12 Ways to Revitalize U.S. Education: If Einstein Ran the Schools

Our nation’s schools are in crisis.  The statistics are sobering.  One in ten preschoolers has had suicidal thoughts.  Doctors are increasingly seeing children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers, and many physicians see a clear connection to school performance pressure. A third of our adolescents report feeling depressed or overwhelmed because of stress, and their single biggest source of stress is school, according to the American Psychological Association. Highly achieving teens are starting to refer to themselves as ‘’robo-students:’’ students set on auto-pilot, going through the motions, getting high grades and test scores, but not actually learning or retaining the classroom material.

How did we get to this point in educating our youth?  I believe we can trace it back at least three-and-a-half decades to 1983, when our then U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell released a report entitled ‘’A Nation at Risk,’’ where he accused  American schools of being eroded by a ‘’rising tide of mediocrity.’’ This report helped to stimulate a powerful campaign to reform our nation’s schools.  Over the next three decades, politicians, CEOs of large corporations, and state and federal bureaucrats pushed hard for education reforms by organizing educational ‘’summits,’’ passing laws, developing uniform academic standards, and overseeing the standardized testing program that would ascertain whether or not our nation was achieving its goals.  Yet despite these efforts, the academic achievement of American youngsters remains far below that of many industrialized nations around the world. Instead, we’ve managed to create unmanageable stress for our children and adolescents by emphasizing academics and testing at the expense of the arts, physical education, social studies, and other programs more conducive to students’ optimal mental and emotional health.

Rather than pressuring students with more ‘’rigorous’’ standards, tests, and programs, I believe that we need a radically different approach to education reform.  Rather than trusting our children’s educational future to politicians, corporation executives, and educational bureaucrats, I believe we should turn to our culture’s most innovative and renowned thinkers, and no one has been more innovative and renowned than the physicist Albert Einstein who changed our conception of the universe.  Einstein had a lot to say about education during his life.  Here are 12 interventions that I believe Einstein would endorse, were he to be asked to reform the U.S. schools:

