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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NY Times Columnist Agrees with Rules 50 and 51

New York Times Columnist Jane Brody wrote a column called Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space. In it, she reinforced the thinking behind two Unschooling Rules:
  • Rule 50: Outdoors beats indoors. (#unrules50)
  • Rule 51: Walk a lot. (#unrules51)
Jane Brody notes:
  • First, the bad news: Americans are suffering from an acute case of “outdoor deprivation disorder,” and the effects on physical and mental health are rising fast.
  • Now, the good news: There’s a simple remedy — get outside and start moving around in green spaces near and far, most of which are free.
Score one for common sense! But can industrial schools catch up to Homeschoolers? As always, twitter your thoughts!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

For me, unschooling means as much questioning everything as rejecting everything.

There is a branch of cognitive science known as "eliminative materialism." Basically, the premise is that most of the terms we use to describe cognitive states, such as "love" and "ambition," are "old science" from thousands of years ago. There is no other science that uses such dated terms. Making progress in understanding the brain requires coming up with new terms.
Likewise, my approach to the concept of unschooling is exactly the same. I do not believe the term should be used to mean, "do the opposite of schools." That is giving schools too much power.
Nor do I believe completely in the approach of, "provide a rich environment but never use the directive leadership approach of telling kids what to do." We must tell our children to look both ways before crossing the road. Experiential learning, while effective, can have too high of a cost.
Rather, we have to start over when it comes to school, much as we have had to start over when it comes to packaged foods. I do not reject milk, for example, just because industrial milk has been over-processed to a point of near worthlessness. Rather, I accept the premise of the importance of milk, reject the industrial milk product as much as possible, and get raw milk instead.
I bring all of this up because of two recent reviews of Unschooling Rules, both now available at Bob Collier's "must-read" The Parental Intelligence Newsletter. Both Bob and Wendy Priesnitz have written excellent reviews that bring up many great points. (The best reviews explore not just the text in question, but the broader concepts as well - something both people have done.)
Wendy brought up a pretty important concept. She wondered if any framework of "core curriculum" was anathema. She wrote in her review:
[Clark Aldrich] writes about a "critical core curriculum," all three words with which many unschoolers would disagree.
Wendy's quote refers to two places in the book. First I wrote:
The content you need to know is fairly focused. From the traditional curricula, what you need to know is mostly centered in a few classic school areas such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. What you need to know should also be expanded as well to include areas not covered in traditional curricula, such as stewardship, project management, innovation, and security.
And then later on in the book, I wrote:
Math must be part of a critical core curriculum. It is one of the few subjects (along with reading and writing) worth "forcing" students to know. No one should enter the productive world, nor can they make good life decisions, without a deep and comfortable experience with math.
I am as critical of a directive leadership approach in education as almost all. Yet I believe those two statements are justified, even in the context of "unschoolers," as well as the challenge of "unschooling."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In education conversations, the mutually assured destruction is "Prove it!"

When discussing any of the "rules" in Unschooling Rules, a skeptic may reasonably say, "Prove it."

For example, consider Rule 45, "Tests don't work. Get over it. Move on." Can I prove that tests don't work?

Here are some thoughts.

  • Can schools prove that tests do work? Billions of dollars (all told) are spent on tests each year. Is there any evidence that they work? Has research been used to evolve the tests to be better than the alternatives? What are the alternatives to today's tests? Or has short-term practically (for uniformity, convenience, control, and for unambiguity, but not for diagnostic or evaluative properties) shaped the evolution and spread of tests as a tool?
  • What form would such a study (or series of studies) even take? How would such a comparison be evaluated? What evidence would genuinely convince people? Whom would people trust to conduct the study (I have a hard time believing either vendors selling products OR academics who have committed to the current system)?
  • Can change even occur in the current system if there was consensus that tests encourage the wrong behavior and select the wrong people? Do we, as a nation, have the imagination to consider genuine alternatives to tests for the goals of evaluation and motivation (not in that order)?

I have found, as much as I respect and try to develop rigorous evidence, there are thorny traps around "prove it." Many people who pretend to be scientific by invoking "I want proof" are just hiding their dogma.

  • People who support the status quo can (pretend to) require the perfect argument before moving on.
  • People who can't change will ask for "proof" in order to justify their own lack of change. They will say, "Oh, this experiment was done on white, suburban children. Of course it would not work in the inner city." Or "this evaluation was done over only five years. It needs to be much longer."

Schools best defense against change is that schools have never been proven to work, and so nothing can ever be proven to work better.

"Prove it" must never be used as a unilateral weapon. So is the answer to the evolution of education not to be rigorous? Is the answer to reform to be capricious? Not at all.

I would argue that the answer is two fold:

  • First, there needs to be clinical trials in education, akin to cancer research. There needs to be open, long terms studies with explorations and comparisons against very different approaches.
  • Second, at this stage, there needs to be a diversity of approaches. The role of Government should be anti-monopoly and pro-diversity, not pro-monopoly and anti-diversity, at least in the absence of any proof.
Finally, several organizations like touting a variation of "Evidence based Research" or "Research based Conclusions," or some other hard-to-refute framework. The problem there is that there is no evidence that an evidence-based-decisions strategy works in improving the human condition, including the subsection of schools.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Unschooling and Entrepreneurship

I suspect a lot of home- and unschoolers will become entrepreneurs. (Well, I suspect that a lot of young people will become entrepreneurs as the entry and mid-level "associate," "manager," and "analyst" jobs evaporate, but it will be unschoolers that will be more prepared.)

So, if anyone wants to hear a perfect tale of entrepreneurship, listen to Edward Burns being interviewed on the fabulous movie podcast Filmspotting. The episode is right here:

I suggest fast-forwarding to 44:25. There are two parts of Mr. Burns' story that are interesting in the context of this post. The first is how he made The Brothers McMullen (1995) on a shoestring budget, as his entry into the film world. But second, and I believe more interesting, is why he made his most recent movie, Nice Guy Johnny (2010), in the exact same way.
(Of course, you can listen to the entire great podcast, and subscribe as I do via iTunes.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thinking skills? Aren't all skills thinking skills?

One person, a former teacher, read the first rule of learn to be; learn to do; learn to know and suggested I add a fourth -- "learn to think." This got me mad, but it took a bit of deconstruction to figure out why. After all, it sounds like a perfect goal. Who doesn't want to learn to think?

My first problem with it, though, is that every skill requires thinking. This is true of project management, running a great soccer play, or doing combinatorics. There are no skills that don't require thinking. (Linguists may argue language acquisition is more reflexive, but even then only up to a point.)

My second problem is that thinking skills is, I realized, a code phrase for very small subset of self-referential thinking that conforms with the current school curricula. The kind of "thinking" that was meant by her "thinking skills" was framed by the workbook, classroom, and homework model - reading a short story and writing a paper about it, applying geometry theorems in a workbook, or reading a text book on U.S. History.

Ultimately, "thinking skills" has been used to justify nearly any legacy academic activity, and thereby school's inability to change. Defenders of the industrial school complex, in response to such questions as "Why is this class spending a semester on Colonial America," have infinitely stated variations of, "While the subject is not important nor the teacher qualified nor the media authentic nor the activities have any value beyond the classroom, we do it because we are teaching the students to think."

The ol' bait and switch is the most classic sales technique in the book. Or this variation: describe a huge, real problem and present your little solution as the answer. (I used to be amused that IBM would describe in great detail the problem of controlling knowledge in a giant corporation, and then present the answer as a Lotus Notes server.)

I am all for thinking skills. (See my post here on human universals vs. non-universals.) Leadership, innovation, and security require them. But if I am sold on thinking skills, I will be pretty mad if all I get is the assignment to memorize a lot of facts for short periods of time and apply rote processes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Schools can't teach most skills. They never have, and never will. Now what?

Schools just can't teach leadership. They can't teach project management. They can't teach stewardship. They can't teach innovation. They just can't. They never have, and never will.

When politicians or other leaders gather around in committees and ask,"what skills should schools be teaching?" they have already lost. They are asking a flawed question that will inevitably lead to incredibly expensive failure.

It is not a matter of will, or budget, or priorities. Schools, with masses of dropped-off children consuming lectures, writing papers, and taking tests, can only teach basic and rote skills at best. They are passable at developing "learning to know" skills, and abysmal at "learning to do" skills. This is as true of private schools and charter schools as public schools.

The greatest tragedy is that the very skills purported to be desired in the next generation of citizens, the so-called 21st Century Skills, are so much better developed in programs outside of school (see list here). Truly, more school for most students literally means less education. Or said another way: if schools don't work, why would more school work?

Once again, if the national question is framed as, "what skills should schools be teaching?" then we are lost. The right question is instead, "what skills do our next generation of citizens need, of those what have schools proven to be good at developing, and then how do we fill in the significant gaps?"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Throughout one’s life, everyone unschools most of the time

When a doctor finds an interesting condition in a patient, he or she does not sign up for a class that covers the material, runs six weeks, and starts next fall.

When faced with an environmental crisis, the politician does not apply to a prestigious university’s masters program.

When a person in charge of a non-profit organization sees an opportunity in a foreign county, the first instinct is not to review old class notes.

All people unschool to learn most of their knowledge during most of their lives. The only variables are how well do they do it, and when do they start.

Friday, October 1, 2010

What a person learns in a classroom is how to be a person in a classroom

The teacher can be talking about history or math. But what students in a traditional classroom are learning is how to be students in a classroom.

And they are learning it very well. Students are given ample opportunity to practice this skill in a variety of settings and contexts. As if they were playing a rigorously designed (albeit it drab) computer game, students in school systems over the course of a decade are put in ever more challenging situations of sitting in a classroom.

