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Ruth Bettelheim, Ph.D.

Ruth Bettelheim, Ph.D.

Posted: November 15, 2010 05:39 PM

Our schools are turning millions of normal children into dropouts and failures. This isn't because of a few bad teachers or principals, but because the natural learning behaviors of children are routinely penalized instead of praised. Initiatives like "No Child Left Behind" and "The Race To The Top" won't change this, because they don't adequately take into account research about how children learn. As Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel says, children have "enormous capability that they're born with and often school takes it out of them."

Our classrooms are based on outdated ideas, functioning like mid-20th century factories. Each child is offered an identical curriculum, like a car moving along an assembly line. However, children aren't units of production and this approach is failing. Since 1970, the rate of high school graduation has declined, and the United States has fallen from first to twelfth among developed nations in education.

This is inexcusable given the well-documented research about what makes children effective learners. Contemporary neuroscience has confirmed the findings of Freud, Piaget, and Dewey: that children's learning is largely dependent on inherent interest, emotional engagement, social interaction, physical activity and the pleasure of mastery.

These findings are ignored in traditional classroom approaches. If children are not interested, they won't learn, but we don't structure our schools to capture students' individual interests. Instead, everyone studies the same texts at the same time. Teachers often reprimand children for failing to change gears with the rest of the class. Students are told to be quiet, sit still, and listen passively, when we know that social, emotional, and physical engagement enhance learning.

Freedom to make mistakes and benefit from them is the basis of intellectual growth. If researchers or entrepreneurs were forbidden to make errors, innovation would cease. But when teachers are required to prioritize standardized test preparation, children are necessarily taught that being wrong is unacceptable.

The traditional classroom needs an overhaul based on the findings of cognitive neuroscience. Rather than lecturing to passive observers, teachers should act as facilitators, introducing individual students to new concepts based on their interests and developmental state. Children should be free to move around and to choose when, for how long, and with whom they will work at each task. Instead of being told facts, children should learn by acting on instructional materials, experimenting and observing until answers are found.

Children need to experience themselves as emotionally engaged, triumphant problem solvers. This experience is, in part, what makes computer games addictive. As with video games, in an ideal classroom students should only go on to the next level after mastering the previous one, taking as long as they need to solve each problem, and staying with it as long as it holds their interest. The satisfaction of curiosity and the exhilaration of accomplishment are the inherent rewards of this approach.

While it may seem impossible to offer individualized, self-directed learning in public schools, it has already been done. The Montessori method which uses these approaches, has been successfully adopted by public school systems, including in inner cities. Students in these schools achieve equal or superior academic performance to children in traditional classrooms, and superior outcomes in social skills and engagement, at no greater per pupil cost. While this method isn't a panacea, it provides one feasible, well-tested basis for developing teaching methods grounded in child development and cognitive neuroscience research.

Scientifically sound, individualized instruction should be our new educational standard. It's time to shift our focus from administrative changes to fundamental classroom reforms that will truly make a difference. This is an urgent necessity - our children's wellbeing and our economic and technological edge in the 21st century are at stake.

A version of this article first appeared in USA Today, Wednesday, 10 November 2010.