  1. Integrate the Imagination into School Lessons – If Einstein ran today’s schools, he most likely would give the imagination a prominent place in classroom instruction.  Einstein said that ‘’the imagination is everything.’’ His imagination was central to the formulation of his special and general theories of relativity.  But classroom lessons seldom ask students to visualize what they are learning. The imagination is the most underutilized resource in education (and it doesn’t cost a cent).  Kids should be closing their eyes and imagining scenes from stories they’ve just read, taking imaginary journeys through the circulatory system in science, visualizing world events in history class.  Instead, kids are ‘’daydreaming’’ about what’s going to be for lunch, what they’re going to on the weekend, and who they’re going to hang with after school.  This is a tremendous waste of a potentially powerful learning resource. If teachers could only tap into this capacity, they might be amazed to see higher levels of engagement and achievement from their students.
  2. Unleash Every Students’ Passion for Learning – Einstein once claimed: ‘’I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.’’  Educators focus so much attention on the acquisition of new learning that they forget about how important it is to be excited about learning. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that students need to experience a ‘’romance’’ with learning, in order to master new learning material. If a student doesn’t feel motivated to learn, how can we expect them to excel? Educators first need to reawaken their own passion for learning, and then let their own enthusiasms trigger their students’ philomathy (Greek for ‘’love of learning’’). Without this love, education becomes an endless and empty routine. Love of learning is contagious, those who don’t have it catch it from those who do, but there needs to be a first spark, and the teacher is the one who can light it by starting each lesson with something that’s new and exciting to share.
  3. Emphasize Creativity and Learning ‘’Outside the Box’’ – If Einstein ran our schools, he would most assuredly put a big emphasis on the development of creativity.  He wrote: ‘’It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.’’ The emphasis in today’s schools is on getting the ‘’right answer,’’ and engaging in logical and articulate thinking. But the history of innovation in culture is replete with individuals like Thomas Edison and the geneticist Barbara McClintock who didn’t follow the ‘’correct’’ procedures, but instead followed their own intuitions and confronted many obstacles before they finally succeeded.  We need to have the same kind of approach in education, where students are encouraged to solve problems and fashion products creatively, even if they don’t fit in with the accepted ‘’standards.’’ After all, mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn, and wrong answers often reveal a world of possibilities.  Every child is born creative but they all too often have their creativity knocked out of them as they grow up.  Schools should be places where that creative impulse is given the highest priority, and where students’ fabulous and idiosyncratic ideas are welcomed and considered to be a central part of the curriculum.
  4. Restore Play to Our Nation’s Preschools and Kindergartens – Einstein once declared: “The desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of a vague play with basic ideas. . . . . this combinatory or associative play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” He himself was quite playful in his life. In an Einstein-inspired classroom, play would be a central feature. Child-initiated free play may be the most important activity in all of civilization. This is because it represents the arena wherein new ideas are tested, are literally ‘’played around with,’’ and are given new forms.  Unfortunately, our schools have cut radically back on opportunities for kids to play.  Preschools and kindergartens are now teaching formal lessons in reading and math where before the kids had time for finger painting, dress up, and puppet play. Recess in elementary schools has been cut back to make room for more academic learning. But play promotes the development of the prefrontal cortex in the brain, which is central to executive functions such as reflective thinking, planning, and goal-setting.  We need to put play back into the curriculum at the lower levels of schooling, and incorporated it also into middle school and high school using such techniques as role playing, the expressive arts, and game-based learning.
  5. Feed Students’ Curiosity – Einstein said: ‘’The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity.’’  Curiosity is critical to human survival. Without it, individuals would remain indifferent to changes in the outer environment, resulting in a failure to adapt, and thus a failure to evolve.  Because of this, children are born naturally curious.  But in school, most students stop being curious and instead learn to pay unquestioning attention to teachers’ lessons, and engage in learning activities that have fixed outcomes allowing for little opportunity to be inquisitive.  Education pioneer Neil Postman put it this way:  ‘’All children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.’’ In a reformed educational system, questions about become more important than answers, the curriculum would be driven by student-inquiry, and teachers would encourage their students to be curious around everything around them.
  6. Reawaken Our Children’s Sense of Wonder –  If Einstein ran our schools, he most definitely would put a high priority on inspiring wonder in students.  He wrote: ‘’The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science.  He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffled-out candle.”  In today’s school system, the amazing world around us is reduced to ‘’content’’ that needs to be learned and assessed with standardized testing. But then what happens to the wonder one feels when looking up at the stars, or seeing a flower bloom, or watching a puppy get its first legs? This experience of awe and wonder is now being studied by scientists, and indications are that it promotes both mental and physical health, and yet it finds almost no expression in our schools.  Teachers should present material to students in such a way as to evoke a sense of wonder, and this is possible in all subjects of the curriculum; e.g.  the wonder of galaxies being formed (in science class), the properties of imaginary numbers and infinity (in math class), the poetic ability of a Shakespeare (in literature class), and the rise and fall of empires (in history class).  Even new technologies, such as virtual reality, promise to place students in awe-inspiring encounters with amazing phenomena around the world.  Environmentalist Rachel Carson once wrote: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”  Teachers have a wonderful opportunity to fill this role.
  7. Cultivate the Individuality of Each Student – If Einstein ran the schools, he would almost certainly would not embrace the standadrized testing and curriculum that forms such a large part of our education system. He said: ”The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgment should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of special knowledge. . .”    Each child is an unrepeatable miracle (even identical twins do not have the same genes). Yet school all too often takes away that precious sense of individuality (or keeps it from developing) with its emphasis on uniform standards and procedures.  Increasingly now, student work is being reduced to ‘’data’’ processed by computer algorithms that are stored and sometimes sold to corporate interests who hope to profit from it. “What we’re teaching today is obedience, conformity, following orders,” says education historian Diane Ravitch.  So-called ‘’personalized’’ learning turns out to be nothing but computer programs that take student data and use it to determine the level of ‘’content’’ to deliver to students sitting at their computer stations.  In a reformed school system, the nurturing of student ‘’voice’’ (e.g. expression of their own unique feelings, opinions, and ideas) would become a priority, and students would be encouraged to tackle projects that deeply reflect their own interests and proclivities.