They are learning how to take notes. They are learning how to surreptitiously communicate with peers. They are learning how to ask questions to endear themselves.

It is impressive, at one level that we spend billions on this perfect, practice-based environment to build and hone children’s abilities to sit in classrooms. And we have even built a reward structure to praise those people who can sit in classrooms better than anyone else. We let them run our planet.

However, given this model is economically running us into the ground, and obesity is a global epidemic, it may be time to collectively build and reward different skills. Learning is a full contact sport. To learn something new, a student has to do something new, and often be some where new.

Rather than treating those who want to do something as troublemakers to be fixed, we need to recognize that these people will be the engines of our improvements in standard of living. And, in fact, they always have been.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sitting in a classroom lecture is not just unnatural for most people, it is painful

Sitting in a classroom-style lecture is painful for most people most of the time. We all know this, yet so many deny it or view it as a personal failing.

When sitting and listening, we squirm. We watch the clock tick slowly. Minutes can seem like hours.

We escape into our own head. We invent activities to either occupy or numb ourselves. The most talented classroom sitters create micro-tasks to busy their hands and the other 80% of their minds.

And it is cumulative. The first hour of lecture is bearable in a day. The second is hard. The third is white-hot excruciating. The periodic highly engaging presenter does little to soften the physiological impact of the subsequent dull one.

This goes beyond a power thing, or even an interest thing, or quality of the teachers thing. Corporate leaders, even Presidents of countries, attending highly relevant daylong events with the highest tier speakers, are suppressing their own body ticks 90 minutes in. The lunch break becomes an oasis.

Students are psychologically ravished daily by this onslaught. And it is costly on all involved.

While it subverts most industrial business and logistics models, two non-adjacent hours of lecture a day should be the highest amount for any institution or program. And the most successful will have even less than that.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Animals are better than books about animals

Children should have as much exposure as possible to animals. In all animals, including domestic, farm, and wild, are entire curricula. There is biology, sociology, genetics, economics, history, cultures, sweeping story arcs, morality, even nutrition, just to name a few. They are the perfect microcosms. They are life.

But it doesn’t count if the animals are just images or characters in a book. A poster of a kitten clinging to a branch with the words “Hang in there!” doesn’t count either. There is no greater example of the “flattening of content” that classes can represent than a “unit study” that studies, even purports to love, animals, but does not actually engage any on a regular basis.

Worse, the more removed a culture is from animals, the more stylized and inaccurately the animals are inevitably represented. Tribes in Africa portray hippos as the deadly, fierce creatures they are. By the time most school children see them in the U.S., they have morphed into “Mr. Hippo gets in his car to drive to work,” complete with bright pink skin and tube teeth.

Dogs and cats, chickens and cows, songbirds and frogs are all there, waiting to be engaged. They have so much to teach that any attempt to segregate environments of learning from them should never be accepted.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Foundations would better drive education innovation by focusing on Homeschoolers

I remember so clearly the moment when I was talking to the head of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in his office and he said, "Oh, we've given up on schools."
I have come to agree. The pockets of innovation nurtured by non-profit foundations in traditional schools will be erased shortly after the funding stops. The money that The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is spending on grants, for example, will likely have no real effect on education in fifteen years.
However, giving up on schools does not mean giving up on education. I believe that foundations will shortly realize that they can better drive permanent education innovation by focusing instead on homeschoolers. Here are some things they could consider doing:
  • Develop certification programs to demonstrate levels of competency outside of school to replace high school and college diplomas. And they can create repositories for verifiable portfolios.
  • Work to get town and state governments to provides supplies, including workbooks and art materials, even tutors, for homeschooled students that correspond to those given to enrolled students.
  • Create web sites with detailed and diverse curricula for every grade. This can include topics, or the content itself. Nurture online communities to capture alternative approaches and user generated content.
  • Track sample sets of homeschooled students over time to compare success against industrial schooled students.
  • Identify and publish best practices in home- and unschooling.
  • Provide a single clearing house, with ratings, around free and for-cost resources. One area that would especially be valuable is tutors. This would also have the effect of encouraging vendors to create innovative educational services and products that otherwise would view the market as too fragmented.
  • Negotiate for bulk rates of technology.
What else? How might non-profit foundations improve the diversity of education approaches, and the relevancy and authenticity of experiences? (Note: this has to be done realistically - i.e. not by paying for large projects but instead providing a bit of infrastructure, a bit of "air cover", and by being an ombudsman to various government or corporate entities.)
It is my deepest belief that any true innovation that is developed in home- and unschooling communities will eventually make its way back into industrial schools. And I also believe there is probably no other way of nurturing lasting innovation in education today.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Schools are designed to create both winners and losers

In the best possible implementations of today's school system: anyone can succeed, but everyone can't succeed.

Schools and their classrooms are as competitive as any sport. By design, they rely on a motivational and management system where there must be winners and there must be losers.

Specifically, schools pit students against each other to get them to participate in their programs, rather than use more aspirational and productive techniques.

Classes and other activities don't just grade, but do it on a curve, with percentages of students being pushed into the highest and lowest categories. And the schools praise and otherwise reward the "best" students, in the form of public honors (including publishing the Honor Roll in the local papers) and one-on-one teacher praise, even to the point of assigning moral virtue.

There are some ecosystem implications:

  • The most successful students are legitimate threats to everyone else. Many students are taught to logically resent the smartest students. Some of the smartest students even respond to the social pressure not to perform well.
  • Students are only motivated to help other students who are, in the ranking system, permanently below them.
  • As with athletes doping, the payoff for students to cheat becomes increasingly worth the risk for some.

But there are more macro implications. True, one can argue that life is competitive, and that students might as well get used to it. Fair enough. But consider:

  • Many top students are motivated to excel primarily by maintaining their "top student" status. Thus any politician who advocates using schools as a vehicle to broad citizenship excellence is completely missing the inherent nature of schools.
  • This also means that (massive) tax-payer dollars are supporting institutions that will necessarily classify and even create "losers" of at least a third of all students. Resources are being dedicated to creating an institutional underclass.
  • Many of the skills rewarded in schools do not have productive-world implications. We could just was well be giving the highest moral status to the best jugglers.
Schools are designed to be compulsory, highly competitive, and increasingly all-inclusive of childhood. What can possibly go wrong with that model?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Clark Aldrich reading the introduction of Unschooling Rules

I have added a reading of the introduction to Unschooling Rules.

Click here: Clark Aldrich reads his Introduction of Unschooling Rules.mp3.

Or click on The Introduction and it may start automatically (depending on your browser).

Saturday, August 28, 2010

How Unschooling will Save Education

Unschooling will save education.

Collectively, we eventually will figure out that the massive school industry, as currently structured: costs way too much; teaches irrelevant material; crowds out more beneficial activities; breaks up families; and even creates a long term effect similar to a mild post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, we, as a culture, are not at that point yet. We are still tinkering with schools. We still think we want schools to work. We are still holding conferences and issuing decrees that schools need more money, control, and influence in general. We still think that Gates and Buffet and Lucas are right. We have a President who is part of the one percent who owes everything to schools and has two daughters (just compare the number of male students on Ritalin compared to female).

The educational-industrial complex is also at its most powerful, not only compared to the past but also compared to the future. We might look back at this phase as "School doesn't work. We need more school."

Fair enough. This faith-in-industrial-schools will take about fifteen more lost years before it finally crashes. (The Tea-Party candidate, three elections from now, will run on cutting the national cost of education in half in order to save our economy.)

BUT there is something really exciting happening in parallel. At the same time billionaires and national leaders are propping up a failed system, there is actual progress being made.

I wrote in an earlier post about 15 Models that are Better for Childhood Learning than Schools'. These "better models" include camps, libraries, community theater, start-up businesses, and more. Historically, these models have existed in the shadow (and context) of schools. In fact, in many ways, the massive educational-industrial complex has treated these "better models" as cottage industries and helpers.

  • Camps are only open when school is out.
  • Libraries are expected to support school reading lists and other curricula.
  • Families can only go on trips together when school allows it.
  • Students can only schedule internships when it doesn't interfere with homework.
But what is just starting to happen is that these "better models" are reacting to and being evolved by home and unschoolers as well.

  • Local theater companies are looking to home and unschoolers for lead roles, rather than to industrial school children. This frees the theater up to rehearse more, but also to choose more relevant plays, not just retreads of safe nostalgia pieces.
  • Summer camps are opening new year-round programs, focused on developing leadership, stewardship, innovation, and other critical skills.
  • Libraries are hosting gatherings of home and unschoolers around issues of environmentalism, current affairs, internships, or starting their own businesses, not just tutoring sessions on homework help and test prep.
  • Distance masters programs are courting these new students.

The current educational-industrial complex is failing. But while no one is looking, the home and unschoolers are paving the way for a richer educational future.

Until the crash, schools will continue to get more and more money. That is inevitable. But more of the real learning of all school children will be through these "better models" as they are increasingly influenced and evolved by home and unschoolers.

And the result will be a diversity of educational options that: cost less; teach highly relevant material; encourage more beneficial activities; strengthens families; and even create a long term effect of empowered, skilled, and motivated citizens.

