Category Archives: Civic Issues Blog

Education and Creativity

Last semester, we watched clips of one of the most viewed TED talks of all time. Sir Ken Robinson’s, “How schools kill creativity,” is an incredibly insightful talk that exposes many problems present not only in the educational system of the world, but also problems that are present in society surrounding education.

In the beginning of his speech, Robinson makes a joke about educators not being invited to dinner parties. He states that most people would be absolutely appalled if they needed to speak to an educator about their profession, however when asked about their own education, they cannot stop talking. This is the first problem present in society when it comes to education: people do not want to discuss it. Whether it is because they dreaded sitting in the classroom, or they have a job completely separate from their degree, very few people are willing to discuss education, even as a profession, let alone the system itself. This talk was given in 2006, almost ten years ago, and the problems Sir Robinson discusses in his talk are still present today. This video has gotten an immense amount of views, and yet the problem it addresses still persists today. Why is that? It is because people have no desire to discuss education outside of their own educational history. Education is an incredibly future-oriented enterprise, always seeking ways to better prepare students for the ever-changing global community. The students sitting in the classroom, who face the problems of education every day, do not have the influence or stature to make real changes. In order for these problems to be solved, conversation must take place among those with the power to make the necessary changes. People need to look past their own time in school, and start thinking about the billions of children that will go through school in the future.

The overarching theme of Robinson’s talk is that education kills children’s capacity for creativity. His most salient example is the story he tells of Gillian Lynne, the choreographer of the Broadway hits Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. In an interview, Lynne told Robinson that, while in grade school, her teachers contacted her parents about the possibility of Lynne having a learning disability. Her parents took her to a specialist, and after discussing Lynne’s problems in school, the doctor left the room to speak to Lynne’s mother. Rather than say Lynne needed to settle down in class and prescribe her medication, the doctor turned on the radio. Immediately, Lynne got up and started dancing. The doctor advised her enrollment in a dancing school, and the rest is history. What this doctor did is what education needs to do for students. Particularly since the implementation of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, certain academic skills have been highlighted as more important than others. For example, math is more important than music, and chemistry is more important than art. The current educational system works to mold students into certain careers that are currently thought of as valuable to society. What the system does not do is foster the growth of each individual student’s interests. Robinson stated this, saying that education does not teach students as whole individuals, rather it squanders certain interests, and for those that are skilled in these “less important” subjects, makes them feel unintelligent. By putting more emphasis on certain subjects, and casually telling students that they will never get a job in art or music, schools kill the creative tendencies of many young children. Six year olds drawing fantastic lands of mystery are told to draw an animal they saw at the zoo. Children with incredible musical talent are told to put down the violin and pick up the protractor. A myriad of studies have been conducted showing the incredible connections between intelligence and creative capacity. With all of this data supporting the continuation of music and arts programs, it is hard to believe that a lot of schools across the United States are cutting funding to these programs.

The overarching opinion of those interested in the betterment of education is that schools should help children realize their own potential, and help them succeed by pursuing their own interests. If education’s focus does not shift to educating the student as a whole, it will be failing billions of our world’s youth in the future.

Here’s the link to the TED Talk:

Critical Thinking in the Classroom

A major debate that has been taking place in the world of education over the past thirty to fifty years is the question of whether or not critical thinking is an important skill to teach students in the classroom. There, at least in my opinion, is no question. The goal of education, in a vast majority of educators’ minds, is to prepare students to solve the problems of the world that do not even exist yet. The only true way to do this is to teach students how to think and learn, not how to pass a History test, or their SAT. This is an odd concept, teachers allowing students to learn how to learn. That sentence in and of itself is a little confusing, but its meaning is what many educators think needs to be at the heart of education all over the world.

So, what does it mean to think critically? The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines it as, “that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it” (“Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking”). They go on to emphasize that critical thinking is an incredibly intrinsically motivated skill, and relies heavily on the thinker wanting to become a better, more thoroughly educated person (“Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking”). But what does this formal definition mean? It means that in order for someone to think critically, she must first accept that her thinking has been tainted and prejudiced. Without her knowing it, her thinking has been molded, and almost barricaded, by her experience. In order to begin thinking critically, she must break down these walls, and look inward, to try and rid her thoughts of these stains and prejudices. After she has done this, she can look out into the world and begin to evaluate the actions and thinking of those around her, and evaluate what is true, and what has been said without validation. Many view critical thinkers as skeptics, not willing to accept anything as true, forever hoping to prove someone wrong. This is the exact opposite of the goal of critical thinking. Because of her ability to fairly evaluate every situation, the critical thinker has an incredibly open mind, and is willing to accept truths that counter her beliefs. She is able to look at the world in its true form, and benefit greatly from this higher level thought process.

