The Human Journey
Education in the US

Creating a Sustainable Future

Intro and Education in the U.S.

The problems and needs of education in the undeveloped world and even in parts of the developed world are very different, as are the potential solutions. We have separated our overview of this topic into two sections: 'Education in the U.S.' and 'Education in the Developing World.' Many of our findings are applicable to all sections.

For an overview of Education throughout the world, we recommend these two videos of talks by Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD:


The world our children need to be ready for is constantly changing

"Our K–12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education. A century ago, maybe it made sense to adopt seat-time requirements for graduation and pay teachers based on their educational credentials and seniority. Educators were right to fear the large class sizes that prevailed in many schools. But the factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century." – U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010)
19th Century Classroom
A typical classroom in 19th Century America

Mass public education developed in the West in the middle of the 19th century as a response to the workforce needs of the industrial revolution. New urban societies formed as millions of people moved from rural communities to work in factories, mills, shipyards, mines and railroads. Some countries, like Britain and France, as the education scientist Sugata Mitra points out, not only needed clerical and administrative staff for new domestic institutions, but diplomats and civil servants with clerical skills to create and maintain their enormous colonial bureaucracies overseas. “The Victorians created a computer of people,” he says, “a bureaucratic machine and schools to prepare people to run that machine. This is still happening.”

For numerous people since that time, mass public education provided a foundation upon which they were able to create a life for themselves and their families, and become actively engaged citizens. Today, in the developed world, we take for granted that children start school around the age of five and go through about twelve years of compulsory schooling.

19th Century Classroom
A typical classroom in 21st Century America

Education’s primary goal is to prepare students for success in adult life. However, while our mid-21st century world has seen changes that no one would have envisaged even twenty years ago, the classroom and curriculum that evolved with mass education has not adapted. Methodologies that worked when routine jobs were in high demand still dominate. As Sir Ken Robinson, author and international advisor on education in the arts, says: “If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardization and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination, and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.”

19th Century Classroom
Ford Automotive assembly line, 1913

While mathematics, science and languages are still very important foundation skills, educators need to understand that, to quote Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, “the kind of things which are easy to teach and easy to test are also the kind of things that are easy to digitize, automate and outsource”. As a consequence the steepest decline in the workplace is in the world’s demand for these routine cognitive skills, whereas the demand for non-repetitive analytical skills, and for non-routine interactive skills such as coding and problem-solving, has risen exponentially.

19th Century Classroom
Assembly line workers in an Apple factory in China 2014

Rather than teaching, testing, and retesting mathematical routines that often seem to have no practical application, teachers need to present problems that will enable students to learn to use these foundational skills, think mathematically and apply this knowledge. A recent New York Times article by Andrew Hacker, The Wrong Way to Teach Math indicates that there’s a long way to go —apparently, while most Americans have taken high school math, including geometry and algebra, 82 percent of adults tested were unable to work out the cost of a carpet when told its dimensions and square-yard price. The same article quotes a recent test of adults in 24 countries conducted by the OECD in which the U.S. ended up 22nd, behind Estonia and Cyprus!

Schleicher emphasizes that “The world economy no longer pays you for what you know, but for what you can do with what you know. … this challenges not only the content of what we teach, but the ways in which we teach.”

The world our children need to be ready for is rapidly and constantly changing

The way we educate our children must change so that they are prepared for it. While most teachers teach subjects in specific units, most needed now are people in the workforce able to think creatively and critically across disciplinary boundaries. While classrooms continue to be held in a similar way, with only rare opportunities for students’ collaborative work, the world needs people who can problem-solve, and work well in collaboration with others. Today students need to understand subjects at a sufficiently deep level in order to be able to work with them: to know the fundamentals of mathematics, chemistry, biology, history, etc. And educators need to make use of the latest neurological research and its implications so that they are able to ‘educe’, (related to the Greek notion of educere), to draw out, or develop the potential of the individuals in their care.

We all learn best from people we like or admire and from people who believe in us. The most successful teachers show their students that they matter. Teachers who have high expectation of their students’ abilities, build relationships with them, and are there to provide personal feedback and guidance will have the most success. Children need to be valued individually and as a group and they need a safe space in which they can think for themselves and learn how to learn, without fear of asking questions or making mistakes.


