works and fulfills the promise of providing every child an equal opportunity to chase their dreams and live a life worth living.
Over the course of this article, I will attempt to synthesize the thoughts of several education reformers and myself. While I do not count myself as remotely worthy to be included in the same passages as these giants, I will do my best to bring my ideas alongside theirs and present you with ideas that may be worthwhile but are just as likely maniacal. Of course, much of this discussion will include the use, rather mastery, of technology in our schools for without it, much of what will be laid forth here will not be possible.
The Old Waste Places and How They Came to Be
I have often said that the biggest issue we have in education today is that we consistently aim for the middle in everything we do. We have become seekers of average and just enough to get by rather than pursuers of extraordinary and chasers of dreams. We do not expect our students to do great things nor do we expect them to be great people. We have built a system that encourages conformity to the rules, meeting expectations of getting good grades on tests that are set to common standards, encouraging every student to go to college, and preaching that if these steps are completed with honor that the promise of a good life and career will be fulfilled.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our education system was built on an industrial model (Robinson, 2010) that was designed to prepare students for work that requires little to no creativity and critical thinking. These “mechanical” tasks are easily rewarded and offer little fulfillment outside of collecting a paycheck (Pink, 2009). Our continual reliance on standardized tests scores has created a generation of students that know that if they are able to take a test, they will do well in school. I was one of those students. People tell me that I am very intelligent but for years I was told I was intelligent because I did well in school. I was able to do well in school because I was (and still am) a master test taker.
I was never great at doing homework of any sort. Middle school was a rough time for me because so many of my classes required so much work to be turned in and I simply didn’t do it because it didn’t interest me, much like the work assigned to the vast majority of the children that sit in our classrooms today. People, not just students, want to do work that is fulfilling and allows them to self-monitor rather than work that has to be managed (Pink, 2009). I was that student that never did any work but, when presented with a test, could score 90% or higher nearly every time. I mastered the system and knew that I would do well in school. Even when I took the ACT, because I knew how to take a test, I scored in the 98th percentile.
Believe me when I tell you that I’m not bragging about my accomplishments in school. I am merely sharing with you how I took advantage of a system that was built on the ability to take tests to “achieve” great things. In reality, I graduated high school without any clue of what I was going to do in the future, no real skills that I was interested in, and no plan for how to make it in the “real world.” However, I would have been considered what we call now “college and career ready” because I had fulfilled all the “lofty” requirements to achieve that status. Our education system has created a false sense of accomplishment by telling students that if you score this well on these tests and you do these certain things that you are now “college and career ready.”
Yet, we’ve done nothing to prepare them to think analytically, problem solve outside of a prescribed scenario from a textbook, or know how to face challenges more difficult that knowing how to log into a computer with a new password. What we’ve done in the past, especially here in the United States, is to live under the notion that our citizens were already far above other countries in terms of life expectancy and financial achievement. Our arrogance led us to believe that we could keep doing the same things we had always done, especially in education, since we had produced such great results. However, what has happened over the course of the last fifty years or so is that the rest of the world started catching up (Rosling, 2009). Now we see that people in more countries are living longer, making more money, and the United States is no longer sitting atop a mountain alone. While the rest of the world moved, we stood still.
The good news is that it’s not too late for anyone. Even the students that are sitting in our classrooms right now. We can make a difference. We can start improving the work now.
We can begin to repair the breach.
Raising Up the Foundations
So, how do we not just change education but rebuild it completely? The first step in any building process is to create a strong, secure foundation. The foundation we need for education must break free from what we’ve done in the past.
We can no longer hold on to the idea that standards should be the baseline for achievement in schools. By holding on to these standards, we have created an education system that is structured the same way as a fast food restaurant (Robinson, 2010) and has no room for creativity or operating outside the norm. This system cannot continue if we want our students to achieve greater goals in life.
We need big ideas to change the course of education. Moonshot thinking is based in the idea that sometimes it is easier to achieve an improvement of ten times over the current goal rather than an incremental ten percent increase (X, 2013). Currently, the standards we reference and expect our students to meet produce skills that are at the polar opposite end of the creativity spectrum for skills that are essential for entrepreneurs and problem solvers (Zhao, 2012). Our reliance on teaching subjects that were once highly respected and necessary for industrial work has kept us stalled on the starting block of innovation. We have to ask ourselves, “why are we still teaching students to do things that can easily be done by a machine or a computer?”
Many of our students hate schools because they have passions they want to follow and their classes in school do not allow or encourage pursuit of those passions (Robinson, 2010). Our standards should never be about setting a baseline level of performance in any subject. Students merely meeting a goal of reading should not be a standard that anyone aspires to or that any teacher reinforces (Zhao, 2012). As a math teacher, I shouldn’t be happy that my students have met a standard for knowing how to write a ratio. I should be happy when they know how to use ratios and proportional relationships to solve some problem that they are interested in or used that knowledge to pursue a goal that interests them, not the goals or standards that were created by a government agency to use as an arbitrary measuring stick to judge the effectiveness of teachers and schools.
The only standard we should build upon is the creativity of our students (Robinson, 2006). If we are not willing to change the education system into something that will inspire creativity in our students and give them the opportunity to work on their passions, we will still be doing them a disservice and we will be wasting our time.
