Teaching “things” … and the disconnect of education!

I don’t understand the education system in this country. We have all the resources imaginable – yet we can’t seem to get it right. Each year we see our standing in the world’s education community slipping. At present we sit somewhere in the middle of the pack for “developed nations.”
We continually “tweak around the edges.” Oh, and we can’t forget about the schools and the teachers not having enough money. As if throwing more money into a malfunctioning abyss is going to do anything but make a malfunctioning abyss … that costs more.
I believe the problem is our education system focuses on teaching our children “things.” Most all reform efforts involve improving our methods in teaching these “things” or facts. Whether it’s better teachers that engage their students to absorb these “things,” or reducing class size … it all comes down to teachings “things.” Even if we succeed in finding and implementing the ultimate ways of teaching and learning “things,” we still have the issue of what “things” should our kids be learning. With the current of obsession of trying to keep up with the Chinese and the reliance on standard tests to solve all educational ills – the situation is only getting worse.
At present, this decision is being made by people two decades or more removed from the present world – let alone the world when our children join it. Restricting Twitter, and the enormous amount of incredibly useful information available at our student’s fingertips, via the web – only helps the old guard “circle the wagons.” “We know what’s best and what the students should learn and we’ll be damned if anyone will tell us otherwiseWhat’s wrong with teaching our students how to think, how learn on the fly and adapt? By using tool such as Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube and the rest (and yes they are tools) – we teach our children to investigate, to digest different points of view and recognize the world is not just one book of facts … but rather a plethora of views, opinions and interpretations. And best yet, what these electronic tools do for our children – is they engage them. Most students have multiple access to the web at home – so why should they have to step back into the “stone age” when they go to school, seven plus hours a day!
Education … circa “70s

Engagement is the single most important factor to successful learning. No teacher, no new building … and no endless amount of money’s going to open up a child’s mind to absorb what they think is useless, irrelevant facts and figures. Unless they see a reason what is being thrown in front of them every morning, in the name of learning – is going help them after they leave the “iron walls of school” … it will be nothing more than useless, irrelevant facts and figures. And I believe no textbook book written twenty years ago – according to the bias specifications of some special interest group, a special interest group with immense buying power – is going to engage any eight year old, any twelve-year-old … and especially any eighteen year old.

No one can say what lies ahead in the future for each of our children. To be so pompous to say we know what will be the best opportunity and proper future for a young individual in a formative stage (and what should be learned to prepare for this erroneous assumption) is wrong and irresponsible. All we can do is provide a foundation, a platform for which we can help them develop an “ongoing” lifetime habit of learning and adjustment … adjustment that will most differently be needed in an ever-changing future.

And for some reason … I don’t think “teaching things” is going to do that!


I can be reached on Twitter at @clayforsberg


21 thoughts on “Teaching “things” … and the disconnect of education!

  1. Hi Clay,

    I just came across your blog and it really resonates with me. I am quite passionate about many of the topics you have written about here. It is so frustrating to see so much knowledge at our fingertips, yet we are failing to leverage the tools that will lead to experiential learning. Literally, we have a world of learning accessible to us, and so few are taking advantage of these resources. And consequently, American students continue to lag behind other countries in the area of global knowledge – unpardonable for many reasons, including because we are competing in a global economy. What I believe our education system – and I would also add culture – is failing to do is stir in students a sense of curiosity for learning outside the classroom. If you don’t mind, I would like to share with you my latest blog as it strikes a similar chord to what you are referring to in this post: http://experientialcomms.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/how-i-want-my-son-to-learn-about-the-iraq-war/.

    Looking forward to continuing to follow your work on this blog.



  2. Interesting topic and realistic too….In my point of u, a contemporary school should be open to society and should think what kind of “things” students could learn by thinking….i am a greek teacher and believe me i work under bad circumstances in a school without facilities, without any prospect and the most important without support from the greek goverment…..

  3. A couple of things I want to pick up here.

    I was a teacher for over 35 years and I never felt that I taught ‘stuff’ I always felt that I taught ‘children’. Yes, I had a curriculum to follow but how I followed it was up to me. Seems that things are not like that in the US. I must admit that even in the UK – that bastion of liberal education -things are moving towards a more centrist approach to teaching and that is a shame. I just wanted to point out that teaching is about helping children learn not stuffing them with facts.

    Now we come to the more political point I want to make. Parents need to take back their power to help children learn. I don’t necessarily mean by going the homeschooling route but by pressuring the educational system to make changes.

    Teachers teach YOUR kids, find out how to change the system your child is in if you don’t like it. There are many ways – join the parent association, lobby your politico, even take your child out of exams you don’t like. make a fuss rather than complaining about the system – you are probably already doing this – just do it louder!!

