School’s Out for Summer: Rethinking Education for the 21st Century

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Classroom picture copyright AlexandreNunes

If you have school-age children, you already know how hard it can be to get them to quit playing their video games and settle down to their school work. And with the summer upon us, it’s frightening to imagine how little time most children will invest to advance their knowledge and intellect in the next 80 days.

However, imagine education that is as entertaining and addictive as video games. Sound far-fetched? I believe that this is exactly the idea — driven by dynamic innovation and entrepreneurism — that will help bring our education system out of the stone ages.

Indeed, our education system is obsolete. For starters, we are educating students under a system based on industrial-age thinking, where they advance to the next level based on their age, not ability. Some children are naturally good at one subject and can master it quickly but may take a little longer to comprehend a different subject. It’s astounding that we are advancing children on a fixed-time basis, leaving our exceptional students to languish for a full year and our challenged students to struggle and yet advance.

Further, the school year is structured to adhere to the needs of a bygone era when kids had to work on farms in the summer months. Yet less than 5 percent of Americans live on farms today. Injecting a long period of downtime into the school year, students lose critical ground during their months off from school.

Also bewildering, our system is fundamentally rooted in a curriculum-based approach, rather than focusing on the strengths of individual students. No two children are alike — nor do they learn best the same way. Some children learn logically, some learn conceptually, some learn visually and some learn experimentally. Put simply, our education system is currently teacher-centric, as opposed to student-centric.

And please don’t get me started on “No Child Left Behind.” It might as well be called “All Children Left Behind.” This system of standardized, rote learning that teaches to a test is exactly the type of education our children don’t need in this world that is plagued by systemic, pervasive and confounding global challenges. Today’s education system does not focus enough on teaching children to solve real world problems and is not interdisciplinary, nor collaborative enough in its approach.

That said, once we identify the reasons why our current system fails us, I believe we can disrupt education with innovation and a series of creative opportunities. And indeed, I do appreciate how next-to-impossible it would be to create a wholesale change in today’s education system, given the entrenched bureaucracy and infrastructure in place. Instead, I believe that we — as innovators, entrepreneurs and parents — need to begin introducing these opportunities in ways that we already control and can mold into our own, such as home schooling, charter schools and extracurricular education in public schools.

By providing alternatives, we can bring a startup culture to education that, once proven, will spill over into our mainstream system. Think of it like the PC, which became the dominant means of computing for many decades. The PC started essentially as a glorified word processor and then gradually began taking on more and more tasks and functions of day-to-day business until it became the default mechanism for computing.

In the same way, offering alternative education models outside of the system will help change things over time by infusing new methods and technologies into the system. We can begin to create an evolution — not a revolution — that will gradually help change education as we know it.

Here are just a few ideas that we can implement in this way:

Identify New Skills

Let’s encourage entrepreneurs to come up with new skills and offerings that will prepare our children for the future. If our own schools continue to fail to offer real-world skills, why not let startup organizations offer them as extracurricular activities? They could entail teaching students everything from interactive Chinese language lessons to software coding that involves gaming applications. Such offerings will also help target and attract motivated students who want to get the edge with better results and admission to better colleges.

Make Learning Addictive

A better education system uses gaming platforms that are immersive, effective, engaging and viral. I believe we will have won the education battle once we as a society can figure out a way to teach that actually engages children and gets them to learn in a fully immersive and addictive environment. We can make learning addictive and must continue to explore the use of videogames and interactive products in education. Let me give you an example. The innovative online game FoldIt, for example, lets people of all ages and skill levels try their hand at determining the structures of key proteins, by letting them tweak, shake and wiggle on screen shapes. With our brains’ ability to pattern-match and engage in spatial reasoning, humans are often better than computers at solving such problems, which scientific researchers need to help them come up with targeted therapies for ailments such as AIDS and cancer. FoldIt harnesses people’s natural interest in game playing into something that could help mankind. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness that same kind of energy to make our children more excited about learning?

Adapt to the Way Students Learn

We urgently need to adjust to how students learn and develop adaptive teaching methodologies that are targeted at the individual. Our system is based on standardization, but everyone knows there is no average child because they are all different, and our education system needs to be adaptive to this reality. We also need to allow children to solve real world problems using an interdisciplinary approach in a collaborative manner. Students must be offered multiple curriculum options to allow them to learn in a way that suits their individual learning style while still aiming for mastery of the same subject matter. By embracing these challenges as an opportunity to rethink education, we can apply creative solutions such as flexible learning schedules, multidisciplinary initiatives and multiple curriculum offerings to allow students to learn in a way that best matches their individual learning style.

Whether our public schools then adapt these ideas at a slower or faster rate remains to be seen and is difficult to predict. But inevitably, they will disrupt education. There may be many different models that work for different students and different types of learning.

In this new education paradigm, students will get a far better education because the rote learning will be assigned out to computers and avatars, and the teachers can focus on coaching students through the more complex challenges. For their part, students would see school the same way they see videogames — an addictive activity they just can’t stop doing. I believe the future holds this in store if we listen to the best new entrepreneurial ideas and utilize technologies that bring our education system forward.

Naveen Jain is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, visionary and technology pioneer. He is the award-winning founder of World Innovation Institute, Moon Express, Infospace, Intelius and inome. For Naveen’s complete biography, visit www.naveenjain.com.


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