American Education & The Need to Learn How to Learn

Featured Member Post
A version of this post was published at Urban Moo Cow as part of the Around the World Parenting Blog Carnival. Several bloggers got together to discuss parenting and our thoughts on Christine Gross-Loh's new book, Parenting Without Borders. This week we wrote about education.

Image Credit: jbachman01 via Flickr

Prologue 

I grew up just before the advent of "participation" medals and making everyone feel included and loved at school. In my school there were level-based reading groups and special ed classes and honors classes and red-penned corrections. I lived to tell the tale. In addition, my son is 19 months old, much too young for exposure to school.

My point is, I don't have a lot of experience with the current education system other than stories from my mother, who was an elementary school teachers' aide for 15 years before retiring recently, thoroughly exhausted and at her wits' end. I understand that most of the New York City public school system is terrible, and I've written about my frustration with that. So I was keenly interested to hear what Gross-Loh had to say about education.
 

The Upshot

There are two chapters in the book's Part 3 - The Teaching of Children: one on the Asian model and one on the Finnish model. Gross-Loh's ambivalence about the Asian approach to schooling is palpable, as that of only an American daughter born to South Korean immigrants might be.

Having said that, this is what I learned from the two chapters:
  • The basics such as math, science and language are important, but memorization is silly.
  • When over 23% of American children live in poverty, "the basics" also sadly include items on the first two rungs of Maslow's hierarchy: food, shelter and security. 
  • Teachers need more support in their early careers.
  • Kids need more time outside, more time to explore, more time to be themselves.
  • I have no clue how one applies a model that works in a small, homogenous society to the messy behemoth that is the United States. 
 

Memorization versus Learning

There has been a lot of hand-wringing in the press in recent years about how Asian children are either smarter or getting a better education than their American peers. Amy Chua's 2011 book,Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, which highlighted all the stereotypes of the pressure-cooker of Asian education, tapped into that anxiety.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese parents to whom Gross-Loh spoke reject Chua's unnuanced approach to education as old-fashioned. Instead, these parents say, "interest is the best teacher." But to be good at your interests, you have to know the basics -- math, science, language.

This seems like a no-brainer to me and just another symptom of our society's need for instant gratification in every aspect of life. Of course studying and school is not always going to be all fun and games and butterflies. By assuming it should be, we are doing a disservice to our youth. Instead, we should focus on learning the basics and cultivating interests. Or as one of Gross-Loh's interviewees said, "Once he has mastered the rules, that's when thinking outside the box is interesting."

On the other hand, what is the point of memorizing dates and equations? We have calculators and books and the Internet for that now. In business school, most of our tests were open-book. It wasn't about the facts and formulas; it was about applying them. We need to teach people howto learn and the critical thinking skills that accompanies that learning. 

Indeed, at the end of Chapter 7, Gross-Loh writes,
Evidence shows that students in nations that score highest on standardized tests tend to do worst on measures of entrepreneurship and innovation. For the vast majority of Chinese students at this point, creativity and innovation are mostly just popular buzzwords.
Could it be that school simply doesn't value what makes one successful in life?

Quality Over Quantity

The Finnish model is based on quality over quantity: hiring highly qualified and well-trained teachers (all are required to have masters' degrees, and the government spends $30 million a year on professional development), limiting school hours (kids get a 10-15 minute break after each 45-minute class, even in high school), and letting kids be kids for as long as possible (there is no homework until age 11). 

Sounds great, right? Well, of course. The chapter on Finland contains a lot of truisms. Who could possibly disagree with designing a system that doesn't teach to the test, prepares and educates its teachers, gives students lots of free time and produces smart yet relaxed kids?
 
What is more difficult, however, is implementing such a system in a country like ours, which is much larger and more diverse (socio-economically, ethnically, religiously) than the Finns could ever imagine. 

Gross-Loh makes a nod to that argument but quickly counters that Finland is the size of Minnesota, and policy is made on the state, not federal, level in the U.S. True, maybe. But this point doesn't address the issue of diversity, or the one of poverty, which Gross-Loh does discuss. In the U.S., she says, 23% of children live in poverty, according to UNICEF. In Finland, that figure is 5%.

How can children learn "the basics" -- let alone develop deep interests -- when they don't even have the basics to survive?

I don't know the answer. Here it seems that we spend a disproportionate amount of time on two ends of the spectrum: pretending it's not essential to learn arithmetic and cramming for tests. We haven't provided our children with the tools to learn. It's like we are pouring water into a full cup. Why are we so surprised, then, that the liquid is spilling out?


Wouldn't a Sponge Be Better?

Obviously, we want children to be the sponges they are meant to be, soaking up all the knowledge they can. To do that, says an American teacher who spent time in Finland on a Fulbright Scholarship, America's teachers need more support early in their careers, and America's children need more time outside.

In a similar vein, Gross-Loh ultimately concludes, as I have, that:
...the ability to "learn how to learn" is equally, if not more, important than focusing on facts and knowledge or blind obedience.... [G]iving children the time to pursue their experiences and interests will help them to become nimble and creative thinkers, so important for the twenty-first century.
The question is: how do we get there?


What are your thoughts on the American educational system? What do we do right, and what do we get horribly wrong?

Comments

In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.