09/10/2012 06:17 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Preparing Children to Be Successful in the Only Test That Really Matters: Life

The challenges that face our education system are great. Among them is the need to transform our schools so they are relevant to today, not yesterday. The security and prosperity of our nation depends on our collective ability to pass this real life test. At the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy, we provide teachers with training to help our classrooms pass this "test."

The workplace of tomorrow is not only going to demand individuals with proficiency in STEM fields, it will also require individuals who possess the ability to think creatively and critically. Higher-level thinking skills cannot be taught; they must be fostered and developed, and the only way to do that is to create an enriching and vigorous environment that allows these skills to develop and flourish.

The vision of the Academy is to give students the skills and knowledge they need for the future. We do this by equipping teachers with instructional techniques that not only help them engage students in science and math but also develop creative and critical thinking skills.

Children today need a classroom that is relevant and effective for them, not the one that worked for their parents or grandparents. What kind of school experience does this and subsequent generations of students need?

The educational experience has to be one in which students are active in the learning process. Our kids are coming into a class from a world that as Sir Kenneth Robinson says "is the most stimulating time in history." This generation of students needs to move beyond the passive model of "sit, listen and memorize" methods of the past. This strategy simply does not compete with what students are used to in daily life; thus, it has limited effectiveness.

If we hope to see positive learning outcomes, today's children must partake in rich, hands-on experiences in inquiry and problem solving -- with the teacher acting as the facilitator. Students must be able to apply creative and critical thinking skills as they collaborate with peers to solve problems or explain real-world phenomena.

To create this kind of learning environment, it is critical to give teachers, the training resources and support they need. If we hope to compete with the world students leave when they enter the classroom, our classrooms have to be vigorous, stimulating environments filled with discovery, discussion and debate.

Science and math are the vehicles we use at the Academy to create this type of environment, but the arts, history and literature work just as well too. It is vital that our educational institutions utilize an array of strategies and practices across subjects to meet the needs of our diverse student learning styles and interests. David Sousa stated in his book How the Brain Learns that the research "is revealing that students are more likely to gain greater understanding of and derive greater pleasure from learning when allowed to transform the learning into creative thoughts and products." We have to give our students this type of platform to expand their thinking.

The Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy focuses on modeling the learning process for teachers, so they can apply it in their classrooms and develop higher-level thinking skills in their students. During the week teachers experience the academy in dual roles. First, the teachers partake in hands-on experiences, observe and reflect -- experiencing the lessons as a student. When in the student role, the participating teachers collaborate, discuss, defend and record their thinking. Then the instructional practices and strategies are examined from the perspective of their role as an educator.

The lessons are designed around how the brain actually learns and understands. We provide concrete experiences and then move to the abstract. Students work with real objects solving problems and making observations before we discuss the definition or formula. This approach promotes learning with understanding versus just memorization and recall.

This distinction may sound trivial but it is of enormous importance. Why? We have to equip students for a world that does not exist. We can't prepare them for the world of tomorrow because we have no idea what it will look like! Our charge is to give each child the skills and a level of understanding that can applied to the world they will face (whatever it looks like) when their formal education is complete.

Memorizing something and understanding it are two very different things. When students memorize concepts without understanding them, they often have a hard time applying this information to a different situation. They've just learned to follow the "recipe" to getting the right answer. Our system has become solely focused on the one "right" answer at the expense of actual learning and the process that goes with it. This has led to our students becoming repeaters of information, not thinkers. We are inadvertently destroying creativity in our children.

The Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy has trained more than 3,600 teachers impacting approximately 230,000 students. We want the teachers to walk away with a model of instruction that truly fulfills the mandate of education, which is to equip our children with the skills and knowledge to be successful in the only test that really matters: Life. By treating teachers with respect, they leave the Academy supercharged to get back to their classrooms, inspired to teach math and science and create a classroom that fosters higher-level thinking.