A real education revolution

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“When you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like quantum mechanics.”

Have you ever heard the name Elon Musk? He is described by the editors of T.E.D. Talks, from which the above quote originates, as a “serial entrepreneur,” the intellectual force behind Tesla automobiles, Solar City, and Space X. That quote is him explaining how he is able to do so many unique things: it’s not that he’s brilliant in his field (which he is), it’s that he goes through a different thought process than most in his creative process.

I have often thought that the real genius of Albert Einstein wasn’t any particular brilliance of knowledge—he is actually rather famous for being a poor student. I think his first brilliance was in rejecting the framework all of his peers were busy trying to prove, and setting about in a completely new direction. Special Relativity wasn’t the result of doing what everybody else was doing, only better — it was something completely different.

That sort of “different” is what I think is missing from most of our conversations about education these days. We’re in the midst, right now, of a giant, ugly power struggle between the forces of the education status quo and the forces of education reform here in Jefferson County. Or, so everybody on either side of the debate would have you believe. But, in reality, most of the debate seems to be centered around (a) the role and rewards of teachers in the system that’s been handed down through the decades, and (b) whether a handful of new schools should be encouraged to operate at the outskirts of the system and be given the resources to do so by the system.

I say “Big Deal.” Neither of these, which is causing SO much drama and tension, is actually different thinking, a new process of the sort that Musk or Einstein achieved. Teachers and teaching, with or without the usual perks, will look very much the same either way next year. And walk into any charter school and you’re likely to see a student body working very efficiently at something that looks almost exactly like traditional schools. This is not “new” or “counterintuitive.”

You want to get into a serious debate about actual education reform? Try making the case that schooling shouldn’t start until age 7. That’s how they do it in Scandinavia, and, increasingly, parents are already opting in that direction by delaying the enrollment of their children (mostly boys) by a year. Is there a good case to be made for this? Sure — the increased maturity of a 7-year old versus a 5-year old makes that first year a whole different beast. And what’s stopping us from doing this, across the board? Well, surely the general revolt from the community, who is ready to stop paying for daycare at age 5 and send their kids off to new daycare . . . er, I meant, kindergarten. Because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” (And that’s not to disparage Kindergarten—I’m saying that’s how many in the public see it).

What about rethinking our entire approach to the first four years of school? Right now, a first grade classroom looks a lot like a sixth grade classroom, except that the kids get one additional recess. Does this make any sense at all, either developmentally or pedagogically? Of course not. How can we fix it?

I’ll get into some ideas for that in other columns, but, for now, speaking of recess, let me leave you with this: schools in Finland, which right now are the envy of the Western world, give their younger students almost three times as much “recess” as we do in America. It turns out that children’s brains get stronger when children play. And some people actually design their schools around what’s good for kids, not what’s good for politicians. Something to think about.