“When are we ever going to use any of this?”

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It was a spring day during the eight grade year of my formal schooling. My peers and I were getting ready to make the jump from middle school to high school that, coupled with the humid Georgia spring, made it difficult to coral the attention of our thirty student Algebra class.

Yet, Jim, who was also the school principle at the time, had a way about him that was larger than life and always managed to keep everyone on their toes. Equally quick witted with jokes about himself and his students. His boisterous demeanor was too much to ignore and generally had a way of keeping the majority of his class involved. Today was no exception.

Then it happened, a kid in the front of the class raised his hand and Jim called on him only to hear the age old fateful question: “When are we ever going to use any of this?” Jim replied quite earnestly:

“You will use this twice in your life, once when you are an Algebra student performing it on the test… and a second time when you become an Algebra teacher and put it on a test.”

That was the last time that student was an active participant in their mathematical education. And yes, this is anecdotal evidence, but we think it offers a cross section of the issue facing education in a modern society: culture. Conventional schooling is failing us, particularly in the United States of America, because our educational culture isn’t evolving with our society.

In days gone by, people bought into the idea that if you worked hard in school and went to college, you would be able to get a good job and live out the rest of your life. It was with that idea in mind that school curriculum was molded, and at the time, it worked. However today’s youth don’t buy into that idea anymore, and frankly, they are correct not to. According to a study done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012, Millennials (born between 1977-1997) generally stay with one job for less than 3 years indicating that they may have as many as 20 jobs in a lifetime.

That’s where the narrative begins to unravel. While you are definitely better off getting a degree from a college or university, it is no longer a guarantee. Also, the field of study one takes during their education and their GPA is becoming less and less important as employers begin to focus more heavily on experiential learning.

According to world –renowned education and creativity expert, Sir Ken Robinson, the origin of our educational system can be traced back to the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and the economic culture of the industrial revolution. This is the base, the common ancestor, of public education even in today’s society which divides people into two types: academic and nonacademic. These two categories are still determined through a classical view of the mind however, where deductive reasoning and specialized knowledge reigns supreme. Yet the specialized knowledge that we often value is no longer relevant in modern society. Yes, there are sects that having a deep knowledge and appreciation for Homer’s Odyssey would be quite useful, but not having that knowledge should not push you into the nonacademic category. Especially with the advent of technology, particularly the internet, it has become more important to know where to access information rather than have the information off hand. The corporate world, colleges, massive open online courses (M.O.O.Cs), learning management systems, and start-ups like StudyHubb are trying to involve the context of a learning enviroment, yet our educational system is not accounting for this shift in paradigm and that is a major issue.

We are too reliant on our current educational model which, once again, is born of the enlightenment and industrial revolution eras. It is interesting that our educational systems are modeled after industrialization. The vast majority of public schools are modeled in a similar fashion to a factory with the youth being shepherded through an assembly line of sorts. There are ringing bells and everything is broken up into sections, but most bizarre of all is that we push children through based on their age. This places a child’s age as the highest level of importance in education rather than ability level.  It is time to abolish the assembly line mentality and start focusing on different ways of teaching. Yet we are moving more toward it as we embrace standardized testing as the norm for public education.

The solution to this is not simple. It will be a massive undertaking and take a great deal of time. These are not favorable conditions in a society that is used to having everything available to them right now. We have also seen attempts to change the educational culture fail in the past, particularly when the United States tried to implement the metric system into schools.

We must do away with grade levels and the systematic ageism that goes hand in hand with them. We must take the time to learn how people learn and not push toward a very specific subset of knowledge to pass one test. No two people are alike, we should not publically shame kids that have a harder time with math or reading, but help them. We need to build a society where it is socially acceptable that a nine year old and an eleven year old are learning the same thing, and that they can do it together without judgment. We fail our youth when we push them into higher grades because their reading skills are strong enough to be in the next level but their math skills are not.  We fail our youth when we do not take the time to learn which ones are auditory learners who perform best while working in teams. It is creating a disjointed educational community. One that will not be able to stand the test of time. One that says to our youth: You will use this twice in your life, once when you are a student performing it on the test… and a second time when you become a teacher and put it on a test.

On to the next problem: wealth inequality.

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