Parents on the Front Lines
How a global pandemic exposes the failures of our educational system.
Posted June 11, 2020
We’re in a global pandemic and parents now find themselves on the front lines of their children’s schooling. I’ve provided some advice in previous publications about how to better survive this—like designing effective motivational systems and using a timer to create a clear distinction between work and break time. Although good advice, such strategies will not solve the bigger problem facing us: the way schools are designed actually doesn’t work.
As you sift through the mountains of lessons assigned to your kids each day, you’re likely feeling overwhelmed. Some schools are actually assigning even more challenging work than when schools were open. For example, a mom I had the pleasure of meeting a few weeks ago reported to me that her 4-year old was being required to identify Italian words for pictures, but the child wasn’t even learning Italian before schools shut down. Not to mention that her child can’t even read in English yet. Doesn’t make much sense, right? No wonder so many parents want to jump out of the nearest open window!
So, what’s the deal? Why is the task of managing our kids’ school requirements so infuriating? The fact of the matter is that parents finally have a front-row seat to the ridiculous design of our educational system, which isn’t based on how learning actually occurs. Rather, schools are designed based on beliefs about how children learn. These beliefs have been running the show since the dawn of our school system, which has never produced high levels of proficiency with a majority of students.
Now that we are in the midst of a global pandemic, the importance of a well-educated world populace is more relevant than ever. We need highly competent individuals to solve the complex problems that face us—including our current crisis. We can’t afford for our educational system to remain in the dark ages. We need schools to evolve and incorporate the vast scientific discoveries that have been made regarding the nature of human learning.
Behavioral science, which is the science of learning, has led to the discovery that we learn through the repeated reinforcement of our behavior over time. As we behave, and that behavior comes into contact with reinforcing consequences in the environment, our behavior increases in strength and, eventually, becomes established as a permanent part of our repertoire. In other words, with enough reinforced practice, behavior becomes habitual.
Behavioral science has also discovered that more complex skills can’t be effectively learned and mastered until prerequisite skills are mastered. For example, we can’t master algebra all at once. We must first master all of the components of algebra like numeracy and basic computation skills. This same learning process applies to how we learn everything: sports, musical instruments, academic skills, etc.
Since schools aren’t designed according to the actual learning process, a majority of students fail to master skills but are pushed ahead anyway. Kids are pushed along from skill to skill and grade to grade based on age and arbitrary timelines because of the belief that learning occurs via exposure to experiences, and the more stuff kids are exposed to, the better.
This belief explains a lot of frustration and failure, such as why your kids are given 15 different lessons to learn a week, with very few opportunities to actually practice the content included in any of the lessons; why your kids can’t recall any of the lessons they were exposed to as recently as a week ago; or why your kids are being expected to complete complex math problems even though they still have to count on their fingers to compute basic math facts.
Exposure to lots of stuff doesn’t equal learning or mastery. Exposure to lots of stuff is similar to throwing a handful of cooked spaghetti at the wall and hoping that a few pieces stick. As a scientist-educator who has been rapidly accelerating academic and cognitive skills with students for more than 20 years, I can tell you that the ol' “throw spaghetti at the wall” method of instruction is not scientific nor a recipe for success—it’s actually a recipe for disaster.
Effective instruction requires design based on how the learning process actually works. Kids need to spend more time practicing skills and less time having content thrown at them. Scientist-educators, like me, who use instruction based on behavioral science, produce exponentially greater learning gains than traditional approaches. We don’t produce these kinds of outcomes by exposing kids to lots of stuff. We produce these kinds of outcomes by giving learners the time to practice skills until they are truly mastered or fluent. A fluent skill has become a habit—an automatic, effortless, permanent skill available whenever a child needs to use it.
When learners are given the time required to practice skills to fluency, they begin leaping up curriculum ladders and performing more complex skills with little instruction or effort required. Fluent learners are confident, vital, independent, joyful, and lifelong learners. Unfortunately, the way schools are designed actually produces dysfluency rather than fluency. Being dysfluent at skills is like tripping over untied shoelaces all day. But fluency in skills means being an expert, a champion, a pro. Everyone wants to be an expert, right? Expertise is learned. Expertise is a byproduct of effective practice.
We need an educational system designed to produce experts—those highly trained individuals that will go forth and make the kinds of discoveries that will save us all from future pandemics. Experts aren’t born. Experts are trained. The science of learning has been completely ignored by the educational establishment for decades. We can no longer tolerate an educational system based on belief. The future of our planet and our species requires education based on science. Now that you are all experiencing the frustrations of an antiquated, unscientific educational system, maybe you will become as angry as I am. Enough is enough. We need behavioral science in our schools—now more than ever.