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Old Traditions Die Hard

As has always been the case, schools in the early 21st century are trying to reinvent themselves.  The model is broken. Modern times calls for something new. Achievement is not what it could be.  And so on.

Today we read about flipped classrooms, tablet/tech support for learning, blended learning, amongst other fads.  I mean “fads” seriously.  These ideas will not fix the problem with traditional education because they are more superficial solutions.  “Playing around at the edges” as I call it.  These are not educational innovations that cut to the core assumptions of education.  What are those core assumptions?

  • that learning means remembering
  • that learning can be measured by test taking
  • that learning is about “pouring knowledge into the learner”
  • learning can be packaged in a one size fits all approach

That’s enough to get going.

Until traditional education is willing to look at its soul, to see that its very identity is rotten, it will not be able to remake itself into anything truly valuable to all children, learners, students.  Learning is not about “acquiring”, it is about “becoming” and “constructing”.  Each of us is in a process of becoming from the day of our birth.  We construct ourselves out of our experiences in our environment, equipped with the DNA package we carry.  Education needs to focus on what that environment needs to offer the individual learner, so that s/he can have access to the necessary “stuff of becoming”. Provide a person with the raw material to build themself up from, then stand aside and let them do so.  Learning is an active process for the learner.  If they are not the active one, then the path to actual learning is closed.

Flip your classrooms, incorporate technology, and otherwise tinker with the model all you want.  In five or ten years you’ll be reaching for some other idea that will change education and truly make it effective, and it will always be a distant goal… just out of reach… if only….

Yes, we all had the experience, and it was never fun.  Some of us experienced more boredom than we did meaningful engagement – true indictment of the system.

When I read this piece in Education Week online, I couldn’t  help but think, “it’s just so wrong that we even have to talk about so much boredom happening.  Why can’t we move to a system where students are actually engaged?”  Then we don;t have to worry about “why” someone is bored, and how they can better manage their boredom, and whose fault it is, and so on.

Such systems exist.  Want true “engagement”? Then study what creates it in/for people.  One source of this is the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his “flow” theory.   Flow is that state that most of us know at least to some extent.  It’s when your skill level or a particular task intersects with the challenge level of the task itself.  The optimal experience is then possible since you are neither bored nor overwhelmed.

What we need are schools that allow students to find flow in their work.  This can only happen when there is self-direction, control over the work, an amount of time that the learner requires – i.e. not dictated by a timetable, a bell or a teacher’s direction – and immediate feedback on how one is doing.  Montessori schools allow for all this.  They place the learner at the center, respect the fact that each learner is unique and needs to take the time s/he needs at any given moment and for any given task or problem, amongst other things.

Csikszentmihalyi has actually studied Montessori schools from the perspective of the flow experience that is available there. You can find some of that story here and here.

SO much more is possible than what most students find in school today, and that’s sad.  School continues to be a negative experience for so many, a place to endure and look for the light at the end of the tunnel.  And we want “lifelong learners” to emerge when the experience we’ve presented them with is unattractive at best and dismal at worst?

 

What does it take to learn? What is important to learn?  And what’s the best way to deliver on this?

These are fundamental questions in education. Like any discovered truth, it’s often the case that different people come up with the same solution or idea because the truth is the truth- it’s there for anyone to discover.

A solid developmental approach to education is based on some fundamental ideas: that each person learns in their own way and in their own time, and that learning is really discovering.  We know that all children/people take different amounts of time to learn the same thing and that learning is NOT about merely remembering.  Some researchers have been finding this out too: in a 2011 study a researcher concluded, “The bottom line is, if you’re not the one controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.”  That’s because “knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration.”

The last part here is what Montessori’s developmental approach is built upon.  It is the core of the Montessori approach – Dr. Montessori long ago recognized that learning is “constructed” not “recorded”.  Other current research suggests that “kids given no instruction were much more likely to come up with novel solutions to a problem.”  There is really no lack of evidence for the value of “learning by doing and discovering” over “teaching as telling”.

In today’s world this is increasingly important for all to understand because “innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.”  And you don’t learn these in a conventional school model.

