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Friday, December 28, 2012

And then there is the singing the praise of schools by the top 1% of students...

I was happily reading Leon Wieseltier's essay in The New Republic called, Education is the Work of Teachers, not Hackers.  It is a piece worth respecting.

But there is a meta-point that just has to be made.

There are these people, let's call them the "highly academically aligned".

These people started as successful students.  They were in the top 5% or 1% of their class.  Some may say they were the smartest (partially true), but I look at them as much as people who had skill sets that also aligned very well with what the school was offering.  And they were praised a lot. These people then were awarded placement into the best universities, were they attended, and almost inevitably went on to get advanced degrees in some form of the humanities.  Finally, these people got jobs that aligned with the writing/analysis/cultural literacy skill set honed by today's education system, such as being reporters, columnists, novelists, or university professors. (These jobs may be going away, but that is a different issue.)

And now these people praise school.  

They don't praise school as any self-aware person might, such as saying, "Obviously, I was the exception.  I was very lucky. I was the 1% for whom the current version of formal education was designed - solitary, studious, and analytical - not the 99% for whom it was not.  I realize now that my seemingly personal experience was deeply subsidized, financially and emotionally, by the other students, including those around me and those students I never met. In the system in which I thrived, my A's were only possible by other's C's, D's, and F's.  I pushed off against these people to propel myself forward, rather than helping others to the best of my gifts. It is a bizarre environment, artificial and wasteful by any standard, yet one for which I was better suited than most. Schools lifted me up, but using the research skills and intellectual honesty I learned in school I have realized for how many students the opposite effect occurred."

Instead, these people say things like "Schools change all of our lives.  They enrich all of civilization   They put people on better paths.  If you work hard, (and play by my rules... er, the rules), you will succeed. Everyone should spend a lot of time in school." They say, "Schools are fair places and level playing fields where anyone can thrive" rather than saying "schools are brutal places where more than half the students will lose by design."

This is akin to the person, similarly hard-working and intelligent, who builds a very successful company and says, "Everyone should love capitalism."  Or a lawyer at the top of her game saying, "Our greatest achievement is the law." Or a successful athlete saying, "Football is the most wonderful activity ever created."

At best, these academically aligned 1 percenters are seemingly happily oblivious to their success in a zero sum environment as a driver for their love of the institutions.  They seem unaware of the happy dice roll that presented to them an institution, ready made, that is aligned with both their gifts and mission.

At worst, however, these people know that only by having a continuous full classroom can their own top-of-the-heap status endure.  Any traditional university employee or ongoing beneficiary wants that annuity.  Even some highly aligned alums crave their alma mater's status to grow, and the more people that supports the school system  status quo, the higher value their own affiliation becomes.

The tell-tale sign - the give away, the gaff - in their argument is always a variations of the statement: "No matter how bad most schools are, everyone should go, and the longer the better.  People who only sit in classrooms through high school are losers.  And don't quit after undergraduate.  Get a PhD!  Education must only be defined as time spent in school."

Instead, to encourage the potential of students and of schools, not just use the institutions for personal ego support, one has to be willing to say to all children, "Give it weeks, even months, but if an environment doesn't help you with your gifts and mission, find one that does."


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Unschooling Rules Scorecard 2012

Unschooling Rules is a list of 55 ideas, derived from my interviews with homeschoolers and unschoolers, to evolve how people imagine and evaluate education.  Over the next decade, these ideas will trickle up and become more accepted, as they move through the various categories of:
  • Crazy talk: Ideas are viewed as dangerous and subversive to education.
  • Let me think about that, just not now: Ideas are not rejected out of hand, but not seen as overly relevant either, and not prioritized.
  • Yes, but be realistic: Ideas make sense, but are just incompatible with how school is structured.
  • OMG! Thought-leading breakthrough: Ideas are realized to be transformation to how education is delivered.  Foundations tend to put money here.
  • Pilot ready:  Ideas are considered close to mainstream.  Academic PhD organizations such as the National Science Foundation put money here.
  • Standard Operating Procedure: Ideas are accepted and widely implemented.
Given that, for the sake of comparison to future years, I thought I would put forth this baseline and scorecard for end of 2012.

