By Ruth Bettelheim
Our public schools are turning millions of normal children into dropouts and failures. This isn't because of a few bad teachers or principals, but because the natural learning behaviors of children are routinely penalized instead of praised. Initiatives such as "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" won't change this, because they don't adequately take into account research about how children learn.
Our classrooms are outdated, functioning like mid-20th century factories. Each child is offered an identical curriculum, like a car on an assembly line. But children aren't units of production, and this approach is failing. Since 1970, the rate of high school graduation has declined, and the U.S. has fallen from first to 12th among developed nations in education.
This is inexcusable given the well-documented research about what makes students effective learners. Contemporary neuroscience has confirmed that children's learning is largely dependent on inherent interest, emotional engagement, social interaction, physical activity and the pleasure of mastery.
A passive environment
These findings are ignored in traditional classroom approaches. If children are not interested, they won't learn, but schools aren't structured to capture students' individual interests. Instead, everyone studies the same texts at the same time. Teachers reprimand children for failing to change gears with the rest of the class. Students must be quiet, sit still and listen passively, though we know that social, emotional and physical engagement enhance learning.
Freedom to make mistakes and benefit from them is the basis of intellectual growth. If researchers or entrepreneurs were forbidden to make errors, innovation would cease. But when teachers are required to prioritize standardized test preparation, children are necessarily taught that being wrong is unacceptable.
The traditional classroom needs an overhaul based on the findings of cognitive neuroscience. Rather than lecturing to passive observers, teachers should act as facilitators, introducing individual students to new concepts based on their interests and developmental state. Children should be free to move around and to choose when, for how long and with whom they will work at each task. Instead of being told facts, children should learn by acting on instructional materials, experimenting and observing until answers are found.
The Montessori model
Students should experience themselves as triumphant problem solvers. This exhilaration helps make computer games addictive. Like video game players, students should go on to the next level only after mastering the previous one, taking as long as they need to solve each problem, and staying with it as long as they like.
Though it might seem impossible, offering individualized, self-directed learning in public schools has been done. The Montessori method, which uses these approaches, has been successfully adopted by public school systems, including in inner cities. Students in these schools achieve equal or superior academic performance to their peers, and superior outcomes in social skills and engagement. While this method isn't a panacea, it provides a feasible, well-tested basis for developing teaching methods grounded in cognitive neuroscience research.
Scientifically sound, individualized instruction should be our new educational standard. It's time to shift our focus from administrative changes to fundamental classroom reforms that will truly make a difference. This is an urgent necessity — our children's well-being and our economic and technological edge in the 21st century are at stake.