Obama, the Status Quo, and the Purpose of Education

In last week’s State of The Union Address, President Obama said, “Instead of funding the status quo, we [will] only invest in reform—reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner cities.”

This lofty statement, while inspiring, begs the question: What reform is going to work?

Just focusing on the math portion, I like to think that the Common Core State Standards is the reform that will inspire students to excel in mathematics. The standards develop students’ abilities to problem solve, use whatever tools are appropriate, model mathematics in a variety of ways, and challenge the concepts they are learning. In short, students are engaged and inspired to learn and excel in mathematics, not just to memorize algorithms and definitions in order to pass the end-of-course test or move on to the next course.

But viewing the standards as guidelines for classroom success is just a starting point. We can’t get to the end point—deep understanding of mathematics—without some hard work and without redefining our own perceptions about the purpose of education.

Lately I have been studying for my comprehensive exams, so I can’t help but dwell on the question, “What is the purpose of education?” Obama’s remark about the status quo and my own immersion in the history and purpose of education have given me an insight that I think sheds some light on the problem so many people have with reform: We are so immersed in an outdated vision of the purpose of education that real reform has difficulty taking hold. We need to shift our paradigm or belief about the purpose of education, or we are never going to embrace the CCSS or any other reform that allows students to be inspired and excel.

What is our current paradigm? Historically, the purpose of education has been to educate our children so they can learn the basic skills, values, and cultural norms they need to become active and participating members of society. School has been necessary because that’s the place they’ve traditionally gone to get essential information and training in basic skills. We continue to hold onto the belief that school is where the information lives, and that educators are the only ones who can impart this information. We run schools in much the same way as we have since their inception, continuing the paradigm that schools are where students go to learn the “important stuff.”

But, times have changed. Now information is everywhere, and the information and basic skills we still value are outdated or insufficient for helping students participate in the current global society. It’s more important now, for example, for students to collaborate and use algebraic reasoning to determine maximum profit than to simply know the steps for solving a system of linear equations in order to pass a standardized test. Coming to school to learn the basic skills of solving equations is not enough anymore—and it’s certainly not inspiring without context and purpose.

Here is a great TED talk from Diana Laufenberg called “How To Learn? From Mistakes” that explains more succinctly the point I am trying to convey: that the purpose of education today needs to change.

I encourage you to view Diana’s talk in its entirety, as it brings home the message that we need to let go of the past and reform the ways in which we teach and expect students to learn. We need to change our beliefs about why students come to school, and do exactly what Obama said: only accept reform that changes the status quo and strives to inspire students.

Through these standards, students will be provided with the learning experiences that engage, challenge, and inspire them to understand and use mathematics . . . in order to participate in today’s society, not yesterday’s. A quote from Diana Laufenberg sums this up perfectly. “Get rid of the idea that kids have to come to school to get the ideas. Really . . . it should be that they come to school to see what they can do with the ideas.”

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