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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.