Friday, November 16, 2012

Duty now for the future

EducationWith the election over, I’ve been getting caught up on issues of Time. Okay, a lot of the articles there were about the election, and I’m currently on the special double issue commemorative election issue. But this isn’t about all that, believe it or not!

One recent issue was about the future of education in our country, and I found it fascinating. It should go without saying that we have a real problem in that area. We are falling farther and farther behind in our skills compared to other developed countries, and a high school diploma is no longer a guarantee of literacy and basic skills. Even a college diploma does not mean that a student will graduate with critical thinking skills that allow them to reach beyond the immediate and obvious.

One of the topics this issue focused on was online classes. With the advent of computers and faster connections, education is more accessible than ever, especially to those in remote areas or poorer countries. There is a bit of an explosion at the moment in MOOCs, massive open online courses, and top-notch universities like Harvard and Stanford are participating. I’ve signed up for a couple myself on Coursera, when they become available: one taught by Ezekiel Emanuel (yes, brother of Rahm) on health policy and the Affordable Care Act, and one on vaccines taught by Dr. Paul Offit. I won’t get college credit for these, but that’s okay. I just want to learn.

However, these online courses are shaking things up a bit in academia, and some accredited colleges are starting to accept transfer credits for such courses through non-accredited portal sites such as Coursera. If we want to get back up to speed and become more competitive, we need to explore all options in order to reach as many people as possible. What is fascinating about many of these online courses is that they are rethinking the way subjects are taught, or at least paying attention to what past studies have shown. Rather than 45 minutes to an hour of straight lecturing, the instructor will teach for a few minutes and then engage the students in asking questions and getting feedback. They will be tasked with figuring out a problem, or discuss the concepts just presented. This makes sense to me, because I truly believe that the way we learn is changing. When I was in college, I would sit for an hour and take notes (unless it was lab time, which was always fun and hands-on). Handwritten notes! O the horror! Now I find myself getting constant input. If I’m reading something, I’ll stop after a few minutes and check for info online; I’ll pay attention to a news story on TV; I’ll watch a video I’ve come across. I’m 50 years old, and MY brain has been changed by these sorts of stimuli. How must it be for someone half my age, who grew up with such input? If you want people to learn, you have to figure out the most effective way to convey your information, and that has changed considerably in the past few decades.

I often hear older people talking about how they didn’t have computers when they were in school, and they learned just fine. Times have changed, people. The computer is an essential part of learning, whether it’s to get a syllabus for a class, research a paper you’re working on, submit that paper, or check your grades. This starts in grade school. Computers are no longer a luxury; they are an essential part of the learning process.

I believe that we need to commit to rethinking our system, and figuring out the best way to teach kids, from preschool through grad school. This involves more than money, though. My question is how do we change the culture so that we foster a love of learning? I’m all for tech schools that teach specific skills for specific jobs. Our jobs are becoming increasingly technical, and as we (hopefully) continue to expand manufacturing, we can rely on an increasingly educated and stronger middle class. But how do we promote that sense of learning beyond job needs? How do we instill a sense of curiosity in kids, one that leads them to explore and learn and grow beyond their imagined boundaries?

I still believe there is a place for four-year degrees in which you are able to take a few electives beyond the requirements for your major. Because of my high school class ranking and advanced placement tests, I was able to test out of something like 28 credit hours for English and German. I almost regret that now, because I wish I would have taken more electives! (But it was a good thing for Mom and Dad’s bank account!) Online courses can be wonderful for someone like me who still wants to learn, but has no need to get the degree or cannot justify the fees involved. As we continue to develop these online courses, it can also be wonderful for kids who hope to further their education by getting a scholarship, or for young women in countries with oppressive attitudes towards women’s education. There really is no downside here.

Beyond fostering an attitude of the joy of learning, I believe we need to condemn the opposite attitude. I’ve written before about the bizarre tendency lately to dismiss facts and numbers if they don’t jibe with your personal reality. This needs to stop. To be completely frank, part of that needs to involve keeping religion out of the science classroom. I’ve written about that, too, so I won’t go into it in depth again, but it’s long past time that we stopped treating creationism/intelligent design as a valid scientific theory. It is not. It is a religious belief. People can believe whatever they want to believe, reconcile their beliefs with scientific fact in whichever way they choose, and they can teach those beliefs in their home and in their churches. No one is stopping them from that. But they must not be allowed to push those beliefs in the science classroom. I am not exaggerating when I say that our standing as a nation invested in scientific and medical research depends upon it.

Our duty now awaits us.


  1. v and the need for current technology in the classroom is HUGE where i am at. currently, we just got i-pads but only enough for two classes (out of the whole school) to use at the same time. we have a laptop cart of older laptops where about half the units work. the kids get mad when they have to share when we are looking at virtual labs to follow up my kitchen chemistry science experiments. it's frustrating. with the technology we also have to focus on being effective in both written and oral communication. some things still need to be practiced like writing, but we are trying to use the computers to help with the mechanics of writing.

    i think some of the changes with the race to the top and the adoption of common core standards will help since we are no longer teaching a litle about a thousand different topics in math each year- i get almost ten weeks to work with just ratios, and another ten weeks to work with fraction operations instead of the standard ten days for each chapter as planned in our old curriculum. kids need time to explore these concepts if they are going to be proficient at higher level mathematics.

    so cool about your course- i need to check that link out!


  2. I think that it will take a bigger social change and more conviction to improving our public schools for the necessary implementation of the tools you have mentioned in educating people in this country. We need a bottom-up approach, but the funding for anything in the public sector is sketchy.

    The " 'Merica F*ck Yeah!" attitude has given us a false sense of entitlement. Being American no longer translates into having the best of things... and without those at the top of the economic tree being willing to pay their share when it comes to taxes, it is unlikely to ever improve.

    Interesting about the online course... cool, actually. I will do like Alaina and check it out myself!!

  3. Nice post! Very thought-provoking. I've signed up for a couple of the Coursera courses myself, thanks to your bringing them to my attention a few weeks ago.

  4. It was an amazing article and I hope we can integrate online learning more to keep students from accumulating so much debt.

  5. I think a long as we give people a broad educational foundation to draw from, when they are younger, we can start to hyper focus on job skills for many people once we get them to high school. Tech use and online learning will become the norm for everyone in school; you can see that very clearly from visiting schools now and reading ed tech plans. Curiosity, exploration, empathy, and critical thinking are areas I think we will need to focus on to remain competitive in the global workforce. They all prepare you for thinking and solving problems and that's what the future will really need.

  6. I am concerned about the sad state of today's education. Our leaders have gutted the field, hamstrung it, chastised the teachers. Punished them and have made moves to destroy the teachers unions... and have made moves to dumb it down although they'd insist they are making it better.

    I sure don't know the answers to get things back on track but all I can say is I was terribly depressed when I was a teacher. Loved the kids, though they wore me out and left me exhausted by the end of the school year. Every teacher-friend of mine wants out, have warned me about ever returning to it...

    One thing is certain, if we are going to make school relevant in today's world, we must find ways to improve science and math performances (note I did NOT say scores). As far as I am concerned, grades are not--and should not--be the means in which we predict a child's success in the future. I know some believe schools should become more slanted toward vocational training, and others say it should be aimed towards academics... all I know is, this country's future depends on our schools.

    I miss it and yet I do not.


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