Have We Reached the End of Education as We Know It? The Nation’s Top Experts Sound Off

Family Action Network's "The End of Education, The Future of Learning"

A panel of some of the most visionary educators and learning and design architects in the country recently assembled for a Family Action Network (FAN) event in Evanston. The discussion was facilitated by Trung Le, AIA architect, and Christian Long, educator and school planner — both founding partners at WONDER, By Design. The group gathered to brainstorm, think big and share ideas. They raised tough questions with each other and with the audience. Make It Better was there for the lively discussion. Here are our top takeaways.

Engage kids in helping solve today’s “big” problems.

Le played a video from an organization named simply “X,” a reference to those mathematical equations that are always asking us to “solve for X,” showing global issues being solved by diverse teams of imaginative thinkers. For example, a sculptor and a kite surfer work together to design a high-flying kite to better capture the power of the wind and convert it to energy, and a fashion designer and an aerospace engineer team up to create balloons capable of bringing the internet to far-flung, disconnected locales.

Panelist Nichole Pinkard, associate professor at DePaul University, author and founder of the Digital Youth Network, says, “It’s inspiring to see what someone else has done. It makes visible what people are doing and begs the question: Why can’t it be me?” We need to get students to ask this question to get inspired and then get involved.

“It’s going to take every one of us to make the effort to explain to others how they are needed,” says Liz Gerber, associate professor at Northwestern University and faculty founder of Design for America. She wants to see more clear opportunities for non-STEM (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) participants — for example, an emphasis on policy writing.

Michael Kosko, high school science teacher at Al Raby School for Community and Environment in Chicago, notes that it’s hard to balance the struggle for standardized test scores and school ratings with the need to enable educators to really embrace these challenges with their students. We should be putting the big questions of the day in front of young minds. The X video ends with the inspirational words, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

We must move toward building a collaborative environment with more integrated knowledge.

“We’ve made education into a single-player sport,” says Jaime Casap, Chief Education Evangelist at Google. Students are responsible for their own work and grades; there’s an atmosphere of competitiveness. Then we send them out into the world and expect them to know how to work together. Casap says, “Imagine if I went to Google and said ‘I created an educational initiative and I promise I didn’t work with anyone else.’” The work world is structured very differently than our educational system.

The good news, Kosko says, is within secondary education, “There’s a greater emphasis on collaboration — not only within course teams (subjects) but also grade levels. I like posing these questions then letting my students run wild with it, make messy mistakes, then collaborate as a group on what went wrong and what we can take from it to move forward.” There’s a move toward this type of phenomenon teaching.

The panel endorsed Phenomenon-Based Learning (PBL), a student-led method in which a classroom observes a real-life scenario or phenomenon — such as a current event — and analyzes it using an interdisciplinary method. PBL originated in Finland and is a departure from traditional American systems in that it doesn’t separate learning into subject areas like science and math, and students work alongside teachers to investigate problems instead of being passive recipients of knowledge.

“I don’t like to look at it from the perspective that the American education system is broken,” says Casap. “We just need to do exactly what we did 150 years ago [when our educational system was developed] and consider what we need to do to prepare students for a world that is different than it was — a world that’s globally connected, network-based, problem-solving-based and collaborative — what does the education model need to look like to support that?”

Straight As — and even college degrees — are becoming less important.

In response to an audience member’s question about the necessity of parents saving for college, Gerber says she will put money away to support curiosity and learning but, “Will it be for a college education? I’m not sure.” Panelist Sam Chaltain, educator, author and partner at WONDER, by Design, adds, “College is almost already chasing a ghost of what it once represented. In a way, continuing to chase that and to ignore the ridiculous amounts of debt and that most colleges are not giving students the skills that they need, we do all of us a disservice.”

But the issue isn’t as simple as choosing other ways to grow in lieu of college. Both Pinkard and Casap acknowledge that there’s a socio-economic component. Casap says, “If you’re black or Latino, you will make significantly less money with a high school degree than with a college degree.” Long-term, however, that may not always be the case. For example, Google doesn’t require a college degree. “In fact, if I look at a resume and it has straight As, it says to me that they didn’t try hard enough.” To him, it means they took easy classes or too readily agreed with all of those professors. Instead, there’s an increasing focus by companies on their own assessments to determine knowledge, skills and abilities.

In our rapidly changing world, Chastain says, “By the time today’s kindergarteners of all colors and economic classes reach that point [entering college], I’m hopeful that there will be many more opportunities that don’t require $200,000 of parent-saved money, but that there will be lots of ways in which we’re able to follow through on our country’s founding spirit of equity.”

Other topics covered during the panel include how a lack of resources often leads to innovation, and the changing ways we define success. View the video of the full discussion at FAN’s website.


FAN Annual Sponsors: Martin & Mary L. Boyer Foundation, Compass Health Center, Erikson Institute,Evanston Township High School, Make It Better, Mammal Foundation, New Trier Township High School,Pathways, Tina & Byron Trott

FAN Strategic Partners: Acclaim Media, Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, Curt’s Cafe, Evanston/Skokie School District 65, Hackstudio, Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Master of Science in Education Program at Northwestern University, North Shore Community Bank & Trust, Northern Suburban Special Education District, New Trier Parent Association, Northwestern University, Redefined Fitness, The Book Stall, The Family Institute at Northwestern University, Y.O.U., YWCA Evanston/North Shore

FAN In-Kind Sponsors: Kirkland & Ellis, Turing Group

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