“Nationally, only 25% of students today are receiving the education they need to qualify for a middle class-paying job. In the past year the median wage in the U.S. has fallen below middle class wage levels. If this trajectory continues, 75% of Americans will not be able to pay for themselves 20 years from now.”
These are the words of Ted Fujimoto, co-chair of the Right to Succeed Foundation, a non-profit organization aiming to transform public education by creating at least 6,000 American Dream Schools within the next 10 years.
I asked his thoughts for an article detailing the short- to mid-term future of education; the trends and challenges it would face in the next year or so.
In one of his responses he outlined a challenge that was as obvious as it was surprising – the lack of a clear vision for what, exactly, schools should strive towards.
“When I talked to community, parents and educational leaders around the country, very few could articulate what a great school could be. What I heard was lots about what they didn't like. Some could name some program or practice they liked but few could envision what a whole school could become.”
Such discontent can only go so far. To make a truly positive and lasting impact on the status quo, education must have a clear direction to follow.
“For any transformation to take place, I think it’s important that you are clear about what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.”
Getting Back to Basics
Of course determining how to educate students in the most effective way possible has long been a point of debate, discussion and conflict among academics, policy makers and parents. Their concerns, however, spring from a single point of convergence – a good education is nothing less than essential.
That fact cannot be overstated. The education that students receive today will determine their individual futures, and that of society collectively.
Which makes reports in recent years of high school dropout rates all the more troubling. Though the numbers are reportedly decreasing, US high schools are still losing far too many students each year. According to the Washington Post, about 750,000 students failed to graduate from high school in 2012.
Almost as worrying as such figures are reports of student attitudes towards education. Almost half of those who stick with school also feel stuck by it, with half of the 13 to 17 year-olds polled in a Gallup survey admitting to feeling “bored” at school.
If students don’t feel engaged at school, or don’t value and enjoy learning, they are bound to be reluctant participants – maybe even resistant ones. It’s also reasonable to suggest that lower levels of engagement are more likely to result in a higher levels of underachievement.
The Technology Question
Which brings us to the thorny issue of technology in the classroom – a topic that enjoys a fairly equal distribution of advocates and antagonists. But what do the students themselves think?
To find an answer, we need only ask: is technology a feature in the daily lives of students and teens?
The answer is obvious: of course it does (you can view some sample statistics here if you’ve got any doubts). The current generation of learners seamlessly use technology to communicate, shop, consume information, record and share their thoughts, connect with others and much more besides. It’s an embedded part of their lives and plays a central role in everything they do – except when it comes to learning.
The problem with this disconnect is that it risks increasing the gap between learning and life. When it comes to students’ attention, the library cannot compete with the search engine; the blackboard cannot compete with the screen.
The fact is that no matter what the topic, technology offers a number of distinct advantages over traditional lesson delivery methods. For one thing, it offers more fluidity: learning can be easily personalized to suit each student’s unique needs – material can be accessed at any time, from anywhere (so long as the student has a mobile device or desktop). This gives students the chance to learn at their own pace.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is the fact that technology encourages active participation rather than passive observation. In effect, it prioritizes interactivity over reactivity, as students use a rich variety of online tools to create, share and collaborate with other learners in far more intuitive ways than traditional classroom methods currently allow.
However, without the support of teachers, the potential virtues of technology count for little. Ultimately, technology’s effectiveness in engaging students relies upon teachers implementing it in an intelligent, ethical and practical way. As Miles Kimball, a professor at the University of Michigan wrote in a 2015 article:
“The road ahead is clear: the potential in each student can be unlocked by combining the power of computers, software, and the internet with the human touch of a teacher-as-coach to motivate that student to work hard at learning… since without a coach, the flexibility for students to learn at their own pace can be a two-edged sword, because it makes it easy to procrastinate.”
Technology may not offer a definitive answer to the school dropout crisis, but it must surely be part of any effective solution. Continuing to resist it instead of exploring its potential only hurts those who need education the most.