Monday, July 22, 2013

American Ninja Education: Education Lessons from American Ninja Warrior

The American educational system ought to take a lesson from American Ninja Warrior.

Ever see it? It is a contest that originated as a show in Japan. Basically, the ultimate goal it to complete the world's most difficult obstacle course. Here is a run from the qualifying round. Most people don't finish the course, at all:

As I said, this is only the qualifying round. The key point here is that the athletes who try this course have never seen some of the obstacles they are going to face -- the developers of the contest surprise them with new obstacles ever year.

What this means is that the the competitors have to train for strength, balance and agility on their own. Sure, they can build obstacles in their garages and yards that match what they have seen on previous seasons, but, then, they have to react to the new obstacles, on (sometimes quite literally) the fly.

It occurred to me while watching it the other day, that, in education, we need to adopt the American Ninja Warrior philosophy. When I say "we," I mean all of us in the process: educators, parents and students.

What we do now is to send kids the message that learning is about memorizing X, Y and Z; or, that is it about learning process A, B or C and then passing the test, applying the processes and facts that were expected. How many times have teachers heard kids complain: "You put this on the test, but we didn't go over it?"

In some cases they have a point. If a history teacher asks about the Vietnam War on a test from a unit about World War II, he or she is out of line. But, if that same teacher, who may not have covered economy in World War II, asks his kids to respond to a question about the economic impact of the war, is he wrong? No -- as long as he allows the kids to speculate and doesn't fault them for being "wrong" when they were presented with no established theories. In other words, if a student makes an argument that the war was probably bad for America's economy (which it wasn't) the teacher needs to give credit for a well-reasoned argument; again: provided the question was not based on prior information.

In other words, just as an American Ninja Warrior needs to react to a new obstacle, so should our kids be asked to react in school. But, most importantly, our kids will need to react to the obstacle course of life. The tests in life are often not "fair" and they certainly aren't always "from the book."

We need to teach them how to think and not what to think.

The truth is, in the American version of Ninja Warrior, no on has yet completed the final obstacle course -- not in the five (I think) years it has been on TV. It's a cool metaphor, because no one gets life perfect either. The goal is to be prepared for as many obstacles as we can and gain the skills and strength to deal with the surprises.

We teach kids in school that if they check things off the list -- do a series of things -- that they will get an A. An A is perfect. Perfection is reachable. This, of course, is nonsense. I think we set up a lot of kids for disappointment. Many a successful Ninja Warrior has, after a full year of training and hope (and after a series of tremendous accomplishments on the show), fallen into the water on the first obstacle of the qualifying course. And not one of the American contestants has ever finished the final course. That's life.

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