Education budgets at the national, state, and local levels have all taken huge hits over the past few years. And while we all want our schools to have sufficient funding to educate our children, more money is not the magic bullet solution for what our educational system needs.
The truth is, our educational system is badly broken, and not just because the systems, structures, and philosophies that guide it are woefully out of date. Our educational system is grossly ineffective because the way we teach our children doesn’t align with what we know about how the brain learns.
In fact, the current system is the worst learning environment we could put our children into. And that’s not just my opinion. It also belongs to John Medina, noted molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School.
According to Medina, the human brain evolved over millions of years to learn, problem-solve and survive while in motion. As our early ancestors came down out of the trees and began moving out across the savannas, humans walked 10 to 12 miles a day to secure food. In the process, they learned to avoid predators, identify sources of food, water and shelter, and solve the other problems required for survival, while in motion.
Medina’s research also uncovered many other facts about the brain that contradict most of what we currently do in our educational system. For instance, the human brain learns best through pictures, not through the written or spoken word. We have attention spans of about 10 minutes before we lose interest and tune out. The various regions of the brain develop at different rates in different people, meaning we don’t learn at the same rates. We also have a lot of ways of being intelligent, many of which don’t show up on IQ or standardized performance tests. Consider the important work in the area of emotional intelligence as one example.
Research also shows that when school children are active, they learn better. They pay better attention to their subjects. They’re less likely to exhibit disruptive behavior in the classroom. And they feel better about themselves, have higher self-esteem, and less depression and anxiety.
So what does our education system look like?
Large classrooms based on age rather than true learning levels. Kids sitting on their behinds for hours on end, getting talked at or read to by teachers. More and more school systems eliminating recess and physical education. Classroom instruction that focuses on getting students to regurgitate the “right” answer rather than learning how to think and solve problems.
We couldn’t design a worse environment for learning if we tried!
Obviously, we’re not going to change the educational system overnight. But we can start by challenging our ideas, attitudes, and assumptions about the educational system, and then determine whether they align with what modern research has discovered about the brain and learning.
Then we should ask a lot of “what if” questions, starting with: what if we designed our educational system for the benefit of the students rather than the department of education, teachers, parents, and administrators? In other words, what if we designed it around what we know about the human brain and how it learns best?
This would lead to some very interesting questions, such as:
- What would be the ideal classroom size?
- Would we even want or need classrooms?
- How would we take into account the fact that people don’t learn the same way or at the same speed?
- How could we design classrooms to allow students to be active while they’re learning?
- How would we incorporate the use of more pictures into the teaching process?
- How would we break the typical 50-minute class into 10-minute “learning chunks” that align with the brain’s normal attention span?
If this sounds like a radical approach to reinventing education, it is. But we can’t ignore the fact that we keep throwing more money at the educational system while student performance continues to decline. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said that a problem can’t be solved at the same level of thinking that created it. My first suggestion is for anyone associated with the educational system to read Brain Rules. Then we need to start asking the right questions to raise our thinking to a different level.
P.S. – If you think we’re doing a better job in the business world, think again. I’ll cover that in an upcoming blog.
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Holly is the CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR, Inc. (www.TheHumanFactor.biz) and is a highly sought after and acclaimed speaker, business consultant, and author. Her unique approach to creating strategic agility, helping others go slow to go fast, will change your thinking.