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Take the Reins of the Education System -- and Pull Very Hard

September 23, 2010 By:
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
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[Illustration by Paul Tong]

On Sunday, Oct. 3, Central Park will become the staging area to kick off a new movement in educational reform. Dubbed the "Ultimate Block Party," our aim is to draw attention to what concerned scientists are calling the educational equivalent of "global warming." The young children in our preschools and primary schools today are the workforce of 2040, and all indications are that they will be woefully ill-prepared for it.

Perhaps this is why this month, NBC is raising the issue through its educational summit, and why in early October a buzz is sure to surround the new documentary "Waiting for Superman," which highlights the crisis in American public education.

In this new era, the 21st Century Partnership -- a national group that provides educational resources to bolster student readiness -- tells us that our children must be prepared to collaborate with one another by learning in teams, by engaging in critical thinking and by feeding on creative innovation. Our schools, however, are largely fashioned for the industrial age. There is too much focus on teaching the facts, rather than teaching for meaning. Our students often engage in scripted learning and prepare for tests that emphasize just one right answer.

Indeed, one Time magazine article joked that if Rip van Winkle returned today, he would find comfort in the fact that schools have changed little during his long repose. Perhaps this is why American scores on international tests remain in the middle third of industrialized nations, and why we rank 26th of 50 nations in the number of students who graduate from high school.

Still, amid all the kvetching lie some hopeful answers. Those who study the learning sciences can offer directives for a new approach to education -- one that starts with strong and playful early-childhood and kindergarten programs. We also need to craft our informal learning experiences out of school in ways that engage kids. In learning vocabulary, for example, words like airplane, voyage and fuselage are best remembered when linked to a story about Amelia Earhart's journey, rather than just memorizing word lists.

It is worth noting that this new education is really quite old. A close friend, who's also a talmudic scholar, recently reminded me that Jewish education has been founded on these principles for centuries. We have long stressed that learning occurs in groups, where students build hevruta, or communities of learning -- where critical thinking is prized, where there is no one right answer, and where creative ideas are valued.

The Ultimate Block Party (www.ultimateblockparty.org) is a free event for families aimed at sparking a new conversation around playful learning. It is being sponsored by a host of nonprofits, including Sesame Workshop and the Children's Museum of Manhattan, as well as several institutions of higher learning, including New York University, Harvard College and Temple University.

Supported in part by the National Science Foundation, this event is merely a start to showcase what educators have known for years: When children are engaged in discovery and exploration, and when they are playing, they learn better.

It is time to change the lens on how we think about learning -- or maybe just to reinvent what Jewish educators have known all along. It is time to prepare our children with the skills sets that they need for success in school and in the workplace of tomorrow -- those of collaboration, critical thinking and creative innovation.

Until we create a groundswell of voices that includes parents, educators and policy-makers, we will be trapped with a system that is holding back our kids from reaching their fullest potential.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is a pyschology professor at Temple University, where she serves as director of the Infant Language Laboratory. She is a co-creator and co-organizer of the "Ultimate Block Party."


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