The global system of preparing people to make meaningful contributions to society while enjoying economic safety does not work. What if we just started from zero and remade education?
What if the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on education isn’t about new modes of instruction, but instead is the realization that our current system is on a path without a relevant destination?
Every industry clamors for the arrival of a “new normal.” And yet, we would argue that getting back to a “new normal” is the absolute wrong aspiration. After all, normal in terms of global education was pretty dismal in many parts of the pre-Covid-19 world.
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What are we preparing kids for? A seemingly simple—maybe even downright foolish—question to ask is far more complicated than 50 or even 10 years ago. In a world where our knowledge is augmented with a computer in our pockets, what we need to recall is less important that what we need to understand.
In a world where technological innovation is outpacing human adaptability, the skills we learn when we are young will not keep an individual qualified or employed for a lifetime. How we think about education fundamentally has to change to bring about a future where society can thrive and individuals can live productive and meaningful lives.
Our education system is in need of a radical recalibration. What if…
Early childhood education was rooted in discovery and the development of democratic life skills—laying the foundation for years to come. From toddlers in early preschool through fifth grade, our classrooms would be a series of experiences where we learned to be part of a group while maintaining individuality; express emotions; solve problems creatively and independently; and embrace the uniqueness of others. Everything from parks to museums become classrooms supported by “community teachers.” In doing so, education is decoupled from the rote acquisition of knowledge measured by a test, but instead a mastery of skills needed for intelligent and ethical functioning in modern society.
With a successful transition from Pre K-5 to curious, courageous and compassionate citizens, kids entering the 6-8 middle school grades will have the solid foundation necessary to be immersed in radical collaborative problem solving. We historically lose kids in middle school because both the content and learning strategies constantly lack relevance to the learners.
Instead of the traditional memorization of facts and content based on upcoming standardized assessments, let’s instead focus middle school kids into small clusters, rotating through rigorous relevant topics every few weeks—all content linked through a specific area of inquiry to allow students to really be explorers of the content and the potential careers encompassed within. Let the kids solve real-world problems through a rotating hands-on exploration of the content necessary to ensure that when students move to high school, they have all the foundational knowledge necessary to make informed content decisions moving forward.
It is harder to consider 9th grade and beyond, as the approach would be beyond the current structure and aspirations we have for high school. A new high school focus should be on adult and professional education, a “9-14” cluster culminating in a trade vocational or associate degree rather than simply a high school diploma. This would guarantee every graduate not only has demonstrated academic proficiency, but has the skill needed for a middle-class career and a solid foundation into a four-year college experience if they choose.
Looking forward to a return to a “new normal?” Nope—let’s opt for “new.” Let’s rethink our fundamental purpose of Pre K-14 education and aim for a system that views Pre K-5 as fully foundational; 6-8 as exploratory; and 9-14 as a chance for students to experience career options with the intent of finding a passion that can be the career that makes the world a better place for them and their future. Let’s design a system that is agile and can be tailored to all students’ unique learning and career paths. Let’s rethink the school calendar and the way we structure the school “day.” Let’s stop striving to test for facts and instead train to solve complex problems with deep collaboration and diversity as the drivers to ensure we are actually asking ourselves the correct questions that will lead us to a new purpose.
Annalies Corbin is CEO of Past Foundation, an education think tank, and Colin McGinnis is CEO of South Side Early Learning, a nonprofit preschool.
With contributions from Chanel Nelson, Stephen White and Nevin Bansal