Kids, not Widgets

The American education system is due for a refresh. We've all seen the photographs of "then" and "now," showing students sitting in the same configuration of desks as their parents and grandparents, subjected to the same unevolved school experience that's been served up for decades. What emerged from the Cold War -- an automated, industrialized, top-down approach to teaching and learning -- is opposite the inventive, progressive environments we embrace in all other facets of life from business to entertainment.

The go-between of teachers and brick-and-mortar buildings separate our students, the very people we're responsible for "training up," from the world for which we're purportedly training them. Not every teacher instructing writing is a published author. Not every teacher instructing science has conducted experimental research.  Not every teacher instructing drama has performed on Broadway.  That awful adage, "Those who can do, those who can't teach," exists because the experts who are doing-the-do are infrequently the people coaching our kids. How have we come to think of teaching as its own profession, as opposed to all professions inherently possessing a teaching component... and a teaching responsibility?  As one of my students (Jason) pointed out today, "Why are there degrees in entrepreneurship? That makes no sense."  He's right.  It's instructionally equivalent to a culinary program teaching the name and function of every pan, spice, and knife, but never mentoring novice chefs in the smelly, difficult process of skinning and de-boning the fish after they've reeled it in from the ocean.  There's no "cheffing" without fishing and gardening.  No "entrepreneuring" without depth and experience in tech, physics, engineering, and other underlying meaty content that sparks the creation of a new product or process around which an entrepreneurial venture can be constructed. No "teaching" without actual subject matter knowledge and in-the-field experience working as a practitioner in the dirty work.  If you're training to be a French teacher, what's more important in your preparation: spending a semester in France, Haiti, or Quebec, or spending a semester in a methods course where you learn to craft bulletin boards featuring photos of Paris?

As for the curriculum itself, the never-ending list of standards we're supposed to make sure kids master ensures graduates emerge uniform, thinking in lockstep, and cookie-cutter in their sameness. Yes, there are basics kids must learn -- fundamentals that are requisite to learning anything in future years. Of course children still need instruction in reading, writing, and computing (i.e., "doing math"). And gaining fluency in the basics offloads learners' brains, reducing cognitive load and freeing them up for more advanced thinking. But marching every child through the same Factory of Fact Acquisition for 18 (or 22, or 26!) years does not produce the worldliness, the innovation, the judgement, or the compassion necessary to confront the increasing pace of challenges peppering us in our connected world. Immersion in Humanities is vital, but consider which is more important: knowing the names of Hell's residents in the Inferno, or analogizing their sins and crimes (and fates!) to today's politicians and irresponsible (Enron) businessmen?  When it comes to mathematics, why force Calculus on everyone, when Statistics has greater reach and applicability in our daily lives (think polling, decision-making, medical treatments, purchases, insurance....)? 

When I graduated from the University of Texas with a math degree, I didn't realize I would use my education to become an anti-education educator, but that's what happened. Teachers, schools, parents, and most importantly young people must fight back against the over-regulated institutionalization of the American public school system -- or risk losing our place on the world stage. You can't create new ideas if you're constantly herded back to the beaten path. In the 1970s, MIT's Seymour Papert envisioned learning experiences in which children use tools of the real world (including computers) to construct their own learning, free from overly scripted curricula that characterize most classrooms. “Do away with the idea that there should be uniformity of all schools and of what people learn." (Papert) Unfortunately, as fellow tech educator Gary Stager notes (in Paulo Blikstein's reflections on Papert's legacy), when it comes to teachers and teacher trainers, we "ignore [Papert] entirely... as manifest by his absence from teacher education texts, educational technology publications and school reform literature." We can no longer afford to ignore Papert's ideas, but more importantly, we teachers can no longer afford to ignore the individuality of our students, the very people to whom we've chosen to dedicate our professional (and sometimes personal) lives? What does it take to transform American education… and are we prepared to do it?