Early Education

Facial Gestures in Infants Facial Gestures in Infants
Infant (44 minutes old) imitates facial expressions.
Courtesy of Andrew Meltzoff

At the very beginning of our human story, we noted that humans are predisposed to learn from other members of our group, particularly at first from those who are older or of higher social status. Like our ape ancestors, we start life by imitating those with whom we have the closest bonds: our mothers and caregivers. Unlike apes, we want to know what others are thinking, to know what they know, and how they know it. We learn from that and thrive from so-doing. Education starts from the moment we are born, and it is a lifelong endeavor - we are always learning.

Matthew Lieberman and colleagues point out that we are all neurobiologically wired for social connection. Attachment to others is key to healthy development. Remember that 90% of our brain growth takes place outside the womb, in the first three years of life. Unsurprisingly then, birth through preschool (0 – 5 years) is the first optimal period for human development. During this period we are capable of learning and developing rapidly; we develop our senses, our motor skills, identify our group, develop our language and social behaviors. By age six, the brain is already 95% of its adult size. But the gray matter, or thinking part of the brain, continues to thicken throughout childhood as the synapses make extra connections in response to input from the world outside. When children don't receive healthy, nurturing impulses in early development, they adapt to those they do receive, with negative consequences for their futures.

Wirded for Social Connectiion
We are hard wired for social connection

"What is now known about the potential of the early years, and of the promise of high-quality preschool programs to help realize that potential for all children, stands in stark contrast to practice in many—perhaps most—early childhood settings. In the committee’s view, bringing what is known to bear on what is done in early childhood education will require efforts in four areas:
  1. Professional development of teachers
  2. Development of teaching materials that reflect research-based understandings of children’s learning
  3. Development of public policies that support—through standards and appropriate assessment, regulations, and funding—the provision of quality preschool experiences
  4. Efforts to make more recent understandings of development in the preschool years common public knowledge."
Statement from the 2000 "Executive Summary" by the National Research Council entitled Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers.

Eager to Learn Eager to Learn Eager to Learn

Fifteen years later the quality of programs that serve our youngest children here in the U.S. remains fragmented, operating under a variety of names and auspices, including the federal Early and Head Start programs, and privately and publicly funded child-care. According to The National Institute for Early Education Research, although preK programs play an increasingly important role, progress is too slow. “At the 2013-2014 growth rate it would take about 75 years for states to reach 50 percent enrollment at age 4 and 150 years to reach 70 percent enrollment.” They note that quality standards need to be improved, concluding that “Every state is capable of delivering high quality preK to all 4-year-olds within 10 years, if they set high standards and commit adequate resources. Many states could reach this goal in less than 10 years.”

Teacher of Young Children

The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council calls for all teachers of young children to have a four-year college degree and specialized training, and adds that “States should create a timeline to ensure that all teachers in state-funded preschool programs obtain these qualifications and that their compensation is comparable to that for K-12 teachers with similar qualifications.” Right now low wages make it difficult to retain the most-qualified workers, who, once they earn degrees, often move into higher-paid K-12 jobs.

Historically, preschool educators have had little in the way of formal training requirements, though the rules vary from state to state. In a recent New York Times article by David Kirp cites a study of 18,000 4-year-olds in Tennessee who attended preK and made startling gains in math, language and reading which “evaporated at the end of kindergarten.” It seemed none of the kids benefitted cognitively from preschool. But a randomized study in Boston yielded different results. PreK kids’ gains persisted: “27 percent more of Boston’s preschool children scored ‘proficient’ or better on the state’s rigorous third grade exams.” The difference was due to the quality of these preschool teachers’ education and training. Kirp sites similar positive effects elsewhere in the country, including in the newly revamped Head Start where “almost every teacher has a B.A., the curriculum is more hands-on and more coaching is being provided.”

For those who wonder whether investments in preK pay off: a long-term study of children at Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers revealed a “29 percent higher high school graduation rate and a 42 percent lower arrest rate for a violent offense than their peers. Economists calculate that every dollar invested in those [preschool] centers generated $7.10 in benefits.”

The challenges are enormous. According to the Southern Education Foundation research bulletin, here in the U.S., low-income students are now a majority of the schoolchildren attending the nation’s public schools. The latest data collected from the states by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), show that 51 percent of the students across the nation’s public schools were low income in 2013. At least half the public school children in 21 states were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. More than 70 percent of students in Mississippi qualified. Carey Wright, Mississippi’s state superintendent of education, told The Washington Post that high quality preschool is the key to helping poor children. “These children can learn at the highest levels, but you have to provide for them. You can’t assume they have books at home, or they visit the library or go on vacations.” Recent studies show that: 61% of children who live in poverty have no books in their homes. One in three U.S. children enter kindergarten lacking basic pre-reading skills. By age three, children living in poverty have heard 30 million fewer words than their peers who do not live in poverty.

