America is under the microscope. Other countries are looking closely to see if we can increase our international competitiveness, and it's evident that we need more students completing high school and college, more grads pursuing graduate degrees, and more learners earning better grades. In my talks with educators all over the U.S., it is clear to me that mainstream methods of teaching and assessment create a counter-productive environment that fails to produce the students we need to be competitive. One example is the 1.2 million students who leave high school every year without a diploma. This is a tremendous waste of human and economic potential for students and for society as a whole.
We have to break out of our current downward spiral. Critics are looking for someone to blame and often target "bad" teachers. As part of this mindset, we spend billions on programs such as No Child Left Behind and craft assessment programs with good intentions. But such policies handcuff teachers instead of helping them to promote creativity, problem solving, and the other skills we need to instill in our learners.
We have to put more trust in teachers. They should be free to spend less time on content delivery and teaching for the tests, and more time engaging and inspiring the next generation to reach their full potential. We should also shift our assessment of learning to focus on the knowledge, skills, outcomes, and other attributes necessary for a competitive society.
School boards and administrators need to reduce the hours instructors spend putting content on the blackboard and increase the time they have to assist students one-on-one or in small groups. This is the best way to nurture learners' curiosity and deal with individual difficulties. When educators do this, the education system is more effective and students achieve better results.
The basic problem is that even though we have become a technology economy, much of our education system reflects yesterday's industrial economy. Teaching is based on a one-size-fits-all approach in which the educator is viewed as the "sage on the stage." The teacher gives a lecture, while students take notes. The teacher then gives exams in an effort to assess how accurately the students have memorized the information.
But rote memorization and regurgitation are not the skills employers want. Our assessment systems need to change to better measure the outcomes we are ultimately striving to achieve. Employers -- and students -- are asking for skills such as the ability to use digital tools to collaborate, research, assess, assimilate, and synthesize information.
A recent study by Hart Research Associates noted, "More than three in four employers say they want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings."
Such objectives are reachable, and low-cost computing devices can help make this happen. As the cost of technology goes down and the power of microprocessors goes up, digital tools open the door to new teaching techniques that make better use of educators' knowledge, skills, and time. For example, when every student has 24/7 access to an Internet-connected laptop, tablet, or smartphone, the educator can "flip" the classroom. Instructors prerecord their lectures on video or other forms of multimedia to allow students to engage with the material before coming to class.
So instead of listening to a lecture, class time is spent on discussions, problem solving, or other engaging activities. Instructors work with individual students on their unique challenges. The result is a more interactive and enjoyable experience for both instructors and students.
Computing devices can also offload routine and memory-intensive work from teachers. The routine information which has been at the forefront of much conventional teaching is now available online. This includes information such as math tables, the capital cities of the 50 states, or chemical formulae. Students using their own interactive, multimedia education programs can learn and retain more facts than they would when teachers laboriously write them on a blackboard.
The software tailors the lesson for each learner according to his or her abilities. If a younger student has trouble learning the multiplication tables, the computer can go back and cover the material again. This approach gives educators more time to work with students individually or in small groups, explaining the principles behind math, science, grammar, or any other discipline so they can gain better context.
Not surprisingly, students are leading the movement to bring technology into the classroom. Increasingly, students use their phones to take pictures of material on the blackboard rather than writing it down. The obvious way of shortening this process would be to have information available online to begin with.
Educators are the heart of the learning system, and they deserve a technological infrastructure that enables them to do their best and frees them to help students discover knowledge, explore their curiosity, and reach their unique potential. Encouraging and providing opportunities for partnerships between teachers and the new technologies allows for superior teaching, and that means grades would improve and fewer students would drop out.