07/10/2013 03:59 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

A Broken Future: Fixing America's Education Problem

America is facing a crisis in education. There are many leading indicators that suggest we are lagging in technical education, undergraduate and graduate degrees, and ultimately employment. These issues are linked together by a set of core deficiencies that Obama is addressing with Race to the Top, an expanded GI Bill, and capped federal loan repayments. Politics is politics but there is a way to fix our system.

Education reform tends to focus on how we are behind and not on how we can leverage our greatest strength: diversity. Nowhere else in the world is there such a unique mix of people bonded by a common dream -- the American dream.

I propose a structural change to our system today: generative curriculum. Generative curriculum is material that uses students' experiences and backgrounds to make concepts tangible. In particular, there is a three-step approach to getting this curriculum into the classrooms:

1. Increasing teacher awareness of sociocultural theory
2. Bridging the gap between theory and practice
3. Refining and measuring our approach

In this article, I aim to increase teacher awareness by detailing what a generative approach would look like.

Generative curriculum

The concept stems from a course at Stanford called Education 103B that I took with Professor Arnetha Ball. In that class, we took a hands-on approach to questioning the education system today with a particular focus on diverse student populations. Three sociological theories stand at the underpinning of this approach: the zone of proximal development (ZPD), internalization, and heteroglossia.

Zone of Proximal Development

According to psychologist Vygostsky, the zone of proximal development is the area in which student are not capable enough to learn the material alone but are able to understand the material with teacher support, called scaffolding . The goal of a teacher is to get students into the ZPD and through it so that they can eventually become self-sufficient learners ( . Therefore, this curriculum must incorporate a gradual decrease in scaffolding. This decrease can be in the form of more hands-on activities, classroom presentations, or even students teaching entire classes.
Teachers must first be aware of this theory in order to incorporate it into their work. Beyond that, they can incorporate local elements or social elements into the material.


Internalization refers to the process of bringing one's own beliefs and thoughts into their moral code. In this context, it refers to bringing one's background as a student/teacher into the classroom. It could be a personal story that exemplifies a theme found in Shakespeare or a relation between growth rates and the growth of a local city.

For teachers to understand this concept, we must first reflect on how we think we learn. What are the ways we think we learn? The traditional touch, sound, and taste learning phenomena apply here. Now, how can we help our students learn, given how we internalize concepts?
Also, we should think about our "ah-ha" moment of understanding and how that correlates with the feedback we receive from our students.


Heteroglossia refers to different socio-linguistic "symbols" (language, body language, written work) that occur in the classroom. These different symbols can cause angst or "micro-cultures" within a classroom if they clash without the teacher being aware of them. These clashes could be as small as different dialects or pronunciations of words to the different weights that students put on the value of education given their backgrounds.

In many cases, the solution is in sight: it is the teacher being aware that these different symbols exist and being open to addressing these usually non-verbal "clashes" in the classroom. It could be worth bringing up the diversity of the classroom in a positive and productive exercise at the beginning of a class as well.

The goal of this article is to get teachers and students aware of the three major sociological theories that surround our ability to reform education. Everyday, our classrooms are becoming more diverse -- and that is a key asset, not a weakness as many media outlets portray. Whether that's racial, social, cultural, or linguistic diversity, it allows our classroom discussion to be richer.

Some examples of activities that link these theories into practice are lessons that leave room for personal discussion, ice-breakers that shed positive light on the class's diversity, and polling students as they enter the class and as they leave (to see them through the ZPD). Teacher awareness of these theories is the first step and implementation is the second.

At Stanford, meeting other students and interacting with them in the classroom has been a key factor to enjoying the curriculum and learning. Teachers are well-trained and are open to discussion in universities, something that we should bring as much as possible to high school and adult classes.

In my opinion, many of the fundamental issues begin in the home and with the attitude towards education -- a culture. But that takes generations to change, and I am hopeful. Let's start with changing the way we approach education from a teacher level and that may trickle down to students and eventually families.