Instructional Designers: Is The American Education Status Important To You?

Instructional Designers: Is The American Education Status Important To You?
Summary: Of course the American education status is important to you; the fate of US schools, US businesses, and the USA itself are inextricably linked. Just don’t shoot the messenger.

Why The American Education Status Is Important To Instructional Designers 

Here are some educational realities, historical and otherwise, that all Americans, especially employers, interested in the American education status should be aware of:

  • What follows shows that our schools are not just still fighting the last war, but the one before that, and that is a big problem for all instructors, trainers, coaches, leaders, and of course students.
  • President Reagan’s education secretary said this in 1983: “If an enemy had inflicted our education system on us we would think of it as an act of war, but since we did it to ourselves we have committed an act of unilateral intellectual disarmament.”
  • In 2007 in a report from a blue ribbon panel “Tough Choices and Tough Times”, the authors wrote “American students and young adults place anywhere from the middle to the bottom of the pack in all three continuing comparative studies of achievement in mathematics, science and general literacy in the advanced industrialized nations”. They were referring to the results from 2006 with the USA ranking 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics among the OECD countries.
  • In 2016 we are now 25th in reading, 36th in math, and 28th in science.
  • A recent Gallup Research poll found that almost half of all students lack hope for the future. Read that sentence twice! They are your children! And half of them feel hopeless!
  • Half of all teachers leave within five years citing working conditions and lack of a voice or autonomy in the way they do their job.
  • Half of all Americans don't consider today's high school dropouts and graduates - most of the new people entering the workforce each year - to be ready for the world of work.

What Is Going On In American Education? 

These are harsh realities, and tough for Americans to read. But in a democracy they must be surfaced, faced and dealt with the same way unemployment or inflation figures must be faced and dealt with. There is no point in denial. The search for solutions is the only valid next step.

Any rational person would begin to look for understanding in the underlying causes – the effects can be seen easily in the facts I laid out in the beginning of this editorial. So, let’s begin with a question: Why is our educational system so dreadful?

  • The first thing to understand is that it is obvious that no single person is to blame. Nobody, American or otherwise, set out to deliberately sabotage our schools. But the facts point to a school system that is in very bad shape, and underserving the needs of students and betraying society at large. America should not be 25th in the world in anything except categories like infectious diseases.
  • The second thing to understand from the evidence is that we as a country cannot continue going down the path our schools are on without disastrous results. And that is exactly what we are doing. Here is an exercise for you that will illustrate the problem graphically.
  • Get an envelope and draw an x and y axis on the back. The vertical axis represents the rankings of the 65 countries PISA surveys for educational achievements  The horizontal axis represents the thirty years from 2000 (the first year PISA ran the test for all nations) to 2030. The scale on the envelope is simple. The vertical axis has the best ranking number (1) at the top, and the worst number (65) at the bottom. Now begin at the vertical axis in the year 2000 and mark a spot about one quarter from the top to represent where the USA ranked in 2000 at 15th. Next mark the year 2012 almost half way along the horizontal axis and place a dot above it where 36th, the USA’s 2012 position, and the year 2012 intersect. Now draw a line from the 15th spot through the 36th spot and continue until you hit the horizontal axis. You will quickly realize that at this rate the greatest nation on earth will be dead last in educational achievement by 2030 if not sooner! And these are your future employees! As with all national security issues, we must change how we operate.
  • The next thing to understand is that the current – and heated debate in educational circles is how to do a better job of testing: Not whether we should still be using testing as our primary educational method. Despite the fact that it is abundantly clear from multiple statistical sources that it is not only not working, it is moving the gradient down. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of madness. It’s one thing to call for the abandonment of the No Child Left Behind Act and its offspring The Common Core, it is another altogether to specify what should replace it. So our leaders simply repeat the call for an improvement in the way we test.
  • The only logical conclusion from all this: The organizing principle of our school system is wrong.
  • And, since there are no calls for radical change, one must conclude that the organizing principle of our school system is simple: Retain the American education status quo.

Taking A Closer Look

I hope that the first part of this editorial has amply convinced you that the American education status quo is not working, deteriorating rapidly and no alarm bells are ringing. Therefore the reasons for keeping it in place must lie somewhere other than logic. And of course that is true. Only those people, and their organizations and institutions, who make a living in education have vested interests in the American education status quo. Wider society clearly is not happy: According to our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, white suburban soccer moms are opting out of testing in droves.

