Part 3: Education Is at a Tipping Point

By Jonty Yamisha

America’s public education system has been on the decline for quite some time. It’s no secret that despite being a leading world economy, a global superpower, and a major influencer on the global stage, other countries still rank higher than U.S. students for academic achievement. And yet, despite years of failed attempts each new administration and education plan, there’s always some new lofty plan on how to fix it.

All while clinging to the dated-core structures and strategies…

States Leading Per Student Spending

[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

The US spends a lot of money on education, just over $11,000 annually per student. Yet, despite that investment, schools are in ruins, resources are scarce, and student performance continues to decline. What’s worse, even though there have been major advancements in education and teacher training, most schools still rely on that traditional classroom model. A model that is well over 100 years old… 

Traditional Classroom Models Are Ineffective

The U.S. Education system has its origins in the industrial revolution. It’s a relic that focuses on creating factory workers, not innovators. Think about it. Students often sit in rows while teachers tell them to stay quiet and follow the directions. Risk isn’t rewarded. Mindlessly obedience is. As a result, students move from bell to bell, going where they’re told to go each and every day.

With testing at the core of education, there’s also little room for creativity. Instead, students learn to see education as a series of inconveniences they have to somehow “get past.” They’re not encouraged to learn authentically or explore activities with open-mindedness. Rather, they’re told to what to study so they can “pass the test”.

The Current School System Reduces Creativity

This test-driven process means that students learn to do what they need to do to “pass”. And even those interested in success learn that they just need to memorize more. Sadly, this mentality turns education into a marathon of data dumps that don’t help anyone grow or develop unique insights into the world.

The main problem is that this isn’t learning. Continuously absorb information only long enough to test on it doesn’t open doors to a greater understanding of what it means to be in this world. You can’t internalize knowledge this way. Ultimately, students quickly forget what they studied shortly after the test. And even the “best” students in these systems are only slightly more knowledgeable than the rest. Or worse, just better at cramming and test-taking.

This isn’t learning.

One-Size Fits All Education Hurts Everyone

On top of that, teachers overly rely on essays, instead of other methods, to assess learning. The problem with this is that most businesses use completely different forms of writing. So, students grow up in the education system, learning how to write, think, and work in a way that is uniquely specific to the school system. As a result, so many leave believing that their schools failed to prepare them for the real world. 

There’s also no room for passions or interests. Everyone must learn the same subject matter. And yet, every student is different. Each one has varying interests. Interests they have no time to explore while in the school system… They spend years distracted by learning what others think they should know. As a result, they have very little time to find out what they like, or really, who they even are. 

We also learn differently. For instance, if there was one way for us all to learn, there would simply be one language learning program that worked well for everyone. But there are scores of apps, programs, books, and strategies. People learn differently. Some people enjoy more games, others enjoy puzzles. Then there are those who like structure and order. And still, others learn in chaos. If everyone’s to fit into the same system, some must be bent, others must be broken.

Declining Student Participation and Completion

In the traditional classroom setting, you have 30+ kids sitting and passively listening to one person talk AT them. They’re not allowed to reach an understanding at their own pace. Instead, they’re forced to keep up with the class due to continuous, pressing deadlines for tests. 

Imagine walking into a language learning classroom knowing NOTHING about a language. The teacher gets up and speaks. All of a sudden, people are shouting out answers to questions. They quickly move on. Everyone’s getting it. Everyone except you. 

This is what modern education is like. And as time goes by, students get further and further behind. They gradually feel dumb, that they just don’t get. Eventually, they feel they don’t belong And that causes them to act out. They fail to complete assignments, show up late, and disrupt classes. Over time, their failures increase while their test scores drop. Ultimately, they drop out.

Students Are Bored

Have you ever watched a Gordon Ramsey cooking video on Youtube? They’re brief, insightful, and make everything seem easy. You’re pulled in watching a snippet of a masterclass on cooking. And for a moment, there’s nothing else, only you and an expert sharing personal insight. When it finishes, you walk away thinking: “Hey. I could do this!” 

The same is not true for education.

Often students focus on the same core skills (reading, writing, and math) for their own sake. Teachers repeat each lesson over and over again, only to take a boring test that punishes students for each mistake they make. And when parents ask their kids what they learned, they often hear, “I dunno” or “nothing.” Far from being sarcastic or dramatic, they’re communicating the truth. They’ve learned nothing.

School becomes an endless slog of repetitive, uneventful tasks that bleed into one another. Because of this, students end up viewing school as a waste of time. And they pull themselves further away from it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way…

Schools Miss the Point with Technology

With technology, anyone can learn anything at any time in any way. And yet schools still try to label the teacher as the holder of all knowledge. These systems don’t empower students. Instead, they only direct them to seek out their teachers. And as a result, students graduate with a handful of crumpled up essays, a few good memories, and some test scores that illustrate to the next school how “teachable” they are. 

But here’s the real kicker: students leave school and then go on to college only to do the same thing for another 4 years! Except when they leave after that final stint, they end up at an employer who briefly glances at their CV before throwing them in the mix, leaving them to figure it out on their own. And it is a struggle

Why?

