Monday, November 29, 2010

Treating Kids Like Adults... What's the Big Deal?

Why do adults tend to treat children differently than other adults?  

Open question to the followers... please comment.  Feel free to comment on your own experiences or other experiences you've observed. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Grades: The Poison that Slowly Kills the Love of Learning

Grades are evil.  There, I said it.  Somebody had to take a stand... might as well be me.

Why are grades bad?  Let's count the reasons:

1. Grades represent a form of extrinsic motivation (doing something simply for a reward).  Extrinsic motivators always result ina reduction of intrinsic motivation (doing something because you genuinely enjoy it).  When we are rewarded with extrinsic rewards, the effectiveness of the reward as a motivator decreases with time.  When we're rewarded with intrinsic motivators, there is no decrease in motivation over time.  This is why job satisfaction decreases over time- you're doing it for money (extrinsic reward).  How many of us have ever had a job we came to hate?  We hated it because we were doing it for a paycheck, not because we enjoyed the activity.  Compare that to volunteering.  In the absence of extrinsic motivators (i.e.- money), intrinsic motivation flourishes.  Volunteering never gets old because our motivation doesn't decrease over time.

2. It reminds us we're less than perfect.  You have a ceiling- typically 100%.  Anything below that ceiling is a failure to some degree. 

3. Grades are subjective, even when they appear to be objective.  The teacher ultimately determines the grades.  Even if a class is graded on purely objective tests (like multiple choice), the tests themselves were created using subjective means.  Ultimately this results in the teacher (or test creator) essentially assigning grades.

4. Grading is a game that can be infinitely manipulated.  Most teachers set the difficulty of their class to produce grades that are high enough so parents don't complain and low enough so administrators don't complain.

5. Grading cannot measure the qualities that make people successful... unless your definition of success is someone that earns good grades.  Don't believe me?  Check out this study.

6. Tests are not well-constructed because test design is a complicated matter.  I can guarantee the vast majority of teachers do not consider reliability and validity when making a test.  What to learn more?  Read through this Powerpoint before you design your next test.

7. Numbers are a horrible way to communicate complex human experiences like learning.  Some will claim grades can be used as a means of determining understanding.  Really?  This idea assumes kids will always give their full effort on a test and the test will accurately measure understanding. Let's face it- we like grades because it's a shortcut.  It allows us to classify students in a time-efficient way.

My solution- we eliminate grading across the board.  In my opinion, the cost of assigning grades cannot justify the convenience or supposed benefits.  What are your thoughts on grades?

Educational Technology: Game Changer or Game Ender?

Educational technology fascinates me.  As a society, we have a love affair with technology.  That affinity for all things that beep and whir extends to the classroom.  I like to hypothesize about where technology will take our schools in the future.  Here are a few thoughts:

1. Technology users in a new age of teaching and learning.  This model suggests technology will ultimately be the reform our schools need to become highly effective centers of relevant learning for all kids.  Computers and their infinite adaptability will be able to deliver instruction more efficiently and effectively than teachers.  In this model, teachers become coaches or glorified lab assistants.  This model can be found in the various hybrid schools popping up around the country.  

Another variation of this theme is online instruction, such as the Virtual High School Consortium or the  "e-2020" company.  In both of these models, computers essentially become the medium for instruction.  Back in the day, I used to believe this is where schools were heading.  After seeing it in action, my opinions have changed.  The lack of human-to-human contact just doesn't cut it.  I was curious if empirical research existed demonstrating the effectiveness of this model.  I have a Master's degree in educational technology, thus am familiar with the lack of empirical research regarding online instruction.  The only research I could find was based on e-2020's own research (red flag) which concluded this:

Achievement in e2020 was able to accurately predict scores on the MAP assessments. Similarly, achievement in e2020 math and reading content were able to predict NMSBA scale scores. The percent grades in e2020 relate exceptionally well to the grades that teachers assigned to students upon completion of an e2020 class; indicating that teachers tended to agree with the e2020 grading system when reporting district grades for students. Finally, a strong relationship was found between e2020 grades and graduation rate.
What does the research mean?  Kids that do well in e-2020 also do well on tests and graduate more than kids kids that don't do well.  Wow.  There's a shocker.  

The research says nothing about the actual performance of the kids overall.  I would expect the high-achieving kids to do well.  What about the average kid?  Does this educational model help them?    How about the struggling student?  What about the fact that any kid with an ounce of tech-savvy can find answers to e-2020 material online?  I think it is important to recognize the limitations of computers as teachers, even if there's a human on the other end leading the instruction.  

2.  The computer (and Internet) will be or is a portal to the world.  This model actually makes sense to me, though it is rarely used to its full potential.  The idea is simple- the Internet is a communication tool and teachers can use it to take kids on adventures they may not otherwise be able to access.  Unfortunately many of the cutting-edge social tools are feared by schools.  

A few years ago, email was the preferred means of communicating.  Most schools were slow to adopt the use of student email for educational purposes.  Then chat applications like Windows Messenger and AOL were popular.  Now kids rarely use email and chat apps; Facebook has replaced both.  

I find it interesting that few schools recognize the potential educational value of social networking or any emerging technology.  Instead of embracing and utilizing the technology (which is free of cost), schools have a tendency to react with fear and suspicion.  Schools construct elaborate policies to police technology instead of inspiring creativity and innovation.  I think it would be safe to say most schools fit in the "late majority" or even "laggard" categories of the diffusion of innovation model.  This is sad as our students are usually the early adopters.  With our help, they could become innovators.  With our help, the Internet could be a tremendous portal to the world.  [sigh]

3. Technology was window dressings.  Everybody loves computers.  Some districts tout their student-to-computer ratio as if it were an indicator of their dedication to the adoption of emerging technologies.  In reality, it is just expensive window dressings.  I've heard stories from a variety of teachers throughout the US.  The story is the same- their district spends obscene amounts of money on the latest and greatest technology, but doesn't provide training for teachers or students to use it beyond simple word processing or web browsing.  Why?  

The computers look good.  The fact that they are not being used for anything worthwhile is an afterthought.  There's no evidence the technology is improving student learning, yet the purchase seems justifiable.  In situations like this, the money could have been better spent on more teachers to reduce class sizes or more enrichment courses like art or dance.  Another alternative- the money could be spent on more support staff to help teachers integrate technology in the classroom. 

Is educational technology going to usher us into a bright new Utopian world where learning is both effective and efficient; or is technology going to amount to a really expensive anchor that drags our schools to the bottom of the sea?

These are just a few of my thoughts on educational technology... where it's going and what it's being used to accomplish.  What are your thoughts?  What are your experiences with schools and technology?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

No Homework Week: The Fallout

My "No Homework Week" has generated some interesting discussion.  The basic premise was to do a week-long experiment by giving kids free time to spend with their families.  As expected, parents loved the idea.  A few teachers loved the idea.  The vast majority did not.