And the movement for opting out has support from leading educational theorists such as Professor Diane Ravitch who wants to end the obsession with standardized testing and get all parents to opt their children out? Read her editorial “Opt your children out of state tests”. She calls for parents to

“Ignore the threats from state and federal officials….The elected officials who mandate these tests would take notice…..The tests today are pointless and meaningless. What exactly is the value of telling children they are failures when they are in third grade? When students write essays online, most will be graded by computer. The computer understands sentence length, grammar, and syntax. But the computer does not understand MEANING. A ridiculous essay that is complete gibberish can get a high score…The testing regime is destroying education. It is driven by politicians who think that tests make students smarter and by educrats who fear to think an independent thought….There are two ways to stop this madness. One would be to require legislators and policymakers in the states and federal government to take the tests they mandate and publish their scores. This would prove the value of the tests. Why shouldn’t they all be able to pass the 8th grade math test? Since this is unlikely to happen, the best way to restore common sense to American education is to stop taking the tests. Parents should discuss the issues of testing with their children. Explain to them that the tests can’t measure what matters most: Kindness, integrity, honesty, responsibility, humor, creativity, wisdom, and thoughtfulness.”

Diane Ravitch is no firebrand revolutionary. She just makes sense. The vested interests of the educational establishment are clearly at odds with the needs of the other stakeholders in education: families, voters, the civil service, the military and the businesses who rely on schools and colleges to deliver the goods. This dichotomy is bound to cause fractures in society sooner rather than later and should at least be on the agenda. It is not. Click here to see a large number of polls that identify American’s primary concerns, and see if you can find schools or education on any of them. We are in national denial.

Any effort to analyze what is wrong and discover a solution relies largely on examining two aspects of the issue: Context and History, and then learning from both. Examining context and history works when diagnosing a car problem, a health problem or a business problem. So why not look at these two facets of the unsustainable way we run our schools?

The first big picture - contextual - question to be asked and answered is this: What is the purpose of education?

The first historical question to be asked and answered about US education is this: What happened?

What Is The Purpose Of Education? 

Stating the obvious, children are born illiterate and innumerate and unaware of the culture into which they have been born. Consequently human societies, especially since the gift that civilized us - the invention of writing some 6,000 years ago - have had a vested interest in education as a means to equip individual children with the skills and knowledge that allows them to define and to pursue their own goals, and also allows them to participate in the life of their community as full-fledged, autonomous citizens.

In his book Democracy and Education (1916) John Dewey – a giant in the realm of educational philosophy - described education as “the means of the social continuity of life”. His point being that despite the birth and death of individuals the society to which they belong does not die; and its members also do not want it to die. The same is true of a business or any enterprise or institution.

So, we want our children to be autonomous, and that means teaching them to make meaning; that way they can ensure the survival of society. Dewey also pointed out that the value of education is underscored by the fact that it is always blamed when a society breaks down. So far the USA is not blaming its education system for anything; it’s not even on the radar of most Americans. Perhaps we should be blaming the schools for the overall malaise we are witnessing in 2016.

Also, 100 years ago Dewey gave us this: “Education is both the transmission of knowledge and the fostering of inquiry and reasoning skills that are conducive to the development of autonomy”. Read that twice and you will realize just how bad things are. That is a crucial observation that anyone interested in educational reform should have emblazoned on a giant poster.

We want our children to be educated so that they can become autonomous –independent– members of a whole society and contribute to the perpetuation of that society. And to do that they must receive historical facts and traditions from the previous generation, and they must also be encouraged to have a sense of inquiry and develop reasoning skills.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

“It is worth noting that in the Western philosophical tradition at least, most of the major figures (from Socrates to modern day) regarded the fostering of reason or rationality as a fundamental educational aim.”

The logical conclusion to this examination of the context of our education system is that we in America have a public education policy that focuses on the transmission of facts only. Instructional Designers should note that this means the people they train are largely ignorant of reasoning skills and rational thinking.

What Happened? 

Why do we stress the transmission of knowledge at the expense of other skills such as reasoning –critical thinking– and teamwork and communications?

Well, our school system was devised for country dwellers who were on the move to the cities to work in the newly established factories and retail outlets of the First Industrial Revolution. They sat in rows and listened and learned the facts they needed to know in order to get jobs as become factory workers and clerical workers whose job descriptions did not include thinking: that is a lot like schools do now 150 years later. But the world has changed; more radically and more quickly in the past few decades than anyone could have predicted.

Then, in the 1960s schools found a way to grade tests more cheaply by using what we would now consider a rather dumb electronic device. It was an optical character recognition reader. As long as the student used a #2 pencil to fill in ovals the OCR reader could collect and grade the results of a test; a task traditionally performed by the teacher, at much greater cost.

There was just one issue: the OCR could only work if tests were administered in multiple choice formats. This is because an answer to a factual question has a true/false or right/wrong –objective– answer that is universally true. So, the only way to test for retention of factual information was to create tests beginning with “which of the following multiple choices is the true one?”. So, the more the curriculum was based on facts the easier it was for the OCR machine to replace the teacher, and take the drudgery of test-taking and grading out of their hands and save money.

If a question or problem needed a student to use facts as just one aspect of developing a subjective opinion, to which there is no universally accepted right or wrong answer, the OCR machine had no value.

So, for the past half century, in the name of efficiency and cost-savings we have been preparing students for a personal and employee life where they will be faced with issues that are overwhelmingly about subjective opinions by teaching them how to memorize facts. We opted to teach fact-memorization, and to grade our entire instructional structure based on its results.

