Change is Coming
A Learning Manifesto
By Judy Cornelius
Learning is a process. I am most passionate about the freedom to learn, possibly because I am a product of the public school system in a time when curriculum was well defined and non-negotiable. The American education system is changing. Initially designed to ensure a well-educated society full of wise leaders, public education appears to have digressed into a series of agendas, manipulated resources, and an overwhelmingly ignorant population of high school graduates. That’s the bad news. The good news is that in the last decade, and for the first time in American history, teachers recognize that students are beginning to drive education. I believe this is the best thing to happen to education since its mandatory inception.
Teachers are not the target of my critique; rather, it’s the system itself I speak of. I believe the system is impeding the learning process. As a nation, the US seems highly educated, thanks in part to our advanced technologies, mostly in industry. In spite of the millions of young people who are functionally illiterate, we continue to “produce” as a nation both student graduates and gross domestic product. To the rest of the world we may appear to have mastered the process of educating our youth, but I believe we are far from it.
World Learning Models Differ
In comparison, consider the education system in Germany. Based on my personal experience in recent years with German students, their tiered education system is also highly governed. German teenagers with access to the internet commonly watch the same You Tube videos as American teens, follow the same trends, and typically speak some English. In German schools, most of which still have curricula distinctions based on career preparation, students do not sit wide-eyed waiting for entertainment by teachers with devices. German students are told what to know, they are given space and time in which to apply and theorize the information, and have very few assessments – but can expect as much as 50% of their grade to be based on demonstrative participation. German teachers do use technology, however, German schools are not the candy-stores of technology found in some area of the US.
By the time a German student reaches age 16, he (or she) has a choice to go on to trade-like schools or University, which the German government fully funds for both native and foreign students. “Learning” in Germany is a choice beyond that age. I have been told that failing in German schools does not condemn a student to eternal poverty. It should not condemn American students either, but it does, because high school (and college) certificates delineate skill level, albeit inaccurately, leaving many capable young people unable to secure high paying jobs.
Interestingly, according to PBS.com the literacy rates of both the US and Germany are the same in spite of their different approaches to learning and use of technology in schools. I take that to mean it’s not technology in education, or teachers, or even the expectations for performance that are in question, it is the system in which students learn that could be hindering progress for kids.
For the students—by the students
Our nation needs to change how we deliver information in schools, embrace the idea that learning is a choice, and create new pathways for educating kids. Many students today feel like going to school is punishment. In addition, employers need to revisit the educational “must have’s” in job descriptions, requiring certifications that actually prove skill to perform on the job.
Director of Outreach and international education liaison, Dr. Abidin Yildirim, Ph D. at the University of Alabama Birmingham School of Engineering told me that having a Bachelor degree in Engineering from a German University is equivalent to having a Masters’ degree from a US university. How can that be? I believe our education system focuses on teaching, not learning, and there lies the disparity. Technology in schools is not the cure for what I believe is a misguided national education system, nor is money, but technology may be the catalyst that will shift our culture’s focus from being a “told what to know” society (the push philosophy), to being an “exposed to what to learn” society (the pull philosophy).
The private school where I currently work as Technology Director demonstrates how a subculture made up of leaders with like beliefs, supporting the pull philosophy (leading students to understanding in meaningful context) will increase student learning, with or without technology. Consistently, the majority of our students out-perform 75% of the nation on standardized tests. This has been the case long before bringing technology into the classrooms only a few years ago.
My teaching philosophy stems from a belief in free enterprise. I believe the US education system would function better if schools operated without mandates from the government. That is not to say the government should not continue to offer a public option or create benchmarks to establish minimum performance outcomes, but that funds from taxes should support different educational models, including online schools and schools that reflect the needs and values of the communities in which they reside. Innovative education models are needed that focus on effort, accountability, and ethics. New models will include thinking strategies and offer authentic problems as means for outcome assessment. Achievement should not be measured by a single test designed for those with exceptional memories, but by students’ commitment to solving real problems. New education models will lead to new ideas and products, and eventually new jobs requiring different skills; skills not necessary developed through college education. Government must first relinquish its hold on the learning process if we are to experience change.
Personally, I believe my duty as a teacher is to expose students to as much relevant information as possible by any means. Great teachers want to lead students to learn more deeply but are required to teach a massive amount in a very short time. The system is impeding the learning process. The option to choose the learning environment is missing from public education. Time is wasted where learning could be happening. As students lead the way, I expect we may one day see what I believe is real learning.