As summer turns to fall and parents are buying children their new backpacks, it is time to think of how our schools work and whether they are inspiring true learning. The schools of today are largely those of our great-grandparents. While white boards may have replaced blackboards and DVDs are used instead of reel-to-reel film projectors, schoolroom ambience is remarkably unchanged. Teachers deliver inert information to eager and empty minds who will soon lose what Ellen Galinsky described as the "fire in their eyes." As the new Core Curriculum sweeps over education, will our children be mired in more testing as they struggle to suppress their energy and creativity? Is this nothing more than No Child Left Behind in dress up clothes?
Our view of learning is trapped in the Learning Illusion that content is all that matters. Of, course content is important. Who would not want to have the multiplication tables memorized? But content is constantly changing. Ulcers? Not caused by stress but by a bacterium. Pluto? No longer a planet. If memorization of content is everything, children's knowledge will be as out of date as that reel-to-reel projector. Schools need to focus on more than the "three R's." Classrooms at all levels need to emphasize "the six C's": content, collaboration, communication, confidence (risk taking), critical thinking, and creative innovation.
Our approach to the economic threats we see on our borders is to push for 19th century memorization in a 21st century world. Yet the facts will be as close at the Google generation's fingertips. We need to teach our children how to learn, how Sally and Pedro can together figure out how to use technology to understand why some trees never lose their leaves while others do. We need John and Qonick to argue about the best way to solve that math problem and not just listen to the teacher tell them. And we need to encourage Drew and Alex to come up with a new way to lay out their classroom, measuring and calculating area as they work. Silence and regimentation belong in the schools of yore; today's schools should be bubbling, active places where kids are actually thinking together and problem solving. Rote learning should remain where it belongs: the multiplication tables and spelling.
None of this is to say that children cannot learn in school. They can. But children are often expected to sit still, listen, and repeat disembodied content. In an era when rapid adaptation and new learning will be required, we do children a serious disservice by enforcing passivity and making learning seem onerous and separate from play. The "keys to the kingdom" (thanks Dan Pink!) of the 21st century will go to those who love to learn and can transform their knowledge in innovative ways.