EWA 2013

3 May

It’s easy to see why those admitted to Stanford feel that they are chosen.  The school drips with privilege, it hangs off the palm trees and blankets the manicured lawn.  Gorgeous undergraduates whiz by on bikes.  In fact, the campus is so large that when my boss and I asked one of them for directions, they looked at a map and then at us and said, “I’m a freshman,” even though finals aren’t far away.

To attend a conference on such a campus makes me feel like I’ve done something right with my life, even though this school wouldn’t admit me if I begged them.  However, to move from beautiful building to building, to walk down the pathways and to sit in halls and listen to some of the most admired minds in our country is moving; it’s like I’m being sprinkled with some of the shimmering privilege that infuses Stanford’s students.

At first I was annoyed that the Education Writer’s Association conference was being held here.  Last year I got to go to Philadelphia, and I felt cheated out of the opportunity to travel and explore a new city.  All I had to do was hop on-board the Caltrain for 40 minutes; it was all very anticlimactic.

In my mind I grumbled about the long days and the fact my boss was attending, “I’ll have to be ON the whole time,” I said to no one in particular.

Though, after the first day I can already tell that attending this year is more worthwhile than last.   Our system of education (like every industry & institution) is being disrupted at never-seen-before rates because, as Thomas Friedman said, “we live in a hyper-connected world.”

Everyone, teachers, entrepreneurs, journalists, professors are all grasping at straws of prediction, hoping to align themselves with the transformers and future correct.  Hoping that they’ll be able to look back with certainty that they made the right choices; that they helped to transform our most important, antiquated system – the way in which we educate our youth.

Yes, technology is causing this disruption and massive open online courses (MOOCS) mean that people can be in the U.S. and their professor can be in Ireland, but also, people are being expected to compete at a global and not national level.  With this new technology it is clear that teachers and professors need to prepare students for more than just the “average” job, or life because that’s just not enough.

Students need to be prepared to compete in a global marketplace that calls for reinvention and flexibility, and sitting before a blackboard while the teacher drones on and scribbles in chalk clearly isn’t the way to go.

In bathroom stalls of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education are posters with the words, “Want to build your career in education?” and instead of having graduate students talk to teachers they’re invited to hear from entrepreneurs, founders of places like Tioki and Udemy.  New forms of learning are being invented like the Rosetta Stone and Khan Academy, flipping the classroom upside down from kindergarten to college.

Universities are even considering new forms of accreditation that recognize credits from MOOCS, which is an ongoing topic at this year’s conference.  Last year it was regulated to one session.

That’s how quickly everything is changing, and it feels both exhilarating and frightening because throughout most of the twentieth century the U.S. believed it had one of the best systems of education; that everyone wanted to come here to attend our higher intuitions.  If one did so, then there was some guarantee of success, or at least one could believe there was.

Now that doesn’t hold true, and at the K-12 level, U.S. student scores are just globally embarrassing.  The curtain has been pulled back to reveal a broken myth: we are not number one in everything.

Today ended with a documentary of how New Orleans used the devastation of Katrina to transform their school system, meaning their schools were so bad that they needed complete destruction to make space for any kind of positive change, and change did occur.  Most of the schools in New Orleans are charter, children’s test scores are improving and more students are graduating; however, those students who are unable to attend charter schools are doing worse.

And I can’t help but see this documentary as a metaphor for what’s being discussed: how complete destruction can be a good thing, how we can utilize the nontraditional to increase student achievement and how brokenness is an opportunity for transformation.  Also, I can’t help but also see what will never change.

Not every student will get the opportunities that they deserve and some don’t deserve the opportunities they get.  There will always be the dropouts and failures whatever the form and the lucky ones who get to sit on a lawn and kiss at Stanford secure in their glistening privilege, secure as they tell those with less, “I will try to fix you.”

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