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Education for Our Times

The critical need everywhere in the world is for education to prepare students to lead successful, fulfilling lives. In today’s world, this means providing them with relevant educational experiences that nurture their passions, problem-solving abilities, and higher level thinking skills, including critical thinking and creativity. The best solutions involve teachers, students, schools, and whole communities.

In the U.S. and other Western democracies, commitment to a pervasive system of public education has gone hand-in-hand with growth and prosperity. Since the mid-19th century, mass public education has provided a foundation for millions of people to create a life for themselves and their families and to 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 11 years of compulsory schooling.

However, a primary goal of education is to prepare students for success in adult life, and while our 21st century world has seen changes that no one would have envisaged even 20 years ago, the classroom and curriculum that evolved with mass education have not adapted. Methodologies that worked when routine jobs were in high demand still dominate.

While our 21st century world has seen changes that no one would have envisaged even 20 years ago, the classroom and curriculum that evolved with mass education have not adapted.

In the U.S., the issue goes beyond outdated methodology. Ingrained stereotyping and low expectations, coupled with dramatically reduced public investment in quality public schools for all, have deprived many black, Latino, and poor white children in low-income communities of equitable access to a good education. At the extreme, the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” pushes an inordinate percentage of these kids out of the education system altogether into a burgeoning system of mass incarceration. A 2016 analysis of federal data by the U.S. Education Department reports that since 1980, state and local spending on incarceration grew three times as much as spending on public education.

How We Got Here: Education for a Bygone Era

Mass public education in the West developed in the mid-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. As the education scientist Sugata Mitra points out, some countries such as Britain and France 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.

What was required, says Mitra, were workers who were essentially identical to each other. “They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional.”  The Victorians, Mitra says, “created a computer of peoplea bureaucratic machine and schools to prepare people to run that machine. This is still happening.

As Sir Ken Robinson, international advisor on education in the arts, puts it: “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.”

To this day, standards for evaluating schools and the predominant approaches to education reform are still largely based on this 19th century model. In Counting What Counts: Reframing Education Evaluationeducation professor Yong Zhao says “…countries engaged in this reform movement have embarked on a race to produce students with excellent test scores—in the belief that scores in a limited number of subjects on standardized tests accurately represent the quality of education a school provides, the performance of a teacher, and students’ ability to succeed in the future…

While mathematics, science and language are important foundation skills, educators need to understand, says Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation 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 jobs market reflects the decline in demand for these routine cognitive skills, while the demand for non-repetitive analytical skills and non-routine interactive skills such as coding and problem-solving has risen exponentially. One outcome is the so-called “Boomerang Generation”— an increasing number of young people who end up living with their parents after college, often because of a mismatch of their education to available jobs, compounded by an overwhelming burden of student debt and out-of-reach rents in many urban areas.

“…no one, from the UN to the G8, has any idea what the jobs of the future might look like.”

The pace of this trend is not slowing. Futurist and industry advisor Matthew Griffin points out that even those skills in high demand today such as programming and data analysis are poised to be taken over by next-generation machines. He notes that over the next 20 years, between 30% and 50% of all of today’s jobs are projected to be replaced by technology.

New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose underscores this prediction. Reporting from the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he quotes the president of a consulting firm that helps companies automate their operations: “Earlier they had incremental, 5 to 10 percent goals in reducing their work force. Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?’”

Says Griffin, “Unlike the industry disruptions of the past, though, where jobs were destroyed but where new ones sprang up, worryingly no one, from the UN to the G8, has any idea what the jobs of the future might look like.”

The Way Forward

“The world economy no longer pays you for what you know, but for what you can do with what you know.”

So how do we educate for this unknown future? Clearly needed is a global citizenry capable of not just doing, but creating jobs and finding solutions to a host of unprecedented global challenges. This requires a broad approach to education that reaches all children where they are and fosters the development of the unique strengths and potential of each individual child. School cultures need to promote entrepreneurship, global awareness, and a humanistic outlook that includes appreciation of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

Andreas 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.

In a 2016 New York Times editorial “The Wrong Way to Teach Math,” political scientist and statistician Andrew Hacker pointed out that while most Americans have taken high school math including geometry and algebra, 82% of adult respondents to a national survey were unable to work out the cost of a carpet when told its dimensions and square-yard price.

