Knowledge, Not Test Scores

Technology is changing the way we learn, but the American school system is struggling to keep up.

Our access to information, the way in which we interact with each other and the knowledge that is available to us is rapidly evolving. Yet our schools are still relying on outdated methods of rote learning and standardized tests, which have a tendency to change the way schools and teachers present information.

For a country that tends to think it’s number one at everything, America’s education doesn’t stack up all that well when compared to other countries. A 2012 study by Pearson, a global educational assessment firm, ranks the U.S. 17th in the world for overall education, while Finland ranks at the very top, despite their notable lack of standardized tests like the ones used in the United States.

In Finland, teaching and learning is much more flexible. Teaching is an exceptionally well-respected profession, and teachers are given the trust and freedom to gauge the needs and educational levels of their particular classroom.

Finnish teachers and students work together to create a learning environment suited to their individual needs. Everyone learns and grows together. Students are encouraged to take risks and ask questions, then learn how to find the answers, think creatively, be inquisitive, actively participate in their learning and utilize the technology and resources available to them.

It’s this kind of learning environment that creates individuals who are prepared to go out into the real world and be productive members of a forward-thinking and forward-moving society. They become citizens who want to tackle the big problems head-on and who have the ability to think creatively and critically about those problems.

Having that flexibility is part of what distinguishes Finland from the U.S., where teachers are not trusted to make their own decisions but are instead required to follow specific guidelines and teach to certain educational standards.

Since No Child Left Behind was enacted in January 2002, teachers have been forced to meet a very rigid set of guidelines and standards to ensure that all children have a chance at an equal education and to close achievement gaps across the country. In theory, this is a great idea, but in reality, it has not lived up to the hype.

Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis found that “despite its intentions, there is no evidence that NCLB-style accountability has led to any substantial narrowing of achievement gaps.” And in fact, since it has come into effect, NCLB has had a negative impact on the diversity of subjects students are allowed to study. In 2010, the Arts Education Partnership found that 43 percent of art teachers reported decreases in funding, and 84 percent reported that their programs either have increased interruptions, conflicts and problems, or have become more complicated.

Our current teaching method, which consists of the teacher at the front of the classroom lecturing at a student body who is perpetually struggling to stay awake, is not working, and our low global rankings and standardized test analyses prove that. Children need to be engaged in an active learning environment, not a passive one in which information is meaninglessly crammed into their heads.

We need to instead work on promoting an engaged and thoughtful curriculum. For quality learning to take place, kids need to get their hands dirty and participate. We need to teach them how to think for themselves, how to seek knowledge and how to think critically and creatively. Teach them how to sift through large amounts of information and find the truth among the slush. Teach them the skills and tools they need to succeed in a culture of information overload, not just memorization and simple facts.

Too much of what is taught in schools and put on tests is easily accessible on the internet. A kid with a smart phone doesn’t need a teacher to make him memorize a list of U.S. presidents; he can look it up in seconds. Classroom time would be much better spent helping the kids to learn why we have presidents in the first place and encouraging students to ask deeper questions and delve into the depths of the information available to find the answer. The deeper knowledge and understanding that can only come from an engaged classroom is necessary in today’s world.

The internet and other technology we surround ourselves with is rapidly changing the way we learn. It’s time we take a closer look at how we utilize tests and how we approach teaching and learning on a day-to-day basis. If we can learn to adopt a more flexible education system that has the potential to grow and change with technology, then our students will be better equipped to go out into the real world and form a citizenry that is prepared to meet the challenges of modern society.