SHANNON QUINN, EDUCATION DIRECTOR
As the world continues to grow smaller and globalization advances at a rapid pace, all aspects of society are being transformed and rethought at fundamental levels. This holds true for the education system. Our current system of education was designed in an industrial age, based on an assembly line mentality that was necessary for the economy of the time. However, in the 21st century, this model for education should be reevaluated and changed to meet the demands of a globalized and culturally-diverse economy.
Built into the model of industrial education is the dependency on conformity. With the rise of standardization, children are increasingly put through a “one mold fits all” curriculum. Children have little choice in what they study from a young age and are forced into a curriculum that ultimately teaches to the test. Researchers such as Ken Robinson further point out that the model penalizes collaboration by calling it cheating, which discourages group work. Though this may have been relevant to the structure of the 19th century economy, this model may actually be harmful for children today.
In a study on divergent thinking, which is defined as the essential capacity for creativity and the ability to see more than one solution to a problem, researchers showed that the more “educated” children were, the less able they were to think flexibly about solutions to problems. In a longitudinal study, 98% of Kindergarteners scored at “genius” level for divergent thinking. After five years, the rate decreased to 50%. It further declined after another five years. Considering a standardized education enforces the idea of one answer, these results make sense. In the context of the 21st century, however, the results are troubling, as we have shifted to a world where problem solving skills are paramount and technology makes it easier to share ideas and collaborate across the world.
So how can we change school curriculum to ensure that our children are receiving the most comprehensive and in-depth education possible? It certainly won’t be an easy task, as it will require a restructuring of an entire entrenched system, not to mention a significant shift in the way people think about education. One approach that is being increasingly tested in schools is project-based learning (PBL). PBL is an approach that challenges students’ problem solving skills by engaging them in an extensive investigative project that has an application in the real world. This model emphasizes group work and collaboration, in contrast with the individually centered approach of the current system. Elements of PBL include mastering 21st century competencies, such as technology, working with a driving question, and presenting work to a public audience.
Although it is not yet widely used, a nonprofit organization called New Tech Network works with schools, districts, and communities to develop effective education strategies. New Tech schools include 115 district public schools, 18 charter schools, and two independent schools; all of these schools use PBL. According to their yearly outcome report, their students graduate at a rate of 14% higher than the national average, enroll in college 9% more than the national average, and persist in college at a total rate of 83%. These numbers may reflect a deeper engagement with the subject matter and, perhaps more importantly, an increased drive to learn and succeed in education.
In another study done on PBL, researchers analyzed a project-based high school economics class. According to the outcomes of the study, students that participated in a project-based curriculum outscored their peers that followed a more traditionally designed plan. This shows the real potential impact of PBL on student performance. Although this model seems divergent from what the US typically subscribes to in education, reassessing our standards and the approach to learning is becoming increasingly necessary for innovative reform and preparation of our children for the world’s economy today.
Adopting PBL as an alternative to traditional education is one effort that can be made to reorient the education conversation and provide opportunities to struggling schools to engage their student body in a meaningful way. By doing this, the depth at which students are learning will increase, driving their curiosity and transforming them into more well-rounded individuals overall. This is economically important and is more telling about a student’s proficiency than test scores. Low-income schools can especially benefit from this model, but standardization must first be eased in order to transition to a model conducive to PBL.
The world looks different than it did when our system of public education was formed. As the world is shrinking due to the forces of globalization, we need to think of innovative ways to restructure our education system in a way that fits with the economic and cultural needs of our time. Concepts such as project-based learning should be further explored, refined, and experimented with to increase the quality of education for low-income and high-income communities alike. An overhaul of our current education system certainly will not be easy, but it must be done if we’re going to offer equitable and valuable education to this generation of students, who are being launched head first into globalized economy.
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