In today’s world, 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, and history and be able to apply them to solving real-world problems. 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 – an ability referred to as quantitative literacy or “numeracy.”

Mathematician and civil rights icon Robert P. Moses founded the Algebra Project some 50 years ago because of his belief that “the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961.” While voting rights were the key to unlocking political access, he says, math literacy is essential for unlocking economic access.

Puzzle-head puzzling over a puzzle piece
Young people need to be able to think critically to connect ideas and sources across disciplines.

Most subjects are still taught in siloed units, but a broader approach is needed to equip the next generations in the workforce; people must able to think creatively and critically across disciplinary boundaries. The traditional model of teaching tends to rely on “right answers” that the teachers know and students learn. Though there is a place for teachers providing instruction and information, a more balanced approach is needed that encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning by asking their own questions and forging their own creative solutions. While classrooms continue to be held with only rare opportunities for students’ collaborative work, the world needs people who can work together to solve problems. All this requires open-ended, collaborative classroom projects that require knowledge from multiple subjects to tackle messy issues with no one right answer.

In her book “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit cites a great example of this collaborative, student-driven, multi-disciplinary approach. Based on the students’ observation that black and Latino drivers were more likely than white drivers to be stopped by police officers, Chicago middle school math teacher Eric Gutstein’s seventh grade class undertook a study of racial profiling. In the process they reviewed basic probability, and became acquainted with several mathematical/scientific concepts. They studied state data based on police reports of traffic stops and compared it with the ethnic breakdown of the state’s population. Groups of students created their own statistical simulations and analyzed their combined results as a whole class.

At the end of the unit,” says Delpit, “students were asked to write about what they had learned, how mathematics had helped them learn it, whether they now believed that racial profiling is a problem, and whatever additional questions the project had brought to mind. The class then discussed the issue and decided whether they should take a next step and publicize their findings.”

Students of all socio-economic backgrounds can benefit from an active study of the nature of social interaction and how it can be put to good use inside and outside the classroom.

In Counting What Counts, Brian Gearin of the University of Oregon’s Center on Teaching and Learning cites numerous studies that support the importance of social interactions to student success—not just academic achievement but the reduction of violence and various aspects of student health and wellbeing. Based on this body of research, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Education have recommended that schools adopt strategies to increase social connectedness and improve school climate. Gearin points out that along with collaborative projects, students of all socio-economic backgrounds would benefit from an active study of the nature of social interaction and how it can be put to good use inside and outside the classroom. Schools might teach the principles of social intelligence: how social networks work, how ideas and practices are transmitted from one person to another and adopted by groups, how social capital works and how to develop it, and how our social brains work.

Creativity and the Emotional Side of Learning

Humans are natural learners. The challenge, and a primary goal of education, must be to nurture already curious, flexible, creative, and potentially critical thinkers – to keep their natural predisposition for learning alive throughout their school lives and beyond. Too often we underestimate the innate creativity of young people, and multiple studies have shown a clear link between what teachers expect and what students accomplish.

In Reach for Greatness: Personalizable Education for All ChildrenYong Zhao maintains that education today is “obsessed with what children do not know or are unable to do. Worse, education today has developed various ways to speak about children’s deficiency, publicly and loudly, in the forms of tracking, grade retention, and sorting into different programs such as special education, summer remediation, and extra tutoring.” What we need instead, he says, is an education that “supports passion and enhances strengths, instead of fixing deficits or closing gaps.” We must shift the model, he says, from deficiency to strength.

In “Culturally Responsive Pedagogies,” her piece in Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Schools, Lisa Delpit says that children come to school with different kinds of knowledge and different strengths to build on. What we tend to think of as basic skills, such as knowledge of letter names or recognition of numerals, are inherent in the upbringing of middle class kids. They may not be basic to children from non-mainstream or non-middle class backgrounds. She describes her experience when, in her early years of teaching, one of her first graders was judged to be “failing” in math, unable to calculate a total amount of money represented by pictures of coins on a worksheet. Delpit was advised to refer her student for placement in special education. Before doing so, she visited his home and discovered that because his mother was suffering with a substance addiction, he was responsible for his family’s laundry. He in fact had a solid working knowledge about coins and money. “I assumed that because he could not do a task in my classroom that was decontextualized and paperbound, he could not do the real-life task it represented. It is often very difficult for teachers, particularly those who may not be from the same cultural or class background as the children, to understand where strengths may lie.” For many children from poor communities, she says “critical thinking skills are basic. Those are the skills they come to us with. They are accustomed to being more independent. Often they are familiar with real-life problems and how to solve them.”