Friday, August 27, 2010

15 Models that are Better for Childhood Learning than Schools'

Here are 15 organizing models for communities and individuals that are better for childhood learning than schools' lectures, papers, tests, grades, and transcripts:
  1. Summer Camps: Be engaged outdoors, not coerced indoors

  2. Libraries/YMCA: Pick what interests you today

  3. Internships/Volunteering: Spend time with smarter people and do meaningful work

  4. Family Trips: Go on journeys with the people who matter most

  5. Pick-up Sports: Experience existential play and find balance

  6. Organized Sports Leagues/ Chess competitions/ Spelling bees/ Multi-player computer games: Raise your own game through competition

  7. Meaningful Jobs: Understand what work is and can be

  8. Self Study: Explore a passion

  9. Tutor with small class or individual/ Music class: Learn at the right pace

  10. Community theater/ Improv: A common goal for a disparate group under strong leadership

  11. Book clubs/ Discussion groups: Learn to be as well as learn to know

  12. Writing groups/ Photography groups: Peer review and learning to improve individual outputs.

  13. Garage band/ Movie making/ Start-up business: Self organizing peer to peer small groups around common interests and collective output

  14. World of Warcraft/ Facebook/ Blogs: Learn to do and Learn to be remotely

  15. 4-H/ Future Farmers of America: Learn stewardship and authenticity
The current model of school, with "tests" and "accountability" being all important, means that teachers are financially motivated to dissuade students from all of the above.

Use microcosms as much as possible in learning programs

Microcosms are self-contained models of larger and more complex systems. Lessons learned, including what are good things to do and results to get, can be transferred to the bigger productive world.

Examples of microcosms that can be used in education are:

  • Fish tanks
  • Lemonade stands and bake sales
  • Gardens
  • One person businesses
  • Some team sports
Emerging technology has also put more power at the fingertips of everyone. A twelve year old can now:

  • Do blog reporting on local news
  • Plan a trip to any location, down to budgets, flight times, and hotels.
Microcosms should be used as often as possible. Some other advantages: the projects require stewardship; cramming is not possible; and the results are self-evident.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Embrace all technologies

Technology should be completely embraced in education. Smart phones, Twitter, blogs, Skype, and Facebook (plus dozens more to come) are the context of learning and being productive for decades to come. A spell checker frees us up from memorization and, thus, spelling tests.

If a traditional school situation is disrupted by new technology, nine times out of ten it is the school situation that needs to be changed, not the access to technology. Schools hate the fluidity of technology. But students love it, need it, and will find a way to use it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Unschooling Rules now available at Amazon!

Pick up your own copy of Unschooling Rules at Amazon! This will be a book that you want to share. Click on the link below:

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The schools up on the pedestal are so far from being good enough, or even worthy role models

One of the biggest signs that home and unschooling are necessary to jump-start innovation is seeing what schools are put up on a pedestal today.

  • Suburban schools are thought to be so wonderful by people in cities.
  • Private schools with seventeen students per class are thought to be so much better than the public schools with twenty-seven students per class.
  • Schools with great test scores are highlighted as if they are actually preparing students for a rewarding life.
  • Schools that give each student a laptop or iPad are hailed as technology visionaries.
  • A teacher wears a funny costume and that makes the front page of the local paper.
Any act of creativity, enthusiasm, and competency on the part of a teacher or school system should be respected. But the more closely one looks at the role models of the industrial-academic complex (as pointed to by struggling schools as well as parents and the press), the more one should be depressed not inspired.

Is there any hope? Of course! See 15 Models that are Better for Childhood Learning than Schools'

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Children learn unevenly, even backwards

The industrial school model is that of even progress. There is the first grade. Then there is the second. Then the third. Students are expected to build their knowledge in parallel across a variety of topics in a linear and additive way.

The reality could not be more different. Learning abilities and useable knowledge bases are wildly different from student to student, and month to month.

Imagine you are on a scooter, and your assignment is to move ahead ten feet. You would do this easily, and might get praise for doing it so well.

Now imagine you are in the same class, but you are in a helicopter for the first time. You are told to move forward.

You press a random lever and your rotors spin loudly. You go up and then crashing down. The other students on their scooters look at you angrily - you are causing a scene. The instructor tells you to move forward again, but reduces the goal to only five feet, noting your difficulty. You press something else and lurch backwards. Now the instructor is furious. Meanwhile, a red light is flashing in your cockpit.

The final rub in this analogy, of course, is that a helicopter is a much more powerful and valuable vehicle. Ten years later, you are going to want the helicopter saving you where scooters could not.

We are so much more diverse from person to person, and even month to month, than we have internalized. And our tools keep changing on us - scooter one month, helicopter the next, even a cinder block the month after that. Some things are effortless, others are impossible.

Any structure that does not embrace the chaotic diversity of talents and the temporary whims of abilities is doomed to a lower common denominator approach, ultimately along the way creating a corrupt moral framework around temporary abilities measured by incomplete short-term standards.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Five subjects a day? Really?

Many school curricula use a model of five or six “classes” taught throughout the day, broken up into even chunks, and combined with lunch and breaks. This makes planning the movement of large numbers of children possible.

But if you didn’t have a school structure - if you were instead dedicated to each student’s learning - how many subjects would you teach?

The answer is probably, “It depends on the day, student, and subject. Maybe one. Or one hundred. Or zero.”

Having said that, a default broad schedule makes sense for some who crave a bit of order. Probably the most basic is the best: have one morning subject and one afternoon subject.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Join the Facebook page for Unschooling Rules: The Book, and then post some of your favorite home or unschooling pictures

I have created a Facebook page for Unschooling Rules: The Book. It not only has information on the release of the Unschooling Rules Book (September 7th!), but also a place to put up links of interesting news articles. Perhaps best of all, it has a photo section, with images of homeschooling and unschooling. Please put up a picture on the wall, and Facebook will automatically put it in the album.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Grouping students by the same age is just a bad idea

The education-industrial complex is structured around organizing children by age. This is a bad idea for so many reasons.

First, it is based on a false assumption - that young people of the same age have roughly the same skill level in subjects across the curriculum. Clearly, this is not the case. Even the maturity level between genders is a schism. And of course different students with different interest have wildly different abilities. But it remains an “objective” easy criterion, one whose inaccuracy has done nothing to minimize its use.

More importantly, putting children in groups of “peers,” organizing students to emphasize their social sameness, necessarily forces them to emphasize and exaggerate their differences. (Imagine the Kafka-esque nightmare of being part of a community that was organized because someone thought you all were inter-changeable. You would spend a lot of energy differentiating yourself through your actions, your dress, and ultimately through forming social cliques.)

Monocultures don’t work. They are the product of a dated manufacturing mentality of mass production, and seldom found in nature. That is why the waste from a deer in the wild enriches the soil, while sewage from a massive pig farm causes a health risk to the communities that live downstream.

In childhood learning, diversity of ages and experiences allows everyone to find their strengths in a vibrant ecosystem. Adults and kids should interact. Older people can mentor younger. Younger can use their strength and vitality. Each, wanting to contribute, find their role.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Will it ultimately be students who force a change in schools?

One of the conversations I often get into is, "what is going to really drive changes in schools?" As we discussed , it is not going to be easy. (Home and unschoolers are driving innovation in childhood education outside of the industrial school system, but that will not translate to pressure on the schools for decades.)

Some think it is going to be new teachers. There are quite a few smart, dedicated professionals entering the profession. But after a few years, most seem to be crushed under the weight of the systems in place. The biggest problem is that good teachers are not scalable. Unless there is a massive influx of revolutionaries at all levels simultaneously, including administration and teachers, there will not a be a critical mass, and the best will be picked off one by one, either by social pressure to conform or the isolation of gaining petty awards.

Meanwhile, some think it is going to be the federal or state governments, through more standards and testing. That may get rid of some of the worst instructors, but any "knowledge" that can be tested through a multiple choice test is knowledge that is not going to serve any student in the 21st century.

Some think that it going to be parents. Cynically, the reason why parents will not be the driver of real change can be summed up in two words: "Free daycare!" Plus, parents fear the retribution of schools (because schools can make a student's life hell, through bad grades, bad teachers, and suspensions) even more than their children do, and sometimes develop their own version of a Stockholm syndrome.

Some think change is going to come from the business community. But the industrial educational complex has a rich immune system targeted at those incursions. And sadly, the behavior of a lot of businesses during the last ten years has removed any "competence high ground" the community may have earned in previous decades.

I further wonder what will happen when some pioneering country adopts some better approaches to education, gains massive economic advantage, and the other countries are forced to catch up. This was the path of the Quality movement that forced corporations to change, and later codified in the Malcolm Baldridge award in the US (an award, by the way, that forever changed the way not only manufacturing plants are run but also the way that people spell my last name). This may still be the case, but it is at least a generation away.

No, I think it is ultimately going to be the students. Every year, waves and waves of students are born into a different world than was imagined by the architects of our legacy (manufacturing and presentation centric) school system. They are growing up with increasingly different media and different social tools. And they, like millions of corks riding the same waves, are moving in unison. It will simply be harder and harder for teachers to push the same old product on students.

Individually, any student gagging on the process can be labelled as a "trouble maker." They can be isolated. They can be swarmed. As the numbers grow, they can be collectively drugged, while schools invest more and more in roles (such as school psychologists) to suppress them.

But the pain level for teachers is growing every year. We are only a few years away from the massive collective student rebellion/disconnect (at all ages) of this legacy system. Soon, even the "good" (and by good, I mean the most eager to please) students will respond to the presentation of traditional content as if the teacher was speaking a foreign language - desperately trying to "get it," find the patterns, comply, gain praise, but ultimately getting increasingly frustrated.

This should come as no surprise, of course. All of the signs are there. One can very easily track the rejection of presentation-models of instruction.

In corporations today, where there is the most freedom, most employees under 45 will strongly push-back on any pressure to attend classroom instruction. (And these people are, obviously, both older than college and K-12 students, and also most beholdent to the classroom paradigm.)

Universities today, likewise, have a massive problem with student engagement. And they are most acknowledging and owning up to the pain, mostly because they have to instruct - they can't throw up their hands the way most corporations can.

