American schools are in crisis. Students are graduating without the qualities that many employers most desire – creativity, open-mindedness, flexibility and the ability to think on one’s feet.
Alas, schools have become institutions rather than learning centers. By focusing on tests and getting students prepared for them, the only true skill students learn is how to take a test, which is not learning at all. Recently, educators in China commented on the fact that they’ve been trying to revolutionize their teaching methods to be more conducive to learning by teaching students to think, but that they noticed America going backwards and using methods that China is trying to get away from like rote memorization and just learning facts and figures to be able to score well on a test.
According to Yale psychological researcher Dorothy Singer, schools have even gone so far as to start drilling pre-schoolers on basic fundamentals so that they will “place well” when they do start school. In exchange, they are cutting back on play-time. Yet, according to many researchers, play time helps children develop their imaginations. Make-believe play helps kids develop their emotional and cognitive capacities so that they can be more creative, open minded, flexible and quick-thinking – precisely the life skills necessary to succeed.
How can we change this trend? The main goal of schools should be to inspire curiosity and help students discover what makes them happy, and then allow them a safe space to develop the skills they need to do what they love. Every child has a unique set of gifts. Truly successful people are those who know what they are born to do and do it. The great tragedy is going through school and never having exposure to, and therefore never having the opportunity to discover and share these talents. Rather than cutting out art, music, wood/metal shop, auto mechanics, home economics and other programs considered “non-essential,” schools should offer the greatest variety of classes possible so that students have a chance to discover what they are passionate about and have a talent for.
The reality is, not every child is good in math or science or the subjects that many people feel are “more essential.” But what if these very same children happened to be great at carpentry or singing but never found that out because these classes had been cut from their school curriculum? Many students skip class and drop out of school because they really have no inspiration to attend.
Rainier Beach High School had pretty low test scores and terrible student attendance. They decided to start a performing arts curriculum but the requirement was, in order to participate, students had to show up for all their regular classes, too. The turn-around was amazing. Students involved with this program suddenly found something they were passionate about and they knew that the only way to stay in the program was to show up for school and they did. And what do you know? Test scores for the school improved, too. What a difference inspiring kids to actually want to go to school made.
So maybe the best way to bridge the gap in encouraging our youth to want to learn and achieve those highly employable skills is if schools reflected those same qualities of creativity, open-mindedness and flexibility in their curriculum development.