POST 3: How do we avoid education’s “death valley” if we are already there?

In listening to Sir Ken Robinson‘s TEDTalk on how our current education system works in the United States and it’s limiting factors, I could not help but feel extremely motivated. Robinson’s mixture of humor and shear logic in explaining the way in which human beings operate makes it easy to feel compelled to go make changes in the world. It was as if Robinson took all of my (and I’m assuming many other people’s) thoughts on education, sifted through them, organized them, and then put them into a cohesive and well-thought out argument.

However, in the same breath, I also could not help but feel very overwhelmed and almost helpless at the same time. While the points he made were valid and as noted, logical, they also seemed far-fetched and unrealistic. In a way, it feels a bit too little too late.

When I think about our current education system, I am also pressed to think about how our education system mirrors many aspects of our daily lives. While I could go on and on about this, I will use the workplace as an example here. For instance, much like standardized testing, when it comes to the workplace, you must also complete certain tasks in order to move forward with the company. Students and employees are motivated by grade increases and raises or bonuses. In addition, there is an established hierarchy within the workplace that is also evident in the education systems. 

Keeping this in mind, the trouble I have with what Sir Ken Robinson proposes is not the idea itself, but more so the realistic-ness of it. If we are to reform schools, does this mean a complete reformation to other institutions, such as the workplace? And if so, how?

It is clear that change is needed, even if it is just one state at a time like Robinson explains. I also believe that it is this change that could be crucial to the overall success of our nation and the future lives of our children. By removing the pressure to pass standardized tests and creating an environment where students feel inspired, as opposed to forced, to learn, we can create that change.

However, while this is easy to envision and even easier to say, it is a tall task to actually accomplish. Beyond the fact that it is a timely and meticulous operation, it is my honest belief that it is hard to avoid the education “death valley” that Robinson speaks of because we are already there.

9 Replies to “POST 3: How do we avoid education’s “death valley” if we are already there?”

  1. Hi Blayne,

    I enjoyed reading your post tonight. Thanks for the reflection on Sir Ken. When I watch him speak, it inspires me! I hope that we as a society, will embrace these creative & positive learning environments and decide to use them everywhere. I think that’s where we are going everywhere, but it takes time to make big changes, like you talked about in your post and like what Sir Ken said in his talk. It is really frustrating to look around and see school systems bending over backwards for those standardized tests. Do you see yourself in a teaching position in the future? If so, how do you think you will approach some of these issues of student learning and motivation in your classroom?

  2. Yes, it does seem overwhelming. Perhaps Ellen Langer’s article on Mindfulness will be encouraging to you. She doesn’t believe we need a huge and expensive overhaul of our educational system, but a change in perspective. Instead of drilling things into student’s heads and making lessons more about conformity and control than active, mindful learning, we can go down the path toward making school more enjoyable for students and improving their performance. That can be the first baby step, and after that, we can move on to the larger issues at hand. It reminds me of a quote by Mother Teresa, “If I look at the mass, I will never act; if I look at the one, I will”.

  3. Hi, Blayne,

    I appreciate this post and am empathetic to that feeling of bewilderment and helplessness that can come with facing an issue as large as a broken education system. What’s important for me to remember is that I (and you) alone don’t have to tackle this task without aid. The public isn’t educated-enough on the fact that their education is, well, not enough right now. How often is this discussed in schools? For me, within the walls of my K-12 buildings, the matter was hush-hush. I firmly believe that if more people knew about the problematic nature of our culture of learning, in conjunction with having conversations about how best to combat and change it, then we could have a real movement.

    I’m sorry that you feel that it’s “too late,” though I wonder what, exactly, is too late, and which points you thought were far-fetched and unrealistic. I question these matters out of fear; if we continue to concede, we will continue to further weaken, to break.

  4. I got a similar feeling from watching his talk, but I also felt so inspired and agreed with many of his points. While overhauling our education system seems unrealistic, I think aspects of his talk could be incorporated into our education system on a smaller scale. Instead of reforming schools on the national level, what if one district or even one school at time reformed grading systems and learning environments and shared the experience, success and pitfalls. Other schools or counties may be inspired to make similar changes. More like a movement than and overhaul. This would certainly take much longer but may be a more viable approach.

  5. Blayne,
    Interesting post. I’m glad that you expanded the conversation beyond institutions of education and into society more broadly. Education policy and educational practice does not happen in a bubble and we need to think beyond our institutions when talking about change. So the question we need to ask ourselves is whether our obsession with measurable-results is limited to education or whether this is just a manifestation of a broader phenomenon throughout society. I concur with you that the focus on measurable-results seems to be society-wide and not just limited to education. Any time I read advice columns about resumes or job hunts, there is always a heavy emphasis on portraying your accomplishments in terms of quantifiable results – sales numbers, productivity numbers, etc. I don’t think that this necessarily means that change is impossible, it just means that we need to articulate the need for a more nuanced view of ‘success,’ across society and not just in education.

  6. I agree– it seems like we already are in education’s “Death Valley,” and that real change seems out of reach. But I suppose that is the idea behind activism– advocating for a change that you are passionate about and believe firmly in. The change doesn’t have to happen all at once either… Small changes over time can add up to big things. So, while Sir Ken Robinson calls for some big change– rightfully so– I think the path to get there is small changes accomplished through activism and advocacy. That is, never lose sight of the bigger picture and why it’s all important, but setting that bar lower to something that feels actually achievable as a stepping stone to bigger and better things seems like the right place to start.

  7. I truly relate to the feeling you described of operating in a system that is clearly troubled with the fixes feeling far out of reach. While I think it’s important to reflect on these large-scale issues and find methods of advocacy, I’ve also found that spending too much time considering the greater picture can just be demoralizing. Change is a slow process and there’s not way to make government agencies and students jump right onto a total overhaul.

    With that in mind, I think it’s really important to consider the factors within your locus of control. Given the system we work in and the where the students we work with are coming from, what can we do to promote learning in our current environment? It might require some out-of-the-box thinking, but since education is such an individual process, the result might change the individual perspectives of those you teach, how they think and how they live.

  8. I enjoyed your post! I also felt a similar “more easily said than done” response to Sir Robinson’s video (a feeling I get from a lot of TEDtalks, quite honestly). Your connection between grades and raises is very interesting to me. I have a similar tension within my own pedagogy between holding students to strict deadlines for papers while also considering that they are very busy young adults with many courses, clubs, and activities on their plates. I allow at least one late assignment a semester, as long as the student contacts me before the due date. But honestly, depending on the circumstances, I am often more flexible than that, especially if a student lets me know what is going on in their world / what their barriers to success are. So I, too, struggle with the arbitrary nature of educational regimes as it relates to the “real world.”

  9. Thank you, Blayne, for your thoughts. I think the issue should include the industry as well. Students care the most about the grades as the industry ( and the academia as well) would evaluate them mostly on their GPA, so it might be wise to let the companies come up with their own tests that are different from the standardized tests. In this way, students can be less stressed when getting low grades and pay more attention to gain knowledge than makers.

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