Learning for a new world

Published by Lori Pickert on January 21, 2009 at 03:15 PM

We watched our new president be sworn in yesterday, and I was thinking about many things. How great it is to live in a country where people have strong beliefs and often strongly disagree, yet power is transferred smoothly and without violence. What enormous challenges lie ahead not only for our new governmental leaders but for our whole society as we grapple with the economy, the environment, and our swiftly changing world.

Is education in our country keeping up with what our children will need to run the world in 2025?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend over the weekend. He said that high school graduates from a nearby reputed “great public school” were coming into his college-level program filled with confidence that didn’t quite pan out. Although they had been schooled in doing certain tasks well when they were presented in a predictable way, they floundered if problems were taken out of context or if ideas needed to be extended to new areas.

Their knowledge wasn’t flexible; they weren’t able to transfer what they thought they knew to new situations.

Howard Gardner has written about university students who got As in physics but incorrectly predicted simple real-world outcomes in the same way five-year-old children did — they could parrot back correct answers on their tests, but they didn’t acquire the knowledge in an authentic way so that they could apply it outside of the classroom.

Understanding for me, on the other hand, is taking something that you've learned, a skill, a bit of knowledge, a concept, and applying it appropriately in a new situation. We very rarely ask students to do that. The most interesting finding of cognitive science for education is that when we ask even the best students in the best schools to make use of the knowledge in a new situation, they don’t typically know how to do it. — Howard Gardner

Coverage and memorization of facts is not enough. Skills acquisition isn’t even enough, if the student doesn’t acquire the skill authentically enough to be able to know when and how to use it in an unpredicted situation.

It’s not enough to be “educated”; our children need to be smart.

Our children don’t need laurels; they need tools.

They don’t need praise and rewards; they need self-confidence.

Are we giving them what they need?


Comment by kirsten on January 21, 2009 at 03:57 PM

This is one of my goals as a parent. To have my children know HOW to learn and be flexible in how they apply what they've learned.

I was stunned by my college roommate, who was a valedictorian and had a higher high school GPA than I did, when she consistently showed her inability to think for herself. In classes. In homework. She actually would copy the exact answers out of the textbooks (IN COLLEGE) for assignments because that's how she was taught to answer questions in high school. !!

I knew that my kids had to have a different education than she did. Although at the time I never dreamed of homeschooling.

Comment by Mary on January 21, 2009 at 04:48 PM

I was reading this morning in a US Chamber of Commerce publication about some of their legislation goals. To provide a capable workforce for US businesses, they want to strengthen NCLB and increase the number of college graduates. They're pushing for exactly what's going to result in a less capable workforce, unless they don't want innovators and problem solvers. Oy vey!

Comment by greenchickadee on January 21, 2009 at 06:06 PM

Your thoughts on the smooth transfer of power were what hit me so strongly yesterday that was when I teared up. It was just amazing, to see such opposites, being cordial, kind, and so respectful of eachother. It was such a contrast to what other countries face during election times!

So, in light of "thinking for themselves" I always wondered what kind of homeschooler Sarah Palin really was. Was she the "by the book" kind of teacher, or out of the box, unconventional type. Hmmm, and what changes will we see in the laws that affect homeschoolers in the coming years. Curiosity is biting me!

Comment by Mariah@Playful ... on January 21, 2009 at 06:45 PM

I couldn't agree with you more!
Here are some interesting links on the subject...

Comment by Barbara on January 21, 2009 at 08:07 PM

great points. love the flags

Comment by Alison Kerr on January 21, 2009 at 09:42 PM

"Are we giving them what they need?"

Sadly, I think that for most children the answer must be "no". I'd like to add a twist to the question: "Are we doing a better job of giving children what they need than any previous generation, or a worse job?"

If we are doing a worse job than previously we need to get our act together. If we are doing a better job, even if it's not as good as it might be, we are making progress.