Emotional Support

For all young people care and education should go hand-in-hand. It should include cognitive and motor stimulation, rich language environments and social emotional support. Providing children with security and love improves their social and intellectual competence and gives them confidence to enjoy and take advantage of learning opportunities. According to Jay Giedd, neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, “The more technical and more advanced the science becomes, often the more it leads us back to some very basic tenets of spending loving, quality time with our children. The brain is largely wired for social interaction and for bonding with caretakers. And sometimes it's even disappointing to people that, with all the science and all the advances the best advice we can give is things that our grandmother could have told us generations ago: to spend loving, quality time with our children.”


The Second Growth Spurt

What is less known is that a second, final brain growth spurt occurs during adolescence, providing a second optimal period for learning. Described as a time when young people are “exquisitely sensitive to experience” the brain is more plastic and so more easily shaped by experiences than at other times in our lives. Additionally, during this period, brain circuits that are no longer used are eliminated, so it appears to be the best chance in life to learn new skills and develop lifelong habits easily. Of course, learning new skills and developing old ones is possible throughout our lives, but this becomes more difficult after adolescence.

Teens in America Teens in America Teens in America Teens in America
Teens in America from the book: “Class Pictures"

During adolescence the prefrontal cortex, responsible for self-control, judgment, organization, planning and emotional control, undergoes the most change. Unsurprisingly, as it gradually matures, young people tend to find these skills difficult to manage.

Functions of the Prefrontal Cortex
Prefrontal Cortex
  • Responsible for executive functions (goal-directed behavior) which are:
    • Decision making
    • Initialization and control over the execution of deliberate actions
    • Targeting attention
    • Problem solving
    • Planning initiation of activities
    • Processes in working memory
    • Social Behavior/Reasoning
  • When an action is executed, the prefrontal cortext is informed and allows appropriate monitoring
  • Feedback-feedforward loop helps judge activity and reveals possible deficiencies

Laurence Steinberg

The psychologist Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, has specialized in child and adolescent psychological development for the last 40 years. He says that adolescence should be conceived of as lasting from puberty to the early 20s; and views it as a unique opportunity for positive growth which is too often squandered, in part because adults tend to think of it as a time both they and their children have to survive through. One of the notable things he found is that adolescents are more primed than either children or adults to respond to rewards. Brain imaging demonstrates that the reward centers of adolescent brains “light up” more in response to potential rewards than do either child or adult brains. This, plus the fact that the brain’s malleability enables it to assimilate new information and skills more easily, suggests that though boundaries are essential, challenges that are reward based, rather than rules that are threat and punishment based would be more successful, and would, at the same time, add to the young person’s positive sense of self.

Risk as a Potential Reward

Adolescence is a time when we are especially sensation seeking and most affected by social and emotional influences particularly from our peers. Perhaps surprisingly, research shows that adolescents have as good an ability as adults to judge the risks and potential dangers of a decision or situation, but their response to the sensation of risk is a potential reward that simply overrides any thinking or conscious decision-making, making them more likely to totally disregard potential hazards. This effect is especially heightened in the presence of their peers because peer approval is also experienced as a reward. Steinberg goes on to say that “Until teens learn to ‘brake’ their ‘overactive engines’, they need the support, guidance and sympathetic understanding that affluent youth have always had.”

According to Steinberg, “The capacity for self-regulation is probably the single most important contributor to achievement, mental health, and social success. The ability to exercise control over what we think, what we feel, and what we do protects against a wide range of psychological disorders, contributes to more satisfying and fulfilling relationships, and facilitates accomplishment in the worlds of school and work. … This makes developing self-regulation the central task of adolescence, and the goal that we should be helping them pursue as parents, educators, and health care professionals.”

