My simple metric for primary education

Because I have two young kids, I’ve read and thought a lot about education and learning over the past five years.

I can summarize my objective for my kids' elementary years as “developing a passion for learning and the capacity to learn independently.”

Any kid who enjoys learning and is equipped with skills and resources to pursue her/his interests and curiosities will thrive.

NCLB’s focus on test scores confuses cause with effect and doesn’t even aim for the right effect! Passing math and English tests is a side effect of real learning, and it’s a lousy measure of the success of our schools. Replacing a learning experience with intensive test prep may or may not boost test scores. But it certainly will stifle learning in the long term by artificially making learning a chore, rather than something exciting and valuable for its own sake.

Enthusiasm drives learning. A kid who carries a book with him/her everywhere he/she goes — a lifelong habit of mine; my parents dragged me around Canada one summer while I read a thick SAT vocabulary book — doesn’t need to copy by hand twenty dictionary definitions a week — as my 9th grade English teacher forced us to… though I refused, resulting in my English grade falling from a 1st quarter “A+” to a 4th quarter “F.”

We should teach in ways that leverage kids' natural enthusiasm for learning. For example, let students choose which books to read, and let’s teach math using (online and “offline”) games. Learning new things is intrinsically enjoyable and rewarding. Drills and worksheets, conversely, suck the fun out of learning.

My metric for judging an elementary school is simple: The proportion of kids smiling (because they’re playing with friends or excited by the science experiment they’re conducting) or entranced by some task that will expand their knowledge (like reading a book or observing a frog or watching a documentary on the Mayflower).

Schools with happy, engaged kids are fostering students' love of learning and building their capacity for lifelong learning. Test scores follow naturally. Conversely, schools that “drill and kill” fail students in the long-run and, probably, the short-run too. No school should be allowed to kill children’s natural enthusiasm for learning.

Posted by James on Monday, July 25, 2011