I expected some objections.  After all, reducing homework is definitely an outside-the-box solution.  I didn't expect the passion, however.  As it turns out, many teachers LOVE giving homework and will vehemently defend their decision to do so even if their students struggle to complete it.   I've received more hate emails about this than I have for promoting barefoot running.  Teachers love homework more than runners love shoes.  Go figure.

Every email I've received contained a detailed explanation of the rationale individual teachers use to justify the volume of homework they assign.  The explanations usually revolve around test preparation, practicing skills learned in class, preparing kids for the workload of college, keeping kids "out of trouble", or assigning a small amount (ranging from a few minutes per night to "no more than an hour per day").  

We like to think humans are rational animals.  I like to think of us as rationalizing animals.  

This is a perfect example.  Kids are having trouble completing homework.  Rational thought would objectively analyze the situation and ask "Why aren't they completing homework?"  The goal of rational thought it to solve a problem, which includes assessing the situation and developing a solution.  

Instead, we engage in rationalizing thought.  We acknowledge kids are having problems completing homework.  Instead of searching for a solution, we develop reasons why our behaviors are justified.  Here are a few parts of conversations about why kids aren't tuning in homework or not performing up to expectations(from teachers):
"It's just the students are refusing to do their part."

"For the ones who it will take from a passing grade to failing I will be sure to call home. Perhaps that will prompt a few of them to do better next time. That is of course assuming I have working phone numbers, which often I do not. I know you are in a school where often you do not have working number for parents as well. So really, I think you have done all you can. If they choose to not do the assignments and you know you have explained it well and they're just being lazy, I just don't see how this falls as being your fault."

"Honestly, if a student can't commit one hour out of an entire week to homework for my class, then he is far, far, far too committed to other tasks."

"My gradebook in one class looks just the same as yours...and their class attitude/behavior shows it. They are not on focus in class (or, judging by their homework, out of class either. (I've tried every trick in the book to help them get on and stay on focus. I can't do much if any groupwork, since they absolutely cannot control themselves and will get off task at the drop of a hat. They are mean to each other, no matter how I've tried to explain/show/chastise them for being that way, so some are just not going to say anything for fear of standing out. When I looked up their other grades at the quarter, most had at least one if not more D's and/or F's in other classes. Since my other classes are all going well, I just don't know what to make of this one. I'm still trying, but it's very discouraging - I sure wish they would try more, too. "

"Even if it was, the kids aren't failing because quantity replaced quality. They are failing because they are doing NO WORK OF EITHER TYPE!  That's on them - not the teacher. " 

"Don't feel alone...lack of student effort and motivation is a very common problem! "

"I recently had classes make a list of expectations: 1 list of what students are expected to do, and 1 list of what they expect the teacher to do. The list of what they expect me to do was a bit sad. They expected me to assign less work or no work, to have more time for them to work in class (which, granted, they weren't getting much, but now that they are, they are wasting it), and to be available more often for extra help before or after school. I pointed out to them, again, that I am there EVERY Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, AND Friday before or after school, unless I am in a meeting (which isn't too often). Seriously!! At least until 3:15 (45 minutes after school is dismissed)." 

"When I DO give time in class, MOST students use that time wisely, but many of them simply sit around and talk. I'm sorry, if I'm sacrificing part of my instruction time to allow students an opportunity to work on the content, then they had better USE that time for that purpose. If they tell me "I'll work on this later", then there is no reason for me to cut my instruction time short to give them time that is just going to be wasted.  Not surprisingly, most of the ones who do NOT utilize the time I give them also are failing or in danger of failing with one or two bad grades." 
"I sent out progress reports today. In one class I have about 80% failing. EIGHTY PERCENT!!! With the exception of two students I believe that it is all due to laziness. Amazing how the students who study and come to class are the ones who are passing.
I do have some students that would probably only get a D if they did come to class and study. They are just bad test takers. Group projects are a bust in that class. I needed some way for the poor testers to get a decent grade. Since 99% of the time I hear from students who do not want to work in class that they concentrate better at home, I created an assignment that has to be done outside of class. The first checkpoint is due on Tuesday. We'll see how that goes. " 

 I find it curious that other teachers don't even consider the possibility that kids could be simply overworked.  In our current No Child Left Behind environment, we're dramatically increasing student expectations to make sure we meet AYP, especially in English and math.  With the increased expectations come increased workload.  With increased workload comes an increased rate of burnout.  It seems like a much more plausible explanation than labeling a generation of students as lazy.  

But that would be rational thought...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why Don't Educators Ask The Important Questions?

There's a popular story that is often circulated by teachers.  Here's the story from

One at a Time
A friend of ours was walking down a deserted Mexican beach at sunset. As he walked along, he began to see another man in the distance. As he drew nearer he noticed that the local man kept leaning down, picking something up and throwing it out into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things out into the ocean.

As our friend approached, he noticed that the man was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time, he was throwing them back into the water.

Our friend was puzzled. He approached the man and said: "Good evening, friend. I was wondering what you are doing."

"I’m throwing these starfish back into the ocean. You see, it’s low tide right now and all of these starfish have been washed up onto the shore. If I don’t throw them back into the sea, they’ll die up here from lack of oxygen."

I understand," my friend replied, "but there must be thousands of starfish on this beach. You can’t possibly get to all of them. There are simply too many. And don’t you realise this is probably happening on hundreds of beaches all up and down this coast? Can’t you see that you can’t possibly make a difference?"

The local man smiled, bent down and picked up yet another starfish, and as he threw it back into the sea, he replied: "Made a difference to that one!"

—Jack Canfield and Mark V Hansen
It's a cute story.  The boy represents teachers perpetually trying to save as many kids as they can.  It gives our job purpose.  We spend our time and effort trying to figure out better methods to save as many starfish as possible.  

So what's the problem?

Nobody ever asks why there's so many starfish washing up on the shore in the first place. 

This is the exact same problem we face in the education field.  We obsess about trying to solve a problem without considering prevention.  A lot less starfish would die on the shore if we can come up with an effective way to keep them off the beach in the first place.  Maybe then we really could save them all.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

National No Homework Week: A Revolution to Reclaim Families and Children

National No Homework Week... why not give it a shot?
I propose we designate the week of February 7th to the 11th of 2011 as National No Homework Week.  During this week, teachers will voluntarily suspend the giving of homework.  There shall be one exception- teachers may require ONE 15 minute session during the week where students will be required to have a conversation with a family member.

Why would a teacher suggest we stop assigning homework for a week?  It's an experiment... an unorthodox solution to a growing problem.  I've been teaching for twelve years.  During that time, I have noticed a trend.  In ever-growing numbers, students are refusing to do homework.  As most teachers of middle school or high school students can attest, many students, regardless of ability, do not do all assigned homework.  Before I explore my theory of why this is occurring, let me tell a story.

