Changing Old Habits is Difficult, But Necessary to Stay Competitive

About a month ago I was intrigued to read that Finland was about to embark on one of the most radical education reform programs ever undertaken by a nation state–scraping traditional “teaching by subject” in favor of “teaching by topic”. It was big news because Finland is the first nation to realize that they need to rethink education to equip students with the skills that are necessary for industry and modern society. As revolutionary as it may sound,it was not a great surprise. In the 1970s,Finland’s leaders realized that in order to modernize and be able to be competitive, education reform was the only thing that could save their country from being left behind. They understood that a higher level of excellence could only be achieved with highly educated teachers. What followed was a complete reboot of their teacher training colleges, making them so highly competitive, that only the best and the brightest students were accepted. These days they are one of the top scoring nations in the PISA test and many countries have made pilgrimages to Helsinki in the hope of identifying the secret of their success. What drives them there is the understanding that unless they put more effort into improving education and instilling students with the skills necessary to compete in the global economy, they might be left behind.

Keep the Innovation Lead

Anxious not to lose its innovative lead in the world, the U.S. is taking concrete steps to address the need for change. In one such effort several networks of schools have implemented an approach to promote deeper learning in their schools. Their efforts were followed by The American Institute for Research in a 2012-2013 “Study for Deeper Learning,” concluding that students in deeper learning schools had an advantage of moving from the 50th to 54th or 55th percentile in reading, mathematics, and science as measured by Program for International Student Assessment-Based (PISA) test for schools and compared to non deep-learning schools, students were more academically motivated and engaged, had better collaboration skills, were 9 percent more likely to graduate from high school, and attend four-year colleges and more selective schools.

Delving deeper into these positive outcomes,I was surprised to discover that project-based learning was not implemented evenly across all disciplines. They mentioned that mathematics instruction took a more traditional form than did other subjects. Teachers said that it was much harder to do project-based learning in math because they had to prepare students to the state test. A principal from one of these schools phrased it best:“We plug in project-based work where we can. But in many cases, an algebra class is an algebra class.”

School Math vs. Everyday Math

This chasm between school math–focused on preparing students to master calculation for the state exam and everyday math–focused on problem solving for personal and professional life, was discussed in depth by Conrad Wolfram in a 2010 TED speech titled:“Teaching kids real math with computers.” He says that math is practiced differently in daily life and in school. In daily life math is not done for its own sake, but rather serves as the means to solve problems. The process  starts by posing the right question, turning a real world situation into a formula, using calculations to get results, and turning the formula back into real life, while verifying the results. Schools, on the other hand, focus 80% of their attention on one part of this entire process–the calculation, instead of focusing on steps 1,2 and 4, which can help students develop a more practical and conceptual understanding of math. Before the advent of computers,the focus on calculation was justified because people had no other choice. But in the computer era,teaching calculation makes no sense because computers are doing it more effectively. Also,in the real world math is not necessarily done by mathematicians. It is done across disciplines to solve problems for everyday living.

What Does it Mean to Think Critically?

Why, then are schools so adamant on keeping the old ways? One of the main reasons has to do with the fact that most of us have difficulty grasping the new needs of the 21st century economy. We are accustomed to an industrial age education system focused on memorization of processes that served well the needs of employers back then. However,in the digital age,jobs and the skills needed to address them,have changed fundamentally and cannot be satisfied by the old ways. The skills that employers are looking for these days are part of what we call “21st century skills,” which include:problem solving,critical thinking,communication,collaboration and innovation.  According to the Wall Street Journal,an analysis by has determined that mentions of critical thinking in job postings have doubled since 2009. Yet,many employers complain that they have difficulty finding qualified people for job openings with that skill set.

Technology Supplements Traditional Instruction

There is mounting evidence that teachers have been painfully slow to transform the ways they teach despite a flow of new technology into the classroom. When using technology, they are much more likely to use it to make their own job easier and to supplement traditional instructional strategies than to put students in charge of their own learning, as reported by Education Week in an article titled:“Why EdTech is not Transforming How Teachers Teach.” An example is provided in a study by Michigan State university, in which teachers giving feedback to students’ writing assignments using Google Docs, focused overwhelmingly on issues such as spelling and grammar, completely disregarding the application’s power to support collaborative writing and in-depth feedback. Using technology for its own sake without any specific connection to content learning goals is not likely to become part of the curriculum because its use is not necessary to achieve those learning goals.

What makes technology use in professional life different is that it is always picked based on its ability to help solve the problems at hand. Using technology that does not serve that goal may result in unfavorable financial repercussions. For example, if a business chooses to perform a task by hand that can be done much faster using computers, it may feel the results in its bottom line. Acknowledging that life’s realities dictate the achievement of goals,Finland’s education leaders understood that unless they will focus on the skills that a new economy requires, the outcome may lead to their country’s financial ruin. They also realized that change cannot be incremental, but rather an overhaul of the entire system in line with the requirements of this new digital world.

Reboot Learning

Although our education system is aware of the fundamental change that the digital age brought about and how that changed the requirements for the incoming workforce, they keep forgetting that the final goal of education should be to prepare students for the world that they will be entering into as adults. The common core was designed to shift the focus from memorization to a more thought based learning system, but it is being implemented within the confines of the old system. In a New York Times article, titled “Meet the New Common Core,” the author points out that although the common core is not very popular and is being replaced by several states, what is replacing it is the same thing in a new package. The reason–many parts of the common core are completely aligned with the previous standards. As Wolfram said in his math TED talk,“This is not an incremental change, we are trying to close a chasm here between school math and everyday math. If you walk across a chasm, you make it worse than if you did not start at all.” Instead, he wants to see a complete overhaul of math education that takes into account the new reality of computers. Unless we do what Wolfram suggests here or just like Finland, we realize that this new world requires a complete reboot of the education system,we will fall behind.