“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”― John Dewey, Democracy and Education
Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk, Do schools kill creativity?, with almost 20 million views, is one of the most-watched TED talks on YouTube. In it, Robinson argues that American public schools squander children’s remarkable talents for creativity and innovation by basing the education system solely upon academic ability. By prioritizing academic subjects like mathematics and reading over the humanities and arts, schools expunge the natural curiosity and creativity that all human beings possess. This approach to education should not be a surprise when one considers that public schools of the 19th century were based upon the factory model of industrialization. This Gilded Age approach to schooling streamlined the education process, favoring efficiency, and control over creativity and innovation. This model’s relics can be seen in today’s schools with strict adherence to bell schedules, grouping students by age, not ability, isolated teaching of subjects, and measuring student progress with letter grades, not mastery of content. Further, this system standardizes output by teaching that there is only one right answer measured by multiple-choice tests. This emphasis on the one correct answer stifles students’ incentive for intellectual risk-taking and engendering in students’ fear of failure. MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky once said that “it’s not important what is covered in a class; it is what students discover.” This approach to education should not be relegated to only students at elite institutions of higher learning. All students, k-16, should have the opportunity to tap into their natural-born curiosity through learning that ignites passion and a sense of wonder.
Robinson’s critique of the modern school system is not without precedent. Progressive education reformer John Dewey called for changes to the public education system over 100 years ago. The 19th-century philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer believed that education should be an experiential process. Students should have the opportunity to take part in their learning. According to Dewey, the purpose of education is not just to teach students vast amounts of predetermined knowledge but to allow them to realize their full potential by using their knowledge and skills for the common good through the participation in democratic classrooms. Dewey is considered the father of “learning by doing” approaches to education. His “hands on” and “student centered” methods have given rise to a wide variety of pedagogical techniques that foster active learning, personalization, and collaboration such as project-based learning or PBL. These skills and dispositions have become increasingly more critical as the world is transformed by technology. Today’s students have access to information that only a few decades ago would have been inconceivable and this reality has serious ramifications for the way students learn and are educated.
The new educational currency is not knowledge itself, but the student’s ability to critically think and use technology to solve problems in innovative ways. The exigencies of the modern world require that teachers approach their craft in a novel manner forgoing the traditions of the past. But unfortunately, old habits die hard in the world of education. All areas of American life have been significantly impacted by technology, the way we shop, bank, and socialize look fundamentally different than they did just a few short years ago. Education, however, remains relatively unchanged, an anachronism stuck in time. The process of education, with slight modifications, looks like it did in Dewey’s day.
A famous aphorism states that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. There is no more explicit demonstration of this principle than the way we educate our students. Since time immemorial, American schools have used traditional teaching and learning approaches without making significant gains in educational outcomes. The National Assessment for Educational Progress or NAEP is considered by many to be the nation’s report card. Given to all 4th, 8th, and 12th graders every four years, the NAEP test measures students’ abilities in mathematics, reading, science, writing, technology, engineering literacy, arts, civics, geography, economics, U.S. history. According to the 2019 results, our students are going in the wrong direction academically (Education Next, 2020). And gaps in achievement for linguistically and ethnically diverse students are even more pronounced. Education policy is mostly a state and local issue, and pedagogical approaches can look widely different from school to school. That is why it is vital for local districts and individual schools, both public and charter, to be “laboratories of democracy” and experiment with unorthodox approaches that provide students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to succeed in the 21st century of college, careers and civic life. Despite the perennial doom and gloom concerning our public-school system, there are pockets of hope and inspiration.
One such successful experiment in challenging the status quo has been New Tech High and the New Tech Network. Founded in 1996, New Tech High focuses on project-based learning, student-centered culture, college and workforce readiness, and technology integration to drive student achievement for diverse learners. The New Tech Network is a network of 214 schools across the country that provide 85,000 students an education for tomorrow based upon its flagship school New Tech High in Napa, California. New Tech schools base their curriculum on five researched-based outcomes that emphasize college readiness skills such as knowledge and thinking, oral communication, collaboration, written communication, and student agency. The New Tech Network has been highly successful with linguistically and ethnically diverse students and students of all income levels. New Tech students have, on average, a 94% graduation rate compared to the national rate of 85%. Further, New Tech elementary students experienced 42% growth in critical thinking, and 83% of New Tech graduates persist through college to receive a degree outperforming the national average of 74% (Dynamic Learning. Bold Teaching. Vibrant Community. An Education for the Future, 2019).
Another example of innovation and excellence is the High Tech High (HTH) network based in San Diego, CA. HTH started in 2000 as a bold experiment to teach children to be creative, gritty, independent thinkers who possess the 21st-Century skills needed to succeed in the modern world. Founded by civic and business leaders, HTH sought to create an alternative to traditional educational approaches. Like New Tech schools, HTH is different because it utilizes a technology-rich educational environment that promotes independent learning through project-based and authentic learning tasks. HTH’s innovative approach to teaching and learning is guided by its four core principles: equity, personalization, authentic work, and collaborative design. Employing a student-centered approach, HTH successfully delivers high-quality education to a culturally diverse population. HTH’s success is well documented, for example, students score higher in reading than other students across the state and boast an admirable 94% graduation rate.
As long as student test scores are used as the primary determinant of student learning and achievement, schools are incentivized to produce good test takers. To do this, many teachers utilize traditional direct instruction and other teacher-centered approaches forgoing the development of the “soft skills” necessary for success in today’s technology-rich world. Student-centered approaches, such as PBL can balance the competing demands of relevancy and student interest and preparation for state and national standardized tests. Further, the strategies demonstrated by the New Tech High Network and High Tech High have been shown to close the achievement gap for linguistically and ethnically diverse students. While it is extremely difficult to implement significant educational change, pockets of innovation such as the New Tech Network and High Tech High give hope to those that dare to dream, schools that Sir Ken Robinson and John Dewey would be proud.
Dewey, J. (2016). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace.
Dynamic Learning. Bold Teaching. Vibrant Community. An Education for the Future (Rep.).(2019). Napa, CA. https://32dkl02ezpk0qcqvqmlx19lk-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/ntn-school-and-student-success-report-2019.pdf
Education Next, By, Education Next, Bio, E., & Bio, A. (2020, March 25). What To Make of the 2019 Results from the “Nation’s Report Card”. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://www.educationnext.org/make-2019-results-nations-report-card/
Robinson, S. (2006). Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved November 04, 2020, from https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity?referrer=playlist-the_most_popular_talks_of_allChanging+Education+Paradigms%2C
Stehle, S.M., Peters-Burton, E.E. Developing student 21st Century skills in selected exemplary inclusive STEM high schools. IJ STEM Ed 6, 39 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-019-0192-1