Today's K-12 students are zeitgeist time-bombs, with very short fuses. They are already rejecting books and even movies for interactive media such as social networking and computer games. While this is just for entertainment, it is a very accurate canary in the coal mine.

We are seeing the collapse of schools, even if in slow motion, through greater numbers of students who are rejecting programs (to the best of their abilities). Soon the crisis will reach its own tipping point, speeding up, and schools will suddenly be unable to communicate at all with students.

It is very likely that the ideal tools to develop student are intellectually incomprehensible teachers and parents (including me).

Like the environmentalist of thirty years ago, so to are groups of people trying to advert the upcoming crisis - to provide the paths for smooth transitions to the future. Let's hope we, as society, listen - if not to the alarmists, at least to our children.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Increase exposure to non-authority-figure adults

In the age of “the drop off,” parents often unfortunately look at any adults willing to spend time with their offspring as potential stand-in care-givers. This is robbing children of one of the greatest learning opportunities - the non-authority adult.

Children should be given the opportunity to spend peer time with as many adults as possible. Adults in this “peer mode,” instead of bearing the enormous burden of worrying about safety and nutrition and other liabilities, can be humorous, at ease, and honest. With parents in ear shot the other adults can be role models and endless sources of insight, not just the “person in charge du jour.” These relationships may evolve into apprentice and/or mentor models, but let it spend a long time just as friend.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tests don't work. Get over it. Move on.

For the later part of the 19th century and the first half of the twentieth, the number of doctors rose dramatically. This is despite the fact that doctors did not help the patient, and in many cases made things worse. There was a desperate need for doctors that overwhelmed the reality.

That brings us to today’s school-based technique of testing. The vision is to have concentrated moments of pure evaluation, where students are asked to demonstrate what they know.

And we want tests to work so badly. We love the idea of a simple to deploy, objective mechanism that can sort, motivate, and diagnose - the equivalent of quality control at a car manufacturing plant looking for defects.

The only problem is that test do everything wrong.

Tests only test the test taker’s ability to prepare for and take tests. For example, there is no skill worth having that can be measured through a multiple-choice exam.

Worse, tests emphasize exactly the wrong skills. They emphasize the memorization of massive amounts of facts that neurologically have a half-life of about twelve hours. They focus on short-term rewards through cramming to compensate for a failure in long-term development of value. It is no wonder we have financial meltdowns caused by successful students.

We have to swallow a hard pill. The issue is not, how do we make tests better? Or how can we have more tests? Or how do we have more parts of a school program (such as teacher’s worth) be based on tests?

The reality is, tests don’t work, except as a blunt control and motivation mechanism for the classroom, the academic equivalent of MSG or sugar in processed food. We have to instead begin imagining learning environments that involve no tests at all, and rely on real assessment and the creation of genuine value instead.

See also: Six Toxic Assumptions of Standardized Testing

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

White-Collar Homesteading Rule: Be One of the Best in the World

One of the effective ways of being a white-collar homesteader is to find an area and be one of the best in the world at it. This sounds glib or even impossible, but it is easier than one initially thinks.

  • The white-collar homesteader can do three or four times as much work in a day than almost anyone else, as he or she saves time by not commuting, not attending endless staff meetings, and getting involved in other enterprise-overhead activities.
  • The white-collar homesteader should be focused on what he or she loves. So one can bring more passion, and simply care more than anyone else.
  • One can focus on the same topic for years without being "pulled-off" by the boss to do someone a six-month favor.
  • The white-collar homesteader controls his or her own time, so can accept invitations to interesting speaking opportunities or forums to deepen his or her knowledge base, or write "free" white papers/blogs.
  • At some point, expertise becomes a positive feedback loop. By being the best, other people bring information to him or her.
  • By working with different enterprises, and ideally different industries, one can simply gain a deeper understanding than any one person stuck with one perspective.
This "best-in-the-world" status greatly reduces the cost of marketing, increases the choice of clients, and increases the value that one can deliver.

Monday, August 2, 2010

White-Collar Homesteading Rule: Get Credit for Being One of the Best in the World

As one becomes the best in the world, it is important to get credit for that. Here, media and social media is a blessing. Some of the ways to get credit include:

  • Do a podcast;
  • Write a blog;
  • Speak/keynote at conferences;
  • Get a book published by a reputable publisher;
  • Self-publish a book; and
  • Be available for press interviews
A note of warning: media with substance just reinforces a reputation of mediocrity. Get smart before telling the world what to do.

Walk a lot


A dominant academic milieu should be walking. When walking, children can talk. They can think. They can see the world around them at the right scale (better than biking or driving).

And when walking routinely, children can see the slight changes (a new car, a new roof, new Spring growth or Fall colors, a new sale at a shop, a new family member moving in) that herald real milestones or interesting decisions.

White-Collar Homesteading Rule: Don't Move for a Job

There are many good reasons for a family to move. But the white-collar homesteader will not move for a job.

Almost inevitably, moving for a job means taking a less suited house in a more expensive but soulless neighborhood, filled with other people who not only have moved for a job but will so again pretty soon.

The process of moving for a job separates people from their own support system, including extended families and friends, making them more dependent on the institutions including not just schools and employer but even "familiar" fast food restaurants and box stores. Then, in this mono-cultural existence, a change in employment status is truly devastating.

IBM used to be jokingly thought of as standing for "I've Been Moved" by its employees. Now, with virtual work, employees think of it as standing for "I'm By Myself." This is not perfect, but it is a lot better.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Parents care more about their children than any institution

Every rule, every law, every arrangement between institution and parent has to agree on the most fundamental presumption: it is the parents who care the most about their children.

The virulent meme that spreads through virtually all schools - that parents get in the way and are incapable of making intelligent decisions for their children - both is the defense mechanism of institutions that cannot change and is as corrosive as any other form of discrimination. Worse, it can become self-fulfilling in some cases.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The only sustainable answer to the global education challenge is a diversity of approaches

The industrial school system displays many of the behaviors of a monopoly.

  • Schools try to push more and more school hours.
  • They use fear to convince everyone that their services were absolutely necessary.
  • They advertise heavily to present themselves as local and caring.
  • Schools try to get as much money as possible, using increasingly complex schemes and indirect charges to hide their true cost, and force as many people to pay even if they did not use the service.
  • New teachers, because they do not have career options, are treated poorly (building deep resentment).
  • Schools try to standardize as completely as possible the offerings. They are inflexible in dealing with customers and the community. Students are expected to change to meet the needs of the offering, as opposed to the other way around.
  • They produce something that is both increasingly out of line with what customers actually want, and as opaque as possible.
  • Schools have huge lobbying efforts to get more tax dollars.
  • They consume an increasingly larger share of a nation’s GDP.
  • Schools use internal metrics to evaluate success that no one outside of the school cares about.
  • Schools primary functional goal is to push children to consume more school hours (at the lowest possible cost of delivery), not to help them outside of the school.
  • One sees bigger and bigger salaries for the people at the top.
  • Decisions are made based on internal politics.
  • Larger and larger administrations are created - the middle layer that does not teach but that “manages.”
  • They truly believe their approach is the only approach.
  • Schools seek to crush competition, such as vouchers and homeschooling. They will continue to employ increasingly powerful, legally enforced tools to penalize truancy and other “anti-school” behavior.
And no monopoly has ever reformed itself. It is only through competition between entirely different entities that new ideas are nurtured and given the opportunity to evolve. (The new ideas are inevitably called “na├»ve” and “impractical” or even “dangerous” by existing practitioners at first.)

Microsoft could not have happened if part of IBM. Google and Amazon could not have happened if part of Microsoft.

Similarly, a multi-national food corporation would never “discover” the need for organic, minimally processed, locally grown agriculture on their own, no matter how many scientists and academics they had on their payroll. It is only through independently minded and passionate people, taking control of the input into their own bodies, could this “new” idea of healthy food be developed, propagated, and ultimately mainstreamed.

Which means that there can be significantly different approaches possible in education. And these new approaches will be necessary to enable the evolution of the education system to a new post-industrial “future” model. (This is critical, as the successor to today’s schools must lead to significant improvements in standard of living and ability to meet competitive challenges.) Camps and libraries and other organizations and content models will also play a critical role.

But it will not be the governments, or their school systems, or other institutions that drive real innovation in reconstructing childhood education. It will be, as it already is, the homeschoolers and unschoolers.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Contracts may work better than guilt or grades for motivation

The culture of academics is to pretend to be "above money." Even Harvard Business School professors downplay their consulting fees as personal motivation inside the Ivied walls. "Filthy lucre" is an applause line, however hypocritical.

As a result, schools are of two minds when it comes to prodding students. They want to pretend that students should be taught to love every subject and be motivated out of intrinsic intellectual excitement. So they use guilt and moralizing. But of course in parallel, schools wield grades (and consequently control over a students' future) like a child over an ant hill with a magnifying glass on a sunny day.

The motivating frameworks may need to be calibrated.

  • Where students love a topic, the best thing to do is get out of their way.
  • But for the core of "need to know" skills, and specifically self-paced accomplishments in productive reading, writing, and math, contracts may be the better mechanism. The outside world has evolved the concept in a way that makes sense: In exchange for accomplishing __, using tools ___, by date __, to a quality level of __, you get __, and if you don't, you get penalized __.

Children naturally see this as being fair, especially if they agree to the individual terms. Most "payments" won't be lucre, but instead computer time, or movies, or staying up later, or some other part of the day. It also develops a meta-skill of contracting and negotiations that will serve them well their entire productive lives.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The New Existentialism? Are We Seeing The End of "Faith in Institutions" and the Birth of White-Collar Homesteading?

Are we are seeing the end of "faith in institutions?" If so, it has not come suddenly. This may becime the reasoning and new thinking:

HBO's "The Wire" documented and forecasted it. BP's monument in the Gulf to greed and incompetence just visualized it.

