by Justin Marquis, Ph.D.

Simply put, things happen faster now than they ever have in the past. Everything, except education, that is. Why is it that in an incredibly fast-paced world, where access to information is instantaneous, schools can’t keep up?

A Fundamental Disconnect
Outside of the classroom students expect instant results or instantaneous feedback on their performance. When you play a video game, you experience the results of every action and decision immediately. When you need to know something, you jump online and you have an answer as soon as you can type or say your question. When you need to know where you are meeting friends, you send a hyper-condensed text message and have the answer ping back to you in the blink of an eye. But the instant you step into a classroom everything slows to the speed of the 19th Century.

I see several contributing factors to this problem:

  • One teacher cannot provide timely feedback to 20 or more students, let alone instant feedback. This is not a criticism of the teacher, but rather of an educational funding system that values mass production of students and economic frugality over actual learning.
  • The subject matter taught in our schools does not lend itself to the types of quick feedback that is prevalent outside of education.
  • Societal expectations of what education is, does, and should look like reinforce the archaic model.

Class Size
When you really want to learn something, how do you go about it? I can almost guarantee that no one reading this answered, “Well, I join a large group where I can blend in with the crowd, get little or no one-on-one instruction, and must proceed in the manner and at the pace of everyone else!”  To really learn something, to play chess for example, the most effective way is to actually engage in playing the game, on-on-one, with an individual who can share their expertise with you and provide spontaneous feedback and additional instruction as needed.

The size of the class itself is not the only problem here, but also the lack of individual accountability (except on tests) and the inability to move at an individualized pace, or access the material in a manner that best suits your expectations, learning style, budget, or prior knowledge.

Now, an individualized education for every single student is not a realistic possibility given the reality of the world we live in. However, if you consider class size as a simple math equation, any significant reduction in class size will yield the potential for greater individualization of instruction. Take one teacher’s weekly instructional time, @25 hours and divide that by the 25 (or more) students they are expected to teach. That teacher only has one hour per week to dedicate to any individual student. Cut the number of students to five and the teacher has five hours to dedicate to each individual every week. While still not anything remotely resembling individualized education, such a change does give a teacher the opportunity to customize the learning experience to a greater extent. The same principle applies in the higher education classroom (Barwick, 2007).

Subject Matter
Given the math problem above, it is no wonder that teachers have a tendency to shoot for the lowest common denominator in the classroom. That applies to the content taught as well as the students themselves. We have certain expectations about the subject matter that is important in the classroom. Most instruction, because of expectations and the limitations necessitated by the number of students in a class, revolves around the “learning” of concrete bits of information – facts, figures, names, dates, and rules. While these are useful for creating a person with some cultural knowledge, they are not particularly useful for creating an individual who can think, problem solve, be creative, and actually generate their own knowledge.

One thing sorely lacking in classrooms at all levels is an emphasis on technology that facilitates deep and meaningful interaction with information that eventually becomes usable knowledge. There is little benefit in knowing the dates of James Buchanan’s Presidency in contrast to knowing how to find put when his presidency was and what the larger implications of it were on a societal level.  Further, technology allows a teacher to cater individual learning experiences to an individual based on their interest.  This can be accomplished through individualized research, interaction with people and resources beyond the classroom, or through developing a broad understanding based on artifacts and other information about a particular subject.

This principle works in every discipline if a serious focus is placed on the individual and the possibility of using technology as the primary focus and a vehicle for learning in other areas. The computer and Internet provide “gateway” tools for accessing all other disciplines and authentic experiences within those disciplines. They also allow a learner to synthesize the information they have in a way which creates a deeper understanding of the subject under consideration.

Societal Expectations
One of the most frustrating things about being a teacher or a teacher educator is that everyone is an expert regarding how education should happen. In the United States, almost every individual has gone through the educational system to some extent. They are all experienced and have an opinion regarding what does and does not work. While their opinions are valid and their experience should not be summarily dismissed, they all went through a system heavily influenced by the Industrial Age and mass-production model of education. Even in college, this model largely holds true. We do not, however live in the Industrial Age any longer and the models of education that worked to produce factory drones, do not work to produce the independent, innovators that thrive in the Information Age.

These outdated expectations of what education is and should be permeate all levels of society including the government policy makers who attempt to regulate the school system. Among the misconceptions perpetuated by outdated thinking are that:

  • Students should be silent
  • Students should be passive
  • Trivia is important
  • Conformity is a virtue

Simply removing the emphasis on these ideals from the classroom and our education of teachers would be a significant step towards moving beyond the model of education that has dominated our society for hundreds of years. Students who are loud, active, nonconformists who focus on knowing how to learn rather than on what to learn are the key to a future where global uncertainty is becoming the norm. Allowing faculty the time and resources to engage these students in meaningful conversation and directed, individualized learning aligns better with the ways in which the world functions outside of the classroom. Subscribing to these virtues rather than the older model also opens the way for an acceleration of the way education happens to something more closely resembling the world that students actually live in.

This model of education is not beyond our grasp. Initiatives such as Occupy Colleges, the Digital Badges movement, and open courseware are all making the potential for individualized education a reality. Moving to an educational model that more closely parallels the instant gratification world we live in is possible through technology, online education and game-based learning. The lingering question remains however: is this the way education should be?

Image attribution flickr user rdecom