Comment by Sara on January 21, 2009 at 10:07 PM

Interesting....makes me think how important life skills are with an education. Like you said a child could have striaght A's in high school then go to college and not do so great because suddenly the work is hard and they don't have the confidence to push through it.
Thanks again for another thoughtful question Lori!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 22, 2009 at 12:46 AM

kirsten, i knew people in college who were like that -- and they didn’t just continue with what worked for them in high school, they insisted it was good even in the face of contrary evidence. these students were furious because they were writing papers “that got As in my high school!” that weren’t getting good marks .. and in response, rather than finding out what they were doing wrong and working to improve, they just continued to insist that their work was good -- no, not good -- great!

mary, i would be interested in reading that!

greenchickadee, lolol re: sarah palin -- good job avoiding the word “maverick”! ;^)

alison, i think it’s pretty clear we are doing a worse job; students graduating high school today aren’t getting the same quality of education they got in the 1950s. what good are expensive computers and smartboards if our kids can’t read shakespeare?

thank you, sara .. and i agree re: life skills *with* an education .. we seem to arm kids with an education that they aren’t equipped to use effectively.

Comment by Alison Kerr on January 22, 2009 at 03:32 AM

"Alison, i think it’s pretty clear we are doing a worse job; students graduating high school today aren’t getting the same quality of education they got in the 1950s."

I'm sure I agree with you on this point. I'm interested in exploring it further though. I'm fond of thinking that American education today is not as good as it was in Scotland for me in the 1960's and 1970's, but I wonder to what extent and in what way that is true. I knew my math and had read Shakespeare, but what I saw was that the kids who were prepared for life were the ones who had good experiences outside of school. They were mentored through things like music lessons, round-table discussions, and extra reading materials, all provided by their parents. I certainly got all the basics in school but I don't feel I was prepared for life.

Do you think that kids today are exposed to out of school experiences that are as good for them as the experiences kids had in the 1950's?

Do you think that a specific sector of kids is worse off with the education today than in the past? There were many kids who failed school academically when I was there, but I feel that those who succeeded in school somehow had a better grounding than the top students today.

I hope this does not sound confrontational, I'm just curious about more details of what you think :-)

Comment by Arwen on January 22, 2009 at 11:55 AM

Sad to say, but a lot of college professors are now dumbing down their classes to fit this 'learning' style - at least a lot of the classes I have taken. I fear it won't be long before a college degree (at least a bachelors) doesn't mean very much.

NCLB is, IMO, one of the signs that the harder our country tries to improve education, the more it misses the point and forgets what really works. I have been hearing stories from parents here about how their kids' teachers are being forced to throw out their real curriculla in order to spend all their time "teaching for the tests" because of NCLB. That doesn't strike me as the most productive way of teaching.

Comment by Mary on January 22, 2009 at 01:47 PM

I coldn't find the exact snippet from the US Chamber of Commerce magazine on their website, so I'll type out the text from the Jan 09 issue, in an article titled "Keeping the US Competitive: Chamber Agenda Promots Jobs, Growth":
Educate a Superior Workforce and Reform Education
The Chamber's Agenda
-Overhaul federally funded training programs to make them nonduplicative and flexible, employer-driven, strategically oriented to the current and prospective job markets, and accountable under strict measurement of results.
-Strengthen and reauthorize NCLB and focus K-12 reform efforts on better teaching, more innovation, higher standards, and better data.
-At the higher education level, increase the number of graduates in science, engineering, technology, and math and provide more support for non-university sectors, including community colleges and private technical institutes.
-Enact comprehensive and balanced immigration reform.
-Expand temporary and permanent visa programs for highly skilled and seasonal workers.

Here are a couple related pages on their website:

It seems to me that what their looking for is more qualified employees, but using terms like "better teaching", "higher standards", and "better data" seems to me like trying to do more of the same, only a little better. The term "more innovation" was included, but I wonder what all that will entail.

Educating a superior workforce requires a whole lot of thinking outside the box, which isn't a strong suit of lobbyists or politicians.

Comment by Dawn on January 22, 2009 at 02:37 PM

This is one of the things that I love about the project based learning. She is leading the way and problem solving every day. She is posing questions. I am posing questions. We are brainstorming. We are looking up. We are seeking answers together. She disagrees with me (and I think it's great!). She figures out her best way. All skills that are going to serve her so amazingly well when she is helping to solving the huge problems that face our society... our planet!

No matter what her contributions to the future... right now she is learning to think for herself, pose questions, solve problems with the resources available, all things that will, without a doubt, help her in the future.

Thanks for the thoughts Lori. I too was amazed at the peaceful transfer of power... esp. in these times. More powerful than any army!

