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Friday, April 29, 2011

Home- and Unschooling are not theoretical reforms; they are real, large, and growing movements

It was a lot of fun and a real honor to be interviewed on Cultures Shocks for today's show (counter-programming to the slightly more popular Royal Wedding!). The last question by Barry Lynn was especially interesting. It was essentially a variation of, "Gee, Clark, we have been talking for an hour, and your ideas sound fine enough. They pass the sniff test. But I have seen and heard a lot of smarter people saying more interesting things about education reform for decades, and they have all failed. No matter what you say, I would bet good money that your ideas won't have much impact either."

I mumbled through some answer. But I now realize that I had bought into the assumptions of his question and I missed bringing up the real point.

The ideas in the book 'Unschooling Rules' are not theoretical. These are not nascent theories that have been used on small pilots and studied by Harvard or M.I.T. grad students. I am not in the process of begging for funding from Ph.D. controlled-foundations, school principals, or other gate-keepers to roll them out to larger sample groups as part of some quixotic tenure-securing portfolio. (And, of course, these ideas certainly aren't "mine.")

Home- and unschooling is happening now. Over a million students already home school. And the number is growing.

Unschooling Rules is no more aspirational today than online shopping. For more and more families, it is simply their reality. Many of our future scientific, business, artistic, political, and religious leaders will not have passed through today's classrooms.

As much as school administrators and those in the academic Ph.d. guild would love to be in the position of evaluating the home schooling movement and judging them (much as IBM would have loved to judge Microsoft, or Microsoft to judge Google, or Google to judge Facebook), their permission is not necessary. Rather, truly caring schools and parents will instead work to learn themselves from homeschoolers and unschoolers to get new ideas. That is the point of the book.

We are entering a new world where families do have real choices. Homeschooling and unschooling will reform schools because it is the first ever school reform that doesn't rely on schools reforming.

Places to Learn

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Need for a Good Teachers' Strike

Imagine that you became Governor, and you knew absolutely that in two years, there would be a massive, state-wide teachers' strike that would drag on for at least a few months. What would you do to prepare for it?
  • You would see how many other places could take kids, including summer camps, libraries, museums, churches, colleges, programs such as 4-H, and community centers.
  • You would not worry about classes organized strictly by age, but think more in terms of communities, and perhaps interests.
  • You would examine current curricula, and rethink what was critically necessary to teach. For those essential classes, you would post necessary support material online.
  • You would enable greater access to virtual school programs.
  • You would develop and organize the tutor community. And you would look for volunteers.
  • You would re-examine and modernize work-at-home policies, and encourage corporations to share best practices.
  • You would think about how to put students into self-study, project-based approaches where ever possible. Where kids were passionate, such as in chemistry or math, you would provide access to help and tools, but mostly get out of their way.
  • You would rely on parents to be the organizers and guides of their children's education, as well as the children themselves.
Second question. What if you became Governor, and you wanted to reform education, lowering the cost and increasing the value and the authenticity? What would you do to prepare for it? Probably the same things.

Political leaders act to avoid teachers' strikes, as they understand that it could rock an economy. That is why political leaders either over-capitulate to, or now are trying to eradicate, teachers' unions. Both approaches, in my mind, make the situation worse by entrenching the current mono-culture. This may be akin to over-zealous forest fighters putting out every spark, but in the process creating a backlog of deadwood and destroying the natural process of death and rebirth.

Politicians fear teachers' strikes. And so should teachers' unions. But ironically, what we need are some good, long, disruptive teachers' strikes. It may be the best hope for education. And the economy.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Two Decade-Long Study Shows 64% of Everything Taught in Schools to Be Wasted; Bigger Savings Opportunity than Health Care (Satire)


A comprehensive, 22-year study of the United States education system found that 64% of everything taught and tested was wasted. The content categorized as "wasted" was either "immediately forgotten" or "never used." Meanwhile, content was categorized as "useful" if it either helped "eventually improve a student's quality of life" or "lead a student to be a better steward of family or community."

Broadly, the subject of "Math" topped the "useful" list. It did very well through eighth grade, according to the report, averaging at around 88% useful. Then, once "geometry" and "calculus" were introduced, the percentage dropped precipitously to around 12%. Writing also did very well initially, but also dropped with "poetry" and "analysis of classics."

"It is important to realize that this study only measured what was in the curricula, not what the students actually learned," said one superintendent. "We educators take a broader perspective, and look at the development of the entire child. For example, we view the school bus ride as a critical part of social adaption, and necessary for the complete student experience."

