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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Schools: From Stockholm Syndrome to Cruise Ship

Schools require compliant students. The worst case scenario for the best public and prep schools is a massive revolt of smart kids asking, "why are we being taught this curricula; what are the qualifications of the instructors or institutions to prepare us for the future; why are we being taught using books and term papers and tests?"

The traditional coercive tools for school are always a combination of carrots and sticks, promises of bright future for compliance and threats of public and total failure for resistance. Fair enough.

As a result, students often find themselves displaying signs of Stockholm Syndrome. This situation, when victims under the total control of a few people form sympathy with their captors, has been identified from studying hostage situations. But many students as well form a bond with teachers and institutions they feared, and who had similar (perceived but wielded) absolute control over their lives and futures.

We are all seeing the emergence of another sweeping approach used by the ranks of the industrial education complex - turning higher ed campuses into cruise ships. Universities are lavishing perks upon perks to the students, from swanky food and fashion outlets to high-end stadiums and other recreational areas.

This shameless pandering has two costs. The first is that the cost for students of colleges is spiralling beyond "out of control." The costs for tuition are simply catastrophic. Meanwhile alums are being asked to donate even more (with the fund raising processes monopolizing the mind share and creativity of school administers, just as it does with politicians). One friend of mine wrote a large check for his Alma mater, and then drove to campus in the middle of a giant freshman lobster bake.

The second problem with campus-as-cruise-ship is more subtle, but more problematic. Schools have always been out of touch with delivering skills that give students more control over their future lives. But the quasi-austere conditions at least created motivation for students to join the productive world. Now, students are shocked to learn that they are not just unqualified for most jobs, but the living conditions are a massive step down as well.

One result is that students are even more reluctant to leave their university country clubs. They become grad students, get their doctorates if they can afford to borrow the money, and then professors. And the great industrial education complex chugs on.

We as a nation are debating health care, as we should. But the failure of schools to produce students who have control of their lives and are decent stewards of their families, communities, and planet is a far bigger crisis with much larger consequences. And the recent strategy of higher ed, rather to reform the relevancy to instead pander and placate to students is completely the wrong direction.

A final note. The simulations and serious games movement continues to be pulled in two directions. One is "making content more fun" (gamification) and the other is "creating richer content." The first direction is currently a more popular perception, and highly aligned with the cruise ship model: "Let's learn history, but on the shuffleboard court!" The future of the movement, however, is in the second direction. This will take work and investment beyond putting up more plasma television sets in the student lounge. It means recommitting to a future of education.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

2011: The Year of the Visionless Revolution for Schools

"Don't just stand there. Do something."

That might just be the rallying cry for education change in the next 12 months. What exactly will be done, however, and why, is almost anyone's guess.

Through the rest of 2011 and through 2012, schools will be poked and prodded. Budgets will be cut, while more money will flow in. There will be rallies and protests and headlines and strikes. There will be greater calls for accountability, but no one will quite be sure towards what end.

Tests will play the role of hero and villain. So will teachers. And so will various school programs including art and sports. Unions will become more important pawns for both political sides, while the enabling behavior of the parents will go unquestioned.

The notion of forcing children to spend more time in classrooms will be realized as absurd. Yet it will be the solution from many.

Some will continue to loudly proclaim, "Schools don't work. We need to do more of it."

There has never been a time when more people want schools to change more. And I suspect at the end of the day, K-12 schools will end up relatively static throughout this period - unchanged in any real way. As with the temporary story arc in a television sitcom or drama, (a la "no child left behind") all changes will be Ozymandian.

In contrast, however, many, many colleges and universities may well be obliterated. And the cottage industries - the vendor market serving all of the above including text book makers- will find their core markets shrinking by 10% a year for now until, well, forever.

In this environment, I offer just three pieces of advice, summaries of the points I make in my book, Unschooling Rules.

  1. The school model of: dropping off children, assembling them into classrooms, and using lectures, tests, periods, papers, and grades, is fundamentally flawed, and will never work better than it does today. We have reached the relative apex of that model.
  2. We need to collectively do everything we can to un-standardize schools, break bottlenecks (such as college admissions processes), and reverse the lockstepping of age-based participation. The next stage of education evolution requires us to think about true diversity of educational experiences, not convergence. Having said that, I personally do not believe we as a nation have the imagination to currently visualize what a truly heterogeneous educational ecosystem might possibly look like (but again, Unschooling Rules is a place to start).
  3. Given one and two, the best thing we can do as a nation is to realize that more and more people will home- and un-school, and that is a good thing for everyone. Like some science fiction story playing out, the homeschooling movements in all of its forms will incubate the creativity of thinking and approaches necessary, eventually, to save all of schools.
This visionless revolution, like the mob that it is, is scary. It will lash out and find scape goats. It will prop up false prophets. I don't see any national leaders today.

Because there are no quick fixes. It is only through the real work of the people who care the most, under the radar of all of this bluster, that real change will be born to birth learning in the 21st Century.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

EcoKids' Yard Sale: Serious Game on Recycling and Negotiating

I came across this interesting "serious game," aimed at younger kids, called Yard Sale on Canada's eco-awareness site EcoKids.

The gameplay is straightforward (and with as many nods to capitalism and self-interest as environmentalism, for both sides of the aisle). The player is putting on a garage sale. After some exposition, the player first sets the prices, and then plays through a well done, fast market engagement activity to see if they can get that price.

What is so impressive about the game is that it is very easy to play, highlights a real process that kids can follow, and then allows participants to engage in some basic practicing of real skills that they will need. It is not an addicting game, but it, even better, transitions seamlessly to the real world. It looks straightforward and easy to design such content, but it represents a lot of sophisticated thinking.

Like it or not, media is the key to education that scales. This is a great role model of a necessary evolutionary path.