Comment by sarah on January 22, 2009 at 02:42 PM

this post really speaks to me. i think about this too. but not just in educational terms. am i preparing my children to be hard workers? will they be financially responsible? will they expect the world to be handed to them on a silver platter? i think it really speaks to me, because i was one of those students that sailed thru high school and was smacked down in college. "what? i have to study? how do i do that?" while i did beautifully in high school, i did not in college. i was not prepared.

not only do i need to equip and prepare my children for the real world, but i need to correct my own short comings. am i a hard worker? am i financially responsible?

one more thought. are children learning to answer straight up questions only, or can they do the "word problems" of life. can they apply what they learn?

Comment by Sam on January 22, 2009 at 02:52 PM

I got an A in Physics at O-level. (In the UK, we had O-levels at 16, A-levels at 18 and then onto university for a degree).
My physics teacher kindly told my mother, 6 months before the final exams, that there was no way I was going to pass, as I was useless. He didn't think girls could do physics.
I set out to prove him wrong, because that's the kind of person I am *sigh*.
Anyway, I took the text book, read it cover to cover, answered the practice questions, and passed the exam, getting the A grade. So then they wanted me to do it at A-level.
But I KNEW I didn't really understand physics, I'd just learnt how to answer the right questions. So I wisely chose to end my physics career on a high. ;-)
Are our current crop of students brainwashed into believing they do "understand" what they have only memorised?
Sorry for rabbiting on :-)

Comment by Sarah Jackson on January 22, 2009 at 05:11 PM

This is *precisely* the discussion Jeff and I had when deciding to homeschool Annika. We are watching our oldest go to college right now, and while she really is excelling (I think because her university has a very similar style to her high school), she has no idea what her direction will be. No concept of what it's going to mean to find meaningful work as opposed to just getting a job. Her school was so about "achieving" that they forgot about the end goal. Happy, productive people who feel strongly about what they have to contribute to the world they live in. And who DO contribute in meaningful ways.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 22, 2009 at 06:43 PM

alison, i think that high school graduates in the 50s had a better all-round foundation of education — with more challenging work — than graduates have today from an average high school. so, if you are a rich student in a wealthy public school taking AP courses, you are probably doing as well, but ordinary, run-of-the-mill students are doing work that is more and more dumbed down as each decade passes. anyway, that’s what i think. ;^)

arwen, yes, that fits exactly with what i was just saying to alison .. i think a bachelor’s degree now might be equivalent to a high school degree in the 50s. as we push everyone into college, college has to step down to be achievable for everyone. so we have to keep getting more and more and more schooling to equal the same level of education! i agree with you completely.

i agree with you re: NCLB as well. NCLB is one of those things that sounds good on the surface but reveals a complete lack of understanding of the actual “problems” in schools and what actual teachers, students, and families need. instead, the focus is on some big, fuzzy statements that look and sound good but achieve nothing.

i’ve written before about how my state (illinois) changed their test and dropped a significant writing portion and the schools reacted by shutting down writing programs. it’s not about what’s best for the kids; it’s about getting a good grade on the test — for schools and politicians. we have completely lost sight of what really matters.

mary, thank you so much for typing that out! “higher standards” — again, this is what i have been talking about. what does that even mean? if we say 95% of all students should go on to college, is that a higher standard? is it still a higher standard if we lower the expectations so we can meet the goal?

when they say “more innovation”, i don’t think they are looking for it to come from the students!

rather than thinking about how to strengthen individuals, which would make for the most educated populace, they are focusing on creating a good “workforce” — some faceless mass of workers who will fill a need.

dawn, i love your comment — it is exactly how i feel about project-based learning. it is *dynamic*, it is *alive*. the freedom to disagree and have your own opinions, and then figure out if you can support them — what more could we want for our children?! and yes, this kind of learning builds *real skills* that can be transferred to anything she wants to do in the future. the *topic* of the project is not really important; it’s the development of those skills. it *is* so powerful!

sarah, re: what we were discussing above in this thread, we want our children to be hard workers .. working hard for *themselves* and for things they believe in .. rather than just being a “workforce”!

i think your story is a common one — knocked down in college because high school didn’t prepare you — and that is one thing that i am determined to work at with my sons. i want them to be prepared. i want them to be practicing those skills all along the way.

your comment about wanting to authentically be yourself what you want them to be .. beautiful!

