Too many of our children are physically present in school but psychologically absent, their minds drifting to whatever might be more interesting than the lesson unfolding in front of them on the whiteboard. How many of us have stared out of the window longingly, prepared to believe almost anything could be more interesting than sitting in class?
The danger, even for successful school systems, is that they hit the targets but somehow contrive to miss the point. They produce great “results” and find themselves favoured by parents and politicians, as they climb up the all-important league tables and PISA rankings. Yet amidst all this success something vital goes missing.
Schools with excellent results can train children to pass the test, to play the game of reproducing what the examiner – and in some cases that is an automated examiner – is looking for, and yet they fail to excite the imagination. More importantly, they fail to provide the deeper knowledge of the underlying principles behind a subject that would allow children to reassemble and reapply what they know in novel contexts. They cover the ground, sometimes over and over again, without delving any deeper.
That ability to make and remake knowledge in different combinations to address new problems is perhaps the true test of learning. Too often, successful schooling seems to be teaching children to do the opposite: rather than teaching them to think critically and creatively, good schooling, as measured by exams, teaches them that success comes from correctly predicting and then regurgitating the answer that is expected. Veering away from the prescribed answer is unlikely to be rewarded and likely to be punished.
This is a troubling development, given how much of our economic and social lives will depend on our ability to collaborate and innovate in order to find new and more effective solutions to pressing challenges. From how we earn our livings and look after an elderly population to saving the planet from climate change, the challenges of the future will require novel solutions rather than trotting out the standard answer. Children schooled in passing tests are not being well prepared for living in a society that needs a capacity for collaborative creativity.
Innovation involves creating new recipes: the ingredients are rarely new, but the way they are blended together is. That requires people who are able to combine their own ideas with those of others, to spot how different bits of knowledge might fit together. Innovation rarely comes from taking a straight route from problem to answer. Instead, it depends on opening up problems and trying out different solutions. Often that requires taking a bit of a detour or adopting a different vantage point to attack a problem sideways. Successful innovators like Pixar and Apple have very high standards; they do not practice “anything goes” relativism. But neither do they prescribe answers in advance. They trust their skilled and able staff to find answers to open questions.
Moreover, deep learning is not a straight function of how well children do in tests. Learning is often a highly charged activity: it involves challenges and failures, setbacks and triumphs, as children overcome obstacles and solve problems. Those challenges excite emotions ranging from elation to humiliation and depression. Learning how to cope with those feelings is vital so children build the persistence and grit they will need in the wider world.
Monique Boekaerts, from Leiden University in the Netherlands, is an expert in the emotional aspects of learning. She has found that children feel positive about learning when they feel competent and in control, when they are self-regulating and yet also working well with their peers. Children are more likely to feel positive about a challenge if they feel they have the resources to complete it successfully. That makes them open to new ideas and feedback; they become more playful and energized. By contrast, if students fear they will lose face and be shown up by their lack of knowledge, they become more closed and defensive, unwilling to accept feedback and averse to taking risks.
To be motivating, learning has to be meaningful for students. They have to see where what they have learned fits into what they already know and what the point might be.
Large, anonymous, impersonal, system-driven secondary schools which pass students in batches along an educational conveyor belt seem designed to deny children the excitement they need to pull them into meaningful learning. We push lessons at children and push them through these systems. Yet the most effective kind of learning experience pulls them, because it captures their interest. It stretches and challenges them, but also provides them with the support they need to succeed.
Engaging students in this way matters if we expect schools to encourage young people to want to carry on learning, regardless of how well they did in their tests. The most important factor that draws people back to learning is that it can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience: it is intrinsically rather than socially or economically rewarding. Too often, education teaches children that learning is just instrumental: a means to a good grade rather than a pleasure in itself.
This approach is creating what Tony Wagner, Professor of Education at Harvard University, calls the global achievement gap: “The gap between what even our best suburban, urban and rural public schools are teaching and testing versus what all students will need to succeed as learners, workers and citizens in today’s global knowledge economy.” In The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner argues that modern education should be organized around interesting questions children should explore, rather than the answers they should memorize to get top marks in exams. The whole idea of a curriculum that specifies the body of knowledge that children should be tested on, he says, is outdated.
Yet skills, including the skills of intellectual inquiry and critical thinking, need building up through diligent practice. They also need to be applied to some content; they cannot be learned in the abstract. It is difficult for children to learn how to interpret history without learning some basic facts, dates and events.
The specifics of curriculum content, argues cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in Why Don’t Students Like School?, is far less important than how pupils are invited to engage with it and what they can make of it. To be motivating, learning has to be meaningful for students. They have to see where what they have learned fits into what they already know and what the point might be. The truly effective school excites students’ curiosity and stretches their imaginations, but then helps them safely navigate their way across the unfamiliar terrain.
The new mission of schools should be to prepare children to work in jobs that do not exist, to solve problems that are not yet apparent, using technologies that are still to be invented, according to Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University. That means equipping them with the ability to apply and reapply knowledge in inventive ways. In a nutshell: collaborative creativity should be at the heart of modern education, rather than the culture of compliance of schools in the industrial era.
Making the case for learning to be intellectually engaging is like arguing the food industry should provide fresh, tasty and healthy food. But somehow schooling has become a self-interested system, setting targets and exams that it then strives to meet as a measure of its success.
Learning without intellectual curiosity and engagement is like curry without spices. Take the spices away and it becomes a dull stew.
First published in Education Canada, January 2013
EN BREF – La nouvelle mission des écoles devrait consister à préparer les enfants à travailler à des postes qui n’existent pas encore et à résoudre des problèmes qui ne sont pas encore apparents à l’aide de technologies qui restent à inventer. Cela signifie les habiliter à utiliser leur savoir et le réutiliser de façons inventives. Or, les écoles contemporaines, même celles qui obtiennent d’excellents « résultats », n’arrivent pas à inculquer une connaissance approfondie des principes sous-jacents d’un sujet qui permettrait aux enfants de reconstituer et de réutiliser leurs savoirs dans de nouveaux contextes. Dans son essai, l’auteur soutient que l’éducation moderne devrait être axée sur la créativité coopérative, plutôt que sur la culture de conformité des écoles de l’ère industrielle.