Madam & Eve

With what is now known about adolescence, middle and high school would seem to be an ideal time for motivational learning: to challenge young people, giving them the chance to experiment in safety, the opportunities to learn to collaborate with their peers to achieve goals, as well as to pursue their passions, talents and potential independently. Unfortunately the OECD rating of its members internationally found that although U.S. middle schools come out somewhere about the middle in terms of successful outcomes, our high schools come out near the bottom. The vast majority of students in U.S. high schools find classes both boring and repetitive. In a 2006 study of 25 towns and cities with high drop out rates, 81% of students said they may not have dropped out if their classes had been relevant to real life. Ironically, 88% of these students had passing grades or higher. [John M. Bridgeland et al “The Silent Epidemic: Perspective of High School Dropouts,” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, March 2006.] Only one out of every six high school student in the U.S. says that she’s ever taken a course that was difficult or challenging.

As a consequence, although more than two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in college, almost two-thirds of them arrive unprepared for the rigor of college-level studies. The United States once boasted one of the world’s highest college-graduation rates. But today we are not even in the top ten, and a large proportion of American college graduates obtain their degrees from for-profit universities of questionable quality. The United States has one of the lowest college-graduation rates in the industrialized world; one-third of students who enroll in college never graduate.

Adolcencent Sleep Problems

It’s not as if teenagers don’t care about their future or don’t understand that they must do well in high school in order to have a chance – quite to the contrary. Dr. Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician and professor at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, noted an unprecedented rise in stress levels in children of all ages and across the socioeconomic spectrum. Children as young as 5 years old are subjected to performance pressure, and this is particularly so in adolescence where, according to the American Psychological Association, nearly one in three teenagers reported stress that drove them to sadness or depression – and stated that their single biggest source of stress was school. It is not unusual for kids to attend a seven-hour school day and then have to do hours of homework, not to mention sports practice, band rehearsals, weekend events and assignments. If one adds this to the fact that they find the classwork boring and irrelevant and that they get on average two hours less sleep than recommended, it’s no wonder they feel stressed. In 2014, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a National Survey of College Counseling Centers reported that they were seeing rising numbers of college students with severe psychological problems; studies show that nearly 70 percent of U.S. adolescents do not get enough sleep.

A study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham indicates that adolescents who experience sleep problems and longer sleep duration are more reactive to stress, which could contribute to academic, behavioral and health issues.


Technology and Education

The Brooklyn Museum has an app for the iPhone, called ASK. It enables visitors to connect with trained museum staff to ask questions about what they are looking at in the moment and thus make a personal connection with what’s on display. Technology is ideally suited to learning in this way. For the first time in human history, we are able within a short time to find in-depth answers to any question we might have about any topic. By getting answers while a question is fresh in our minds and “urgent” we tend to retain what we learn.

Students and Technology Students and Technology
Browse Education Week’s collection of videos on
ed-tech issues: All are copyright © 2016
Editorial Projects in Education.

Technology has changed education and will continue to do so. Increasingly schools are moving to provide students with their own laptop or tablet. According to an article in a March 2016 edition of Education Week, schools purchased more than 23 million devices for classroom use in 2013 and 2014. Public schools now provide at least one computer for every five students; nearly three-fourths of high school students now say they regularly use a smartphone or tablet in the classroom. However, teachers have been slow to transform the ways they teach. Resistance to change, lack of expertise in technology and lack of training inhibits progress for all but a few. “Schools and educators across the country continue to wrestle with the changing role of teachers, how to balance flexible and 'personalized' models with the state and federal accountability requirements they still must meet, and the deeper cultural challenge of changing educators’ long-standing habits and routines. … the evidence that digital personalized learning can improve students outcomes or narrow achievement gaps at scale remains scattered, at best.”

Thinking Critically

It is imperative that teachers make this leap. Today most young people are independently able to almost instantly access a huge amount of uncensored information in print, on websites, videos, audios, and through social media. They need guidance. They need not only to learn to be numerate, literate and problem-solving, but most importantly, they need to be able to think critically to connect ideas and sources across disciplines; and to evaluate and interpret the information that attracts them.

Do Schools Kill Creativity? Do Schools Kill Creativity?
“Creativity is as important as Literacy and we should treat it with
the same status.” Sir Ken Robinson makes a case for creating an
education system that nurtures — rather than stifles — creativity.

Facilitating this kind of learning involves giving time for learners to experiment, to discover, make mistakes, discuss, etc. It’s very different from the way in which teachers have been used to teaching: children sitting, each at their desk, all in rows, facing the front of the classroom where the teacher stands near a chalkboard instilling the same skills and subjects, in the same or in very similar ways as in the 19th century; and where hours are spent preparing for standardized tests that might otherwise be spent, to paraphrase Ken Robinson, enabling students to understand the world around them and the talents within them, so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active citizens.

