Upside Down Education

By Chana Kanzen

I see it daily. They run into the house and seek screens. If we remove the TV, they find a phone. If we remove the phone – it’s a tablet. After trying to remove/stop/distract, our resolve breaks, and we have lost.

That’s the battle every day in homes around the world. Concerned parents are bombarded with messages like: SCREENS ARE CAUSING BRAIN DAMAGE, STRESS, DEPRESSION – all of which contain truth. But while the media emphasises the negative side of screen time it made me think – is there another way of looking at this? What are they doing that makes them seek-out screen time with such passion and determination?

I conducted an experiment which I recommend every parent does. I made sure that I could observe clearly what my kids were doing on their phones & tablets and even join them in their activities.

Perhaps surprisingly, rather than merely surfing the web, or chatting with friends on social network, my kids were actually doing things that were really meaningful.

My son used his time to build a state of the art mansion in Minecraft, completed two modules of a coding game, and he managed to get a ‘liberty’ (apparently really rare) for his team in Clash Royale (latest game). Had I not seen what he was doing, I would have thought that he was timewasting. But having calmly observed what he was doing, I realised that he had spent the last hour honing his Design, Math & IT skills, while also learning the value of teamwork, and boosting his confidence by gaining a rare team status, only few achieve.

Around the same time, my teenage daughter was using Duo Lingo to learn Italian (que bella!), admiring & reviewing around 50 photos of cakes on Instagram, sharing homework strategies on her class What’s app group, and making a short video for a friend’s birthday.

And then it hit me – this is education! Our kids run from school to their screens because, in so many ways, screen time provides kids with unique, personalised learning experiences that many schools are simply not providing.

Monitored and measured screen time gives kids the opportunity for engagement with authentic audiences, interactive learning, and a sense of personal accomplishment which, sadly, is not the case in many schools.

Putting aside the ‘what’ of education (ie: the curricula that needs to be covered), our education system is decades behind in terms of the ‘how.’ My sixteen-year-old daughter, who will graduate from University in 2021, is studying from old TEXT BOOKS, and her GCSE’s are HANDWRITTEN. Sure, books are incredibly important, but even the greatest libraries in the world are now digitizing their collections with the realisation that the greatest access point for learning is the web. And sure, we all need to know how to write, but must this entail writing 3,000 word essays by hand?

Of course, part of the reason for this rigid system is the fact that successful learning in most subjects is measured by standardized tests, and consequently, most teachers teach in very focused way, so that their students should do as well as possible. But the more we understand education, the more we realise that the way we test students, does little justice to the way they should be learning.

I truly believe that our kids are thirsty for knowledge communicated through engaging activities and interactive learning, presented in a relevant way that provides them with a real sense of personal accomplishment. But there is little room for this type of dynamic learning in the current system. They are turning to their devices more and more, at home, to find out the stuff they frustratingly didn’t get in school. To hear a better explanation, or see things a different way. They are used to an instantaneous experience, tailored to them – not rote learning alongside 30 other kids – all with their own individual needs. They feel pressured to succeed in a system that is alien to them.

So here’s an idea. Let’s suppose that school was a place where our children received the education they are craving. Where, in History, Geography, Maths or any other subject, our kids could create and search for their own content, be responsible for their own learning, perhaps teach others through videos and websites they have made whilst researching. Design solutions to real problems. Collaborate with other communities, go outside more, be encouraged to use art skills and music, pursue interests and activities. Where our girls, as well as our boys can be encouraged to study engineering, coding, robotics, 3D modelling and more, providing us with a robust, skilled future workforce.

Perhaps then they wouldn’t run from school. In fact, perhaps they’d even want to continue working at home!

While we may not need to change what is being learnt in school, I think we need to be a little more honest with ourselves about the how of education because, right now, a majority of our kids are living in the past, enduring a Victorian curriculum and graduating without the skills they need to thrive.

Schools should be places where our kid’s thirst for learning is quenched. But rather than learning at school, far too many of our kids are running home to start their education. The time for change has passed – what are we doing about it?

Chana Kanzen is CEO of Jewish Interactive.