Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Eleven Ideas for Improving Education

Politicians will often expound upon the need for significant improvement in our nation's education system, yet frequently I find that members of both parties offer little substance to back up their rhetoric. At best, our public figures will simply throw more money at our education system, which though failing to directly address our problems at least does serve as a stop-gap against them; at worst, they will actively promote bad ideas (such as by advocating the proliferation of standardized testing) or will infuse their personal agendas into their proposed education policies (such as by attempting to breach the separation of church and state by giving public money to parochial schools or teaching religious concepts like creationism in the classroom). Creative and innovative reforms are almost never seriously considered by those political figures who are prominent enough to have a real chance of getting them implemented.

What makes this especially inexcusable is that such ideas not only exist, but continue being created. Advances in our knowledge of the inner-workings of the human mind continually synthesize with common sense in ways that offer outstanding possibilities for meaningful education reform. Yet rather than continue to spout off on this matter in the abstract, I shall instead elaborate upon it by briefly surverying eight such possibilities.

1) Teach time management and personal organization skills at early age.
Our growing knowledge of the human mind, and early developmental psychology specifically, suggests that many attributes which were once thought of as reflecting upon individual strength of character are really specific skills that need to be taught if one does not possess a natural aptitude for them. Foremost among these are the skills that are crucial for professional success in a 21st Century economy - the ability to effectively manage one's personal time and allocated resources for the completion of given work assignments.
The conventional wisdom is that people who are able to manage their individual time and resources in ways that maximize their personal productivity and efficiency are simply "harder working" and in general more perseverant than those who are less gifted in these areas. Despite this misconception, time management and organizational ability are skills just like any other - some people naturally possess these skills, and others need to be taught them. Considering how crucial they are to success in virtually any career, however, it makes sense that they should be imparted to all American schoolchildren at an early age, when they are at the right developmental state to integrate them into the way they conduct their lives. This can best be done through immersion - i.e., having children take classes on time management and organization from their first school classes onward, and likewise have all other classes they take constantly reinforce the utilization of these skills. Children who have difficulty picking up on them should not be penalized by receiving negative grades, but instead receive special (and if necessary intensive) attention until these skills have been mastered. Should this program succeed, I am willing to bet that Americans would see remarkable progress in academic success rates (in individual subject aptitudes, average grade point averages, and graduation rates), as well as a corresponding increase in productivity and innovation in virtually every sector of our socio-economic life.

2) Teach a foreign language before the age of ten.
Just as time management and organization abilities are best acquired if taught at an early age, so too is the capacity to adopt and attain proficiency in foreign languages most advantagenously given to students at that time. Scientific studies have conclusively shown that the parts of the brain which enable human beings to pick up on new languages are most malleable during early childhood years, and what's more, that children who master at least two languages during this period will have greater ease at picking up additional languages during adulthood than those who only mastered one language in that same developmental period. Consequently, it makes sense that all American students be required to master a second language early in their academic careers. It may even be advantageous to allow children to develop the sense of individuality that comes with the power to make important personal choices by allowing them to choose which language they wish to learn. English should obviously be the required tongue for all non-native speakers; for those naturally proficient in it, alternatives should include not only such common stand-bys as Spanish, French, Italian, and German, but also languages that have proven unusually useful in their own ways (like Ancient Greek and Latin) as well as ones that are becoming more necessary due to the increasing importance of the nations which speak them (like Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic).