"We were very disappointed in the methodology," agreed the CEO of one standardized test producer. "Just look at page 53. Advanced biology was only considered as it impacted a student's eventual health and scientific accomplishments. The study did not measure the inherent intellectual curiosity demonstrated by high school students in their pursuit of biological excellence for its own sake, nor for advantages of mastering facts about biology as a competitive differentiator in applying to colleges."

Still, others see an upside in the findings. "This means that there is a huge opportunity," said one Governor, "to reduce the school budgets of my state by about 50% and not impact the quality of education. This represents a saving of hundreds of millions of dollars."

The authors of the report agreed. They cited their conclusions, noting, "This is a bigger opportunity in terms of re-allocating national resources than health care. By a factor of ten."

The financial savings may be controversial however. One parent commented, "The study misses the point. I need to have my four children out of the house most of the day." Many other parents surveyed agreed, for reasons ranging such as "professional development" and "income generating." Many economists agree that they cost effective "day caring" of all kids, regardless of what is taught, allows for both more earning and spending that positively impacts the GDP. "We could be teaching kids about Beethoven and Egyptian history all day, and as long as we do it relatively cheaply, the economic return is significant."

The Provost of a major private university also added, "the report misses the tone of the country right now. Parents want their children spending more time in school, not less. And politicians want to be seen as pro-education. If people believe that longer school days now will lead to greater economic success in the future, we should meet this market requirement."

A principal added, "Spending money on education makes people feel better - this is comfort spending in a time of economic stress, especially if what is spent is community money. Not every parent can afford a nice home, but everyone can lobby hard to build a comprehensive school campus, where their children spend more of their time anyway."

The President, when asked, took a more moderated approach. "I don't see getting rid of two thirds of all school programs. That is just not going to happen. Instead, we must aggressively shift the curricula, from having students sitting in classroom learning Roman history to have students instead sitting in classrooms learning about applications of advanced technology. I will be creating a panel to make recommendations how to best make this transition. But," the President cautioned, "these will only be recommendations. It is ultimately up to the schools themselves to best decide what and how students need to learn."

See also If Truth in Advertising Was Applied to the School Motto

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Obama quoted 'Unschooling Rules' saying standardized tests "too punitive." Here's what he and I meant.

President Obama has embraced many of the Unschooling Rules in his recent policy shifts on education. (A mutual connection sent the President a copy.)

A common headline from the speech quoted Obama's statement, "standardized tests are too punitive." Most people did not understand this connection. As the author of the original text, let me explain.

Obama connected two of the 55 Unschooling Rules with that statement.

The first was, Rule #45: Tests don't work. Get over it. Move on. This rule states that our desire to have universal, comparable, and fair metrics from which to evaluate students and teachers, and even hold both parties accountable, overwhelms the reality that the tests don't measure much of value. We might as well be measuring juggling. Further, these standardized tests have subverted the learning process.

But the phrase "punitive" is what confused a lot of journalists and pundits. I agree with the comment, but he didn't explain the path, so let me go back to my source material. Here is the quote from my book (I added italics and an underline in the relevant section).

Rule #26: Biologically, the necessary order of learning is: explore, then play, then add rigor.

Look at the process by which children learn to swim:

First, children are introduced to the body of water. Once children get comfortable in the water itself, they naturally start to play. Finally, the children begin to test themselves through increasingly rigorous rules and specific challenges. These exercises force them to hone skills they can transfer to other bodies of water.

Children move effortlessly from exploration and free roam to structured but simple games to taking on rigorous challenges.

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.”

I believe seeing the thought in its original context makes more sense, and hopefully is more relevant. Here is an example of non-punitive learning that is also much more effective.

Other rules Obama cited included:
  • Rule 1: Learn to be; learn to do; learn to know.
  • Rule 3: Learn something because you need it or because you love it.
  • Rule 8: What a person learns in a classroom is how to be a person in a classroom.
  • Rule 12: Internships, apprenticeships, and interesting jobs beat term papers, textbooks, and tests.
  • Rule 33: In education, customization is important like air is important.
  • Rule 36: Fifteen models that are better for childhood learning than schools are.
  • Rule 43: [Parents...] Avoid "the drop off."
Again, I am thrilled and honored that my book Unschooling Rules is providing a counter-balance to the broken ideas of longer class days, more standardization, and more testing. I hope this original context for the term "punitive" makes Obama's statement more clear and more powerful.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Computer Games and Books are about Equal

As a whole, most people are pretty comfortable putting moral virtual on reading, and moral failing on playing computer games. In truth, they are about equal. From a cultural and "useful in development" perspective, the best of each are of comparable worth to a student today. Likewise, each have their terrible and harmful examples.

