All of us have a list in our head of what we would do if we suddenly received a few million dollars. My list includes the predictable beautiful vacation home(s) and unlimited world travel, but I’ve also designated an unspecified amount of my hypothetical fortune to education. Given a few million, I’d start a campaign to change what and how American kids learn in school.
First: WHAT kids learn. When I returned to my school at one point last year, I had a discussion with a friend’s class about high school curriculum. As someone who got consistent B’s rather than A’s in math, I’ve always wondered why I had to take math and science all four years of high school even though I had known since elementary school that I didn’t want a career related to those fields. I had, after all, come to a magnet school for international studies. I would have switched my math and science classes for languages in a heartbeat.
Have I taken math since 12th grade calculus? No.
Have I needed math skills past the basics of algebra and geometry? No.
Have I traveled to countries whose languages I did not speak but could have learned in high school? Yes.
I realize that not everyone is a language nerd like me, so I refer now to the opinions of my students. I asked them what they thought about making high school more like college: there would still be a basic set of courses to take, but at some point students would be able to specialize in something and drop the subjects that didn’t align with their interests, skills, or goals.
Here’s my rationale. Even kids from the most privileged backgrounds get bored in school and start to feel like they’re wasting their time in certain courses. And even kids in the worst schools with the least natural interest in learning can identify subjects that are interesting or come more naturally to them. Why should kids have to take advanced everything if they don’t need it?
(Obviously, the next logical part of this argument is: what are the minimum skills, and who gets to decide? I don’t know. That’ll be another blog entry.)
Second: HOW kids learn. You may have heard of Howard Gardiner’s theory of multiple intelligences. His idea is that each of us has one or two different “intelligences” – in other words, we’re all smart in different ways. The number of multiple intelligences fluctuates occasionally, but the general list includes: linguistic, logical/mathematical, bodily/kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, and naturalist. A host of online resources can tell you more about each of these and help you figure out which you have.
For instance, in every assessment I’ve ever completed, I test very highly in musical intelligence (usually at the maximum level). This is no surprise; I can remember the lyrics to any song I’ve ever heard more than once, and I’m constantly whistling or singing.
When I think back on all my years in school – elementary, secondary, post-secondary – I realize just how much I learned that I have now FORGOTTEN. I loved history, but can I name important dates for you? Probably not. Can I find the limit of a line? Definitely not. But can I recite an address that I heard sung as part of a jingle on a commercial ten years ago? Yes.
I can’t help but wonder… how much of what I learned in school would I still know if I had learned all of it to music?
Teachers now face the very daunting challenge of catering to the learning styles or multiple intelligences of each and every child in their classrooms. For instance, the rubric that we used to rate teachers in D.C. Public Schools last year included a standard for targeting multiple learning styles. Highly effective teachers had to successfully target at least three learning styles over the course of a 30-minute observation. It is realistic to expect teachers to mix up their plans over the course of a week, but there is simply no way that even the most amazing teachers can cover all learning styles/intelligences in each lesson. As a result, the kids whose styles are the majority (in more antiquated terms, those who are visual or auditory learners) are more likely to learn things quickly and permanently than students whose brain is just wired to process information efficiently with a different mode of input. (Don’t you feel sorry for kids with naturalistic intelligence? I don’t have a clue how a teacher would try to target an English class towards that kind of learner.)
So, to get back to the original question: my hypothetical three million dollars for education would go towards starting a few schools that provide students with the choice to pursue their own area of specialization and the opportunity to learn in whichever environment most aligns with their multiple intelligences. I have a feeling we’d see levels of motivation, engagement, and achievement rocket upwards if we tailored each students’ educational experiences to fit his/her own needs and skills.