Reforming American education: Learning how to learn

Photograph is of Rochester borstal Kent, England. c1906 Original photograph owned by the Galleries of Justice Museum
Photograph is of Rochester borstal Kent, England. c1906 Original photograph owned by the Galleries of Justice Museum

WASHINGTON, August 29, 2014 — With the school year underway, we can expect one thing: continued criticism and debate over America’s failing education system.

For the 2014 school year and beyond, teachers, students, parents, and policymakers need to focus on solutions developed around the American education system’s strengths. Foreign students consistently outperform American students on tests of math, science and geography. The U.S. spends more per student than almost any other developed country, for among the worst results.

The only aspect of the U.S. education system that triumphs over other education systems is that America not only educates everyone, but also encourages originality and creativity in students. But instead of capitalizing on that strength, current reform efforts threaten that powerful advantage.

The amount of information that the peoples of the world need to process and incorporate into their jobs and daily lives is growing exponentially. We need to find easier ways to do this. We need to embrace the old adage, “work smart, not hard.” Placing greater and greater burdens on teachers and students in the form of standardized tests and extra schoolwork is a strategy that is reaching its limits; there are only so many hours in a day.

American schools present a paradox; we have one of the worst K through twelfth grade education systems in the world, yet U.S. colleges and universities are among the best in the world. American universities consistently dominate rankings of the world’s top 20. Our failures and our successes, however, are intertwined. Other nations teach their students information, technical skills, and the ability to analyze material in specific subjects; American schools emphasize creativity and originality. The American education system fails to uniformly teach American children how to learn and grow beyond the classroom, and it fails to teach them the things the world already knows.

Students need to acquire more and more information on daily basis in order to compete, yet they also need to be able to make use of all that knowledge. Teachers and educational psychologists should, under the authority of the Congress, find ways to teach children how to learn. In elementary school, children should be taught basic skills, including math, reading, and foreign languages, along with other forms of communication. At the same time they must learn techniques that enable them to gather and retain a massive amount of information.

One of the most difficult aspects of learning new information is that people forget it most of it. This problem is seldom addressed by educational reforms. As students progress through high school, schools need to teach them how to learn in narrower and narrower subject areas, so they are able to learn effectively in specialized fields when they enter college. This hinges on the ability of students to retain information.

Addressing this aspect of learning would enable students to learn faster and more independently while building the skills and knowledge base they need to perform in an ever shifting job market, all without the constant need of retraining.  In turn, they will be more creative and more eager to learn as learning will be easier.

The American education system meets its ultimate test in the job market. If students are going to study science and math, they need real incentives. This means good jobs and good income in those fields.

The humanities and social sciences often fail to provide economic opportunities for those who major in them, while fewer funding sources and less emphasis on basic research have undermined the income prospects of those studying the natural sciences. If the U.S. wants to be strong in education, especially in the sciences and math, the American government needs to work with industries to create new opportunities for research.

A revised and unified education system that focuses on teaching students how to learn, i.e., learning to learn, will make every credential, from the high school diploma to the doctoral degree, far more valuable. It will allow the United States to build the greatest education system on the planet, which will in turn better provide for the needs of American industry. If America tries to reshape its education system to mirror those of the rest of the world, it will fail to prepare students for a lifetime of learning.  It will fail to build a dynamic education system for a dynamic world.

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