Are Americans getting dumber?
Our math skills are falling. Our reading skills are weakening. Our children have become less literate than children in many developed countries. But the crisis in American education may be more than a matter of sliding rankings on world educational performance scales.
#### WIRED OPINION
David Edwards is a professor at
Harvard University and the founder of [Le Laboratoire](http://www.lelaboratoire.org/en/).
Our kids learn within a system of education devised for a world that increasingly does not exist.
To become a chef, a lawyer, a philosopher or an engineer, has always been a matter of learning what these professionals do, how and why they do it, and some set of general facts that more or less describe our societies and our selves. We pass from kindergarten through twelfth grade, from high school to college, from college to graduate and professional schools, ending our education at some predetermined stage to become the chef, or the engineer, equipped with a fair understanding of what being a chef, or an engineer, actually is and will be for a long time.
We “learn,” and after this we “do.” We go to school and then we go to work.
This approach does not map very well to personal and professional success in America today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.
Over the next twenty years the earth is predicted to add another two billion people. Having nearly exhausted nature's ability to feed the planet, we now need to discover a new food system. The global climate will continue to change. To save our coastlines, and maintain acceptable living conditions for more than a billion people, we need to discover new science, engineering, design, and architectural methods, and pioneer economic models that sustain their implementation and maintenance. Microbiological threats will increase as our traditional techniques of anti-microbial defense lead to greater and greater resistances, and to thwart these we must discover new approaches to medical treatment, which we can afford, and implement in ways that incite compliance and good health. The many rich and varied human cultures of the earth will continue to mix, more rapidly than they ever have, through mass population movements and unprecedented information exchange, and to preserve social harmony we need to discover new cultural referents, practices, and environments of cultural exchange. In such conditions the futures of law, medicine, philosophy, engineering, and agriculture – with just about every other field – are to be rediscovered.
Americans need to learn how to discover.
Being dumb in the existing educational system is bad enough. Failing to create a new way of learning adapted to contemporary circumstances might be a national disaster. The good news is, some people are working on it.
Against this arresting background, an exciting new kind of learning is taking place in America. Alternatively framed as maker classes, after-school innovation programs, and innovation prizes, these programs are frequently not framed as learning at all. Discovery environments are showing up as culture and entertainment, from online experiences to contemporary art installations and new kinds of culture labs. Perhaps inevitably, the process of discovery – from our confrontation with challenging ambiguous data, through our imaginative responses, to our iterative and error-prone paths of data synthesis and resolution – has turned into a focus of public fascination.
>Against this arresting background, an exciting new kind of learning is taking place in America.
Discovery has always provoked interest, but how one discovers may today interest us even more. Educators, artists, designers, museum curators, scientists, engineers, entertainment designers and others are creatively responding to this new reality, and, together, they are redefining what it means to learn in America.
At Harvard University, where I teach, Peter Galison, in History of Science, asks his students make films, to understand science; Michael Chu, in business, brings students to low income regions to learn about social entrepreneurship; Michael Brenner, in Engineering and Applied Science, invites master chefs to help students discover the science of cooking; and Doris Sommer, in Romance Languages, teaches aesthetics by inviting students to effect social and political change through cultural agency. Similarly, in the course I teach, How to Create Things and Have Them Matter, students are asked to look, listen, and discover, using their own creative genius, while observing contemporary phenomena that matter today.
Because that's what discoverers do.
A New Kind of Learning Lab
Learning by an original and personal process of discovery is a trend on many US university campuses, like Stanford University, MIT, and Arizona State University. It also shows up in middle school, high school and after school programs, as in the programs supported by the ArtScience Prize, a more curricular intensive version of the plethora of innovation prizes that have sprung up in the last years around the world. Students and participants in these kinds of programs learn something even more valuable than discovering a fact for themselves, a common goal of "learning discovery" programs; they learn the thrill of discovering the undiscovered. Success brings not just a good grade, or the financial reward of a prize. It brings the satisfaction that one can realize dreams, and thrive, in a world framed by major dramatic questions. And this fans the kind of passion that propels an innovator along a long creative career.