Because despite all those years, these students have only managed to learn how to function in a school. They have very little to no idea how to function at a full-time, paying job.

Teachers: Stretched Thin Under Increased Pressure

How much 1:1 time does a child get with a teacher in a traditional American high school? To figure that out, let’s imagine that a student goes to school from 7:50 am – 3:20 pm. During that time, there are 9 blocks, one of which is lunch. Each block is roughly 55 minutes long. Of that 55 minutes, if a teacher observes modern teaching practices and has a 5-minute warm-up to complete roll and set up the class and then only lectures for 10 minutes, that leaves 40 minutes for the teacher to provide 1:1 instruction. 

On average, there can be anywhere between 17 and 35 students in a classroom. If we say the average classroom has 25 students, then each student gets around 1 min 36 seconds with the teacher in each of their 8 classes. That’s means that each day a child is at school, they get just under 13 minutes a day with a teacher. Factor in disruptive behavior, students who monopolize the teacher’s time, and other interruptions, and you get a feeling for just how little time teachers actually have to directly work with students.

Budget Cuts

Despite a much stronger economy, education’s funding is still at the level it was at in the wake of the Great Recession. Districts can’t hire more teachers. And as a result, class sizes have increased drastically. Meanwhile, classrooms remain in disrepair. Libraries sit empty. Teacher budgets quickly run dry before they can fully stock their classrooms, leaving them to use their own money to pay for supplies. If they do get technology to use in their classrooms, many teachers never get the training needed to optimize it. 

Not only that, but the national average starting salary for teachers is $38,000. Often, raises don’t match inflation. As a result, new teachers gradually get paid less and less for the work they do, despite gaining experience.

Teachers are also kept from upper-level pay scales unless they achieve (mostly useless) higher-level degrees. Having a high school teacher with a Ph.D. in History is overkill. Graduate degrees in education don’t offer much more in the way of revolutionizing education either because they’re still forced to function within a very limited and dated system. Still, teachers end up spreading themselves thinner trying to attain these degrees to get a much-needed pay boost.  

With such little pay and such harsh working conditions, can we really expect more from our teachers? But with the education of our students at risk, people want a solution. They desperately need one.

Frustrated Learners Pursue Alternatives to Traditional Education

Many fear that traditional education systems are beyond repair. There’s a growing view that the government cannot fix the problem because of the disconnect between what schools need versus how they want to measure progress. This endless back and forth inspired people to simply choose alternatives. As a result, there has been a rapid increase in the demand for alternative learning programs. 

Private schools, Homeschooling, Charter Schools, and online education have siphoned students away from traditional public schools. And Montessori schools have been making a comeback in recent years. People see these as viable alternatives to the absolute mess public education has become. 

But these alternatives aren’t a panacea. Even 100 years after its creation, it’s not clear if Montessori schools are better than public schools or not. And charter schools continue to struggle as well. 

Why can’t we seem to figure it out? 

There are far too many differences between learners to take into account. Community, social-economic status, individual learning styles, interests, goals, and dreams all make it hard to teach large groups of people effectively. And yet, we pump so many different kids into the same arena while throwing information at them and measuring their progress in the exact same way.

The Increase in Self-Directed Learning

The failure of school systems pushes learners to take their education into their own hands. As a result, self-directed learning is on the rise. People want to learn. They just want to do it in a way that speaks to them. The more exciting, interesting, and enjoyable the experience is, the better. And with the proliferation of content on the internet, people don’t have to search far for the materials they need. 

There are numerous online resources ready for eager learners to experience. Youtube, Wikipedia, Khan Academy, and scores of others make it simple for people to find the medium that works before them. Add to that the prevalence of technology, specifically smartphones, and you can easily see why there has been a tidal wave of education-focused apps available for users. 

What does all this mean? 

Education is changing. And to see the full effect of this, you need to look no further than language learning. 

The Change in Language Learning Classrooms

Foreign language learning is on the decline in the U.S. because people fail to see its relevance. In one survey, only 36% of workers felt that learning a foreign language was relevant to job success. You can easily see this view reflected in foreign language classroom instruction. Students often view language learning as an obstacle to overcome, something to “get through”, not an experience they should embrace.

Language Learning in Schools Is Down

Only 20% of U.S. students study a foreign language in school. In Europe, that number is 92%. Budget cuts, a lack of teachers, poor performance, and a weak culture around language-learning are all to blame. One other main difference is the nation’s approach to teaching language-learning.

In European, countries have laws in place that enforce the practice. In the US, however, each state is allowed to set its own policy toward language-learning. Areas with larger exposure to multicultural populations may put more emphasis on learning foreign languages while more isolated communities may not see it as a valuable skill.  

Still, even in areas of multicultural areas, fewer and fewer people enrolling in school-based foreign language classes because it’s largely ineffective. And they’re right…

Think about it. Most people who remember studying a second language in high school remember an unpleasant experience. Former students often remember spending years in language classes studying grammar, conjugating verbs, and taking tests, only struggle with having simple conversations with native speakers. That’s after spending YEARS “learning” the language! 

