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Friday, September 28, 2012

What goes into a knowledge community...

My own strategy has been to balance research and development in different segments' approaches to learning, including corporate, academic, and military.  Here is one of my favorite visualizations from one, now-defunct vendor aimed at serving corporations (and that I used in my first book Simulations and the Future of Learning), but the framework presented is relevant to all.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Teacher Unions Should Push for More Aligned Curricula

Unions and politicians continue to argue over how much teachers should be judged by the results of standardized tests.  But this misses the real point.

Consider this reasonable premise:  School systems test, measure, and reward only a very small percentage of skills that a team needs to be valuable in the productive world (for some of the missing skills, go here)*.  Even the oft repeated argument that schools really teach so much more than the curricula is harder to defend in this era of increased "rigor".

If true, this has two financial implications for school systems:
  • First, our society will only grow so quickly with a paucity of needed skills.  This means that we collectively cannot afford all of what schools can and arguably should offer, such as rich after-school programs and higher teacher salaries. 
  • Second, the success that former students do experience in the productive world can only partially be tied back to school experiences.  In other words, people believe they more often succeed despite the foundation of skills learned in school not because of it.  
The argument over using metrics to evaluate teachers is moot.  Of course we must.  But in this era of misaligned curricula, both sides are on a doomed path.  Unions (and the Academic Ph.d. Guild) have to passionately drive change towards aligning rather than legacy content.  Only by fixing what is taught, and more importantly, how, can we fix this less than zero-sum game and move purposefully into the future.

* This chart visualizes the charitable model that schools don't teach wasted or wrong skills, just incomplete.  

As an aside, this leads to an interesting paradox.  If Unschooling Rules is true - if more time in schools beyond a certain point leads to a less prepared workforce as it displaces important other activities (see places to learn for examples) - then the school system strategy of growing funding through increasing school hours delivered may be long term counter-productive and self-defeating by creating a stag-flation school hours effect.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Obama's Big Gaffe: "Education... is the gateway to a middle-class life."

In politics, a gaffe is defined as accidentally telling the truth. Obama made what I consider to be a jaw-dropping gaffe last night in his acceptance speech in Charlotte last night. He said, "Education... is the gateway to a middle-class life."

This is a true statement. The goal of education, as currently structured, is to be a gateway to a middle-class life. However, there are at least three problems that we as citizens should be rightfully concerned.

1. What if you are already middle-class? Education becomes a static holding pattern. What if you are upper-middle class? Education, then, will bring you down to average by design.

2. The success rate, even at this goal of transferring lower-class to middle-class, is pretty bad. Individual tales of success sound great, but the average is terrible.  In part, this is because very few high schoolers aspire to middle class.

3. The middle-class is currently not doing that well.  Specifically, many traditional middle-class jobs and career paths - the kind prepared for by most school programs - are going away. Which mean, for many people, education is the real bridge to nowhere.  Middle class isn't even the path to middle class anymore.

I appreciate, if you are a national leader, there are two facts that are driving your investments.

First, poor kids who go to college are more likely to become productive members of society than poor kids who do not.

Second, the country needs more technological know-how.  Obama said, and I agree, "No company should have to look for workers in China because they couldn't find any with the right skills here at home."  We badly need (a relatively few) more engineers and scientists.

However, most families are neither extremely wealthy nor extremely poor, and most children won't be great scientists, nor are they in the top 5% of their class. It is to these great swaths of people - students and their families - that school feels like a disconnected activity, designed for someone else, and an experiment on auto-pilot.  That is why there are over 2 million homeschoolers today, and that number is growing.

The biggest issue is that no politician that I have heard has a vision for education that is inclusive of more than 30% of our population. On both sides of the aisle, useless metrics such as "percentage of students who go to college" are used as if they matter. (See In Education, Right and Wrong Questions).

In the absence of leadership on both sides, I would like to suggest three planks to my vision for education.

I.  The goal of education is to help students find their gifts (where they are better than most), find their passions and mission (the challenges they most want to solve), and opportunities and ultimately careers to align the two. Education that is not individualistic is useless.

II.  Education requires world-class media.  This includes textbooks and tests, but also simulations, social media, and search engines.  The quality of most education is hobbled by the quality of the media used.  Electronic Arts and Columbia Pictures and Google can spend millions on high quality media.  Why can't education?