The false productivity philosophies of metrics and accountability have created cultures that hugely reward the "management" of value (read that, zero sum clawing of credit and hollowing out of others' work) rather than the creation of it. Sharp elbows, spinning, and relentless self promotion have become better adaptations and predictors of success than innovation. Ambition and entitlement have become dissassociated from competence or vision. As a result, people are busier than ever and getting less done.

Dilbert creator Scott Adam's term Confusopoly reigns as a model. Here institutions are most successful when they baffle and trap both the consumer and employee for exploitation, rather than meet their needs more efficiently than others.

The New York Times Pulitzer prize winning reporter and columnist Thomas Friedman used to write about "the golden straight jacket." In this model, people and companies and countries had to follow strict rules, but in exchange got access to huge wealth. Today, the gold is gone. For many people, the model of mainstreamed society has become a lead straight jacket in a pool of leeches and ticks.

It is no wonder that we are seeing the emergence of what can only be called "White-Collar Homesteading." More and more people are trying to untangle themselves from toxic institutions, from box stores to, in some cases, schools, and taking control of their own lives.

Emerging "white collar farmers" (I first used the phrase in a Businessweek article here) and homesteaders are working for themselves, creating a productive quilt of relationships, highly leveraging all different forms of technology, from blogs to LinkedIn to video Skype to Google Docs. They tightly collaborate with institutions, and add huge value, but do not rely on any one.

The faux safety of compliance (and the corresponding near-full time job of "making your boss look good") has been replaced with an accute need to actually be highly productive. And corporations are flocking to these "WiFi homesteaders" as consultants who actually get a lot done, and who learn faster and have a richer perspective than anyone on staff.

We may simply be in the death throes of the baby boomers' time at the helm. But seeing how many Gen Xers and Gen Yers have not just embraced but even refined their philosophy makes one think that the return to independence may be both inevitable for moral, productive individuals and collectively necessary for the improved wealth of nations.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Downplay weekends and find the rhythm of each day

Industrial models of school and work have put such importance on "the weekend." But one has only to spend time on a dairy farm or in a hospital to realize how artificial this schedule really is.

The alternative to the cycle of "supressing then binging" is to find and optimize the productive rhythm of each day. And there is no one answer. Everyone is efficient at a different time, and stubbornly inefficient at other times.

But this earned insight into one's self is so valuable to a life of accomplishment (rather than just busyness). And those individuals and families that have found their own collective rhythms start seeing weekends as a distraction to the week, not the point of it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

K-12 schools won't significantly change in the next three decades

I talk to a lot of people, from foundation leaders to entrepreneurs to senior government officials, who all imagine a world where K-12 schools improve by 2015. Or 2020. Or at least 2030. And more specifically, they invest energy in a way that assumes schools can and will significantly evolve.

But if history has taught us anything, it is that K-12 probably won't change much at all during our lifetime. While masters programs are changing at the speed of the Internet, and colleges are changing at a pace just slightly slower than the speed of a traditional corporation, K-12 schools in 2040 will probably be almost exactly the same as K-12 schools in 1980, and 1990, and 2000, and 2010.

This may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your expectations. In fact, most people want their children to attend a similar program to what they attended.

As we make assumptions about the future, there are few good bets. But one useful assumption is not to expect the experiences of 95% of K-12 students in 2040 to be much different than they are now.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Build More, Consume Less

Those leading the industrial education system have two incompatible goals:

  • One one hand, they are ever more following the dated and disproved tops-down "management" theories of metrics, standardization, and short-term accountability.
  • On the other hand, those at the national level who track skills, because they are terrified at the drop in mathematics and science competencies in today's students, are trying to change schools to better develop our nation's capabilites here.

The truth here is that for schools, getting out of the way may be the best thing they can do. Students, left alone, will build things. They will create unique, surprising things to meet specific needs that often only they understand (even if the need is to enable an elaborate prank).

Building can be done with computer code or lumber or ingredients or fabric. And building is the opposite of consuming, such as done of movies, text books, restaurant meals, most video games, or lectures.

The next generation of engineers and scientists are not going to be the ones who are the best "students," memorizing this week's lists of tables and equations before heading off to history class where they do the same with historical figures and dates. In fact, it will be a failing graduate school that draws from this lot. The next generation of engineers and scientists will be the ones who are skipping the class but painfully and meticulously gathering the building blocks in their secret workshop and putting together something unprecedented.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Biologically, the necessary order of learning is: explore, then play, then add rigor


Look at the process by which children learn to swim. Children move effortlessly from exploration and free roam to structured but simple games to taking on rigorous challenges. Here are three thoughts.

First, imagine how stunted and crippled and punitive the learning process would be without the exploration and play phases.

Second, imagine how the first two phases would be implemented in a traditional state-run industrial school - with tests and metrics and "teacher and student accountability."

Third, and most importantly, from math to biology to business to engineering, and for all ages, the greatest challenge for all instructors and coaches is to create situations and learning environments that allow for not one or two, but all three phases to happen.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Learn something because you need it or because you love it

There are only two reasons to learn something. Either because you need it or because you love it.

The content you need to know is fairly focused. From the traditional curricula, what you need to know is mostly centered in a few classic school areas such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. What you need to know should also be expanded as well to include areas not covered in traditional curricula, such as stewardship, project management, innovation, and security. This content is fairly consistent across populations.

And then there are the things that we love. Here, learning is nearly automatic. What we love is highly individualistic. For some, this might include music. For others, it may be trucks. Or clothes. Or movies. In this age of the Internet, the rigorous pursuit of our passions (sometimes life long, sometimes extinguished before the first YouTube video is done) is infinitely possible and exposes us to a naturally broad spectrum of curricula, that should even draw the "need to know" skills.

This begs the question, what are insufficient reasons, even bad reasons, for feeling obligated to learn something?

One bad reason is, "because everyone else is doing it." The existance of a curricula, or the common use of it, is not sufficient reason for anyone to use it. Likewise, students should not learn something just because it is a requirement for a subsequent grade level.

Second, "broad early exposure" is not a reason to learn anything. Schools and parents, so afraid that neuron synapses will degrade in infants, have felt increasingly justified in exposing children to everything from foreign languages to curry. Life is filled with infinite varieties of stimulation. Rich exposure to the real world is better than an artificial list of "critical early childhood stimulation," especially when administered through sterile media.

Finally, "cultural literacy" is a bad reason to know anything. This includes Shakespeare. There was an argument made most famously in Hirsch's work that there are themes that every person should know in order to communicate efficiently with their world. While this may be true, for old people to attempt to freeze a body of knowledge, such as scientists used to do by giving everything a dead language (Latin or Greek) name, is unnatural. We are all "of our time" and references flow naturally, be they from Milton or Seinfeld or Twitter. Common references are the output of a diverse life, not just an input to it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Is it legally justifiable for a hiring company to require a college diploma?

The industrial education complex is at its most powerful when we don't even question the assumptions it puts on the public. One of its greatest triumphs is establishing "a college degree" as a prerequisite for advanced degrees and entry level corporate jobs.

But does anyone other than colleges benefit from this? Is this a symbiotic relationship for the stakeholders of a business and society as a whole? Or is it a "we do it because we have done it" situation?

Specifically, is this just another form of institutional discrimination? Do craven HR departments and hiring individuals lazily gravitate towards like-minded and familiar people at the expense of more talented individuals?

The way a lawyer might ask the question is as follows: Is a legal threshold met of consistent and relevant value to an organization that is ensured with college graduates that is greater than the population as a whole?

But ultimately, what might win out is the question asked another way. Is the real "bundled skill set" of an undergraduate college degree, with its favoring of: passivity; blind obedience to authority; comfort in sitting in one place for hours at a time; high structure and hand-holding, debt spending, living in a disconnected bubble world, emphasis of self over team; abilities to endlessly shuffle information; abilities to follow elaborate and archaic rituals and processes; and little passion to build value and get real-world feedback, even compatible with competitive businesses today?

In the past, there (probably) was a correlation between serious, smart, focused people and people who went to college. This may have lead many to a belief in causation. But that belief may be corrected (or confirmed!) as a greater diversity of approaches is available. Regardless, schools' best chance of being relevant is society not assuming that they are.

We can see how college degreed individuals got us into today's mess. Is it time for a new breed to get us out of it?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Avoid the academic false choice of the Cultural Literacy Track or the Vocation Track

There seems to be two paths in many school programs - either the Cultural Literacy Track or the Vocational Track.

  • The Cultural Literacy programs are designed for the "smart kids" who are going to go on to ever higher levels of both education and financial success. This track, with no pretense of being real-world, has classes on classics, foreign languages, and math theory (such as calculus). It is a curricula based on "teach what has been taught."

  • The Vocational Track are for the "remedial kids" with only blue collar futures if in high school (with activities such as wood working), or inflexible para-professional paths if in college (such as degrees in physical therapy).

This approach has crippling consequences. It is an immoral sorting system, that cheats both individuals and society. It also presents a false dichotomy - instead, true wisdom comes from a synthesis of those two perspectives and more.

And it allows for significant blind spots and intellectual dishonesty. For example, the most empowering and broadening skills, such as leadership, project management, innovation, or resource management, either fall through the cracks or get mislabeled as vocational skills.

In academics, the best examples of bringing together the application of real skills and the understanding of big ideas comes both in kindergarten and the graduate level, such as with law, medicine, business, and engineering. Which is great - but why pay for the fifteen years of hobbling schooling between the two?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Internships, apprenticeships, and interesting jobs beat term papers, text books, and tests

Spending time on internships, apprenticeships, or interesting jobs is better at meeting the educational needs of older children than writing ever longer reports, completing longer math proofs, or taking ever more complex tests.

