Innovative Education

“Students are not problems that need to be solved; they are people who can develop solutions to problems.”

I’ve been turning these ideas over in my head for months, but when this sentence popped into my head I felt like it summed up much of my thinking and also provided a litmus test for “innovative education”.  For the most part, the public school education that I grew up with treated me, and my classmates, as problems to be solved.  We needed to get into colleges. We needed to learn to write papers. We needed to learn the scientific method. We needed to learn a countless number of skills, acquire heaps of knowledge, and accumulate countless credentials that would then allow us to be successful.

The classics tasks to train students for all this included tests, quizzes, worksheets, papers, presentations, and the like. By and large, the only purpose of any of these assessments was to show that we had gained those particular skills.  At its best, the tasks were similar enough to approximate real work that eventually we could make that transition.  At worst, the tasks didn’t even impart lasting skills or knowledge and ended up being simply busy-work.

Imagine a young child who wants to help his parent cook dinner.  Imagine if that child was told that cooking involved chopping vegetables, so in order to prepare for that task he can practice cutting a wooden block.  This scenario is ridiculous, and yet teachers often assign tasks to students that have no purpose other than a supposed benefit to the student from doing the task.

To give an example, as a teacher I often asked students to write reports on particular subjects. We would talk about why it was important for the students to do their own research, paraphrasing, and not to plagiarize others. What we wouldn’t talk about was why this needed to be done at all. In almost every case, a report on the students’ subjects already existed, even if only on Wikipedia. We all knew this, but still insisted that students write new reports themselves.

Innovative education is about making learning relevant to kids by helping them identify and solve authentic problems. This does not necessarily mean ‘real-world’ problems; it means problems that matter to the kids. There may be problems that the teacher cares about but the students find uninteresting – these are not authentic in that context. In contrast, there are problems that may be fictional or matter only to one particular child, but because that kids cares about it the problem becomes meaningful and authentic.