    Stop trying to do the teachers’ job for them (you know what I mean, helping do homework assignments, actually teaching your child whatever he or she needs to learn)and getting stressed out doing it. Make teachers accountable. Teachers will hate you for it at first because you will be rocking the boat – but they will love you later when their job becomes easier because of what you are doing. And it will become easier because I think it is the parent’s responsibility to give children the skills they need to know how to learn – skills such as self confidence, curiosity, optimism, goal setting, planning, social skills, etc. etc. Once kids have these skills classroom teaching becomes a dream, ask any teacher.

    Parents – your kids are worth it – take back your power – yo know what you want to happen now find the ways you can make it happen.

    1. Patricia, thanks for the comment. I agree with you wholeheartedly that your child’s education is first and foremost … your responsibility, not the school or the teacher. Getting a teacher that connects with your child is a “crapshoot.” But having just one can often light a spark that will stay with a child forever. That’s a good thing. It’s up to the parents, and other stakeholders who the child is exposed to – to set the foundation though. That’s what happened with my daughter, Alexandria. She had a team of influential adults who positively participated in her life, and treated her as a peer – even at a very young age.

      Concerning your political comment about making effort to change the performance of the schools and teachers, it’s easier said than done. I assume you haven’t spent time in the United States from an education standpoint. Reform is dictated, or should I say blocked, by the uber-powerful teacher’s unions. These unions, often with assistance from local PTAs block any reform that have to do with teacher accountability and performance pay. In fact, the national PTA offices in Washington D.C. are located in the National Teacher Association (NEA) building. Confronting teachers is often seen as a direct hit at their students. Good teaching will happening because the teachers want to do it and go above and beyond the requirements – rather than having to do it.

      I firmly believe any any improvement in student performance and life preparation will happen at individual district, school and class levels … not nationally or statewide. And this improvement will also need community wide participation.

  4. “A leader is not an administrator who loves to run others, but someone who carries water for his people so that they can get on with their jobs.”
    – Robert Townsend

    I believe that this is exactly what you are saying in this article. We have to create space for our students to find their own learning. And any “science” without consciousness is only the ruin of soul. (classic). So all tools have to be used with discernment.
    I have 3 kids and I have feeling we are living 20 years back…but I keep hope we can BE THE CHANGE .

  5. Clay,

    Your initial argument is correct in that we should stop shoving “things” down our kids throats and start encouraging “critical thinking”; however, there are some flaws to your argument with regard to technology being that tool to opening the door to opinion.

    Technology does open a door, but sometimes provides too many answers and sometimes the wrong answers — depending who’s posting. I often use YouTube or SchoolTube in the classroom to illustrate ideas and find that these visual tools are extremely useful in illuminating “invisible” points in science – i.e., atomic structure, movement of electrons, DNA structure and protein synthesis. For visual learners, these are sometimes “aha” moments in their learning.

    But technology is a double edge sword. When searching for information on the internet children are often mislead or misguided by “paid” sites or “biased” information. They are not discerning with regard to the publisher of the site and therefore incorrect information is reported and adapted into their thinking. Bill O’Reilly’s new book about Lincoln comes to mind or videos on scientific principles created by a student’s peers where misinformation is perpetrated. Think 1984 and Newspeak, where digital media is doctored and watered down so much that no one can trace the original source — this is a distinct possibility for our world!

    When comparing our schools and educational system to China one has to be aware that the Chinese only send their best and their brightest to school – not so here in America! So it is unfair to make that comparison! So often our government and our businesses make that error and we need to wake up and realize that many Chinese live in poverty and are not “entitled” to an education – they man the factories and the rural farms! So, of course it appears that the Chinese educational system is outpacing us, but it is like comparing apples to oranges.

    Lastly, money for good teachers is important, but money for teachers that teach to the test is, yes, a ridiculous concept. However, how do suggest we get out of this rut that we have had for years – have raised whole generations on? For example, many science teachers teach through inquiry – that is, giving students the materials and say “Get these materials to do….” I can’t tell you how many times my students look at me dumbfounded and say, “What do you want me to do?” “What if it’s wrong?” “Can’t you just tell me the right answer?” How do we get these students to have confidence enough to get it wrong and then try and fix it to get it right? This is the biggest challenge…this is where critical thinking is not a skill to be tested, but a skill to be taught. This is the great flaw of standardized testing and the basis for your argument. But where do we start? Do we start in kindergarten? Do we start it in all grades? Do we give up the “business”, and yes it is a business, of standardized testing? How do we get politicians to buy into that?! They’ve made a fortune and a career on standardized testing. The problem here is that education has gotten too big, it no longer serves a community that may need agricultural skills or industrial skills, it no longer trains kids that “skills” are important. Kids are machines and I think that is what the top 1% of the income bracket wants – they want machines that churn out information and not thinkers!!!! Because, let’s face it, if those little machines start to think they will realize they’ve been sold a false bill of goods and will become disenfranchised and will fight the 1% — that’s not what we want, do we? The children will no longer grow up to be dependent on credit cards, want things that are useless, want brand names that cost a fortune, want the latest and greatest, vote for useless politicians that take kick backs from the rich — we don’t want children who will actually grow up and question authority, do we?!!!