Look to work:

  • On a local political campaign;
  • On a farm;
  • At a museum;
  • In a news station/ newspaper;
  • In a bakery;
  • In a hospital;
  • In trail maintenance or an environmental foundation;
  • With a police or fire department.
Many jobs can be appropriate for short term (one to three month) projects. Just look for places where people care immensely about the finished job.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

College: the hardest no-win decision your family may ever make


The industrial education complex wants to sell as many school hours as possible. That's their business. So they want parents and students to, at the end of high school, absolutely assume the student will spend the next four years in college, deciding not "if", "why," or "when," but "which," and buying not only the big service but as many add-ons as possible.

The first truth is that this is a big decision. It is a decision that has so many pros and cons, from credibility and mainstreaming and life-long friends and pre-reqs for worthwhile advanced degrees on one hand to binge drinking, staggering debt and subsequent indentured servitude, high drop out rates (especially for males), aimlessness, and protracted adolescence on the other.

It is also a different decision than it was thirty years ago, or twenty, or ten. College costs have been rising faster than the economy and inflation for decades. Meanwhile the predictive value is going down as corporations are increasingly less likely to provide extended training resources and opportunities to new grads, as the average length of tenure for new employees goes ever downward.

(This necessarily means that colleges either already cost more than they are worth, or they will at some point in the future if the prices continue to rise faster than inflation and the value they provide.)

The second truth is that the economics around traditional four year universities are changing as fundamentally in this decade as the economics changed for newspapers in the last decade. Between online universities, growing virtual communities, high value open-source content, and emerging portfolio and other "credit for real world experience" programs, the illusion of inevitability is finally shattered and the value-proposition is challenged.

For many, graduating college has changed from opportunity enabling in the past to a Pyrrhic victory today. But things will continue to change, and this time for the better. In the near future, college will not be one big no-win choice. It will be a series of worthwhile and exciting little choices made over decades.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The best summer camps are better models for schools than the best schools

When thinking about planning a day, or a week, or a month, and the role of coach and peers, use the most rigorous summer camps as models more than the most rigorous schools.

This means focus on:

  • teamwork as much as individual work,
  • stewardship as much as self-interest,
  • physical work as much as mental,
  • games as much as study,
  • leadership as much as compliance,
  • badges as much as grades,
  • learning to do as much as learning to know, and
  • successful accomplishment as much as successful evaluation.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Standardized timetables are great for trains; not so much for children's development.

School curricula are full of timetables by when children are expected to reach certain milestones. This includes levels of reading, writing, and math, as well as knowledge of historical facts and cultural artifacts. And if one views schools as factories, and teachers as dodgy factory workers (obviously with no long term stake in the widgets, er... children), this is a perfectly understandable management approach.

But there are vastly superior long-term cognitive benefits of self-motivation and discovery in the learning process. When discovered, knowledge and experience is cumulative in children. So it is often far better to be patient.

Making children learn something specific is sometimes necessary, especially if timed appropriately. But when done indiscriminately, such as in accordance with some some external artificial and ham-fisted time frame, directive teaching can easily drive reactance and a long-term bias against the topic .

A steady exposure for children to both real work and areas of their passion should draw most relevant skills. And in a way that they actually sticks.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Feed passions and embrace excellence

No matter the age, when a child has a serious and productive interest, do anything possible to feed it. Be the perfect enabler.

Drive anywhere. Fly anywhere. Rearrange schedules. Get or otherwise provide access to the supplies and props (and animals and vehicles and equipment and ...). Find the experts, communities, even mentors (eventually finding people who can provide real and credible feedback).

As importantly, protect the child from the trivial work inevitably and often mindlessly and reflexively foistered on him or her from others. A year absolutely dedicated to a single area of deep passion is better than the potpourri of a modern curricula.

Some care needs to be taken not to subvert the interest or overwhelm it. And admit your own humble status as not being an expert.

But childhood passion around a real interest is one of the most powerful forces. This is what eventually shapes industries and nations.

Friday, April 30, 2010

In education, customization is important, like air is important

When people look back at the current industrial education model in twenty years, they will be dumbfounded by the lack of customization.

The truth is that children are much more diverse in make-up than adults. As time progresses, we will be discovering so many more ways that children can be different from each other. But just some initial ways include:

  • Facility with numbers.
  • Facility with words.
  • Facility with foreign languages.
  • Facility with music.
  • Facility with peers.
  • Facility with authority.
  • Tolerance for being separated from parents.
  • Tolerance for being separated from siblings.
  • Tolerance for being separated from home.
  • Effective discipline approach.
  • Effective motivational approaches.
  • Productivity when working alone.
  • Productivity when working with peers.
  • Need for exercise.
  • Need for movement when processing thoughts and ideas.
  • Need for sleep.
  • Need for food.
  • Need for aesthetically pleasing surroundings.
  • Need for social accord.
  • Time of day the person is most able to produce written work.
  • Time of day the person is most able to absorb new concepts.
  • Time of day to most accurately take tests.
  • Engaging situations used for examples.
This rule both seems the most self-evident, and also the rule most disregarded. Schools today tend to wish these differences didn't exist, and work hard to get rid of them. It is much more measurable and cost effective to employ just a few fundamental approaches to education. It mimics the factory on which it is based. But applying few education approaches necessarily means unbelievable tedium, ineffectiveness, and a sense of "being different" for all students.

There are some people who argue that students need to learn to conform to a single model so that they can "fit in." Instead, each student needs to figure out how to be his or her best in order to excel.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Expose More, Teach Less

Children should be as exposed to as much richness as possible. This includes different careers, different lifestyles, different cultures, and different forms of meaningful work. In this process (and perhaps only in this process), each child will find what it is that resonates uniquely.

Here are some guidelines for the process of successful exposure.


  • Travel. While this can seem to imply a big trip, it shouldn't. It is amazing how much is available in a one hour car-drive radius of most people.
  • Talk intimately to authentic experts. Find the people who care more and know more and do more (people who have studied more don't count). Engage them one-on-one if possible.
  • See experts in their environment, doing what they do best.
  • Be flexible according to a child's interest. Force a few minutes, but then be equally prepared to leave quickly or stay all day.


  • Use a standardized checklist. There should never be an "approved" standardized list of early life stimulation (although many have pushed for foreign languages and high culture such as art, history, or music). This is for many reasons, including that there are just too many potential areas, they should evolve, and one has to be flexible when the right opportunities arise.
  • Subvert the experience with directive-style teaching techniques. There should never be a test or paper required after an exposure event, for example. These extrinsic motivation techniques overshadow any nascent and emerging interest.

Meanwhile, the use of media or highly staged events is a double edged sword. Where tickets are involved, exposure-based interests are seldom born. Movies, museums, Broadway performances, air shows, fairs, and sporting events can be used as a last resort and where they do not break the above guidelines.

Exposure is inefficient in the short run but transformative in the long. Which means that exposing a child to a great scientist has a low probability of predictably pushing him or her down a scientist path, but over the years any child leading a life of rich exposure will predictably find what they love and where they can uniquely contribute.

Author's note:

One tragic and common cycle is:

  • Year one: Adult discovers and loves classical music.
  • Year two: Adult believes that a few high school students might also equally love classical music.
  • Year three: All high schoolers have scheduled sessions to listen to classical musical.
  • Year four: All high schoolers are tested on their knowledge of classical music to make sure all are paying attention.
  • Year five: Elementary schools and middle schools want to seem advanced so they also have classes, with papers and tests, on classical music.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Under-schedule to take advantage of the richness of life

One piece of myth is, the busier a student, the more he or she learns. Children's days, the common thinking goes, should be scheduled tightly to maximize the amount of formal instruction and rehearsals and events.

But when a schedule is a bit more porous, it can allow for happenstance. Here's a real example.

A homeschooler and parent are driving in their car and see two local police cars. They slow down, then stop. They sit and watch as a third police car comes. The student and parent get out of the car. Then a state police officer arrives with dogs. A crowd is forming. People start talking. There was, people are saying, a person who left a suicide note and is now missing. An ambulance and fire engine arrive. Then a thundering Life-Star helicopter. The paramedics swarm; the person is found. The local news arrives, interviewing people. Moments later, in a cloud of dust, the Life-Star helicopter is flying off to a local hospital.

When there is room to explore, there is the opportunity to watch the real-world evolve in a way that has so much more resonance than a text book or museum exhibit or teenage novel or Hollywood blockbuster.

Life is educational. But only if you let it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Homeschooling isn't going away, and neither is government-run schooling. Now what?

Government-run schools (and their privatized counterparts) are not going away. Here are two very different reasons why.

First, most people in power today got there by successfully working the school system. They are the top 5% students. Now, this may also explain a lot about the condition of the world today, but that is a different issue.

Second, schools provide free day care. For this reason alone, they will always attract a majority of families.

Having said that, homeschooling isn't going away either. Again, here are two reasons.

First, parents will always have more control of their children than the state.

Second, homeschoolers can march on government offices very effectively, because they love and use technology, the event is a perfect contextual "unit study on government," and homeschooling students testify VERY well. And because government organizations can't even afford the students they currently have, adding more is anathema.

Having said that, children and parents on both sides can easily fall into the habit of treating people who have made different decisions around schooling as wrong, or even corrupting. This could be tragic. More than ever, the two sides need to learn from each other. The future is a spectrum of choices. That groundwork needs to be established today.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Virtual Worlds, Simulations, and Games for Education: A Unifying View

What is the difference between a simulation and a game?

This article was originally published in Innovate (http://www.innovateonline.info/) as: Aldrich, C. 2009. Virtual worlds, simulations, and games for education: A unifying view.Innovate 5 (5). http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=727 (accessed May 26, 2009).

