Power to the Students: An Interview with Nikhil Goyal

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Nikhil GoyalMeet Nikhil Goyal — a seventeen year old student in Long Island, NY who wants to revolutionize the school system. And he’s taking action on that right now through his TED talk, numerous articles, and now a book that is due out this week entitled One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School. (For more information about him, visit his website).

Nikhil, Michael Fisher, and I are collaborating on a new project that will elicit feedback from students to create a more personalized, meaningful experience for every learner in service of what they want to do in their post-secondary endeavors. To that end, we have designed a student survey through Survey Monkey. See the student survey and the blog post on the rationale behind the survey and why we hope thousands of students will take it.

We want to engage kids, parents, and educators in a collective conversation about how to customize learning to tap into individual desire as well as prepare our children for an increasing unpredictable world. And that’s where Nikhil comes in. I came across Nikhil’s Ted Talk and was so moved that I contacted him directly. This interview is the product of one of those conversations.

Zmuda: Summarize the book – what do you think is really broken or outdated?
Goyal: My book, “One Size Does Not Fit All, A Student’s Assessment of School,” describes why we need to revolutionize the system and suggestions for how to do so. The book is grounded in my own experience in the school system as well as hundreds of personal interviews with educators, parents, students, policy makers and some entrepreneurs. It gives collective perspective and various ideas on how we can transform the system in the teaching profession, in the curriculum, and in politics.
The education system is working as it was designed to do in the 19th and 20th century. Horace Mann, proponent of the universal public school system in the United States, designed school to create many compliant factory workers and those different tenets of that system, which were standardization and compliance and obedience, still remain today in the system.
First, what’s really outdated is how we teach kids. We still put kids in desks in rows and make them listen to a teacher passively. It’s still this kind of intake learning model where we’re feeding kids facts and figures. This doesn’t make sense when the entire economy and the entire way we acquire information and interpret it has been reinvented.
The second concern is the way we group kids. First, we group kids by just their date of birth. It doesn’t make any sense. We shouldn’t be grouping kids by age, but rather by their skill level and what they can do. Having older kids working with younger kids creates a type of mentorship program.
Third, we don’t give students the ability to shape their education. We tell them to jump through all the hoops and that’s really what they’re forced to do. But most kids don’t understand that there are so many possible paths to success, it isn’t just one simple straight line that you have to follow. It’s much more complicated than that. So, those are just a few things that I focus on in the book, and I try to portray an image, where not only is the system outdated, but we to have significant steps to get to where we need to be. We need to put students in charge of their education. We need to give them some control. Let them leverage their creativity and their passions so much more than what’s going on today. Students really want to see a number of things in the classroom. The problem is that that they seem to, overtime, understand that education and schooling is not supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be something that’s done to you and you have to oblige or else. Your parents and teachers tell you to do the same plain vanilla procedure over and over again and you really don’t have any choice, other than dropping out.
Zmuda: In your view, what do students really want to see in their classrooms?
Goyal: So, many kids really want to see a shift in the classroom. When we’re born, until around age 5, most of our learning is delivered through our experiences. We’re just asking questions, we’re curious about the world. Then formal education hits us and everything changes; we lose our curiosity and instead are trained to regurgitate information for the test. We have to find that curiosity that really blossoms in our early ages and bring it back. I believe that the future belongs to the curious: the people who ask questions and are inquisitive about the world, not people who listen to directions and follow all the rules and fill in all the bubbles on the test. So, success is so much more defined by your ability to engage in the real world, work with people and communicate your thoughts.
Zmuda: To what extent is your vision based on your own point of view or is it based on generalities based on multiple perspectives?
Goyal: My vision in general of education is based on a number of different elements. A lot of it is part of my experience at school. When I was younger, and even just a few years ago, I was just always a person that did really well in school. I got high test grades. I did everything my parents and my teachers told me and I was a great student. In the summer of 2010, when I went on a family trip to India, I realized that the adult version of “doing well” was no longer personally satisfying. I talked to a lot of students, had some conversations about education and realized they weren’t learning what they wanted to, they were forced to do something and they were forced to be in a model that didn’t satisfy their needs.
I believe students right now are being the victims of their schooling. One of my friends, Zak Malamed, likes to compare the way we do education reform to as really an investigation. For example, in an investigation you’ll speak with the witnesses, you’ll interview them and you’ll see what’s wrong with them, because that’s really the most important thing, but in education, we don’t talk to the victims, we don’t talk to the students. It really doesn’t make much sense. So my vision is also, a number of my personal experiences, combined with a lot of the conversations I’ve had. I specifically say in the book, in one of the chapters, that I’m not an expert. I’m not an education historian, I’m not on the same experience level as somebody like Howard Gardner or Diane Ravitch, but I think that’s okay. My fresh perspective can add some value to the debate, because I haven’t been there many years on end in the trenches of education policy. I’m simply looking at it from a very unique perspective and that really helps. In the book, I combine my experiences with current experts. So, it’s very research and interview-based, rather than just a kid talking about education and what needs to be changed.
Zmuda: What voice do you envision yourself having a stakeholder in your education as the nation shifts to new standards?
Goyal: The voice that I envision myself having as a stakeholder is really advocating for a number of things. First and foremost is advocating for students to be represented in the conversation of school reform. I like to say that there is a kids’ table and there’s an adults’ table in education. At the kids table, even though they’re just a few feet away, they’re not having much of rich conversation. But the adults’ table, that’s where the real conversation is happening even though all the decisions the adults are making are going to affect the kids at the nearby table. We can’t have a kids and adults’ table in education reform. We should be having one table, where we can converse with each other and ensure that there’s a collective agreement on many different ends. That’s what I advocate for — students to be meaningfully represented in the conversation.
I also want to portray my views on how we can change the system and bring together everybody. What I see now is that we are grouping people based on their role, not bringing them together and I think that’s a huge problem. We need to streamline these conversations to make them more powerful and efficient. And not just teachers, administrators, students and parents, but having people like entrepreneurs and people in media, who aren’t necessarily in the school system, who don’t have children in the school system, but to give their perspective, because I think that’s very valuable. Some of the best conversations and most enriching conversations I’ve had are with people not in the education space, and that tells a lot, because those are the people that are just looking at it from a different view point and I think that’s important to look at, important to understand for people to look at in the conversation.
Zmuda: Give a concrete example or two of a specific contribution that any student can make.
Goyal: So, there are a number of concrete examples a student can make. I think the first and foremost thing they can do is to go to administration and start voicing their concerns. I think that’s one of the easiest ways to do it, because I think you have to start talking to your own school administration. And then start getting student groups. Bring your fellow peers that have similar frustrations. Start grouping together on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media and then go to your administration after with a plan and what you want to see changed. And if they don’t listen, don’t back down. Make sure that your voice is heard. Make sure you go the education board meetings if you have a school board at your school. And make sure you contribute to the conversation one way or another. And another way students can get involved is to go talk to your local Patch or your local paper and write a piece about your ideas for the school system. You can start your own blog. So, if your local administration won’t listen to you, other people around the world will listen to you and that will make your voice much more stronger in the long run. I think there are a number of things we can be doing to get involved because we’re at the heart of every policy decision and we need to have a voice. If we ignore students, we are ignoring the future generation and a generation is really a terrible thing to go to waste.

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