    That is the great argument for education reform, that is where we fail our children.

    Why do I teach? Because I believe that we should question authority, because I believe that curiosity is a good thing, because I want to wake children up to the reality that they’re being manipulated! No amount of technology will do that for children, it will just keep them plugged in and dumbed down. Or as they used to say – tuned in and tuned out.

    Technology is a wonderful thing, but only if it is used properly and I’m not so sure it is as so many students are just listening to music rather than university lectures on their iPods. “We don’t need no education…we don’t need no thought control” is now an oxymoron in this technological world.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jacki. You make some good points. I could write a whole another post just responding. And that’s a good thing.

      It’s obvious that the use of technology in the classroom is a hot button with you since that’s how you summed up your comment. Technology was by no means to be the focal point of my post though. Technology has it’s place, and as you said, only if it’s being used properly. But isn’t that case with everything?

      You point concerning the “cherry picking” of the Chinese education system is interesting – correct, but more than not overlooked. But none-the-less, their methods are still an obsession of our education policy makers.

      I could go on forever on different fixes of different ailments in the system … but there’s only so many hours in the day.

      Again Jacki, thank you for your insight. You are most welcome here whenever 🙂

  6. Clay I think you are so right to highlight this problem. It is not one just for the kids, or the parents, or the teachers and administrators though. It is something which speaks to the health of business and enterprise. Which is why it is not completely surprising that 50 – 80 years ago American business needed educated American workers, and the schools (early 20th century schools sometimes had 100 Immigrant children in ONE class) graduated students who could read, write and do math. There were jobs waiting for them. I taught Middle School Math in some very tough schools in NYC, and these kids were bright, so many of them were just eager beyond belief to learn. The frustration in teaching for me, was with 80% of the time spent sorting out 20% of the students. And the shocking distribution of resources towards the very bottom of the learning curve.Those who want to learn must be allowed to. I have too much to say on topic just for a comment to be honest.
    My main point is that education does not exist in a vacuum it is part of the entire fabric of society’ reflecting those needs. Including very much where those graduates go afterwards. Needless to say manufacturing which was part of our economy in early to mid last century has moved. And so have jobs, for kids or those who are willing to make 1 – 10 dollars a day for their labor in another country, not our own. We all know what cheap labor means to a company’s bottom line. The real problem with Education is lack of job creation, and lack of will for these poor and disenfranchised kids to grow up and vote.

    Those of us who have children indeed have a responsibility. Nurturing thinking is vital, as human beings, as civilized people it is essential to nurture intelligence, kindness and sensitivity. These are true strengths of humankind. It is survival of the Smartest, after all. David used a slingshot to topple Goliath. Okay smarts, and a good aim.

    Thanks Clay for a post we should all think about….

  7. I am an educator and a mother of 5 children who struggled with the traditional educational system. So, in 2003, I founded a private school, Success Pointe, for children who didn’t fit into the “robotic” form of learning—information in—spew it back out. Many had been diagnosed with ADHD, others had learning difficulties, and many had emotional/behavioral challenges (which we discovered were largely due to the stress, frustration, anger, and failure generated by the traditional academic model.) We used a non-traditional approach to teaching, and made learning come alive. When most of these kids first walked in our doors, they were “shut-down” kids who had either failed so miserably in school or been so bored that they just shut down. For many of them, academic failure, frustration, and stress had taken such a toll on them that the “light in their souls” had gone out. They were at the, “Why bother?” point. What we saw with our approach was nothing short of miraculous. Once the learning came alive, so did the kids and their desire to learn. Once they were allowed to be more than “robots”, and were encouraged to think, observe, analyze, compare, and create—once they found their voices and were allowed to use them, incredible things happened. Each of these kids had capabilities far beyond what they had been able to tap into using the traditional approach. It was beyond rewarding to feel their excitement about learning, to finally see smiles on their faces, and to see the lights in their souls and their minds come back on. I whole-heartedly agree with Clay that our children need to be not only taught to think—but to have what they think listened to. In order for this to happen, everyone needs to take part in encouraging our children’s minds to tick, to think, to wonder, and to create. We need to create a movement that will grow strong in making the changes our children, and the world so desperately need.