III.  There must never be "the one right way" of education.  Monocultures, especially those shaped by the needs of less than 20%, expensively fail.  Education must be a rich ecosystem, not a tightrope.

Obama spoke the truth last night.  "Education... is the gateway to a middle-class life."  But if that continues to be the primary goal, we will continue with our treadmill system that will let down more and more.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Exuberant Animal

A continued challenge for all schools is figuring out both the role of play and the role of a classroom.  Here, for me, is a missing piece:

Frank Forencich is the inspirational Chief Creative Officer of Exuberant Animal (www.exuberantanimal.com). His organization is re-teaching high performing corporations the necessity and business value of active kinesthetic play (computer games don't count!). He is to the physical what Thiagi is to the verbal - a master at getting to huge issues through interactivity and engagement.

I recorded this segment of him addressing, and then engaging in serious play, a large group of executives, at my Seattle conference Serious Play. (Sadly, we didn't have time to go outside, as Frank would have preferred!)

To the degree we have organized learning, this is what it should look like.

If I could suggest just one activity for all groups (DOE, Foundations, Academic "Researchers") that (try to) help evolve schools, it would be to spend a day with Frank Forencich. He is my nominee for the Gates Foundation's Education Board if they actually wanted to improve education, rather than compliance with schools.

The Science is Compelling
Relevant Unschooling Rules
#unnrules09: Sitting through a classroom lecture is not just unnatural for most people, it is painful

#unrules26: Biologically, the necessary order of learning is: explore, then play, then add rigor.

#unrules36: Fifteen models that are better for childhood learning than schools are: Pick-up sports: experience existential play and find balance.

#unrules50: Outdoors beats indoors

"Instructors are to educational media what doctors are to pharmaceuticals" - A Missing Chapter from Simulations and the Future of Learning

One central premise of all of my work is that our reliance on traditional linear media (books, term papers, paper based tests, and filmstrips) has resulted in a predictably shaped curriculum that over-emphasizes some skills (such as analysis and recounting timelines) while under-emphasizing others (such as leadership or project management). In fact, the "affordances of media used" shape what can and is taught in schools, even more so than national need or desire.   I later attempted to make this argument in the introduction to The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games, called The Campfire and the Veld.

Another parallel analogy that has persisted with me is, "instructors are to educational media what doctors are to pharmaceuticals".  (Or, in some cases, "instructors are to educational media what fast food workers are to frozen food".)  As I was thinking about this, I stumbled upon this chapter I had written about a decade ago for my 2003 book, Simulations and the Future of Learning ,but that was later edited out of the final edition.

Media shapes our schools more than unions, budgets, even national will.  In a world when Electronic Arts has figured out how to spend 40 million on new computer games, and Hollywood spends 100 million on new movies, our collective failure to create a pipeline of great educational media is a scandal that overshadows and makes ridiculous any jabs at, for example, teacher unions.

Here is the missing chapter from 2003.

Many years ago, the original “aspirin” was made from white willow trees; then the early pharmaceutical companies found that with the addition of coal tar to salicylic acid, the action of the aspirin would be stronger and with a more long lasting effect.
- Carol Geck, Birch for bones, flesh, cartilage, skin and eyes, May 2000 Idaho Observer.


It is so hard to imagine a young pharmaceuticals industry, asking customers to ingest smelly powders and liquids to fix problems previously unfixable (or requiring invasive surgery), sometimes working, sometimes not.

Did the early proprietors of apothecaries dream of the miracle drugs to come?  Could they imagine, as they crushed their minerals and bark and sold “pick me ups” next to perfumed water and luxury soaps, the industry that would grow up to utterly change the world?

It is equally hard for all of us, as instructors are reformatting their PowerPoint slides on the weekends, to imagine that e-learning will follow a similar path. And yet, it has already begun.

Changing the course of nations

As with life-extending drugs, e-learning is transformative in nature; it will change what people do, when they do it, and how they do it.

Today, you probably have better health care than kings and presidents had one hundred years ago, at a much lower cost (inflation adjusted!).  Within our lifetime, anyone will be able to access business, medical or legal courses that make today’s top schools look like absurd in comparison.  “Why did we think that would work,” history will ask us of today’s schools.

Just as many areas were able to skip generations in telecommunications, moving right to cell phones without building telephone poles and wires, regions in China, India, Africa, the United States, or South America will be able to move in ten years from having unskilled to skilled populations. This today would take at least three generations.

