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Once the envy of the world, American schools are now in trouble. Test scores show our kids lag far behind their peers in other industrialized countries. In a new age of information, rapid innovation, and globalization, how can we prepare our children to compete? As the divide between rich and poor grows wider, how can schools today help students of all backgrounds meet the challenges of tomorrow? NOVA, a production of WGBH Boston, explores how the science of learning and technological innovations are transforming the way we teach and learn, and are creating a new vision of the future of education for all children.
Just in time for back to school, students, teachers, parents, and scientists take center stage in this thought-provoking new NOVA film, airing as part of PBS’s SPOTLIGHT EDUCATION initiative featuring a special week of primetime programming examining the challenges facing today’s students and America’s education system.
In School of the Future, NOVA examines how the latest research could help us rethink and redesign education in America. In a series of compelling personal profiles of students and teachers, the film looks at the consequences of widespread inequities that often create gaps in opportunities and educational achievement, and explores innovative attempts to narrow those gaps. NOVA visits neuroscientists, psychologists and educators with new insights revealing how kids’ brains work—including how stress, sleep, mindset and emotions affect learning, what role technology should play in the classroom, and which techniques are most likely to engage and inspire growing minds.
“School of the Future is a true reflection of NOVA’s longstanding commitment to education through our programming, digital platforms, and outreach programs reaching diverse audiences across the country,” said NOVA Senior Executive Producer Paula S. Apsell. “Now more than ever, it is crucial that we develop an understanding of how children learn, and look at the science and technology that could allow schools to help all children fulfill their potential for generations to come.”
In the film, NOVA offers an up close look at the types of research and in-classroom programs currently being implemented across the country, including:
“Exploring How Brains Learn at an Early Age”: At the Gabrieli Lab @ MIT, neuroscientist Joanna Christodoulou explores how kids’ brains are extraordinarily plastic, and how brain structure can correlate to socioeconomic status. Using MRI imaging, she is studying whether early intervention such as enhanced literacy programs can positively impact a child’s brain development.
“Growth Mindset”: Psychologist Carol Dweck studies the importance of Growth Mindset—students’ belief in their own abilities to learn and improve—in predicting their achievement over time. Education entrepreneur Sal Khan puts this theory to the test with a new initiative within the non-profit, online tutorial system Khan Academy, called LearnStorm, in which students are rewarded when they keep trying to solve difficult problems until they succeed.
“The Grit Test”: University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author Angela Duckworth finds that a “Grit Test”—assessing the likelihood for not giving up when times get tough—is a stronger predictor of success than IQ in the long run. Her work plays a central role in the current resurgence of character education, which maintains that attitude and effort are as important to learning as cognitive abilities.
“Emotional Engagement”: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang works with students from troubled neighborhoods to monitor neural activity around “meaningful learning” by showing high school students videos to get them emotionally engaged in a topic. Immordino-Yang’s research has shown that deep, reflective thinking engages a particular network that connects several areas of the brain, including some of those responsible for basic survival, such as breathing and heart rate.
“Project-Based Learning”: The Workshop School, which serves kids from some of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods, strives to engage students on an emotional level by building a curriculum centered around projects kids care about. Even traditional subjects such as science and geometry are taught through hands-on projects that have tangible outcomes and solve real world problems. For example, science students culminate their research into the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan by designing a water filtration system.
“Teaching the Whole Child”: Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues founded East Palo Alto Academy, an experimental public charter in a poor community just across the highway from one of the wealthiest districts in America, in an effort to level the educational playing field. Their approach centers on providing a full suite of academic, emotional and social supports for students, a significant portion of whom are homeless and whose parents did not graduate from high school. How do you create a school that encourages kids from such challenging backgrounds to see themselves as scholars who can thrive in college and careers in a demanding, information-driven 21st century workforce?
“Addressing the Gender Gap”: At the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy in Goleta, California, physics teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer runs a project-based public school program aimed to address another form of inequality: the gender gap in science and engineering. After Abo-Shaeer added art courses and actively recruited female students, the academy’s female enrollment jumped from 5 to 50 percent in four years. NOVA follows 41 boys and 41 girls in this year’s senior class as they create a “Physics Arcade” for the Maker Faire competition.
“Social Identity, Stereotypes, and English Language Learners”: At the KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate in Lynn, MA, Rene Alderette leads a program that ensures English language learners are included in mainstream classes. NOVA follows the story of a teenaged Iraqi refugee who is part of the program, which fosters a sense of belonging to a community, aims to eliminate feelings of isolation, and establishes high expectations for all students.
“Highly Personalized Learning Environments”: Some of the most ambitious classroom redesigns are underway at private schools like AltSchool in Palo Alto, where education entrepreneur Max Ventilla is using digital technology to build highly personalized learning environments. Here students work independently at their own pace and can dive deeper into subjects through personalized lesson plans called “playlists,” which serve as their customized textbooks.
“Long-Term Memory Retention”: At Columbia Middle School in Illinois, history teacher Patrice Bain teaches using an active retrieval process–prompting students to fetch info from memory on a daily basis with mini-quizzes in order to strengthen long-term retention. The retrieval practice is extremely effective for creating robust memories, while traditional study methods like highlighting and re-reading notes are ineffective and can be quickly forgotten.
“So what will the School of the Future look like?” Ask a kid and the answer frequently involves flying objects of some kind: “kids riding on hoverboards in the hallways . . .” or “flying iPads . . . flying phones . . . flying computers.” If you ask teachers, scientists, education entrepreneurs and other experts to weigh in, however, the school of the future begins to emerge as a more individualized, more experimental, more innovative learning experience, and more engaging environment that is attentive to the whole child and helps all students tap their full potential and fulfill their dreams.