The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

Many practitioners have been struck by a paradox. They sense an overlap between virtual worlds, games, and simulations, and but they know that one is not synonymous with the other. The three often look similar; they all often take place in three-dimensional worlds that are populated by three-dimensional avatars (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Virtual World

Yet as I have argued elsewhere, the differences are profound. Games are fun, engaging activities usually used purely for entertainment, but they may also allow people to gain exposure to a particular set of tools, motions, or ideas. In contrast, simulations use rigorously structured scenarios carefully designed to develop specific competencies that can be directly transferred into the real world. Finally, virtual worlds are multiplayer (and often massively multiplayer), three-dimensional, persistent social environments with easy-to-access building capabilities. They share with games and simulations the three-dimensional environment, but they do not have the focus on a particular goal, such as advancing to the next level or successfully navigating the scenario.

It is not enough, however, to categorize virtual worlds, games, and simulations as either entirely synonymous or utterly different. It is more useful, and perhaps more complete, to see virtual worlds, games, and simulations as points along a continuum, all instances of highly interactive virtual environments (HIVEs) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Virtual Worlds, Games, and Educational Simulations as a Continuum

This framework recognizes the relationships among virtual worlds, games, and simulations:

  • All games take place in some kind of virtual world—and not solely a Second Life-style, massively multiplayer online environment. Even physical games are played in a synthetic world structured by specific rules, feedback mechanisms, and requisite tools to support them. Children playing stickball on the curb create a play world structured by the broad requirements of the game and overlaid by its rules. Those rules become stricter in more intricate games and in simulations.
  • Simulations share key characteristics with games, including the use of a virtual world (that is, to some extent, also structured by the rules and constraints of the simulation) and the focus on a particular goal, but simulations use a more highly refined set of rules, challenges, and strategies to guide participants in developing particular behaviors and competencies that are highly transferable.
  • Participants often shift subtly between the various modes, moving from undirected exploration of a virtual world then to games and then to more structured simulation as they become comfortable in the environment.

The Swimming Pool

One of the most natural examples to show how participants move across the different uses of a HIVE while staying in the same virtual environment is the process by which children are introduced to the swimming pool. The pool is a synthetic, albeit not a virtual, environment. Some of the rules associated with dry land are the same in this new environment, and some rules are different. From the moment they first approach the pool, children naturally move from treating the pool as a virtual world, to seeing it as a place for more-structured games, and then to using it as a venue where they practice the skills they will need to swim well.

Their behavior and expectations as well as the expectations of those around them change at each stage. At first, new young swimmers perceive the pool as a scary, foreign environment. The challenge at this stage is simply to get them to enter and move around in this strange world. A parent or swim teacher may force them to get in or coax them in, or the novices may dip their toes in while watching other people or they may just jump straight in. Similarly, when introducing students to a virtual environment, an instructor’s first goal is to get students into the environment and practicing basic tasks of navigation, manipulation, and communication. In a third environment, a would-be pilot experiencing a flight simulator for the first time begins by looking around and perhaps trying to move the plane a bit. The goal is to get comfortable simply existing in this new environment.

Once children get comfortable in the pool itself, they start to play. They see how long they can hold their breath; they do flips in the water or sit on the bottom of the pool. They invent small games or their swim teachers give them broad rules for light games, such as tag or undersea kingdom. These games start off very casually and tend to become more structured and more complex. Likewise, as students get more comfortable in the virtual world to which their instructor has introduced them, they begin to mess around. They build crazy objects; they change their clothes and hair and body; they visit places they are not supposed to. In the same vein, the new pilot may try to see what the virtual airplane can do, perhaps by trying to fly it under a bridge or into similarly unlikely situations.

Finally, the children begin to test themselves (either on their own or because their swim teachers or parents push them) through increasingly rigorous rules and specific challenges. They go into the deep end, sometimes getting unwelcome mouthfuls of water. They practice new strokes. They try to swim the entire length of the pool underwater. They go from open-ended tag to racing each other. This is the educational simulation part of the experience; these exercises force them to learn skills that they can transfer to other bodies of water, such as lakes or oceans. Meanwhile, the students in the virtual world, having demonstrated their comfort in that world, receive an assignment requiring them to work together to achieve an instructor-defined goal. They fight a bit as a team and get frustrated; they resolve the frustration and complete the assignment. When the work is done, the class debriefs around a conference table or, perhaps, in the virtual world itself. The pilot-in-training is also working harder, having been tasked with increasingly challenging scenarios, such as landing with broken gear or under stormy conditions. The pilot crashes quite a bit at first but gradually gets more and more comfortable and confident.

The ease with which the children in the pool, the students in the virtual class, and the pilot in the flight simulator move from exploratory virtual-world behaviors to structured but simple games to taking on rigorous simulation challenges illustrates both the differences across these three instances and the connections that link them. It is only by building from open experimentation to increasingly rigorous rules, structures, and success criteria that children learn transferable water survival skills and pilots learn critical flying skills.

Distinctions and Connections

As the HIVE model sees virtual worlds, games, and simulations as both different and connected, there are two large sets of consequences: one emerging from appreciating the distinctions among the three and one related to the view of them as connected.


The HIVE model asserts that virtual worlds, games, and simulations are all different; each has its own affordances and purposes. A virtual world will not suffice where a simulation is needed. The virtual world offers only context with no content; it contributes a set of tools that both enable and restrict the uses to which it may be put. An educational simulation may take place in a virtual world, but it still must be rigorously designed and implemented. Organizations routinely fail in their efforts to access the potential of virtual worlds when they believe that buying a virtual world means getting a simulation.

Likewise, a game is not an educational simulation. Playing SimCity will not make someone a better mayor. Some players of, for instance, World of Warcraft may learn deep, transferable, even measurable leadership skills but not all players will. The game does not provide a structure for ensuring learning. Just because some players learn these skills playing the game, that does not mean either that most players are also learning these skills or that it should be adopted in a leadership development program. Conversely, a purely educational simulation may not be very much fun. The program may have the three-dimensional graphics and motion capture animations of a computer game, but the content may be frustrating. Specific competencies must be invoked, and students’ assumptions about what the content should be, likely shaped by their experiences with games, will be challenged.


However, the ease with which players in a new virtual environment move from exploratory behaviors to more structured simulation structures also illustrates the connection among virtual worlds, simulations, and games. There are overlaps of both processes and best practices between them. For instance, the same structures that help students get access to a virtual world (say in a university or corporation) also help them get access to a simulation and vice versa. These include help desks, technology test tools, accurate and understandable download information, and password and username management. The aspects of computer game design, such as scoring mechanisms, scripted storylines, and competition-based motivation, can drive increased engagement in an educational simulation. By the same token, a good teacher with a good curriculum can use a relevant game as part of a meaningful learning experience, but the experience must be carefully prepared, presented, and debriefed (Exhibit 1).

One example of the commonality across all HIVEs is the need for introductory structures. These asynchronous, self-paced levels or locations allow students to learn and demonstrate basic competencies in manipulation, navigation, and communication before moving on to the “real” exercise. These have been successfully adopted in Second Life where students often have to navigate through a custom challenge before joining a class for the first time. Computer games frequently have single-player levels with scripted stories and even their own training sequences that players must complete before joining multiplayer teams. Given the parallels between simulations, games, and virtual worlds, multiplayer simulations designed to teach specific skills may do well to include a significant single-player mode in which students can first learn the basic interface and gameplay.

A second area of commonality is the need for communities around games and simulations. Community-building tools and opportunities can be built in as a seamless, integrated piece of technology within the world or simulation or they can be provided separately via a chat room or other tool.

The biggest area of commonality, and this will be true for years and perhaps for decades, is that HIVEs get people to do things. In a formal learning program, this means that they can be integrated with the goal of getting students to learn how to do, not just what to know. To accomplish this, instructors in virtual worlds will find a range of techniques already refined in stand-alone simulations useful, including assessment methodologies such as benchmarking and coaching strategies to manage student frustration and to provide effective debriefing. More complex interactive structuring techniques, such as the use of branching structures or mathematical modeling to allow students’ decisions to guide the development of events in the world, can also help by increasing the interactivity of these environments.


This HIVE taxonomy has a range of implications for instructors structuring classes and for students exploring virtual worlds. Accepting the idea that HIVEs exist on a continuum, each providing its own benefits but each also being linked to the others, will affect how classes in virtual worlds, serious games, and educational simulations are conceptualized, developed, and deployed. Virtual environments provide a natural way for people to learn by nurturing an instinctive progression from experiencing to playing to learning; instructors should encourage the shifting across experimentation, play, and practice in which students naturally engage. In fact, instructors can exploit that behavior by providing stages that accommodate each stage. Light games and self-paced introductory levels can be used to get students comfortable with basic concepts and the interface necessary to exist in the virtual world, and the complexity can be increased to encourage students to move on to play and practice stages.

Content created for virtual worlds should reflect the nonlinear nature of HIVE learning and exploit the opportunity to learn by doing. The goal should not be to repurpose existing content but to rethink its goals and to imagine new types of content and new modes of presentation that fully access the power of HIVEs for learning. While best practices in content structuring may be transferred from stand-alone educational simulations to virtual world-based simulations, metrics and learning objectives for the different contexts should be different. Learning objectives and assessments around games, for instance, should be focused on the engagement, exposure, and use of simple interfaces while those for educational simulations should measure the development of complex, transferable skills.

Community is also an important element in virtual world-based learning, whether in games or simulations. Even stand-alone simulations need to provide participants some opportunity to access a community even through a separate tool if it is not possible to integrate the community into the simulation platform itself.


