Roslyn KuninIn the spate of recent violence, one incident that got little coverage resulted in six deaths and more than 100 injured – more than half of whom were police.

The event occurred in Mexico in June. It was instigated by teachers who opposed the imposition of mandatory testing on themselves. Although their methods were deeply deplorable, a case can be made that testing teachers is not an effective way to improve educational outcomes, that is producing students who are more knowledgeable, capable and can succeed in today’s world.

The structure of the basic education system used in Mexico, Canada and most other places grew out of the industrial revolution of 300 years ago. Its aim was to provide basic reading, writing and arithmetic, the three R’s. More important, it was to condition children for a life of working in factories. Staying in a certain place for fixed periods of time, not talking to those around you, being told what to do (and it was never anything you would choose to do) and waiting for bells to ring to tell you when it was time to leave: All these were habits and practices that could be carried from the school room to the factory.

Robots now inhabit many of our factories. Our workplaces are dramatically different. In addition to the three R’s, employers now want workers who can work well with people, solve problems and figure things out on their own or with their colleagues. These are not skills that students acquire in a traditional classroom. They are best learned when children work in groups on projects of their own choosing in a self-directed environment.

And we now have the tools we need so students can do this. They are computers.

Three principles for better schools by Derek J. Allison

Studies in India and elsewhere show that when children are given access to computers, they do amazing things on their own. First, they figure out how to use the computers. In some cases, the children were provided computers in unopened boxes. Some young children, given a tablet, taught themselves the alphabet.

They also figured out how to take pictures. No big deal, you say. However, the camera function on this tablet had been disabled and the kids hacked their way in to the operating system to restore the camera function.

Left alone with a computer that was not internet connected, but loaded with information on microbiology, other kids learned enough over time to ace written exams on that subject.

And students should be left alone. Brain scans have shown that the fewer the limitations there are on both the student and the computer, the higher the proportion of the brain that is in use.

Does this mean that we no longer need teachers? No, but it does mean that the role of the teacher has to change drastically. Teachers will no longer have to enforce discipline to keep children still and quiet, although the children will still have to be kept safe. Teachers may no longer even have to teach. In some schools that use more student centred learning, teachers only teach when asked to do so by the students.

Testing teachers on knowledge will not be needed as teachers will often know less than their students. It is already the case when it comes to using technology. The digital generation of students surpasses their teachers in using the new digital tools. Students are often relied upon by teachers to make the latest equipment work.

As students learn to learn on the ’net, they will also be able to outdo their teachers in other subject areas. A philosophy teacher outlining the subject matter at the start of a course offered to let a student do the teaching when that student displayed broader and deeper knowledge of the philosophers and their writings than the professor. With help from a computer and online sources, the student had learned this material on his own.

As we approach the traditional back-to-school time of year, we would all benefit from seeing how much computer based, self-directed learning we can build into our education. It could be by choosing the schools and programs that offer the most flexibility and openness. It could be by adding some self-directed learning to whatever structured learning we are doing.

And it could be by not feeling guilty about taking a day off to stay home and be connected, provided we are doing more than just playing games.

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. 

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