Discovery, as intriguing process, has become a powerful theme in contemporary culture and entertainment. In art and design galleries, and many museums, artists and designers, like Olafur Eliasson, Mark Dion, Martin Wattenberg, Neri Oxman and Mathieu Lehanneur, invite the public to explore contemporary complexities, as in artist Mark Dion's recent collaborative work with the Alaskan SeaLife Center and Anchorage Museum on plastic fragments in the Pacific Ocean. Often they make visitors discovery participants, as in Martin Wattenberg'sApartment, where people enter words that turn into architectural forms, or sorts of memory palaces. In a more popular way, television discovery and reality programs, from Yukon Men to America's Got Talent, present protagonists who face challenges, encounter failure, and succeed, iteratively and often partially, while online the offer is even more pervasive, with games of discovery and adventure immersing young people in the process of competing against natural and internal constraints.
All this has led to the rise of the culture lab.
Culture labs conduct or invite experiments in art and design to explore contemporary questions that seem hard or even impossible to address in more conventional science and engineering labs. Their history, as public learning forum, dates from the summer of 2007, when the Wellcome Collection opened in King's Cross London, to invite the incurably curious to probe contemporary questions of body and mind through contemporary art and collected object installations. A few months later, in the fall 2007, Le Laboratoire opened in Paris, France, to explore frontiers of science through experimental projects in contemporary art and design, and translate experimental ideas from educational, through cultural, to social practice. And in the winter 2008 Science Gallery opened in downtown Dublin to bring contemporary science experimentation to the general public (and students of Trinity College) with installations in contemporary art and design. Other culture labs have opened since then, in Amsterdam, Kosovo, Madrid and other European, American, Asian, African and Latin American cities. In the USA, culture labs especially thrive on campuses, like MIT's famous Media Lab, Harvard's iLab, and the unique metaLAB, run by Jeffrey Schnapp within Harvard's Berkman Center. These will now be joined by a public culture lab, Le Laboratoire Cambridge, which opens later this month near MIT and Harvard, bringing to America the European model with a program of public art and design exhibitions, innovation seminars, and future-of-food sensorial experiences.
The culture lab is the latest indication that learning is changing in America. It cannot happen too fast.
We may not be getting dumber in America. But we need to get smarter in ways that match the challenges we now face. The time is now to support the role of learning in the pursuit of discovery and to embrace the powerful agency of culture.
How to Write A Five-Paragraph Essay
Step-by-step instructions for planning, outlining, and writing a five-paragraph essay.
The most important part of writing a five-paragraph -- or any other style -- essay has little to do with the actual essay writing: When it comes to a successful essay, the most crucial step is the planning. In fact, a properly planned essay will practically write itself.
The first advice you should provide students about to embark on an essay-writing adventure, therefore, is to plan what you will write about -- and plan to write about the assigned topic.
The second part of that advice might seem obvious and unnecessary, but we all know those students who fail to carefully read the question or prompt and then too quickly write about a vaguely related topic; or those who believe essays are graded on word count and prefer to write a lot about a topic they know well -- or everything they know about a variety of topics -- rather than risk writing too little about a less familiar, though assigned, topic.
Students need to be made aware that assigned topics for most writing assessments already are quite broad; they often need to be narrowed and focused; they rarely should be broadened.
Consider the following assignment:
Mark Twain once said: "Suppose you were an idiot... And suppose you were a member of Congress... But I repeat myself." Discuss whether you agree or disagree with Mark Twain's statement.
An essay about some silly bills passed by Congress, an essay about a few brilliant and respected members of Congress, even an essay about the factors that influenced Samuel Clemens' beliefs about Congress might be appropriate responses; an essay about Tom Sawyer or the history of Washington, D.C. would not be.
