Many people know by now that the United States has fallen to 11th in Newsweek's list of the best countries in the world. What is interesting is that the debate about why we are losing our "oomph as a superpower" has focused in part on U.S. education. As always when we are faced with a crisis, we look for places to assign blame as well as to seek solutions. What's also interesting in this debate is that we have moved beyond blaming teachers, schools, and unions. We are focusing on the children.
In the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson writes about the lack of student motivation. If students aren't motivated, teachers and schools will fail. In an editorial in the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman writes that student apathy is rooted in deeper cultural values: a culture where all solutions must be painless and without sacrifice, where "far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and sub-prime crack for quick prosperity highs." Friedman calls for bringing back old-fashioned family values by teaching our children to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work hard, and meet high expectations.
A decade's worth of research on child development and neuroscience for my book, Mind in the Making has led me to a similar conclusion -- that we must promote life skills in our children that teach them to have self control and to take on challenges, for example. But I would argue that parents and teachers can not promote these values and skills in the same old ways. That has helped to create an apathy among students that is endemic.
There is a high school graduation speech making its way around the Internet that is instructive. Valedictorian Erica Goldson of Coxsackie-Athens High School (New York) probably shocked her audience when she said:
We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn...Some of you may be thinking, "Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn't you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.
She continued that she has no intellectual interests because she saw every subject of study as work and she excelled at them in order to excel, not learn. "Quite frankly," she said, "I am now scared."
Okay, you say, she is just one student -- maybe even an example of why children need to learn more old-fashioned values. And many of you won't like everything she has to say. But her views about student apathy are not unique. I found the same thing when I went around the country interviewing children in the sixth through the twelfth grades for a study I was planning to conduct on youth and learning -- their eyes were flat and their faces expressionless when they talked about learning. It was clear that young people don't have to drop out of school to drop out of learning and that's what prompted me to spend a decade reviewing the research on student learning.
This valedictorian's words and my experiences echo those of 81,499 students in a nationwide study conducted by the High School Survey of Youth Engagement from the University of Indiana. When asked why they go to school, 73% said because they want to get a degree and go to college, 69% said because of their friends, and 58% said because it's the law. Sadly, only 39% said they go to school to learn.
Children are born are insatiable learners -- they want to see, to taste, to touch, to explore, and to learn about everything. We as parents, as teachers, and as a culture are taking this away from them.
If we are going to get the oomph back as a country, we have to get the oomph back in education. The research on children and learning makes it clear that we can and MUST teach in ways that keep learning alive. We can promote values, life skills, and content in ways that engage children in learning. I have seen this happen in hundreds of families and schools and it is reinforced by hundreds of studies.
If we are 11th, maybe it is time that we also listen to the children. As one young person said to me, "If we are the problem, then we have to be part of the solution."