Facts are one component of a point-of-view, the rest of the opinion is developed by thinking, and an OCR machine cannot test for this. Facts are the villain of this piece. We have taught at least a couple of generations of Americans that memorization and critical thinking are the same thing. You cannot expect a person to be capable of reasoning after an education based on memorization.

The result is that schools changed the way they taught to accommodate the limitations of this primitive device. You would never see a business change its model to accommodate the limitations of technology.

The astonishing but tragic irony in all this is that it is happening just as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is getting underway. We are training students to perform rote memorization and test-taking skills at the exact same time when those skills can be done by machines – better and faster and cheaper.

We are building further obsolescence into our already obsolete schools at a time when half of the jobs we are training most students for are being replaced by smart machines. Does this reflect strategic thinking on the part of our elites? Probably not because they too were educated in American schools over the past fifty years. So we, the greatest nation ever to exist, carries on adding obsolete education to our already obsolete airports, bridges, tunnels, roads and expect to remain competitive.

To reinforce my case here is an actual experience. After the school superintendent of a large school district in a mid-west state saw me present a Power Point demonstration of my method for teaching critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and communications he applauded along with 600+ other superintendents. Then something life-altering happened. He came over to me, and said, I quote, “It is illegal for us to teach the Terego Method”. I think he was choosing words for dramatic effect. But I will never forget that night or the message he sent me. In the broadest sense we are actually forbidding the teaching of the very skills that will save us, and teaching the ones that make our students ready for the most vulnerable jobs now being done by machines and euphemistically called “function replacement”.

According to Sir Ken Robinson, a well-respected critic of education, almost 100% of children between 2 and 5 can think divergently: that is they can think of multiple answers or solutions to a problem or multiple uses for an item such as a paperclip. By age 15 this percentage is down to 10% and by age 25 it is 5%. What happened in between? Education! Robinson’s conclusion is that we now have a fast-food conformity education model.

What To Do? 

There is only one answer to that question and Dewey gave it to us 100 years ago:

“Education is both the transmission of knowledge and the fostering of inquiry and reasoning skills that are conducive to the development of autonomy.”

If we want autonomous citizens that are conducive to the development of society we must do both. To paraphrase Socrates we must fill the lamp and ignite it.

If reasoning and inquiry are missing from American school and college curricula that means the candidates you are interviewing by definition do not possess those skills that are vital to the survival of your business and your country. Logic dictates, therefore, that instructional designers working for businesses must re-introduce reasoning and inquiry into their curriculum.

We now call these skills 21st Century Skills. We heard a lot about them beginning in the early years of this century. What are they? Critical Thinking, Collaboration Skills, Problem-Solving and Communications Skills.

We don’t hear much about them anymore. The reason being that they are outside of the Common Core rules and statutes, at least in my state, and as such teachers, school districts, principals and superintendents who teach these skills are subject to fines because they are not approved subject matter.

I hope I have convinced you that it is wrong for our schools to focus exclusively on the transmission of factual knowledge and ignore or minimize efforts at fostering reason or rationality. Both must be taught as fundamental educational goals. But as long as we punish schools for going off curriculum it is not going to happen.

We need a nation of thinkers not doers. By any measure we are in a new and uncharted age of interconnectedness and machine-learning. And our schools are still stuck in the 19th century despite the smart boards, laptops and the internet.

We need these qualities: innovation, creativity, team-play, a tendency to see obstacles not as obstacles but as opportunities to move forward and divergent thinking; and we have them in abundance in our smallest children, and then our education system proceeds to beat these abilities out of them as they grow. Instructional Designers are literally at the firefighters; our final line of defense.

A Solution For Instructional Designers 

I have a suggestion. And I know it works. And it is simple. And inexpensive.

First think about the people you are training. They have never been asked to give their input to their own learning. All they know are facts. From K through 12 and beyond they have been told that they must know facts. They must learn them and be tested to see if they have memorized them. No one ever asked them to sit at a round table and figure out with their peers why algebra is important. Instead it was “Open your books at page 53…….”

If I don’t know why something is important then I am less likely to be enthusiastic. If I have participated and bought-in to the reason I should do something like learn algebra then I will give it my all.

“Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand." Confucius, circa 450BC

In other words get your employees to buy-in to their own education first, then you will not have to mandate that they do so.

I maintain that, if people convince themselves of the need to learn, a fire ignites within. Holding their feet to the fire has the opposite effect.

There are as many reasons to learn as there are people in the team, group, classroom or virtual meeting place. The key is to get them all to figure out why they personally should learn.

I have a forty year history of designing systems that address problems.

And I have now addressed the issue of employees being poorly trained in the 21st century skills. My design criteria were simple:

  1. Pass responsibility for learning how to learn to those who need the skills.
  2. Make this process simple.

By registering at the link below you can see how it works free.