Zoe WeilEducation is in the news these days, with feature-length documentaries such as “Waiting for Superman” and “Bully” at theaters alongside “Toy Story III” and “The Avengers.” Tom Friedman at The New York Timescalls the education beat the most exciting one of our time for journalists. Never in my lifetime has education been such a hot topic. Yet, the conversation about education reform is so terribly missing the mark.

The gaping hole in the current debates about education is the failure to assess our ultimate goal. In “Waiting for Superman,” for example, the ultimate purpose of schooling — depicted almost farcically through cartoon images in the movie — is the better filling of each child’s head with information rather than the better cultivation of great critical and creative thinkers. As William Butler Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” Our current goal is anything but lighting a fire.

Unfortunately, this isn’t what schooling is currently for. Our goal continues to be to graduate students with enough verbal, mathematical, and technological literacy and knowledge of certain subjects so that they can find jobs and “compete in the global economy.” While such literacy is, of course, essential, it is simply foundational. It should not be the goal of schooling, because were we to actually succeed at graduating a generation that all passed their No Child Left Behind tests and were all employed, we would find that most of them would perpetuate, and perhaps even escalate, the systemic problems we face.

Instead of teaching youth about the interconnected global challenges we face and engaging their creativity and intelligence in the unearthing of new ideas and solutions, schools often trample upon their creativity, curiosity, and thirst for meaning with boring textbooks that fail to engage them, timed multiple choice tests on often irrelevant information, memorization of information that in today’s world is a click away, and a curriculum that doesn’t generally draw connections between “the basics” and what these foundational skills could actually achieve in the world. At the same time, our society actually discourages brilliant and inspiring people from becoming educators not only by paying teachers poorly, but also by squelching their own creativity by forcing them to teach to seemingly endless standardized tests in an environment that is becoming ever more hostile to those who are entrusted with perhaps the most noble and important job of all: educating the next generation.

Imagine if instead of debate teams, in which students are assigned to one side of a fabricated either/or scenario and told to research, argue, and win, we had solutionary teams in which students came up with and presented ideas to solve problems. For example, imagine if rather than endless debates about “jobs v. endangered species,” which have been presented to us by the media and politicians ad nauseam since the Northern Spotted Owl was declared endangered, we had solutionary teams come up with viable ideas about how to protect other species and keep people employed at the same time. Since we love to compete and honor our victors, the winners (those with the really brilliant, practical, and cost-effective ideas) could actually participate in the implementation of their ideas. Such teams could tackle problems in their schools, communities, or countries — perhaps even global challenges — and in doing so, make a profound and profoundly rewarding contribution.

If solutionary education became commonplace, students everywhere might revamp their school buildings for renewable energy sources. They might transform their food service systems and cafeterias so that they received healthy lunches produced sustainably and humanely. Think what the students would learn about chemistry, ecology, biology, physics, business, farming, architecture, and construction from just these two projects alone. Imagine how fully the teachers could contribute their knowledge and passion for the subjects they know best. There are already teachers who do such projects with their students within the constraints of the current public school system, but they face perpetual hurdles. When we hear about them, we laud them in the news. But their work shouldn’t be newsworthy; it should be the norm.

Planning to attend the 19th National Forum on Character Education? The author of this post, Zoe Weil, will be speaking there. Get more information here.