In fifth grade, I was the undisputed spelling champion of Wildwood Elementary School. Each week we memorized a list of words, and on Friday we had a test. That year, I scored 100 percent every time. So naturally, to this day, my spelling is unbelievably … average. Let’s just say that spell-check and I are very close friends.
It turns out that my singular talent as a fifth-grader wasn’t my ability to spell — it was my ability to pass a test. And as the years went by, I discovered that this one skill could propel me to success at virtually any school, without being particularly good at anything else.
Flash forward a couple of decades, and my own kids had to clamber up that same academic ladder. And how did I judge their progress? I scrutinized their test scores. I obsessed over their grades. I exhorted them to play the game, never once asking who wrote the rules, or why. I just knew I wanted them to win.
The school system we all grew up in first emerged in the early 20th century, in response to a particular problem. The Industrial Revolution was transforming our economy from a sleepy agrarian lamb into a voracious manufacturing lion, and to satisfy its enormous appetite, we needed workers — lots of them. But not just any workers. Factories and assembly lines were profitable because they reduced complicated processes into a series of simple tasks. They required workers to do the same thing in exactly the same way, again and again. This led to a model of schooling that placed one virtue above all others: compliance.
Students were seated in neat, parallel rows and taught to sit up straight and fold their hands on their desks. They repeated exactly what the teacher said, and copied exactly what the teacher wrote. They were tested, and their answers were declared right or wrong. If they made the grade, they were passed on to the next level. If they failed, they were reprocessed, or discarded. Schools not only populated our factories, they emulated them. They became an educational assembly line, mass-producing students who were obedient, serviceable and more or less interchangeable.
These days, the rows are less straight, and the activities less repetitious, but not much else has changed. If anything, standardized testing is more entrenched than ever. Teachers spend half the year preparing their classes for statewide exams, often knowing that their school’s funding will depend on their students’ scores. Meanwhile, the manufacturing economy that created this system is evaporating, and the few factory jobs that remain are better done by robots than robotic human beings.
If we were to reimagine our schools for today’s world — or even better, tomorrow’s — what would we design? How can we prepare our children for the challenges they will actually face?
First of all, we should stop making them memorize facts to spit out on demand. Every one of them will carry a cloud-based supercomputer in their pocket. Their problem won’t be finding facts, it will be differentiating real facts from “alternative facts,” legitimate news from fake news, and science from pseudoscience. We have to develop their critical thinking, so they can navigate the tidal wave of information that threatens to drown them daily.
We need to stop teaching to the test. By emphasizing test scores, we stamp out their curiosity and replace it with the fear of failure. In a world where “correct” answers are just a click away, our kids will need to see more deeply into the systems, networks and processes that underlie them. To understand that level of complexity, they’ll need to explore and experiment, and most of all, to fail — repeatedly, creatively and fearlessly.
Finally, we need to stop pitting our kids against each other like little academic gladiators, or contestants on Survivor: Ivy League Island. Success in today’s world requires collaboration. A strong team outperforms a collection of individuals every time.
I know what you’re thinking: this all sounds great … someday. But what about now? If you don’t have enough money for a fancy private school, or enough time to homeschool, where is this education of the future going to come from? The same place that 90 percent of your kids’ learning comes from already — from you.
Their education isn’t constrained by the walls of a school or the hours of a school day. Curiosity and critical thinking aren’t chapters in a textbook. Ultimately, what our children value and pay attention to depends on what we value and pay attention to.
If we want them to learn differently, we’ll have to question, and maybe abandon, the things that we ourselves once learned. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.
Jeff Lee continues his inexorable decline from grade-school domination in Seattle.