So, how do we teach students to critically think? A huge responsibility is placed on teachers for this to happen. In the 1980’s, teachers attempted to implement critical thinking as its own entity into their curriculum, and found that it needs to be interwoven into pre-existing curricula to be taught successfully. Due to the malleability of critical thinking, teachers need to be creative in weaving in critical thinking into their everyday lessons. That being said, there are multiple ways to do this. In Vera Schneider’s article, “Critical Thinking in the Elementary Classroom: Problems and Solutions,” she shares some methods of implementing critical thinking into the classroom that have worked. These include: “Do not readily find solutions for students… Always seek opportunities for brainstorming… Compare and Contrast anything and everything… Categorize… Encourage Creativity… [and] Teach students to think critically across the curriculum” (Schneider).

I would like to touch on the first of these methods with an analogy. This idea of not revealing the solution to students immediately is much like the scenario where a driver is lost and asking for directions. Would it be more effective to tell the driver that she should drive to her destination, or tell her which roads to follow to get to her destination? Now, back in the classroom setting, for students to be able to solve future problems, it is almost unimportant that they know the exact solution to that singular problem. What is more important is that they understand how to look at the problem, and know how to approach it.

Think of some of the problems that may arise in the future, or problems that already exist in today’s society. Would the issue of alternative energy still be a problem if we knew how to solve the crisis? Do we know how to participate in digital warfare? Do we know how to truly reverse the effects of Global Warming? Do we know an equation to describe all prime numbers? The answer to all of these questions is no. So, education must prepare students to answer these problems that do not yet have solutions. How can this be done? By teaching students how to think critically.

Deliberation Reflection

I attended Deliberating the Learning Objectives of the Modern Classroom on Sunday, March 1. Given my strong interest in education, I was very excited to attend this deliberation. Before I went, I thought of the possible topics that could be brought up at this deliberation. I thought immediately of standardized testing and the various methods that can be used to teach in a classroom. These two topics were both touched on, but the overall goal of the deliberation focused more on the “pillars” of education. These pillars were Knowledge, Independent Thought, and Social and Civil Development.

In the first pillar, Knowledge, the main method of education matched the model that so many students are used to: Students are given the tools they need to learn the material, the teacher lectures, and the students are evaluated. In this category, standardized testing was brought up a lot, and many of the problems of this approach were brought up. One such problem highlighted the problem of trying to generalize evaluation systems when students all have very unique interests and skills.

In the second pillar, Independent Thought, the idea of critical thinking was brought up a lot. The main question brought up was, “What is critical thinking?” As a group, we seemed to land on the idea that critical thinking was the ability to take the knowledge gained in the classroom and creatively apply it to the world. This approach highly valued the individual’s interests, but proved difficult to fairly evaluate all students.

In the third and final pillar, Social and Civil Development, the main topic of discussion was group work. An intriguing thing happened during this approach. The facilitators asked how many of the participants would rather do a group project than an individual assignment, and one person of all of the twenty or so participants raised their hand. This is a very startling and worrying result. In the “real world” we are all going to have to interact and work with a lot of people to try and solve complex problems. This approach was the only one that seemed to be left without much resolution, and the overarching question we were left with was, “How do we improve group work to prepare people for the ‘real world’?”

Overall, this deliberation worked really well. There were a lot of people in attendance, so there were a lot of different opinions being shared. This kept conversation interesting, and none of it seemed forced. The facilitators created an environment conducive to discussion, and allowed each person to freely share their mind. We were all sitting in a big circle, and the room felt connected. The three approaches, while seemingly simple, were three very separate methods that I had not fully thought of before. They led very nicely into one another, and each approach on its own created a lot of valuable conversation. I had an amazing time at this deliberation, and came out with a much deeper level of thought in terms of education. As a future educator, these topics are all things I am going to have to take into consideration for my own classroom. This deliberation was exceptional, and I hope more like this take place in the future.

