I recently returned from a trip to Finland and the Hague with EF Education First for the Global Student Leaders Summit. I traveled with five of my fellow state Teachers of the Year and other educators from around the country who wanted to learn about global education. During the trip, we spoke with teachers, professors, and business leaders and visited schools. The entire experience validated my “Yoda” philosophy of teaching, but one person in particular spoke to my way of thinking. Lauri Jarvilehto is a former employee of Rovio (of Angry Birds fame) who has created a company called Lighneer, which is focused on educational games. Lauri believes—and I agree—that “education is important, but learning matters more.”
Too often, I see high-school students break down in tears over grades or pile on advanced and AP classes because “that’s what colleges want to see.” In fact, a recent survey of a nationally representative sample of 22,000 high-school students conducted by Marc Brackett at Yale indicated that high-school students felt stressed 80 percent of the time. Yet, companies have begun to recognize that traditional education does not always equate to success in the business world. Google has said that it has found no correlation between GPAs and test scores and employees who thrive, and therefore has stopped looking at those academic qualifications altogether. Goldman Sachs has made an effort to hire beyond Ivy League schools, finding that a “top quality” education didn’t really provide top quality job candidates. Some companies such as Deloitte no longer require college degrees at all—even for professional positions. And if that weren’t enough proof that traditional paths to career success can be misleading, seldom do current measures of high-school success guarantee success in college. In fact, according to a Gallup poll of high-school students, the No. 1 measure of college success is a sense of hope for the future. How can America’s students feel hope for the future when they are so stressed from trying to achieve future success that they break down in tears?
After visiting a Finnish kindergarten, I felt anxiety thinking of my hyper-stressed high-schoolers. The kindergarten classroom had little seating; in fact, we were told that there were never more than eight chairs in it at a time. Instead, there were pillows and small stools placed haphazardly around the room. A large, beautiful, wooden tree created a canopy over a cozy carpet in one corner. A nook in another corner provided a quiet space for students who wanted time to reflect by themselves. Musical instruments, books, and art supplies were readily available at eye level for little hands ready to grab them.
As I observed this student-centered classroom created for independent learning and play, I wished it for my students; and even stronger still, I wished it for my own 1- and 3-year-old children. Because even though I am a public-school teacher who has an undying commitment to public education, I still worry about my own children entering school. I worry that years of driving toward academic achievement will morph them into tear-filled teenagers who have forgotten how to play. In fact, according to a separate Gallup survey, 79 percent of elementary-aged children feel engaged in school, while only 43 percent of high-schoolers do. This breaks my heart. Like Lauri Jarvilehto, I think learning matters more than education, and somewhere along the way, students in the U.S. are being taught to forget to learn and focus only on becoming educated. Even in Finland, many high-school students still find school boring, but Finland takes the issue of student boredom seriously. Recently, the country has begun a reform to rid high-schools of mandatory subjects altogether, leaning instead on “phenomenon-based” curriculum.