3) Teach children the intellectual practices behind given fields before expecting them to master specific information.
Jean Piaget once observed that children are viewed by most adults as little vessels to be filled with knowledge, when in fact most of them have a natural inquisitiveness about the world around them that leads them astray when they are unfamiliar with the proper means of acquiring and/or interpreting information. As such, I think it is important that children be taught the intellectual methodologies behnd certain disciplines before they are force-fed the information contained within each of those disciplines.
To better illustrate this point, let me use a specific example. All modern scientific knowledge traces back to certain fundamental principles pertaining to logical deducation, rational inquiry, and empirical observation. Simply teaching children what we have learned through these techniques may help them catch up with where contemporary thought happens to be at the moment that they are being taught, but it does not really help them learn what lies at the heart of the sciences. Instead, children should first be taught how scientists gather knowledge through the scientific method and other critical thinking skills. Once these ideas have been effectively conveyed, they will not only have a greater appreciation for the advances we have made in scientific knowledge, but possess the mental instruments to challenge the false ones and use the accurate ones as a platform for ever great progress in the pursuit of truth.
This same principle can also apply to the other mental disciplines, such as visual arts, music, social sciences, history, etc.

4) Modify the grading system so as to eliminate the creation of a de facto hierarchy.
Although few wish to openly admit it, our contemporary school system is used as a means of creating a de facto hierarchy within our society. Students who obtain higher grades early on are more likely to be accepted into honors courses, which in turn increases their probability of obtaining higher grades there and thus opening the doors of opportunity to them for admissions into a respected college and consequent career advancement. Likewise, students who receive lower grades early on are less likely to have a chance of being accepted into honors courses, which in turn lowers their prospects of admission into a high-ranking college and subsequent career advancement and socio-economic mobility.
The question is whether the hierarchy created by this system is fair. The only way the answer to that question can be "yes" is if one is to argue that:
a) Our current education system is a finely-tuned machine that flawlessly separates the intellectual wheat from the mental chaff, and
b) That children who are less capable of performing well academically (a term that in this hypothetical situation has to be used interchangeably with intellectually) between the ages of 5 and 18 are always going to be thereby limited.
Given the absurdity of the hypothetical answer I just provided, I think it is safe to say that the means by which our education system creates this hierarchy is not only inefficient, but extremely unjust to those who happen to be on the wrong end of its distribution. Are we to say that children who either develop later in life or who make honest mistakes in their childhood that they wish to correct as adults should be scarred with the legacy of their schoolyears for their entire days (thereby entrusting to children responsibility for their entire futures during the same period in which we won't even trust them to drive a car)? Is the creation of such a stress-inducing environment really most conducive for the healthy intellectual and psychological development of these young minds? For that matter, what of the psychological toll taken on potentially productive citizens who are convinced early on by this system that their capacities are limited - could not this very negative reinforcement create a self-fulfilling prophecy? And what of the statistically verified advantage that children from privileged parents (i.e., those who come from more affluent economic backgrounds and who are white) have in our current economic system - parents who are able to get their less intelligent children into honors courses based on their pre-existing social status, whereas their economically disadvantaged and/or minority counterparts find it infinitely more difficult to do the same thing even when their children are more gifted?
These are only a few of the countless questions that need to be asked about the adverse ramifications of our existing grade-based hierarchical system; for me to adequately delve into all of them would require more space than this limited blog post permits. What can definitely be said here, though is that considering how the downsides to our existing system are plentiful and severe, while virtually nothing can be said to its credit, there is little reason to keep it in place.
Oh, I did forget the three transparently flimsy arguments used to defend it. Let me quickly dispose of those:
1) Teachers need to use grades to monitor student progress. True, but they can easily keep grades as they are without needing to use them as a means of social distribution. One does not necessitate the other.
2) Putting less intelligent students in classes with more intelligent students drags the latter down. Not if the teacher does his/her job in proper classroom management.
3) Grades are vital to helping colleges determine which students to admit. That is why we have so many dumb-asses in our current college system - because administrators care more about the numbers you put on a piece of paper than they do about the actual quality of your mind, which may or may not be accurately reflected in those numbers. I will concede that getting rid of the grading system would force college admissions personnel to do their jobs instead of use grade points as a crutch. That doesn't mean I care.