If you find the above interesting you might enjoy the article it was based on, found here:

http://www.wired.com/business/2013/10/free-thinkers/2/

February 2, 2013

AN OPEN LETTER TO BILL GATES

Dear Bill,

Stop. Pause at least. In the name of all that you hold dear.  In order to truly and fully realize that which you have spent so much time, energy and money to achieve and advance in the world of education, hear me out.  In order to serve the children of the globe that you some much want to serve, hear me out.

You are a man of great vision.  You see integrated systems for what they are.  You understand and appreciate the integration of disparate elements, the connections that bind these systems together.  Gladwell was wrong, as I’ve told many people: it is NOT the case that any other person who happened to be in your shoes would have made the choices, taken the risks and achieved what you achieved had they just been in your shoes.  You, only you, did what you did.  Gladwell is a jealous hater of people who achieve.  Decades ago you saw and described what the world still does not have but is slowly moving towards: the technologically integrated home.  A home where HVAC systems, refrigerators, stereos, etc all operate with an integrated technology controllable remotely via technology and also operated “smartly” by internal technological monitoring. But one example.

In the sphere of education, of child development, you have given millions of dollars.  Around the world you have helped countless children with medical support.  How you have dedicated your time since stepping down from leading Microsoft to raise the bar for children everywhere, in many ways, is remarkable, praiseworthy, bold and honorable.

But you are misguided, I respectfully submit.  That you seek what best serves children and the world I do not doubt.  That you have missed some essential things, though, boggles my mind.  It’s not possible that you are not aware of them. It’s not possible that the evidence in support of what truly serves children has not been available to you.

The newspaper I read the other day had a story in it about how “Bill Gates says we need to grade teachers”.  Really?  This is the solution to the problems in education?  Even if only a small part of your education reform platform, it’s so far off the mark, so irrelevant to the meaningful first things that need attention that it is misguided.  It’s like saying that the PC of 1985 had some issues and that the first thing to turn our attention to was the design of the mouse.

I am not here coming to the support of school teachers.  I do not write from the perspective of teachers’ unions. To paraphrase Seuss’s The Lorax, “I speak for the children”.

Education needs repair.  That’s an understatement and fails to capture the reality of the situation. It needs overhaul, reform, transformation and evolution.  Education, traditionally defined and understood since the 1850s, got off on the wrong foot. And there it remains, hobbled and failing.  Poorly defined, it has stumbled along, trying to reinvent itself every decade or so, and continuing to underserve children of all ages. As a result it has underserved society as a whole.

We have big problems. We need big solutions.

Education, properly understood, is nothing more than the process of a human being “becoming itself” -from birth to maturity.  It is not about transmitting data or knowledge to the next generation.  It is about guiding a child according to the natural laws of human development.

Airplanes fly because the laws of physics became sufficiently understood to allow a massive hunk of metal (yes, I know that the first planes and flying machines were not made of hunks of metal) to achieve “lift”.  It amazes me that planes fly.  I love them, but it amazes me every time I see a plane in flight that such a thing is possible, yet it most assuredly is.  Planes don’t fly because someone wanted a plane to fly, they fly because they adhere to the laws of physics- which are immutable, unwavering and universal.  The principles which allowed the first plane to fly are the same principles which allow planes to fly today.

Human development also follows principles of growth and development. The best that we can offer all children is to identify and adhere to those principles.  Only then will we be able to serve children in a manner that will meet their needs, and by extension, the needs of society – of humanity.

Mr. Gates, you have it within your power to transform the world.  Do you wish to save children from starvation and war?  Do you wish to stop the killing of youth in the streets of Chicago? Do you wish to support the elevation of children in the villages of Kenya? Do you long for a world where children everywhere have the ability to “become themselves”?  To find that intersection of their talents and their passions, so that they could then offer their personal gifts to the world, contributing those glorious things to the world in which they live?  Of course you do. You are a good man.

The universal laws of child development are not a mystery.  It is not that we lack the insight and tools to discover that which guides life from birth to maturity.  Developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and legions of educators have provided the information that was lacking in 1850.  Today the principles have been identified and codified.  It is called Montessori.

Montessori is not the name of a cult. It is not the name of a theory.  Montessori is simply the name of the woman who turned her eye to identifying what the natural laws of human development are.

