August 20, 2014

As the fall rolls around and students stock up on glitter glue and college-rule notebooks, there's a list of problems facing the educational system: more tests, more global competition, and more kids that are unprepared for the 21st century.

How do we reinvent American education?

An Unconventional Education Toolbox

You can start at the very beginning, with preschoolers and kindergarteners.

Dr. Roberta Ness, author of “Genius Unmasked” and Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Texas, explains why Maria Montessori's method for teaching was so successful. Montessori schools, which have a bit of a cult following in Silicon Valley, encourage creativity and inquisitiveness in a way that traditional schools don't.

“When you’re 3 years old or 5 years old, you think it’s perfectly great to color hair green and color the grass purple. You get into school and the teacher says to you, ‘oh no sweetie, those are not the colors of hair and grass,’ and there you have it, you just lost something.”

Teachers Can Be Rockstars

In order for American students to compete globally, American teachers also have to be able to compete. Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the World” discovered that the role of teachers varies significantly from country to country.

In South Korea, “individual teachers can become famous and very successful, particularly on the after-school, private tutoring market,” says Ripley. One English teacher earns $4 million a year, largely because he runs a successful tutoring business online.

Though teachers take center stage in many places, parents often do not. American parents, though, buck the trend, turning out for PTA meetings, sporting events, and bake sales. Unfortunately, says Ripley, they're frequently "not involved in ways that actually help their kids learn."

Sal Khan: an Education for All

We've heard for years now about the potential of a revolution in education, thanks to online platforms.

Sal Khan started one such platform, Khan Academy, back in 2006. His website offers short, free videos on topics from algebra to art history. 

One of the biggest issues facing the educational system today, according to Khan, is rigidity. A system where everyone is shuttled along year after year, or everyone finishes high school and college in exactly four years, isn't necessarily producing the best results.

Khan uses the analogy of construction to prove his point. If you lay a foundation that has holes, but keep building anyway, there will be some serious issues by the time the building is finished. In the same way, allowing a student with a 70 percent to pass algebra leaves them with holes that can't be plugged by the time they get to calculus.

Khan says in the past, individualized learning in large classes was nearly impossible. But now, technology allows us to track each student better and give them the kind of customized learning they really need.

A Dip Into History: Scholastic Aptitude

In 1933, when James Conant became the president of Harvard, the Yard looked decidedly mono-cultural. There weren’t many students from the Midwest and the South or from middle and lower-income households.

Conant wanted to shake things up and bring in kids from different backgrounds, but he knew he would be recruiting kids who didn’t normally apply to places like Harvard. So he turned to another American institution for the answer – the military.

Fighting the Nerd Stereotype

It may be time to rethink the word “nerd,” says psychologist David Anderegg, author of “Nerds: How Dorks, Dweebs, Techies, and Trekkies Can Save America.” "Nerd" conjures up a stereotype that may be hurting America’s ability to compete on a global scale.

Why is that such a bad thing? Well, for one, other countries are much more encouraging of people who take an interest in algebra and physics. “In places which have only recently emerged into literacy,” according to Anderegg, “they can’t afford to have that kind of stereotype.”

As the world grows increasingly competitive, we may not be able to afford this kind of stereotype either.


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