that last thought is what i was trying to articulate in my post .. this idea that kids “do well” and get As, then can’t apply what they “know” in a new situation .. if they can’t apply it, then *they didn’t really learn it*.

sam, your experience with physics is like mine with math. i doggedly did what was necessary to get my A, but because my teacher was very bad, i never really understood any of it. the fact that i *could* get an A .. and sail through trig and calculus .. and then not be able to balance my checkbook without developing a migraine .. is very frustrating. my As meant nothing in terms of real understanding.

i *do* believe our students are brainwashed into thinking they know more than they do .. that they are, essentially, smarter than they really are. i also think there is a whole area that is left untouched and unmentioned — quality of life. forget about understanding calculus — are these kids prepared to choose a career? make good financial decisions, as sarah mentioned? make short-term sacrifices to meet long-term goals? enjoy what they have instead of pining for what they don’t have? the fact that schools fail to educate our society in the most basic financial facts is almost comical. would our economy be as broken as it is now if people truly understood credit? sigh. and .. sorry for *my* rabbiting on. ;^)

sarah, exactly!!

Comment by Mary on January 22, 2009 at 06:51 PM

"rather than thinking about how to strengthen individuals, which would make for the most educated populace, they are focusing on creating a good “workforce” — some faceless mass of workers who will fill a need."

I totally agree.

A major problem with most education reforms prroposed today is that they look for ways to do what they already do, only do it better. When the system is flawed with its basic design (which still contains the general elements from its design to create a faceless mass of workers), modifying the system will only result in more of the same.

Maybe they should look into principles from the Outliers' 10000 hours...

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 22, 2009 at 08:34 PM

yes! what is needed is a complete overhaul with an eye toward life as it is now and life as it will be in the next 20 years. but even that doesn’t solve the problem of the complete lack of concern for the individual. government and schools are trying to fill a need that our society has — whether it’s raising little consumers or little workers. they aren’t trying to build individual persons who are capable of making good decisions for themselves about the work they want, how to manage their income, how to weigh wants vs. needs, etc.

Comment by Meme on January 22, 2009 at 09:01 PM

I couldn't agree more. We are currently sending our children to a classical christian school, and more than once I have questioned whether or not we should be spending money on education. But time and time again, when they find themselves in upredictable situations (called life) our children are able to use the knowledge, that is teaching them how to learn rather than teaching them a set of rules, facts, etc., and apply it in wise and thoughtful ways.

If the economy continues this downward trend, I will have to homeschool. And I am thankful that your blog exsists. I love it!

Comment by SnippetyGibbet on January 22, 2009 at 09:29 PM

I love Howard Gardner! It speaks so much truth.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 23, 2009 at 12:55 AM

thank you, meme! :^)

snip, me too ;^)

Comment by Lisa on January 23, 2009 at 05:13 PM

As a parent with one in public, one in homeschool I'd say the homeschoolers are winning this race in most, but not all cases. I've seen kids so isolated in homeschool that they haven't got a clue. I've seen kids doing brilliantly in public school--but they seem to be as much a minority as the over-shelted crew.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 23, 2009 at 10:49 PM

lisa, absolutely. homeschooling isn’t a magical cure for all of education’s ills, not by a long shot. these are questions i think we should all ponder, no matter where our children are learning.

Comment by Christie on January 24, 2009 at 07:09 PM

regarding kids thinking they are smarter than they are:
My husband teaches AP rhetoric, and these kids are floored by how hard it is. In their 10 previous years of schooling they've always flown through without even trying, and now he expects them to work at something that doesn't come easy. And for the few for which even rhetoric comes easily, he raises the bar. They are lucky to have him (though they don't know it now), and they are also especially lucky that they have him as juniors in HS rather than seniors.

Unfortunately with budget cutbacks, it looks like the school will be going from a AP English options a year with class sizes in the low 20's they'll go down to offering each option every other year. So kids can still take 2 AP classes, but the sizes will be in the low 30's. That volume of kids directly impacts his ability to challenge them. He currently spends about 40 minutes per paper commenting and these kids are turning in work all the time. If you add 10 kids into the mix, he either has to read their work more quickly or assign less work. I was about to go on about how class size also impacts the quality of discussion, but ultimately, my point is the quality of an education should not fluctuate with the ups and downs of the economy. But it does and it does so across the ages.

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