As 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.”

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.”

One of the many moving stories that Sir Ken Robinson tells in his book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, is that of Dr. Laurie Barron, principal of Smokey Road Middle School in Newnan, Georgia. In the process of transforming a struggling 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.’”

Sometimes, to unlock their confidence and find their passion, students need help in overcoming emotional barriers that cause them to resist learning, or at best, to “tune out.” Says Robert Moses, “I’ve seen some kids who are just too angry to learn. There is the issue of breaking through, finding a way to penetrate into that anger and hostility…Their stance at that level, ‘I’m not going to let you teach me!’ … It’s their response to the structures they encounter and the educational system as they perceive it. For all of the kids, there are huge chunks of their lives that we just don’t see…sometimes the debris of it rains down on us as if from a sudden thunderstorm. That some of the kids even keep coming to school instead of being lost to the streets suggests some remarkable reserve of strength, some hope for something better that we are obliged to meet. If the kids can find their voice, the door to change begins to open much wider.”

He tells the story of one such student, James, in his math classes at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi. After several years of working together, Moses was finally able to break through to James and engage him in using a graphing calculator to solve problems on his own, to the point where he began to step up and take the lead in helping others in the class. “Mr. Moses said he knew I could do better and that I needed to come out of myself. You wanna hear him but at the same time you’re sayin’, ‘Why you talkin’ to me?’ Then it started clickin’ in my brain. I am smart. I can do things! And the next day I started to do more stuff.”

Children as Natural Learners

Just how much are children natural learners? We have countless examples of individuals of great achievement in spite of – or perhaps because of – their lack of “formal” education.

In her remarkable memoir, Educated, Tara Westover, daughter of a family of survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, recounts her journey to becoming a Cambridge scholar, having set foot in a classroom for the very first time at age 17. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University with no previous schooling.

“Groups of children using the internet, can learn anything, by themselves, under the right circumstances.”

Yong Zhao, raised by illiterate parents in a remote Chinese farming village, describes his own early learning experience: My teachers in the village school were not well trained to make me follow a prescribed reading curriculum, so I was able to read anything I could find instead of a series of carefully selected graded reading materials. The assortment of used books, magazines, and newspapers my father collected for wrapping noodles in the village noodle factory not only taught me to read but also, more importantly, exposed me to a broad range of topics, way beyond what a very carefully designed curriculum can offer.

Sugata Mitra claims that data from his “Computer in the Wall” experiments show that “groups of children using the internet, can learn anything, by themselves, under the right circumstances.” This means, he says, that the role of teachers needs to change; the teacher’s job is not to provide the answers but to pose “Big Questions” that motivate their students to do their own investigations. To learn in this way, students need to know how to discern the information they need from the information they don’t, a skill that Mitra says needs to become mainstream. As, Ken Robinson puts it, “There are immense benefits in the digital revolution for the education of all young people. At the same time, the need has never been greater for them to separate fact from opinion, sense from nonsense, and honesty from deception. Clear, critical thinking should be at the heart of every discipline in school and a cultivated habit outside it too.”

Educating the Whole Child

In Counting What Counts, education scholar Yue Shen points out that non-academic skills such as personality, emotions, empathy, and metacognitive skills such as curiosity and self-efficacy, though they are not an inherent part of any subject-specific curricula or classroom instruction, are crucial to the long-term well-being of individuals, the ultimate purpose of education. We now have sufficient knowledge about human development, she says, to develop “practices and systematic efforts in the school environment, so that students can develop the potential they were born with through attentive nurturing that educators are able to provide.”    

To benefit from such efforts, students must also have their most basic needs met. Given that so many schoolchildren come from low-income families, says Michael Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity, “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.”

Importance of Community: Lessons from Newark and Akron

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 Geoffrey Canada says about his work in Harlem, there must be community involvement—support for and pride in the education each community provides for its 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.