Computer games overall have the advantage of: being active content, often being group activities, developing skills and new situational awareness, requiring the resolution of frustration and provide an overall better microcosm of learning, and placing the player in the role of the hero. It is also a media "of its time," attracting the current generation of great artists to be considered and evaluated, not just the last generation's ordained artists to be worshiped. (Our generations' Shakespeare or Milton will be a game designer, and will be predictably initially shunned by the current old guard.)

Books have the advantage of: developing empathy through presentations of inner monologues, presenting facts, having a predictable and lengthy body of analysis around them making teaching them pretty easy, not relying so much on violence, exposing people to brilliant writing styles, and representing the oldest accessible art form of our culture.

A lot of people who did not grow up engaging computer games eschew them, preferring to embrace and even take pride in their lack of intellectual curiosity. (And perhaps decades ago, some of our grandparents similarly proudly declared, "Oh no, I NEVER read books.")

Having said that, both computer games and books are still self-referential, a dangerous quality if consumed beyond moderation. Accessing art should never be framed as an inherently worthwhile activity. It is only morally good if it leads to morally good actions.

(Some of computer games "classics" are Civilization, SimCity, The Sims, and Zoo Tycoon.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Five things that parents of school children can do to add a bit of unschooling to their curricula

Not every family is going to homeschool or unschool. But there are plenty of ideas to add some authenticity and self-directed learning to any student's experience.

  1. Create portfolios of children's deepest interests and accomplishments over the years to augment any transcripts. (#unrules46)
  2. Increase your children's time spent with adult experts who are passionate about what they do. (#unrules44) Be out of site, but do this without "dropping off" your children and transferring responsibility at least initially.
  3. Take your children on short family trips, even if it upsets the schools. (#unrules36)
  4. Include meaningful work into every week. Don't let the abundance of papers due and tests get in the way of helping your children actually help other people. (#unrules13)
  5. Encourage play in areas of interest (#unrules26). Allow children to pursue passions, even when it gets in the way of doing homework. Be prepared to fudge a sick day for both parent and child to indulge areas of deep passion (#unrules37).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Schools: What if we are at a false peak?

Schools, despite their differences, are governed by similar rules. For example, the system of school:

  • Is framed by parents dropping off children who are organized into groups of students, and
  • Heavily uses lectures, text books, papers, and tests.

There is a general feeling that we, as a nation and perhaps as a planet, need to do better at education. It is currently not delivering the results we want, and the cost is astronomical.

Finally, we currently have a lot of people, very smart and altruistic, working really hard to improve the system. But there is also a feeling of futility. Arguably people have been trying to improve schools for the last 50 years or more, and arguably those people have suffered epic failure.

Given that, one has to wonder, what if the system of schools is in a false peak? What if trying to improve a few metrics like school hours or teacher training by 5% isn't going to do anything meaningful?

What if, in order for schools to become significantly higher performing, we have to significantly back away from what we currently do? This becomes a challenge to our imagination.

If true, the first step of improving the system of school is that of deconstruction. We have to make explicit the current assumptions in order to reexamine them and make sure they are still valid.

That's where I hope Unschooling Rules can be relevant to people who never, ever, ever intend to home school. If you believe that education can be much better than it is today, but that we may very well be on a false peak, then it may be worth listening to the observations of home- and unschoolers about schools and education.

We may find that some of the significant assumptions of today's school are worth re-examining. As many tired hikers have realized, sometimes to go up first means going down.

To gain insight into schools, look at how they treat food.

One of the first questions I am asked in interviews is, "how did schools get this bad?" How can an industry that is well-funded, well-meaning, and so critical to our national goals end up so utterly dysfunctional, even toxic?

The shortest answer is incredibly simple. Look at how schools treat food.

I first brought up these ideas in my 2003 book, Simulations and the Future of Learning. I wrote the following as a technique to understand schools:
Here is a one-hour exercise. Go to the school at noon and have lunch.

There. You are done.

A one question quiz: Did the students eat well? In far too many situations, the answer is, not at all.