    1. I appreciate the support Jaydra. It amazes me we have let our education system get to where it’s at. This preoccupation with keeping up with the Jones (i.e. the Chinese) has rendered us “brain dead” memorization robots.

      Facts and much of their corresponding irrelevancy to the student’s real world will not only not catch us up … it’ll gut what this country is all about – innovation.

      I admire you for do what you’ve done. Not only didn’t you let the system drag you down, you fought it and many kids thank you for it. I do!

      May we all have the courage to not sit idly on the sideline … but get in game and lead the effort for change. There is time. But we have to decide to do it.

      1. Clay– I want to thank you for writing this post– creating awareness, a stirring, and a movement is what is needed. Posts such as yours get adults thinking– and as you said, that must happen in order for us to get kids thinking. The more people who join this movement, the stronger it will become, and the greater power for good it will have.

  8. I totally agree with your point of view: teaching how to think, how to learn, how to digest the information is more important than the accumulation of knowledge alone. Do you think that teaching how to think
    can be done without the knowledge itself, without refering to a body of knowledge? How do you see it happening?

    1. Thanks for comment. Teaching thinking is not an easy task, and there’s no universal way to do it.

      But maybe it’s easier than you think … and we can all do it, whether we’re a teacher or not. As parents we are all teachers in our own right. “Teaching thinking” may be as easy as thinking in itself. Rather than just accepting something as is – ask what are the reasons behind it.

      When teaching a fact, discuss why it’s important, who was involved and why it is like it is. Teach your kids (both teachers and parents) not just to accept something someone says at face value … but rather think about the perspective of the person saying it, and how that may bias their views.

      But in order for us to get our kids to think … we have to think first.

      1. Clay,

        Thank you for posting this- I am new to your blog, but believe I’ll be keeping an eye on it…

        Your last statement, “…we have to think first.” addresses, in my opinion, the real issue…we are expecting teachers to teach in ways they do not understand. My colleague and I coach educators- we have worked hard to help veteran teachers wrap their arms around the idea that this ‘teaching thinking- critical thinking, creativity, etc.’ is not a passing fad. These skills are not ’21st Century skills’ but ‘Essential Skills’. We also have to be sure that we are providing professional development opportunities- we cannot expect people to change without information and support. As soon as fear or exhaustion (for job or budget or test scores) sets in- people revert to their old habits. This ‘educator’ development needs to occur at the primary, secondary and post-secondary levels, if we expect to see it in our students.

        Please keep promoting this idea. It is the future of education.


        1. Cate, thanks for the reply. If I may, I’m going to repeat a line of yours that says it all: “This ‘educator’ development needs to occur at the primary, secondary and post-secondary levels, if we expect to see it in our students.”

          In absence of that though, parents and other influencers need to step up. The dishes and house work can wait, so can the email. Isn’t your child’s mind a bigger priority?

  9. This is a great topic for the Thanksgiving table! Two of my sisters are teachers. The system is so big and cumbersome with approved curricula (sp?) that making such a change to a more abstract way of teaching/learning is like moving a mountain. Getting everyone in the system to understand the difference would be the first challenge. Home schoolers are making better headway in this direction it seems, by making use of daily events as teaching opportunities.

    1. Thank you the comment Diane. I do not see the cumbersome bureaucracy changing through conventional means. Only through the “covert efforts” of teachers like your sisters … will we truly give our children the education needed to excel in today’s world of change.

      You and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving – and give my best to Southern California 😉

  10. I completely agree – We have gotten very good at teaching students how to get the answer right as opposed to getting to the best answer. This overbearing reliance on testing is creating a situation where the only thing we value is the correct answer and not the creative answers we need for tomorrow.

    1. Thanks for the endorsement. I’m appalled by this testing and China obsession. As a country (at least it used to be) is our creative thinking.

      It seems like we’re “hell bent” on putting a wet blanket on and stifling any out of the box thinking in the United States.

    2. I agree with you all. But, The Ed Buzz, hit the nail on the head. My husband and I have been complaining about this subject for the last few years of our daughter’s primary school education and it only gets worse.

      For example, classroom math focuses on timing kids to do simple math problems like multiplication. They concentrate on “flash memory” opposed to the mechanics on how to reach the answer.

      While this may work for students who understand the mechanics quickly, it hampers others who may need time to “think” about how they reached the answer.

      You’re right…teaching is left to the parents.

      1. No offense to teachers, but they supplement education. Unfortunately a lot of parents don’t understand the dynamic of their responsibility in their child’s education. I’m not talking about home schooling or teaching algebra or physics.

        But what a parent can and should do is nurture their child’s curiosity. With curiosity comes thinking … and isn’t what this whole discussion is about.

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