For me, the 2011 TEDxNYED event was partially about the educational system in the United States being on the brink of failure, where standardized testing has replaced critical thinking, and bringing students up to (or down to in some cases) a standardized level of achievement has become more important than creating true thinkers and subject mater experts. The other major theme that wove itself into the fabric of the day’s addresses was rethinking the classroom experience by creating a new model by which we can educate our children and enable them to solve the myriad problems that face our country.
I experienced first hand the many issues plaguing our public schools when my son Sam passed through the system over the past four years. It is my belief that between the fifth and eighth grades, he regressed as a student. Now, the standardized tests did not bare my conclusion out – he continued to score in the same percentile range for his grade level as he had earlier in his educational career. But the quality of the work he produced paled in comparison to what was expected of him in the second and thirds grades, and his advancement in the critical areas of math and english wained, as the school failed to engage and challenge his mind. As a result, Sam struggled to adjust to a rigorous educational track when he entered a private, independent high school in September 2010, where he has been honestly challenged for the first time in years. Sam is making the adjustment, and will ultimately succeed, but I fear that he is the exception and not the norm in today’s society. As Samona Tait pointed out in her eloquent talk about her school, Bronx Preparatory Charter, most children won’t get the opportunity my Sam and her students are getting, most will become victims of a broken system.
Speaker Heidi Hayes Jacobs said to best when she railed “we don’t need reform, we need a new form.” Later she quipped “Oral presentations are the low point of our civilization.” I would have to agree.
The thought of building a new approach to education is daunting to many, but if you look to the examples supplied by other presenters at TEDxNYED, you may be convinced, as I was, that a new form is not only possible, but necessary. Dennis Littky, co-founder of Big Picture Learning and the Met Center in Providence has been turning traditional learning styles upside down for the past twenty years, giving students the tools and methods needed, getting out of the way, and letting the students individuality fuel their own learning methods.
Brian Crosby is doing the same. As an upper elementary teacher for 29 years, Brian employs technology and critical thinking skills his students are likely to face to enable them to solve problems by building real-world solutions. Author Patrick Carmen, creator of the multi-platform book series “The 39 Clues” is proving that eschewing tradition forms of literature and offering children a mixed media approach to reading can captivate and educate some of those children who may not be predisposed to picking up a book for pleasure. Finally, Gary Stager proved that any child, no matter how economically impoverished or socially stigmatized, can find excitement in education if we are willing to throw away convention and think outside the box.
There were other speakers as well, and inspirational music provided by singer songwriter Morley, whose haunting melodies and powerful, motivational lyrics helped to galvanize the themes and messages heard throughout the day into our minds. Sticking in my mind is Will Richardson’s message which put an exclamation point on the day; “if this is what they are offering to my children, then no thank you, I don’t want it. We can, and we must do better.” Will urged the audience to take up the crusade, to find our collective voice as educators and form a resistance against government and big business who are pushing for reform to a broken system. A bit of tape and glue will not fix what is wrong, and more standardized testing is certainly not the answer. We must find a way to break through the clutter of regulations that prevent our children from finding their talents and robs them of hope.
We can do better. As Morley empathetically pleaded in the refrain from her song Woman of Hope, “if your feeling helpless, help someone.”