More reasons to differentiate the way we teach students

by Bruce Kasanoff on December 7, 2010

Once again, we are shocked (stunned, rocked, blindsided, disoriented…) by the news that our utterly outdated educational system is at best delivering average results compared to other nations. The results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reported in The New York Times this week were summarized succinctly by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

How should we educate our children?

We need to abandon the “batch” system of education that educators stole long ago from mass production assembly lines. Why do we think that the most common central element among students is the year they entered the school system? There are so many more important factors to consider, such as your learning style, the amount of effort you devote to school, your natural abilities, and the types of intelligence you evidence.

Notice I didn’t say how smart you are, or how well you take standardized tests.

Our central challenge is to bring out the best in each student. Some of us are born to be artists, others engineers. Some of us can write beautifully, but can’t sing a note. Others can bring tears (of joy) to your eyes when we sing, but can’t string two sentences together in a critical essay. Importantly, some of us are born to be engineers, and then artists.

I recently read a quote about Steve Jobs that said he has “the brain of an engineer and the heart of an artist.” Our educational system should search out and cultivate such unorthodox mixes, instead of beating everyone down into a standardized and boring compromise.

So, yes, I’d like to see schools allow a highly motivated nine-year-old to work next to students three years older, as long as she can perform at a similar level. In some subjects, that same girl might work with students younger than her.

Whenever practical, we should be blending group discussions with individualized, technology-based learning. Instead of spending five days a week in groups of 30 trying to master a new language, students ought to spend perhaps three days a week with an individualized, conversational software program and two days in a group setting. Why force kids to sit in a classroom even when they can learn faster elsewhere?

Let’s stop making all students read the same 50 “classic” books, and give them more freedom to read anything that they can demonstrate has value and relevance to their lives.

Let’s allow students to cultivate their strengths, as long as they can apply these strengths in group settings and alongside students who have other strengths.

I’d literally like to see us tear down many of the walls in our schools, creating both more flexible spaces and a more flexible approach to education. The irony is that this approach fits perfectly with our fiscally-challenged times. My guess is that ten years from now, we’ll have smaller schools doing a better job of educating more students, because we’ll be differentiating the way each student is educated, in a significant rather than superficial manner.

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