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K-12 Education: Out With the Old—in With the New
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
"What the best and wisest parent wants
for his own child, that we must want for all of the children of the
community.” (John Dewey; American philosopher, psychologist, and
educational reformer; 1859-1952.)
You have heard the expression, “Out with the old—in with the new.” In
K-12 education, the old has served us well, but new ideas are always
being put forth. As we work to improve our educational system, we must
make judicious decisions about what to keep and what to replace.
In this IAE Newsletter, I
explore aspects of our current K-12 schools that I believe can be
changed or replaced in a manner that will being more joy to students
and improve their education. Keep in mind, however, that it is not so
easy to do the following:
Make good decisions on what to remove, and what to add or
Actually be successful in implementing these improvements.
The new may be based on
progress in technology. Certainly the progress in Information and
Communication Technology (ICT) has been accompanied with a very large
number of proposals on how to make effective use of ICT to improve
education. Or, the new may be based on educational research. For
example, we certainly know a great deal more about cognitive
neuroscience (brain science) than we did 20 years ago. Other sources of
new lie in progress in medicine, genetic engineering, issues of
sustainability of the various life forms on earth, achieving global
cooperation in dealing with global warming, and so on.
ICT provides interesting and challenging examples. Let’s use a
Smartphone for an example. Worldwide production of Smartphones is now
at a rate of over a billion a year, or about one for every seven people
on earth. In the “developed” nations, they are ubiquitous. For the most
part, children and adults manage to learn to use them without the
benefit of formal schooling. Frequently, children who are self taught
or who learn from other children develop a range of Smartphone
knowledge and skills exceeding that of many adults.
Here is a fundamental three-part Smartphone question:
What problems and tasks can a Smartphone-equipped person
effectively deal with better than a person who does not have such an
How important are these problems and tasks to the person in their
everyday life, and to the education of the person?
How are our schools making use of what students + Smartphones can
learn to do together?
More generally, educators need to better understand how much transfer of learning occurs from an
informal educational environment to the formal schooling environment.
How might schools better help students to understand such transfer of
learning and to take advantage of it in school and in their lives
outside of school?
These are not simple questions and they do not have simple answers.
However, the capabilities and “smartness” of Smartphones (also tablet
computers, computerized games, and so on) are steadily increasing, so
the challenge to our current educational system is growing. We
recognize the joy and other benefits that Smartphones bring to the
lives of many students but we see many school districts strongly
resisting use of Smartphones in school. Some Examples from Will Richardson’s Article
Will Richardson has recently written a provocative
article, Nine Elephants in the (Class) Room that Should “Unsettle” Us
(Richardson, 4/13/2016). This section briefly discusses some of his
ideas. To a large extent, each of the nine elephants that Richardson
addresses is an example of the heritage of our current educational
system, and they tend to decrease joy in education.
Forget Most of What They "Learn" in School
All adults know this. They need only think back to what they “learned”
in various courses and grade levels, and how much they still remember.
I was shocked many years ago when my older daughter took a freshman
calculus course and would come to me for help from time to time. I—with
my doctorate in math—had trouble with some of the details of the
material that I had not used for many years.
As Richardson notes:
primarily because the curriculum and classroom work they experience has
little or no relevance to students’ real lives…. Yet we continue
to focus our efforts primarily on content knowledge, as is evidenced by
the focus of our assessments. If we would acknowledge that true
learning is unforgettable, made of the things that we want to learn
more about, we’d radically shift our focus in the classroom. [Bold
added for emphasis.]
Richardson’s assertion is challenged by modern research. The research
suggests we forget quite a bit, but we also remember quite a bit
(Willingham, Fall, 2015). Quoting from the reference:
We certainly forget things over time,
and there’s no reason to expect that what students learn in school
should be any exception. But take heart: we don’t forget everything,
and under some conditions, we remember nearly everything. Researchers
have some understanding of why we’re likely to overestimate what we’ve
forgotten. And most important, there is some evidence that the memory
of what we’ve learned in school matters—and actually makes us smarter.
As students progress through school, a substantial portion of their
time is spent on content that is not immediately useful to them. They
memorize a lot, make immediate use of some of what they memorize, and
over time forget a great deal of what they have memorized.
