What’s Wrong With Education?

One of the central themes of scholar Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It is the outdated nature of our current educational system. A key tenet of her argument centers on the design of classrooms and the style of teaching–and how both are out of date. She says, “If kids must face the challenges of this new, global, distributed information economy, what are we doing to structure the classroom of the twenty-first century to help them?” (12). As the economy transitions from a skills-based one—an economy rooted in manufacturing and hands-on labor—to an information one dominated by jobs which require advanced education, it would be natural for the means of delivering this essential education to also adapt and reflect this change. But our educational system has remained largely unchanged over the past century. Sure, our classrooms now have laptops, iPads, and SMART Boards, but their structure (as well as the teaching that occurs in them) looks much like it did one hundred years ago.

The design of classrooms needs an overhaul in order to better prepare students for participation in the modern knowledge economy. Davidson highlights the need for this change, saying “Her [grandmother’s] classroom could be plopped down almost unchanged in any large, urban public school today” (12). Classrooms of the twentieth century were designed for the economy of the time. Individual desks mimic the individual workstations at which students would likely work at for their entire careers. This type of work was non-collaborative, and relied heavily on individuals being able to perform specific tasks on their own. In addition, the separation of subjects in schools reflects the specialization of tasks in a manufacturing-based economy.

Look at the above image. What do you see? It’s an ordinary classroom from the turn of the century, when students could expect to enter industry as laborers or become part of the large agricultural sector of the economy. They sit at desks—representative of where they’d work every weekday, for hours at a time. Their learning was individualized and non-collaborative. They would read from their own books, take their own notes, and be focused solely on their teacher and their own work. Now look at the image below. Depicted here is a present-day classroom. What do you see? It certainly doesn’t look much different than the classroom from a century ago above. Students still sit at individual stations for individualized learning, but this does not reflect the work that drives our economy. Many present-day positions require at least some level of collaboration with coworkers—something that today’s classroom fails to prepare students for. The classroom must be redesigned to better prepare students for work in the modern knowledge economy.

Supporters of the current model of education in the United States may point to technology as a major tangible change that has taken root in our classrooms over time. This observation is accurate. But how–if at all–has technology truly changed the way students learn? In my own educational experience, high school chemistry is the most glaring example of technology’s failure to truly change student’s learning. My chemistry teacher, Mr. Russell, was one of the first teachers in our school to have a SMART Board in his classroom. At the time, it was like nothing we had ever seen–it was fascinating to be able to interact with the computer on a giant touch-screen interface. It seemed far superior to the chalkboards of old. But as I look back to those class periods six years ago, I fail to see how the SMART Board truly enhanced my learning. In fact, it was more of a hindrance–half of the time it wouldn’t calibrate correctly, and Mr. Russell would eventually give up on it and go back to using the chalkboard to draw his molecular structure diagrams.

I learned chemistry much the same way that I imagine students learned it half a century ago. We sat at desks facing the teacher’s lab station, with a chalkboard (and SMART Board) behind it. Mr. Russell would often lecture us for the majority of the period (sometimes using both boards to write vocabulary terms and draw diagrams). We, the students, diligently took notes in our notebooks. During lab periods, we’d go to our lab stations to perform the prescribed tasks of titration, heating compounds, and other hands-on activities. Although technology was present in our classroom, this presence was never really an integral part in the learning process. Even during labs, the use of technology was limited. This is the limitation on technology’s value in education–it is dependent on the student’s interaction with it. Sure, it’s great to have SMART Boards and laptops in classrooms, but how much students use these tools for learning dictates its value to the overall educational process. Just as it does no good to simply park a car in need of gasoline next to a gas pump, so it goes with students and technology–unless some sort of interaction occurs, no benefit will be seen.

Make no mistake, I believe that technology has a valuable place in education–tools such as Blackboard have changed the way students and instructors interact, and how students receive course content. But technology must not act simply as a surrogate for other learning tools (such as a SMART Board acting as a chalkboard’s more modern cousin). According to Davidson, the use of iPods at Duke University was incredibly beneficial to students. She writes, “[The iPod experiment] was an investment in a new form of attention, one that didn’t require the student to always face forward, learn from on high, memorize what was already a given, or accept knowledge as something predetermined and passively absorbed. It was also an investment in student-led curiosity, whose object was not a hunk of white plastic, but the very nature of interactivity, crowdsourcing, customizing, and inspired inquiry-driven problem solving” (Davidson 69). The problem with my high school chemistry class was that the technology incorporated into the classroom didn’t allow us to let our curiosity lead or customize our learning experience. The model was still very one-dimensional, forward-facing, and learning “from on high”–it reflected a twentieth century experience in a twenty-first century world.

So, what should the modern classroom look like? Rather that sitting at desks, I image a classroom where students are seated in groups at round tables. This breaks the model of a solitary, one-dimensional workspace. Such an arrangement makes the possibility of collaboration in the form of group work much easier and more plausible. Our economy has shifted to career where collaboration in one form or another is increasingly present–incorporation into the classroom would break the old model where each individual nearly always performed their own work without much interaction. The use of technology in the classroom is vital–but it must be used in a way that allows students to let curiosity guide their inquiries and make their educational experiences customizable. Technology is present, there is collaboration occurring, and the overall setup is not of the forward-facing, one-dimensional design of old.

The educational system is under-preparing our students to perform adequately in today’s modern economy. The method of learning done in our schools best prepares them for the jobs of yesteryear—for manufacturing, not for business, law, or the sciences. In order to reflect the shift in our own economy, the classroom must be redesigned, and the style of learning must be changed to allow for greater collaboration with others. Technology can play an integral role in a classroom that better prepares students for a twenty-first century reality. When students leave our schools, they should be able to take on the careers that dominate our society and economy–many of which are ever evolving with the progression of time. Only when we reconsider our current educational methodology and pedagogy will this goal be fully realized.

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One comment

  1. Stephanie MacDonald

    Hmmm. A couple of thoughts: first, collaborative learning in the middle and high school setting is probably not useful. It is the new buzzword, I realize, from the gurus on high, but the fact remains that without a solid background in any given subject, higher thought cannot begin. It’s like putting Tolstoy in front of a group of toddlers and saying, “Work in a group and see what interests you about this.” How can you have inquiry based learning if you don’t have the basic tools or language of the subject? Do you propose to having to re-learn everything from step one? Second, having a few years of education experience under my belt, teenagers, especially in middle school, will use every possible opportunity to push the envelope. Sadly, much of what happens in school is crowd control, mainly because there are always a few who will ruin it for everyone else. Third, collaborative learning is overrated. Most of the great innovations in society did not come from group work. They came from individuals, usually the outliers, the socially awkward, the daydreamers.
    While I agree that the educational model is outmoded and ineffectual, I do not have a solution. I have spent many years thinking about it. I homeschooled my own children for several years as a backlash against it. The fact remains that the students who want to learn will do so, no matter the conditions of their education or family. The students who don’t, won’t. “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. You can lead a child to learning, but you cannot make him think.”

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