The State of Education: Inspired Teaching’s Remarks at the American News Women’s Club

This piece by Founder and President Aleta Margolis features updated remarks from the American News Women’s Club “State of Education” panel discussion on October 4, 2017.

On a panel at the American News Women’s Club, I shared three headlines from the news this past year:

1-    Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa, Mexico for Those who Wanna Leave America

2-    Immigrants to be Given £8,500 upon Arrival to Boost Economy

3-    Iceland to Host New Year’s Eve Party for Asylum Seekers after Fundraising Campaign on Social Media

What do you think when you hear these headlines? Anything sound suspicious? Do the sources look credible?  

Using your knowledge of current events, your past experiences with credible and suspicious news sources, and your critical thinking and research skills, you would surely be able to figure out which of the articles were “fake news,” and which was the only real story. (For those interested: the third headline is the only real one.)

Unfortunately, our current education system is not doing a good job preparing young people to analyze what they see and hear, and to think critically. A 2016 study out of Stanford University showed that over 80 percent of middle school students could not differentiate sponsored content from an unbiased news article. The same study showed that over 80 percent of high school students readily accepted a doctored photograph as fact, despite the fact that it had no attribution. Why is it that so few young people are able to think critically? The answer lies in the current state of–and approach to–education in this country.

When people talk about education, whether professional journalists are reporting or parents are talking to each other about their kids’ school, the conversation tends to focus on things like traditional public vs. charter schools, or class size, or facilities and funding, or graduation requirements, or the pros and cons of content standards, or who’s going to be the next superintendent or chancellor. All of these things matter, of course.

However, there’s a different lens through which we might discuss education, something that’s rarely discussed, but matters greatly: pedagogy. Pedagogy is not a word that is particularly prevalent in the news, but it should be. Pedagogy focuses on how we teach–because it’s not just what we teach that matters, but how we teach it.

I am a social entrepreneur and an education changemaker, but I am first and foremost a teacher. For nearly 30 years I have taught young children through graduate students, and, through Center for Inspired Teaching, I’ve taught teachers–from those just beginning their careers to experienced veterans. The children I’ve taught, and the ones our Inspired Teachers teach here in DC and in other places in the country, represent a diverse group in terms of background, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. And though demographics certainly play a role in determining student outcomes, all children benefit when they get to go to a school that focuses not on compliance, but engagement.

Research shows that less than half of American middle and high school students are engaged in school. Not because mathematics and literature and chemistry and history are not interesting, but because the way we teach is, for the most part, not interesting. And while asking children to be engaged instead of compliant or obedient sounds reasonable enough, it’s actually a radical notion. As in the past, the vast majority of systems in place in schools today reinforce compliance–on the part of students and teachers. There are obvious examples, such as stickers, star charts, and other systems that offer students extrinsic rewards for completing classwork and behaving properly, and demerits and detention if they do not. But our reliance on compliance goes much deeper–even the way we teach mathematics reinforces compliance and discourages creative thinking.

For instance, most adults remember that A2 + B2 = C2. However, very few would be able to explain why this formula works. This is because most of us were taught to memorize and apply the formula, but we weren’t encouraged to wonder why the formula worked in the first place. And that’s not because we aren’t smart people. And it’s not because our teachers aren’t good. It’s because our teachers are playing the role they are expected to play.

Center for Inspired Teaching strives to shift the norm in education from compliance- to engagement-based, by cultivating changemaking educators who authentically engage their students as active learners and empathetic critical thinkers. We teach teachers–novices as well as experienced veterans–to shift their role from the conventional role, information provider, to Instigator of Thought™. When teachers challenge students to figure out information for themselves (whether solving math problems or discerning real news from fake), students become actively engaged in school, their natural curiosity and sense of wonder are sparked, and they are set up for success, not only in school but in their communities and careers.

In our rapidly changing world — a world where 65% of children will grow up to work jobs that don’t exist today — we cannot afford to continue educating for compliance over engagement. When I originally shared these remarks at the American News Women’s Club “State of Education” panel, a fascinating discussion ensued, not only about the current state of education, but also about the panelists’ and audience members’ hopes and expectations for its future state. I look forward to continuing that conversation here; please do share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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