The advent of computer technology has made a considerable portion of
school content available so a person can quickly look the information
up electronically. For example, I find it helpful to know that the U.S.
has 50 states, and that each state has a name and a capital city. Is it
important that off the top of my head I be able to name all 50 states
and their capitals?
I know that states have counties or parishes. Hmm. My computer just
told me that there are 3,142 counties and county equivalents in the
U.S. I think that at one time I could name the 36 counties in my home
state of Oregon, but certainly I can no longer do that. (And, I lived
in Wisconsin and Michigan for a number of years without feeling the
need to remember the names of all of their counties.) So, a continuing
question is, “What to memorize and what to depend on just looking it
One thing is clear to me. We can do better in integrating school
content across the curriculum. For example, math and science are
part of essentially every discipline of study. We teach them as
isolated subjects and we do poorly in integrating student math and
science knowledge and skills into the rest of the curriculum.
Schools Are Not Set Up to Produce Deep, Long-lasting Learning
Quoting again from Richardson:
When we look at the things that each of
us has learned most deeply in our lives, the same certain conditions
almost always apply: Among other things, we had an interest and a
passion for the topic, we had a real, authentic purpose in learning it,
we had agency and choice, deciding what, when, where, and with whom we
learned it, and we had fun learning it even if some of it was “hard
The “hard fun” reference is to an article by Seymour Papert, a pioneer
in use of computers in school (Papert, n.d.). Papert was a wizard at
using the Logo programming language to create joyful learning
experiences in schools, especially at the elementary school level.
Learning can be (and often is) hard work. But intrinsic motivation and
success in using one’s new knowledge and skills can often help to turn
this hard work into hard fun.
Note that Richardson is focusing on what might be called “pure”
academic content. He does not discuss the many aspects of schooling
that prepare students for their current and future lives. For example,
students make friends in school, and they learn to work together with
fellow students. They learn about cooperation, sharing, helping others
to learn, and learning from each other. These are all continuing and
very important aspects of bringing students together for long periods
of informal and formal interaction.
of Our Curriculum Are Archaic
Richardson says this more poetically as follows:
The way we talk about “The Curriculum”
you would think that it was something delivered on a gold platter from
on high. In reality, [for U.S. schools] it was pretty much written by
10 middle-aged white guys (and their primarily white, middle-aged
friends) in 1894 called “The Committee of Ten.” They were from some of
the most prestigious schools and universities at the time, and they
fashioned the structure of much of what we still teach in schools today
It is easy to be critical of the work of “The Committee of Ten” done
more than 120 years ago. This work definitely advanced secondary school
education in the U.S. However, it also solidified some ideas that have
Ten-person subcommittees worked in each of ten different discipline
areas. In math, for example, the Committee’s five reports were:
General statement of conclusions.
Special report on the teaching of arithmetic.
Special report on the teaching of concrete geometry.
Special report on the teaching of algebra.
Special report on the teaching of formal geometry.
Over the years we made changes to this set of recommendations, but they
continue to weigh heavily on the math curriculum.
Currently, the typical grades 9-12 secondary school provides students
with two years of algebra, a year of geometry, a year of pre-calculus
(calculus prep) topics, and calculus. (Increasingly, the first year of
algebra is offered in the eighth grade.) Over the past 50 years the
math recommendations have been shoved downward a year and new content
has been added.
However, it seems clear that this “college track” math curriculum is
not meeting the needs of a great many college-bound students. Evidence
of this is provided by the fact that the majority of students who
graduate from high school and begin college are forced to take remedial
math courses based on their math placement test scores.
In addition, at the current time the “average” adult in the U.S.
performs at about the eighth grade level in math. This is despite the
fact that 90 percent of U.S. adults have completed high school or a GED
(U.S. Census, n.d.).
In a completely different academic area, we definitely have made
progress in modernizing the curriculum. In languages, Greek and Latin
used to be required for admission to many colleges, and so were
emphasized at the precollege level. That is no longer the case. Other Examples
Substantial research tells us that the sleep patterns of teenagers are
different from those of younger and older people. Many adolescents
suffer from sleep deprivation (National Sleep Foundation, n.d.).
