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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?