Stepping Up in Class


In honor of a new school year, let’s take a quick tour of the Museum of the Obsolete. Just look at all the prehistoric remnants – typewriters, floppy discs, slide rules, three-ring binders and Palm Pilots. Oh, and here is a colorful assortment of ballpoint pens high school and college students actually used to take notes before smartphones and laptops became so popular.

Talk about profound changes. Not only are the physical tools different in the field of education, but also traditional practices and theories are being challenged and transformed. For decades, students sat in neat rows, obediently scribbling notes as teachers lectured from the front of a classroom. Passive learning – most educational professionals now agree – is the least effective way of disseminating information, particularly as attention spans grow shorter and shorter. Memorization still has its place, but the general consensus is that young people must develop critical thinking and analytical skills.

Some well-known educators want to take it a step further. Salman Khan, founder of the ground-breaking Khan Academy, insists that the system that’s been in place for decades needs a radical overhaul. He might know what he’s talking about, too, considering the overwhelming success of his Web-based non-profit school, which has taught millions of young people through free online lessons.

Khan’s core belief, as he explains in his 2012 book, The One World School House, is that everyone learns differently. Concepts that come easily to some students may baffle others. And research supports Khan’s contention that students fare much better when they work at their own pace.

“In a traditional academic model, the time allotted to learn something is fixed while the comprehension of the concept is variable,” Khan writes. “The elements of instruction … should be presented to the mind in childhood, but not with any compulsion. Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind.”

Khan would also like to do away with letter grades and GPAs (they don’t reflect a student’s true mastery of a subject); class groupings based on age (not everyone learns at the same rate at the same age); and summer vacation (lack of mental stimulation over extended periods affects the brain). He says classrooms should be hubs of controlled chaos where students can move around and have fun playing instructional board games or working on creative projects.

Stanford University’s Daphne Koller, like Khan, recognized the Internet’s potential to influence profound and sweeping change in education. She and Stanford colleague Andrew Ng co-founded Coursera, an online college that offers top-notch courses from leading universities for free. In her highly-rated TED talk, What We’re Learning from Online Education, Koller explains why everyone, regardless of economic or social status, deserves the opportunity to earn a college degree – and how the Internet makes that possible.

Let’s face it – traditional college education has become unaffordable for many families. According to Glenn Harlan Reynolds, author of The New School, the average cost has risen an astounding 439 percent since 1982. Student loans are relatively easy to obtain, but graduates find themselves saddled with considerable debt for years. People are also seriously questioning the merit of a four-year college education. Once upon a time, a bachelor’s degree used to guarantee you a decent job. Not any more. Millions of people aren’t even working in their chosen fields. Moreover, many good-paying jobs don’t even require a college degree. No wonder that two-year junior and community colleges are becoming popular alternatives.

“The higher-education bubble isn’t bursting because of a shortage of money,” Reynolds writes. “It is bursting because of a shortage of value.”

Makes you wonder whether the good, old bachelor’s degree is headed for the Museum of the Obsolete.

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