Technology in the Classroom: A Hinderance to the Learning Process

A topic in the world of education that has been on the hot seat recently is the use of technology in the classroom. This topic hits very close to home for me, as my high school is considering partnering with Google, and providing a Chromebook for each student, and making each classroom a digital learning environment. Whether we like it or not, the world is beginning to become overrun with technology. Even the simplest things, like sinks and hand dryers in bathrooms are adapting to this growth in technology. In the classroom, technology can be used to eliminate the cost of textbooks when switching to all e-books; it can make sharing documents easier and increase collaboration among students through various engines like Google Drive and Dropbox; and can help acclimate the students of today with the technologies of tomorrow. However, despite the numerous advantages of increasing the use of technology in the classroom, I feel as though it is unnecessary, and detrimental to the learning experience.

Most of my opinion originates from my major. I am a Mathematics Major, and am seeking a PhD in Pure Mathematics. What that means, is that my job will consist of sitting in a room, and coming up with new mathematical theories from scratch. I am a theorist at heart, and I cringe whenever I need to “apply” mathematical principles to the real world. I am a huge opponent of the calculator, and I think it is making students taking math in today’s schooling system lazy, but I digress. Anyway, my interests and general opinions of the world lead me to believe that education should be about the fundamentals. I like to think of education as the construction of a very tall building. When looked at in this way, it is no question that a strong, reliable foundation is necessary to keep the building from falling over. So, how do we create these strong foundations? By doing things the good ‘ol fashioned way. That’s right, paper and pen, working out things by hand, and scribbling out notes and rough drafts until your hand cramps up. By doing these things, students gain an understanding of why things work, not just the fact that they do. They learn to appreciate the effort it takes to do a math problem, to write an essay, or to conduct research for a history paper.

So, how is technology hindering the education process? Julia Klaus’s article, “Negative Effects of Using Technology in the Classroom,” states that two of the biggest problems with technology in the classroom are that it is “overused, [and] takes away learning time.” She says that the time teachers need to take, both to acclimate themselves with the new technology in the room, as well as deal with technical difficulties that may arise, takes away valuable time that the students could be using to learn. She also states that most students retain information more successfully “… by physically and mentally interacting with what they are studying.” Teaching through a computer takes away from this, and the continued use of technology in the classroom distances the students from the material, making it harder for them to learn (Klaus). Another problem with technology in the classroom that is more prevalent on college campuses with larger lecture halls is what’s known as the “Halo Effect.” The Halo Effect details the fact that a laptop being used by someone is actually inadvertently distracting the students in the next few rows behind the user. So, by introducing laptops into the classroom, it not only presents the opportunity for the user to get distracted by social media sites or games, but also puts other students in danger of getting distracted by the bright computer screen.

So, overall, in the classroom, I feel that technology hurts the learning process. However, I will leave this post on a more positive note. I feel that technology has the potential to help students exponentially, outside of the classroom. With resources like internet databases, word processing and other various computer programs, collaboration engines like Google Drive and Dropbox, etc., students live in a world that harbors efficiency and a streamlined work process. What will make this technology even more effective, is if it is left out of the learning process itself, and is used to show understanding, rather than create it.

The Common Core Standards

A recent initiative in education has pushed for equality among students, and a standard for evaluation and curriculum. This initiative, the Common Core Standards System, has caused much debate in the education community, and, in my mind, needs some serious revisiting.

The Common Core Standards System’s website states that these standards are, “Research and evidence based,… aligned with college and career expectations, based on rigorous content…,… and informed by other top-performing countries to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society,” (Read the Standards). These standards are further broken down into Mathematics Standards, and English, Language Arts/Literacy Standards. At its core, these standards make sense. They work toward creating an equal playing field for students nation wide, and should make comparison for college applications more fair.

However, many issues exist in the Common Core system. The first main problem is that these standards push teachers to “teach to the test,” and not focus on teaching their students to learn. These standards are evaluated through a series of standardized tests, which schools and teachers are then evaluated on based on their students’ performance. So, in order for the schools to have a good image in the government’s eye, it makes sense that they would encourage their students in any way they could to do well on these tests. However, this style of teaching hurts the students. What happens when they get to college, or out into the workforce, and not every question in life needs them to “Find x,” or discover what tone the author was portraying in the passage?  Our children truly are the future, and our education systems should be focused on teaching our students the skills that they need to solve problems that do not yet exist. With the incredibly fast advancement of technology, and our world becoming more and more connected every day, our teaching should not focus on a standardized test that asks students a inconceivably small fraction of the material they will need to know in their everyday lives.

