Many years ago I attended an education Conference in upstate New York and saw, as I remember, a Keynote speaker who was a superintendent of an upstate district. He told the audience of an experience he had with a business owner in his region. The businessman told the superintendent that the students being graduated were not coming to him with the skills needed for his industry. He invited the superintendent to visit his plant and see the problem he faced matching the needed skills with the skills being taught. He then told the superintendent that he couldn’t even hire Lathe operators from the high school graduates.
The Superintendent visited the industrial arts teacher the next day, and asked if the proper use of the lathe was taught in his class. The superintendent even looked over the lathe that students used to do their work. It was an impressive piece of equipment and it all seemed in order. The students seemed to be doing a fine job with the lathe. This superintendent was ready to face the businessman in his plant assured that the school district’s students were certainly prepared with the skills to operate a lathe.
The next day after the social amenities were exchanged between the superintendent and the plant executives, they all took a walking tour of the plant ending up in the area of the plant where the lathes and the lathe operators did their work. To the superintendent’s surprise it looked nothing like the lathe area of the school’s shop. The touring group entered a closed-in, air-conditioned area. In that area the superintendent was introduced to a young woman in a white lab coat as she operated a computer that made all of the needed adjustments to operate the plant’s lathes. The superintendent was educated at that moment about relevance in education.
Now we are hearing from many of our leaders that in order for our country to recapture and secure its prominent position in our new global economy, we need to be innovative. Innovation will drive us to where we need to be. It was, after all, innovation that put our country in its position of prominence in the world initially.
When our public education system started out, we were way ahead of so many other countries with unlimited resources to work with; it is no wonder that we were successful. We may have conceived of the public education system to provide workers for the country’s workforce, but that, as a goal, was surpassed by many, as opportunity and innovation offered a path to security and wealth.
How do we now, in our present system, promote innovative thinking in order to produce innovation? When we look at the lathes that we are using in education, do they look like the lathes of today’s industry? Can we continue to use yesterday’s methodology to create today’s thinkers? Are we creating workers for industry, or are we creating leaders of industry?
If we continue to assess students who find no relevance in a mandatory education that they are not interested in, we should not be surprised at the failing results. Should we not consider other factors of poverty, race and language gaps as possible reasons for failure? Is the blame to be placed on the teachers who teach it, or should we look at the methodology and the goals of education? Could it be that the system is failing the teachers and not the other way around?
We need to assess what skills our children will need in their world, for it will be very different from ours. We need to provide them the opportunities to develop those skills. We need to promote innovative thinking in order to promote innovation. We need to be more innovative with education in order to move it from where it is, to where it should be going. We need not look back at what we had, but rather support teachers who are innovators and moving us forward. We need to support teachers with best practices, professional development, and encourage and support those teachers who do more than just ask students to be lifelong learners. The best teachers are learners themselves. They practice and model lifelong learning. They are education innovators, finding new ways to learn and teach in relevant terms, providing opportunities for their students to do the same. The successes of these educators can be more than models for others; they can be inspirational as the successes of the students are shared with teachers who have yet to become innovative.
Skills of acquiring information, communicating, critically thinking, and creating are the skills of innovation. To pull out an old chestnut, you don’t get that through osmosis, it must be taught. Our students need more than a lecture about the use of a lathe in a shop class. We need them to understand the world in which they will live.