Ask Dr Judy: Top 10 Necessities for Educational Reform
For the first time since the institution of public education in the U.S., students currently in high school are less likely to graduate than their parents. We are the only industrialized country where that is true. Here are my recommendations to change the appalling dropout rate and prepare students for the 21st century.
1. Collaborate: Students in the U.S. need new skills for the coming century, not to be superior to students worldwide, but to be ready to collaborate with others on a global level to find creative solutions to problems now and in the future.
2. Evaluate Information Accuracy: The current curriculum focus on memorizing isolated facts to pass standardized tests is inadequate preparation for now or the future. New information is being discovered and disseminated at a logarithmic rate and the facts as students learn them today may not be fully accurate or complete in the near future. Students need to know how to find accurate information and use critical analysis to assess the veracity/bias and current/potential uses of new information. These are the executive functions students need to develop and practice in school today, or they will be unprepared to find, analyze, and use the information of tomorrow.
3. Teach Tolerance: In a global world of collaboration communication and tolerance (openness) to unfamiliar cultures and ideas will be the educational currency for the jobs and problems of the future. School needs to provide opportunities for experiences and discussions to help students learn about and feel comfortable communicating with people with other cultural norms and practices.
4. Assessing Student Knowledge: Standardized tests for federal NCLB funds test rote memory of isolated facts. Assessments need to include ways for different types of learners to demonstrate their knowledge. Once teachers do not have to teach-to-the-tests of rote memory, classrooms can become places of inquiry, student-centered discussions, and active, engaging learning.
5. Beyond Differentiation to Individualization. Children are born with brains that want to learn and with different strengths and intelligences that can best empower their success. Students grow best through their strengths. Discovering their strengths and engaging in learning through interests stimulates the strongest neural circuits so the brain is preset for engagement and knowledge building. One size does not fit all in assessment and instruction. The current testing system and the curriculum that it has spawned is unidirectional and leaves behind the majority of students who do not do their best with the linear, sequential instruction. With greater differentiation of instruction we can lower the barriers, not the bar as all children learn to their full potentials.
6. Inspiration and engagement open the brain's information filters (reticular activating system and amygdala) to accept sensory input. In the absence of these qualities at the beginning of a unit of instruction the brain, at an unconscious level, does not admit the input that is not determined valuable to survival or pleasure. To gain admission through these unconscious brain filters lessons need to be personally relevant, low in stress, and incorporate enjoyable modes of information presentation.
7. Lower Stress. React or Reflect? The amygdala is an emotion evaluating structure through which all sensory input must pass. The state of stress or well-being determines if the input is directed to the reflective, higher cognitive "conscious" decision-making brain, or to the reactive brain where the only "choices" at this unconscious level are fight, flight, or freeze. These are often misinterpreted by teachers as ADHD, acting-out, or signs of low intelligence. The students are not consciously misbehaving. Their brains are simply in the reactive state in which they have no conscious control.
8. Using Learning Beyond the Classroom. New "learning" does not become permanent memory unless there is repeated stimulation of the new memory neural pathways. This is the "practice makes permanent" aspect of neuroplasticity where neural networks most stimulated develop more dendrites, synapses, and thicker myelin for more efficient information transmission. These stronger networks are less susceptible to pruning and become long-term memory holders. Students need to use what they learn repeatedly and in different, personally meaningful ways for short-term memory to become permanent knowledge that can be retrieved and used in the future.
9. Teach students (and educators) the Brain Owner's Manual. The most important manual students and educators can read is the owner's manual to their own brain. When we understand how our brains take in and store information, we hold the keys to operating our brains most successfully. Understanding that they can change their own brains and intelligence (neuroplasticity) builds students' resilience and willingness to persevere through challenge. See Education Leadership's publication of "What you should know about your brain"
10. Teaching is not brain surgery. It's Harder. When teachers receive the recognition, status, and more of the autonomy I receive as a neurologist, we will attract the best and brightest to teaching and keep professional educators longer than the current five year average.