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Thursday, March 31, 2011

President Obama shifts, embraces Unschooling Rules ideas

Meeting with students, parents, and teachers during a town hall in Washington, President Barack Obama said Monday that, "Too much testing makes education boring for kids. Students should take fewer standardized tests and school performance should be measured in other ways than just exam results."

The Obama Administration is beginning a significant shift in its education policies to embrace many Unschooling Rules such as the idea that standardized testing is NOT an effective way to either drive or measure a child's success. They are also realizing that, rather than life enriching skills, what students are learning in the classroom is how to be students in a classroom.

President Obama echoed many of the other 55 rules, including the ideas that students should focus their time on studying subjects they need or love, learning to do is as critical as learning to know, and knowledge should be expanded through real world experiences, not just books or pictures.

Obama's town hall meeting is timely, as his administration is making steps towards education reform, including a push for the "Dream Act" and a rewrite of the "No Child Left Behind Act" before the start of the 2011 school year.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why we cram for tests

Throughout our academic lives, we are berated for cramming for tests. But we do it, deliberately, for a very specific reason.

Our memory is dependent on emotions. Simply put, where emotions are involved, our memory works; where no emotions are involved, our memory does not work.

The information we are exposed to in an emotional vacuum, such as if we hear it in a typical classroom or read it in a traditional text book, neurologically doesn't stick. So the behavior we have adapted is to hack our brain through the process of a) mindlessly taking notes of facts we think are going to be needed to learned, and then b) waiting until there is genuine terror at the specter of tomorrow's test, for which we are unprepared, to use that emotion to gain even 24 hours of neurological stickiness.

This hack works, as much as it often helps us get decent grades. Teachers who want "their" students to do well in standardized tests are well served, at least in a Machiavellian sense, to ratchet up the fear factor. But it has at least two consequences.

First, facts learned through this technique have only a very short half-life. As I wrote in "The Complete Guide to Simulation and Serious Games," in a comparison to learning things more experientially and aspirationally:
Students remember riding a bike forever, while forgetting what year the Magna Carta was signed five seconds before [or five second after] they need to write it on the test.
The second consequence is even more grim. Many people have emotional aftershocks - similar to low-grade post traumatic stress syndrome - associated with their academic experience/childhood for the rest of their lives. Further the memories are tainted with guilt at not having been better students.

The emotional ranges of aspiration, including love and need, provides both greater challenge and greater paybacks than the emotional ranges of fear. Test taking is an inevitable tool of any industrial education system. And fear may be the emotional equivalent of the food-additive MSG. But the long-term impact may be at odds with a healthy and productive society, not an enabler of it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Unions are American. And so are diverse markets. Now let's talk about schools.

I believe unions are a right of Americans. While one can argue the various successes and failures institutionally of unions over the years, forcing a work environment where unions are not just unused but actually illegal is problematic and draconian. In some cases, the threat of unions keep organizations sane even if they are never formed. (I similarly believe in class-action lawsuits and the right to assemble.)

On the other hand, I believe in rich ecosystems, marketplaces, and a diversity of approaches. These are the counter-balance to strikes. (Diversity is also the counter-balance to price gouging, by the way. And perhaps most importantly, diversity is the anecdote to unproductive practices including the pursuit of useless rituals, abuse of employees, and failures of innovation).

So the underlying problem highlighted by Wisconsin (which will play out all over the country in various forms) is not that of union-busting. The real problem is: in our current system, schools represent a required (and even protected) monopoly both of education providers and economically-necessary day care providers.

The sustainable answer, therefore, is to create the ability for any region to successfully (if inconveniently) weather a teacher strike. This includes:
  • The availability of programs at libraries, museums, traditional summer camps, youth groups, church groups, clubs and community centers, 4H, even sports teams, which have to be politically and culturally independent of schools.
  • The ability for more parents to work at home.
  • A rich network of home and unschoolers that can pick up some extra students.
The value of this ecosystem goes well beyond absorbing a temporary school shut down, of course. That is just the canary in the coal mine. Where there is a mono-culture, there is vulnerability. It is only through a richness of options that we can not only treat each other fairly, but unleash the imagination that is an enduring strength and engine of success of the United States.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Does the inherent impossibility of education, training, and other formal and institutional learning processes drive all of those involved insane?

