Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Be Part of a Revolution in Education
For K-12 students most interested in math and science, and their parents.
A blog by Paul E. Roundy, Associate Professor, University at Albany


I thought I liked public school while I was in it—it was all I knew. I loved science, math, geography, and reading great classics. Yet, at the time, I didn’t realize just how much the curriculum was built around an attempt by the system to provide every student in a class with the same learning outcomes. In retrospect, in terms of the way it fulfilled my own needs, I think it was too shallow and insufficiently challenging.  My teachers were great, but they were constrained by the system they served. Sometimes I found myself excited about a topic of discussion only to have my excitement interrupted by the bell at the end of class, when I was forced to move on to something else. Other times, I found myself slogging through long homework assignments that I had to complete for a reasonable grade on topics that I already understood. The time I spent on such assignments was almost entirely wasted when I could have been learning something new.  Had I been given the opportunity, I think I would have excelled at going straight to college at age 16. In the very least, I would have benefitted from being given the opportunity to design part of my own learning plan, or to have my learning plan change according to my progress in fulfilling it.

With so much information at our fingertips and systems for social networking, the rigid schedule of K-12 education is rapidly becoming antiquated. It has been evolving toward a more scripted one-size-fits-all curriculum, retaining too much rote memorization and repetition and insufficient time for students to learn to critically assess evidence and how to pose probing questions themselves. Tragically, the system has moved toward a test-centered atmosphere that crushes the vibrance of curiosity-driven learning, a type of learning that must focus on individuals rather than the student population as a whole. Many great teachers themselves question how we got to this point.

Children and teens need time for free play and loosely supervised self-directed learning in order to develop important cognitive pathways. Public schools typically offer little flexibility for students to personalize their experience beyond selection of an elective course or choice in the topic of a research project. Options to personalize learning plans for academically advanced students could be endless. For example, the school system constrains students to wait to learn basic calculus until after they have completed all of two courses in algebra, a course in geometry, and a course in trigonometry. Yet, some basic calculus fits naturally into topics of algebra and geometry before even starting a course in trigonometry. Helping students learn the most basic calculus much earlier, when they show interest and readiness, would expose them to the concepts, so that the whole subject might feel more accessible to them. The rigid structure across the public school curriculum is motivated more by tradition than by logic and evidence.

One answer to a better life might surprise you. Rapidly expanding communities of parents and students, together with easily accessible information on the Internet, are making home education a viable alternative to students of all types who wish to diversify their experience beyond that which public school can provide. Although these alternatives do not always compete well with the physical and financial resources available to public schools because they are financed through the tax base, a wide range of benefits and freedoms supersedes such shortcomings.

Home-schooled students do not generally sit at home hiding from commitment and social experience. They create their own experiences. They can design their own learning plans, in the context of state requirements and under review of their parents and the school districts. When students and their parents so choose, they can network across a community, travel to museums, tour businesses, or study nature. They can join sports or gaming teams or take part time employment or internships to build experience. They can take free online courses from expert college professors on topics ranging from astrophysics to horticulture to composing poetry, or take formal college classes for credit, learning a field at an advanced level the first time instead of taking a shallow version of the class in high school followed by a more advanced version in college. They can work through textbooks or exercise sets at their own paces and move forward when they are prepared to do so. They can create their own YouTube videos on topics of science, the arts, or sports. They can spend hours at a time studying topics of their own choosing. They can also build meaningful service portfolios. They are not confined to working just with students their own ages. They do not need to ask for permission to use the bathroom or get a drink. Should they so desire, they can continue to study and network online if they become ill.  Parents do not need to be teaching experts to provide good learning environments for their children. Many home-educated students find that deep learning of a subject does not depend as much on following detailed step-by-step instructions of a teacher as it depends on their own grit and determination.

I am a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University at Albany. I teach courses in applications of mathematics and statistics to natural systems, such as the atmosphere and ocean. I respect and admire my students. Most of them came through the public school system. I find that their biggest challenges in tackling advanced problems in science and mathematics involve learning to pose questions about systems they observe, then using the languages of mathematics, physics, and statistics to develop and test solutions to those questions. Although the technical abilities that the curricula of public schools provide students are usually helpful, the schools typically fail to help students learn to craft appropriate questions and to set up logical pathways to the answers. Instead, schools more often teach and test scripted pathways to solutions to pre written questions. Research suggests that more time to play and to design their own pathways through problems, with wise mentoring, can better prepare students for the modern world. Practically any information a student can want is available at the push of a button, so that it is more important today to learn how to assimilate information critically and how to ask the best questions and seek solutions relevant to real situations. Unfortunately, most math and science exercises in the school system provide exactly the right pieces of information along with examples showing how to solve that kind of exercise. Problems in the real world, in contrast, typically provide both too little and too much information, and require making assumptions that need to be carefully tested for applicability under the conditions of the problem. Students need to learn how to disregard useless information and how to use what is most relevant. Learning to pose the question can be as important as learning to find answers. Public schools typically do not often facilitate this type of learning, probably because it is difficult to manage in classrooms with many students and because it is difficult to assign grades objectively.

I suggest that, as a student yourself, your greatest advantage will be to learn to study deeply, think critically, and question everything about the world around you. Do not fill your entire schedule with pre scripted programs and activities, but leave yourself some free time to go where your interests lead. Work hard, play hard, and enjoy positive healthy relationships. Learn to discuss controversial topics with those with whom you disagree. Learn to give up your opinions when you find they are not supported by experience and evidence.

Home education is not for everyone, but many people dismiss it outright simply because working in the style of the public school system has become a habit. Yet the most popular point of view is not necessarily the best one. If after real contemplation and investigation of local home education communities, you decide to try this option, my own children and many others would welcome you among their ranks.  If home education is not an option for you, voice your opinions about modern educational methods to public school leaders and legislators, to pressure the system to accommodate more student individuality and real world thinking. Together, we can reform the education system from within and without.

You may contact the author at proundy at Albany dot edu

The opinions presented here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of my employer or the State of New York.