Dr. Thomas Franken is a cross-country coach.  He has been coaching the Rampart High School runners for over twenty years. Dr. Franken also has a Ph.D. in exercise science. 

When Dr. Franken started coaching, his typical training regimen he prescribed to his athletes consisted of running approximately three miles per day.  He applied his exercise science knowledge to develop unique, interesting workouts for his athletes.  Under his guidance, Dr. Franken produced many state champions and several prominent college runners.  He even produced two Olympic athletes. 

As the years wore on, Dr. Franken's routine changed.  Other coaches started applying different methods.  The competition increased.  In response, Dr. Franken increased his athletes' workload.  They started working out longer.  His three mile workout increased to five, then seven, then ten.  Today, it approaches thirteen miles per day.  He even added off-season running and weight training.  The goal was simple- he had to prepare his athletes to compete in an ever-changing world of competitive cross country running. 

Over the years, Dr. Franken noticed a change in his athletes.  In the beginning, his athletes were extremely motivated.  They would get excited about practice and eagerly gave their full effort every single day.  They were hungry.

As time passed, Dr. Franken's athletes became less excited.  They didn't have the same vigor they once had.  His colleagues would be subjected to his complaints about this curious change.  He would blame the kids.  "These kids today are just lazy! he would exclaim.  "They're not willing to put in the effort like they used to.  Don't they know they need to work hard to compete!" 

He would routinely blame parents for not pushing their kids more.  He would blame video games and television. "These kids would seemingly rather sit on the couch and do nothing than become winners.!"

His athletes, even those that showed immense natural talent, got slower and slower.  Many would quit mid season.  Some wouldn't even come out for the team.  He didn't understand this change.  After all, he coached Olympians!

He would obsessively spend his time trying to make his kids faster.  He would add new routines.  New workouts. He even started tampering with their diet.  For a brief time, he considered suggesting dietary supplements.  Anything to make these kids more motivated, anything to recapture the magic he saw from generations past.

Dr. Franken was getting fed up with excuses.  He was getting fed up with the laziness.  He was starting to imagine the demise of society as we know it... Americans used to be so creative and hard-working.  Now look at them.  He would shake his head in disgust.  He was about to give up on this generation.  He was about the turn his back on the very kids that he used to passionately love coaching.  Then his world changed.

It started innocently enough.  On a cloudy day in mid-October, Dr. Franken was in the last fifteen minutes of his three hour workout he scientifically designed to produce great runners.  It took him weeks to construct.  He pored over all the latest research, and included elements from many fields.  This workout on the track was supposed to develop the end-of-the race kick- that last burst of energy that will help runners surge to victory.  Dr. Franken even called it the victory drill. 

Jim Thompson was a mediocre sophomore runner that was not living up to his potential.  Jim had been running through the workout as he did every day.  Suddenly he stopped and sat down on the track.  An irate Dr. Franken stormed over to Jim.  Years of pent-up frustration spilled out as he began screaming about the laziness of kids today.  In his fit of rage, he let everything out.  Jim became the proxy for all the runners Dr. Franken saw over the years that were not willing to live up to their potential. 

All the while, Jim sat silently staring at a small crack in the track.  Dr. Franken ended his fanatical rant by screaming "And what about you, Jim?  You have the most talent on this team, but you just aren't willing to work hard enough!  What is wrong with you?!?"

Jim looked up at Dr. Franken.  In a low, defeated voice he said "Coach, I'm just tired."  Jim slowly got to his feet and walked off the track.

Dr. Franken's first instinct was to follow Jim and angrily lecture him about the value of working hard; developing the character to work past adversity.  He wanted to scream about how he would never amount to anything in life if he wasn't willing to work for it.  He wanted to force Jim to realize he was doing all this for HIS benefit; to make HIM a great runner... how could he be so ungrateful?!?

But he didn't.  Something inside stopped him.  At first it was a little twinge; something just enough to freeze him there on the track.  That twinge was the beginning of a revelation.  For the first time, he considered the workout from Jim's perspective.  As he started to see the situation from Jim's eyes, it was as if a tidal wave of revelation enveloped him.  Jim wasn't lazy.  He wasn't ungrateful.  He wasn't a bad kid or had bad parents.  He wasn't part of a doomed generation.  Jim was simply tired.

Over the years, Dr. Franken had unwittingly overtrained his kids.  Back in the old days, his athletes were hungry because they were kept in a perpetual state of wanting more.  In response, he slowly increased what he had them do.  At some point, they were no longer hungry.  They lost that valuable edge that keeps us motivated.  Dr. Franken continued the trend and did more.  He had good intentions- he was trying to help them.  As he continued o feed them a diet of more and more running, they started showing symptoms of overtraining.  They lost motivation.  They felt drained.  They had a sudden, unexplainable drop in performance.  They lost enthusiasm.  They became moody and irritable.  Some even resorted to "acting out" behaviors like destroying a bathroom at the track. 

He realized these kids weren't a doomed generation that had a set of messed-up values.  They were just overworked.  Running was no longer fun.  More importantly, running was no longer exciting.  It ate up most of their free time.  They no longer had time to interact with their family, hang out with friends, go on their own adventures or explore new things, or just be kids.

The epiphany hit him like a sledgehammer. 

He knew exactly what had to be done.  He immediately cut his workouts from three hours to 45 minutes.  Within two days, his athletes came to life.  Suddenly they were smiling.  Suddenly they were excited.  Suddenly they were running fast.  That season, Jim went from being an underperforming seemingly troubled kid to an outgoing, joyous conference champion.  Why?  He was given the gift of time, which gave him the freedom to grow as a runner and as a person.

Dr. Franken learned a valuable lesson.  It was a lesson his fancy Ph.D. in exercise couldn't teach him.  More is never the answer; it is often the cause of the problem.  The human spirit needs freedom to blossom.

Listening to many teachers today saddens me.  They sound exactly like Dr. Franken.  Kids today are underachieving.  I agree with this statement.  In my experience as a teacher, the kids I see today do not perform as well as the kids I taught at the beginning of my career.  Seemingly bright kids with tons of potential are failing at an alarming rate.  While I agree with the trend, I strongly disagree with the supposed cause and common solutions.

The kids' work ethic is commonly blamed.  Parents are blamed.  Video games, music, television, fast food, friends, and the Internet are often blamed.  Just like Dr. Franken, we look for some difference between today's student and yesterday's student. 

The solutions are pretty typical, too.  Calls to the parents.  Increasing the weight of homework.  Coming up with elaborate systems of rewards and punishments.  Trying new teaching techniques.  We even try technology.

Does any of it work?

No.  In fact, the more we try, the worse the problem becomes. 

