Kathy Van Benthuysen of CONVERLATION: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System
Technology isn’t going anywhere, but kids need help ensuring that it isn’t the center of their lives. I was recently talking to some educator friends, and they all said the same thing about this past school year: Kids have essentially forgotten how to act in the classroom and how to treat each other appropriately. Some blamed it on virtual learning. Most said the overuse of technology was the prevailing issue. All agreed that it is a real problem in the present and looking ahead.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Kathy Van Benthuysen.
Kathy is a seasoned educator and a mom of 2 teenagers, one entering college and one entering high school. She taught 4th grade, in the same school, for 30 years, before retiring to follow another passion — helping people communicate and connect with others, despite the influences of technology distracting us. Kathy is the co-creator of Converlation, a tool that helps people reduce the influence of technology on their lives.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I taught in a public school for 30 years, and when I first started in 1992, there was very little technology in the classroom. I would bring my students to the computer lab once a week for a technology class. Fast forward to the end of my career in 2021, and there were one-on-one devices in every classroom. Kids spent hours a day on Chromebooks, and though working on educational material, they were still on technology. What is worse, the kids would go home, and for pleasure, continue to use technology — social media, gaming, endless videos, and binge watching. Essentially, they were getting no break from the flood of screens in their lives. Technology went from a time-saving tool utilized on occasion in the classroom to being the time-sucking center of many students’ lives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Each morning, for 30 years, I would greet my students at the door. I would expect the students to respond to my question of, “How are you?” Hopefully, they would not only tell me how they were doing, but also ask me how I was doing, all while maintaining eye contact. For the first 20 of my career, every single student could accomplish this, beginning the very first week of school. The last 10 years of my career however, I started to notice that not only were the kids not able to do this, but I was also having to coach them on how to respond appropriately to this simple question well into November and December. I would say, “You need to answer the question. You need to ask me how I am doing. You need to look me in the eye.” Not only that, I started keeping track of how many students answered me appropriately the first week of school and that number declined through the years. So much in fact that my last year, only 1 student was able to have this conversation with me on the first day of school.
As I pondered what would cause such a change in kids, I realized it was the pervasive use of technology that changed. Kids went from having very little access to technology when I first started teaching, to almost unfettered use toward the end of my career.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am the co-creator of Converlation, along with John Schwind. We created Converlation to help people reduce the influence of technology on their lives. Given how pervasive and addictive technology is, anything that can help us to make smarter, healthier decisions around our own tech usage will make a profound difference in people’s lives. Converlation is the tool parents and schools need to help with this problem.
As a teacher, I could help 22 kids each year and I did help about 600 over my career. Now I want to help millions.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
In addition to my 30 years of classroom teaching experience, I was also a high school coach and a church youth group leader.
I have an extensive background in instructional design and an in-depth understanding of kids that has helped me to lead the evolution of Converlation from inception to present day. Years of testing and refinement based on feedback has resulted in a program that engages people on a deeper level — bringing back lost social and critical thinking skills.
I received my BA from Rider University and a postgraduate degree from Purdue University.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
Let’s rate the US Education system in relation to the rest of the world on dollars invested per student. The US is second behind tiny Luxembourg. The US spends roughly $15,000 per student per year, more than any other nation. In terms of performance, out of the top 71 countries the United States is ranked 24th in Science, 38th in Math, and 24th in Reading.
We spend the most of any nation on education, but the US is in the middle of the pack when it comes to Science, Math and Reading scores. So, I would rate this as a poor return on our investment.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Let’s start with a simple question: what are the desired outcomes from kids spending 13 years of their lives (K — 12) in school?
- Kids should be able to read. They should read on a 10th grade level by the time they graduate, but most are reading on a 6th grade level and 19% of high school graduates cannot read at all.
- Kids should be able to do math. Why do students need math? They need to understand taxes, loans, credit, mortgages, investing in the stock market, calculate ROI, how to start a business etc. We are graduating kids that cannot figure how much to budget simple things in life like groceries, rent, gas, phone, utilities, and entertainment.
- Kids should be able to think. Kids should be taught how to think and not what to think. They should be able to problem solve and be critical thinkers. The use of electronics has eliminated the need to think. When you have a question, you don’t need to think, or ask others, you just go on your device and ask google or Siri. The way our brains grow is when we have to do deep thinking — but that is work. It isn’t expected anymore, and we have made kids lazy.
- Our kids need to be able to work with others. Throughout life you need to work with others. School teaches us how to do things individually. There is little collaboration and it is not valued as it should be.
- Technology isn’t going anywhere, but kids need help ensuring that it isn’t the center of their lives. I was recently talking to some educator friends, and they all said the same thing about this past school year: Kids have essentially forgotten how to act in the classroom and how to treat each other appropriately. Some blamed it on virtual learning. Most said the overuse of technology was the prevailing issue. All agreed that it is a real problem in the present and looking ahead.
Ultimately, kids should be productive members of society. If they can’t read, do math, think critically and work with others, they will not be successful and will be a drain on society.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
Really great? No, I cannot. Having taught for 30 years, the first 20 were great and the last 10 went downhill rapidly because of the reliance on technology to teach and never-ending use of technology outside of school.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The US education system has been working for years towards engaging young people in STEAM. But there is always room for improvement. Some of the things we can do to truly pull students’ interest include:
1. Showcase industry leaders. Kids want to see and learn from the successes of others.
2. Give projects that have students engage in real life problem solving. Any teacher will tell you that the question constantly on student lips is “Why do I have to know this?” When we relate our teaching to real life, it inspires critical thinking, and allows for hands-on experiences that our students may not even realize they are craving.
3. Early testing. Evaluating student aptitudes for STEAM-related learning at an early age will allow teachers to reach kids where they are.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Albert Einstein said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’
Girls and women think differently from men; they are living in the same world but with a different perspective. This diversity of thinking can only make the STEAM fields stronger.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
1. Make sure girls have role models that are in STEAM fields or at least, learn about women who influenced and impacted the STEAM fields.
2. Encourage all students to follow their passions. Girls may be hesitant to pursue a passion if it is considered a male-dominated field. We need to flip this on its head.
3. Have more mentorships in STEAM fields where girls are learning the ins and outs from others directly in the fields.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” — — Theodore Roosevelt
Isn’t this true in every area of life? Whether it was in the classroom, where I told my students on a regular basis that I loved them, or with family and friends, who deserve to hear our words of affirmation, that quote reminds me that our actions and words have a huge impact on people. And that actually brings me back to Converlation. If we allow our kids to continue to rely heavily on technology without having open and honest dialogues about how technology manipulates and controls our lives, we will truly be eliminating that emotional component that is so sorely needed in our schools, in our careers, and beyond.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I say, why limit it to one person? Let’s host a luncheon. At the table would be Oprah Winfrey, Mike Rowe, and Tim Cooke.
Oprah because she does a tremendous amount of good in this world and I would love to absorb that positive energy. Mike for his efforts towards getting kids to have a marketable skill. Not every child needs to go to college to be successful. Tim because Apple makes the most amazing products, but I’d love to chat with him about what he and his company could do to help students understand the impact tech has on their lives.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Go to Converlation.com for our website to get more information.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
Kathy Van Benthuysen of CONVERLATION: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.