Albert Camus famously asked, does life have meaning, and if not, should he kill himself? Here's a similar question I was pondering while in a meeting the other day. Does the inherent impossibility of traditional education, training, and other formal learning processes drive insane all of those involved for too long?

Here are some of the problems facing traditional educators:

It is almost impossible to change the long term behavior for most students in a contained event, no matter how long. There is a predictable decay curve.

The tools available themselves just too blunt for knowledge capture and sharing. PowerPoint? Lectures? Workbooks? Really?

The measurement techniques are too weak and they take too long, and they measure the wrong thing. Quizzes? Surveys? Standardized tests?

It costs too much to deliver useful content. Development costs... Deployment costs... Management costs... Infrastructure costs...

The time to return on investment and evaluation is too long. Months? Years? (For K-12) Decades?

The nature of learning interventions are too discreet from life. Leave life. Learn in foreign context. Return. Forget.

The programs are funded indirectly, so students are seldom customers. How many layers are there between a student in a public school and the people who pay for it? Or a corporate employee?

Students themselves are, of course, incredibly inconsistent. They come in with the full spectrum of background skills and knowledge, interests, and needs.

Formal learning programs have to be both individually specialized, yet integrated across other programs. Google can't even do this.

Programs require a lot of time on the part of the student outside of engaging the learning content. Downloads. Passwords. Buildings. Buses. Food. Lock down drills.

As a result of deploying classrooms, do people involved in formal learning programs go batty? Do they get paranoid, or turn into hucksters, or do they cast customers and sponsors and business leaders as enemies, or quickly burn out, or just focus on building fiefdoms? Or if all actions lead to pain, then is it easier to do nothing? Is the best strategy to tamp down all sense of ambitions and just go along with the flow?

As more funding gets cut from schools (from big steps such as forcing larger class sizes to surgical smaller steps, such as by firing TA's and forcing professors to grade their own papers) and the expectations go up, it is reasonable to assume the entire school system in this country will display the signs of an organizational nervous breakdown - including demonstrating paranoia, malaise, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Or perhaps it already has.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Pathological Quest for Easy Answers in Education Institutions

Whenever I see a university departments' requirements for innovations, I shake my head. It is as if they are setting themselves to fail.

Here are some of the recent requests from various higher ed leaders I have fielded in just one area, virtual worlds/education simulations:

  1. It has to be virtually free, yet high quality and fully supported.
  2. It has to be "proven" to work, but we will not define what the metrics are in advance that will convince us, nor will they be metrics that existing formal learning programs can meet.
  3. It has to be really, really engaging, but not a game.
  4. It has to have great graphics and sound (and other production values), but run on a seven year old, vanilla computer.
  5. It has to be different than traditional programs, yet deployable without any special skills from the instructor other than traditional classroom management skills. It has to look and feel the same as existing programs but do something different.

All of these requests come from a hope that any revolution will be neat and easy. I don't think it will be.

But maybe it is even bigger than that. Perhaps the biggest reason that innovation doesn't happen is that even the university leadership who say they want change are really just looking for an excuse to do nothing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

If Truth in Advertising Was Applied to the School Motto

One has to appreciate the enthusiasm and even aspiration of the school motto or slogan. Just consider such phrases as: "Where Students Come First"; "Success and Spirit is Our School"; "We Create the Leaders of Tomorrow"; and "Dedicated to Excellence."

One also has to wonder what would happen if truth in advertising was applied to school mottoes. If so, we might see such examples as:
  • Where the top 5% of our students thrive
  • We suppress our disdain for parents every day
  • Teaching the same material the same way for over 100 years
  • Better than prisons
  • Our unions get results
  • Free diagnosis of psychological disorder every year
  • We'll pretend to like your child the best
  • In just 12 short years, we will prepare you for an entry level job. The rest is up to you.
  • Teaching is our only skill
  • Better test-takers make for better real estate prices
  • We only fail the students who deserve it
  • 97% asbestos free
  • More than 10% of each day dedicated to education
  • Stretching your tax dollars through fiber-free food and recirculated air
  • From Bell Curves, Excellence (better in Latin)
  • Better health through stronger cleaning chemicals
  • Preparing our children for a lifetime of memorization
  • $12,000 worth of education related services for only $11,749 per student per year
  • Classrooms: The best use of childhood
  • Standardizing our processes in accordance with the leading business manufacturing best practices
  • Every school is the same, because every student is the same

Any others? Please put them in a comment.