Sunday, November 8, 2015

Improving Education is Harder than Going to the Moon

       I often hear people say, "We have been able to send men to the moon.  Why can't we improve education?"  The implication, of course, is that the effort to send people to the moon is certainly more difficult than educating children.  So if we could do that, why can't we accomplish this--much easier--task?

       I would contend that improving education for all students is much more difficult than--the extremely complex of task of--sending people to the moon because (even today) educators are dealing with many more "unknowns" than NASA had in 1969.

       I doubt that anyone at Mission Control watched the Apollo capsule heading toward the moon thinking, "I'd say that we have a 20% chance of missing the moon by a hundred thousand miles."  They knew how far away the moon was; they knew the amount of force needed to break out of the earth's atmosphere; they knew how much food the astronauts needed.  It was certainly a complex task.  Mistakes were surely made and some things certainly went wrong.  But the Apollo 11 team that dealt with the physics of sending people to the moon were dealing with plenty of known quantities.

       In contrast, improving education involves our--still evolving--knowledge of how students learn.  Brain research is currently taking place and reporting new findings every year.  We have to contend with understanding the best way to motivate students and the best way to teach students.  And, of course, students aren't robots with the same abilities and the same limitations.  We have students from rich and poor families with different views of the benefits of education.  We have students from different home-life situations in which some are very supportive and some lack any sort of structure.

       It would make more sense to compare the effort to improve learning with the effort to cure cancer.  Over the years and decades, both of these fields have experienced progressed, but neither of these fields have been able to claim a complete victory.  Our understanding of cancer cells has certainly improved from 100 and 50 and even ten years ago, but we don't know enough to know how to stop their growth throughout the body.  Similarly, our understanding of how students learn has improved, but we are yet to find a school model--or even an education model--that best addresses the needs of all of our students.

       Improving education is a complex problem.  We see small improvements from time to time; and we see isolated pockets of (what appear to be) great success from time to time.  But we still have more to learn before this problem can be solved.  We have to continue to build on the successes of the past (and present) to reach the day when all students will receive the full education that they deserve and all students will reach their full potential.

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