Standard Operating Procedure
None of the Unschooling Rules ideas are currently thought of as common sense and standard operating procedure.

Pilot Ready
Food continues to be understood as a key to successful learning, as well as a microcosm of learning and education itself.  Computer games are also being better understood as the template for a new kind of educational media. There is a frustration with the lack of practicality of most skills taught.    Finally, math is being looked at less as rules to follow in a pure, perfect bubble world and more as tools for interacting with the real world, from science to entrepreneurship.

Unschooling Rules:
15. If you care about learning, start with food.
21. Is it better to be “A Great Reader” than “Addicted to Computer Games”?
18. One computer + one spreadsheet software program = math curricula.
5. Don’t worry about preparing students for jobs from an Agatha Christie novel.

OMG! Thought-leading breakthrough
The role of a four -year, boarding college has shifted, from being thought of as absolutely necessary for a productive, creative life to increasingly being challenged on all fronts.  Inverted classrooms  where students work as groups and do background learning individually, are being explored.  Portfolios (and badges) are trumping transcripts.  Technologies are shifting from being the enemy of schools to a possible savior.  MOOCs and other radical and exciting new approaches (including homeschooling)  are being explored.  The idea of educational diversity as inherently being valuable is gaining some acceptance.  And new models of testing are being expanded and prepared to be implemented (through such efforts as PARCC).

Unschooling Rules:
49. College: the hardest no-win decision your family may ever make.
9. Sitting through a classroom lecture is not just unnatural for most people, it is painful.
17. Listen while doing.
46. The future is portfolios, not transcripts.
45. Tests don’t work. Get over it. Move on.
55. The only sustainable answer to the global education challenge is a diversity of approaches.
26. Biologically, the necessary order of learning is: explore, then play, then add rigor.
16. Embrace all technologies.

Yes, but be realistic
Curricula still remain bloated.  The role of true customization is still thought of as a theoretical nice-to-have rather than  necessary for all education systems.  21st century skills such as leadership and project management are understood to be desirable but there is no clear path to developing and evaluating them.  STEM projects are driving a build rather than consume mentality. 

Unschooling Rules:
2. Focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic.
33. In education, customization is important like air is important.
12. Internships, apprenticeships, and interesting jobs beat term papers, textbooks, and tests.
4. Twenty-five critical skills seldom taught, tested, or graded in high school.
23. Build more, consume less.
37. Feed passions and embrace excellence.
47. Keep a focused journal.
19. Have a well-stocked library.

Let me think about that, just not now
We collectively are still in the "School doesn't work.  Let's do more of it" mentality  The barrier between schools and the productive world remain as impermeable as always. Few or no politicians or other leaders have a vision for education.

These ideas are not seen as worth exploring and prioritizing:

Unschooling Rules:
10. Animals are better than books about animals.
6. Avoid the academic false dichotomy of “The Cultural Literacy Track” or “The Vocational Track.”
8. What a person learns in a classroom is how to be a person in a classroom.
13. Include meaningful work.
14. Create and use periods of reflection.
1. Learn to be; learn to do; learn to know.
3. Learn something because you need it or because you love it.
7. Throughout life, everyone unschools most of the time.
11. Use microcosms as much as possible in learning programs.
20. Read what normal people read.
50. Outdoors beats indoors.
51. Walk a lot.
42. Grouping students by the same age is just a bad idea.
48. Use technology as assessment.

Crazy Talk
School as day care remains the standard moodel.  A directive leadership model still dominates.  School is still set up to evaluate students along a narrow, bell-curve model.

Several "rules" on the list, including "36. Fifteen models that are better for childhood learning than schools are (such as community plays and pick-up sports)" has lost ground over the last decade, once being Standard Operating Procedure.

