Albert Einstein once said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Other than bringing computers into schools, little has changed since I went to school more than 50 years ago.
According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “We lose 3,500 students a day. Of the 8 million students who enter eighth grade each year, 5 million will drop out, or be unprepared for productive work or postsecondary education.” In more than 50 of our largest cities, graduation rates are less than 50 percent. More than a million students a year drop out of school. Colin Powell’s America’s Alliance for Youth states that 70 percent of prisoners are high school dropouts.
The Gates Foundation is giving millions of dollars to various school initiatives with emphasis on creating a more rigorous curriculum and higher standards. President Obama is increasing the money available to schools and is an advocate for change. The question is: What will change?
It’s one thing to acknowledge and accept the evidence that our schools are not working, but the question is what to do. There needs to be a major paradigm shift to create schools for the 21st century — schools that are based on the research of how the brain works and how children learn. Our Industrial Age model has been based on behaviorism — an approach that is dominated by giving students information, asking them to reproduce it in some manner, usually by memorizing and taking tests and then rewarding them with a grade if they do well. Students are gradually sorted into the “winners” and “losers.”
Unfortunately, this approach is antithetical to the way people actually learn. Children learn a great deal in the first years of their lives constructing knowledge from doing and discovering. They learn by watching, experimenting, figuring things out and asking questions. Knowledge comes from curiosity. The desire to learn is as natural as breathing.
What happens to that natural desire to learn by second grade depends so much on the particular teacher, but inevitably the prescribed curriculum takes over and school becomes “teacher-directed” and students become passive followers. This may be a simplistic description, but it was the way I experienced school, and I see the same thing happening to my grandchildren.
For many students, it’s the extra-curricular activities — music, theater sports — that excite and fully engage them. These activities bring out the best in young people and foster important skills — the ability to collaborate and commit to a high-quality performance — to do their best. Why can’t this kind of collaboration take place in the classroom with students learning through collaborating on real-world projects and problems?
Learning experiences that cultivate the ability to be creative problem solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators and communicators can better prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century. Rather than organizing a school around traditional subject matter disciplines taught independently of one another, a self-directed, multidisciplined approach where students work on significant problems in the world or in their communities that concern them and are more relevant to their lives can better prepare young people for college and the 21st century workplace. In this approach the whole school day is structured differently and the teacher becomes a facilitator and guide rather than a dispenser of information.
Problem-based learning enables students to build on their knowledge and skills to gain more knowledge as they learn what they need when they need it. A problem-based approach is built on the assumption that the most effective learning takes place when students are using their knowledge to solve real-life problems that concern them. This approach to learning encourages students to work either individually or collaboratively in order to create and propose solutions as opposed to the traditional approach of reproducing information on a test. Through analysis, strategizing, research and the gathering of data and information, student learning is deepened because it is being used to solve real problems.
Having smaller schools, smaller classrooms and more teacher availability takes money, but it is the same money that is now being used ineffectively. Our children are our most important natural resource and unless schools dramatically change the way we teach and a paradigm shift based occurs on the way humans actually learn, no amount of money will fix our schools.
Arnold Greenberg of Blue Hill has started three schools and wrote “Adventures on Arnold’s Island — Four Essays on Education.” He may be reached at