If you’re anything like me, you watch shows like Eureka on the Syfy channel and Big Bang Theory on NBC and think – some of this stuff is way over my head. Particle physics, string theory, artificial intelligence… those things are for geniuses, which definitely excludes me. But watching a recent Ted Talk made me think maybe we don’t give ourselves and our kids enough credit. Maybe a place like Eureka could actually exist if we let it.
For those who may not be familiar with Eureka, it’s a show about a town full of geniuses with genius children, who are learning advanced physics by age 10. That can’t be possible, right? Dr. Sugata Mitra, an educational researcher in India, believes it is, and he has compelling evidence to support his theory. In short, he has video of children in the slums of India learning advanced sciences simply by placing a computer with information in their neighborhood. Even more amazing than learning the advanced scientific principles were the hurdles they had to overcome to even get to the information. The computer was in English (a language they didn’t speak), and they had no idea how the computer worked.
This got me thinking about the potential hurdles we place in front of our kids that keep them from achieving what the children in the slums of India learned in a matter of months. The major hurdle that came to mind is our education system.
Knowing that this topic can often get overly politicized and very polarizing, I want to stay out of the politics of education, and instead look at the structure and framework of how we have set up our education system. My husband came across a video that, although simplistic, shows the fundamental framework for our current education system – an industrial factory.
The children sit in neat rows while the teacher stands at the front of the classroom, and each student has a textbook that contains all of the knowledge that the teacher wants to transfer. This was a model that was created for a certain time period and worked very well for the time in which it was created. But things have changed a lot, and we are still using that same framework, while trying to make it relevant in today’s environment.
Have you ever read Scott Westerfeld’s series Uglies, Pretties and Specials? Definitely an extreme version of a “factory” type system but still helps to show how the system can hold us back. SPOILER ALERT In the world created by Scott Westfield, society has defined stages that are predetermined by the government. These stages include not only physical alterations to your body but also alterations to the brain. The system ensures that everyone is “equal” and that everyone plays the correct roles at the correct stage. When you are a teenager, you go through the “Pretty” stage; when it is time to be a parent and productive member of society, you go through the “Middle Age” stage; and then the “Grandparent” stage. Although the citizens are not exact clones, they are close enough.
Naturally, no one would argue that we want our kids to be cookie cutouts of one another, and yet, we have a system that is designed to do just that – put knowledge in and have it regurgitated back. Most of human history, books were scarce and there were only a limited number of occupations — this type of education probably made a lot of sense. But now we almost have the opposite problem. The amount of information available at our fingertips is overwhelming, and there are infinite possibilities in terms of what we can do. In fact, one of the most important skills could be the ability to adapt to new paradigms, not regurgitate facts. Facts can be looked up in a book, on a computer, and even on your phone.
As Steve Jobs once said, “Stay hungry; stay foolish.” We need an education system that keeps are children thirsting for more and provides a flexible framework to allow children to advance at their own pace, while still pushing them to succeed. Whether it be Dr. Mitra’s “education in a cloud” or another model based on divergent thinking as discussed by Sir Ken Robinson, we need to open our minds to a different paradigm of education. Maybe the fantasy of a place like Eureka can be closer to reality than we thought!
In closing, I thought I’d share one last video. This one is animation of a song from Harry Chapin called “Flowers are Red.” He may have written these lyrics in the 70’s, but they still hold true today.