Is ‘Hands-On’ Is the Best Way to Future-Proof Kids?

Standardized tests aren’t the answer to making American students future-proof, writes Dale Dougherty for Slate.com. On the contrary, the constant testing encourages the style of instruction that could be entirely counterproductive in achieving this goal. Instead of setting up incentives that practically force teachers to “teach to the test,” schools should introduce a large practical component, allowing students to get familiar and get excited about technology.

Even with the job situation that shows no sign of improvement, companies all over the country are reporting a severe shortage of employees trained in STEM disciplines. The number of computer science and engineering college graduates is stagnant exactly at the time when American companies need them most. At the moment, with the focus mainly on rote memorization, the country’s education system is ill-equipped to tackle this problem.

To gain inspiration for the redesign the schools of the present, it might be a good idea to look for advice from sages of the past. John Dewey, the founder of pragmatism, said that students learn best buy doing:

“The school must represent present life—life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.” He also wrote that “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

Dougherty advises educators to heed Dewey’s advice, and instead of having them fill out Scantron bubbles, they should get their students to create. Instead reading about a microscope on an exam question, kids should be allowed to use them in class and learn from what they have to show.

As the publisher of Make magazine and Maker Faire, I find Dewey’s views refreshing and relevant. I see the power of engaging kids in science and technology through the practices of making and hands-on experiences, through tinkering and taking things apart. Schools seem to have forgotten that students learn best when they are engaged; in fact, the biggest problem in schools is boredom. Students sit passively, expected to absorb all the content that is thrown at them without much context. The context that’s missing is the real world.

Students should be more than passive consumers of education. With Maker Faire, Make magazine seeks to turn them participants instead, by examining, tinkering putting together, and taking apart projects of their own, and then allowing them to share their creations, and the insights that have come out of them, with students from schools all over the country every year.

Although some bureaucrats might be resistant to a mode of instruction that can’t be readily tested, the tests themselves rely on an assumption that, in itself, hasn’t actually been proven: that what kids are being tested on represents real knowledge gains.

I continued to think about the questions for several months. Then one day I had it in a sentence. “Making creates evidence of learning.” The thing you make—whether it be a robot, rocket, or blinking LED—is evidence that you did something, and there is also an entire process behind making that can be talked about and shared with others. How did you make it? Why? Where did you get the parts? Making is not just about explaining the technical process; it’s also about the communication about what you’ve done.