One high-profile example of what goes wrong when the community is not involved is documented in Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff’s book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools. In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg teamed up with then New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Newark mayor Corey Booker, pledging to fund their five-year plan to fix the city’s schools. The three announced their plan to the world on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was the first time Newark parents, teachers, and other long-time stakeholders heard about it. A strong community backlash quickly took shape against reforms that funneled millions to outside consultants, led to the closing of neighborhood schools, and caused massive disruption in the lives of children and parents.

Newark’s next mayor, Ras Baraka, summed up the issue: The money “didn’t go to the city, and it didn’t go to the school system either. It went to a foundation that made decisions about what the money should be spent on. You can’t just cobble up a bunch of money and drop it in the middle of the street and say, ‘This is going to fix everything.’ You have to engage with communities that already exist … To parachute folks in, it becomes problematic.

contrasting approach is LeBron James’ I Promise school, opened in 2018 in Akron Ohio. James grew up as an “at-risk” kid in the Akron public school system and launched the project from his own personal experience, with the motivation of paying back the community that supported his success. The school plan was developed in collaboration with teachers, families, and the Akron school board. At the school’s core is a commitment to improving the wellbeing of the whole community, with vital wrap-around services for students, including provisions for the basic needs of their families. Most important, he made I Promise a public school that belongs to the district, as opposed to a charter or private school. Each of the five teams tasked with designing various school components is headed by an Akron Public Schools staffer.

kids standing around a robot
A US Navy officer helps student participants in FIRST Robotics Competition in Washington, D.C.

Diane Ravitch, education historian and Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration, is a leading proponent of a strong system of community-based public education. “Do we need neighborhood public schools?” she asks in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. “I believe we do. The neighborhood school is the place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. Neighborhood schools create a sense of community among neighbors who might otherwise remain strangers. As we lose neighborhood public schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take within their communities. For more than a century, they have been an essential element of our democratic institutions. We abandon them at our peril.”

Parents should not be treated as “consumers” who have to go “shopping” for a school, she says, but should be able to “take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program… Just as every neighborhood should have a reliable fire station, every neighborhood should have a good public school.” Ravitch also makes the case that commitment to a strong system of public education is essential to the very notion of community and a cornerstone of democracy. “As citizens, she says, “we are all responsible for making good education available to all children, whether or not we have children in public school, and even if we have no children. …Without a well-resourced, equitable, professionally directed system of public education, we will have neither equity nor excellence. For the sake of our society, for the sake of our future, we must pursue both.”

As the world becomes more connected, education also needs to include a sense of our global community. Both government and business leaders today need employees who are able to work internationally. But beyond that, solutions to the problems we all share require unprecedented levels of cooperation, which can only be built on mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.

The Importance of Teachers

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. They have high expectations, build relationships, and 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.

The most successful teachers show their students that they matter.

Says education scholar Lisa Delpit, “When I have asked adults who, based on their childhood demographics, should not have but did achieve significant success—those who came from low-income communities, from single-parent families, from the foster care system, or who spent many years in special education classrooms—they have all identified one common factor to explain their accomplishments. Each of these adults attributed his or her success to one or more teachers. All talked about a teacher who was especially encouraging, or who demanded their best, or who convinced them they were more than the larger world believed. Teachers changed their lives, even when the teachers themselves did not realize they were doing so.”

Teacher and young child
As a society, we need to value and respect teachers, maintain a high bar for entry into the profession, and pay them as professionals.

Teaching is a demanding profession that requires both passionate commitment and a broad range of complex knowledge and skills. Teachers need to be well grounded in the subjects they teach and proficient with the latest classroom technologies. They need to be skilled in managing a classroom and interacting with and engaging their students. They must be able to recognize and move beyond their own biases in order to identify the unique strengths and talents of students from every background. They need a command of a variety of effective pedagogical practices, as well as the latest neurological research, especially about how very young children and adolescents develop and learn. As a society, we need to value and respect teachers, maintain a high bar for entry into the profession, and pay them as professionals. Principals should also be experienced teachers who are capable of supervising and helping their teachers.

Collaboration is also key for good teaching. Says Ravitch, “Teachers should work in schools where collaboration and teamwork are prized. They should expect to get help from their colleagues and to give help in return. A school should have a professional tone, where colleagues cooperate, not compete.

Delpit advocates for “focused, collaborative learning environments” where teachers meet regularly not just to “report” on what they are doing, but to work together to solve problems. They may visit each other’s classrooms and give feedback to help each other improve, and work together to refine mandated instruction to be more appropriate for their students. Education scholar Andy Hargreaves points out that even in the most remote and isolated rural schools, teachers are finding ways to come together to improve educational opportunity for their students.

The spate of teacher strikes that began in February, 2018 in West Virgina and spread across the U.S. is perhaps the most dramatic example of teachers coming together to advocate not just for their own working conditions and renewed respect for their profession, but for a larger public commitment to quality education for all students. They see the growth of highly selective “school choice” programs including vouchers and often unregulated charter schools as draining already stretched resources for public schools that continue to serve the vast majority of the nation’s children.

As one Arizona middle school teacher wrote, “a growing number of teachers, including myself, began to feel overwhelmed, demoralized, and paralyzed in a system that worked to undermine our ability to be the effective and meaningful teachers that we could be.”

Technology and Education

There is nothing new under the sun, and the belief that heavy use of communication technology is harmful to our brain and its functions is no exception. About 400 BC, Socrates expressed succinctly this concern: ‘[…] this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence.’ (Plato, orig. date unknown/1986) Of course, Socrates wasn’t referring to iPads, laptops, or the Class-Whizz. Socrates was talking about written language.”

“The Dilemma of Digital Technologies” from Hard Questions on Global Education ChangePasi Sahlberg and Associates

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.

Most students today are “native” users of digital technology.

Robert Moses identified the potential of technology as a learning tool some 20 years ago when the Algebra Project first began using graphing calculators (now of course, also available as apps). Moses believes that all students, regardless of background, are capable of learning advanced math as long as they can add and you can get their attention. “My students, like many of their generation, do not read as much as they should. Most of what they learn they learn from pushing buttons and seeing how images change. Their modalities of learning have been attuned to this image-making process. If you use these graphing calculators, you arouse their interest. The kids will take time to try to figure out how the calculator works…Students do not open a math book and say, ‘Let me show you what I know on this page,’ but they will show you what they know about a single button on a graphing calculator. Therefore, I think you have got to go where the kids are. And that place is different from the place where teachers have been taught to be.

The combination of digital with face-to-face content and activity is an enormously successful way for children to learn, provided the teaching staff have adequate training.

Most children today are “native” users of digital technology. Education Week reports that 98% of public schools now have high-speed internet access, serving more than 44 million students — up from 4 million just five years ago. More and more schools provide each student with their own classroom laptop or tablet and have one or more technology experts on staff.

Most agree that technology should serve the teachers and teaching but not replace teachers or all other methods of educating our children. “Blended learning,” the combination of digital with face-to-face content and activity is an enormously successful way for children to learn, provided the teaching staff have adequate training. Blended approaches look very different in every classroom and give teachers the flexibility to provide what their students need. For example, they may use computers to present baseline information to individual students, while at the same time working face-to-face with small groups who’ve already been exposed to the content. 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 familiar with the topic and have the class time to extend their knowledge through discussion and interactive activities.

assembly line workers dressed in pink in an enormous building
Assembly line workers in an Apple factory in China 2014. Some critics fear the massive private international investment in STEM is to ensure a future supply of cheap labor.

The integration of technology in the classroom, though both necessary and inevitable, is not without its pitfalls. There are privacy concerns with “personalized learning systems” designed to track student feelings and collect massive amounts of behavioral data. Others raise questions about the real motivations and potential consequences of the massive investments for-profit corporations and private foundations are making in digitizing classrooms and promoting STEM curricula around the world.

Yong Zhao takes care to differentiate between truly “personalizable” education and what has come to be labeled “personalized learning,” a term he says has been hijacked as a sales pitch for products aimed primarily at fixing learner “deficits” in standardized test scores. True personalizable education, he says, “gives back to students the agency of learning; makes them co-owners of the education institution; is flexible so as to accommodate changes and individual needs; and has a strong culture that celebrates value creation so students can learn to use their passions, strengths, and efforts to serve the world beyond themselves.” Technology in education should support that model.

Right Use of Testing

Assessment is a necessary part of education. Students, parents, teachers, taxpayers, business and governments—all those involved directly or indirectly in education—need and want to know its effectiveness.

“If all of that testing had been improving us, we would have been the highest-achieving nation in the world.”

