'Fixing' the Education System

In the last few years I have heard a lot more about how the American education system is archaic and failing, that it fails to prepare students for the ‘real world’ and acts more like a factory producing cookie-cutter thinkers and middle managers. To a large extent, I agree with a lot of this. Education is not adapting to the new hyper-connected world. It is not that surprising that an institution as large as education is not making rapid changes, especially since individuals are still coming to grips with globalization and the information economy, but that does not mean that we should not strive to remodel education. 

The New York Times recently started an opinion series on overhauling math and science education. The first article is titled ‘Who says math has to be boring’ and in it, they give recommendations about how to improve STEM outcomes, and ask for comments on those recommendations. The comments are full of ‘here is what you need to do...’ posts. But there is no way education can be ‘fixed’ in a paragraph. Also, that language does not sit right with me. I think the system needs to be updated, changed, adapted, disrupted, etc. But to be able to ‘fix’ the system implies that we understand the system, and are capable of pinpointing what is wrong with it. The issues with the education system are far too complex and intertwined for this industrial and deterministic approach.

The concept of fixing education also reminds me of the teaching approach to education as opposed to the learning approach. Recently, I have started to shy away from the word ‘teach’ because it conjures up images of the dumping of knowledge into someones brain. They don’t know something, so the teacher comes along and gives it to them. First of all, that is not how people learn, and second, information is free now, there is no need to have an expert tell you information when you can go find it on the internet. What would be helpful is someone to discuss ideas with or to support your learning, essentially a coach, mentor or tutor. The deterministic approach of ‘there is something you need to know, let me tell it to you and then you know it’ is misleading and potentially harmful. Knowing pieces of information is not as useful as being able to apply information or the ability to learn something new.

The other thing all these ‘solutions’ miss is the need for strategy. What is the purpose of education? Why are we having students learn certain things in a certain way? Why do we need math or other subjects? What outcomes are we trying to create? It is not that I think these recommendations are useless, I just think that they are somewhat aimless without a strong sense of what they are trying to accomplish. And I mean something stronger and more specific than ‘we want our citizens to be good at math.’ What does that even mean? We need to have a strategy, not a list of goals. And as a part of that strategy there need to be steps and actions that are intentional and connect to the overall strategy. 

So when someone says, 'to fix math education, it needs to be applied to the real world,' that is a great idea, but not a full fledged solution. I know this cannot necessarily be fleshed out in a comment, but I think the more important questions are about why we want to teach applied math and what outcomes we are trying to produce. Do we want to use applied math so that students memorize equations and know what a polynomial equation is? Or so that they are more comfortable in new and unfamiliar situations, have better critical reasoning skills and can deal with learning new things in context? Or something else?

I agree that education needs to be disrupted, that it is antiquated and does not seem to have a well-defined purpose, or that its purpose does not match what we need from education. But I don’t think making small changes to the current system will accomplish all that is needed. A new model, a new system is needed.

So, what is being done? Some ed tech entrepreneurs and educational reformers are seeking to truly disrupt the current model, but in my opinion, much of what is coming out is just fluff. Using iPad’s in a classroom is great, but it does not mean that better learning outcomes are being achieved. Technology is not going to fix education, but it will certainly play a large role. Technology helps spread access to education to more people, create more adaptable learning scenarios, aid teachers and students with data about progress. But these are tools. They can be counterproductive just as easily as they can be productive if they are not used within a specific strategy. As Noam Chomsky said,

"Technology is basically neutral. It's kind of like a hammer. The hammer doesn't care whether you use it to build a house, or whether a torturer uses it to crush somebody's skull." 

I have an somewhat novel viewpoint as an academic tutor; it allows me to see what these students are really dealing with. Even though the kids I work with go to some of the best schools in the country and have access to one-on-one tutoring, I still don’t feel that they are truly learning much. They are learning how to do an incredible amount of work, how to memorize information in the short term to perform well on examinations. But they rarely have the time to be curious. A lot of what I do is help kids work through their homework. Often, it is not to help them understand, but to check them, make sure they don’t make any mistakes and make sure they have the procedure down for the test. There is little context to their learning and, with the constant pressures of grades and college, not a lot of flexibility for me to try to develop true learning. Their motivation is to perform well, not to understand or develop skills. It feels more like a contest than the enriching endeavor that learning should be.

Is it better to learn very little about everything or everything about very little? I believe that developing a high level of understanding, even if it is of the simplest of concepts, will lead to more and better learning. Whereas being force-fed information but never truly understanding any of it causes students to shut down and avoid unknown situations where they will need to learn. Learning is not memorizing. It is about how to deal with the unknown. How to find your own path forward using the resources available to you. 

So here I am saying that you can't fix education in a paragraph but not providing a full solution of my own. What I am doing is calling for a change in how we think about and approach educational reform. I am trying to learn from my students and thinking about the overall strategy of education and how a system would be designed to achieve desirable outcomes while still promoting true learning. We'll see how it goes.