Also, these standards do not let students explore their interests at young ages. Children should be encouraged to try a variety of new things, whether it be math, sports, art, music, etc. and these standards are making it very difficult for them to do this. These national standards, by their very nature, must be a one-size-fits-all system that hopes to reach every student in America. Sadly, this can never truly be achieved. The students that are interested in art need to take time to make sure that they are proficient in mathematics, and those students interested in the sciences must now take the time to learn the vocabulary that they will be tested on. These standards put all students in a box, not treating each and every one of them as the individuals they are. As a college student, I have found that there are so many things I was interested in that I had no idea existed before coming to Penn State. Why was I unaware of these things in high school? Part of the issue is that high schools do not have the funds of a university like Penn State, but the bigger issue is that public education systems are more focused on meeting the needs of the Common Core than they are of their students. Education is about allowing students to explore THEIR interests, and while a strong foundation in many areas is key, it is not the end all be all. So many kids go to college without the slightest idea of what they want to do with their life, and spend valuable tuition dollars on classes that will not benefit them at all in the future. If they could have taken the time in high school to find what interests them as a career, this “wasted time” could be cut down, and allow students to flourish in the university academic setting.

While the initiative of the Common Core is grounded in great intentions – leveling the playing field, creating a strong working foundation for students to branch off of later in life – it fails to meet the main purpose of education (in my mind at least: to foster a student’s potential and interests to allow them to find a career that they will love doing for the rest of their life. For this reason, I think the Common Core needs to be seriously revisited to help students be the best they can possibly be.

The Importance of Classroom Orientation

When discussing education reform, many people think of hot topics that are focused on what is being taught and how it is being taught. These topics include teaching for standardized testing, class size, teacher evaluations, etc. However, not much thought is put into the importance of where the students are being taught. Many studies have shown that the room a student sits in during class has major effects on their performance. For instance, students are found to score higher on exams if the assessments are given in the same room that the class normally meets. Students are used to learning in that space, and can use the aspects of the familiar classroom to recall information. They can remember where the teacher stood when presenting an important point during lecture, or look up and remember where their professor circled an important point on the chalkboard.

This is just one instance of how the setting of learning is very important. The subject I would like to bring up is something that I have not heard much discussion over, and that is the physical structure of the classroom. The arrangement of desks matters, the position of the professor matters, much more than you would expect. The typical classroom setting – even rows of desks, teacher lecturing and using the blackboard in front of these desks – is not, in my mind, the most effective layout for the quintessential learning environment.

Let me preface my next few points by stating that this idea of altering the typical classroom structure does not hold for all subjects. The ideas I have in mind are ones that encourage interaction among students, increase communication and deliberation, and allow for the learning process to be self-sustaining. These aspects of the newly-designed classroom would not be very useful in a calculus course, for example. These types of classes hinge heavily upon the instructor relaying all of the information necessary for learning the subject to his/her students, rather than presenting an idea and having the students discuss the topic further.

What is wrong with the typical classroom? First, this arrangement of rows upon rows of desks creates physical obstacles for those students who do not get a seat in the front of the classroom. Students in the back of the room must bob and weave their sight through the back of the heads in front of them, hoping they can catch a glimpse of the board. This arrangement creates more than just physical boundaries. This structure creates a perceived caste-system, with the seemingly higher achieving, outgoing students sitting in the front of the classroom, and the shy and under-motivated students sitting in the back. This design also alienates the professor, making them incredibly intimidating, and hard to relate to. This is especially harmful in college, where asking for help from the professor is already intimidating enough. While they lecture in the front of the classroom, a gap is created; a divide that transforms the professor into an intangible entity of knowledge, who can never be reached for assistance.

So, what do we do to fix this problem? The solution is simple, but varies depending on the course being taught, and at what level the instruction is taking place. For this post, let’s focus only on discussion-based college courses. In his article, “A Place for Learning: The Physical Environment of Classrooms,” Mark Phillips details his preference for a semi-circular seating arrangement. He states, “A semicircle encourages interaction and enables all students to see each other. This is important if you place a high value on relationships between students, building community and creating an open environment” (Phillips, It is no secret that the semi-circular arrangement promotes conversation, which is incredibly important in courses like Philosophy and English. However, what is more important about this arrangement, is that it makes students comfortable sharing their viewpoints, and helps them build strong human relationships, something that has been declining ever since the birth of social media. Deliberation is a lost art, and this arrangement would help students develop this important skill. This orientation also allows the professor to become part of the group, including him/her in such a way, that they are no longer intimidating to the class. As subtle as it is, the arrangement and structure of the classroom can play a major role in the quality of students’ education.