Athleticism first, knowledge second. While that may seem like the motto of student-athletes playing for top-ranked college teams, that emphasis dates back to about the 7 century B.C., when Sparta became known for its educational system. But Sparta prioritized the physical and military training above the intellectual, molding young men to become experienced fighters and defend the city.
Schools have historically not been a place for fomenting freethinkers, rather a place to tame children’s creative urges and disruptive spirits to further adult goals. In the mid-17 century,Massachusetts was the first colony to mandate schooling for the purpose of creating good, obedient Puritan children who could read the Bible. Overseas, Europe often had schools of nationalism, not intellectualism, where countries transferred their history and tales of enemies on to the next generation. And when the Nazis came to power in 1933, one of the first things they did was take control of the German schools as a tool to sear their ideology in the minds of future soldiers.
“The origin of schools as we know them today didn’t come out of the idea to liberate the child’s mind to create critical thought,” said Peter Gray, a Boston College developmental psychologist.
Sociologists say modern education systems exist for a variety of reasons – in a world where both parents are often working, schools act as custodians and caregivers. Many schools provide nutrition and wellness services in addition to extensive extracurricular activities. And while the national average length of a school day is 6.7 hours, the number of schools running for at least eight hours is increasing every year, according to the nonprofit National Center on Time and Learning.
But what about the children? We need to upgrade the purpose of education to cultivate creativity, build intellectual playgrounds and offer opportunities for kids to learn through experiences. Schools should not emphasize reciting facts and regurgitating information. They should offer the freedom for uninhibited discovery and reward the knowledge gained from taking those risks.
“All kids have tremendous talents – and we squander them pretty ruthlessly,” said Sir Ken Robinson, a creativity expert and TED speaker. “I believe this passionately: That we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”
Robinson advocates ending the mandatory schooling, and he was part of England’s National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education that noted, “In the United States, the intellectual property sectors, those whose value depends on their ability to generate new ideas rather than to manufacture commodities, are now the most powerful element in the U.S. Economy.”
Many business leaders agree. In a survey of more than 1,500 CEOs spanning 33 industries and 60 countries, creativity was viewed as the most crucial factor for future success, according to a 2010 IBM report. But unfortunately one of the biggest issues with traditional schools is the discouragement of thinking and acting outside of the litany of rules and established norms – as well as having the goals of school administrators outweigh those of the students they are supposed to serve.
This happens when schools put such a strong emphasis on standardized test scores that faculty focus more on teaching to the test than building students’ critical thinking skills. And when teachers unions and tenure prevent schools from getting rid of bad teachers, student wellbeing takes a back seat. New York City alone was spending about $22 million each year paying teachers’ full salaries while they awaited disciplinary hearings. Doing nothing. The precedent set for teachers’ jobs should not come before the children, and too often it does – Harvard University researcher John Friedman estimated that a quality teacher can increase a students’ average annual income as an adult by about $50,000 a year, while a bad teacher can set students back months.
While entrepreneurship is the root of all progress, we have created an educational system which sorely lacks any of that necessary entrepreneurial spirit or structure. Schools at times act like corporations with strict bureaucratic structures, setting curriculums that churn out carbon-copy graduates like a factory. Their tracking locks children into what adults define as their future – the students who are “advanced” and likely to attend college, and those who are not. That administrative myopia can start as early as first grade, impacting children’s perceptions of what they can and cannot achieve in life.
The standards teachers judge children by can be different – like with reading.
A strong reader in one classroom might be someone who can enunciate and read well out loud, while a great reader in another might be someone who has good comprehension. And in a third classroom, both areas may factor into attaining that “good reader” label.
It’s not just about a classroom – parents also play a big role. Research shows there’s a strong correlation between children’s achievement scores and whether their parents read to them. Mothers and fathers should not have to be lured by a $25 gift card to pick up their children’s grades and participate in a parent-teacher conference, as was the case with many Chicago Public Schools. Parents need to be genuinely involved in their children’s lives.
While our politicians spend much of their time trying to “reform” and tweak a clearly broken system, it’s time for us as a country to use our entrepreneurial foundation to lean into the emerging education models that have creativity at their core. In an age where there are new versions of software and apps every few months, it’s mindboggling that our education system has remained stagnant for decades – and we’re in desperate need of an upgrade.