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To School or Not to School: That Will be the Question

OK, (following on my last blog), it does not necessarily take a learner from another planet to see what is happening in our educational system. Our kids are exhausted and many are disenfranchised, and our teachers are expected to relearn not only what they learned in school but how to teach so that we can meet a set of standards that we don’t even know will be applicable when these kids enter the workforce. There’s great work being done in edtech and professional development to support the schools as they undergo these trials, but unless we look at the actual design of the curriculum, the situation remains something to be fixed rather than something to be maintained or supplemented.

What happens when students get bored?

Wired recently ran an interesting interview with the real life teachers behind the movie Spare Parts. Fred Lajvardi and Allan Cameron, if you don’t know the story, saw that students were bored, underperforming and dropping out. They created a student robotics club that eventually won state and national championships and more than $1 million in scholarships.

Lajvardi and Cameron claim that teachers “are stymied by bureaucracy and confounded by rigid curricula optimized to produce better test results, not better students.” The work they do on the robotics project isn’t even a part of the curriculum. It’s an afterschool program. But Lajvardi and Cameron continue to work with students in hopes of providing them with skills and motivation to fit the real world needs the workplace will demand of them.

What are some alternative models to explore?

I’ve written in this space before that we can benefit from observing the homeschooling and unschooling communities. Not only is learning child-centered and self-directed, but as a lifestyle, it sets the stage for lifelong learning in a way that our current educational system cannot possibly emulate. It’s clear that not everyone can choose this path, as our entire socioeconomic structure is built a very different model, and the challenges of deviating from that are significant. That being said, homeschooling is a legal, viable option that continues to grow (2-8% per year), and we should watch and learn from the over 2 million children studying at home.

For those who may be concerned that academic rigor might be lost on homeschooling kids, there are a number of interesting observations that have been made. For more statistics, click here and here.

  1. Home-educated students typically score 15-20 percentile points above public school students on standardized tests.

  2. Home-educated students typically score above average on the SAT and ACT tests.

  3. 7% of homeschooled students graduate from college, compared to 57.5%.

One obvious reason that homeschoolers do very well in college is because they are self-disciplined and motivated. Joyce Reed, quoted in a 2002 issue of the Brown University alumni magazine commented, “These kids are the epitome of Brown students.” She believes they make a good fit with the university because “they’ve learned to be self-directed, they take risks, they face challenges with total fervor, and they don’t back off.”

Peter Gray’s 2011 study of unschooling substantiates these observations, with many respondents noting “the learning opportunities that would not have been available if they had been in school, about their relatively seamless transition to adult life, and about the healthier (age-mixed) social life they experienced out of school contrasted with what they would have experienced in school.”

What are we preparing students for in the future?

We need to find a better way to prepare young people for adulthood. We need to look at the 21st century worker in order to understand how to best educate people to enter the workforce. We need to continue to look at the environment in which our children are being raised in order to encourage their participation in lifelong learning.

Today’s workers need to be problem solvers and innovators. They need to digest information from a multiplicity of sources and apply what they learn to the problem at hand. Today’s learners will have jobs that are less defined than ours are (or were when we first started out), and they won’t be safe waiting to be told what’s next.

I’m reminded of Sir Ken Richardson and a couple of the many things he said regarding schools and creativity. One is “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never be right.” Kids need the time and space to experiment with their ideas, to be wrong, and to try again. Do we have enough of that in our current curriculum? His other comment, from the same Ted Talk, speaks again to the importance of creativity and its impact on today’s learners and the role they will play in tomorrow’s workplace. “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” If you haven’t seen Sir Ken’s Ted Talk on How Schools Kill Creativity, click here. Again, are we allowing enough time for creative pursuits that will not only motivate students but help build problem solving skills that will serve them well later in life?

What will learning look like in the future?

As the homeschooling and unschooling movements mature, as its practitioners form stronger social networks and technology continues to expand the opportunities for learning outside of the traditional classroom, we’ll see more families migrating to this mode of learning. The future of school-based learning is yet to be written. The possibilities are huge and the benefits may be pulled from the same sources as those for homeschooling and unschooling; the role of technology is certainly playing a part in how schooling is evolving, providing more opportunities for blended learning and personalization. Just as in the workplace, learning is now being pulled from a wider range of resources, so too are schools beginning to do the same. The curating of learning will perhaps be more of a hybrid model, a joint exercise amongst all concerned parties.

In the end, it may not matter where you learn but more importantly what you learn,how you learn, and how that extends into adulthood. The one question we never want to have to ask is whether or not you want to learn.

For related blogs on today’s topic, please see:

Continue to stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more on designing learning for social impact.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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