Technology and Teachers

Technology should serve the teachers and teaching but not replace all other methods of educating our children, and care should be taken with very young children. In 2015 The American Academy of Pediatrics revised their guidelines on children and screen time, but they still emphasize that “Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best via two-way communication. ‘Talk time’ between caregiver and child remains critical for language development. Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers. The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold (e.g., a toddler chatting by video with a parent who is traveling). Optimal educational media opportunities begin after age 2, when media may play a role in bridging the learning achievement gap.”


Which Ideas Work?

Good teachers, mentors and role models

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, every year, 1.3 million teenagers drop out of high school; the employment rate for teenagers is 45%, the lowest since World War II. Low-income kids are the hardest hit, of course. We need to invest in programs that have proven to be of help to young people, such as these mentioned in the New York Times on January 31, 2015 by David Kirp:

After just a single year in Chicago’s intensive tutoring and mentoring program, known as Match Education, participants ended up as much as two years ahead of students in a control group who didn’t get this help. A report by the University of Chicago Crime Lab also finds that they performed substantially better on the Chicago school system’s math test; their scores on the N.A.E.P. math exam reduced the usual black-white test score gap by a third. This success carried over to nonmath classes, where these students were less likely to fail. Greater success in math also helped get them on track to graduate. It also led them to become more engaged in school, and they were 60 percent less likely than members of the control group to be arrested for a violent crime. …

“It’s friendship and pushing — they nag them to success,” Barbara Algarin, the executive director of Match Education, which runs the tutoring program, told me. “These students can make remarkable progress when they appreciate that their tutor is in their corner. The math connection leads to better study skills and a love of learning. Grades improve across the board.”

In a May 2015 article also by David Kirp, he talks about the success of YouthBuild “which runs 260 programs in 46 states for about 10,000 16- to 24-year-olds. Nearly all of them high-school dropouts and poor; 31 percent have a criminal record, and 29 percent are parents.” The most poignant point he makes is that teachers and counselors are available to help in important ways that parents of more affluent kids do all the time. For example, they can go to court with their kids, help with college application, with obtaining a driver’s license, etc. YouthBuild offers both academics and on the job training, so kids can see the relevance of what they learn. Plus they provide opportunities for kids to give back: for example, for a small stipend, some build or repair homes for poor or homeless people. To quote from Kirp’s article:

'"In high school, no one gave a damn, but here, they really care about you,” one young man at the YouthBuild program center in Cambridge, Mass., told me. ‘“They have your back."'

'Kids who have “reached a dead end” are offered “a community that helps them find their purpose,” Dorothy Stoneman, who founded YouthBuild, told me. Seventy-seven percent of those who join earn a high school diploma, a G.E.D. or an industry-recognized credential, and 61 percent are placed in jobs and postsecondary education. The recidivism rate, within one year of enrollment in a YouthBuild program for those who have been in prison, is under 10 percent, well below the average. … Melody Barnes, formerly President Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser, says YouthBuild graduates are “determined, smart and civic-minded, and but for programs like this one they would have been left behind.”'

Kirp also points out that New York City’s summer jobs program which provides six weeks of work for almost 50,000 14- to 24-four-year-olds, has helped keep many kids out of trouble, which may well have saved their lives. And it also improves academic standards, especially for those most badly in need of help.

Young American at summer job Young American at summer job
Young American at summer job

“Opportunities for change exist within every school, even where the emphasis on high-stakes testing has become extreme,” says Sir Ken Robinson in his wonderful book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education. He outlines many of the ways that dedicated teachers have been able to provide their students with the education experience they need, in spite of the pressure of standardization. It is evident from these examples and countless other studies and reports that two things are most crucial to student success – and are especially vital to students from low-income families – first and foremost they need good mentors/teachers who are reliable, supportive and second they need a safe place in which they can grow and learn.

Teacher training in the US has been much criticized for the little preparation it provides for classroom management and instruction skills. According to an article in The Economist entitled “Teaching the teachers,” few other professionals are so isolated in their work, or get so little feedback as Western teachers. Unlike Finland, for example, teachers in the US are not subject to peer review, which may be one reason why three out of five low-performing teachers in American think that they are doing a great job. When teachers do receive precise instruction together with specific, regular feedback under the mentorship of a lead teacher the effects are positive: as much as a 38 percent improvement over a decade when compared to those with no such reinforcement. A study by James Stigler, a psychologist at UCLA, found that American classrooms tend to focus on answering “what” questions, in contrast to say, Japan, where teachers ask more “why” and “how” questions that check students understanding of what they are learning. As technology becomes more and more an integral part of education retraining becomes necessary. Nevertheless, attitudes to change are likely to be resisted; people don’t like change and across the OECD two-thirds of teachers believe their schools to be hostile to innovation.