  8. Emphasize the Strengths of Kids with Special Needs – If Einstein were a student in the current U.S. school system, he most probably would be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or perhaps even higher-functioning autism. Einstein’s own son wrote that ‘'[he] was . . . considered backward by his teachers.  He told me that his teachers reported to his father that he was mentally slow, unsociable and adrift forever in his foolish dreams.”  Our nation’s special education system is in dire need of change. Based upon a century’s experience with children previously identified as ‘morons,’ ‘feebleminded’ and ‘’brain-injured,’’ special education, despite its best efforts, still seems to be mired in a mindset based upon deficit, dysfunction, and disability. Recent research, however, reveals that kids with learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and intellectual disabilities often have specific gifts and abilities that have been neglected by educators.  The future of special education should be based upon a diversity paradigm rather than one founded on disability. We don’t say that calla lily has ‘’petal deficit disorder’’ but accepts its uniqueness as a flower.  Specialists should become experts in the use of assessments to discover students’ strengths, talents, and abilities, and employ that information to help maximize students’ assets and minimize their challenges.
  9. Encourage Children to Feel Compassion for Themselves and Others – In his life, Albert Einstein was a humanitarian and an advocate for peace. He wrote: ‘’Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.’’  With our current emphasis in the schools on academic achievement, too often the education of the mind takes precedence over the education of the heart. The result is that students end up feeling overly critical toward themselves and deeply judgmental toward their classmates (bullying represents a significant problem in today’s schools). His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, has counseled: “In addition to basic education, we need to encourage warm heartedness, concern for others and compassion.’’ We need to keep in mind that the most important function of schooling is not to get good grades or pass tests but to prepare students for life,. By creating programs that encourage kindness, volunteerism, service learning, and compassion, we’ll be helping to ensure that our children and teens develop into caring and committed citizens in adulthood.
  10. Cultivate in Students a Reverence for All Living Things – If Einstein ran our schools, he would most assuredly give great importance to the cultivation of a love of nature.  He wrote: ”In every true searcher of Nature there is a kind of religious reverence.”  Our greatest challenge for the remainder of the 21st century is to care for our planet and ameliorate the negative impact of climate change. While schools currently provide a certain degree of information about nature in science class, much more is needed to prepare our students for this challenge. We essentially need to totally reorganize our education system so that it reflects a genuinely ‘’green’’ attitude toward living. Students should have frequent learning experiences out in nature. They should be involved in projects that serve to protect the environment around them. They should learn to care for and understand the needs of animals and other living things. Ultimately, our schools must commit themselves to the development of individuals who are true stewards of the planet, so that Mother Earth has a chance of surviving and even thriving in the years and centuries to come.
  11. Guide Our Kids in Becoming More Tolerant of Those Different From Themselves – Einstein said: ‘’Laws alone can not secure freedom of expression; in order that every man present his views without penalty there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population.’’  While it’s often said that prejudice is learned and not inborn, it may be closer to the mark to say that we come into life primed for bias but that culture has a major role in whether that bias solidifies into intolerance or is transformed instead into a more accepting attitude toward others who are perceived as different. Unfortunately, our schools are increasingly becoming places where hate graffiti, racial and ethnic bias, and other acts of discrimination are becoming more common against people with respect to race, ethnic group, gender identification, sexual orientation and other differences. Instead of putting so much emphasis on academic achievement, as it has been doing, our schools should aim to become places where students can have important conversations about human differences, learn to celebration diversity in all of its forms, and develop tolerance and sympathy for those who are targets of prejudice.
  12. Sensitize Students to the Value of Beauty in the World – If Einstein ran our schools, he would very probably emphasize a cultivation of appreciation for beauty.  He wrote: ‘’To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly; this is religiousness.  In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.” We live in a society of utilitarian values where even the word ‘’beauty’’ calls to mind ‘’beauty creams,’’ ‘’beauty pageants,’’ and ‘’beauty salons,’’ rather than the aesthetic appreciation of nature and genuine expressions of artistic sensibility. Schools seem to reflect this practicality by giving scant attention to the aesthetics of school buildings, classrooms, course offerings, and lesson plans. Increasingly art programs have been scaled back to make more room for reading, math, and science. We need to counteract these tendencies by educating our students about what deeper beauty means, how it can be recognized, and how to express it personally in one’s life.  Greater emphasis should be placed on viewing nature with an aesthetic eye, visiting art museums and galleries to develop an appreciation for beauty, and supporting art programs in the schools that increase students’ ability to discriminate between what is beautiful, what is ugly, and what is simply bland.

Some might suggest that Einstein’s pronouncements and these twelve steps toward revitalizing our schools are far too idealistic to stand any chance of being implemented in our schools.  However, many schools across the country and around the world are already doing these things, demonstrating that they can be and are anchored in reality.  What’s needed is the will to make these changes, the courage to stand up for what is right in educating our youth, and the ingenuity in finding ways to make significant transformations in our schools despite the obstacles and roadblocks that stand in the way.  We owe it to our children and teens to give them the very best that education has to offer so that they can realize their full potential and ultimately transform the world around them.  I think that Einstein would agree.

For more about what Einstein would do to reform our schools, and the 12 ways to revitalize the U.S. Education System,read my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education (Praeger Publishing, 2019).

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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