Several reasons why foreign language instruction fails in the classroom: 

  • Students are passive: There’s no opportunity for them to practice. With limited class time and even less time for direct instruction, students cannot work with teachers 1:1 to get the support they need. 
  • Reliance on dated methods: Despite having a better understanding of how language and memory work, many teachers still rely on drilling, grammar, and memorization to try and produce fluency. 
  • Language is treated as a subject: Languages are tools to be used, not subjects to be studied. And yet, teachers still assess students using mainly tests. This results in a heavy focus analyzing a language as a subject rather than a tool to use. 
  • Materials are boring: If students find the materials they use to learn a language are boring, they won’t focus. This results in them shutting down, learning very little despite their efforts.
  • Learners are at different levels: With 30 different people in a classroom, it’s hard to present the proper comprehensible input necessary to guide learners to higher levels of understanding.

With that knowledge and decreased funding for schools, those in charge end up reevaluating whether or not it’s necessary to teach foreign languages in schools. Often, they conclude that it’s non-essential because it’s ineffective. Then, they cut the departments.

Add that mindset to shrinking budgets and underperformance on core test subjects like reading, math, and science, and you have fewer languages being taught at schools than ever before.

The Need for Alternative Language Learning Methods 

Without trying to sound like a broken record, we know that despite the trends, learning another language is an asset. Cultures continue to overlap in our shrinking, globalized world. And while English might be the lingua franca, there’s an increasing need to learn other languages. Business, culture, identity, communication, the list of avenues where knowing more than one language serves as an asset continues to grow.

The continuous failure of language learning in the classroom has led to the increase of alternative methods. Despite the decreased enrollment in schools, the use of language learning applications continues to boom. Growingly, people are coming to their own understanding that learning a new language is important for a variety of reasons. As a result, the projected forecast for the language-learning market shows huge growth within the next few years.

Increase in Language-Learning Market Size

Market projections have online language learning markets experiencing a 13.1% compound annual growth rate by 2025, reaching $10.5 billion. Driving factors? Increased globalization and more cost-effective language learning technology. Advances like Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing have definitely made these platforms more effective. And companies’ push towards digitization has certainly created an impact as well.

As more companies move their businesses online and implement systems that capture vast amounts of data, they’ll be able to rapidly innovate their language learning programs. 

Imagine using a language learning app that adjusts (on its own) to your learning style. Systems like spaced repetition and guided immersion will become far more effective than they already are. And users will be able to directly observe and track their progress. While this is happening, companies will have access to vast streams of data, allowing them to make the necessary upgrades and adjustments for increased language-learning efficiency.

Self-Directed Learning’s Role in Language Learning

When you factor in all these variables, the pressure of globalization, the failure of the education system, and the proliferation of technology, it becomes easy to see why people would rather just teach themselves. Self-directed learning is when a learner takes autonomy of their learning. They look at the material, how they learn, and the resources available to them. Then they make the leap into the unknown.

Far from being an isolating practice, self-directed learning puts the learner center stage. They’re allowed to explore and test out different methods. And when ones don’t work, they try new strategies, but always with their main goals in mind. The result is a far more positive experience with the learning process. 

Unlike traditional systems that force learners to apply one cookie-cutter strategy to the obstacles they need to overcome (only to punish them if they fail), self-directed learning is a lot more understanding. If a learner fails in their endeavors, they either lacked clearly defined goals or they used the wrong tools. 

This gives learners far more freedom to adjust and overcome. That’s far different than traditional methods that try to force everyone to learn the same way, leaving them to feel inadequate about their abilities when they don’t succeed. It also puts the pressure on the learner to follow through. A lack of effort and consistency will lead to failure, and the learner will bear the primary responsibility. 

The Rise of Polyglots

This push towards self-directed learning is why there are so many different avenues available to those who want to learn a language on their own. Finding one of these platforms is as easy as signing up on a website or downloading an app. And you have plenty of options to choose from:

It goes beyond language learning apps. There are now conferences where language learners can meet up and share their insight and expertise. Events like The Polyglot Gathering, Polyglot Conference, and Langfest help form a collective around language learning. These events bring people together who’ve managed to learn several languages. 

Many of these people have social media followings and platforms where they provide their audiences with tips and tricks to rapidly achieve fluency. And these are no small followings either. Some language learning channels have over a million subscribers

Mainstream Language-Learning Awareness Grows

There’s now even more mainstream awareness centered around the journey to learn new languages. The BBC recently broadcast a show called, The Super Linguists. This audio documentary attempts to dive into why people learn more than one language. The host, Simon Calder, “meets people who keep learning new languages not because they have to, but because they want to.” 

People find both languages and language learners interesting. Failed by school systems and pressured by globalization, they feel a strong desire to connect with a world that seems increasingly fragmented. But they also see as language-learning as something outside of their abilities. And that puts an increasing pressure and responsibility on the role of the polyglot.

A responsibility we will now take a look at.

Continue to Part 4 of the Polyglot’s Paradox