Why we aren’t doomed

My holiday conversations with family and friends often involve “the state of American education”. There’s some doom and gloom surrounding the performance of US students when compared with other nations in math and science. It’s understandable to be nervous about the future when so much is changing so quickly, and that we want to prepare as well as we can.

I am not nervous. I know that things will change for the worse in some ways. I also know that technology and the ‘global intelligence’ provides an accelerating capacity to make changes for the better. Predictions of these changes would not be accurate, even if we tried really hard.

Three things in which I believe:

1. People are resilient and resourceful, and this diminishes with age. Young people adapt better than old folks – like myself.

2. The principles that provide the foundation for success do not change with time. It has been, and always will be some combination of these traits:

  • the mental practice of searching for and evaluating information,
  • the maturity to create an appropriate response to that information, and
  • the motivation and drive to execute the chosen response

3. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Point #1 won’t change. Point #3 unfolds on its own – it’s hard to ‘force’ necessity. Point #2 are things that can be learned in school, out of school, out in “the wild” (playgrounds, streets, etc), or (most likely) some combination of the the three. They aren’t easy lessons, but they can be learned anywhere. With them, everything is possible, ESPECIALLY in the face of change. Without them, our communities don’t really flourish – it’s more survival. In both scenarios, the “safety value” is Point #3. If things get REALLY bad, people need to make amazing things happen, and they will do it.

Point #2 is a part of US culture to some degree, and part of human nature. In American educational systems, we focus on Point #2 to some degree. For this reason, other countries still look to US education to see what we do. Also, while there’s focus, fear, and mania on standards, we continue to create better educational methods. The efforts to create national standards (Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS), even if you disagree with them, seem like they are being developed with the intent to incorporate wisdom and democracy with these latest methods. I’ll elaborate on NGSS in another post.

For now, I’m satisfied knowing that educational methods are making good progress. Teachers may not adopt new skills overnight, but students are constantly learning new things outside of school too. I know that a clever person will always be able to enter a job and begin to make a difference by learning the needed skills.

In summary, my forecast for my personal holiday vignettes about education is “mostly sunny”. Happy winter, everyone!

-Phil

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