Follow the Red Brick Road

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

The following article was first published in Teach magazine.

A recent government publication highlighted all the marvelous things that individual teachers and school boards were doing with technology in my region. It was both uplifting, and disquieting. It was uplifting because I could see that there were entrepreneurial, creative people working in education to drag the education system into the 21st century. It was disquieting because these innovations were disjointed, unrelated to each other, and were not doing much to change the average outcomes for the vast majority of students. Indeed, the process of highlighting the projects merely underscored what could be done – but what, largely, wasn’t being done.

There has, recently, been a steadily rising chorus of voices, especially outside of the pedagogical community, commenting on how much better we could be doing with today’s education. These range from Sir Ken Robinson, a U.K. consultant, author, and iconoclast, to Why Don’t Students Like School?, a book psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, to a series in The Toronto Star by science journalist Alanna Mitchell that surveys what’s happening in education around the world. My favourite quote from The Star series is from the first article. In it, French neuroscientist Bruno della Chiesa was cited as having asked the French education minister about an international movement to link research into how the brain functions (and therefore, how people, especially children, learn best) with the field of education. The minister’s reply? “The brain? What does the brain have to do with education?”

Our education system, as I’ve said before, is based on the 19th century mass production model. This was natural. Universal education came about because the Industrial Revolution was creating factories that needed workers who were literate. Therefore, business pushed governments into creating and funding universal education to produce such workers, and it was done pretty much in the style of the factories that future workers were being trained to fill: You take 25 students (more or less) and put them in the 1st grade workstation and process them through the 1st grade curriculum. Then you move them through the 2nd grade workstation, process them through the 2nd grade curriculum, and so on. Moreover, you have them sit still and listen for six hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year. The process is, itself, completely contrary to the natural inclination of children, with the result that we bore them to tears before they get much past grade 2 or 3.

This is changing, but very slowly, and changing primarily in superficial ways. Moreover, we are not, as a rule, using the things we know now about how the mind works, how different people learn with different strategies, how different people need different emotional and psychological needs to support optimal learning, and much more. We are, fundamentally, following an outdated model of the most effective ways to teach children.

Yet, our understanding of humans is growing with remarkable speed. We can look at brains as they function, tell whether someone is engaged or bored, identify strategies that are likely to produce superior results, and even begin to understand the relationships between genetics and environment that shape personalities, intellects, and brain function. But what we know now will pale in comparison to what we know by the time today’s grade 1 students finish their formal schooling. Moreover, not using this research would make about as much sense as medical researchers unlocking the secrets of, say, cancer, but society refusing to make use of such findings. Clearly, we want to take advantage the things we learn about how the human brain functions – and how learners can be helped to learn better, and develop better intellectual gifts.

So my question is: What needs to happen for us to adopt superior methods of education students? And who can help us as we seek to take advantage of our rapidly gathering understanding of brains, and how they learn? The answer, if you think about it, is that there are lots of things that can be done, and lots of people to do them. Let’s start at the top.

Teachers – Teachers are the front line in education. You are the ones that have to make fine theories work in real world classrooms. Therefore, you must lead this revolution, much as doctors would have to lead a revolution in cancer treatment, not researchers. But to do this well, you need to know about the work that’s being done. Accordingly, we need two things. First, you must seek out such knowledge, particularly case studies of real students in real classrooms, and push to have it presented at conferences and PD days. And second, we, as a society, must make sure you have both the time and the resources to study new developments before asking you to implement it.

Principals and administrators – You need to be the fomenters of change, pushing ministries and school boards to source and present such information, and making sure teachers have straightforward, effective access to it. You are the facilitators of this process, and, with the teachers, must become the champions of the things that can realistically work in the classroom. This is a tough balancing act between fine theory and real practice, but there’s no one in a better position to do it than you.

School boards and ministries of education – It’s your job to sift through the research, find the approaches that look most promising, and make it available to schools. This means appointing people to seek out the wide varieties of research that are emerging, consult with researchers to find out which ones have been tried in real world environments, and which show the most promise. Perhaps most important, it’s vitally important that approaches be realistic, and have been tried in ordinary schools, not showcase schools with massive resources. And even new approaches that have worked elsewhere need to be introduced slowly, on a small scale, and proven before they are rolled out, willy-nilly.

Teachers’ Colleges – The world is changing, and your job is to prepare those who want to be teachers with the latest research, an understanding of what works best in pedagogy, and how to apply it in a real world classroom. What’s even more important, you are going to have to keep changing your curriculum as new research appears. Many teachers’ colleges are doing this now, but it’s crucial that they stay abreast of what’s happening.

Secretaries and Ministers of Education – Your job is two-fold. First, you need to take the political flak that always accompanies change, to defuse it, and to harness it into constructive dialog so that schools don’t become war zones between opposing views on high-minded pedagogical theories. And second, you need to push the system to change. Every social system resists change; stasis is easier, and people – all people – are inherently lazy. Therefore, for the good of your jurisdiction, and to secure its future, you have to make sure that change happens. Push your bureaucracy. Support their initiatives. And make everyone in the system accountable for converting new ideas into practical classroom realities. Oh, and one more thing; don’t interfere when people are doing their jobs right, no matter how politically attractive it may be to do so.

Parents – You are not the experts on this, but you represent the users of the education system. It’s up to you to push for better education for your kids, and to work with teachers to make it happen. This means being supportive when new things are tried, but also unwilling to accept 19th century answers in a 21st century world. And here’s a clue: if you’re kids are bored, and hate school, then there’s something radically wrong with their school. Find out what the alternatives are, and start a conversation about how schools can improve.

Voters – Change takes time, but has to start somewhere. Don’t just block change with knee-jerk reactions of “Schools were tougher in my day.” In our day, we didn’t understand 10% of how the brain works, or how students learn, that we do now. You’re paying a hefty tax bill to educate students. Make sure the education system is giving you value for money.

Our education system needs to be changed, but cautiously, and in the right directions. This is going to take sustained, careful effort, and what some might think is hopeless cooperation between the different participants in the education system. I believe we have no choice; the old models won’t work with today’s hipper, sharper, Internet-saavy kids. If we don’t change the system, today’s students will increasingly tune out the system as irrelevant, and we will lose an enormous opportunity that will benefit all of us.

© Copyright, IF Research, September 2010.

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One Response to Follow the Red Brick Road

  1. Arthur Raymond says:

    Kids who have Ipods, Blackberrys, Nintendo Wii systems and know how to Blog, Twitter etc. will have a tremendous educational advantage. Next, they must learn the applications and the educational capabilities of these devices.
    School districts must ensure that all of their teachers are prepared to work with these devices to give the students the most relevant education.