The structures that dominate the western educational model have often been attributed to Otto Von Bismarck, the charismatic political and military leader who unified Germany in the 1860s. Faced with an ongoing need for efficient, effective soldiers, he standardized German education to build a consistent set of practical skills (reading, writing, arithmetic – and following instructions) that would better serve the German army. Impressed by his accomplishments, the model was introduced to North America by wealthy industrialists seeking a standardized and qualified labour force to operate its newly-burgeoning factory system. Von Bismarck’s education system, it turned out, was perfectly suited to the needs of Henry Ford and his assembly lines…
Fast forward a century or so, and we find that as the economy has changed, so too have the demands on our education system. Standardized rote learning is of little value in a world where creativity, knowledge and entrepreneurial innovation are the main drivers of economic growth and success. Enter “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children”. Science journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman take a look at recent research in the field of childhood education and what it’s telling us about how we need to change the way we teach. Did you know, for example, the research of Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University shows that telling children they’re smart actually has a negative impact on both academic achievement and effort? On the other hand, praising children for being “hard working” has a significant impact on both effort and academic performance?
From an economic development perspective, some of the most interesting sections of the book relate to new teaching techniques that help develop the kind of creative and innovative skills so needed in today’s economy. Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah Leong of Metropolitan State College in Colorado have developed a program called “Tools of the Mind” that focuses students on the development of “play plans” in which they actively map out strategies for hands-on experiential learning. In one field test, students at an impoverished inner city school in Denver were found to be at least a year behind national standards in their age cohort. After a year using the hands-on approach of Tools of the Mind, 97% of the students were one year ahead of national standards. Bronson and Merryman suggest that this approach works for the same reason that graduated licensing programs reduce teen driving fatalities: practical experience always trumps rote lessons. For a time, every high school in America offered driver’s training – but it was discovered that in schools which eliminated driver training, teenage accidents declined by 27%! Driver’s training attempts to teach driving skill by lecture and theory – the Von Bismarck model – rather than by experience – the Tools of the Mind model. Building on this knowledge, the experience-focused learning process of graduated licenses has taken hold, and teen automobile crashes have declined by 20% to 30%.
So what does this mean for economic development? If we want to build and equip the next generation for the economy of the 21st Century, many of traditional educational approaches will not make the grade. Hands-on, experiential learning rooted in real-world challenges and opportunities must be the focus of our educational system – field trips and experiences, co-ops, role-playing, and simulations must come to dominate our school curricula. Only through these tools will we begin to build the generation of netizens, creative class members, entrepreneurs and knowledge workers we so desperately need. If you’re looking for research and data to help make this case, packaged in a readable and accessible format, “NurtureShock” is a great resource.