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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

No wonder we can't evolve schools...

I was listening to this Commonwealth Club podcast on Global Corporate Social Responsibility:


You can also just download the MP3 here: http://audio.commonwealthclub.org/audio/podcast/cc_20110314_mlf_corporateresponsibility.mp3

Skip ahead to 14:44, the introductory comments by Mark Edmunds, Vice Chairman and Regional Managing Partner, Deloitte LLP.  Listen for a little over two minutes.  It simply struck me as a crisp presentation of many wrong memes around education reform today.

Just a few:
  • 15:25: The goal of school (what he calls "education") is to create a "college-going culture". 
"Going to college" is a terrible and lazy metric; the goal of creating a "college-going culture" will almost inevitably result in less students going to college, and colleges being less good for those that do. (See my post Education Evolution - Some Wrong and Right Questions)  Traditional colleges will only get better through credible alternatives.
  • 15:40 Many high school students in Oakland, California don't go to college because they have parents who did not go to college.  
This comfortable and easy view from most school system employees - that parents are the problem when it comes to education - is a meme that must be stomped out as vigorously as racism and sexism.  To believe that institution care more about children than their own parents is both prevalent and disastrous.  All teachers have their story, probably true, of some incompetent parent.  But to allow this generalization is toxic, and risks become self-fulfilling.
  • 16:00  Bill Gates represents someone of sterling character.  
First, I totally get how school systems everywhere have become Gates sycophants.  But to look at his behavior over the decades (Microsoft was the "evil" in Google's motto "Do no evil.") as exemplary is problematic to say the least.  Did Microsoft play fairly during the '80's?
There is so much more.
  • To use the poorest schools as a place for research and development for all schools is intellectually problematic. (This is the only environment where a 5% success rate would be hailed as a great social victory.)  
  • I will leave it to the listener to form their own view of character education as an output of school programs.  How would you like to be in an Oakland school and hear a guest lecture from a Deloitte partner telling you to "play fair" and "respect the rules of the game"?    
  • Finally, I found a correlation between school systems that talk about 21st Century Skills with their fund raising efforts, not their nascent capabilities in actually delivering them.
The number of these "superficially positive but toxic" statements in such a short burst (less than three minutes) represents why public education needs an unschooling perspective to evolve beyond the local maximum (false peak) on which it is stuck today.

Why the Home- and Unschooling movement now?

When an entrepreneur brings an idea to a venture capitalist, one of the first questions to be answered is, "why now?" Likewise, it is interesting to ask that question of home- and unschooling. Is there something "of the moment" that has enabled this transition? And can we expect it to continue?

I count ten "inflection points," both in the categories of pushing families away from school and pulling families toward a real alternative:
  1. Schools as test prep: Schools have focused obsessively on their worst feature, for the worst reasons, to the worst result.
  2. Virtual universities: The lock-stepping of schools has been disrupted by the availability of virtual universities, that allow so much more flexibility for taking an alternative to "The One Successful Academic Path."
  3. More parents working more of the time: The shift to two working parents in increasingly workaholic conditions, while having so many benefits in so many areas and putting many brilliant people in the workforce where they are desperately needed, nevertheless puts a higher dependency on the schools from the parents than the other way around.
  4. Technology as a selective school replacement: Any student with a computer and a connection has access to more content than in almost any university thirty years ago.
  5. Technology as childhood context: The difference in the use of technology between teacher and student is the generation gap that may be impossible to overcome. Students now speak a different language than their teachers.
  6. Schools crumbling under their own bureaucratic weight: At some point, most organizations generate so many rules, policies, precautions, safeguards, and members of the old guards that they just seize up and stop being viable organizations. Where possible, such as in the private sector, they go bankrupt. Schools, as institutions, may have just reached that point where they have stopped working, but it is hard to tell.
  7. Increased use of legal pharmaceuticals in school: The introduction of the massive, legal, and recommended drugging of students is seen by many as both a seamless continuation of the current trajectory of schools as well as a near-criminal offense.
  8. Criminalization of student behavior: Zero-tolerance policies, and the increased relying on police officers in schools, have created environments where schools are high-risk traps for children rather than ladders. Middle schoolers are always ten seconds away from being permanently branded as sexual predators, racists, terrorists, or other criminals.
  9. Cost of schools:  The cost of colleges is finally recognized as being ruinous.   But the over-reach of most schools' involvement in a community has created an environment of chronic under-fundedness.   If schools' budgets increase more slowly than their ambitions, lack of money becomes a common complaint and excuse. 
  10. Assumption of College:  That college is now assumed as a check box for white collar jobs is both a form of economic inflation for most families and a force for deflation for the value of any college program. 
This list is far from complete. But it is so easy to see why families view schools with contempt and fear, not respect and pride. And if each of these factors increase, we should expect to see more people opting out.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bill Gates following more, but not enough, of the Unschooling Rules

Bill Gates, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week (see summary here: http://www.eschoolnews.com/2012/07/17/bill-gates-why-game-based-learning-is-the-future-of-education/), finally expressed his advocacy for some of the Unschooling Rules.  Specifically, he now supports Unschooling Rules:
#21. Is it better to be “A Great Reader” than “Addicted to Computer Games”? (Computer games are a more useful media model than books for many critical skills)
#9. Sitting through a classroom lecture is not just unnatural for most people, it is painful. 
#16. Embrace all technologies. 
#27. The ideal class size isn’t thirty, or even fifteen, but more like five. 
#24. Teaching is leadership. Most teaching is bad leadership. (Student directed learning is more powerful than institution directed learning). 
#33. In education, customization is important like air is important.
#42. Grouping students by the same age is just a bad idea. 
#26. Biologically, the necessary order of learning is: explore, then play, then add rigor.
This is exciting for me, of course.  I believe the adherence to any of the Unschooling Rules is local progress.  Following just one rule, and making changes based on it, improves the student experience.  

