How and Where Do We Learn?

thirdspace5Fareed Zakaria had an interesting discussion this past Sunday on his CNN GPS show about the educational gap in America. His guests, Teach for America Founder Wendy Kopp, Sal Khan of Khan Academy, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and former New York City school administrator Joel Klein made up the panel. Their discussion was an amazing analysis of American education and how it stacks up, but there was a missing link that I will address in this article.

The US ranks 17th in reading, 26th in math and 21st in science in the world according to recent PISA exams that compare achievement among students in diverse nations. Kopp and Friedman commented on a school in Shanghai that ranks at the top in achievement. Kids there go to school 50 days a year more than children in the U.S., a startling difference in the amount of education. Is that the difference? Perhaps it is part of it, but it’s not the whole story.

Klein emphasized that technology is an aid but not the solution for more effective teaching and learning. We need better teachers, with better training and better pay. Wendy Kopp suggested that school system leadership is important. Shanghai uses top school administrators to train and serve as mentors for other administrators.

Friedman made the point that professional development for teachers in Shanghai involves some 30% of their time. Teachers communicate with their students’ parents two or three times a week by phone or email. The level of engagement with parents is much higher than in traditional US schools.

Another difference is that athletics are not a major function of school life in the top achieving nations as it is in the U.S. Those other nations rely on private athletic leagues to support the market demand for athletics for young people.

Klein emphasized the need for dramatic change in how the education system works. But he still didn’t land on what I considered the missing component of the discussion. What do American children do with the rest of their free time? Do they play video games, participate in sports, hike trails, spend time in museums or volunteer at a nature center?

Zakaria wrote in his book, The Post American World, that school administrators from those top-achieving nations admire how children in the U.S. exhibit critical thinking and problem solving skills. Some of those skills are learned in the classroom but many are learned during free play or in non-formal settings, such as zoos, museums, aquariums, nature centers, science centers, boy scouts, girl scouts, etc.


At these free-choice learning sites we hope to inspire children, not teach and test them. We want to turn on that bright light inside a child’s brain that drives them deeper and deeper into understanding the world, history, art and real life. It is contextual learning in most cases with lessons that include real places, live animals, growing plants and hands-on experiences.

I think the missing link in the study of education systems is the lack of conversations at all levels about the importance of intermingling free-choice learning with formal education. I spent 17 years in administration of a professional development organization for interpreters and guides, but had very little engagement with formal education and public schools. This was no one’s fault and everyone’s. It just wasn’t an area of emphasis and so the finger gets pointed at all of us for choosing to stay in our comfortable silos and allowing field trips to be the only overlap between formal and informal education.

I hope American administrators of education and free-choice learning find real chances to talk about the overall impact of what we do and how we work together better. Education of children is the net effect of what happens to a child growing up, not just the daily experience in the classroom.

-Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

One thought on “How and Where Do We Learn?

  1. That 360 degree circle of education fused with all aspects of life and living is certainly more promising than hours of isolated classroom, non-engaging teachers and regurgitation of often non-applicable academic sing-a-longs. How much longer before we admit that such an environment stunts the growth and starves the child? I think you’re absolutely right.

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