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No Right Brain Left Behind   February 2011

Memory involves movement and images – not sitting in chairs, hearing facts. Provide students with an immersive learning environment through interactive “learning stations” for class lessons!

We learn better when we can associate what we are learning with objects, images, and experiences. Imagine a lesson about the Gold Rush where you visited a station in the classroom that had a gold pan, one that had a short video about the migrant labor, a station where you got to smell and sample the type of food they ate, perhaps another station where you had to try and rip a piece of the newly invented canvas pants, known now as Levi’s. Students could move freely from station to station, then the class could re-group for a discussion about what was learned, or there could be a more structured system of student groups at each station, rotating in time. The stations could also be shared and stored between teachers and schools over the course of the year. A total, immersive learning environment is necessary for reaching students in all the various ways of processing and understanding information!

Photo credit: flickr.com/cushinglibrary (Used with Creative Commons)
Our separation of academic disciplines is based on an outdated understanding of the world. Integrate learning through problem and solution based topics!

We divide learning into different bits and parts based upon the historical precedent of the academic discipline. Even though science has a history, math has a language, and music involves computers, we construct artificial boundaries around all these areas of learning. Especially in the contemporary moment, where the problems facing this world have become vast in scale and interdisciplinary in scope, we should be teaching students in a way that is similarly meaningful. Instead of abstracted disciplines, we ought to have topical areas of study based upon the biggest problems in need of solutions in our world. For example, students can do a several month-long study on water – its history, how it is an impacted resource today, its scientific properties, its uses in nautical and exploratory areas, etc. When students are learning math via a “real world” issue like water, there will finally be a good answer to that age-old question that students ask: “Why do I need to learn this?”

Photo credit: flickr.com/crypto (Used with Creative Commons)
Foster students’ entrepreneurial skills by introducing a business project. Each student can develop and pitch a business plan, open up their “business,” and compete with their classmates in friendly competition!

That’s not the school bus – that’s the abbreviation for the business. Students are learning valuable lessons in abstraction like math and physics but, like never before, graduates are finding it difficult to navigate the working world and are returning to live – unemployed – at home in record numbers. Schools ought to prepare students for the working world by returning to the traditionally American value of being entrepreneurial! Have a long-term portion of class where students develop and pitch their business plans and ideas, develop marketing schemes, open up a trial run of their “business,” and compete with their classmates in friendly competition! There can even be a school-implemented artificial currency and business students with the largest revenues and profits can be rewarded with real prizes. It’s a fun, hands-on approach to learning the nuts and bolts of the working world, and, at the same time, it allows students to be creative and express their interests. While some might say that the school isn’t the place for teaching kids how to make money, we argue that the opposite is true – just as many students that go into medicine or law go into business, if not more so, and we ought to be preparing every student to lead a healthy, productive lifestyle where they can practice and excel in the talents that they each uniquely possess.

Photo credit: flickr.com/joshuaommen (Used with Creative Commons)
Not all brilliant students can test well. Reform our testing system to include what was a fundamental part of education in the classical world: oral exams!

Oral exams are simple to conduct, allow teachers who are familiar with the material to test without having to deal with preparing and grading exams, and provide a milieu for students to interact with teachers in a unique way. They also allow opportunities for students who are smart and can communicate well – just not through writing. This added diversity to the school environment ensures that these students are not left out in the contemporary race to get ahead and get into a good college. Oral exams are still used in education that draws heavily from classical traditions – such as law school or graduate qualifying exams. There is no reason why similar exams could not be implemented within public schools, allowing those brilliant students who would have been otherwise overlooked to shine!

Photo credit: flickr.com/gemmabou (Used with Creative Commons)
Students fail because we only value one kind of academic learning. Give all students a future by valuing vocational studies in the classroom!

The education system in the United States is unique in two ways: first, it singularly favored “academic” learning, unlike most other education systems in the world that have vocational education tracks, and second, it exerted soft power over many of the education systems in non-OECD nations, shaping them to take on a similar form. This doesn’t need to be the case! Variety and diversity should be keywords in developing curriculum so that students will be able to explore all possible venues for the future and be able to discover what their unique gifts and talents are. While this might be math, science, literature, and other academic pursuits for some, for others, it might be applied arts like product design, culinary arts, or computer science. While some education systems are notoriously rigid, classifying students into strict categories, our system ought to allow for a variety of educational outcomes. After all, every one of the millions of students deserves a program that allows them to excel at what they do best. Then, just maybe, education systems around the world will follow suit, like they have in the past!

