Saturday, May 20, 2017

To Eden on Her Sixth Birthday: A Plea for Education Reform

“Now the problem with standardized tests is that it's based on the mistake that we can simply scale up the education of children like you would scale up making carburetors. And we can't, because human beings are very different from motorcars, and they have feelings about what they do and motivations in doing it.”
        Sir Ken Robinson.

“It’s okay, Uncle Ben. I'm sure I'll appreciate him when I’m grown up.”
Eden, handing me back the headphones and letting me down easy after her first experience with Bob Dylan.

“You know… it's not a good thing that hammocks don't have seat belts.”
         Eden, having just fallen out of one.

“Only by counting could humans demonstrate their independence of computers.”
Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
My niece, Eden, turned six recently. She came to visit us in California for her birthday. We went to Disneyland together and spent a few days at home as well. Typical spring break for a six year old living in New Jersey. Eden and I end up spending quite a bit of time together when she visits, mostly sitting in the backyard and talking. She relishes the California sunshine and warmth after a cold New Jersey winter spent cooped up in the house. And I, too, admit to being a sun worshipper, enjoying the backyard and California’s seemingly perpetual springtime.

These conversations with Eden can revolve around anything: recent events in school, what happened on a cartoon she was recently watching, the latest happenings on Wall Street, what Donald Trump said about the Middle East crisis, you name it. I kid you not. I have learned to talk to her like an adult and am constantly amazed by how much she can absorb. Her mom recently sent us a video she had taped of Eden in their living room as she pretended to deliver the evening news while sitting in a cardboard cutout TV. Her monologue included relevant commentary on the political situation in DC, the weather in LA and Jerusalem for the next week, the stock market, traffic on the George Washington bridge, and other topics she had picked up on TV. She obviously doesn't understand all the nuances but is smart enough and has learned enough to participate meaningfully in an adult conversation - or, in this case, presentation.

Eden, in my honest opinion, is brilliant. She speaks three languages fluently without ever having been “taught” them. She can play tunes on the piano without ever having learned to read notes. She has an amazing ear for music, a seemingly magical ability to someone like me who couldn't speak “piano-ese” any more than Chinese. She already reads at a third grade level and is, consequently, often bored in school given that she's still stuck in kindergarten! I’m sure the teachers struggle to keep her engaged in class.

Her high level of intelligence also means she often gets frustrated with the “childish” environment she is forced to inhabit. For the first couple of days of her visit, I couldn't get her to read even a picture book, one that should have been a piece of cake. She refused to concentrate and intentionally misread simple words. Once I caught her not even looking at the page as she recited the words, apparently from perfect memory of a previous reading. She was telling me she was bored with the exercise, that it was too simple. Then I put a much harder book in front of her, one with a hundred words per page instead of just ten. She immediately started reading with no problem whatsoever!

Every time I sit with Eden, I'm reminded of this amazing TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson on education and how we need to completely rethink our approach to it for the next century. Children need individualized attention and they need to be challenged mentally. Our model of education, however, is still rooted in rote memorization, standardized tests, and principles based on the needs of the industrial revolution and the eighteenth century. We take these brilliant minds and force them to sit through a dozen or more years of institutionalized hell called primary and secondary education, memorizing formulas and theorems so they can answer multiple-choice questions on a test before promptly forgetting them. I’m convinced kids are interested in everything that we bother to make interesting for them. If they lose interest in a subject, chances are it's not because they don't “get” it but rather that they didn't “get” an earlier more important concept, quite possibly because the teacher didn't make the topic interesting.

A scant few will get the privilege of working with amazing teachers who will challenge them while the vast majority will be marginalized by an education system that looks backwards instead of forwards. How else do you explain this (and other) popular YouTube videos showing children in Indian villages calculating large sums by mentally simulating an abacus for their proud teacher? You can see them fidget with their fingers as they recreate a mental image of an abacus. Is this really how we want to educate our children? Is this really the skill they need to practice for hours on end so they can be successful in the twenty first century? This is an extreme example but I claim most of the world’s children don't go through a much better educational system.

Here we are with “blank slates” that hunger to learn, children who have the mental capacity to pick up three completely distinct human languages in just a couple of years of ad hoc practice, who teach themselves to play the piano, take your pick of amazing skills you’ve seen children display. We take these geniuses - there is no other word for it - with the massive computing engines they carry around all day, and we sit them down and tell them to memorize formulas that they will never need - instead of helping them understand the deep principles behind those formulas, instead of teaching them to seek answers and not just memorize them.

After we’ve crammed their heads full of data for sixteen to twenty years, we tell them they’re all set for the rest of their lives and send them out into the workforce. This may have worked well when the average life expectancy was forty but it’s a recipe for disaster now that it’s eighty and creeping towards one hundred. What we learned half a century ago in school, assuming we even remember much of it, is stale by definition and no longer relevant to today’s - let alone tomorrow’s - needs. This is a problem we have to address if we're ever going to solve some of our biggest societal problems today. The longer we ignore it, the more we will create a generation who cannot compete effectively in the information age, will feel marginalized, and - in the right countries, with the right influences - will become radicalized. We need a model for continuous lifetime education, one that teaches children to think and learn for themselves in the long run - for the joy of learning, not because they need to make money next year.

But, back to Eden. She has long known how to Google things for herself, order apps on her iPad, watch videos on YouTube, play Words with Friends against the computer, and much more. Compare this to the intellectual universe available to a six year old a century ago - or even thirty years ago. There is no comparison. It is amazing how quickly our brains have stepped up to handle massively larger amount of information coming at us 24x7. We are only now starting to realize the extraordinary cognitive and pattern matching abilities of the human brain. But, still, we choose to take these amazing supercomputers while at the peak of their learning abilities and lock them into rooms for hours a day, teaching them... to hate learning! Nothing short of a revolution in how we think about education will ever fix that.

Having just returned from Disneyland where she stood, starry-eyed, taking pictures with her favorite princesses, I felt a bit subversive as I gave Eden this t-shirt as her birthday gift.

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