You can blame large class sizes, teacher experience or salary, or parent involvement in the home, to name a few, but there is no simple answer to the problems of public education. The responsibility must be shared.
In Finland, recently touted as a model for public education, students are given no homework. The younger students have school only three hours a day. Teachers there finish teaching, finish planning, and go home before my school day is done. Kids are encouraged to play and explore. The culture of the country truly supports work/home balance instead of giving it lip service like America does. The children are happier, and they are learning. While I’m sure even in Finland they have problem behaviors or students who don’t learn well, it’s a positive environment influences the children.
In the United States, students attend school for six hours a day. They are pressured to do well so they can get into a good college. In some families, grades are the most important thing about their child’s education. Parents work long hours, and their children come home to grandparents or day care. How can parents who see their children scant hours a day influence them to play and explore? If this country instituted an educational system that gave students more time to explore, the majority of kids would play video games, attend a Saturday school in language or culture, and participate on a regionally competitive sports team.
My students participate in Genius Hour once a week. They come up with an inquiry question about something they wonder about, research it, and build it. The problem is that they don’t wonder about anything. If they have a question, they Google it. Getting them to design inquiries has taken all year. They all want to do Powerpoint presentations for their projects–to show what they’ve researched. Genius Hour is more than that, though. They need to have hands-on exploration. In the past, students have built a life-sized unicorn, made a scale model of a condor out of recycled parts, sewed a skirt, and designed their own website using html. Today’s students
In order for them to thrive in a model like Finland’s, American students need more than a redesigned program at school and a teacher’s lead. They need affordable after school programs that encourage critical thinking, parent time that is more than meals or homework battles, and time away from the screens in their lives.
While much creative energy can be stimulated on a computer, students need to explore the world around them. I teach in an area with a lot of undeveloped land close by. Mountain lions, deer, turkeys, rabbits, foxes, and elk can be seen often. A deep creek runs under the road, and none of my students have stood on the bridge and marveled at the foliage-covered twenty-foot drop. None of them have heard the ground squirrels bark a warning as they walk past a field dotted with oak trees. Non-screen experiences like these are the sort of thing that sparks curiosity. Finnish students are being given the opportunity to be curious. American students are not.