By Marc Prensky
Here’s an idea to get at least something positive out of the Gulf oil spill. What if volunteers (or BP, under presidential order) collected samples of the tar balls on the beaches, sealed them in plastic bags, and then shipped them to every school in America for all students to analyze in their science classes. We could even throw in some oil-covered sand and feathers for good measure.
Doing this would involve every school kid (and science teacher) firsthand in the problem. They would see and smell, for themselves, just what the spill is actually producing, rather than just hearing about it on TV. Their awareness, as citizens and scientists, would be greatly enhanced.
To make it easier for teachers unfamiliar with the details of petroleum and environmental sciences, the NSF and DOE could quickly create study guides and lesson plans. Students and classes who were moved by these lessons could then talk with students living near the Gulf Coast, via email or Skype, to understand the devastation even further. They could discuss solutions, start Facebook and other groups, and contact local scientists. Many students would be motivated to pursue environmental and other sciences further, and to join and become active in environmental movements.
That is what today’s education should be: not just “relevant” or “authentic” (the current buzzwords) but real; not just preparing students for some test based on “standards” but actually dealing with the problems of our — and especially the students’ — day.
It is ironic that — given the current insistence on curriculum and standards — any teacher who wanted to divert class time to dealing with perhaps the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history might well fear being taken to task for doing so. Providing such “real” education, in many school systems, would require special administrative dispensation from the curricula.
And those curricula, in all subjects, are currently so overstuffed that teachers typically have no time to cover all of it during the school year. That leaves little or no time for studying real problems as they arise, for deep discussions of issues, or for students to explore their own interests and passions. For our kids’ education to improve, serious curricular deletion and revision is required.
Yet, our broken education system is, I believe, fixable. Not just by rushing to start new charter schools and programs, an expensive solution that is unlikely to reach the numbers we need (i.e., 55 million) in a reasonable time. Currently, the number of students reached per year by all the best programs put together, including all charter schools, which includes KIPP, Harlem Zone, New Vision, Uncommon Schools, and others, and programs like Teach for America, NYC Teaching Fellows, and Teaching Matters, is less than 2 million, i.e., only 4% of what is needed.
And not by rushing to the “disruptive” approach of teaching through technology, championed by Clayton Cristensen and others. Certainly this will eventually help, but creating technology that teaches, and teaches well, except for the most highly self-motivated students, is extremely difficult and has yet to be done broadly. For our mostly unmotivated “middle students,” who are the source of most of our failures and dropouts, online learning has yet to emerge as a viable approach.
The best, fastest, least expensive, and most easily executable solution to our educational problems is to change what goes on in our current classrooms. This is not as hard as many make it out to be since most of our teachers are people of good will and high motivation. What we need to do is provide them with easily doable directions that they can all start using in September to increase student motivation and performance. In addition to making education real, let me suggest five others.
The first relates to student passions. Our kids are almost all intensely passionate about many things (not typically their school subjects), but their teachers are typically unaware of what those passions are because they rarely ask. This is an issue that matters enormously to students and can be addressed with almost no additional work on the part of teachers. All they have to do is, at the beginning of the year when they ask each student his or her name, ask them what they are passionate about, write it down, and remember it. Once teachers know their students’ passions, they can group them by their interests, give them differentiated assignments, and address them with different, more relevant approaches. Students will get the important message that they are cared about as individuals.
A second motivating change is for teachers to greatly reduce the amount of “telling” they do, relative to the amount of classroom activities and “partnering.” If properly directed, all students today are capable of learning things they need to know on their own (using books, libraries, or course technology when available) without all the explanations having to come from teachers directly. It is actually far less work for teachers — and far more motivating for students — to cover the required curriculum by creating guiding questions for students to answer on their own rather than by creating new lectures.
A third thing that can be done immediately is to begin each day or class by putting students in the right frame of mind for their daily learning by employing existing, proven, 5-15 minute “relaxation” tools. These types of videos and software, which have been shown to greatly increase student focus and concentration and reduce difficult behavior, could easily be made available by the DOE to all teachers.
A fourth simple and motivating change would be to connect all our students to peers around the world through such free tools as ePals. Even when there is only one computer in a classroom (almost always the case in the U.S. today) students can, one or two at a time, regularly connect with students across the globe. ePals is not only free, it is secure as well.
A final quick change with great motivating potential would be to allow, for instructional use, devices the students already, to an increasing extent, own, know, and love, i.e., cell phones. There is a growing movement of teachers and educators who support this; they are creating lessons for the curricular use of cell phones while figuring out ways to deal with potential student abuse. If not all students in a class have their own phones, a teacher can easily create teams of two or more students to share.
All of these things are doable this September. If implemented widely, they would change the face of American education, improving it greatly. There are many other things we could do as well. Making these relatively simple, student-focused changes would have much more effect on student success than requiring more advanced degrees for teachers or even implementing smaller class sizes (this becomes less of an issue once students begin partnering and learning on their own).
We should all support experimentation and innovation in education. But instead of just spending, and often wasting, billions of dollars to create things that are new, let’s try harder to fix what we have that’s already in place. Our kids, when properly motivated, are far more capable and creative than our critics give them credit for. Let’s give all of them the motivation they need to work, create, and succeed.
Marc Prensky, a worldwide speaker on education, is the author of three books, including the recently published Teaching Digital Natives — Partnering for Real Learning (Corwin Press, 2010).
Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: | BP, cell phones, Clayton Cristensen, DoE, Education, ePals, experimentation, Facebook, Gulf Coast, Gulf oil spill, Harlem Zone, innovation, KIPP, Marc Prensky, New Vision, NSF, NYC Teaching Fellows, partnering, Skype, Teach for America, Teaching Matters, Uncommon Schools