Repairing the Breach
Our goal in education should not merely be for students to do well on standardized tests. Our focus should be on inspiring creators and makers to solve problems that they will face in the real world. For a long time in education, we seemed to have forgotten that we need people that know how to make things (Larmer, 2017) not just take tests and get grades. We have forgotten that creation and discovery is sometimes a messy process that has no clear path and no clear way to judge success when a project is complete. For that matter, in our current world of continual updates to technology, the true completion of a project has gone from being something concrete to being an ongoing process of improvement, feedback, and modification.
In order for us to repair the breach in education that so many students are falling through, we have to start over. Throw out all the ideas from the past that worked in a bygone era and start anew.
As Aaron Sorkin so eloquently stated through Sam Seaborn on “The West Wing” when he said,
Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. (2000)
These monumental changes must include embedding technology usage in every area of education. Teachers need access to technology to provide better resources for students. Students need access at school and at home to research, play, and create their projects and plans. Students need technology to connect to resources not available at any other time in human history that can exponentially increase their time to completion of a project or allow them the freedom to create something new based upon work shared by others in the past. Technology is not a magic fix for education but it is the great equalizer for every student. Given the right access and opportunity, no student would be barred from using any tool available to solve a problem in their home town or communicate with someone on the other side of the world facing the same issue.
Technology can complete the mundane, mechanical task that so many educators still want students to master. These mechanical tasks are easily rewarded and easily managed (Pink, 2009), two of the reasons why some teachers still want students to complete these tasks. Moving away from these tasks and asking students to be creative is a risk that we must be willing to take if we want to change education.
Technology gives everyone a chance to be creative. I am no artist but using digital tools I can create graphics like the ones in this blog post. I am not a movie producer or director but with digital tools I can make movies and videos with special effects and full soundtracks. I am not a best-selling writer but with digital tools I can publish my work and that work has the opportunity to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Technology can give your students the same opportunity. They can use technology to collect data that will inform their work. They can use technology to create virtual reality demonstrations of products they are working on to court potential investors. Students can use technology to connect with the world and not be relegated to stay where they are whether that be in an apartment in New York City or a one bedroom house nestled in the Appalachian Mountains in Eastern Kentucky.
We must quit forcing our students to live with the education system we had as a child. The world has changed and we have not changed with it. Many of our students today have never known a time when they didn’t have a computer with internet access in their pocket. They have never known a time in which you had to wait until 6 PM to know what news had transpired in the world that day. They have never known a time when they didn’t have access to the accumulated knowledge of the world at their fingertips.
We have to stop acting like we are the masters of knowledge and give our students the autonomy they so desire (Pink, 2009).
Changing education is going to take more than just teachers, administrators, school boards, and state departments of education. We need stakeholders from every industry and every organization to take part in making a better system for our students. We need people that are ready to make transformational partnerships (Eggers, 2008) with our students to change their lives. Businesses working to support education is not a conflict of interest. That partnership is in the best interest of all involved. If businesses help promote education programs that inspire creativity, problem-solving, autonomy, and purpose in our students, we can’t hope but win.
Yet, in education we still have a hard time doing the things we know we need to do and keep doing the things we know don’t work (Pink, 2009). We know that standardized testing is a sham. We know that common standards are exactly that, common. We know that we have behavior problems in schools because our kids are bored out of their minds and couldn’t care less about the Pythagorean theorem when they just want to make a YouTube video of their latest cover song.
If we want real change in education, we have to be willing to stop living in the past. We listen to the cries from pundits and politicians about how things used to be in schools and how we need to get back to where we were. It’s time we stopped looking to the past since we can’t change anything about it and look toward the future and the bright hope we have in our students to make the world better than it is today.
Restoring Paths to Dwell In
This article started as a writing assignment for a master’s program. The more I thought about it, the more videos I watched, the more articles I read, and the more I came to understand the fire that burns inside of me every day, I knew it would be so much more. The scripture that I quoted at the beginning of this piece has stuck with me for more than twenty years. I never truly understood its significance in my life until I entered the education field.
Every day I see before me opportunities to reach out and change how we mentor and grow our students. I see opportunities to embrace new technologies that will forever change how we communicate and what we can create with the unlimited potential of our minds. I see how one small spark can take a child that is frustrated and alone and bring them into a world of new connections and new ideas that will propel them farther than they ever dreamed possible, past their current situation, and past the restrictions placed upon them by society.
When you look up the word “dwell” you find that one of the definitions is “to live as a resident” (Merriam-Webster, n.a.). We should be aspiring to create “paths” for our students to live as residents. Whatever path they choose, our education system should exist to ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach their goals and live a life beyond imagining. Those paths will be different for every child and they will be difficult to create. We have an incredible responsibility to use whatever resources we have to the fullest extent and see that every child, no matter their race, creed, color, or sex, is not only not left behind but pushed and propelled headlong into the outer limits of human achievement to continue building paths for future generations to dwell.
Eggers, D. (2008, February). My wish: Once upon a school. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/dave_eggers_makes_his_ted_prize_wish_once_upon_a_school
Larmer, J. (2017, June 21). Traditional school imperils kids; they need to be innovators. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.bie.org/blog/traditional_school_imperils_kids_they_need_to_be_innovators
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Dwell. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dwell
Pink, D. (2009, July). The puzzle of motivation. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation
Robinson, K. (2006, February). Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity
Robinson, K. (2010, February). Bring on the learning revolution! Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution
Sorkin, A. (Writer). (2000, April 5). Six meetings before lunch [Television series episode]. In The West Wing. NBC.
X. (2013, February 01). What is moonshot thinking? Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uaquGZKx_0
Zhao, Y. (2012, July 09). Defining high-quality education. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKXeNKsjoMI