This paper consists of remarks I prepared for my wife Celena to give in a speech presented to the Texas Academy of Sciences. It was rejected for being too harsh and critical - especially since she was receiving an award - and she later edited it. This is my first draft.
The Continuing Evolution of Education
Prepared for Celena Miller
Remarks to the Texas Academy of Sciences
- The Myths of Equality
- The Problems of Standardized Testing
- The Evolution of Children's Thinking and Interactivity in the Classroom
- Steve Jobs Schools and other Innovative Approaches
- Thinking Outside of the Box and Implementing Change
[INTRODUCTION - SLIDE 1]
Greetings to all-
I'd like to begin by taking a moment to thank the Texas Academy of Sciences for both its recognition and its invitation to speak here today. It is indeed an honor to be able to interact for a few moments with the many excellent educators, scientists, and other STEM-related colleagues gathered here on this beautiful afternoon. It is my hope that my personal insight and perspective will provide a starting point for further dialogue towards the continued improvement and evolution of education as we move forward together for the betterment of our students and the education institution itself.
[THE MYTHS OF EQUALITY - SLIDE 2]
Education is full of myths and misunderstandings. It seems daily that there is some new emerging buzzword, methodology, or technology that promises to streamline and refine the processes and techniques educators utilize in order to provide meaningful content to all of their students. However, lurking beneath all of this educational lingo and technology lies one inherent overall flaw within the education system. This flaw relates to what I like to refer to as "the myth of equality".
No two children are alike. From birth children are exposed to a myriad of variables which affect their ability to flourish, grow, and learn. For example, some children may be born into a low income area with limited opportunities while others are born into a more affluent atmosphere. There are children with consistent and encouraging support systems while others barely get noticed in their own homes. Additionally, there are factors such as child hunger, individual mental capabilities, family backgrounds of limited education, and other pertinent factors that should be acknowledged and taken into account.
Unfortunately, the current system advocates a "one size fits all" approach when discussing and implementing educational goals. In doing so, a great disservice is performed toward the very students we are striving to help. How is it possible to effectively insure the understanding and comprehension of subject matter when we do not acknowledge the individual student aspect of the equation? We must realize that not all students will learn at the same rates nor at the same level of comprehension. There must be a concerted effort to take into account individual students needs and provide alternative approaches and methodologies if warranted in order to insure their success. Most importantly, it is imperative that as educators we approach our students as individuals and not simply as numbers to be reconciled against budgets, financials concerns, or titles. Let us consider for example: what exactly is accomplished by achieving a "recognized" status in our district and/or school if our students are barely comprehending the core concepts needed to become active participants in society snd achieve successful futures? Are we as educators truly providing content knowledge and skill sets toward that end, or are we becoming increasingly bogged down with paperwork and bureaucracy geared toward accountability and "placing blame" for the shortfalls of the system?
Nowhere is this question more applicable than in standardized testing.
[THE PROBLEMS OF STANDARDIZED TESTING - SLIDE 3]
In the last decade or so, the main approach to reaching educational goals and measuring student success has been through the utilization of standardized testing. Although the original intent of this approach seemed to be a valid line of thinking, it has become increasingly apparent that this methodology simply does not take into account the myriad of variables affecting individual students. Often, standardized testing is simply unrealistic in its assessment of failure or success simply because it does not acknowledge the variables we have just briefly mentioned. A good example of this would be trying to measure the success of an economically-challenged, low income student against the success of a middle-class student with an effective support system and advanced technology in place. Would such a student be "failing" if there was concerted, on-going effort on the student's part to learn and achieve an average grade as opposed to the student who had more advantages and technology but performed the minimum of effort needed and achieved a higher grade? Are we as educators rewarding effort and hard work or are we instead rewarding students based upon an arbitrary letter grade determined by a generic set of standards provided by an unknown individual from an unknown office who may not be familiar with the specifics of any given area, classroom, or region? Furthermore, how can we say these assessments are accurate when standards often very from state to state?
Although there have been arguments both for and against standardized testing, it is openly acknowledged that the current process needs tweaking by both sides. Some concerns of standardized testing that have been voiced include:
- The stifling of creativity and imagination in the classroom. By constantly giving benchmarks and district self-evaluations in order to insure excellent test ratings, educators are taking away time from students to explore among themselves, follow their natural line-of-thinking, and participate in critical thinking geared activities.
- The use of standardized testing as the chief accountability metric for students, educators, and schools. This has led to an increase of teachers and educational faculties becoming fearful of negative repercussions if certain markers aren’t met and thus “teaching to the test”. This leads to a shrinking of the curriculum where subjects such as music, art, social studies, and foreign languages are de-emphasized.
- Increased levels of stress among teachers. As educators become more fearful of repercussions for scores not meeting mandated levels (which could happen for any number of reasons such as the variables already briefly discussed); there is an increasing number of educators leaving the public system for more lucrative positions not necessarily bogged down by bureaucracy and red tape.
This is not to say that there shouldn’t be some form of assessment in order to better continue refining and evolving our teaching methods and education system. However, as educators we must be willing to constantly reassess our teaching and testing methodologies and be willing to make drastic changes if necessary – even if it takes completely trashing our current approach. For those scientists in the audience, this would be akin to implementing the scientific method: acknowledging a problem, creating a hypothesis for its solution, implementing processes and techniques to test our approach and hypothesis, and adjusting or re-examining as necessary to achieve the goals which have been stated. We must simply prioritize providing an education to our students rather than molding them to meet certain statistics for the sake of looking good or meeting unrealistic goals and standards.
Perhaps we could better understand how to assess our students if we first better understand how they learn in the first place.
[THE EVOLUTION OF CHILDREN’S THINKING AND INTERACTIVITY IN THE CLASSROOM - SLIDE 4]
In this regard, researchers and scientists have recently begun to take a closer look at exactly how children gather, process, and retain information given to them. Not surprisingly, preliminary data appears to show a trend of increased learning with the increase of interactive activities and multimedia technologies in both the classroom and home environments. Furthermore, whereas in the past it was believed that repetition was the most impactful on the retention of information, it is now becoming clearer that this might not necessarily be the case. Balancing the usage of multimedia applications with human social interaction can provide positive results in a myriad of areas such as critical thinking, problem solving, and social skills. A few examples of ways interactivity can be implemented in the classroom for the benefit of the student includes:
- The utilization of play as an educational tool to improve essential skills such as reading and writing.
- The utilization of interactive learning to insure children comprehend material provided to them.
- The utilization of interactive media and activities to improve motor control and skills of the students.
- The utilization of interactive applications to allow students more control over their work by allowing them to work at their own pace and as a result increase feelings of independence.
There are also other benefits to be had by including non-traditional approaches. Some examples of additional positives include:
- The use of gamification to reward students for their efforts. This methodology instills positive recognition for hard work and effort – not just end results – which in turn is more likely to encourage future effort by the students.
- Interactive media and applications allow for students to begin learning at an earlier stage of life. By immersing students into new ideas and concepts at a younger age, the more normal the learning process will be.
- Interactive applications and media can acknowledge children who are struggling with a concept or idea and adjust accordingly. By combining the end results with emerging technologies such as facial recognition, automatic application adjustment, and so forth, issues can be more quickly discovered and resolved.
- Finally, technology can play to a student’s strengths. As many know, there are three major categories of learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. By incorporating all three together with interactive media and technologies, students will develop new skill sets regardless of their personal learning style. This combination of styles will cater to their individual needs while improving their performance in all three areas.
Let us take a few moments to examine how these new approaches are being examined and implemented around the globe.
[STEVE JOBS SCHOOLS AND OTHER INNOVATIVE APPROACHES – SLIDE 5]
As the world continues to progress and move forward at ever-increasing speeds, the patterns and routines of life are changing. Whereas once work could only be performed during daylight hours, new advances and technologies allow for around-the-clock production and humanity has increased its workload and schedules accordingly. More than ever it is becoming apparent that there is no one single approach or methodology to not only meet our goals in education but life itself. In order to meet the challenges presented by these changes, new exciting techniques and methodologies are being examined and implemented in regard to providing a thorough and complete education to our students. One such approach can be found in the Steve Jobs Schools which are located in the Netherlands.
These institutions have embraced interactive learning by utilizing technology to allow their students access to data and information on a global scale. Teachers – in the form of coaches and mentors – work together with both the parents and the students to design individual plans geared toward reaching the goals established by all parties. Furthermore, these institutions have also acknowledged the presence of shift work, multiple schedules and agendas of family members, and the occasional unexpected circumstance which hinders a student’s ability to attend class. To offset these issues, the school building is open year-round with more flexible attendance policies that allow for adjustments to be made. Creativity, flexibility, critical thinking and problem solving are all given top priority. However, the student’s social and emotional development is also emphasized.
Here a little closer to home is another approach with which I am personally involved with and highly recommend. The Student Spaceflight Experiment Program is a way for students to engage in real science, working with real scientists, in real time. It was launched in 2010 as a STEM education initiative by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. This program typically provides 300+ students across a participating community the ability to propose and design real experiments to fly in low Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station. SSEP is designed to embrace the Next Generation Science Standards and provides an authentic, high-visibility research experience to students by allowing them to conduct experiments in many diverse fields including: seed germination, crystal growth, physiology and life cycles of microorganisms, cell biology and growth, food studies, and studies of micro-aquatic life.
As witnessed by both of these programs, non-traditional and interactive approaches can provide new avenues for increasing interest, providing content and experiences, and instilling a sense of participation for the student in his or her own future. All is needed by the education institution is the willingness to consider new techniques and lines of thinking – which moves into the final points I’d like to briefly discuss.
[THINKING OUTSIDE OF THE BOX AND IMPLEMENTING CHANGE – SLIDE 6]
As we all know, the education system is a complex institution that needs to be constantly reviewed and refined in order to meet the ever-changing needs of our communities and world-at-large. It is imperative that as leaders and educators, we must not restrict ourselves to outdated methodologies and techniques when presenting content to our students. Everyone in the educational process – from parents, to students, to teachers, and to administration – must be willing to “think outside of the box” and consider new approaches and avenues to meet our mutual goals. Change cannot – and will not – be effective unless implemented on a national level. To that end, we must come together and unify our standards, take into consideration what variables can affect student success, implement strategies to address these variables, and prioritize providing an education as opposed to simply meeting metrics and quotas, as well as be willing to totally change our outlook and approaches if warranted. Teachers must stand together on the front lines, demand change when needed, and insure that education administrations understand and assist in achieving these goals – without fear of repercussion.
Additionally, the United States must be willing to examine approaches taken by other countries. Are there elements that would be beneficial if we added them to our curriculum? Are there concepts and ideas which we could improve upon? What can we do together – both nationally and globally – to insure the successful continued evolution of education for our children – the true future of humanity?
[CONCLUSION – SLIDE 7]
In conclusion, I’d like to reiterate my gratitude to the Texas Academy of Sciences as well as the members of the audience for allowing me to briefly speak here today. It is my hope that my remarks will stimulate new conversation and discussion about the state of education here in the United States, and I challenge each of you to go forward and interact within your communities. Only together can we continue to insure the positive evolution of education for our students, our nation, and the world.