Standards Opinion

Nikhil Goyal Interview: A High School Student Offers a Critique of Our Schools

By Anthony Cody — October 09, 2012 4 min read
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A seventeen year-old high school student from New York named Nikhil Goyal has been speaking out on education reform. In addition to several high profile television appearances, he has authored a book, One Size Does Not Fit All, A Student’s Assessment of School. I asked him to explain his critique this week.

Question: What led you to write this book?

Nikhil: In the summer of 2010, I took a three-week trip to India to visit family in Delhi and Calcutta. After I came back to the United States, I started to review the notes I’d jotted down from conversations I had with Indian students and parents on their frustrations with school. That September I started as a sophomore at Syosset High School. I was bored to death every single day in class. This led me to start speaking with other students around the country and realizing that I wanted to drastically disrupt the system by means of writing a book. The rest is really history!

Question: Our schools are often accused of being failures -- what is right and what is wrong about this assertion?

Nikhil: Labeling schools as failures isn’t the right term to use. That action squashes much of a school’s motivation to change their practices. Case and point, school is not working and is largely irrelevant to the outside world. For one thing, the education system isn’t broken -- it’s doing exactly what it was intended to do so -- create compliant cogs in machines.

Question: Some have promoted the Khan Academy as a new paradigm in education. Do you share this enthusiasm?

Nikhil: Khan Academy is nothing close to a revolution in education. That’s the last thing it should ever be called. Khan Academy is a disguise of rote learning through technology. It’s still along the lines of memorization and regurgitation. The best way to learn something isn’t through a video lecture, but learning by doing, creating, and exploring.

Question: How would you re-design the learning environment?

I would start by turning classrooms into lifelong learning incubators and synergy stations. Classrooms would be spontaneous, collaborative, and perhaps similar to a startup culture where free expression and thought is encouraged. Adding to that, students need to become the captains of their learning. When kids have an interest, only then does true learning and passion blossom and bloom. Thus, project-based learning is instrumental. By working with mentors, directly going into the field, and engaging with thought leaders, kids will be exposed to the full spectrum of ideas and be able to truly think and create for themselves and the world.

Question: The push for national Common Core standards is being advanced by some of the same arguments you seem to be making. Do you have a perspective on them?

The Common Core standards are a stringent, inflexible approach to solve our education woes for a number of reasons. First, the standards have never been field tested anywhere. Second, there was lack of public participation that went into the drafting of the standards. It was developed by Achieve Inc., a company created by the nation’s governors and corporate leaders. Few teachers and no students were involved. Third, the standards naturally push for more testing in schools, now for every single subject. I just can’t wait to take a multiple choice test in physical education class. Stare at the glee in my eyes. Fourth and finally, the standards touch the nitty gritty part of the curriculum, focusing on facts and figures and literally
creating a teacher-proof shield.

My last question requires a bit of explanation.
Of course I share your belief that we want to create life-long learners, critical thinkers and so on. I have a deeper concern, however, that in spite of all the rhetoric about 21st century skills, our global economy, the way it is currently structured, may not actually need so many “thinkers.”

Take a look at this projection from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Look at Table 3 on page 88. Look specifically at the next to last column, “Total job openings due to growth and replacement needs, 2008-18". You will see that approximately 23% of all job openings require a bachelor’s degree or more (adding up the numbers for the bachelor’s degree line, and those above it). Approximately 67% require a high school degree OR LESS.

Is it possible that the global economy does NOT actually need a huge increase in the level of creativity and critical thought? We certainly need SOME, but we may not need many. If this is true, then perhaps the “standardization” paradigm begins to make sense. Give the vast majority a “standardized” diet of pablum, and educate an elite to “think” in order that they can become the managers and technicians for the system. Does that make sense? How do we work our way out of this dead end?

I certainly believe that the notion that students need more education is wrongheaded on many levels, as noted in that projection. The number of low-skill jobs in the United States will be cut increasingly as more of them get outsourced, taken over by robots and machines, and go obsolete. Take the American Dream. The Old American Dream that animated our parents, gold miners, and settlers is now extinct. The middle jobs market is being carved out. Average is over. If you are in job where your employer spoon-feeds you exactly what to do, he or she will find someone cheaper and more efficient than you to finish the task. Plain and simple. What separates the norm from the best is creativity, grit, passion, and drive. You can’t “make it big”
in this new world without those characteristics. This isn’t 1920. We needed more standardized people back then to man the conveyor belts and equipment. Today, however, this country is craving for dreamers, problem solvers, trailblazers, and people who “see things differently.”

What do you think of Nikhil Goyal’s critique of our schools? Does his vision for a different approach appeal to you?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.