In a recent editorial (speech), Microsoft founder Bill Gates demonstrated compellingly that our schools are failing both our children and our nation. These schools are "obsolete", because "they were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age" in which "you could train an adequate work force by sending only a small fraction of students to college...." By contrast, "Today, most jobs that pay enough to support a family require some post-secondary education." As a result, "We have to do away with the outdated idea that only some students need to be ready for college...." However, our schools, as currently designed, are not capable of rising to this challenge, because "even when they work exactly as designed [they] cannot teach our kids what they need to know."
We could not agree more. We commend Mr. Gates' for his efforts on behalf of our nation's students, and for his willingness to think "outside the box" in addressing their needs. We also believe that to achieve the kinds of educational results Mr. Gates desires, our society must collectively think outside several boxes in addition to the one he has so ably described. Based on our experience as physicians specializing in helping children with learning problems, we would like to offer several observations on what children in the present age "need to know", and what current brain science suggests about the best ways to help them acquire this knowledge.
Schools Must Prepare Very Different Children For Very Different Lives
We agree with Mr. Gates that our schools should prepare most children to attend college, so they can obtain the advanced skills they need to compete in the modern workplace. However, this does not imply that all students must be prepared for precisely the same thing. When students reach college, they will not all pursue the same course of studies, nor will they all train for the same careers. Despite out-of-major requirements, each student will eventually focus on a single discipline such as engineering, mathematics, physics, art, literature, accounting, management, music, education, history, law, biology, chemistry, sociology, medicine, etc. These courses differ markedly because they are preparing students for remarkably different careers. Even within a given major, different students often have considerable freedom to choose advanced classes in areas of special expertise and interest, with particular class formats and professors that appeal to them. How do they decide which classes and courses of study to pursue? Largely on the basis of personal interests and an assessment of their individual strengths.
The broad diversity of collegiate education provides a fitting preparation for the diversity of the workplace. Mr. Gates own company, Microsoft, is a fitting example of the contemporary workplace in that it employs individuals with enormously varied skills and talents: software engineers who write code for word processing and email programs, visual artists who make designs for Xbox, specialists in sales, marketing, publicity, customer services, management, personnel, human relations, building design and maintenance, corporate governance, and on and on. Obviously, building a company with top-notch workers in each of these positions is not simply a matter of hiring generically well-educated persons then plugging them into randomly selected positions. Individuals are carefully chosen for each position based on their training and aptitude, in accordance with what each position requires. Some persons who are remarkably well suited for one position would flounder in others. Yet these differences between workers didn't just into existence when they showed up to fill out job applications, or even when they began to pursue differentiated curricula in college. The aptitudes and abilities that made them well-suited for their present adult work were present to a remarkable extent early in life, and were caused by variations in individual learning styles and favored routes of information processing and uptake.
Despite the crucial nature of these individual differences to success in college and in the workforce--and an overwhelming abundance of evidence that children differ dramatically in the ways they are best able to learn and express information--our present K-12 educational system fails almost entirely to take such differences into account. Our present system is overwhelmingly built around auditory-verbal (lecture-based) instruction and handwritten verbal communication. Yet this approach is optimal for only a minority of students. For most it is sub-optimal, and for those with primarily visual, spatial, or hand-on learning styles, and oral or visual communication preferences, it can be a disaster. In many instances, children that are actually quite brilliant can suffer chronic academic underachievement and even failure because they learn and think in ways that are not well served by their educational environment. Often these thinking and learning styles are not "impairments" or "abnormalities" in an absolute sense, but inherited learning differences that for some tasks can have tremendous benefit. Our own clinical experience is illustrative.
Because our clinic is located in Seattle we see many of the children of Mr. Gates' employees. Often the supposed "learning problems" that make them poorly suited for the overwhelmingly verbal learning environments in their schools are manifestations of precisely the same visual and spatial reasoning styles that have made their parents so successful and creative in their professional lives. Such problems are entirely unnecessary.
The Schools We Need: Teaching Each Child The Way That Child Learns Best
If our primary and secondary schools are to prepare children so they can excel in college and in the workforce, they must be restructured to reflect the same diversity of thinking and learning styles that are reflected both in the diversity of the workplace and in the college curriculum. While it is important to maintain minimum standards for communication, critical thinking, and problem solving, we must also recognize that students can perform these functions in very different ways. Our educational system must be flexible enough so that each student can pursue excellence in communication, critical thinking, and problem solving in ways that take advantage of individual strengths. More is at stake in this than simply workplace need: social justice is at issue as well. Research has consistently shown that there are variations in thinking and learning styles among different races and cultural populations, and that consistent failure to match learning preferences with appropriate teaching styles leads to predictable losses in learning achievement.
We are not advocating a system of tracking where students are shunted into strictly diverging educational pathways. Such programs close as many options as they open. Instead, we are advocating a more flexible approach to K-12 education that would allow students to pursue the core curriculum through a variety of routes that better fit and nurture their individual learning approaches. Such a curriculum would provide flexibility in both pace and approach, and would allow children to pursue their education through curricula that emphasize and expand their strengths, while helping them improve in areas of weakness. Rather than creating tracks that prevent some children from achieving basic competency in math, language, critical thinking, or problem solving, such a program would allow different students to achieve competency in these areas using learning approaches that are best suited to their individual styles of thinking and learning.
Some students, for example, are much better at processing verbal information through reading than through listening. For others the opposite is true. Some children find that they can listen better when they take notes. Others find it impossible to take notes and listen at the same time. Some students prefer visual or hands-on presentations of information to purely language-based instruction. Other students benefit little from visual or spatial sources of information. Similar differences are seen with math, where some students solve math problems using primarily verbal approaches, others with visual approaches, and others using spatial approaches. While all students need to achieve basic competency in these subjects, there is no reason to believe that all children will find their needs optimally or even adequately met using a single educational approach. This is true not only at the middle and high school levels, where differentiated curricula are used to some extent, but from the earliest days of school.
Many common educational practices and assumptions need to be reexamined if our schools are to better prepare students for college and an increasingly competitive workforce. Three seem especially ripe for reevaluation:
· The notion that all students should master a core body of information at the same rates and in the same ways, using identical educational materials and informational pathways. Basic skills can be acquired in many ways, and each child's instruction should be tailored to his or her optimal learning style.
· The notion that students are best educated in age-based cohorts. The rates at which children develop vary as greatly as their learning styles, and clustering by age makes no more sense than clustering by height or weight. The whole notion of grade-levels is equally questionable. There is no reason to assume that each year every child should make identical progress in all subject areas, nor is there any justification to prevent a child from making progress in one subject (e.g., math) because he is having difficulty in another (e.g., reading). Flexible, modular instruction could eliminate this problem.
· The notion that lecture-based classroom instruction should be the primary--even a major--route of learning for all students is unsupported by data on children's learning styles. For enormous numbers of children lecture time is not only a waste but a strong provoker of misbehavior and dissatisfaction of school.
K-12 education must be updated to take into account the variations in thinking and learning styles that are reflected in the diversity of the workplace and the post-secondary educational environment. It must incorporate the kind of flexibility of emphasis and approach that is found in college, so that students can pursue knowledge in ways that are best suited to their individual thinking and learning styles. To make these changes, we must leave behind the arrangements of an earlier era that employ antiquated technologies and ideas to meet obsolete goals. As Mr. Gates has clearly demonstrated, the needs of our students and the requirements of the workforce have changed greatly. It is now time to use our modern technological resources and more precise knowledge of the ways children think and learn to create a flexible, individualized, and rigorous education that will meet the needs of our students and our society both now and in the years to come.