The problem we face as educators is the exact same problem Dr. Franken faced- we become so focused on the goal of trying to help kids achieve more, we lose sight of their perspective.  We are inundated with pressures to teach more.  More standards.  More tests.  More accountability.  The push for performance pushes us to increase our expectations.  We keep giving kids more and more.  Since the school day has a finite time, we are forced to assign homework.  It seems like a logical solution, just like Dr. Franken assumed more running would make the kids faster.

In reality, kids are overwhelmed.  I hear it from kids.  I hear it from parents.  In a typical high school, kids will have five to seven classes.  If each teacher assigns 15 minutes of homework, that kid is spending 75-90 minutes per day doing more work on top of their school day.  What about the teachers that assign an hour or more?  It's a "tragedy of the commons effect"... we think our homework doesn’t make a difference because it will only take a few minutes.  We ignore the fact that the student has many other teachers all thinking the exact same thing.  Add in any extracurricular and school monopolizes almost all of their time.  When do they have time to bond with their family?  When do they have time to explore their environment?  When do they have time to be a kid?  The answer- they don't. 
The generally-accepted guideline, supported by organizations such as the NEA, recommend a limit of 10 minutes of homework per night per grade level.  For a high school senior, this equates to TWO HOURS of homework every night.  This, of course, assumes all teachers follow this guideline.

There is a tremendous price we pay by piling work on kids.  We have created a generation of workaholics that impulsively fill their time with work.  Why?  That's what they learned in their 12 years of schooling.  Is it a surprise that parents today would rather be working than spending time with their kids?  For more on that idea, see my post about schools being the cause of their own problems.

In regards to homework specifically, the logic doesn't always make sense.  Some teachers claim students need the repetition.  Why?  If they understand the material, there's no need to continue practicing.  If they don't get it, how are they supposed to complete the homework without having someone there to help?  Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of homework, presents a great argument in this article

For those that require more evidence than my own observations, there is supporting research.  Ellen Galinsky, Stacy Kim, and James Bond (yes, I laughed at the last one, too) of the Families and Work Institute conducted a study of American work habits in 2001.  Here are some findings.  When people are overworked, they
  • make more mistakes,
  • are less successful in personal relationships,
  • do not take good care of themselves (can you say obesity epidemic?),
  • lose sleep, have increased anger towards work and supervisors (or school and teachers), and
  • feel more resentment toward people that do not work as hard (which manifests itself when one classmate sees another that has "checked out" already)
The study also notes some of the negative implications, such as:
  • less workplace safety due to increased mistakes and higher levels of resentment and anger,
  • significantly lower levels of morale,
  • More "acting out" behaviors (which should be of special interest to teachers and administrators),
  • decreased performance (which explains why pushing more studying results in generally lower overall test scores),
  • more sick days and truancy due to high levels of stress.
Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of burnout for several decades.  See how many of these classic burnout symptoms you see in your students, then attribute to some internal trait:
  • Neglecting one's own needs, both physical and emotional,
  • increased levels of stress coupled with an inability to attribute the source (which results in gereneralized anxiety),
  • family, friends, and hobbies are neglected,
  • cynicism and aggression increase,
  • social withdrawal,
  • increase in substance abuse,
  • life becomes a series of mechanized behaviors,
  • depression, and
  • rebellion from sources of authority.
Convinced yet?  I am.

As teachers, we need to get over the idea that our subject matter is so important we need kids to work on it outside of school.  If we don't have time in the class, we need to reduce the amount of material or develop more efficiency when teaching the material.  We have to understand the idea that we need to work smarter, not work more. It's time to allow kids to have some free time.  Let's stop burning them out by monopolizing all their free time.  Let's let kids be kids.

I bet if enough of us do this, we'll see the same results Dr. Franken saw.  The "laziness" will disappear.  Disruptive behavior will dramatically decrease.  The enthusiasm will build.  Our students will become hungry again, just like they used to be a generation ago. 

What do we have to lose?  Will kids' lives be ruined if they don't learn every vocab word from a chapter?  Are they destined to a life of homelessness and unemployment if they don't write an extra 200 words in the persuasive essay?  Will your school fail your state's standardized test and miss your Annual Yearly Progress goals?  Not at all.

This is a one week experiment that could revolutionize education.  It would give kids a change to bond with their families.  It will give kids a chance to do something new; something THEY want to do.  Take it a step further and encourage your students to explore their communities.  Meet new people.  Build something.  Create.  Be kids.

This could change the face of education.  It could allow us the ability to develop and create new and engaging pedagogy that would move schools from manufacturing robots using synthetic learning methods to community centers that would capture imagination and inspire kids to create.  We could capture the magic of organic learning using methods like the open source classroom

Who's with me?  If we're serious about making our schools better, simple tweaking is not the answer.  We need to roll up our sleeves and start thinking outside the box.  Let's see if we can start a grass-roots movement to revolutionize our educational system by giving kids the precious gift of freedomIf you're in, post a comment below.  

Also, share this post with as many people as you can.  Email the link.  Join the Facebook Group.  Post it on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.  Share on  Vote for it on Reddit.  Blog about it.  Print it out and give it to your fellow teachers, administrators, and classmates.  Students- print it out and give it to your teachers and friends.  Parents- give it to your kids' teachers and share it at PTA meetings and booster clubs.  Send it to your local newspapers and television stations.  Digg it.  Vote for it on Stumble Upon.  Post it on forums and message boards.  Run through the streets and scream from the rooftops.  Do what you can to get the word out.

For more information on the topic, check out these resources:

Organic Versus Synthetic Learning: A Synopsis

Earlier, I wrote about my made-up concepts of organic versus synthetic learning.  I've been thinking about this dichotomy, and decided to make some clarifying points.  I think these concepts provide a useful language to re-frame any discussion on making school more effective.  

Organic Learning: Organic learning is learning that occurs in a natural state.  It is learning that develops from within a child (or adult).  The child develops curiosity about a topic, concept, problem, or idea, then seeks out methods to satisfy this curiosity.  The outside world does not interfere with this process.  The motivation to learn is intrinsic.  It radiates from within. 

Organic learning is exciting and invigorating.  To the outside observer, this usually appears to be "playing". The child will expend great effort to satisfy their natural curiosity.  This is the process children use to understand the world around them.  Since the methods the child uses to satisfy our curiosity develop from internal processes, a great deal of creativity is utilized.  Learning occurs quickly and efficiently with minimal resources.

The Free School Movement capitalizes on the idea of organic learning with great success.  The Sudbury Valley School could be used as an effective model.

Synthetic Learning: Synthetic learning is any attempt by outside forces to modify organic learning.  This could be anything from a parent subtly guiding their child toward understanding to the "rigor" and structure of a high school classroom.  Synthetic learning is usually an attempt to control what, how, or when a child will learn. Synthetic learning could be a textbook, lecture, group work, government-imposed curriculum, or the myriad of other methods or tools we use to attempt to teach children.