A deep, challenging and relevant curriculum

Young people need to understand the relevance of what they are doing and learning in school, and school should prepare them for the real world, in part by mirroring it. The demand placed on students once they enter the workplace is likely to increase, so they need to develop focus, rigor and coherence while in school and to spend sustained time on problems, as they will do in the real world. Project-based learning presents an invaluable opportunity because it allows this, and also enables students to be in charge of their own learning as they select and explore real-world problems and challenges. Along the way they learn what they need of subjects as and when they are applicable. Additionally, by working as a group, they learn collaboration and the ability to question and articulate their findings. They learn what they need to pass tests, but in a way that makes sense and the knowledge is therefore retained.

Project-Based Learning Project-Based Learning
Project-Based Learning

Providing a dynamic curriculum that is designed to include collaboration and interaction with local industries also enables young learners of all ages to experience and appreciate the relevance of what they learn. Older students can evaluate their talents in a real work situation and make connections with people in the community who may become their mentors, future employers and associates.

Early work experience helps teens and young adults build confidence and pick up crucial practices, like getting to work on-time and knowing how to relate to one's boss, etc. Ideally, those are skills one wants to learn before the mid-20s. According to Andrew Sum’s recent research for the Brookings Institution, "The more you work as a teenager, the more likely you are to work five years from now. That's true at the state or national level. When young people don't get work experience, it inhibits their wages."

Robotics Competition Robotics Competition
Student participants in FIRST Robotics Competition
Washington, D.C.

As a consequence of our desire and ability to learn from each other and our interactions with the world around us, humans have become the most successful species on the planet. Unsurprisingly then, the most successful education programs involve the whole community. As David Kirp reported in his book Improbable Scholars and Dr. Geoffrey Canada speaks about in his work in Harlem, there must be community involvement, support and pride in the education that is provided for each community’s young people. The school environment and practices should be tailored to the needs of the students of each particular community. There is no one size fits all.

In recent times the idea has been that work needs to be fun and struggle-free in order to engage students, who would otherwise become intimidated. A recent study shows that the reverse is true: knowing how great scientists – like Einstein or Marie Curie – had to struggle against persecution and discouragement significantly improved the students’ science grades and increased their motivation to study science; and the lowest performing students showed the greatest gains.

Albert Einstein

“It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
― Albert Einstein

Too often the stories of those who succeed appear to be because of their unique and exceptional talent. This is not only untrue, it’s effect is destructive since it leads young people to think if they don’t have those traits, then they may as well not try.

Thomas Edison

The great inventor Thomas Edison left several quotes like the one on the right, that young people would do well to remember. Other examples are: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” and “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

A good example of what it takes to be successful are our sports heroes: people like Stephen Curry, the Williams sisters, and Husain Bolt, practice more than others. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers examined the lives of many successful individuals in a number of fields. He came to the conclusion that you need 10,000 hours of practice in the correct way in order to achieve world-class success in any area.

Technology to support learning

“The school must prepare young people for a reality involving computers. All pupils must be able to use IT (information technology) when leaving school. Education – learning – takes place under different conditions, e.g. dialogue and collaboration with other pupils and using libraries. Concurrently with the development of IT, computers as a pedagogical means of assistance and a tool have come into focus. Through access to international data networks, e.g. Internet, the pedagogical arena has widened far outside the wall of the schools. More and more pupils are accustomed to using computers and getting hold of information and knowledge through IT. Very often pupils’ knowledge of using computers is on a higher level than that of their teachers. As IT affects the work in school, school libraries change and get a more important role. In every teaching situation, the pupil must be in focus.

The role of the teacher must be seen as a mentor supporting the pupil when seeking knowledge. The mass availability of data and information in databases raises demands on capacity to formulate problems and on critical thinking in order to choose the relevant information. The role of the teacher becomes even more important as transferer of knowledge, as discussion partner, etc. If the schools fail to cope with the development of IT and its integration into the teaching process, and if the methods for seeking knowledge in the school and outside the school become too different, the school will end up in a crisis of legitimacy. In a society rich in information the school no longer has a monopoly on facts, information and knowledge, which means a change in the task for the schools. The development of knowledge and competence for the individual person will in the future take place in several arenas – in school, in the home, in social life and working life. This affects the schools’ and the teachers’ work.”

