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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.