The poor performance of the United States public educational system is no new news given the math, science, and literacy global testing boom. Suddenly “engineering” programs are popping up all over the nation as we teach our children how to make wooden chairs using 3-D printing or tiny robots that sort marbles. $200,000 went to my high school to purchase equipment and support the creation of the “fab-lab” (part of a $15 million high school remodel). It is great to see money being put into our educational system, but what are we actually supporting?
The engineering program coordinator is quoted in a local paper saying "this is about addressing what our kids need to learn and how we get them excited about learning those 21st century skills that business leaders say they so desperately need." First off, let us make decisions based on the best interest of the children, not what “business leaders say they so desperately need.” I am fairly confident that if we all took advice from business leaders all the time we would be in a lot more trouble than we are - I am a finance major at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
IBM conducts a global survey of the world’s CEOs and in 2010 about 60% of CEOs polled cited creativity as the most important leadership quality, followed by 52% for integrity. A fab-lab can inspire creativity, but this is what is often called a band-aid solution. In the United States children hit their peak level of creativity at age 5. Studies by Paul E. Torrence from the University of Minnesota has identified how children use between 80-90% of their creativity capacity at age 5 and this rapidly decreases throughout our schooling reaching about 10% capacity as a senior in high school.
We test in stagnant settings, define time limits, select the “best” answer from 4 or 5 available choices, and conduct nearly the same structure in class every day. I cannot imagine a real world business problem that has the above listed characteristics. Suddenly, we throw an “engineering program” in a school and say that that is going to prepare our students? The people who solve these black and white problems from the 4 available solutions listed below are the same ones saying we need to start teaching engineering, math, and science skills in schools to keep up with the “global economy” and “prepare our children for the workforce.”
How about preparing our students for life? Ability to solve ambiguous problems and flexibility are the emerging leadership values listed in IBM’s 2011 survey of world CEOs. But we are so concerned about measuring and ranking people that we cannot see past the measuring tape at the detriment we are causing to each child’s definition of their self and ability.
The most excruciating days I can recall from my educational experience are 3-4 days after a test when we are given our graded papers. I never enjoyed seeing other student’s scores and I detested being asked how I did on the exam. Constantly student would be asking around trying to determine where they rank against their peers. This appeared to be the most important thing above the actual knowledge acquired and students would wallow when friends succeed and rejoice when they emerged superior. We rank children and give them a place amongst their peers based on their ability to perform in this tiny, insignificant challenge. Instead of a student feeling good for learning, we use competition as the motivational tool for progress from the very beginning. Yes, it captures the student’s animalistic desire to survive and be superior to its peers for the sake of reproductive preservation. But this is really only necessary in a society where there is scarcity.
We have a society that is founded on the idea of scarcity and fear. Really, every student will be taught nearly the exact same thing for the remainder of their education with a slight ability for students vary in course rigor. We will not run out of opportunities to learn and we do not have to compete for places to establish ourselves at the top of the knowledge chain. This striving to exert superiority reinforces the individual ego and separates the human from the actual self and others. We get caught in an idea of what it means to be superior and the ego is fed with each success or affirmation elevating “us” above to rest.
The illusion of this importance manifests itself as students engage in negative behavior such as cheating, bullying, and sabotage for advancement. This occurs frequently in a kindergarten classroom, just ask my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Mohn. Ironically, this also occurs in corporations and government, just ask congress. The system is perpetuating this behavior, it is not that humans are inherently bad; we are just programmed to destroy others on our journey to the top.
Future education must move away from using competition as the motivational tool. Finally, it must account for ambiguity and encourage original creativity as opposed to the defined and measurable separating skills amongst students.