Source: Reply of Sweden to the questionnaire administered by the International Bureau of Education in preparation for the Forty-Fifth Session of the International Conference on Education on the theme ‘Strengthening the Role of Teachers in a Changing World’, Geneva, International Bureau of Education, 1996, p. 30. (Mimeo.)

Children and teacher in front of computer
Children and teacher in front of computer
with their backs to the blackboard

“Blended Learning” or the combination of digital content and activity with face-to-face content and activity is an enormously successful way for children to learn, provided the teaching staff have adequate training. It looks very different in every classroom. It allows a teacher to continue to teach something that works really well in a face-to-face situation, but if it works better, is more efficient or more effective when it’s digital, then they can do that. It gives teachers the flexibility to provide what the students need to have in order to understand what they need to learn. A teacher may want to use online material as supplemental: for example have students listen to someone talk about the topic; or to work with students in small groups, while other students are still engaged in content learning.

One successful model is the “flipped classroom” popularized by the Khan Academy and others. This moves the delivery of material outside the formal class time, so that students arrive in class familiar with the topic and have the class time to extend their knowledge of it, through discussion and interactive activities relevant to the material.

In 2015 the Khan Lab School was founded to pioneer new models of learning. It describes its mission as:

“to develop new, personalized practices that center around the student. With this in mind we hope to develop and test new types of learning experiences and practices that can be shared with the world.

In keeping with Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse philosophy, the school is a full-year, full-day, mixed-age program with a collaborative, project-based learning approach. There is not traditional homework, grade levels, or grades, but the school is mastery-based.

The main focus in all subjects is leveraging world-class teacher-designers to build a community that encourages inquiry and self-direction.”

Scientists visit Khan Lab School
Scientists visit Khan Lab School
to share lessons about fresh
foods and food additives.

At the Khan Lab students of all ages engage in the hard work of problem-solving, selecting either traditional problems or more open-ended enquiry type projects. They pull knowledge as they need it from various sources: an on-demand lecture, a reference book, a friend, a teacher, or an article on the internet. Only when they are sure they need help does the teacher come in. Learning in this way facilitates retention. Khan has also included much needed classes in the basics of coding so that students gain familiarity with software and what it can accomplish, and can experiment at their own pace.


Adequate technology-oriented professional development and incentives for teachers

Children and teacher in front of computer
Summer Technology Professional Development
for 400+ Minnetonka Teachers

Teachers need adequate technology-oriented professional development and incentives that will ensure that they understand, are motivated and will use technology in their classroom, otherwise they will continue their old ways of teaching. Western Heights School District in Oklahoma City reported success once they conducted district-wide trainings broken up into four sessions that were two to three hours long, each centered on a specific piece of technology. The sessions include live lectures, Q&A sessions, online videos, homework assignments, and even tests that teachers had to take before proceeding to the next segment.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is that the old ways of teaching tend to rely on 'right answers' which the teachers knew and students learned. A different approach is needed to the next generations for solving the worldwide problems of today and tomorrow; one that technology will help by supporting open-ended classroom projects whose purpose is to foster the integration of knowledge from multiple subjects, and the ability to think outside the box.


As we said earlier, we all learn best from people we like or admire and from people who believe in us. The most successful teachers show their students that they matter; teachers who have high expectation of their students’ abilities, who build relationships with them, and who are present to provide personal feedback and guidance. Children need to be valued individually and as a group and they need a safe space in which they can think for themselves and learn how to learn, without fear of asking questions or making mistakes.

There needs to be a balance in the way we teach and assess student success. In a recent article in ‘Education Week’ entitled We Aren’t Using Assessments Correctly, John Hattie writes that we are neglecting the major purpose of assessment in schools. He notes that although informing students of their progress and attainment is important, assessments should first and foremost “provide interpretative information to teachers and school leaders about their impact on students, so that these educators have the best information possible about what steps to take with instruction and how they need to change and adapt.”

Tests should provide feedback for both teachers and learners, and be designed to align with the curriculum rather than the other way around.

