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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Don't prepare students for jobs in an Agathie Christie novel

Schools seem intent on enabling all children to uncover their potential in professions that are: staggeringly unlikely, low paying, and about one hundred years past their peak. These include:

  • A musician, thus everyone is made to play an instrument.
  • A naturalist, thus everyone takes biology and chemistry.
  • An artist, thus everyone takes numerous art classes.
  • A novelist, thus everyone studies great literature.
  • A professional mathematician, thus everyone is pushed into a calculus track.

Of course, diverse exposure is part of a rich life. Walk the streets of great cities. And great forests. Talk. Listen. Where children are passionate, support them and get out of their way

But in terms of forcing (or otherwise putting heightened virtue on) archaic areas of study to prepare them for life in a Jane Austin or Agatha Christie novel, don't worry about it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Learn to Be, Learn to Do, Learn to Know (in that order)

There are three different types of learning: learning to be, learning to do, and learning to know.

Learning to be focuses on helping someone understand who they are and who they want to be. This type of learning answers such questions as: “What do I love doing?” “What is my dream?” “What gives me energy?” “What are my unique strengths?” and even “What is my role in a group?” Reflection is necessary. Online social networking (such as Facebook) has exploded in part because it partially meets this need. Learning to be is the most individualistic of the three different types of learning.

Learning to do, in contrast, focuses on developing skills that can be applied, such as in the productive world. Learning to do almost always involves significant practice. Learning to do topics include such abstract skills as leadership, innovation, stewardship, and project management on one end, and more literal skills, such as how to build, grow, use, or fix things, on the other.

Learning to know focuses on knowledge that can be captured in books and lectures. This includes timelines and dates, definitions and facts. Google and Wikipedia are the ultimate learning to know tools. Most schools are very busy at developing this type of learning.

Any curriculum that focuses solely on one of these types of learning is missing most of the opportunities for complete learning. Further, there is a logical order to presenting the three different types. Traditional schools’ forte, learning to know, can come only after learning to be and learning to do have successfully begun.

It is the role of childhood to build these three types of learning into every individual. Society pays a steep price when people are not developed in all areas.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The ideal class size isn't 30, or even 15, but more like 5

What is the ideal class size? If you listen to popular rhetoric, we are told that 25 to 35 is really, really bad, and 15 is really, really good.

While I agree that 15 is better, that's kind of like saying driving 95 mph is better than 125. Anyone who has tried to interact with 15 children know the activity is still that of sheep-dogging and projecting content.

Now ask yourself, if you weren't constrained by budget or logistics or even common-sense, what would the ideal class size really be?

Really, class size should be about 5. This allows mini peer-to-peer conversations, while allowing both common presentations and shared one-on-one interacting that is necessary. If you include the coach, it is also an even number. 5 is most often better than either 4 or 6.

(With this ideal class size comes a redefinition of class, from "class being entire community all day" to class being focused learning.)

From the point of view of the education industry, 15 is a reasonable "best" goal - a calculated stretch goal for more funding, without actually meeting the needs of the students. Once you get past their framing, the real number is much different.

Author's note: when I led hiking and canoeing trips in Maine, we did have a ratio of instructor to student of 1:5, with two instructors for ten kids. It is possible, even in a more institutional setting.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Excel Math Curricula

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.

Given that, what math should be taught? Most math programs have been hopelessly tangled up in the same quagmire of precedent and capriciousness that has sunk the rest of formal schools' curricula.

Thus areas like algebra, geometry, and calculus are greatly overemphasized, while areas like discrete math, logic, programming, permutations, probabilities, and combinatorics are hugely deemphasized (the terms are complicated but the areas are not). For most students, calculus should be covered in history classes as a great invention in the same matter as pottery or the loom, if at all. Obviously for those passionate about math, and who go on to be pure or applied math or engineering majors, calculus should subsequently be required.

However, there remains a perfect tool and context for math, which many people already have. And that is a good spreadsheet such as Excel.

  • The built in math functions of a good spreadsheet have accurately captured a range of abilities necessary to use by planners, decision makers, and scientists.
  • Further, the program still requires rigorous, high level planning and programming. A spreadsheet does a lot of the rote work, but still requires and develops rock solid conceptualization and understanding of the material.
  • Students can solve the same problem in different ways, which is a plus for reactance inflicted teenagers (although bad for traditional teacher).
  • Finally, spreadsheets allow accessing information through symbols as well as more graphs. Most math is more visual anyway. (Will Wright, the brilliant creator of SimCity and The Sims, mused in a conversation we had if one should teach math without any numbers at all.)

Using a spreadsheet well, and being able to use as much of the built in equations as possible in the appropriate situation and to the right end, is a better framework than the textbooks and worksheets and obscure topic areas of yesteryear.