Photo credit: flickr.com/purplemattfish (Used with Creative Commons)
Students who can afford private lessons all learn how to take tests in SAT prep and other courses. Share the knowledge by making this type of learning part of the public classroom!

We all know that there is no such thing as a “level playing field.” Even still, little to nothing is being done in light of privileged students’ ability to take SAT and other college prep classes while less advantaged students fall behind. Tests are things that come up all throughout life, let alone all the tests of school and of college entrance – prepare all students for a successful future through incorporating learning on how to take tests in public education! Such a module would not be difficult to add – there are plentiful resources that already exist and opportunities to participate and get feedback are already institutionalized, like the PSAT.

Photo credit: flickr.com/kelvinlee (Used with Creative Commons)
Students’ learning often ends in the classroom while every neighborhood has many opportunities for volunteer service. Get students to practice what they learn and transform education while transforming communities!

Service learning has long been a component of a college education and has long been something that is pursued by public school students in an extra-curricular setting. There is no reason why this can’t be institutionalized and brought to bear on the curriculum that is already embedded in the schools. Every neighborhood has opportunities for volunteer service and needs that can be met through a group effort of students. If each school had a service learning coordinator, or even if teachers were trained on how to establish regular partnerships with community organizations, service learning could be a regular and powerful component of a complete education. Fundamentally, it only makes sense to train students in an interdisciplinary and holistic way, but also a way that teaches them to be active members of civic society!

Photo credit: flickr.com/visionservice (Used with Creative Commons)
Students rely more and more on lessons learned in school to inform their life decisions. Help students learn how to make good decisions through a simulated “Second Life!”

In a world of busy parents, globalization, and raised stakes early in life, students are relying more and more on the lessons learned in school to inform their life decisions. Schools ought to take this into account and provide more holistic “life training” for students so they can make informed decisions. One way to do this is through simulations – simulations are great because they allow students to see the impact of their decisions without suffering the (sometimes) bad consequences, and they can also be fun! Like the notorious game Second Life, students can be given an avatar that is allowed to make decisions and over the course of the school year, students will be able to compare their respective avatars decisions, outcomes, and relative successes. Combined with teaching moments, teacher guidance, and peer counseling, such a long-term simulation game could be incredible valuable in teaching students about life, how to make good decisions, and prevent mental illness, all without preaching to students like so many of the other school programs do.

Photo credit: flickr.com/raftwetjewell (Used with Creative Commons)
Teachers are often stretched thin and forced to teach materials that are unfamiliar. Get the community involved and let guest teachers share what they know best!

The idea of a guest lecture is a common one for college classes but a similar experience doesn’t exist for primary and secondary education. On rare occasions, an entire school will convene for an assembly in order to hear a guest speak but it doesn’t need to be so rare and structured. Guest teaching is a simple and powerful method for alleviating teachers from the pressures of over-crowded classrooms while providing students with a fun and exciting break from business as usual. Guest teachers, of course, wouldn’t simply show up for a quick lecture like college lecturers do – they could stay and interact with the children, provide new lessons, and create interactive learning experiences. Imagine students learning about government from a local civil servant, or learning about animals from a local veterinarian! These types of easy, low-commitment teaching engagements are a wonderful way to involve the community and parents in the classroom, and with a simple honorarium payment and an institutionalized guest teaching system, guest teachers would be easy to come by and simple to arrange.

Photo credit: flickr.com/familymwr (Used with Creative Commons)
Schools are a fundamental part of a town’s civic structure yet they are curiously absent in the political process. Put those students’ problem solving skills to work in the real world!

The best way to learn is by doing – so teach students about the political process, our uniquely American tradition of petitioning and bottom-up democracy through getting them involved in brainstorming and troubleshooting the issues that face their neighborhood! Local civic leaders and teachers can partner to develop areas where students can make a positive contribution to society and students can participate in hearings, go to city hall, and help work on changes that make an impact. There is nothing more powerful than seeing your own successful handiwork to allow a lesson from a classroom become a lesson that you remember for a lifetime. Additionally, we hold the students’ hands (as we ought to) but fail to remember that younger people are often the ones with the most revolutionary and brilliant ideas – the type of ideas that were right in front of our eyes but we were too “grown up” to see. Revolutionize schools, learning, and the community through this dynamic partnership!

