A Sub-Standard Solution

America is a country of reinvention. Owing to its youth, it is fuelled by change. From the Pony Express to the Postal Service to email. From the Wright Brothers to Boeing's Dreamliner. America invents, adapts and improves.

The education system is the exception. While the U.S.'s university system was recently ranked the best in the world, there is a growing chasm between primary school and university. In fact, Americans' faith in the public school system is at an all time low.

The U.S. employs essentially the same education system as it has for the past 150 years. The factory-model classroom was designed to prepare students for work in a growing industrial society. Standardized testing compounds the issue. The system mandates that there is a right or wrong answer to a problem -- ignoring the multitude of possibilities in between.

In the standardized system, all subjects are not created equal. Science and engineering get short shrift over reading and math. The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (an exam administered by the US Department of Education) showed that just 32% of students tested above proficient in science.

The consequences of this shortfall are far-reaching. U.S. manufacturers blame their 600,000 unfilled positions on the lack of qualified workers. It is not demand for products that is hindering private companies -- more than half say they are stifled by the skills gap. The situation is similar in the UK, too.

It is a complex issue that requires a creative solution where we encourage students to be both practically and mentally dexterous. New ideas are not born out of read and repeat. Practical learning gives context to what -- on paper -- can appear as difficult scientific principles. Geometry and physics, for example, come to life when students build elastic powered cardboard drag racers.

I've seen this in the UK, where design and technology -- which teaches a wide range of practical, technical and creative skills -- is part of the national curriculum. My Foundation is introducing many of these concepts to the U.S., challenging young students in Chicago to build prototypes in engineering workshops. At first it's alien -- it is the first time that many students have been given the opportunity to problem solve practically and build something. For all we know, it is the first time they've been encouraged to fail.

As an inventor, I've made more mistakes than I care to mention. Without fail (forgive me), success is the last step in a series of cock-ups. To me, that is the greatest missed opportunity in education. I'd go as far to say we should award marks for good mistakes. Success may satisfy, but failure drives a hunger. It teaches you to improve. But, standardization breeds a risk-averse society: memorize the answers and avoid failure at any cost. Depressing, and not exactly conducive to the next big idea. Scientific and technological revolutions result from breaking the status-quo, not box-ticking.

I once saw a team of students take on a design flaw with bunk beds: how to easily get to the top bunk. Their first iteration was a flop -- they realized their idea to make an adjustable bed would wind up crushing the sleeper on the bottom bunk. A rethink was needed! So they redesigned the bottom bunk to adjust simultaneously --it was pulled to the side, as the top bunk was lowered down. The improvement gave the top sleeper easy access and left the bottom sleeper safe and his slumber undisturbed.

There is a shift occurring. Many organizations, schools and states are now thinking that hands-on is better than pencils down and finding new ways to buck the system. Students at Standford's Institute for Design, for example, are launching a Kickstarter-funded SparkTruck to bring practical engineering workshops to students through a mobile tour. Other organizations, like the Cooper Hewitt Museum and FIRST Robotics are bringing design and engineering activities into the classroom.

In Minnesota, the state department of education mandated that engineering education be included in the curriculum. Even further, teachers are integrating practical lab activities based in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Even in learning-by-doing, there are milestones students must achieve -- performance is still measured. For example, a fourth-grader must identify and explore a design item that solves an everyday problem. Proficiency isn't measured with a letter grade, it's gained through experience.

Other states are just saying no to standardized tests, with school boards in Texas and Florida working to scale back testing. And, in Washington, over 500 children boycotted the state-instituted tests in protest.

Still, Florida spent nearly $60 million simply to administer standardized tests. States should spend money to get students making things, not ticking boxes. Bold action and support is needed to take on the antiquated system. Traditional education encourages traditional students. But children can be extraordinary if they are allowed to express themselves and make mistakes. By changing tests to experiments and encouraging thinking not repeating, there can be a revolution in American education where learning is not about the answers, but discovery. It's long overdue.