You don’t have to look far to find a study comparing the “abysmal” testing scores of U.S. students to their counterparts around the world. Despite our best efforts to change test rankings, overall test results in the U.S. haven’t changed much since the 1970s. I’ve been an educator for more than 25 years, and that statistic alone could scream failure to me, but it doesn’t mesh with what I have seen working with students day in and day out. And it certainly doesn’t mesh with the overarching success the U.S. continues to experience in the world economy. Just take a look at the Global Fortune 500 — the U.S. boasts more than twice the number of companies in the top 50 than its leading competitor, China. Narrow that ranking down further to the innovative tech industry, and the U.S. is responsible for nine of the 10 most successful companies in the world.
So, where is the disconnect? Why are schools putting such a strong emphasis on cranking out better test scores in spite of overwhelming evidence it’s not working and is not necessary to succeeding in our technology-driven society?
Knowledge is No Longer King
Designed nearly 125 years ago, our current education system still relies heavily on one marker for success: the acquisition of knowledge. Yet in today’s on-demand society, knowledge is as ubiquitous as air. Harvard Innovation Education Fellow Tony Wagner said it best: “There’s no competitive advantage today in knowing more than the person next to you. The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.”
Knowledge acquisition is only one simple keyword search away, and any parent or teacher will tell you the ability to regurgitate random bits of knowledge on an exam is in no way a true indicator of a child’s level of intelligence. Unfortunately, our traditional school system is set up today to reward one type of learner and one type only, which doesn’t prepare kids to compete in a world where they must apply knowledge towards creative solutions to address and master complex challenges.
Shedding the Test-Score Stigma
According to a famous quote, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” In today’s school system, however, it is a small group of academic tree climbers who are most rewarded, while the fish and the giraffes and the elephants of the world never get the chance to showcase their own unique skills and talents. In other words, over time our kids experience soul-crushing defeat each time they strive to fit their own square-peg way of thinking into the round-hole world of traditional education.
All children start out eager to learn, but sadly, the out-dated model where they are forced to climb testing trees all day soon discourages even the most excited student. By the start of high school, student engagement has plummeted to 40 percent — half of what it was in elementary school.
What if we could change the very environment these kids live in each day and somehow mirror the originality, creativity, and excitement found in the real world, particularly in the innovative, collaborative, project-based tech environment where many of these kids will one day find themselves?
Embracing the ‘F’ Word
First and foremost, we must embrace the idea that real learning is both enjoyable and valuable — even when difficult. Part of that understanding is recognizing the inherent value of failure — yes, failure — something Silicon Valley actually understands and even rewards when looking at funding the next great entrepreneur. Failure is necessary in the real world. In fact, getting to the dead end of the wrong road fast takes us even closer to our goals and often teaches us far more than success. Allowing students to fail in the safety of the school environment teaches them to overcome natural fear and anxiety and to embrace the very act of learning. And even more to the point, failure teaches us what no standardized test will ever demonstrate — that there is rarely only one right way to approach a problem. Unlike our test-taking school environment, the real world encourages a wide variety of solutions to reach desired outcomes.
Building on the Strengths of Others
Collaboration is also a key element of success in the real world. The most innovative companies encourage employees to work together to solve problems and recognize each individual brings certain abilities that, when used as a whole, strengthen the entire team. The business environment of tomorrow needs climbers and swimmers and flyers and runners — and each ability has potential and value in today’s ever-shifting business landscape. In contrast, the traditional education system tells kids that, on the most important “test,” you must do it all alone.
The concept of entrepreneurship is foreign to most public school and government institutions, where rules of order generally dictate the environment. Yet free-thinking enterprise is fueled by creative thinkers and effective doers. Schools would be wise to reach out and partner with private companies and local community leaders who can model a different approach to success, demonstrating that working together is often the smartest way to learn.
Changing the Rules of the Game
Finally, success in today’s gig-based, on-demand economy will come from those who carve out their own unique path. Never is this more evident than in some of the fastest growing companies today, with founders who are often young, energetic dreamers who envisioned a better — dare I say, disruptive — way of doing something. High levels of innovation and curiosity are present in young minds, but following the strict path of traditional schooling could extinguish that innate enthusiasm and drive.
STEM subjects are particularly relevant to the future of our children. They provide the most natural place to explore, collaborate, fail, regroup, and try again. Test taking and traditional school models are outdated and ineffective, and we do a disservice to future generations when we quantify success with one standardized yardstick, ignoring the fact that each child is unique.
Albert Einstein said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” I’m confident that by helping traditional schools more effectively align themselves with the reality of today’s business world — promoting curiosity, applied knowledge and skills, and a lifelong love of learning — young minds everywhere will ALL have the chance to thrive equally and be successful.
Matt Bowman, a teacher and technology enthusiast for over 25 years, ran a pilot program that brought the Internet to his middle school classroom in the mid ’90s. His passion for engaging kids has since led him to create Tech Trep Academy, an online, interactive learning community that teaches kids 8-14 valuable technology skills such as game/computer programming, 3D printing, digital animation, and Minecraft modding.
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