But it is also frustrating  Real, transformative change will only happen when at least 40% of The Rules are followed, and perhaps more like 60%,  And until transformative change happens, until we get off of the false peak of today's school model, changes won't last once the dollars stop flowing.  

While Bill Gates loudly proclaims his new found enthusiasm for some of the Unschooling Rules, he has decided to ignore so many of the others.  For example:
#3. Learn something because you need it or because you love it. 
#13. Include meaningful work. 
#32. Schools are designed to create both winners and losers.
#53. Parents care more than any institution about their children. (As opposed to the current school meme/self-fulfilling prophecy that parents are the enemy.) 
#43. Minimize “the drop-off.”
#50. Outdoors beats indoors. 
#55. The only sustainable answer to the global education challenge is a diversity of approaches. 
#12. Internships, apprenticeships, and interesting jobs beat term papers, textbooks, and tests.
And Unschooling Rules #49, College: the hardest no-win decision your family may ever make, surprisingly accepted by more and more families, he is resisting.  (As long as the ponzi scheme/ bought credentialism  of colleges exists, students and parents have to engage in their own version of Hunger Games every year.)

I am honored that some of my early positions (such as 'computer games are a great model for educational media') are becoming mainstream.  I am happy that more influential people are embracing more of the Unschooling Rules.  And I am impatient - but there is more than that.  I greatly worry that the picking and choosing of the more accepted of the Unschooling Rules is a recipe for failure more than pragmatism.  The current school system has developed an ever growing competency of getting grant money and attention.  If they can get plenty of both, while making only cosmetic changes, the effect is more 'inoculation' than 'path to cure.'  The systems, rather than improving, may be getting more entrenched, and harder to change for future generations.

The Unschooling Rules are spreading like wildfire. For examples of The Rules in public discourse, Go Here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

How would Steve Jobs Do Training and Education?

I was asked by a certain company a question.  How would Steve Jobs do training and education?

The New Old Software Development
My first answer is the bottom right of the three charts.  In terms of software (and hardware) development, the simplest answer is 1) Create tools that don't need training. Use skeuomorphic designs.  Provide rich feedback.  Use icons and other visuals well.

Then, because that is not always possible, 2) Provide just in time context support for specific features, such as bubble help.  For real-world hardware, this will also increasingly include a layer of just in time training that can be triggered by tags (such as barcades or QR Codes) or even shapes  (an airplane maintenance worker takes a photograph on a mobile device (including Google Glasses) of a broken part, and this triggers the material on how to fix it).

The third aspect is "The Tool is the Philosophy."  The development of software assumes and codifies processes on how to do a task outside of simply using the software.  So increasingly the best way to learn a subject (even at a deep and philosophical level) is around engaging the tool.

One way to learn project management is to master a tool on project management. Math curricula for most non-Math majors should be shaped almost entirely by a modern spreadsheet.  Similarly, new tools bring forth, not just capture, new philosophies.  The existence of Facebook and Tumblr changes what MBA students need to know.  Finally, certain technologies update skills.  The skill of spelling is less important in the era of spell checkers.

The New Old Training
Having said that, there is plenty of training that happens (or should happen) outside the use of tools.  For these, I submit the model of The New Old Training.  Here (depicted on the bottom left of the three models), training organizations produce three types of content for which iPhones, iPads, and iPods have been optimized .  
  • The first is sims (simulations and serious games), using today's casual games as a guide for scope and production values.  I might look at PopCap as a model vendor here, with such games as Plants vs. Zombies.  These are easy to engage, slick, with humor and other forms of personality.  These will not just teach competence but more importantly conviction.
  • The second "deliverable" from the new old training group would be a Kahn Academy-esque video and podcast library.  Here, low production value, short videos and MP3s (some user submitted) on a range of relevant area can be made available (and, on occasion, pushed out).  
  • Finally, communities, such as modeled by StackOverflow.com, provide places for people to engage around both shallow and very deep issues.
All three of these New Old Training models use tracking methods, including awarding of achievements and other gamification techniques.  The methodologies used to put hard certifications on soft activities (badges for status in a chat room) allow organization to measure and prescribe a wider range of activities.

The New Old Education
Finally, all learning has to happen in a context (hopefully intrinsically motivating, but often not).  The New Old Education (upper middle diagram) is a complete reversal of the current industrial model.  Education systems (K through College) should be dedicated to helping students:
  • find out at what skills they are better than almost everyone else, and 
  • identify what their personal missions are (what problems in the world they find most motivating).  
Any functioning education system would then help students connect their unique gifts with their mission by: 

The more people are self motivated, the less broad training is needed.  But "best practices" communities and other deep content are still critically important.  

It is impossible for me to answer the question, "How would Steve Jobs do training?"  But it is easy to imagine the future of education being much richer than the past.