Better Questions; Better Schools

When I look at our schooling system in the United States, I see a major problem.  This is nothing new.  We’ve been falling behind for years.  We’ve tried reform of all kinds.  Nothing seems to work.  How is it that all of our efforts fail?  The simple answer is: We need to accept that the true problem is much deeper than we realize.

We teach our children how to answer questions.  We make them memorize the states, the periodic table, important dates, and so forth.  If a student chooses to succeed, they will leave high school with a mind full of facts.  This appears fine until you realize that even these students are behind on a worldwide scale.  So, what are we doing wrong?

We are teaching our children how to answer questions.  We provide them with the question.  They answer it.  William Yeats is often attributed with the quote, “Learning is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”  If we continue to fill our children’s minds with answers, we will do be doing nothing more than filling a bucket that will grow tired of the same old routine.

We must teach our children how to ask questions.  Don’t tell them that Pi is 3.14.  Give them the same exercise that led mathematicians to that number all those years ago.  Don’t simply tell them that we dropped bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to end World War II.  Instead, provide them with the same information U.S. officials had at the time and ask them what they would do.

If you seek only answers, you will find that some buckets fill slowly and other far too quickly.  In the end, however, all the buckets will fill the brim.  If, instead, we have a classroom full of children who are excited about learning because they get to ask the questions and seek out the answers, we will see a dramatic change.  At last, we will catch up with the rest of the world.

But remember, you cannot simply change the minds of the people.  You must also affect the system itself in order to achieve successful change.  What kind of system is best for “lighting a fire?”  Two major changes in our education program are needed to make it possible for a new generation to catch fire: a more intimate learning environment and less regulation.

It is impossible to get a discussion going that is exciting for students when they are drowned out in a sea of voices.  When classrooms have 30 to 40 students in them—as they often do—this outcome is inevitable.  First and foremost, education must be funded to the point that all classrooms can have 20 or fewer children in each classroom.  This will not only make it easier for each child to speak up.  It’ll force every child to speak up.  Only when we stop treating our children like robots pumping out generic answers will they be forced to wonder what they want to learn about.

Less regulation is another must.  If we are to put children in the driver’s seat of their own education, we must first remove the state from it.  Statewide testing is useless.  We test our children several times a year in order to find out if they are learning at the right pace.  This not only hampers the learning process, but leaves the state in control of what needs to be taught.  All placement testing should be scrapped.

Our children need to be guided, not forced.  Too often you will hear the question, “When will I ever use this?”  Students don’t understand that they are asking the wrong questions because our educational system is not based around asking the right questions.  If we can make this switch, our students will soon realize that subjects that they may never “use” are still fascinating and worthy of exploration.

We have taken the human element out of teaching.  Many teachers are frustrated because they are used as facilitators rather than educators.  We must hand them this position back.  By allowing for more funding, our government will try to add additional regulations.  If there is any way around this, it should be taken.  If not, local control is the answer.

30 December 2011

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