Learning Curve

Where schools are likely headed.

I’m sending my kids to school in the year 2018. Even then, in a world of neural hardware chips being added to our brains so that information of entire libraries can be held within one’s head, there are still things to learn.
Many of us today look forward to a day when humans may use newer and better technology to improve themselves, live longer, even travel within the universe. Of course this forward thinking also relates to our children. According to a Harris poll, more than 40 percent of Americans would use genetic engineering, if it were readily available, to improve their children’s mental and physical prowess.

I turn age 32 this year. I have three children, ages 10, 8 and 5. School for them is vastly different than the schools I grew up learning in 25 years ago. Yes, the desks remain, but something new has emerged: neurologically focused teaching from analyzing MRIs and the biology of how children learn. By looking at the areas of the brain engaged while a child learns, teachers have been able to implement theories of left-brain and right-brain learning into the curriculum.

Now that it’s known that some children understand words better than numbers, there is a sensitivity to the fact that children learn in different ways. More physical movement, manipulatives and auditory learning have been added to traditional lesson plans primarily through visual experiences like reading. Contemporary teachers are also influenced by cognitive psychology and knowledge of multiple intelligences in ways that enable them to see each child as unique. By acknowledging that different brains process and store auditory, visual and kinetic signals differently, teachers do not hold children accountable to the same mold that I encountered during my own school days.

Modern children frequently use computers and the Internet. They spend more time researching subjects online than in books on the shelf. Such technology enables children to quench their endless curiosity in an efficient manner and get more up-to-date information than ever before. With proper parental protection and guidance, there is a world of opportunity, advancement, networking, educational games and informative Web sites that children can access anytime. Children today get a broader education about the world and their place in it than they did 25 or even five years ago.

Many children in the United States also possess an understanding that a large portion of the world does not have access to the same technological advances that they have. One study by Comscore in 2006 listed the percentage of total Internet users at 14 percent of the world’s population. Usually kids have heard about many people in the world having never made a phone call, let alone using a computer. Yet, over the next 25 years, we can expect a growth in Internet use in America as well as in the entire world.

There are many benefits of this unprecedented amount of communication among countries since the advent of the Internet, including the knowledge that other countries’ educational systems pressure politicians to push for increases in educational funding in their own countries. The competition is expected to increase over the next 25 years, as countries try to keep their colleges, high schools and middle schools up to speed. Already countries with the best technology are at the top of the lists ranking educational excellence. America is not among the top five countries with the highest Internet use per percentage of population. This gives politicians a strong incentive to focus on net-wiring not only our communities but also our schools.

Studies indicate that schools in America with computers outperform those without such technology. According to Time magazine, the United States Education Department reported in the late 90s that children in classes with computers outperformed their non-wired peers by 30 percent. Some of the best schools today, public and private, require students to have laptops— sometimes even providing them. Children with laptops in the classroom can take notes on their computers, access Web sites to compete in educational games and take their projects from room to room, gaining multi-subject insight and input from various teachers.

Many studies also show that just having a home computer raises a student’s test scores. There are countless benefits to parents being able to stay in touch with teachers about homework or a child’s daily behavior via e-mail. Children at home can now use Web sites and passwords they received from their school to access online application-based tutorials that may enhance their grades in the classroom.

In the next few decades, we’ll be seeing an explosion in the amount of educational Web sites that have partnerships with schools, encouraging more and more children to supplement their in-class learning with online activities. Teachers are able to show children Web sites that have live cameras at famous museums, in addition to showcasing many free educational movies in their classrooms. Sites have been developed that teach complicated science concepts through cartoons, enabling young children to grasp formulas and equations that in my school days we did not know until high school. As computer processing power grows, and bandwidth builds over the years, we’ll see a vast increase in this simulated-environment learning that teachers may utilize in their classrooms.

In many ways, the recent growth in home schooling has been fueled by the creation of online schools. From kindergarten through high school, children can read materials for a class and take tests online, having tests then instantly scored. The school can recommend Internet lessons in areas which the child appears to need advancement. Children who have been students in these online schools generally test above average, when compared with other students taking national school tests. In the next 25 years, we’ll likely see more parents choosing Web-based schooling as online schools become even more advanced with the ways they teach and test.

I’m a believer that in the schools children attend 200 years from now, lessons can be downloaded overnight into a student’s brain. The next day, students discuss what they learned and creativity trumps demonstrations of rote knowledge. These futuristic schools utilize virtual reality technology to take simulated “trips” to other planets that have been colonized or to “travel” to parts of the Earth that are uninhabitable. The kids of the future also have access to live-immersion movies, at school and at home.

No one can predict the future very well beyond a decade. But, we can do our best forecasting with the trends we observe now— comparing what we’ve seen in the past and extrapolating that into the future. There are probable futures, preferred futures and wild-card futures. I strive to present a relatively real future based on possibilities scientists currently perceive as most likely. This way, when children read about adventures or school in the future, they also learn a lot about the world right now. And maybe they’ll be a little bit more ready in 25 years for the schools that their own children will attend.