I Am the Subject of Education Reform

Everywhere I read, the internet is inundated with claims that American public education is falling behind. But everybody knows that. “It’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp.”—Ken Robinson It’s been nearly a decade since Ken Robinson spoke those words, and it doesn’t feel like we’ve grown any closer to grasping the future. Regardless of how many times you’ve watched a TED talk pop up on education reform, or read a depressing Washington Post article on how American students score on tests, you probably haven’t heard a whole lot from the perspective of students themselves. It’s funny that in discussing this problem the media has tended to leave out the voices of those that the problem directly affects. It’s because we don’t know how to effectively voice our thoughts. In my 12 years in the American school system, I’ve gone to schools in Colorado, Indiana and now Ohio. As I draw ever closer to achieving the mediocrity of a high school diploma, I look back and I wonder what I’ve been doing. The number of worksheets that I’ve turned in probably accounts for a major chunk of deforestation in the Amazon. But it’s been years since these reform talks started, and here we are. None of what I’m saying is new. But I hope that for those of you reading, you may glean something out of this — whether that’s in the form of a confirmation that you were right, or in a new perspective on what it’s like in our schools. These are a few of my thoughts.
  1. Stop shoving content down our throats and make us think. The world is not going to be changed by people who know things. With the not-so-modern advent of the internet, everybody can know things. In a recent article, a more accurate description of knowledge was cemented: “When big data is king, the individual who can quickly locate and parse information reigns supreme.”—Allen Rabinovich, Let Students Cheat And the internet is BIG data. This new mindset on how students go about learning threatens an age-old paradigm: the teacher as the provider of knowledge. If this new way of thinking were to be followed, the teacher would no longer serve as an instructor of knowledge, but rather a guide showing students how to go about analyzing and effectively organizing information.
  2. Stop fearing technology. I cannot tell you the number of times that a teacher attempts to use a Smartboard only to be held up by a UI issue that half of the class knows how to fix. Quit paying for teachers to get technology education when the most technologically literate generation is 10 feet in front of them. Let the students teach the teachers.There’s this misconception that when it comes to technology, students are irresponsible and prone to losing focus. This can partially be blamed on administrative policies that ineffectively address the issue of technology usage in the classroom. Students are entirely capable of utilizing technology in a responsible way. In an interview with Mic, Bob Lochel, a math teacher from Pennsylvania put it this way: “Students have these tools [phones] anyway. It’s our responsibility to teach them in a professional way and use the tools responsibly.” By embracing mobile devices and implementing them as a part of their curriculum, teachers could better connect with students. It comes down to nomenclature; instead of referring to phones as distractions teachers should refer to them as tools. This eliminates the lure to use phones purely for entertainment and shows students the educational potential of their devices.I’m going to draw a parallel between something a rock star said and our schools. Describing the CIA’s analysis of how to create lasting peace in northern Nigeria, Bono says,
    “…the best way to stop the militants in the long run is to end extreme poverty in the area and create a better, more inclusive education system, one that Muslims feel they have some stake in.”
    Now, this may be a stretch, but the cultural disconnect that Nigerian Muslims would feel from Western-founded schools in Nigeria is similar to what students feel in the American classroom. The culture that students are a part of, as defined by their experiences on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit, and Facebook (to name a few) is almost entirely absent from the classroom. Like Bono said about the Nigerian Muslims, students feel like they have no stake in their education. The incorporation of mobile devices into curriculum would draw students further into what they’re learning.
  3. Teach us to write effectively for who our audience will be. “Language can be a conduit for beauty and joy.”—Michael H Rand The essay is quickly taking on a new form: the post. This evolution of the written word is flexible, interactive, and effective. It allows for stronger reader comprehension and retention, and a closer relationship between reader and writer.
    “When users are engaged, they spend more time in your app. They open it more frequently. They yearn to see what’s going to happen next. They tell friends about it. They share it on social networks. In a nutshell, they’re just better and happier users. Who doesn’t want that?”—Jeff Solomon
    Solomon’s description of the effects of user interaction with an app sounds similar to the goals of an essay, doesn’t it? Because it is. The kind of reader-writer interaction that takes place in a post is almost impossible to replicate in printed media. English teachers should be teaching HTML, not MLA. The current focus on written essays teaches (semi-effectively at best) content development. However, writing is no longer constrained by paper. To successfully influence an audience in the 21st century, a writer needs to be able to develop material that is not only content-rich but visually pleasing and user experience-oriented. Pen and paper can’t do that.
  4. Stop destroying our teachers. I have had more teachers that I’ve loved than teachers that I haven’t. Teachers are some of the most inspiring people that I’ve met, and their ability to engage students with the restraints they have is astonishing. But they are so, so tired.I don’t know how teachers manage to raise a family, maintain personal relationships, and do their jobs with the 24 hours a day that they have. They are vastly underpaid. It is despicable that our society undervalues the people that we entrust with the education of our children. Teachers fight against misguided parents, state-mandated testing, curriculum requirements, archaic administration models, and a lack of resources. And I love them for it. I think the way I do because of the teachers that have been a part of my life, and the same goes for everyone on this site. Regardless of the state of our schools, there are teachers out there who are trying.
I get frustrated as often as any other student with my teachers. But I can honestly say that everything I’ve said in this piece would be entirely impossible without teachers being there to implement and promote a shift like this. So what’s holding them back?  
Jonah Steele is a student and an original version of this post appeared on his blog.
Jonah Steele is a student and writes on his blog at Medium.

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