Man, by nature, desires knowledge. —Aristotle
The Failure of America’s Schools
A recent study conducted by sociologist Richard Arum of New York University confirmed our general suspicions regarding America’s educational system: the failure of America’s educational system to cultivate the ability to think critically. Arum’s four year study followed 2,322 college students in 24 U.S. universities.
The results of this study are as impressive as they are disappointing: 45 percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills in the first two years of college, and even after four years, 36 percent still showed no improvement in the development of these critical faculties, referred to as higher order thinking skills.1 The study found that most students spend 51 percent of their time not being involved in academic activities, but in socializing and other “extracurricular” activities. Perhaps as a result of this tendency to socialize, the study also established that those students who studied alone made “more significant gains in learning than those who studied in groups." 2 (Read more about Richard Arum’s study and his new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses below.)
Although Arum’s study followed college students at the university level, we can safely assume that these students did not inexplicably abandon firmly established critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills at this level of their academic learning. Rather, they likely arrived at the foot of the university’s door lacking them.
The Many Faces of the Educational Dilemma
Regrettably, there is no isolated, singular problem that can be affixed to today’s educational dilemma. The issues students face are plural—there are, in other words, many problems, not just one. Moreover, the problems are complex and multifaceted.
Although we do not propose our methods provide solutions to all faces of America’s troubled system of learning, we do propose an alternative method of education which we believe serves the individual student maximally. In our view, sole emphasis upon greater reading, writing, and math workloads alone is foolish and counter-productive. But when coupled with refining a student’s ability to think creatively, originally and critically, the workloads become purposeful.
Teaching to the Test vs. The Individual Student
What precisely is imaginative, original, and critical thought?
First of all, we do not regard a student’s ability to test well or to pass examinations as a clear and incontrovertible indicator of intelligence. Exams are useful as tools—as means to an end—but they are not ends in themselves.
While “teaching to the test”—to borrow the phrase often used for both criticizing and defending the public schools’ practices under the No Child Left Behind Act (Public Law 107–110—JAN. 8, 2002)—may be a useful means of equipping students with the technical skills necessary to pass their annual state assessment exams, we maintain that a student’s ability to think critically is a personal and individual skill that can only be cultivated, through time and dedication, by a special emphasis on the student’s unique skill sets and interests. We do not believe in a “one size fits all” approach to education, even though we do believe in a certain amount of uniformity when it comes to educational standards.
Part of our solution to the problem with education—namely, the lack of critical thought skills in students—is to provide a synthesis of institutional expectations and requirements with special attention given to the student as a unique individual.
Our classroom environments are small and personalized. We do not assign any more than 20 students to a single educator. The requirements demanded of our students may be considered rigorous—they are—but only insofar as we continue to provide the environment, the materials, and the individualized mentoring our students deserve, to which we are fully dedicated. We ask a lot of them because we provide a lot by way of attention to personal needs and abilities. We especially require that they meet us half way in the pursuit of higher learning. Students are expected to put in the work, in other words, to ensure that our attention on them yields measurable results.
Reading is important because it supplies the stimulus to a student’s mind which initiates the learning process. Writing—by which we mean creative writing, which does not involve the mere memorization and regurgitation of information—is important because it requires students to examine, organize, and express their thoughts in a coherent, logical, and consistent fashion while meeting the demands of a particular assignment. Science, Mathematics and the other aspects of education mentioned previously are self explanatory. Given critical thinking skills and a substantive reading ability, they need little to no additional emphasis from us. But it is perhaps necessary to point out that they are absolutely crucial to our curriculum and to the student’s ability to forge a successful relationship with the world around them.
The Educated Differ from the Uneducated
The renowned Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that “the educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.” Part of our mission as an academy is to awaken in the student a sense of awe, curiosity, fascination, and admiration for the world—that same awe of which Einstein spoke so often and so highly.
We wish to breathe life into education by refusing to allow it to center around the stale accumulation of bare facts and information. We think of education as an organic process, one that does not cease or stagnate but rather, under the proper conditions, is fed the nourishment that allows it to grow and evolve without end. Such a process, we maintain, is born only out of the love for knowledge for its own sake and resides not in the school, but in the individual.
The purpose of our academy—its most important and perhaps its only purpose—is first to instill, and later to nourish, a student’s innate desire to know more: “Man, by nature, desires knowledge.” 3
An institution that does not recognize these needs and these desires, intrinsic to our species, does not serve the students and perhaps does more harm than good, obstructing the path to higher thinking rather than clearing it.
An Invitation to Higher Thinking
At NHHSA℠, we regard one’s ability to think critically, to solve problems, and to formulate creative opinions as primary and tantamount to any successful process of learning. And it is this virtue we seek to instill in our students. Euripides was right. “Learned we may be with another man’s learning,” he said, “[but] we can only be wise with wisdom of our own.”
Nonetheless, institutions must be able to recognize their limitations and, so too, teachers. Even with our relatively smaller classroom size, we acknowledge that there is only so far a teacher can go to provide their pupils with the practical information they need to be successful in the world. Students must demonstrate a desire to learn, an openness to receive.
It must, therefore, be imperative that an educational system not simply teach but, too, that it be compelled to encourage the student to want to learn.
We maintain that learning is not a one way street. That it is, in fact, transactional—the result of a two-way interaction between mentor and pupil.
Students at NHHSA℠ must therefore be willing to show that, as long as we are willing to give, they are willing to receive.
“I never teach my pupils,” Einstein famously said. “I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
We believe that the greatest educators educate less through instruction than through inspiration, and for this and more, we acknowledge our nonconformity. So it is that any accusations of unconventionality on our part are welcome and accepted.
Our desire is to provide the inspiration—the invitation, if you will—to higher thinking … and that existing and prospective students will take us up on the offer.
Richard Arum’s Study (Continued)
Arum and his partner, Josipa Roksa, of the University of Virginia “spread the blame,” reported MSNBC at the time, “pointing to students who don’t study much and seek easy courses and a culture at colleges and universities that values research over good teaching.” 4
Some colleges have already taken notice and heeded the strong advice provided by Arum in his new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. President Edwin Welch from the University of Charleston in West Virginia, for example, is among 70 university presidents determined to “beef up” reading and writing assignments to improve the quality of education.4
Aside from studying alone, having a greater workload, and working hard when no one’s looking, Arum and Roksa found that the greatest development of higher order thinking abilities was present in those students who majored in the liberal arts—including the social and natural sciences, humanities, and mathematics. These students possessed greater complex reasoning and critical thinking skills, as well as superior writing skills. This seems to be at least partly the result of the greater demands in reading and writing which liberal arts courses tend to require.
“No one concerned with education can be pleased with the findings of this study,” said Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education - best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. “I think that higher education in general is not demanding enough of students—academics are simply of less importance than they were a generation ago." 5
5Ibid., quoted in the same article.