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Education Reform: Feasting on Breadsticks as Quick Fixes

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Recently my wife and I went to our favorite Italian restaurant for dinner and by the time we were seated, I was starving. There was one slight problem with this situation: the breadsticks. Predictably, I ate so much bread that when my meal was served I wasn't hungry. In my haste, I missed out on the very reason we had come to this restaurant in the first place.

When it comes to educational reform, our nation is gorging on breadsticks. We are all "hungry" for reform, but what passes for reform is just "gaming the system" in many instances. We have reduced measuring the effectiveness of our system to a single, multiple-choice test given at the end of the year, which is then used to label schools and/or teachers as effective or ineffective.

Is this what we've reduced education to? Sounds a little narrow to me! We are doing our students a disservice by settling for the quick and easy path. Pass the breadsticks, please!

Let's step back for a moment. What is the purpose of education? Would you agree that the ultimate goal of education is to prepare student to be successful in the world? If we hope to achieve this goal, then we must expand the discussion regarding education reform. True and lasting reform is much deeper and more complex than simplistic approaches being implemented around the nation. Succinctly stated, we have to look at the way we educate our students.

The world is rapidly changing, yet educational design and delivery has not, to a large degree, experienced a corresponding change. In fact, many of the reforms being implemented today have the unintended consequence of taking us a step backward. Even though we live in the technology age, educational practices are moving back into the industrial age (maybe we never left). We cannot manufacture students like model T's. Yet that is exactly what is being created by the reforms being touted today.

American classrooms are being transformed into sterile dispensaries of information. Students are merely required to use the lower level thinking processes of memorization and recall and many think they are prepared for the world they will step into upon leaving education. How relevant is that type of education in today's or tomorrow's world? The reality is that students need to be prepared for jobs that haven't even yet been created. The only way to adequately prepare today's students for tomorrow's world is to equip them with skills that they can apply to new and different situations.

Our educational system needs to be developing thinkers and problem solvers. Tragically, we are heading in the complete opposite direction as I mentioned above.

The question is: Are we truly prepared to invest the time, talent, and treasure to correctly fix our educational system that will enable it to fulfill its mandate? If so, we need to move on to the main course.

How do we create an education system that develops thinking skills and promotes authentic learning?

First, instead of starting with a set of standards that need to be transferred, we should design instruction based on how the brain learns. Call me crazy, but don't you think we should factor in how the brain operates when developing instructional practices? Instruction methods must be designed around the way the brain assimilates new information.

The current trend is to provide teachers a "script" of information which is to be presented to the learner over and over again until most of them can repeat it. "Teach the information and move on. Repeat if necessary." Does that sound engaging to you?

It's not only boring, but it is contrary to how the brain truly learns. The research of Piaget, Vygotsky, etc. demonstrated this many years ago. Recent advances in brain imaging have supported their findings and show the importance of meaning, context, and interaction in learning. Students need time to internally process the information and construct their own understanding. Yet educational practices do not reflect these realities.

After we have developed instructional strategies and practices around how the brain processes and stores information, we can weave in the content and standards.

Many "reformers" think we can teach students the way we program computers. It's not that simple. We can't simply download the information from teacher to student. Anyone who has spent any significant time in the classroom knows that authentic learning does not happen in this manner. Students quickly forget the information and/or have trouble applying the information to different situations.

I can remember an instance in which I studied and crammed for a test. I passed the test with an "A" and felt pretty good about myself. That was until my wife asked me about what I had learned in the class a few days after the test. I had a very difficult time recalling anything! It was a bummer, not only because I couldn't remember the information, but because that class was expensive too! That is what happens when we learn lots of information with no context, meaning, or application.

Secondly, instructional strategies should be designed with the goal of developing thinking and problem solving skills. In their paper The Need for Thinking and Problem Skill Development, Charles Cadle and Edwin Selby state "Students are learning to be successful repeaters of knowledge, but they are not learning how to apply their knowledge to open ended, real-life challenges." This is a direct by product of dispensary education.

Our students are not prepared for the challenges of the rapidly evolving world, yet if they pass a multiple choice test, everyone is happy. We have forgotten that the most important test starts the day their education is complete.

If we hope to develop thinkers and problem solvers, then our classrooms need to be transformed into places were students explore, discover, and construct their own knowledge. It is time for a shift. The role of the teacher must shift from dispenser to facilitator and the role of the student must shift from passive recipient to active participant. Students need to be empowered to think and discover with the teacher acting as a guide.

True problem solving cannot be taught, it has to be developed and fostered. Our classrooms have to facilitate this type of growth. Students are going to be thrust into a world upon graduation that demands the ability to think creatively and critically. These skills cannot be taught by memorizing facts or a set of steps, they have to be developed and nurtured in an environment that allows students to explore and discover. The classrooms that are being created by worshipping at the altar of testing fail miserably toward achieving this end.

Even though the breadsticks provided short-term fulfillment, it was not a lasting effect. I was soon hungry again. If continue down the current road in education reform, or nation will be in the same situation.