Synthetic learning, regardless of the rationale, methods, or justification, always results in a cost.  Since synthetic learning is an attempt to get children to learn using external forces, the curiosity-based motivation that characterizes organic learning is reduced.  The cost of reduced internal motivation greatly decreases the speed and efficiency of synthetic learning, which then requires greater resources. Generally, the more synthetic learning processes are applied to the learning process, the less effective it becomes (less is more).  

In essence, synthetic learning can be thought of as a barrier to learning.  The fewer the barriers, the more effective learning becomes. 

Education professionals perpetually seek the best synthetic methods (i.e.- best practices) in an attempt to make synthetic learning as effective as organic learning.  Synthetic learning is never as effective as organic learning, but some synthetic learning methods and tools will be more effective than others.

The very nature of formal schooling creates a host of synthetic learning barriers including standardization practices, rules, procedures, and routines, textbooks, curriculum, teachers and administrators, fellow classmates, the physical environment, and the prescribed class periods/ school day.  A master teacher's role should be assessing each individual student and removing as many of these barriers as possible to allow them to learn in the most effective way possible. 

How this model could be used:  This model would require schools (administrators, teachers, support staff, students, parents, and community) to systematically assess every single element of the school and determine what impact it had on student learning.  The goal would be to remove the barriers that result in the most synthetic learning and leave the barriers that bring students closest to organic learning.  

Using Pareto's principle (80% of the outcomes flow from 20% of the causes) in a systematic fashion would create a culture that constantly evolves to provide the best possible barrier-free environment for organic learning to occur.  At any given time, 20% of the elements of a school (schedule, curriculum, specific teachers, specific administrators, color of the carpet, etc.) are going to cause 80% of the problems.  Using a democratic system where everyone (administrators, teachers, support staff, students, parents, and community) has one voice and one vote, these problems can be identified and eliminated. The 20% of the elements of the school will result in 80% of the successes, or elements that bring students closer to organic learning.  Using the same process, these elements can be identified and replicated.  

Some elements will be non-negotiable and cannot be eliminated, like state-imposed curriculum or the physical building layout.  The school community would be able to collaborate to reduce the cost of these non-negotiables on the organic learning process. 

By constantly applying this system, schools will move progressively closer to the ideal of high levels of organic learning and low levels of synthetic learning, ergo more efficient and effective learning.

Because organic learning inherently requires less resources, the school budget will inevitably shrink.  Also, the process of organic learning will likely produce something that is valuable to society, thus has monetary value.  For example, Bill Strickland of the Manchester Craftsman's Guild produces and sells student-generated music to fund his school.  The ultimate goal would be to create a self-funded school that capitalizes on its by-products as a source of income.  Financial freedom removes a major barrier for schools- the reliance on funding from groups (government, corporate, etc.).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Silliness of Work for Work's Sake

Back in the day, I used to work in a grocery store.  When I was a cashier, the boss would insist we keep busy.  To this end, she would assign us various duties such as dusting the candy, sweeping the floor, stocking the shelves at the front of the store, etc.  When we finished our assigned jobs, she would insist we restart them. We'd dust candy that was dusted three minutes ago.  It was my first taste of working for the sake of work.

Her logic was understandable... it made her look bad if the cashiers were just loitering around chatting.  If we were being paid, we'd better be working, damn it!  It didn't matter if the jobs were completely pointless or not. 

Unfortunately, the boss never considered the negative aspect of this "work for the sake of work" system- it killed many positive employee traits.  For example, we learned to work as slowly as possible.  After all, once we finished there was always another hole to dig then fill in. 

It also created a negative culture.  She never considered the fact that our few minutes of intermittent chatter greatly boosted morale.  She also didn't consider the ancillary benefit- we usually chatted about work.  Occasionally we'd talk about ways to improve the store.  We were developing better ways to do our jobs.  Instead, we plotted ways to make her life more difficult.  So goes human nature.

The store has since went out of business.  Appropriate.:-)

How often do we do this in the classroom?  There are some that insist kids "stay busy" for the entire duration of their class.   This idea of working for the sake of work just doesn't make sense.  It undermines a fundamental human trait- efficiency.

Many kids will work diligently to finish their work just to have a sliver of time to relax.  Those few idle minutes of chit-chat serve a useful social purpose- it allows kids to make meaningful connections by communicating.  It's a skill we sometime try to teach. 

Ironically, the best way to teach social communication may be to back off.  Simply giving kids the time to engage each other can be a wonderful social tool. 

Additionally, this idle chit-chat builds culture.  Smart businesses have capitalized on this idea.  Steelcase, a company based in Michigan, installed coffee bars throughout their corporate headquarters.  Why?  They realized giving employees a place to congregate and socialize dramatically improved morale, led to greater productivity when working on-task, and led to more creativity and innovation.  Wouldn't these characteristics be valued in the classroom? 

Senselessly filling your day with work is likely doing more harm that good.  Is that five minutes at the end of class really resulting in higher levels of learning, or could that time be better utilized to build culture?  Humans are social animals.  When that social hunger is fed, we bloom.  When we are socially-starved, we wither.  Which culture would you rather cultivate?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Our Greatest Strengths Are Also Our Greatest Weaknesses

I was introduced to this idea by Alan Webber in 'Rules of Thumb".  He framed it as a business idea- that which created your success will ultimately cause your downfall.  It's the idea that for every strength, there is a corresponding opposite attribute which is a weakness.

Here's my example.  I'm an "idea" person.  I am pretty good at envisioning new ideas.  I can usually see things most people cannot.  You may have gotten this from my previous posts. :-)

There is an opposite to this, however.  I suck at execution.  I have very poor planning skills, no organizational skills, and I have a hard time seeing things most people can (i.e.- the logistics of carrying out my ideas).  

All of us have this dichotomy.  Whatever you consider a strength also has a corresponding weakness.  In interviews, we're taught to take advantage of this.  How many people have responded to the question "What is your greatest weakness" with "I care TOO much."

Here's a little exercise to test this idea.  Get a few index cards.  On one side, write the characteristics you consider your strengths on one side.  After you finish, flip each card over and write the corresponsing weakness.
It may take some time to figure out what the weakness is, but it's there.  If you are a great people person, maybe you stink at data.  If you like math, maybe you're a horrible dancer.  Whatever.

It is important to recognize both our strengths and weaknesses.  Ideally, we should use our advantages whenever possible.  Hugh MacLeod, one of my inspirations and author of "Ignore Everybody", used the example of Bob Dylan.  He couldn't sing or play the guitar, so he played up his strength- writing damn good lyrics.  

It is important to also recognize this in our students.  Too often, we get caught up in making the "well-rounded", which is really just another world for all-around mediocre.  Identify your students' strengths and teach them to capitalize on them.  They are, after all, their strengths.