Why does that matter, you may ask? School food is some outsourced function, not a core competency. I disagree. Lunch says far too much about a school.
  • Students care about food. It is a major theme of conversations and bartering.
  • Parents care about food.
  • Food drives short-term performance. Better food means better learning that day.
  • Food drives long-term health. Better food means healthier people.
  • Obesity is a national epidemic.
  • Eating well is a critical habit for gaining control over your life.
  • Research guides our understanding of food and the effect of food, which changes over time.
  • Preparing good food is hard.
And nutrition is an apt microcosm for all content. At the deepest, process level, schools handle learning similarly to nutrition. (Page 303-304)
This later was captured in Unschooling Rules 15, "if you care about learning, start with food." As an update to this thinking, see today's The Washington Post's great piece by Jennifer LaRue Huget called School lunch debates heat up. Read it with the following lens. What if a parallel column were describing curricula and methodology rather than food?

First, let me say that we know a lot more about what goes into a healthy meal than we know about educational content. I believe the debates over, say, the role of processed sugar, white flour versus whole wheat, and the value of local foods versus fast food is a lot easier and more scientifically defensible than the arguments on what classes and skills are important to teach and how.
What Ingredients Look Like

Now, look at such issues as the cost/benefit of standardization (think tests, curricula, and text books), as well as what happens when schools "decide" parents are not capable of making choices for their children (both in terms of subsequent parent involvement (hint: goes down) and cost of schools (hint: goes up)). Even putting aside the issue of school's lack of excellence not impeding their tendencies towards expansionism and parental disintermediation, there is a more straight forward realization.

If schools and communities can't agree on strategies for meeting the relatively straight forward challenge of delivering nutritious food, what faith should we have in school systems to successfully deliver the more ambiguous area of content that is actually educational?

(And by the way, as much as everyone likes to attack the various teachers' unions, here is an issue of failure of institutions and communities that has little to do with the unions. It is a leadership problem.)

Jennifer LaRue Huget ends her piece echoing Unschooling Rules by writing:
We also have to consider whether serving nutritionally sound meals at school is itself part of the curriculum; teaching kids what foods are best for their bodies by offering such foods at lunchtime.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Six Toxic Assumptions of Standardized Testing

When I speak about the material in Unschooling Rules, I almost inevitably get the question, "if you don't believe in standardized testing, how can we possibly evaluate teachers and students?" (#unrules45)

This statement is, fully un-ironically, such a tacit critique of all of school systems that it cannot go unexplored and unpacked.

Just some of the assumptions are:

  1. Families are not/cannot/ should not be able to choose their own path once in school systems. (Many parents today makes more choices about their coffee than their childrens' K-12 education.) So unlike in a free market system or democracy, choice by user is not a relevant tool for determining success.
  2. There are no external, real world metrics to evaluate how well schools and teachers are doing. In fact, the real world is the enemy to a smooth running educational system, putting uncontrollable variables into schools. This then further encourages schools to expand (at massive taxpayer cost, of course) to replace life as much as possible as early as possible and for as long as possible to improve the purity of the test results (http://www.educationnews.org/ed_reports/edu_assoc_articles/153528.html).
  3. Students are consistent test takers week to week.
  4. School management cannot be trusted to manage.
  5. Students should all learn the same material. There is one way of "winning" for students.
  6. The content in (and process of taking) standardized tests are an accurate and relatively complete microcosm of valuable and valued content.
To embrace testing as the single criterion means almost necessarily rejecting the role of families, rejecting the value of real world experiences, rejecting real world evaluations of success, rejecting school management, and rejecting students' different interests and passions.

Even people in charge of call-centers and sales incentives, two of the most measured business activities out there, are realizing the fallacy of too narrow metrics that drive terrible unintended consequences. Maybe someday our school systems will learn the same thing.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Places to Learn

The World Anti-Doping Agency's Play True Challenge. Click on the picture to go to their site and play it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Three insurmountable problems with the structure of schools

Schools, parents, and politicians are used to tinkering with the current system. But there are a few "show-stoppers."
  1. Sitting in classrooms, writing papers, and taking tests are simply really bad models for developing children.
  2. Most valued and empowering "learning to do" skills, such as leadership and innovation, fall through the cracks in traditional schools, where development is random at best. Meanwhile, developing "learning to know" skills and providing access to content in general have shifted over the last ten years of Internet growth from being the most useful role of schools to the least.
  3. Students become world-class in an area, be it chemistry or architecture, by pursuing their passions, gifts, inspirations, and role-models at ever higher levels of rigor, and then filling in critical holes, rather than spending all of their time trying t0 follow a standardized, national curricula.
As long as schools fight these basic rules, they are stuck in cycle of doing things increasingly well that perhaps should not be done at all.