Summer break is often a needed respite from school, but it’s also a natural time to think about how the classroom experience might be improved. Here’s a look at seven educational innovations from around the world. Should America consider adopting any of these? Some of these innovations are technological, while others are philosophical. Some are brand-new, while others have been around for a few decades. All are enhancing student learning in interesting and sometimes counterintuitive ways.
South Korea: Robot Teachers
In some South Korean classrooms, students learn English from Engkey, an egg-shaped robot English teacher with a cute humanoid face. Engkey is controlled remotely by a native English-speaker (at home in, say, Australia or the U.S.), whose face is projected on Engkey’s screen. Known as a “telepresence” robot, Engkey helps address shortages of native English teachers in South Korea. Other types of robots help students check in for class, inquire about their moods or teach them to dance.
Denmark: Forest Kindergartens
While American parents fret over the increasing amounts of testing and homework for young children, in much of Scandinavia, kindergartners aren’t expected to do much more than run around outside. The “forest kindergarten” model, popularized in Northern Europe in the 1960s, gives young children unstructured playtime in a natural setting. Proponents say free play develops young children’s natural curiosity and prepares them for learning better than sitting in a classroom. Americans are beginning to agree. Forest kindergartens have been popping up in the U.S. over the past few years.
Germany: Free University Education
File this under “fat chance.” But still, we can dream. While the average four-year university in the U.S. costs about $24,000 a year in tuition, fees and living expenses, Germany did away with university fees entirely last year. The move was meant to make sure all Germans, regardless of their financial situation, can access higher education. Of course, German universities are much more frills-free than their U.S. counterparts. No fancy student unions, Olympic pools or five-star dining halls. But hey, for $0 we could live without make-your-own waffle stations. Germany’s free college scheme is open to foreigners as well, so those unwilling to hold their breath for free tuition in the U.S. can start practicing their Deutsch.
United Arab Emirates: 3D Learning
Imagine a lecture hall full of students in 3D glasses, watching a hologram of the human brain or the planets in the solar system. This is the reality at GEMS Modern Academy in Dubai, where classrooms and labs are connected by a super-high-speed fiber optic network and science lessons are delivered on a 3D platform. 3D learning draws student attention, and can help make abstract concepts easier to grasp. Sure beats watching a grainy video on a rolled-in television cart.
Cuba: Literacy Brigades
At the dawn of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba’s rural literacy rate was just 59 percent. In 1961, Fidel Castro sent out “literacy brigades” of teachers into the island’s hinterlands. In just a year, these teachers reduced the nation’s illiteracy rate to less than 4 percent. The program inspired a method of community-based intensive literacy education called “Yo Si Puedo” (Yes I Can), which has since been replicated in countries around the world, recently among the indigenous population of Australia. While the vast majority of Americans (about 99 percent) are considered literate, 36 million adults read at only a third grade level. Perhaps it’s time for a literacy “revolution” of our own?
Finland: Teacher Autonomy
Low pay and low autonomy (think “teaching to the test”) have long made it difficult for American schools to recruit and keep talented teachers. Finland, on the other hand, has moved towards greater and greater teacher freedom in the past several decades. Teachers, who are highly trained (all must have master’s degrees) and well-respected, are given generous latitude to help their students learn in the way they feel is best. So there’s very little standardized testing and no punishments for failing to meet specific standards. The system seems to be working—Finnish schools consistently rank among the best in the world.
England: The Paperless Classroom
At the Essa Academy in Bolton, outside Manchester, all students are given an iPad and classrooms are equipped with cutting-edge digital projectors. The technology has helped the once-failing school become one of the highest achieving in the region. All classes are organized through Apple’s iTunes U, which lets students keep their digital materials all in one place. Students can even design their own digital courses, which then become available worldwide. Technically, the school is not entirely paperless—students still take their exams the old-fashioned way.