Photo credit: flickr.com/sanjoselibrary (Used with Creative Commons)
We learn best by doing. Provide students with valuable skills and let them explore an area of their interest by sponsoring short-term student internships while in school!

Internships have become a rite of passage for college students but they are still out of reach for many people in public education and for those who don’t go on to college. By institutionalizing an internship system for students in primary and secondary education, we will be able to both regulate the internships to ensure their quality (unlike many of the internships of ill repute that go under the table in the poorly regulated existing internship system), provide school credit to students who do an internship, and, above all, teach students valuable lessons about work, life, and their respective “jobs.” Students will be able to express themselves by getting involved in an internship of their choosing and they can prepare and debrief with teachers in a safe, school environment. Internships don’t have to be longer than a week or two to have a lasting impact on a student and their future. Employers may also find students that they connect to and would be willing to mentor, providing scholarship opportunities and a greater accessibility to college education and a secure future for less advantaged students!

Photo credit: flickr.com/drp (Used with Creative Commons)
The food cycle in the United States is baffling even to the most learned citizens. Allow students to understand where their food comes from by allowing them to grow and eat their own produce!

Lunch and Learn is a concept that has been championed by groups from local farms to Jamie Oliver. Particularly in the United States, our food supply has become so monstrous and estranged from the consumer that change is needed. Corn subsidies have become institutionalized so an oversupply is all but guaranteed, livestock consumes corn because it is so plentiful even though it destroys their digestive systems, unnatural and processed food products that would kill an animal are fed to students every day. Students should be aware of these dirty secrets and be allowed to choose where their food comes from. The best way to learn, of course, is by doing, so students should be given the opportunity to grow produce on campus and consume it in a fun way. Students can be engaged in friendly competition as they try to grow the best produce. Best of all, students can simultaneously learn where their food is coming from, what the life cycle of a normal foodstuff is, and how to be in control of their own diets. This is unbelievably important during a time when childhood obesity is at record levels and diabetes is plaguing younger victims than ever before.

Photo credit: flickr.com/savannahgrandfather (Used with Creative Commons)
We learn best when we teach others. Capitalize on the students’ relationships with each other and give them a voice by letting them teach the class!

Peer EDU (Education Done by You!) is a simple idea: let the students teach the class! Studies show that when you teach something, you actually remember and learn it better, so students will not only be having fun – they will be learning in a new, powerful way. This concept can be incorporated into teacher learning so that teachers will know when to use this technique and can maximize its use in class. Student group presentations are a common and integral part of higher education but have generally been left out from where they are needed most – in primary and secondary education. It is a powerful way of teaching the class in a fun way, and its use fosters an even trickier skill: working in a group. Every day of class should include an opportunity for students to get involved with their own education!

Photo credit: flickr.com/brandejackson (Used with Creative Commons)
Students are only learning how to get good grades. Reform the grading system to provide students with extensive verbal and written feedback so they actually learn how to improve!

Our letter grading system is a monster. It was once a relatively objective way to give a particular type of feedback to students but has since been misshapen and twisted with grade inflation, hyper competition, and unfair curves. While the grade might be so deeply entrenched in our education system, it doesn’t have to be a tool for terrorizing students. Instead, grades can be kept on file for school records and college applications but left unmentioned and unreleased to students. Extensive written and verbal feedback can be given instead, allowing teachers to think through students’ circumstances, allowing parents and administrators to understand a student’s strengths and weaknesses, providing a more complete picture of the student for colleges, and, above all, giving the student an understandable and transparent measure of where they are succeeding, where they need improvement, and how to achieve that improvement.

Photo credit: flickr.com/pjern (Used with Creative Commons)


58-12 Design Lab participated in the No Right Brain Left Behind project initiated by Stopp LA. We were asked to imagine new ideas and alternatives to the status quo for the K-12 education system in the United States. This week-long exercise included the particpation of various well-respected design firms (including Saatchi & Saatchi, Redscout, The Martin Agency, and others) and a jury of education and design experts (including Sir Ken Robinson, Yves Behar, Daniel Pink, and others). You can check out 58-12's contribution here.

Team Members: Jonathan Crisman, Melanie Young, Tammy Hu, Thomas Yung