Without question, America’s greatest social experiment—it’s greatest social contribution—is public education. Educate all children until the age of 18 for free? It was an unprecedented idea, but the system it led to is now broken.
Saying explicitly that America’s public education system is broken is, quite frankly, hard. More likely, it’s even harder to hear. We can see all of you wanting to click the close button on your browser because you just don’t want to hear that kind of talk right now. But the words are being spoken all over America because the system is indeed broken. The sooner we admit this in public, the sooner we can begin to fix America’s greatest social experiment.
A Broken System
America’s public education system is broken on many levels. Let’s start with pedagogy. Direct instruction—that is, telling kids stuff—should no longer be the dominant pedagogy since it does not prepare our children to be the innovative, creative, entrepreneurial, imaginative problem solvers that the global marketplace is increasingly demanding. Whether we flip the classroom with video or custom textbooks, lecturing and drilling should only be a small part of the learning process. Exploration, construction, collaboration—those are the types of skills that students must learn, and direct instruction does not cultivate them. Schools that have thick, unmovable walls pose a huge problem for the future of public education. A recent New York Times article on the future of white-collar workplaces includes images of the new generation of office spaces, which are all open. Yes, the open spaces of the ’70s didn’t quite work out, but the notion that 30 students (excuse us, class sizes are rising in the U.S.—we mean 40 students) with differing interests must march in lockstep in every classroom and in every school is simply bizarre and certainly unproductive and ineffective.
Cater to Interests
We need “affinity schools,” not lockstep schools. We need primary and secondary schools organized around interests, from trucks to ocean studies, from jungle gyms to forensics. Children are naturally curious; we need to cater to their interests, and in that context they will learn all manner of content and process. This is not a new idea, but now it is finally feasible.
As educational philosopher John Dewey said about 100 years ago, teachers create learning opportunities. And learning arises out of doing. But when those learning opportunities are exploring questions such as “Why can’t salt water be made drinkable?” or “How can voter turnout in my town be increased?” then students need direct, immediate, 24/7 access to all the world’s information, data, events, places and people to develop thoughtful answers to those questions. In the process, as Dewey suggests, they will learn.
Fortunately, mobile technologies—a smartphone in every learner’s hand and not a “laptop at every desk” (Arne, wake up; it’s 2012, not 1992) are a key enabler of this transformation to affinity schools. Clayton Christensen jumped the gun. It’s not the Internet that is enabling the disruption of class; rather, it is mobile technology. The Internet is a roadway; without cars, a roadway is useless. Laptops are not the universal student’s car. They are too expensive, too finicky, too visible. Smartphones, on the other hand, are inexpensive, low maintenance and so omnipresent that they are virtually invisible. And a smartphone with an accelerometer, GPS, heart rate monitor, EKG monitor and light sensor (those are coming) provides much more functionality than a laptop.
State by state, the cap on charter school starts is in the process of being lifted, and America is poised to continue its greatest social experiment. Public affinity schools will happen; they are inevitable because they make good educational and good economic sense.
Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and a past ISTE President. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and Chair of ISTE’s Special Interest Group on Mobile Learning (SIGML). For the past 10 years, Cathie and Elliot have been circumnavigating the globe, advocating for the use of mobile technologies in classrooms.