As far as weaknesses, it's helpful to be aware of them.  Manage them accordingly, but don't get caught up in sending all your time correcting the weaknesses.  It's okay to just manage them.  If Bob Dylan spent all his time trying to become a good singer or guitar player, I bet he wouldn't have amounted to much.  Neither will you.  Neither will I.  Neither will our students. 

Ideas that Work

In an earlier post, I mentioned Larry Rosenstock and High Tech High.  Here's another education model that has been making a real, significant change using a collaborative model: The Manchester Craftsman GuildBill Strickland, the founder, successfully ties the arts with community mentorship to create a real opportunity for his students.  His school operates on a $1,500 per student budget and 85% of the graduating seniors attend college.  Oh, and the record label Bill created as part of the Manchester Craftsman's Guild has won four Grammy Awards.  

Thinking outside the box.  It worked pretty well for Bill. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Solving Problems in Education with Simple, Unorthodox Solutions

Thinking outside the box. 

It's a phrase we repeat often.  How often do we really do it, though?  We tend to make decisions based on past experiences.  Those experiences may come from observation, reading, watching television, or actually experiencing something first-hand.  Sometimes we synthesize our past experiences to create new paradigms.  Still, we're limited to that which we know. 

When it comes to problem-solving and we don't have the proper prior knowledge or experience, we seek out new information.  The problem- we seek out information using the same familiar channels.  The result is predictable.  Our solutions never deviate far from our center of comfort. 

To make the problem worse, we have a tendency only consider solutions that work by addition.  We don't consider that complexity and the resulting confusion may be the root of the problem.  We can't focus on the signal because there's too much noise.  

For example, if students are struggling, the automatic solution is to add more.  More tutoring.  More homework.  More rigor.  More noise.

How do we combat this seemingly automatic response?  We need to force ourselves to look for simple solutions by using a different perspective than that which caused the problem in the first place. 

In regards to the simple solutions, I like the urban legend of the U.S. Space Program and space pens.  

As the legend goes, the first U.S. astronauts found their ink pens did not work in zero gravity.  NASA commissioned its top engineers to tackle the problem.  Designs were drawn up.  Prototypes were built.  Endless experiments were conducted.  Data was collected and analyzed.  Several years and tens of millions of dollars later, NASA engineers developed a state-of-the-art miracle of technology- the pressurized pen.  The pressurized chamber allowed astronauts to write in the absence of gravity (remember the commercials from our youth... the same pens were eventually sold to the American public as the pens that could write upside down).  NASA championed the pen as a crowning feat of American ingenuity and work ethic.  At a cost of only 20 million dollars and a few years, the best minds at NASA conquered the mystery of writing in space.

The Soviets solved the same problem by using pencils.

Complex is rarely better.  Unfortunately it is our default mode of operation.  The best way to counter this habit- think "subtraction" before "addition".  What can we take away from a problem to solve it?  Try it.  You'll be surprised... it's a much more efficient way to solve problems. 

On the issue of thinking outside the box, the best solution is to re-frame the problem.  As educators, we like to solve our problems by consulting education experts, education research, our own experiences or training in our education programs, or collaboration with... other educators.  

The problem is obvious- this model assumes other educational resources have solutions.  It doesn't consider the idea that the education system itself may be part of the problem, or even the cause of the problem. 

As I mentioned before, I've found a lot of great answers to my own problems both inside and outside the classroom by looking through a completely different lens.  A handful of resources, completely unrelated to education, have provided a wealth of potential solutions to problems I've struggled with for years.  

The open source lesson planning is one such example.  Normally, educators get wrapped up in the idea that we're the education experts.  As such, we think we're the solution to all problems related to education.  We ignore the role of the our community, families, and others outside the school... unless they claim to be experts in education.  T

his arrogance on our part is silly, it marginalizes a wealth of potential solutions that do not share our biases.  The open source lesson planning borrows a philosophy that has been immensely successful in other industries and blends it with elements of an education model that is immensely successful- homeschooling.

Being an expert in anything only means you've committed to one particular line of thinking.  The more "expert" we are, the less likely we are to see solutions that reside outside our area of expertise.  In the realm of education, our "expertise" blinds us to many potential solutions that would be painfully obvious to anyone that does not share our biases.  

If we consult experts, education experts should be the LAST people we contact.  Let's contact gardening experts.  Or expert salespeople.  Or expert welders.  Counter-intuitive?  Yes.  Unorthodox?  Yes.  Will they force us to think outside the box?  Yes.

Some of my favorite quotes on the matter:

"The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. " -Einstein

"The bigger the real-life problems, the greater the tendency for the discipline to retreat into a reassuring fantasy-land of abstract theory and technical manipulation." -Tom Naylor

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Open Source Education: A Solution to Making Education Effective in the Accountability Era

In the education world, we have a renewed focus on standardized testing.  The major driving force is the need to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), which is the cornerstone of No Child Left Behind.  It has forced schools to focus exclusively on preparing for the test that measures their progress. 

This singular focus has created a culture of academic elitism.  Teachers are encouraged to use methods that focus on the test, not actual student needs.  High-achieving students are given preferential treatment.  Low-achieving students are marginalized.  It creates a toxic environment where actual learning is replaced with a mechanical approach to test preparation.  Why is standardized testing popular?  Why is data is driving our schools today?
  • The legislators like it because it gives them an immediate snapshot of progress.  
  • The community loves it because it gives their schools an immediate ranking among other schools.  Nothing boosts property values like a school district that does a great job of teaching students to take robot (standardized) tests.  
  • Administrators love it because they are managers and it gives them hard data. That which is measured can be managed.
Who doesn't love it?  Students.  By design, a focus on robot testing is a mechanical process.  You can't apply a mechanical process to an organic problem.  Kids fall through the cracks.  Teachers' objectives become less about mastery and more about test performance.  Individuality is lost.  Freedom dies.

So what is the solution?  How can schools create an environment where our students' individual needs are recognized and met; where high levels of organic learning take place; where family, community, and schools come together to create innovative solutions to complex problems? 

We can tackle the legislation to eliminate NCLB, but that takes time.  We can ignore the act, but poor performance on the robot tests results in punitive actions against the district.  This leaves only one option- do what we can to work around the limitations imposed by the robot testing.  The question- how?

Let's look at rogue businesses for answers.  I have spent considerable time reading business books lately.  The idea of applying business practices to education has always made me uneasy.  Treating kids like a product ignores my fundamental principles (which explains my disdain for NCLB).  The business books I've read were written by a new breed of entrepreneurs.  They don't follow the "suited warrior" ideals taught in business schools; they invent real solutions using innovative methods.  They think outside the box.  This is EXACTLY what education needs.  We need to forget what we learned in our teacher prep programs.  We need to forget research.  We need to recognize our own limited perspective.

Our problem with education- how do we score well on standardized tests to meet standards and still meet the diverse needs of our individual students?  Ideally the solution should involve parents and extended family, community, local businesses, teachers, administrators, school boards, and any other parties that could provide knowledge.