Quoting from this site:
Teens are among those least likely to
get enough sleep; while they need on average 9 1/4 hours of sleep per
night for optimal performance, health and brain development, teens
average fewer than 7 hours per school night by the end of high school,
and most report feeling tired during the day. The roots of the problem
include poor teen sleep habits that do not allow for enough hours of
quality sleep; hectic schedules with afterschool activities and jobs,
homework hours and family obligations; and a clash between societal demands, such as
early school start times, and biological changes that put most teens on
a later sleep-wake clock. As a result, when it is time to wake
up for school, the adolescent’s body says it is still the middle of the
night, and he or she has had too little sleep to feel rested and alert.
[Bold added for emphasis.]
Here is a statement from the American Medical Association (June 17,
The AMA, the nation's largest group of
physicians, has just announced a new policy encouraging middle and high
schools to start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m. This position echoes
that of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, and other leading health associations that
recognize the research supporting later bell times.
"While implementing a delayed school start time can be an emotional and
potentially stressful issue for school districts, families, and members
of the community, the health benefits for adolescents far outweigh any
potential negative consequences," noted AMA Board Member William E.
From time to time I see news items that a school district is
changing to a later start time for secondary school students
(Macintosh, July 22, 2015):
In a surprise move designed to save
$9.2 million by "streamling" bus routes, the Chicago Public Schools
(CPS) just announced they will be shifting 60 high schools to 9 a.m.
openings and 17 elementary schools to earlier openings of 7:30 or 7:45
a.m. According to recent press coverage, the routes involved will go
from three bus "tiers" to two. CPS announced the change less than two
months before the start of school and without public input. Interesting
how quickly a school system - even a large one - can make a decision
like this when it ostensibly involves saving money!
Notice that the reason given was “to save $9.2 million” rather than “to
better meet the health needs of high school students”!
On a somewhat related subject, have you thought about why most school
“years” are only nine months in length? It is certainly not because students’ brains need a
yearly three-month rest. We developed the nine months school year when
farmers needed their children’s help in the fields during the summer.
That time is long past.
For another example, consider the teaching of non-English languages in
U.S. schools. The research strongly supports starting this instruction
at as young an age as possible—for example, kindergarten,
pre-kindergarten, or still earlier. While we have some language
emersion schools that follow this idea, most of our non-English
language instruction begins when students are much older—and when their
brains have substantially reduced language-learning capabilities.
Quoting from Jeanette Vos’s article, Can Preschool Children Be Taught a
Second Language? (Vos, 2008):
For years it has been thought that
teaching a foreign language to preschool-age children would be futile.
However, recent studies indicate that the best time for a child to
learn another language is in the first three to four years of life.
"During this period and especially the first three years of life, the
foundations for thinking, language, vision, attitudes, aptitudes, and
other characteristics are laid down," says Ronald Kotulak, author of
Inside the Brain. Consequently, it would be a waste not to use a
child's natural ability to learn during his or her most vital years,
when learning a second language is as easy as learning the first.
Many bilingual and trilingual people experience joy in their language
communication skills and knowledge of a second and/or third culture.
Interestingly, research indicates that there are cognitive advantages
of this linguistic achievement (Chan, 6/14/2014; Nacamulli, 6/2/2015).
The latter reference is a 5-minute video that I found to be quite
Final Remarks I don’t know about you, but when I start on a car trip I tell my
Smartphone my starting point and destination. As I drive, my Smartphone
tells me where to turn, how far I still have to go, and how long this
is apt to take. The capabilities of today’s cars continue to improve,
and eventually most people will be riding in self-driving cars. These
aids to driving are only one of the many ways that ICT is changing our
When I have a question that other people are apt to have studied and
answered, I communicate with my Smartphone or computer and am quite
likely to be provided with a useful answer. Think of this as my
computer working with me to solve problems and accomplish tasks better
than either of us can do alone.
It is vitally important that a modern education prepares students to
solve problems and accomplish tasks using both their own physical and
cognitive capabilities, and the physical and cognitive capabilities of
machines. Yet, in many schools we are doing a very poor job of
preparing students to make effective use of the rapidly growing
cognitive capabilities of computers.
It also is important that we pay attention to the joy that so many of
our students find in exploring the capabilities of their computer,
Smartphone, and other electronic tools. Wouldn’t it be grand to bring
much of this joy into our classrooms?
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE Newsletter.
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
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