But most education experts acknowledge that as a result of school reform initiatives, U.S. schools have gone overboard, adopting a “culture of testing” with negative impacts for students and schools. As Linda-Darling Hammond, internationally recognized expert on teacher education and educational equity, appointed in February, 2019 by Governor Gavin Newsom as head of the California State Board of Education puts it, “If all of that testing had been improving us, we would have been the highest-achieving nation in the world.”

There needs to be a balance in the way we teach and assess student success. John Hattie wrote in Education Week 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 be designed to align with the curriculum rather than the other way around. Says Diane Ravitch, “Educators can glean from test results what students have and have not learned. But there is a risk in putting too much faith in tests and the data they generate. The biggest risk is in forgetting that test scores are an indicator of the learning that has taken place and where improvement is needed, not the goal of education. When the indicator becomes the target, we lose sight of other, more important goals, such as the ability to understand and apply what is studied, to expand one’s knowledge, and to develop good character and ethical ideals.”

Like their education, their assessment should be authentic, based on abilities students need in real life.

Instead of focusing solely on a limited set of cognitive skills, we need to understand how well students are becoming resilient life-long learners — whether they are acquiring a wide range of vital skills and attitudes including self-awareness, curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, openness to new ideas, willingness to take risks and learn from failures, empathy, and collaboration. In Counting What Counts: Reframing Education Outcomes, Zhao and others attempt to outline “a set of desirable qualities based on available research, which includes persistence, personality traits, motivation, social intelligence, and global competence” that could provide the basis of a new paradigm for assessment.

Just as education needs to be personalized, so does assessment. From the student’s point of view, testing should provide feedback about where they are in relation to their own potential, rather than in comparison to others or to an arbitrary uniform standard. Like their education, their assessment should be authentic, based on abilities they need in real life. It also needs to be collaborative. Just as students are encouraged to take agency for their own learning, they should play a role in deciding the what, how, and when of their assessments. This does not mean teachers or authorities play a less significant role. They would have a brand-new role in designing and developing a personalized, more comprehensive and meaningful assessment in collaboration with the student.

Ravitch also points out the pitfalls in using tests results to make “high stakes” judgements about students, teachers, schools, or even entire education systems. The U.S., she says, has always ranked at the bottom of countries for performance on international standardized test scores. At the same time, there is an inverse relationship between a nation’s test scores and student confidence and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Some call this “false confidence,” but others believe it represents the spirit and diversity of talents—what Yong Zhao calls “failure to homogenize,” i.e. conform to a rigid standard — that underlies America’s unparalleled creativity and entrepreneurship.

For all stakeholders, in evaluating schools and education the focus should be on long term outcomes vs. short term instruction, taking into account potential for what Zhao calls “side effects,” or negative long term consequences of any given educational practice or policy. For example, Zhao says, some programs for teaching reading may need to be carry label warnings, as do drugs: “May improve your child’s test scores, but may also make your student hate reading forever.” Or some policies, such as “school choice,” may improve test scores for a select group of students, but lead to the collapse of American public education.

What Works: Models with Promise

Khan Lab School

The Khan Lab School’s mission is “to develop new, personalized practices that center around the student. We believe that young people are capable of far more than society currently recognizes, and we create and test learning experiences to share with the world.”

kids making things at a table with a scientist
Scientists visit Khan Lab School to share lessons about fresh foods and food additives.

At Kahn 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 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.

As a private school with annual tuition of $30,000 and limited scholarship opportunities, Kahn Lab is clearly out of reach for most families who depend on public education. But as a lab school, it demonstrates the original purpose of public charter schools—to serve as beacons for what could happen in public schools and develop approaches that can be shared and reproduced in other public school classrooms, and made available to all children.

Finland Schools

For a model system of national public education, one that is very different from that of the U.S., we can look to Finland. In Finland, education is considered a basic human right, and all schools at all levels are publicly funded and tuition-free. Teaching is a highly selective, respected, well-paid profession that is 100% unionized. Finnish teachers have the equivalent of a master’s degree and enjoy a great deal of classroom autonomy and professional collaboration. A truly “whole student” curriculum is driven by “whatever works” attitude. Responsibility is emphasized over accountability for teachers and principals – educators take responsibility for their students’ learning. They are not working in fear of being held “accountable” through punishment or firing based on their students’ test scores. Says Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finish Ministry of Education, “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish… Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.