5) Adjust school hours to accomodate proper sleep habits.
It is taken for granted that students should wake up at very early hours in the morning and return home in the mid-afternoon. Why? Because that's the way it's always been (the origins of this system trace back to the need for most children to help their parents on their farms).
The study of sleep is a burgeoning field in medical science. Frequently downplayed or dismissed entirely in the name of our Weberian work ethic, the reality is that sleep is key to proper physiological and psychological development, and excessive sleep deprivation at a young age can lead to a whole host of cognitive and physical problems for children, often with lifelong ramifications. As such, we need to conduct a comprehensive study on what the ideal sleep patterns for children are, regardless of how those sleep patterns correspond to the way our current scheduling systems accomodate them, and then see to it that our school schedules are adjusted accordingly. The little data that currently exists on the subject suggests that if this were done, school hours would be pushed back to later in the day (since children are generally programmed to want to go to bed later at night and wake up later in the morning) and would get out later in the afternoon (since there is reason to believe that children hit their mental peaks much later in the day than the adults who teach them). Yet even if these speculations are incorrect, we have to stop acting as if sleep is a matter of minor consequence when everything science tells us flies in the face of that assumption.

6) Incorporate ongoing knowledge about multiple intelligence types into teaching methodologies.
Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist, developed a theory regarding the inner-workings of the human mind that ought to have shocked the world of education to its core. For once, wikipedia is useful, as it provides an aptly concise summary of that theory:
"Gardner's theory argues that intelligence, particularly as it is traditionally defined, does not sufficiently encompass the wide variety of abilities humans display. In his conception, a child who masters multiplication easily is not necessarily more intelligent overall than a child who struggles to do so. The second child may be stronger in another kind of intelligence, and therefore may best learn the given material through a different approach, may excel in a field outside of mathematics, or may even be looking through the multiplication learning process at a fundamentally deeper level that hides a potentially higher mathematical intelligence than in the one who memorizes the concept easily."
According to Gardner, there are eight types of intelligence:
- Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
- Interpersonal intelligence
- Verbal-linguistic intelligence
- Logical-mathematical intelligence
- Naturalistic intelligence
- Intrapersonal intelligence
- Visual-spatial intelligence
- Musical intelligence
While I do not necessarily agree with Gardner as to the number of individual intelligences that exist, what those intelligences are and entail, and what is the specific nature of their co- relationship with each other, I do feel that the fundamental premise upon which he is operating is correct. As soon as more concrete information is determined on just what the actual types of intelligence are, revolutionary changes should be made to our school curricula in such a way that every student is taught to develop his or her individual strengths in every one of those areas to the highest extent possible. That said, two potentially dangerous pitfalls must be avoided in utilizing this approach:
1) We must not allow the theory of multiple intelligences to undermine our understanding of intellectual superiority and inferiority. While being less intelligent in certain areas does not mean that one can't be intellectual gifted in others, there still are certain individuals who are more generally intellectually gifted than others... which means that others, by default, will be less so. While this truth may be hard for some to swallow, one of the greatest threats to individuality in any society is the concept that all people are fundamentally the same, which is the very conclusion that we arrive at when we go down the slippery slope of thinking that "everyone is special".
2) We must not allow either parents or the school system to try to determine early in a child's life what his or her "individual intelligences" are and then brand him or her accordingly. All children should be given the opportunity to test their strengths in every conceivable area of intelligence regardless of attempts by others to classify them, and what's more, not all forms of intellectual strength become evident at an early age (see my earlier criticism of the grading system). Rather than use these developments as yet another way of predetermining de facto hierarchies, we should instead use it to increase the depth and breadth of the education our children receive.

7) Provide every student with easy access to career counseling services.
The current vogue for providing tests to help students ascertain their proper career paths is as ineffective in reesult as it is lazy in principle. Schools should instead meet with students on an individual basis from an early age (perhaps 13 or 14) to help determine, based on their passions and personal strengths, what career paths make most sense to them . Then they should help the child in a proactive manner in figuring out what courses to take and what processes they should undergo to bring those career goals to fruition. This is something that should comprise a key role in every student's day-to-day academic activities, and counsellors should meet with youths individually (rather than in large groups) so as to provide them with the personal care they need. These counsellors should also be specifically trained in this practice.