These ideas are not yet considered acceptable:

Unschooling Rules:
24. Teaching is leadership. Most teaching is bad leadership.
25. Expose more, teach less.
22. Formally learn only what is reinforced during the next 14 days (you will forget everything else anyway).
27. The ideal class size isn’t thirty, or even fifteen, but more like five.
53. Parents care more than any institution about their children.
54. Children should be raised by people who love them.
41. Socialize your children. Just don’t use schools to do it.
43. Minimize “the drop-off.”
44. Increase exposure to non–authority figure adults.
36. Fifteen models that are better for childhood learning than schools are.
34. There is no one answer to how to educate a child. There may not be any answers.
28. One traditional school day includes less than 3 hours of formal instruction and practice, which you can cover in 2.
29. Homework helps school systems, not students.
30. Every day, adults are role models of learning (whether or not they want to be).
31. Avoid the Stockholm syndrome.
32. Schools are designed to create both winners and losers.
39. Five subjects a day? Really?
35. Be what schools pretend to be, not what schools are.
38. Children learn unevenly, even backwards.
40. Maturing solves a lot of problems.
52. Under-schedule to take advantage of the richness of life.

This is 2012.  I am very optimistic that 2013 will see many of these ideas move up.

Unschooling Rules was published by Greenleaf.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Still think PhD's and Educators should be in charge of reforming schools?

This may be my new "most chilling quote:"

“Educators were much more upbeat than either college graduates or employers about graduates' preparation for the work force. Seventy-two percent of educators felt the graduates were ready for entry-level jobs, while only 45 percent of the graduates and 42 percent of the employers shared their optimism.”

- Katherine Mangan, Educators, Employers, and Jobless Graduates Point Fingers at Roots of Unemployment, The Chronicle of Higher Education

It will replace this one:

“Managers of educational programs from both academics and corporate, when asked about relative importance in a simulation program, ranked ease of deployment (57.4% said it was very important and 37.2 said it was important), over every other category, including “provides a strong return on investment” (34.6% very important/ 41.4% important) and “fun and exciting for participants” (50.2%/28.4%).”

- eLearning Guild’s landmark report,  Immersive Learning Simulations, March 1, 2007 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Government agencies may want to do comprehensive clinical trials in education BEFORE it gives advice and creates standards

In medicine, as epitomized by cancer research, there are 5-year, 10-year, even 20-year studies to look at patterns and effectiveness of various approaches. But when it comes to education, there are simply a lot of people arguing very hard for specific curricula, approaches, and standards based on, well, nothing. Typically, the loudest and most persistent voices shape government policy.

We desperately need national clinical studies in education. Some I would like to see are, what is a correlation between:
  • Learning pre-calculus as a student and comfortably using math at age 30?
  • Studying literature as a student and applying ethics and exploring what makes for a good life at age 35?
  • Class ranking in high school and strengths in problem solving at age 40?
  • Studying biology and life expectancy?
  • Grades and happiness in life?
  • Material studied and divorce rate? Or number of career options at age 30? Or drug and alcohol dependency?
And this is just the beginning. One question is, why don't these studies exist? Why aren't people demanding that for the billions that are spent, there is not 1% to figure out if all of this money is doing some good?

Of what are we so afraid? And why does it take unschoolers to bear the brunt of questioning dogma?

Obviously any study wouldn't get it right the first time. But don't we owe it to our children and their children to develop the methodology and processes to be then calibrated?

There is a final irony. When it comes to science, Federal education committees are more interested in advocating every student "learn" it than the committees themselves actually using and applying it.  Said another way, let's only act as if we have answers, and optimize a process\ around them, when we actually do.  And where we don't have answers, let's embrace a diversity of solutions and approaches.

See also: In education conversations, the mutually assured destruction is "Prove it!"

** A final note.  Most education research tries to frame the learning process using the same deterministic models as physics/industrial manufacturing.  The goal is to find the steps/learning theory that "works", and then apply those steps with greater and greater rigor.  Perhaps a new approach to research is needed.