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Elizabeth English Headshot

Why So Many Schools Remain Penitentiaries of Boredom

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"It's harder to change a school than it is to move a graveyard." Or, as it's also been said, "It's harder to change a history course than it is to change history." I think we can all agree that our schools should be among our most dynamic and innovative institutions; but despite the endless talk about school reform, they remain among our most ossified.

Take a look at the typical American classroom, public or independent, urban or suburban, and what you will see looks very much like the classrooms of the 19th century. Yes, slates have been replaced (in most places) with digital tools, but the structure signals the musty past: teacher as authoritative source of knowledge, student as tabula rasa. Or take the structure of the school day itself, typically divided into seven 45 minute classes. Believe it or not, that schedule derives from Victorian factories where industrialist Frederick Taylor concluded that workers were most productive when they changed stations every 45 minutes.

And it's not just the structure of schools that is chained to the past. It's the very content we teach and our purpose for teaching it. This has been true for at least a century, but the technological revolution has brought our schools to the precipice; the mandate could not be more obvious: evolve or suffer extinction. We are seeing more clearly than ever that school as we know it is becoming irrelevant to an entire generation. Drop out rates remain high, especially here in L.A., and far too many college students, who are ostensibly prepared, give up before the end of their freshman year. Why? Because they're disengaged. Even among our most educationally privileged, students arrive at college already burned out and cynical about the journey ahead. If college means another four years of primarily sitting and listening to someone else lecture, we've lost them already.

Authentic learning at its core is about doing, creating, constructing. Ask yourself, "What do I remember as the most rewarding and inspiring experience in school?" and the answer invariably involves something you created -- poetry you wrote, a computer program you designed, an art portfolio you assembled, biology research you conducted. We learn by doing. Unfortunately, it is a lot easier for a teacher to deliver information than it is to design a lesson that deeply engages the learner and asks the student to transfer and apply the skills and concepts of the course rather than simply memorizing them.

Teachers no longer need to be the "black box" in which information is stored. Instead, educators must become designers of doing. In this sense, teaching is a highly skilled craft, requiring not only explicit objectives, but a beautifully designed and irresistible learning experience that asks students think critically, solve a problem, create a product. Take for example an undergraduate course at MIT on designing a wheel chair for use in the developing world. A real world, altruistic problem is posed and students are challenged to solve it. Along the way, they must learn and employ the chemistry, geometry, geography, cultural anthropology, physics, etc. to prevail. Now that is relevance. Without doing likewise, our secondary schools will remain penitentiaries of boredom -- places where our children sit stupefied and often medicated so that they can remain silent and motionless long enough for the lesson to be over.

Our schools and teaching have to be worthy of a student's attention. I talk to students about what it means to be fully present-- to "attend," which comes from the Latin attendere, meaning to take care or take charge, to bend toward. Attending means so much more than merely showing up and yet when we utter the word in the context of school, it evokes passivity. Likewise, learning has become synonymous with collecting information or possessing the kind of knowledge that can be readily measured on a test. For those who are college bound, that means a standardized test like the S.A.T. But the true test of knowledge and understanding is applicability. Students want and deserve knowledge which they can apply to an authentic experience. Don't get me wrong, facts and content matter. But deep and enduring learning is always about more than mnemonics, and it's time our schools and curricula reflect this.

Yes, you need knowledge of the periodic table to do chemistry, but you don't need to memorize it if it's on your desktop -- electronic or otherwise. What matters is the ability to do something with the elements in the periodic table. But ask yourself, what's easier to design: a fill in the blank test for recall or an authentic chemistry experiment that may well have a messy outcome? This is just one of the tragedies of No Child Left Behind, or as I like to call "No Child Left Untested." Few experiences in life are less authentic than a standardized test. The humble times-tables were once memorized by a sort of chanted catechism; today, our youngest math students make lightning-fast calculations on an array of electronic devices which, ironically, most large-scale assessments forbid. Quick, what's 12 x 7? It's actually okay if you don't remember, offhand, because you no longer have to. Isn't that great?

Educational leaders have to have the courage to reinvent our schools for real this time. And our teachers must be teachers of children as well as teachers of their subject area. This means possessing pedagogical knowledge -- the tools in the tool belt to design a lesson for the students of the present and the problems of the future. Here's the bottom-line and the good news: the vast riches of the world's cumulative knowledge are literally at our fingertips every day, via tablet, desktop, laptop and cell-phone. True, there is such a thing as classified information, not accessible via our search engines, and there is plenty of misinformation on the web, too (for instance, I don't recommend that you diagnose your own appendicitis, etc.) But still, if you're interested in what the ancient Egyptians ate for breakfast, or how to carve a duck decoy, or simply want to learn to speak Portuguese, a few persistent mouse-clicks will summon this and virtually any other form of knowledge you desire, as if you have conjured an obedient djinn from a magic lamp. It's all there for us, and we don't have to remember much more than our new lexicon of user-names and passwords to enter what truly is a wonderland of information impossible to imagine a generation ago.

And here's where our schools become relevant once more: in teaching our children to evaluate and use that information in ways that are important and meaningful and to satisfy their fundamental human desire to construct solutions for the world full of engaging and pressing problems they will inherit.