American Public School Problems, Learn How to Learn

  • Education is supposed to PREPARE children to later be productive members of society. For that they need to LEARN HOW TO LEARN.
  • Today, the educational (and government) environment does not allow that! Rather than allowing or encouraging any creative thinking, a Teacher is expected to PRESENT FACTS.
  • An example is included where I had permitted my classes to (temporarily) believe a wrong conclusion that they had presented, because I WANTED the class to WORK THROUGH the logic to eventually see where they had erred. The smiles on all the students afterward were a sign to me that they LEARNED HOW TO LEARN that day.

The American Public School system has many problems today. American students rank near the bottom regarding students in other industrialized countries. Students are often so out of control that Teachers cannot do what they are paid to do, and they often wind up to be babysitters! Or operating an informal day-care operation!

There are many reasons for this, all related to various aspects of human nature. But there is one central failing that is horrendous! The American Public School system is now based on a WRONG ASSUMPTION!

Prior to maybe 40 years ago, the System understood that it was intended TO ENABLE KIDS TO LEARN HOW TO LEARN. That is no longer true in the Public School system! In fact, the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) program of the government does exactly the reverse! Each school and each Teacher is now REQUIRED to get their students to get good results from some very specific Nationalized tests! So, what should a Teacher do? Teach the students to learn how to THINK and to figure out things? Or to MEMORIZE specific things that will certainly show up on the standardized tests?

Think about the concept of "creativity". There is NO PLACE for it given the current rules and regulations regarding getting government funds! If a student HAD any creativity to begin with, it is now necessarily crushed, because that student MUST spend his or her time in learning how to do well on a STANDARDIZED test! See the dark humor in that? The smartest, most creative kids are kept from developing those specific abilities, in order to do well enough on the Standardized tests to enable that School to receive government money. (Those students would have done great on those Standardized tests anyway!)

When they grow up, those kids will not know HOW to think, and will instead totally depend on being able to "look things up" and then totally relying on others (probably foreign-born) who ARE able to think! This is horrendous!

The NCLB Program is allegedly meant to provide an advantage for students. Sadly, it does just the reverse for most students, and at best might only benefit a small fraction of very, very low-achievers.

As long as our government believes that a rigid structure of Standardized tests is to be the basis of the American Public School system, few kids will ever be able to compete with even medium-achievers who were educated in other countries! Can there be anything more sad?

From time to time, some new approach is highly publicized as being the SOLUTION to all the Educational problems. In pilot projects, nearly any such idea appears to work fine! That is primarily because phenomenal amounts of money are spent on each student! The news reports never mention that, only the impressive gains of some classroom of kids. But if the reasoning is to spend $100,000 per year for each student, I have a different suggestion! Have the government hire a personal tutor, full time, to LIVE WITH each student (for maybe $30,000 per student). FAR cheaper, and I guarantee that the results would be impressive!

As long as this government mind-set is in place, I can only recommend that parents send their kids to Private Schools or even to live in nearly ANY other industrialized country, where their kids would receive a far better education, and actually learn to THINK in the process!

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Regarding trying to fix the current problems, wow! Teachers and students and school administrators have become conditioned to this current structure, and it is hard to imagine that they will easily or quickly change. Even if improvements are made, it may take 12 years before they start actually having effects. This is essentially saying that all of the kids currently in American Public Schools probably have no chance of actually learning to learn there! I hate to say that those millions of kids are close to being "wasted" but it seems pretty close to being true.

Long ago, a High School History Teacher might try to enliven his students by getting them to re-enact the French Revolution, to see if the students would do the same things as actually happened. Creative experimentation. Now, no History Teacher could afford the time to do such a thing, because it would not contribute toward their doing well on those Standardized, multiple choice tests! Long ago, I taught Earth Science in High School. I would often start off a class with a challenging question. One day, I asked each class to think of some way of proving that the Earth was round, without being allowed to leave that city, and without trusting TV or books. From their own experience, somehow, they had to think of solutions.

Each classroom was FILLED with active minds, where most of the students (not all) were actively trying to meet the challenge I put forth to them. Take a break from reading this and consider it a challenge to you! It if FUN and it is CHALLENGING and it MAKES you use your mind!

In some classes, someone would raise their hand and describe some idea that I happened to know was wrong. I COULD have said something, and gotten the discussion to a better direction. But I felt it was better to simply allow the class to proceed with the discussion. In every single class where that happened, the students eventually realized that that idea would not work. There seemed to be a collective sense of accomplishment! In only one class did a student ask me why I did not say it was wrong. And I answered that I thought that the class learned a lot more ABOUT LEARNING by thoroughly investigating that wrong idea.

See the point? Modern science Teachers could not "waste a day" with such foolishness, when there were FACTS, FACTS, FACTS to get the kids to memorize! If modern science Teachers did that very often, their students would do POORLY on the Standardized Tests of facts! And the Teacher would even be identified as a poor Teacher! In my opinion, such Teachers are the ONLY HOPE for the American Public School system.

Sadly, the people who make Laws and who decide on what government programs will be funded, have no idea of what goes on inside an actual classroom. They tend to be very old people, and of rich families, so they tend never to have personally experienced the amazing goings-on in a public school classroom today. I can tell them that there are virtually NO opportunities for students to ACTUALLY HAVE AN ACTIVE MIND, certainly less than a minute total in any schoolday. They are supposed to sit and memorize, which some kids can do well and others cannot. There is NO future in the current structure. It is all just damaging kids, and it also quickly discourages new Teachers, who actually started out believing that they would be able to "change young minds!". There turns out to be no way that they actually can!

This presentation is among several different presentations meant to provide ways of improving the American public school system's performance. Here are links to the presentations:

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in April 2006.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago
Ex-Teacher, Thornridge High School, Dolton, Illinois