In fact, there is no standardized testing for Finnish students until they complete high school. Although Finland generally scores near the top of the worldwide PISA ranking, high test scores are not a goal or even a primary concern of Finnish educators, merely one signal of their system’s effectiveness.

In 2016, some new teaching methods were introduced and Finland’s school buildings are gradually being refurbished with modern, open floor plans so that students no longer have to sit quietly in one place and have more autonomy over where and what they study.

Whether and how U.S. public schools can learn from and adopt the most successful of these model practices remains to be seen. Many of the issues facing American education are intertwined with deep-rooted economic and social policies and conditions that simply cannot be blamed on schools and schools cannot fix. Serious reform must take a long view less we create a system that entrenches these issues even more deeply.

Many educators too have a healthy skepticism of continuous calls for drastic reform that lead to what Zhao calls “the perpetual wars and pendulum swings” that can hurt children and hinder real progress. The U.S. education system, he says, “seems to be able to cultivate more creative entrepreneurial individuals but fails to teach the basics to a large group of childrenDoes this suggest that certain educational practices can be effective in achieving certain goals but can hamper the realization of other, equally important goals? In other words, there is no silver bullet or one right answer.

In the meantime, RobinsonDelpitMosesZhao, and many others provide myriad examples of how dedicated teachers can provide remarkable education experiences, in spite of the pressure of standardization and lack of resources. Says Robinson, “Opportunities for change exist within every school, even where the emphasis on high-stakes testing has become extreme.”

Enhancing Learning with the Power of Passive Exposure – Neuroscience News

Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, Stanford Univ.

Discover how passive exposure, alongside active practice, can significantly enhance the learning process.

Yong Zhao Video

Watch: China is the Wrong Model

Yong Zhao, Network for Public Education National Conference

Yong Zhao’s lively address brings a thought-provoking perspective on comparing U.S. and Chinese student test scores as a way to evaluate our education systems.

Education debate Video

Watch: Experts Debate Merits of PISA

Yong Zhao & Andreas Schleicher, Schools & Academies Show Birmingham 2018

Education scholars Yong Zhao and Andreas Schleicher share their divergent views on the pros and cons of OECD’s international testing program.

pencils on an orange background

The Other Segregation

Whitney Pirtle, The Atlantic

The public focuses its attention on divides between schools, while tracking has created separate and unequal education systems within single schools.

GAIMME pdf graphics

Math with Meaning


Math educators provide helpful guidelines for transforming traditional math equations and problems in a way that gives students as early as pre-K the foundation to tackle open-ended, reality-based questions collaboratively—questions that they find meaningful and can enhance their future. (PDF)

Geoffrey Canada TED Video

Watch: Our Failing Schools. Enough is Enough

Geoffrey Canada, TED

Why does our education system look the way it did 50 years ago? Millions of students were failing then, as they are now — and it’s because we’re clinging to a business model that clearly doesn’t work. Education advocate Geoffrey Canada dares the system to make systematic shifts in order to help greater numbers of kids excel.

Sir Ken Robinson TED talk

Watch: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Sir Ken Robinson, TED

Here the entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.

Dana Mortenson TED talk

Watch: Will Our Kids Be
Ready for the World in 2050?

Dana Mortenson, TED

World Savvy founder Dana Mortenson explores how teaching and learning in the U.S. is changing, or should change, in our rapidly evolving, interconnected global society. Will our kids will be ready to compete in, and contribute to, a new reality?

Improbable Scholars

The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools

David L. Kirp

How do we determine if our schools are preparing students for a meaningful future in our society and improve the schools that are not living up to those standards? Explores the current crisis in American education and four districts that have made positive changes.

One World Schoolhouse

Education Reimagined

Salman Kahn

There may be a young girl in an African village with the potential to find a cancer cure. A fisherman’s son in New Guinea might have incredible insight into the health of the oceans. By combining the enlightened use of technology with the best teaching practices, we can foster students who are capable of self-directed learning, deep understanding of fundamentals, and creative approaches to real-world problems.

Beyond the Hole in the Wall

Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning

Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra’s now famous experiments have shone light on the immense capacities that children have for learning in self-composed and self-regulated groups.

In the series

Further Reading