What tools do we provide for our teachers? A classroom, a blackboard, some books and supplies, and good wishes. What "system" do we place them in? It's a system that combines 1830s craft industry with 1910s Tayloristic manufacturing.
Preparing for a class is identical to an 1830s Bostonian making shoes, except the tools and end product are different; the labor intensity is the same. The "factory" has 13 processing steps, each requiring an academic year, and the widgets-in-process (our kids) proceeding in lockstep pace.
The end product is a high school graduate. Some widgets fail to make it that far and fall off the assembly line.
We need The System to move from the 1830s to the 2010s, leveraging free resources that are around us. "The Factory" needs to retool, designing a production process that recognizes that our kids are not widgets-in-process but are unique human beings who wish to move at individual speeds and who respond differently to alternative learning environments.
Consider STEM, a new four-letter word. STEM stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering and Math." We are STEM-competing with the world to produce the next generation of engineers, scientists and high-tech entrepreneurs.
Our country's future depends on continuing the technological inventiveness of the 20th century. The STEM teacher needs to perform in subjects that are increasingly technical and ever changing.
Does Junior's biology class resemble the one we took in high school? I don't think so. Is the math required for novel computer algorithms our parents' math? No way. Math and science are changing fast.
Teaching these subjects requires deep expertise, for content delivery and real-world motivation. We ask every science and math teacher to be a miracle worker. But here's reality: Not every math teacher knows how simultaneous linear equations are used to design supply chains.
Not every biology teacher knows how robots and computers can help invent new medicines. And many high school physics teachers are also football coaches, without the time to stay on top of new research results.
Let's redesign The System, so our STEM teachers need be experts only in a fraction of what they teach. Each math teacher could "know cold" some fraction of what she teaches and then leverage the remaining curricular content from freely available world-class teaching resources from the Internet.
Start with the Khan Academy, with over 2,000 lecture snippets available online -- for free! http://khan-academy.appspot.com. Some Khan Academy enthusiasts have turned the school day upside down.
"Homework" is now students watching Khan Academy snippets at home, and "class work" is highly active collaborative learning based on last night's snippets. There is our own BLOSSOMS program from MIT: http://blossoms.mit.edu.
BLOSSOMS is a free repository of interactive videos for high school STEM teachers to use with their classes. BLOSSOMS videos are not lectures, but sequences of short video segments, encouraging very active learning between segments.
There are many other STEM resources freely available on the Web. A teacher no longer needs to be a general practitioner but can become a specialist in a chosen subarea. And she can rely on Internet resources to provide high-quality content in other specialties.
Students will be wowed by their teacher's in-depth knowledge of her specialty and still learn deeply from Internet virtual specialists integrated into classroom learning. A new system can arise.
Labor intensity can be greatly reduced. Boston's shoemaker can be placed in the museum where he belongs.
Richard C. Larson is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder and director of its Learning International Networks Consortium.