Just about every day there seems to be another debate clogging the air waves, with pundits and self-claimed experts critiquing, condoning, or commending various policy decisions, politicians, or policies. I don’t consider myself enough in-the-know to contribute my own two cents to most of these topics, but I can say I know a little something about one in particular: high school education.
In fact, I think every person who has graduated from a high school in this country should take note of the current controversy sweeping states across political, socioeconomic, and geographic lines. What in the world is going on?
The Common Core
One of President Obama’s biggest second-term initiatives is to reform American secondary education to put students in the best position for post-secondary success. In other words, he wants to institute a set of nationwide standards that ensure that regardless of where you live in this country, your school will offer the same kinds of classes and give you the same types of opportunities as students who live several time zones away. All of this has been encapsulated in what is now known as the Common Core.
What’s All the Fuss About?
People don’t like being told what to do. That’s a no-brainer. A lot of people are upset that the Common Core Standards are actually dividing the union instead of bringing us together.
After all, who’s to say someone attending a well-off public high school in New England (ehem, me seven years ago) offering AP Calculus to juniors is better poised to succeed post-graduation compared to a student residing in a South Chicago neighborhood whose high school can’t teach beyond Algebra 2?
Yeah, that technically is a run-on sentence (I think). Good thing the Common Core counts English/Language Arts as one of its two flagship focus areas (the other being Math).
Anyway, to cut to the chase, the Common Core sums up its mission as follows: clear goals, confident, well-prepared students.
Regardless of which side of the tug-of-war you’re rooting for, everyone agrees that we’re putting students first. We can attempt to use algorithms to project the future success rate and job market competitiveness of today’s students all we want, but if fundamental pieces of the puzzle are missing, we’re just setting them up for failure.
Spiral of Knowledge:
My own philosophy on learning can be best presented in the form of a math equation (don’t worry, these are words, not variables, with some pre-algebraic principles sprinkled in):
Good teaching + good tools = Good learning
Good (teaching + tools) = (Good) learning
teaching + tools = learning
Here’s the hard part: Are we really doing a good enough job to attract the best and brightest minds to teach today’s youth? When it comes to tools, are we focusing on just those that are available in classrooms or are we taking communities as a whole into consideration?
Take a look at this diagram, known as Nonaka’s spiral of knowledge:
Delivering knowledge is much more complicated than presenting information and expecting students to acquire it passively. Teachers are tasked with the challenge of creating a bridge linking the explicit (easy to transmit, written/verbal, share-able) and tacit (innate, difficult to share) dimensions of knowledge. Experts continue to debate pros and cons of this knowledge dichotomy, but what I take away from the discussion is the fact that learning is multidimensional.
I’ve seen it as a teacher – the students who excel in their studies are the ones who take the information that is given to them and internalize it. The best students are the ones who not only internalize the information but apply it towards finding meaningful solutions.
It’s important to train teachers to understand different learning styles so they can accommodate a diverse student body. It also wouldn’t hurt to recruit those who have a natural talent in this skillset and encourage them to pursue teaching as a career.
As for tools, this goes beyond the material possessions that a particular student has access to. Instead, it’s about fostering a collective appreciation for learning and empowering students to incorporate learning into their daily lives. There is tremendous potential for technology to be able to achieve this as today’s students are more tech-savvy than any generation that preceded them. I think the following passage from a 1998 publication sums it up best:
…the more rich and tacit knowledge is, the more technology should be used to enable people to share that knowledge directly. (Davenport & Prusak, 1998: 96)
But, let’s not get carried away. Even though technology is a (very powerful) tool to facilitate learning, it cannot take the place of actual human interaction. From another 1998 publication:
Although IT is a wonderful facilitator of data and information transmission and distribution, it can never substitute for the rich interactivity, communication and learning that is inherent in dialogue. (Fahey & Prusak, 1998: 273)
It seems as if these researchers were peering into a crystal ball and predicting the future two decades ahead of their time. Did they know 2014 would be a world full of smart-phone carrying masses shunning face-to-face interaction?
Here’s the fun part. Why were we taught what we were taught in high school?
If you ask me and countless other students going through the current job market rat-race, most of the crap we learned back then have absolutely nothing to do with what we’re currently doing to earn our bread and butter. Sure, they could have gotten us a few accolades and rounds of applause, but did they provide us any long-term value? The answer, at least for me, is a resounding no.
It’s incredible how few “real-world” skills our current educational system arms us with. Here’s a brief rundown of some classes I would have loved to have exposure to at least once before entering the real-world:
I’m not going to try to sugar coat it, folks – the real world is all about having transferable, marketable skills. If you leave college without any, good luck finding a job in today’s economy. There are many communities across the country that are doing away with courses that have been curricula mainstays for decades and replacing them with subjects that offer much more value to students. I applaud these pioneers.
And in case you’re wondering, some of this is actually corroborated by some of the world’s leading companies. Click here to read an analysis by a Google exec.
The Tables Have Turned
I am surprised that the Common Core standards don’t include, as far as I can tell, guidelines for expanding computer literacy. There could be funding concerns at play here, but I honestly think that teaching students how to take better advantage of the internet is a very powerful way to build an appreciation for knowledge and get them to actively participate in the learning process. One way that I have seen this play out in the case of language learning in particular is that students can often learn from each other if they are given access to a framework (read: environment) in which this form of collaboration is encouraged.
I also think school districts should dedicate more dollars to funding programs that encourage students to learn how to code and fast-track those that already show talent in this regard. Just as it’s part of our mission to recognize individuals who have an innate talent for teaching, it is equally important to identify and strengthen the skills that students already have a natural inclination for, especially in the tech space. Some schools have already jumped the gun.
Big Fish in a Gigantic Pond
The internationalization of education is something we’re up against, more so with technology leveling the playing field between what’s available in the United States versus what’s available overseas. The sad reality, however, is that when we compare apples to apples, American students just aren’t making the cut.
Here’s a screenshot from the Common Core video that draws an ideal illustration of what we’re trying to achieve in the global arena:
I’ve already rambled a bit on the U.S. vs. China/India debate in a previous post about STEM, but when it comes to the Common Core, I don’t think we’re doing ourselves a favor by including the ‘Murica first mantra in our platform.
It’s a lot more important to me that we bridge the harrowing gaps in educational attainability in this country first. I would much rather see a higher percentage of Americans graduating high school by 2030 than see the U.S. top the list of some international ranking of smartest high school students.
After all, isn’t that what the Common Core wants: clear goals, confident, well-prepared students?
I want students to use as many of their 12 years of schooling to develop an interest in a field (or fields) they truly admire and see themselves working long-term in. I want to make sure their mentors (teachers, coaches, administrators) have the tools and support to provide them exposure to the many real-world skills they need to have in their arsenal to secure a job in today’s cutthroat market. And I want society to instill an appreciation for lifelong learning and advancement in all students, regardless of where they study or what career they choose to pursue.
It’s a tall order, but I think if we realign our priorities to focus on what’s important, it’s something that we can look forward to achieving as a nation.