Not long ago, I highlighted a school district in Minnesota that is flipping the typical educational approach around. Students learn their lessons as "homework" and then do their assignments in class under the instruction of the teacher.
Reactions were mixed, as they always are for radical new ideas, but I was particularly intrigued by one commentator who declared vehemently:
I can't lie. I think this model is horrible. I'm not convinced that the content and difficulty level of the lessons aren't suffering. If the goal is to provide kids with extra help in mathematics a teacher can always offer extra help sessions. Parents can become more responsible in offering help as well. We need to make sure that math is taught and drilled live in a classroom so that any nuances or problems can be addressed on the spot.
Furthermore, to rely on children to watch videos at home and then "work together" to solve problems is to take a huge gamble on an educational system whose math skills are already lagging alarmingly behind much of the rest of the world's. I mean, most Americans who come out of public schools are basically mathematically illiterate compared to Chinese and Indian students of a comparable socioeconomic level.
What's utterly fascinating to me is that this commentator flat-out admits that our schools are not currently doing a good job of educating students - but then goes on to insist that if we all just put more effort into the status quo, the problems will be solved.
So what's going on here? Why insist that it's better to continue doing something that isn't working without even giving a new idea a fair chance? If educating our children is so important, why don't we want to push for a more effective system?
Perhaps it's because educating our children is... well... so important!
If that makes no sense to you, consider another critically important decision people have to make: whether or not to be organ donors.
In the excellent book Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely writes about organ donation rates in different countries. He points out that the overwhelming indicator of whether a country has high or low organ donation rates is not based on how organ donation is viewed in the country. Actually, the main factor is whether the default organ donation option is to opt-in or opt-out on the form:
You might think that people do this because they don’t care. That the decision about donating their organs is so trivial that they can’t be bothered to lift up the pencil and check the box. But in fact the opposite is true. This is a hard emotional decision about what will happen to our bodies after we die and what effect it will have on our those close to us. It is because of the difficulty and the emotionality of these decisions that they just don’t know what to do so they adopt the default option.
And consequently, the vast majority of people are so overwhelmed by the immensity of their decision that they shy away from making the "wrong choice" and pick whatever is the default.
To me, it seems like this happens too with our educational system. Educating children is incredibly important and nearly everyone cares about it. Yet, we are still teaching in the same way we taught children to be good factory workers 50 years ago - even thought the world is a completely different place today.
It is absolutely true that educators today face incredible challenges - such as parents who are less engaged, children with more behavioral issues, increased distractions, more children coming from poverty (and all the attendant problems), etc, etc. All of those things make it harder for teachers to do their job and teach well.
But those challenges aren't going to go away, and it's naive to think that they will if everyone just tries a little harder. That ship has sailed, and the world is changed. Now it's time to design an educational system that does work for the needs of students today.
Yet instead of pushing to radically reform our school system, we instead just glop on more tests and accountability standards - without pushing for innovative changes in how people teach.
The fact is, it might be an awful idea to turn the school day around by having students learn at home and do their work/synthesize information in class. But, it is an idea and shouldn't just be dismissed out of hand. Otherwise, what we're doing is creating a stagnant educational culture in America and making it a place where innovation is not welcome.
And that, I fear, is the worst travesty of all!