According to the College Board Web site, the only way to get a zero on the SAT's new essay section is to fail to write about the assigned topic. A little planning can prevent that.
After students have read and understood the assigned topic, they can go on to the next step of the essay-writing process. This step does involve writing -- but not yet essay writing. In step two, students write an outline of their proposed essay. The outline should look something like this:
Congress According to Twain
1) Topic: The question or prompt rephrased in the student's own words. Rephrasing the prompt will help students understand the assignment and narrow and focus the topic of their essay. For example, "Mark Twain once said that all members of Congress are idiots."
2) Position: The student's position or opinion about the question or prompt. For example, "I see no reason to disagree."
Most writing assessments ask students to take a position. Students should be aware that, if the test directions ask them to take a position, they need to take one side of the issue and defend it, not consider and defend both sides of the issue.
3) Reasons: Three reasons the student has taken his or her stated position.
a) Reason 1: The most important reason. For example, "Congress has passed a number of bills without considering where the funding for those bills would come from."
i) Evidence: Example that demonstrates Reason 1. For example, "The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act are just three examples of laws that were passed without considering how cities and states would pay to implement their mandates."
b) Reason 2: The second most important reason. For example, "Congress has passed a number of silly bills based on narrow political interests."
i) Evidence: Example that demonstrates Reason 2. "For example, federal laws have been passed making it a crime to imitate Smokey the Bear or transport wooden teeth across state lines."
c) Reason 3: The third most important reason. For example, "The members of Congress from my state are idiots."
i) Evidence: Example that demonstrates Reason 3. For example, "I met John Smith, a member of Congress from my state, and he had never heard of my hometown."
The outline now is complete, and the essay -- as you can see by reading the italicized text in the outline -- is practically written.
The Five-Paragraph Essay
Finally! Students have arrived at the easiest part of the essay-writing process -- writing the essay. All they have to do now is arrange their outline text into a five-paragraph-essay format and add a few transitions, and they're done!
Paragraph 1: This is the Introduction. Here, students restate the assigned topic, state their position on the topic, and list the three reasons for their position. They end the paragraph with a transition sentence.
Mark Twain once said that all members of Congress are idiots. I see no reason to disagree. Members of Congress are often financially irresponsible, politically motivated, and unaware of the real concerns of their constituents. Let me explain.
Paragraph 2: This is the first of three paragraphs in the body of the essay. Here, students name and explain the most important reason for their stated position. They end the paragraph with a transition sentence.
Congress is financially irresponsible because it has passed a number of bills without considering where the funding for those bills would come from. The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act are just three examples of laws that were passed without considering how cities and states would pay to implement their mandates. Congress doesn't just waste money, though, it wastes time too.
Paragraph 3: This is the second of three paragraphs in the body of the essay. Here, students name and explain the second most important reason for their stated position. They end the paragraph with a transition sentence.
Congress has wasted time by passing a number of silly bills based on narrow political interests. For example, federal laws have been passed making it a crime to imitate Smokey the Bear or transport wooden teeth across state lines. Congress doesn't only do idiotic things as a group, though.
Paragraph 4: This is the third of three paragraphs in the body of the essay. Here, students name and explain the third most important reason for their stated position. They end the paragraph with a transition sentence.
Even the individual members of Congress from my state are idiots. I met John Smith, a representative from my state, and he had never heard of my hometown.
Paragraph 5: This is the Conclusion. Here, students rephrase and recap their position on the issue and their reasons for it, and then write a concluding sentence. The conclusion might emphasizes their position, expand it, offer a solution, or express a hope or prediction for the future.
So you can see why I think Mark Twain was correct when he said that all members of Congress are idiots. Often financially irresponsible, politically motivated, and unaware of the real concerns of their constituents, I believe that members of Congress need to spend less time immersed in the politics of Washington, D.C. and more time amid the voters at home.
Congratulations! You passed!
Additional Essay-Writing Resources
Article by Linda Starr
Copyright © 2017 Education World
Last updated 10/02/2017