First, we need to figure out the first issue- how to improve standardized test scores without overtly teaching to the test.  The answer: look at homeschoolers.

In public education, homeschooling has a consistent, pervasive negative stereotype.  After all, homeschoolers threaten all of our jobs (which is really the first priority of school employees).  We see homeschooled kids as socially-stunted pale-skinned kids that win spelling bees and can rattle off every vice-president's dog throughout American history.  In reality, homeschooled kids smart, socially-savvy individuals that have learned to interact with people of all ages in natural social environments.  More importantly, they flat out beat the Hell out of public school students on standardized tests.  Check out these statistics (from here):

In 1997, a study of 5,402 homeschool students from 1,657 families was released. It was entitled, "Strengths of Their Own: Home Schoolers Across America." The study demonstrated that homeschoolers, on the average, out-performed their counterparts in the public schools by 30 to 37 percentile points in all subjects. A significant finding when analyzing the data for 8th graders was the evidence that homeschoolers who are homeschooled two or more years score substantially higher than students who have been homeschooled one year or less. The new homeschoolers were scoring on the average in the 59th percentile compared to students homeschooled the last two or more years who scored between 86th and 92nd percentile. i

This was confirmed in another study by Dr. Lawrence Rudner of 20,760 homeschooled students which found the homeschoolers who have homeschooled all their school aged years had the highest academic achievement. This was especially apparent in the higher grades. ii This is a good encouragement to families catch the long-range vision and homeschool through high school.

Another important finding of Strengths of Their Own was that the race of the student does not make any difference. There was no significant difference between minority and white homeschooled students. For example, in grades K-12, both white and minority students scored, on the average, in the 87th percentile. In math, whites scored in the 82nd percentile while minorities scored in the 77th percentile. In the public schools, however, there is a sharp contrast. White public school eighth grade students, nationally scored the 58th percentile in math and the 57th percentile in reading. Black eighth grade students, on the other hand, scored on the average at the 24th percentile in math and the 28th percentile in reading. Hispanics scored at the 29th percentile in math and the 28th percentile in reading.

Maybe it's time we stop worrying about the homeschoolers threatening our jobs and started looking at their methods.  As it turns out, the homeschoolers don't do anything special.  In fact, the absence of formal teaching methods itself seems to be a major element of their success.  It goes along with my theory that less is more.  They do more organic learning and a lot less synthetic learning.

So how do we accomplish this goal of creating an organic learning experience for our students when the entire edu-industrial complex is designed for synthetic learning?  How do we produce people when we work in a factory that is designed to produce robots?

Here's my second out-of-the-box solution: Use the open source model.  In his book Rules of Thumb, Alan Webber discusses three rules of success from Megan Smith of Google.  Her third rule- Open systems beat closed systems.  Webber goes on to discuss this idea:
If you want to be on the right side of history, you'll embrace open systems.  They save money, increase speed, invite participation, require flexibility, and thrive on democracy.  They break down the barriers, promote pragmatism, spotlight talent, and reward real performance.  Open systems beat closed systems.

The idea has worked in the computer world.  It has worked with Wikipedia (note- to those of you that still think Wikipedia shouldn't be used as a resource- it's the single largest collection of experts in every field in the world working to build collective knowledge... it should be THE starting point for research).  Collaboration is a good thing.

How can this idea be implemented to take advantage of the homeschool model in a public school   The answer is simple: make lesson planning an open system.  
The concept is easy to implement and would work like this.  A teacher would post a rough outline for a lesson online based on our perception of best educational practices using a collaborative platform (maybe something like Google Docs or something else here).  The applicable standards would also be posted as this is the basic building block for the material that will eventually covered on the robot test.  At that point, the public (students, parents, administrators, school board members, community members, business owners, etc) would have the opportunity to add, remove, suggest, and ultimately shape the actual lesson.

I'm guessing this idea causes one of two reactions: excitement or fear.  

If you feel excitement, you're heading in the right direction.  The world is moving toward global collaboration and a decentralizing of authority and knowledge, and you get that.  More importantly, you want your students to get that.  Good for you.

If you feel fear or you immediately began thinking of reasons this idea will not work, your head is in the sand.  You're oblivious to the world around you and have likely spent too much time building walls between your educational institution and the rest of the world.  Your students will suffer as a result.  Shame on you.

Will it work?  Why not?  There's just too much potential upside to prevent it from working.  Consider this:
  • Teachers and administrators fear parents.  A parent that complains loud enough can jeopardize a career (remember... job protection is the first priority).  What is the best way to eliminate that fear?  Give parents the ability to be part of the problem-solving process.  It's human behavior 101 (thanks psychology department at Northern Michigan University!)  The current system is based on a degree of secrecy... it is easier to keep parents in the dark than risk having them complain.  This needs to change.
  • Teachers do not have all the answers.  We see the world from one perspective- our own.  Our own experiences and collective knowledge and wisdom is limited.  As such, our ability to create and execute lessons is inherently limited.  Allowing others to participate in the creation process will, by definition, produce a product that is better suited for every student.
  • Students have a voice.  We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to teach them, but we never ask for their input.  Each student knows themselves 1,000,000 times better than anyone else.  If we want to consult an expert to learn how to teach each individual, let's ask the expert- the student themselves.  Also, allowing student input teaches a valuable lesson in the democratic process... we can and do have a voice.  We need to teach our students to use that voice.  Nothing teaches like authentic experiences.
  • The community is an invaluable resource.  In an era where school funding is drying up and resources are scarce, it makes sense to tap the local community for ideas.  A few years ago, I had a problem getting my classes into the limited computer labs in my school.  My solution- ask local businesses for their old computer hardware and build my own lab in my classroom.  The response was overwhelming.  I received over 200 computers along with printers, monitors, networking hardware, software, and anything else imaginable.  It turns out businesses have to pay to get rid of their old computer hardware (usually about two years old) when they replace it with new stuff.  By donating it to schools, they get a nice tax write-off.  The best part- I got a TON of offers from IT guys in my community to come into the school to set everything up.  I even got unsolicited offers for them to teach my students how to set up and maintain my network, repair broken computers, and generally administer our own lab outside normal school hours.  It would have been an organic learning opportunity for my students and established connections between the community and my classroom while learning real-world skills in technology.  The best part- it was absolutely free.  Unfortunately my school allowed "policy" to stand in the way of innovation and the project died.  The irony- my school passed a bond to spend a tremendous amount of money on technology.  The goal- get a computer in front of every kid.  The people that made the policy that prevented my free solution to the problem years ago are the same people making plans to solve the same problem with wads of cash.  So goes the edu-industrial complex.  In an open system, organic learning would trump policy.  In an open system, the community of experts would provide resources schools cannot.
Of course, there are many other great reasons to move to this model.  The marriage of family, community, and schools is at the heart of what education should be... a collaborative effort to make schools a better experience for our kids.  It has the potential to reduce costs and improve results while maintaining the very elements of learning that kids lack under the current system.