This will be one of the core engines to elevate our children to the next standard of living.

High Upfront Costs

This is exciting, but it will not be easy.  Like pharmaceutical companies, e-learning vendors will have to be highly innovative, with tremendous research and development budgets.
This is all the more important because of the young age of the e-learning industry. Vendors, standards bodies – and even worse, industry spokespeople -- talking about the process and theory for creating online courses, sound a bit like doctors in 1890 talking about the purifying spirit of fire or the role of vapors. There is not yet a human genome project on e-learning’s horizon – but we now at least have the equivalent of aspirin.

But low cost deployment

For e-learning vendors, the cost of deploying any course that is already created will continue to be small – much like the cost of making a few more pills. A vendor’s incremental costs for adding another student will be less than one percent of the retail cost.  If the new student pays a thousand dollars for the course, it’s costing the vendor less than ten dollars for the administrative and support needs of that student.

Moral Dilemmas

These three realities – high R&D, the product’s transformative nature and the low incremental cost of expansion -- strongly favor consolidation among vendors.

They also introduce the political dilemma the pharmaceutical industry is facing right now: What happens when underdeveloped countries ask for products at a low cost?  Will our industry have a moral obligation to educate needy people? Some e-learning companies are already donating courses to welfare-to-work programs, which is a generous but dangerous precedent-setting move.

Privacy, too, will become an important issue in the e-learning industry. Our lifelong learning portfolio, containing a record of every course we’ve ever taken and how we scored on each one, will be as much of a target to marketers and future employers as our medical records.

A Changing Profession

One of the most interesting relationships in the pharmaceutical industry is the one between vendors and doctors. While doctors are not being replaced, their role has changed permanently because of drugs. One of their primary outputs is to dispense the right medication to the right people at the right time, both instead of and in addition to surgery.

Learning professionals at corporations – and college professors, too – will see their roles changing in a similar way.  E-learning will both accompany and selectively replace other types of content.

E-learning will fragment into two types of products: over-the-counter (an off-the-shelf course on sexual harassment) and prescription-only (a custom-developed course on the company’s new sales process), the latter being significantly more expensive.

Some e-learning pundits advocate dropping the “e” in e-learning and just focusing on the learning.  To me, that makes about as much sense as dropping the phrase “pharmaceutical” and just focusing on good health.  It represents the right alignment, but not the right structure.  E-learning will increasingly, not decreasingly, require highly specialized skills.

Maybe a better analogy for learning professionals is the role of doctors hired by professional sports teams. They are often forced to make choices between an individual athlete’s health and the overall goals of the team. For e-learning leaders of the future, the challenge will be to weigh the needs of the organization that pays them against the needs of the learners looking to them for help.

Major Export

E-Learning will also turn into a major export of a few companies, including the Unites States, India, Ireland, and Israel.  It will eventually represent billions of dollars of revenue to the right organizations.

Globalization and E-Learning

Even if the time frame is uncertain, the future of e-learning is assured because of the critical role it has to play.  We are all just understanding that globalization and e-learning are inextricably linked.  It is impossible for one to out-pace the other for very long. In fact, the globalization of the 1990’s created large numbers of “have-nots” that were resentful and worked violently against globalization at the beginning of the new millennia.

On a more micro level, globalization without e-learning is self-limiting because:
  • Too few technical skills exist to maintain and build the infrastructure (as we saw with IT workers in the late 1990’s). 
  • We need everyone!  Too many of today’s “have not’s” are brilliant and hard-working.  Given the economic value of just a few great ideas, we are suppressing ourselves as much as a 70% tax rate.
  • We all are crippled in our ability to communicate meaningfully with people who are different, both within and outside of our enterprises and cultures.  This created the interpersonal equivalent of incompatible technical standards.
E-learning without globalization would be equally self-limiting because:
  • The size of audience would not be sufficient to create next generation courses;
  • People in under connected regions would be less interested in taking courses if the opportunity did not exist to practice and benefit from the new skills; and
  • The technology infrastructure to deploy and run the content wouldn’t exist. 
Only by increasing both in concert will growth be sustainable.  The opportunities to participate that are currently taken advantage by a few can then be taken advantage by nearly all. And when this happens, the world is in for quite a revolution.