10 Ways to Improve Education


2014-06-15 – Here are 10 things that are needed to improve our educational system. I could write a dissertation, but when you get to the end of the list, you’ll see that I’m not big on dissertations. Let me know what you think of these points. I’d rather hear what you think and get some discussion going.

1. Parents need to cut teachers some slack.

Unless the teacher is abusing your kid, butt out. You are not going to improve the teacher’s teaching skills no matter how wise or savvy you are. There’s plenty a school can do to improve teaching, but you are not the solution. Chances are, you’ll make things worse.

Bake some cookies!

And if you are so smart, read to your kids, have them read to them, help them with math, discuss things with them.

2. Teachers need to cut parents some slack.

I don’t know of many professions where the customer is so thoroughly regarded as the enemy. Yes, customer. Teachers, you are providing a service—to someone! “Customer” may not be the best word for it, but it’s better than “asshole.” Someone is expecting you to do something valuable for them. You should be honored that they have that expectation.

Yes, I know that most teachers are fine with parents but, institutionally, parents are thought of as a hindrance and a joke.

3. Children are built to learn.

The human species evolved to use culturally transmitted knowledge. That means that children learn things spontaneously and parents and other adults are programmed to teach—without a curriculum, without a lesson plan, without exams. Think about the major life skills that are learned without formal teaching: toilet training, walking, talking, interacting effectively with people, riding a bike, doing household chores, playing many sports.

Many children even learn to read without formal teaching. My kids learned by sitting next to me or my wife as we read to them—over many years.

So when teachers pat themselves on the back and say, we are the ones who taught your kids, I have to ask: what did you contribute? Did you help them learn faster with your methodology? Or did you hold them back from what they naturally do?

4. We need to know why we teach what we teach. And so do the kids.

The main thing that teachers do is offer a curriculum. Kids are sponges. They’ll learn to shoot their neighbor just as readily as they will learn to read. Teachers are there to get them to learn the latter rather than the former.

Before the industrial revolution, kids learned job skills from their parents. The rewards of learning to be a blacksmith were pretty clear. You got food to feed your family. The rewards of sewing were that you got nice clothes to wear.

Now kids are sent away from their parents to learn things that may not have any rewarding use in their lives. Kids learn these things, sure. They are sponges. But kids learn things that matter to them far more easily than things that don’t. My kids learned the Pokémon characters and their properties far more easily than they learned the names of the states and their governors and senators.

If we want to teach our kids, we need to know the value of reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.  With the possible exception of reading, I don’t think we know why we teach what we teach. We certainly don’t get that across to the kids.

5. We need to motivate kids.

One of the most starting things I learned in studying education was that there are serious professional educators who think that kids don’t need to be motivated. Adults need to be motivated, but not kids. Well, if you don’t think it is important to think about how to motivate kids, you get the results we see in the schools. Kids learn best what they are motivated to learn. Of course, you can’t really motivate a kid to learn something like math if you don’t know the value of math yourself.

6. We need to end schoolroom segregation by age.

We make an assumption that all kids are capable and interested in learning the same things at the same ages. It’s just not true. So some kids are “behind” and some kids are “ahead” and most kids are bored. It is convenient to run kids through school in age cohorts, but it doesn’t get the job done.

7. We need to stop using tests as filters.

If kids don’t learn at the same times, then testing them doesn’t really serve an educational purpose. Giving a kid a D because he didn’t learn the full lesson, then moving him on where he will struggle because of that lack makes no sense. It just creates a group of underachievers. And don’t forget the overachievers. The discriminations put in place in childhood last a lifetime. This creates excessive competitiveness in kids and their parents, focusing them on reaching the top of the pile rather than on learning.

Testing does have a place in learning. But wouldn’t it be better to teach a kid until he got it, rather than stigmatize him for life because he didn’t do it on our schedule?

8. We need to stop using tests as the definition of mastery.

Being able to pass a test gives us a lot of useful information, but it does not prove that a kid is able to use the tested knowledge. There are many other ways to define mastery.

9. We need to enlist kids to teach each other.

One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. A kid who passes a test ought to be able to go the next step and teach what he learned to the next kid. Research has shown than kids actually learn better from their peers than they do from adults. Did you ever wonder how children of immigrants speak English without an accent? They learn from their peers, not their parents.

So if a child tutor benefits from teaching and the child tutee learns better, why don’t we see more of this in modern classrooms. The technique was used a century ago in one-room school houses. What happened?

And think, if you have one teacher with 30 kids, you can multiply the teaching power of that one adult by using kid assistants to help with the teaching. Every kid should have to learn a lesson, then teach the lesson to someone else, before moving on.

10. We need to reconsider how we teach teachers.

To some extent, we are all natural teachers. We all teach many things to our kids. But there’s more to teaching in a school than natural talent. How do we teach the skills?

For the most part, we don’t. Teacher education doesn’t much prepare a teacher to take over a class. There’s student teaching, but student teaching lasts a short time. And the student teacher has only limited exposure to what really works in the classroom. Then they are on their own.

I would like to see more of an apprenticeship program. A student teacher could become a teacher’s apprentice and make the rounds to several types of classrooms. An apprentice teacher would graduate to become a journeyman teacher and a journeyman teacher would graduate to become a master teacher. Teachers would interact with each other more and they would have a path to advance their careers.

At the same time, let’s get rid of the idea that we need more PhDs in teaching. Every PhD candidate has to come up with some original theory. We have plenty of theories, thank you. We need skills, not theories. Some PhDs are okay. Some research is okay. I’m just talking about the idea that a teacher needs a PhD to advance her career in a school. There needs to be a better way.

Everyone has an opinion on this topic. Let me hear yours. Leave a comment below.


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