The world is changing.  It is evident everywhere.  The way we do things now is not working.  Simply tweaking the system has not and will not work.  It hasn't worked for the last 160 years; it will not work 160 years in the future.  I think Einstein had something to say about doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results...

Some schools have done well with radical change.  Personally, I like what Larry Rosenstock has done with High Tech High.  While it is tempting to simply replicate everything they do, it is important to understand that their solution is a solution to their problems.  We need to develop our own solutions for our problems.  Open source education can provide those solutions.
Open source education... these are the ideas I dream about when we sit through cutting-edge professional development sessions where we learn to fold papers.  As it turns out, origami didn't fix our problems.  Let's try something that might.

Is it a different way of doing things?  Yes.  Are there potential problems?  Yes.  Can we afford to let our fears stop us from trying the idea?  Absolutely not.  Let's give this whole "democracy" thing a try.  

Friday, November 19, 2010

Organic Learning Versus Synthetic Learning: Is Our Approach to School Reform Wrong?

Most would agree- today's public schools could be better.  Many people have ideas.  Some suggest we promote more local freedom and do away with national testing.  Some argue we need more testing to increase accountability.  Groups promote the idea of paying teachers more money to attract the best of the best.  Others believe the solution is to drastically cut teacher salaries and spend the money on programs.  There are supporters of increasing the core areas, specifically math and science.  There are also supporters that claim we need to increase the arts.  I've herd calls that teachers need to change the way they teach.  I've also heard calls that families need to change the way they raise their kids.  Most people seem to agree that "more" is the solution... more money, more teachers, more technology, more programs, more hours in the day, more graduation requirements, more testing, more policies, more school days, etc. 

The point- for every group recommending a solution, there is another group offering the polar opposite solution.  Every solution seems to be adding "more" to the equation.  We've been on this kick for some time.  As Dr. Phil would say, "How's that working for ya?"

Maybe it's time to consider an alternative.  Let's throw less at the problem. 

Admittedly, this is not my idea.  Tim Ferriss planted the idea in"The Four Hour Work Week", and Jason Fried and David Hannson cemented the idea in "Rework".  One of the reoccurring themes of both books is the idea that we need to rethink the way we do everything.  Neither discusses education; the books are loosely based on business principles.  Normally applying business advice to schools is just plain stupid (hear that politicians).  The difference- these books took a much different approach to the idea of business.  It was truly "outside the box" thinking.  That is the perspective education reform should adopt.

Anyway, let's try to solve the problems of schools through subtraction.  It is the exact opposite of our seemingly natural reaction to problems, which is a GOOD thing.  Before I tackle the specifics, here's a little background:

My own theory is based heavily on my twelve years of experience as a public school teacher, my background in psychology, and the theories of some people like John Gatto.  The theories are based on a few simple principles, including:
  • Everybody loves to learn, it is a universal human condition.  As a species, it is our evolutionary advantage. 
  • A prerequisite to learning is curiosity.  Curiosity leads to highly motivated inquiry, which often takes the form of problem-solving.
  • Inquiry leads to learning that is easily and readily internalized (i.e. memorized)
  • Learning is an individual endeavor.  Learning in groups can only be effective IF all members of the group share a mutual curiosity.
  • Learning does not require any special tools, unless the tools themselves are the focus of the learning.  
  • Adding resources is inversely related to the amount of creativity used to solve problems.
  • A teacher's role is not to add information as if they were a painter adding paint to a canvas, but rather the teacher's role is to remove barriers to the student's self-learning, much like a sculptor carving a statue from a block of rock.  In many cases, the teacher isn't even needed.
When added together, these principles will result in exceedingly high levels of significant learning.  Why?  It's how we learn when learning isn't the goal.  It's the human condition.  I will refer to this as "organic learning".

Compare this to "synthetic learning", which most of us will find in school today.  Students "learn" by following a highly regimented schedule divided into tidy blocks, a teacher will determine the scope and sequence of a narrowly-defined topic to be learned with minimal actual application, all the while following procedures and rules that are designed to suppress and inhibit.  This may include the use of textbooks, PowerPoint (I really hate PowerPoint), or a host of other canned tools or techniques that ignore most of the basic principles I listed above.

The result- some kids do great.  Others struggle in perpetual boredom; the only thing making their day tolerable is the countdown until the end of class, end of the day, end of the week, the next vacation, or the end of the year.  Some do not make it at all.  They consistently and repeatedly fail despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators.  Some just simply fall through the cracks as the machinery of the edu-industrial complex rolls on.

If given the option between "organic learning" and "synthetic learning" I have little doubt every student would choose the former.  I would.

The question becomes- how do we do more organic learning and less synthetic learning?  We can look at two groups to see these ideas in action: the free school movement and home schooling.  Both situations apply the "less is more" approach with great results.  In both formats, kids have freedom.  That freedom allows the principle I outlined to work.  Once removed from the traditional school setting, curiosity and the resulting inquiry flourish. Parents and teachers become facilitators; their responsibility is the removal of barriers and guiding toward resources. 

In future posts, I will explore the ideas of using the free school and home school principles in today's public schools.  I will explore the ideas of removing obstacles (and related costs) as a means of developing more effective educational experiences.  This exploration will require a suspension of belief... from this point forward it is assumed everything I've learned about teaching best practices is wrong.  It should be an interesting ride...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Job Protection... Is This The Real Priority of Schools?

The edu-industrial complex likes to tout their dedication to kids.  This trumpeting of priorities can be found in mission statements, goals, educational theories... pretty much anywhere.  Are kids REALLY the top priority? 

I would argue it is impossible for kids to be the top priority.  The entire system is designed to create and foster internal conflict.  In theory, everyone associated with education would be working toward the common goal of always doing what is best for children.  In practice, every hand in the cookie jar of education is eternally struggling for power, influence, or personal gain.  The federal government, state government, local government, school boards, superintendents, building-level administrators, teachers, support staff, parents, unions, and business owners all work to secure their own interests, usually in the form of securing their livelihood.  They're protecting their jobs. 

This focus on job protection ultimately creates problems within the system simply because this focus supersedes what should be the real goal- doing what is best for kids.

If you work within the edu-industrial complex, start paying attention to the decisions made around you.  You begin to see this unspoken focus on protecting jobs versus truly doing what is best for children.

For the really brave, start considering your own decisions.  How many times do you make a decision that prioritizes your own employment over the welfare children? 

Of course, it takes bravery to admit this as humans are very adept at justifying our actions.  We're experts at relieving cognitive dissonance.  Therein lies the problem- we're too good at convincing ourselves that our decisions really are in the interest of kids.