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Unexpected Tools That are Influencing the Future of Education

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Mia Christopher
Mia Christopher

Some big education issues have been making headlines, including how many and what kind of standardized tests should be used in education, implementation of Common Core State Standards and the Vergara ruling in California challenging teacher tenure. But many educators continue to focus on the more personal issues behind these headlines: how to improve their craft, serve students better, nurture well-rounded, emotionally intelligent students and make educational change in more fundamental ways.


Teachers have long known that struggles in the classroom are often a reflection of society as much as of academic ability. And beyond the many challenges related to rising poverty rates, there is the uniquely confusing moment in which society finds itself. Around the globe, economies are shifting away from machine-focused industries and toward human-powered creative industries. Many adults are caught in the middle of this awkward shift, educated for the industrial age but trying to make a living in the information age. In an uncertain moment, they can be nervous about letting young people find their own way forward.

John Abbott, director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative, has thought a lot about these issues and surmises that society must decide what it wants to be: interconnected individuals responsible to a community or a world filled with “consumers,” dependent on products, services and authority figures. Shifting to an education model that produces people who thrive on interconnectivity will take a dramatic revisioning of society. But that type of shift might be just what is required to ensure that the education children receive in the future meets that dramatically different end goal.

Changing the direction of society sounds like a daunting proposition, but examples of forward-thinking teaching and communities abound, often in isolation. As difficult as it can be for teachers to give up control over their classrooms, great things can happen when students step up and boldly take charge of their learning.


At Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts, educators responded when students came forward with an idea for an entirely student-led approach to school. In one independent-study-type course, students set their own learning goals, work collaboratively and seek help from mentors when it’s needed. They study math, science, social science and literature topics that interest them through a driving question each week, presenting their findings to a group. Their teachers were impressed with the rigor of their work and the motivation students displayed when they drove the agenda.

Saying students should drive their own learning is much easier than helping them do it. Former teacher-turned-lecturer Alan November has done some deep thinking about how teachers can help students gain the skills they’ll need to be independent learners. He emphasizes that teachers should help students ask the right questions and use the technology tools available to them to find credible information. He recommends teachers give students the ability to work on long-term projects that meaningfully contribute to the world, helping to provide the motivation for independent learning.

While some schools are finding ways to let students take up the reins of their education, many are still beholden to the regimented public system that includes lots of standardized testing for assessment and accountability purposes. The increasing focus on testing has driven some families away from the education system entirely, and the number of home-schooled students has grown.

One particular strain of home schooling, known as unschooling, has caught the imagination of many MindShift readers. Unschoolers follow no set curriculum, but rather let their children explore the world on their own terms and at their own speed. The focus is on curiosity, inquiry and projects, with the belief that kids will ask for help and learn in all disciplines when acquiring the necessary knowledge to achieve something with which they are absorbed.

Readers continue to debate whether students can really learn what they’ll need to be functioning adults without the intervention of a teacher or parent, but several people who have been unschooled themselves say they’re doing well in the world. Dr. Peter Gray has studied what unschoolers go on to do, and whether they face discrimination or other obstacles as they apply to colleges and enter the workforce.


Much of the disaffection with the school system stems from a pervasive feeling that the intense focus on formal academics has inadvertently neglected the rest of a child’s personality and humanity. While employers, psychologists and other researchers have repeatedly noted that social and emotional skills like empathy are some of the most important ones for success, many schools still lag in developing effective programs to nurture those soft skills.

Societal norms posit girls as being more emotionally intelligent than boys, but the subtle ways that teachers and parents reinforce that gender stereotype can harm boys, who need to learn empathy as an important life skill for connecting with others, problem-solving and developing moral courage. Many of these interpersonal skills develop naturally when children have the opportunity to play together in unstructured environments, but free play is on the decline both in schools and at home. Researchers are now even questioning if lack of free play in students’ lives could be partly responsible for rising rates of depression among youth.

One way to help students develop social and emotional skills is by helping them develop the part of their brain that governs self-regulation -- the prefrontal cortex. A few schools working with some of the most traumatized and disadvantaged students are finding that practicing mindfulness -- centering activities like focused breathing that keep the mind in the here and now -- can help students build the focus, decision-making and ability to think ahead that many students lack. One elementary school in Richmond, California, with a mindfulness program found behavior problems diminished and academic achievement increased with just a few minutes of mindfulness every week.


There’s a lot of research about how people learn best, but not all of that information has made it into mainstream classrooms. While many educators spend their free time brushing up on the new (and sometimes not so new) research, others are content to continue doing what has been done before. And students are just as susceptible to the inertia as the adults around them.

Students who have grown up in the current school system are used to being told exactly what they need to do in order to succeed. But the emphasis on grades and college can sometimes have the unintended consequence of making learning all about achieving an external goal and not about the learning itself.

Increasingly, teachers are working to change that dynamic by moving to standards-based grading, allowing students to receive credit for demonstrating understanding even if that realization comes after the class has moved onto a new topic. Removing the stress of grades can help focus students back on learning together, especially if the teacher makes a special emphasis to build a culture of trust in the classroom.

“We know how kids learn. We know what classes should look like. And yet our classes look almost the opposite,” said Adam Holman, a Texas educator who worked hard to “deprogram” his kids from the traditional way of learning by teaching them about how their brains work and why the dominant teaching style is incompatible. When Holman treated his students like adults who could understand the system in which they played, he earned their trust and their hard work.

Sometimes the teaching and studying strategies thought to work best actively contradict brain-based learning. New York Times writer Benedict Carey devoted an entire book to describing counter-intuitive study strategies based in cognitive science about memory and learning. For example, students tend to spend hours cramming for a test the next day, only to promptly forget everything they learned. They’d be better served to chunk study time over several days, taking breaks, sleeping more and quizzing themselves along the way. Many students don’t know any strategies to improve their own study skills and end up wasting a lot of time and effort.


Educators are always interested in peer-recommended tech products proven to be simple and effective in the classroom. When New Canaan High School (Connecticut) librarian Michelle Luhtala invited several of her colleagues to combine their favorite apps and share a list with the world, educators loved it. And it can be particularly helpful to find a great tool for subjects that don’t get a lot of attention, like physics.


MindShift readers consistently enjoy reading about ideas that push the dominant thinking and challenge educators to bring the strategies and tools that inspire them into the classroom. It doesn’t have to happen all at once, but if every teacher pinpoints one way to make his or her classroom more dynamic, these grand ideas might slowly become a reality for more schools, educators and kids.

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