8) Increase an emphasis on the performing arts.
Our culture has developed a habit of focusing so extensively on mathematics and science that we have do so to the neglect of the arts. As Alexis de Tocqueville astutely observed more than a century-and-a-half ago, Americans "habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they would require that the beautiful should also be useful." In addition to the points made in the above argument, I think it's critical that children be instilled with a love of learning for its own sake, and not merely as an instrument through which to achieve utilitarian ends. While much of this can be done through the study of science and mathematics, of course, I think that an increased emphasis on performing arts, music, literature and creative writing, cinema (yes, even cinema), visual arts, and (on a somewhat tangential note) philosophy can be extremely valuable. Today we believe that if a field can't earn you an easy dollar, it must be viewed as a waste of time (or at best as an indulgence). This point-of-view makes America poorer - perhaps not financially, but spiritually.

9) Establish stricter anti-bullying policies.
The psychological effects of bullying have been greatly downplayed in our own time. Often this is due to the self-serving logic of teachers who prefer the stressless environment of a laissez-faire approach to interstudent persecution (one that frees them of angry parental threats and immersion in the brutality of youth social politics), often this is due to the fact that the parents of many a bully refuse to admit that their precious darlings are anything less than angels sent from heaven, and often it is due to politically correct assumption about human nature that refuse to acknowledge the presence of genuine unprovoked malice (the idea that both parties in a given conflict are somewhat in the wrong, or that children who persecute others have low self-esteems and thus deserve as much sympathy as those they torment). The reality is that children who pick on others generally do so as a means of establishing dominance over that child, either within their social environment or for their personal gratification. This need to establish dominance has nothing to do with low self-esteem; in fact, very often it indicates an excessively high sense of their own self-worth relative to other human beings. Either way, this problem must be halted through strict anti-bullying policies for three reasons:
1) It creates an environment in which needless social distractions and/or stress interfere with the ability to learn.
2) It can lead to severe and often permanent psychological problems for the children being bullied.
3) It can lead to dangerous assumptions about the way one can rightly view other human beings among the children who get away with bullying.

10) Train teachers to be more aware of the signs of learning disabilities, and guarantee that all schools have effective programs toward treating them.
Although we have made great progress here over the past few years, it has been far from adequate. The presence of learning disabilities must be more widely recognized as a fact, and teachers must be trained to recognize the signs in other students and know how to respond in ways that are to those students' ultimate benefit.

11) Teach civics again.
One of the key reasons Americans are both less politically active and show greater difficulty in understanding how to use the tools of government to effect change in their own lives is because President Ronald Reagan removed civics from public school curricula in the 1980s. That has to be changed.

I can imagine that one of the criticisms I am likely to receive is that some of these ideas would prove too challenging for our children. The problem with that particular attack is that it has its logic backwards - it is based on the fact that today's children would find these too difficult because they have not been properly trained for them, as opposed to the fact that they were first tried and then found to be wanting. The human mind is most capable of learning when it is youngest, and our assumption to the contrary (i.e., that children have limited intellectual faculties that need to be accomodated until they reach an older and thus more receptive state) has done us far more harm than good, particularly because it has been adhered to without ever having been substantiated.
There are proposals that I had for which I did not have sufficient time and energy to put in this post (foremost among them ideas as to how guidance counselors could better prepare students for the job market). At the basis of all the proposals mentioned above, however, is a single underlying fact - much of the way we educate our children is based not on what we know about child development and the human mind, but on assumptions that we as a society have been too lazy to question. Until we start challenging these assumptions, and modify our education system accordingly, America will never fully tap into its single greatest resource - its human beings.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

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