Ask the Students: Their Wise Wishes for Improving Education

By Ellen Galinsky

In the debates about how to improve education, adults argue about what works and what doesn’t, rarely asking students for their views. Of course, adults are responsible, but knowing the views of youth might — just might — enrich adults’ decisions.

So it is admirable that NBC’s Education Nation 2011 concluded its three day nationally broadcast “conversation” on improving education in America with a session called Voices of a Generation: Students Speak Out, brilliantly moderated by The Today Show’s co-anchor Ann Curry. The students in this session were in high school, college as well as a high school dropout, now working on a GED.

Ann Curry opened by asking the students: “If you could change one thing about education that would help more American young people learn, what would it be?” As I listened to their responses, it struck me that the their wishes echo the findings from numerous studies on children and learning. In fact, it seemed almost prophetic! Below I share the parallels in their wishes and the research.

A wish…

In response to cuts in school budgets that have stripped the arts, music and other extra curricular activities from the curriculum, a 17-year-old wished that schools would bring these subjects back.

And the research finds….

For a number of years, studies have shown that the children who go into the arts do better academically. Researchers began to investigate why: Does this correlation exist because these children have more ‘get-up-and-go,’ or is there actually something about the arts that changes, increases, and improves cognitive skills?
In response, the Dana Foundation convened a consortium to investigate learning, arts, and the brain and produced its findings in a 2008 report. Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California at Santa Barbara and the chair of this inquiry, describes its findings: “There is growing evidence that learning of the arts — whether it be music, dance, drama, painting — has a positive impact on cognitive life.”

There are at least two pathways by which learning of the arts affects cognitive life, according to the report. The first is through an increase in focused attention. Involvement in the arts improves children’s focus — that is, their ability to pay attention — and that affects other cognitive skills.

The second pathway is through an increase in motivation. Gazzaniga says, “An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.”

A wish…

A 22-year-old wished that educators would bring more social media into classrooms, noting, we are “a new generation.”

Beyond having more social media in the classroom — which a number of educators are experimenting with in very promising ways (see the MacArthur Foundation’s grantmaking on Digital Media and Learning for some great examples), I think there is a larger point in what this student is wishing — to have content more relevant to the interests of students and to have teaching styles that engage students in the ways that social media do.

And the research says…

Patricia Bauer of Emory University studies children and memory because as she puts it, “memory is at the center of the cognitive universe.” Without memory, there is no learning.
Bauer has been investigating why we remember some things and forget others? She and her colleagues have found that memories are better preserved and recalled under some circumstances than others. Children are more likely to recall their experiences when, for example:

They have direct experiences rather than act as bystanders. Bauer notes:
“One of the things that we’ve found that helps babies to remember is being allowed to be engaged in the activity. This is true for adults as well. If we’re passive observers of something, we don’t have as strong a memory for it later on.”

Social media is providing direct, active experiential learning that engages children and aids in retaining what they have learned.

A wish….

A 17-year-old noted that there are teachers who care and teachers who don’t care. He wished that teachers’ passion for connecting to students and for teaching be considered when budget cuts necessitate firing decisions — not seniority.

And the research says….

In the late 1990s, the National Academy of Sciences convened a group of scientists from a number of academic child development perspectives and asked them to conduct an extensive review of the research to determine what we know about children’s early development to inform families and professionals, policy making and future research. One of the central conclusions of this Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development is that human relationships “are the building blocks of healthy development.” The committee goes on to say that all of children’s achievements occur “in the context of close relationships with others.” In fact, the co-chair of that Committee, Jack P. Shonkoff of Harvard University, states, “There is no development without relationships.” Thus, trusted and caring relationships with teachers enhance children’s learning, from early childhood on.

A wish….

A 21-year-old wished for greater community involvement in education. As he put it: “They say it takes a village to raise a child. I believe that once the community is more involved with the teachers and there is more moral support, they would be moving toward a common goal.”

And the research says….

In study after study that my organization, Families and Work Institute, has conducted on parenting or on teaching, we find that adults who continue to learn about children — about parenting them and teaching them — make the best parents and the best teachers.
In 2006 the Committee for Economic Development (CED) invited me to revisit three “gold-standard programs” of high-quality early education to determine what made them so effective. These three early childhood programs — the HighScope Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers — were launched respectively in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. They are called “gold standard programs” because they each used rigorous, longitudinal research methods to investigate the impact of their programs on the highest risk children over time and have found that the benefits of participating in these programs far outweighed their costs.

The creators and evaluators of these programs stated that among the reasons that these programs worked was because everyone involved was learning: their creators were learning, the teachers were learning, the parents were learning — and thus the children were learning. Larry Schweinhart describes the HighScope Perry Preschool Project as a “learning community.”

Thus, I would amend what this student said to include the fact that community involvement should involve the ongoing pursuit among the adults of how children learn best.

Two wishes….

An 18-year-old wished that listening to the voices of his generation becomes more mainstream (and not just a one-time panel at a conference). He said, “Education needs more student voice.” A 16-year-old wished that education would truly become this country’s priority.

When the students recalled their best learning experiences during the subsequent panel discussion, their descriptions were of lively, engaged, first-hand, and meaningful learning. I was once again struck, this time by a disparity. Far too often at Education Nation and elsewhere, the images of learning are ones in which teacher are primarily dispensers of information, the sage on stage, with students who get it, or don’t. We need to take heed not only of these students’ wishes, but of their descriptions of their best learning experiences.

Education Nation 2011 opened with riveting presentations by scientists of the brain at work.My wish for Education Nation 2012 is that we continue this precedent with an in-depth examination of the research of the science of learning.