This emerging, unifying view of HIVE learning is the future of education (Exhibit 2). It represents, finally, the practical convergence of best practices and technologies, leveraging and building upon what we already know for better results for all involved. However, the critical trick for today is knowing when to look at virtual worlds, simulations, and games as part of a greater whole, sharing best practices when appropriate, and when not to let this holistic view obscure the critical differences among them, optimizing the sense of place and presence offered by virtual worlds, the fun engagement provided by games, and the rigor and transferability of skills promised by simulations.


Aldrich, C. 2009. The complete guide to serious games and simulations. Somerset, NJ: Wiley.

Exhibit 1: Examples of Commercial Games Used in Classrooms

  • Sid Meier’s Civilization Series by Firaxis for history and social sciences.
  • SimCity Series by Electronic Arts for urban planning and social psychology.
  • Age of Empires Series by Microsoft for history.
  • Zoo Tycoon by Microsoft for planning and economics.
  • Roller Coaster Tycoon by Chris Sawyer Games and Atari for planning and economcs

Exhibit 2: The future of HIVEs

Here are some brainstorming thoughts, some personal speculations, about how content may be created and experienced as universities, corporations, and other organizations increasingly explore the power of nonlinear and engagement-based media.

2010: Understanding and Procuring HIVEs

In the near term, educational and commercial organizations will explore their understanding of HIVEs and where HIVEs may fit in their missions. They will seek to how and when to use virtual worlds, serious game, and educational simulations.

And they will make mistakes. As more organizations acquire access to virtual worlds, corporations and academic organizations will use them primarily for building communities and bridging distances, although about 80% will be greatly underused. Large organizations will commission their own customized, self-contained simulations to teach foundational skill sets, mostly using external vendors. Others will buy and often modify off-the-shelf simulations, such as those now available from Harvard Business School Publishing and Capstone Business Simulation. We will see a proliferation of short, stand-alone simulations, typically using Adobe Flash and often connected to online communities, as the dominant model of customer-build stand-alone educational simulations.

Both socially focused virtual worlds, where users meet primarily for interpersonal interactions rather than to pursue goal-focused activities such as games, and self-contained simulations, when done well, will work better for learning than people now realize, developing in students a greater understanding of and interest in the content and a better ability to apply their learning, beginning a rethinking of the multitude of flawed current assessment methodologies currently in use, such as tests and papers. However, corporations especially will still pursue the Sisyphean task of “managing through metrics,” trying to assess the usefulness of an active virtual community or an effective simulation by seeking a quantifiable return on investment.

In universities using three-dimensional virtual worlds, these environments will increasingly be used to host student work, providing a venue for students to create interactive content, rather than as virtual classrooms. Schools that do not focus on the students’ role in building interactive content will wind down their use of virtual worlds in favor of easier tools, such as enhanced virtual classrooms. At the same time, the military will continue to lead the way in using simulations, using specifically developed simulations to develop soft power through the application of interpersonal skills, an effort begun in earnest a few years ago with projects such as the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a University of Southern California (USC) project funded by the U.S. Army.

A widespread and growing preference for highly interactive content will have far-reaching implications. Business models structured around the production of linear content will continue to deteriorate. Newspaper and book publishers, as well as schools and traditional training providers, will find themselves in increasingly dire shape. But there are also huge problems in those consulting industries whose major outputs are traditional analysis and recommendations to large clients. Corporations will simply no longer buy traditional reports of events that are accurate, even profound, because they just sit on shelves unused. And the sale of interactive applications via providers such as iTunes and Android will continue to flourish. Simply, the market will shift to reward HIVE production as opposed to traditional media.

2013: Authoring in HIVE Environments

Widespread availability of robust and easy-to-use authoring tools and environments will develop quickly in the next three years. While small vendors will initially meet these authoring needs, these tools and capabilities will increasingly be aggregated by the biggest software vendors. The availability of these tools will enable large organizations to bring sophisticated authoring capabilities in house, as students who grew up authoring in Second Life enter the workforce. The time it takes to build a useful simulation will be reduced asymptotically to about four weeks, but larger budgets will be available for more complex simulations that take years to build. The range of development time for simulations will reflect both the maturity of the tools and the market value of these products.

Just as games have developed and refined such genres as first-person shooters and real-time strategy, the increased focus on HIVEs for learning will catalyze new ways of structuring content around the goal of “learning to do.” The power of simulations and virtual worlds to help teach the Big Skills (also known as 21st-century skills) will be recognized and embraced. Linear content will be viewed with increased suspicion as thin and ineffective compared to the robustness of well-created HIVE content. Institutions supporting schools will try, and fail, to build simulations around traditional content, such as biology and literature. HIVEs will increasingly be seen as a continuous whole; students and teachers will expect a smooth transition between the real world, the open virtual world, the fun game, and the relevant simulation.

Second Life will suffer as corporate customers follow younger users to better looking and more dynamic, but also more splintered, environments. Ironically, as the virtual world market fragments, the platform for simulations will converge. Adobe Flash will run everywhere (including hacked future versions of Xboxes and Playstations) and be the common authoring environment of choice, enabling schools to assign simulations without babysitting hardware.

2016: Rethinking Knowledge

By 2016, the culture will be rethinking the possibilities and necessities of captured wisdom. Research organizations and consulting groups will reluctantly reject the easy lens of linear content and, pushed by competition and client requests, follow a research and analysis process similar to the complex methodologies required to generate simulation-based content, even when not building a simulation (Supplement 2-1). Business reports will talk about actions, systems, and results, not just processes and tips. Search engines will be significantly challenged, with huge investments and infrastructure trapping them in old content, as people realize that you can’t learn leadership from Google. Instead of straight information, people will be seeking interactive, learn-to-do content; they’ll want to access virtual environments that allow them to practice particular skills, such as negotiating scenarios. Google has the same constraint as all linear content is shocking. You can’t learn stewardship, relationship management, innovation, or security any more from Google as you can from a traditional book, magazine, or traditional class. As a shared understanding of the limitations of “learning to know” vs. “learning to do” emerges, the realizations of the limitations “Learning to know” approaches becomes obvious.

Increasingly, everyone from the MacArthur Foundation to Accenture will default to producing interactive content over passive. Reports will be produced not as binders but as experiences, not as bullet points and inspirational quotes but as equations, interfaces, and dynamic relationships. For example, rather than having a report describing new market conditions and evolving customer preferences delivered to top executives of a large retailer, a consultant firm might produce a fifteen-minute mini-simulation that all employees of the company can access; in place of a mass of data that must then be disseminated through the corporation, the client will have a tool that can create across the corporate heirarchy a shared belief in the changes identified by the consultant and an understanding of the new behaviors necessary to adapt. This new research will cycle back into increasingly detailed simulations. As the perceived value of information and expectations for its presentation change, journalism will disappear as a distinct college major and career.

Open-source simulation design will flourish and be compatible with professionally created content. When the $49 laptop becomes a reality, sometime before 2015, China and India will both announce that a majority of their school curricula across all ages will be simulation based. Game makers will enter the educational simulation space for real here, as they see there is a market for finished goods, but they will be too late to create real brands. They will still manage to wipe out large tracts of smaller companies.

2019: A New View of Knowledge and Wisdom

Moving forward, school curriculum in the U.S. will be retooled around teaching innovation and stewardship and other Big Skills. The first Pulitzer Prize to a simulation will be announced in 2019, as well as the greatly diminished use of multiple-choice standardized tests (after years of decline). The last textbook publisher will fold. Pure linear content will be looked at the way we listen to scratchy phonographs. Finally, and truly, the most valuable content in the world will be educational simulations and serious games. IBM will launch a new initiative into this space.

Supplement: Research Questions to ask Subject Matter Experts When Designing an Educational Simulation

Most business research relies on the same intellectual constructs as other forms of linear content- including linear analysis, case studies, and inspirational examples. And like with movies and magazines, these reports end up impressing with their cleverness but don’t actually enable effective action (or any action, except more presentations), because they are not designed to.The process of creating a simulations or other “learning to do” content, requires a different process. Even if the goal is not a simulation, the new types of questions can result in richer, more action driven content. Here are some examples of different questions for Subject Matter Experts:

  1. What situation have you experienced that you feel epitomizes the subject matter? (This could be a real-time event or an event that took place over weeks, months, or years.) Were there multiple situations?
  2. What were your available options? At each moment, what could you have done in that situation, and what might a naive or inexperienced person done? What did you end up doing?
  3. Why would the naive approach fail? What would it not have taken into account?
  4. What were clues that informed your analysis of the situation? What did you see immediately, and what information did you have to look for? How did you look?
  5. What did you want success to be? What did the conclusion end up being?
  6. What were you looking for to suggest that things were going well? What were you looking for to suggest that things were not going well?
  7. What were the “maintenance” or routine activities that you had to do (even including body language) to keep the situation developing well? What would happen if you did not do them?
  8. What was the moment were you knew you were successful (or not)?
  9. What was each person’s best case and worse case outcome? What were their strategies and actions?
  10. What would have been three to five legitimate alternative approaches to the problem or situation?
  11. What were the three to five high-level metrics that you were monitoring? Time? Commitment? Alignment?
  12. What trade-offs were you willing to make? What trade-offs did you make?
  13. Can you graph the high level metrics over the course of the experience?
  14. What were the inflection points for each?
  15. How do the actions impact the high level metrics? What else impacts the high level metrics (be as specific as possible)?


This article may be reproduced and distributed for educational purposes if the following attribution is included in the document:

Note: This article was originally published in Innovate (http://www.innovateonline.info/) as: Aldrich, C. 2009. Virtual worlds, simulations, and games for education: A unifying view.Innovate 5 (5). http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=727 (accessed May 26, 2009).

The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.