Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Customized Education. Not Standardized.

It is with a great deal of passion and desperation that I write this post. I have seen the crushing blow of a standardized education, both personally and professionally. And it is damaging to our kids. We know this. Experts tell us that we need to change course. Deb MeierYong ZhaoWilliam SchubertKen RobinsonMadeline LevineAlfie Kohn, and dozens of others share irrefutable evidence that we must revolutionize the journey in public education. 

We have got to move beyond standardization. 

Why? We are damaging our young adults. 

How? As all the above experts have attested, we are hurting their social, cognitive, psychological, and emotional growth. By having our teens/young adults fit into a "one-size-fits-all" educational experience, we force their brains to conform to a predetermined set of academic standards, removing what makes each person special. But what's worse, we are quite literally hurting them physiologically. 

During ages 12 to 25, the brain is going through what is called synaptic pruning. This process includes axons becoming more insulated with myelin (which increases transmission speed), dendrites growing twiggier, heavily used synapses growing stronger, rarely used synapses withering and the brain’s cortex becoming thinner and more efficient. All of these changes create an incredibly sophisticated organ. It is a slow, clumsy process. Teens need years of practice to learn to use their brain’s new networks. But the key here is that if we simply try to control their behavior, rather than embrace this process by giving them opportunities to explore, we will forever turn off the areas that make each child unique.

David Dobbs does a wonderful job of painting the teen/young adult brain in a positive light in his article Beautiful Brains (National Geographic, October 2011). (A summary of the article is here in the New York Times.) We typically hear about the impulsive, idiotic, emotional, rebellious behavior of our youth. But in fact, during this brain transition process, they are in a position to really fly, if we would only view this time as magnificent rather than a time for discipline and control. 

"We're so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period."

And because our teens/young adults brains are going through the physiological changes described above, we need to offer them creative opportunities to investigate themselves in a way that they are only really capable of exploring at this time in their lives.

Three ways educators can help:
  1. Let Them Socialize! We have got to get out of their way. It is still the norm to see a classroom set up in a way where the teacher is talking and the students are recording. We're wanting to "get through the content." But the teen/young adult brain prefers "...the company of other teenagers because they are designed to invest in the future rather than the past. And they perceive a social crisis as a threat to their very existence because, on a neural level, our brains react to peer exclusion much as they respond to threats to physical health or food supply.” Simply put, social engagement in a learning community is critical. If we don't allow for this growth, students will "starve."
  2. Give Them Something New! How fatigued with the institution of education students must be by the time they get to high school and college. We are slowly testing them out of curiosity and creativity, and it's evident by the time they begin 9th grade. They just want to know what they have to know so they can check it off a list. But, "...we all like new and exciting things, but we never value them more highly than we do during adolescence." Typically, thrill-seeking is only interpreted as dangerous. But perhaps we can offer opportunities for this to be constructive. This age is open to new experiences. So let's give them some. Engage them in relevant, meaningful tasks where they get to work with peers on a challenging, exciting problem. Etc. Let's practice creative teaching.
  3. Embrace Flexibility! We are all a bit eager for the last part of the adolescent brain to finish developing. The frontal lobe. But perhaps we shouldn't be in such a hurry. The frontal lobe develops to increase speed in decision making. But with speed, you lose flexibility. By customizing education for the children who cross our paths, we allow for them to practice flexible, creative problem solving and prepare for an unpredictable future. 
We customize our own lifestyles in terms of diet, exercise, intellectual challenge, spiritual fulfillment, social engagement, etc. We find a balance that nurtures our well-being in all areas. We need to do the same for and with our students.


Sarah said...

The concept of standardizing is really interesting but bad, I agree. Hopefully, the system will develop (for the better) out of standardizing.

Sarah said...

Before reading this, I was very unfamiliar with the concept of standardizing, but now I find it equally interesting and bad. Hopefully the school system will see the error of their ways and develop a better education style.

Daniel said...

Standardization, I will agree, hurts us a lot. As a student who has to live in this standardized system, however, I've learned to pick up things on my own -- going home and looking up something I'd like to learn (this is how I learned to program, among other things). Perhaps pushing students to learn independently would be the first step to a better educational experience for all?