The title of a recent essay in Wired certainly caught my eye: American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.
I think anyone who does a realistic evaluation of our educational system in the context of the rapidly changing American society, and especially the world of business, would regard that statement as obvious. But that’s not how school works.
We “learn,” and after this we “do.” We go to school and then we go to work.
This approach does not map very well to personal and professional success in America today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.
A large part of our approach to the learning process assumes that students must accumulate facts to some basic level before they can ever consider applying those facts.
Here in the real world, most people begin with a problem to solve, a question we need answered, or a skill we want to acquire. Then we do the necessary research as we work towards the goal. The two parts are so intertwined, I doubt most people notice when they switch between accumulating information and applying it.
The writer, a professor at Harvard, goes on to say “Americans need to learn how to discover”. But he does see something changing in the right direction.
Against this arresting background, an exciting new kind of learning is taking place in America. Alternatively framed as maker classes, after-school innovation programs, and innovation prizes, these programs are frequently not framed as learning at all. Discovery environments are showing up as culture and entertainment, from online experiences to contemporary art installations and new kinds of culture labs. Perhaps inevitably, the process of discovery — from our confrontation with challenging ambiguous data, through our imaginative responses, to our iterative and error-prone paths of data synthesis and resolution — has turned into a focus of public fascination.
Certainly these “discovery” programs are showing up in many schools. But they are not part of “regular” school. They are classes for a special group of kids (generally those who we know will already pass the tests), after-school programs, or occasional reward activities.
The last part of the article focuses on changes at the college level but he discusses one very interesting idea that should be brought into K12.
All this has led to the rise of the culture lab.
Culture labs conduct or invite experiments in art and design to explore contemporary questions that seem hard or even impossible to address in more conventional science and engineering labs.
Instead of starting with memorizing facts and processes, then using them on totally artificial applications, why not ask students below the college level to address those contemporary questions? Why not ask them to investigate the parts of the world about which they are curious as part of “regular” school?
Instead of making discovery learning a supplement for only select kids.