Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday's Five - Myths in Education

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We live in an age where information is free and easily accessible.  There are many benefits to 24-hour cable news, high speed internet, and social networking.  Many of my previous posts have focused on ways that we can prepare our students for the information age.  Being able to identify bias and misinformation is of paramount importance when being constantly bombarded with new facts, ideas, opinions, and theories.

In this post I'd like to examine a few beliefs about students, education, and schools that are both widely believed and untrue.  These myths about education are holding us back in developing the 21st century education system that our students deserve.  They have permeated our culture to the point that educators often base decisions on these bits of misinformation.  Many people call for "educational reform," but until we are willing to focus on the learning process of each student, "reform" will continue to mean change that benefits a few people in position of power.

Myth #1 - Failure is a bad word.

Our fear of failure has crippled us.  Failure is an opportunity to learn.  One quality shared by all successful people is the ability to learn from mistakes.  Walt Disney was in financial ruin and had lost his most well known character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to a competitor before creating Mickey Mouse.  Abraham Lincoln lost a senate election before becoming the greatest of American presidents.  We could spend all day making a list of people who failed and then became great success stories.  We focus so heavily on the "right answer" in class and not on the critical thinking that goes into decision making that we rob children of the opportunity to grow from their mistakes.  We focus on correctness and not on learning.  As a result, the one thing our children learn best is that failure is not something to learn from, but something of which to be ashamed.  Imagine a world in which people, companies, and governments did not learn from mistakes, but rather repeated them over and over again.  That world will soon be a reality unless we start teaching our children to think differently.

Myth #2 - All students need to learn the same information.

Do you think that Steve Jobs, Maya Angelou, Yo-yo Ma, Warren Buffett, and Lady Gaga needed to learn the same content in school to become successful?  Do we really believe as a society and an educational system that the ability to find the right answer to math calculations and getting the main idea from short passages are what paved the way to success for those who achieve it?  Successful people have a few things in common, none of which is reading and math ability.  They are innovative in their fields.  They are passionate.  They understand others and how to communicate with people.  They learn from failure.  These are the things that should be focus upon in schools.  The information that students learn should be determined by their strengths and passions.  I'm sure that Lady Gaga didn't need a high school computer programming course or Algebra II, but that Steve Jobs would have found both interesting and useful.  We need to allow our students to identify that which will allow them to be successful, and then provide the opportunity to pursue those passions.  Standardization kills greatness and promotes mediocrity.

Myth #3 - The teacher is the most important factor in student achievement.

I'll be the first to say that teachers should never use parents or a student's home life as an excuse for a student not learning.  Actually, I did.  Doing so allows us to stop examining what it is that we can improve upon in our own practice.  With that being said, however, a plethora of studies show that socio-economic situations are a vastly higher factor in student success than the teacher in the classroom.  Several recent studies have shown that student achievement in US schools with low poverty is higher than schools in countries that have similar low poverty levels.  Those same studies show that our high poverty schools perform as well as those in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Until we begin to address the inequities in how we fund schools and the issue of poverty we will never be able to claim that we are doing a good job of educating our future generations.

Myth #4 - Good grades are an indicator of future success.

This myth happens to be based on past fact.  A few decades ago it was true that if a student worked hard, attended school, and got good grades that they would be able to find a good job.  It simply isn't true any more.  Due to the speed at which knowledge is growing, we are preparing our students for jobs that don't even exist yet.  Employers aren't looking for workers who are good at reading, 'righting, and 'rithmatic anymore.  They want employees who can think on the fly, bring new ideas to the table, and adapt to rapidly changing economic environments.  Those are things that are all but ignored right now in schools, and certainly don't show up in a student's grades. 

Myth #5 - Teachers will improve if we provide financial incentives.

I think that everyone agrees that it would be fantastic to have a great teacher in front of every student.  The question becomes "How do we develop those great teachers?"  Merit pay seems to be the current focus.  The problem is that most teachers don't know how to get better.  Most teachers were educated in a system that was well designed for the factory model of the Industrial Revolution.  The college courses they took were rooted in the same model.  For the past decade we have not only followed the same model, but have taken it a step further by focusing increasingly on narrow standardized tests that are the ultimate example of a desire to place the importance on knowing information rather finding and using it.  In order for us to improve the quality of our teachers, we need to provide them the opportunity to learn how to prepare students for the 21st century.  They need professional development.  They need to be encouraged to network with other teachers, discuss great pedagogy, and share successes.  They also need to be allowed to take risks in their lessons, have lessons fail, and learn from their mistakes.  Merit pay allows for none of those things.  It simply provides more money for teachers in better socio-economic areas and punishes teachers working with our most needy students. 

Now, it's your turn.  What are your thoughts on the above myths?  Do you disagree?  What other popular beliefs about education are holding us back from giving our students opportunities to learn?  What suggestions do you have to overcome such misperceptions?  Please share with us in the comment section and pass the post along to others, both inside and outside education, via Twitter, Google+, Plurk, or Facebook so that we can hear as many points of view as possible. 


  1. My 2 cents:
    Failure is a bad word: Failure is not as good as success, period. But failure is better than doing nothing, and failure can, but not always will, lead to success. Students need to learn how to use failure as feedback in order to improve.

    All students need to learn the same info: All citizens do need a common base. We need a better discussion of what that base is, and what else schools should teach and to whom.

    Teacher is the most important factor. I agree, this is blatantly false. I half think we should require people to demonstrate parenting skills before we let them reproduce.

    Good grades are an indicator of future success. Good effort is an indicator of future success, good grades can sometimes be an indicator of good effort.

    Teachers will improve if we provide financial incentives. Providing financial incentives has worked so well in the financial industries, hasn't it? In 100% agreement with you that this is blatantly false. We both probably also agree that teachers have to be paid a livable wage.

  2. mweisburgh,
    We'll have to disagree on "failure." I agree that we should strive for success, but learning and overcoming failure is much more important. Sometimes failure leads to greater success. Had Walt Disney been successful with Oswald, we never would have had Mickey. It was his ability to learn and overcome that lead to greater success. We need to start treating failure as a learning opportunity and not something to be avoided or feared.

    I can agree that there are certain things that all students should learn in school. Those items should make up a small part of a child's school experience, though. Most information can be accessed instantly with technology in their pocket. Most of the time we should allowing them to learn how to use that information to make the changes in the world that they think are important. Not just the gifted kids, or high school kids, either. All kids.

    Effort is overrated. The old adage that "Hard work equals success" isn't true. "Perseverance equals success" would be more accurate, and I don't think they mean the same thing. It goes back to my comments on failure. As much as we love the kid in class that is compliant and does all of their homework, it's not an indication of how successful they will be. Their ability to empathize, communicate, overcome hardship, and innovate is much more important. I also believe that grades should show what a student knows, and not how hard they are working.

    I can totally agree that teachers should be paid living wages. They should be paid like professionals.

    Thank you for your comments and for continuing the discussion! -Mike

  3. I totally agree with your number 1, we need to stop defeating our children before they even start. What ever happened to teaching our children how to "learn from their mistakes" and not chastise them or berate them for making mistakes? The most important lessons I learned in life came as a result of some really bone-headed mistakes. One idea that has been in my head lately is that we need to take advantage of our senior population, use them as mentors more most would be glad to share their insight and the information that they have learned over their years. I bet that most of that information is NOT on the internet and would be of great interest to our young students today.
    Why could we not facilitate some sort of mentor-ship program to help students, parents and teachers in giving our future the zest for learning that they need.