Children should be able to follow their passions while they learn what they need to know. One of the many moving stories that Sir Ken Robinson tells is the story of Dr. Laurie Barron, principal of Smokey Road Middle School in Newnan, Georgia. In the process of transforming a badly failing school, Dr. Barron realized something vital was missing:

‘Only when Laurie started to think about what mattered to her kids did things start to change at Smokey Road. “Whatever is important to the student is the most important thing. Nothing is more important than something else: football, band, math, English. We weren’t going to tell the students that football wasn’t important, that math was what was important. Our approach was that if football was most important to you, then we were going to do whatever it takes to keep you in football. When we started taking that approach, when kids started seeing that we valued what they valued, they started giving back to us what we valued. Once we started building relationships with the kids, they’d feel guilty about letting us down. They might not like math, but they didn’t want to let that math teacher down. Then the teachers could finally teach, instead of writing discipline referrals.”’
Robinson, Ken; Aronica, Lou; Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education

Given that many schoolchildren come from low-income families, as Michael Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity says, educators have not only to think about how to give all kids a meaningful education, “We have to give them quality teachers, small class sizes, up-to-date equipment. But in addition, if we’re serious, we have to do things that overcome the damages of poverty. We have to meet their health needs, their mental health needs, after-school programs, summer programs, parent engagement, early-childhood services. These are the so-called wraparound services. Some people think of them as add-ons. They’re not. They’re imperative.”

The challenge is to keep the natural predisposition for learning alive in our students throughout their school lives and beyond. As the neuroscientist, psychologist, and former public school teacher Mary Hellen Immordino-Yang points out in her book “Emotions, Learning and the Brain”, to be successful, educators need to find ways to leverage the emotional aspects of learning, because “we only think deeply about things we care about.” The primary purpose of education then is to nurture already curious, flexible, creative, and potentially critical thinkers – who will then be up to the many challenges of our future world. Too often we underestimate the innate creativity of young people. Humans are natural learners, and it is both sad and surprising how far below adult expectations are from the truth of what children can accomplish given the right circumstances.

Sugata Mitra, a professor of education technology at Newcastle University in the UK, continues to test this question: “Just how much are children natural learners?” He claims his data shows that “groups of children using The Internet, can learn anything, by themselves, under the right circumstances.” Therefore the role of teachers needs to change. Teaching 19th century topics like arithmetic and spelling no longer makes sense because children will absorb these abilities while using assistive technologies like spellcheckers and calculators. He advises that the teacher’s job is no longer to provide the answers but to provide the “Big Questions” (those with no right answers) that motivate their students; and, most importantly, that teachers today “should teach children how to discern the information that they need from the information that they don’t – and that’s a very difficult skill at this time. It has to become mainstream.”

Will our kids be ready for the world in 2050? Will our kids be ready for the world in 2050?
Dana Mortenson is the co-Founder and Executive Director of World
Savvy. She has dedicated her professional life to educating and
engaging youth in community and world affairs, to close the
Global Competency gap in American education.

As the world becomes more connected, education urgently needs to prepare young people to participate in our global community. Solutions to the problems we all share require unprecedented levels of cooperation, which can only be built on mutual respect, tolerance and understanding. Both government and business leaders today need employees who are able to work internationally. Yet, as a 2010 National Education Association policy brief noted “Our increasingly interconnected and interdependent global society mandates that American students be educated to develop habits of the mind that embrace tolerance, a commitment to cooperation, an appreciation of our common humanity, and a sense of responsibility—key elements of global competence. However, not enough is being done in public schools and class-rooms to expose students to global issues. Research shows that most American students, low-income and minority groups in particular, lag behind their peers in other countries in their knowledge of world geography, foreign languages, and cultures.”

It’s often thought that the advantages of one community over another are too extreme, their differences too vast for education to benefit everyone and offer opportunities to everyone. The feeling is that technology will only exaggerate the disparities and further separate those who have from those who have not. But an investment in facilitating project-based learning programs in private and public schools could show us otherwise.

How to Learn
Kizuki Russell, age 9
Biography Project: Kizuki chose to write on Ben Franklin
Teacher: Eleanor Tiglao, 3rd grade, Craigmont Elementary School, Berkeley CA

It would give all kids the experience of collaborating to solve problems that might improve their world, with each one making a contribution. It could show those less advantaged in society that they can make a difference, and enable them to look outwards – away from what they lack towards what they can contribute. And it could demonstrate to parents, teachers and kids that everyone has the potential to lead a fulfilling life