11/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What's Wrong With Our Schools?

Part One of a 3-part series on why our schools are expiring and how we can reinvent them. Your thoughts on this topic matter.

What's Wrong with our schools? There are many things, but one of the most obvious is:


We teach the same topics in our schools today that we taught over one hundred years ago. Where did these subjects come from? How did we choose what to teach? In 1892, a group of ten university academics, known as the Committee of Ten, met to discern what standards would be necessary for admission to the nation's colleges and universities. Then president of Harvard University, Charles W. Eliot chaired the committee. Along with the nine others, he set out to develop a national curriculum intended to prepare students for entry into Harvard and similar institutions of higher education. This group convened to address a growing concern that the high school curriculum catered to two kinds of students; the college bound and those for whom high school was the terminal point in education.

Schools taught basic arithmetic alongside classical Latin, causing much debate over the purpose of education. Was it to prepare children for college or for the labor market? Of course, many of the same debates continue today. In 1892, Charles Eliot and his committee narrowed the scope of the curriculum by reducing the number of courses from between fifteen and twenty to six or eight, and broadened the sequence by making the study of each course occur over several years. Today, in most schools in the United States, we still follow the same regimen. And we never question whether or not what was useful in 1892 is still useful today.

As parents, you should know which subjects the schools are teaching your children, but more important, you should ask why. Why, for example, do we arrange history courses as a march through the world's wars? Why not teach it as a march through the history of scientific invention? Why do we teach trigonometry, a subject few people will use in their lives, instead of statistics, a topic that is valuable in many professions? Why is Romeo and Juliet taught in ninth grade and Macbeth in tenth grade? Why don't we learn how we govern our local communities or where the food in our grocery stores comes from? Who determines what is important, and is the same thing important for everyone? Is what was important ten years ago still important today?

Think back to your own schooling. What did you learn? If you were like me, you probably learned quadratic equations, the reasons for the Spanish Inquisition, and the past perfect tense of the foreign language you studied. As a matter of curiosity, I pulled a dusty red spiral notebook from the back of my closet to check and see if my memory served me.

On one page I read my homework assignments:

SPANISH- Review demonstrative adjectives and pronouns p. 336 and relative
pronouns, p. 341.
BIOLOGY- Multiple alleles & co-dominance; Read and take notes on ch. 9,
p.159-166. Continue working on Review Packet.
ENGLISH- Finish reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, do grammar exercises.
HISTORY- Finish review questions on ways in which the Ming and early Qing
Dynasties represent the high point in Chinese Society.
MATH- complete nonlinear functions.

I stared at the homework assignments realizing I could not remember anything from any of the topics. Nothing. Looking over the assignments, my back tightened. I hated Gilgamesh. In fact, I don't think I ever read past the first two chapters. I loathed most of the reading we had to do in high school, and because of that, I didn't complete most of it. And English was my favorite subject!

Today, I have no idea what multiple alleles are. Co-dominance sounds like a shared leadership model to me, but I am sure we didn't study that in biology class. Perhaps if the teacher lifted the biology concepts from the textbook and applied them to a broader understanding of the world, I would have some recollection of them today. However, this didn't happen, and as soon
as my classes were over, I forgot almost everything I learned.

Very few people ever specialize in careers that leverage algebra, or chemistry. Those who do and excel in those professions do so not because they remember the information contained on page 458 of an 884-page textbook. Instead, it is because they understand why the things they learned are important in a larger context. True learning is all about making connections between what you learn and how it makes for a better life or a better world. Without these important connections, children are not engaged in learning. When children are not engaged in learning, they stop paying attention.

Children become passionate and interested when they see real-life ways that the subjects, topics, and lessons are applied. This must happen if we are to justify learning so many subjects in school. Children, like adults, want to first understand why a topic is important to learn and then be shown how to use it. Like adults, every time a child studies a topic because he has to, he finds himself faced with a motivation problem. If you don't know why you need to know something, it is difficult to learn it and even more difficult to retain it. The first step -parents and teachers can take in preventing this is to ask more questions about the relevance of what is taught in the classroom.

The basic ideas behind Western education have their roots in Aristotelian logic, which is based on categorical thinking. We teach children that learning is the process of sorting and naming things. "If it is this, then it is not that." We divide bodies of knowledge into neat subject categories such as history, science, and math. Most courses are further sliced, with the slivers packaged in precise and orderly boxes: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Vietnam War, algebra, biology, art. Much tension in planning content occurs because we believe each topic must be presented discretely, with no spillover into another category.

I have watched teachers as they rack their brains trying to determine what box the history of science should fit into. Schools spend months arranging and rearranging their curriculum, lining up all the pieces in a grand sequential order known as the school's "Scope and Sequence."

The assumption embedded in this sorting and labeling exercise is that there is one body of information which every child must learn and that we can divide this body of information into twelve grade levels, and then further still into five or six subject areas and 180 daily lessons a year.

A lot of teacher confusion comes from trying to take topics that naturally resist categorization and force them into one of the boxes. We toss aside many great lessons because they cannot be categorized neatly.

The reality is that the march though the content is not as important as the student's ability to work with that content. Children need to learn how to as much as what. Our schools need to transform into places that constantly give children the tools they will need to design their futures. The passive memorization of facts will not lead to a future in which students are ready to push beyond their limits. Today's children must learn how to work with information, and lots of it, because thanks to the Internet, everything is available to everyone, just about anywhere, twenty-four hours a day, right at the end of our fingertips. The learner has changed from passive receiver to active agent. We no longer need the teacher as a vehicle to deliver the information. Now we need the teacher to help children synthesize and assimilate it.

Over a hundred years ago, the American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "We are students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing." Emerson, a Harvard graduate, died in 1882. If Emerson were teleported from the Great Beyond into today's world, he would not understand how to go into a library and look up one of his books.

That he could shop for them on would dumbfound him, but he would feel at home in many of the country's classrooms, and his criticism would still be relevant. Today, Emerson would find school even more frustrating because the rest of the world has become so much more complex. Knowledge alone is not enough. Children know this. They hunger for active involvement in the learning process. Even though the teachers do not intend this to happen, the passivity of their methods causes students to turn away from commitment to the classroom.

What do you think is truly essential for today's high school student to learn in school? Why?