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...

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