Not more did Newton create the law of gravity than did Montessori create the laws of human development.  Both merely looked at nature and wrote down their observations and helped the rest of us understand how something in the world operates.  Gravity isn’t going away and how children develop isn’t about to change any time soon either.

Since the first child appeared on the face of the Earth children have continued to develop according to the same laws of development. That is why they are the laws of development.  The firing of synapses, the process of myelination, the emergence of spoken language, the first smile, the formation of self-esteem, and so on, all happen the same way today, around the globe, as they did 5000 years ago, around the globe.

What Dr. Montessori did for 45 years (1907-1952, the years of her work in education) was to look at the evidence.  In her own words, “I did not invent a method of education, I merely followed the child”.  Spoken like the scientist she was, she served no ulterior motives.  She was not chasing grant money.  She was not answering to corporate or institutional interests.  She was pursuing the truth of how children grow and develop.  She sought one thing: to identify what NATURE has set in motion as to how children universally develop.  And that she did.

No one has written a book, published research or found contrary evidence to show that she was mistaken.

Quite the contrary has occurred.  All of the science of child development has come to support every claim that Dr. Montessori made.  All of her principles of human development have been supported by cognitive and developmental science.  The reason why Montessori has not yet toppled the conventional approach to education is the same as the reason why Copernicus’s ideas took so long to be accepted: they were counter-cultural and touched too many vested interests.  But universal natural truths have a way of abiding.  They do not relent.

The resources exist to find out for yourself.

Mr. Gates, in the name of all that you value, please stop your current focus on changing education.  I appreciate your interests and passion, but you have been misinformed.

The best money you can spend to change education and transform the world, and that is not hyperbole, is to spend it on the first 6 years of life.  Look into the research of the Nobel economist James Heckman at the University of Chicago (http://heckman.uchicago.edu/    and  http://jenni.uchicago.edu/human-inequality/papers/Heckman_final_all_wp_2007-03-22c_jsb.pdf)

Look into the research on self-regulation and executive functions: http://www.devcogneuro.com/AdeleDiamond.html   and  http://www.devcogneuro.com/Publications/Activities_and_Programs_That_Improve_Childrens_Executive_Functions.pdf  and    http://www.goodatdoingthings.com  and   http://youtu.be/faYco1b-IJI  and www.aidtolife.org

Of course, Montessori principles extend beyond the first 6 years of life and have been developed and implemented through the high school level to tremendous success.  I know you know this: your foundation gave money to a Milwaukee public Montessori high school – the most successful of all the high schools you’ve given money to.  Curious?

Thank you for your time.

Mark Berger

mb2424@gmail.com

www.ultimateprep.wordpress.com

 

 

 

happiness “reward”

Happiness is necessary to life.  Without it life drowns in melancholy.

There needs to be an element of happiness in education, in the school day.  If only measured as engagement and flow.  Of course, conventional schools will have none of this.  They break the natural paths to engagement and thus to flow and happiness.  I don’t make this up.  A collaborator of the father of the flow theory has done the research, (more here) and it reveals very clearly that there is an alternative to conventional education that leads to greater happiness in students.  All the while, conventional schools offer the usual model which leads to deadened desire, decreased motivation and making happiness impossible in the pursuit of learning.

Part of the problem is the culture of grades, perfection, error avoidance, etc. All of which take us away from the right route and steer us down the road to disappointment, caution, being bland, etc.  It is always the ones who “step out of line” in school who are reigned in, isn’t it?  How does this relate to the Apple ad of 1997? You know  the one – about misfits/troublemakers/etc.. who change the world.

We need schools that not only “permit” such types to become, thrive and rise up, we need schools that will encourage all to at least go down this road.  No matter where you go on the road, it’s the road to be on, it’s nature’s road.

There was a very salient piece in the Huff Post recently.  The author addressed the topic of what she called “life skills”, then later “executive functions”.  I’ve written significantly about these in this space.  They are the “be all and end all” of education as far as I’m concerned.  Without these you cannot live your life successfully.  Full stop.

Why is this so evident to me? Because life requires you to take command of YOUR life, which requires self-control, efficacy, emotional regulation, communication skills, and the like.  This tangent is what will make it or break it for most.  You can have all the academic smarts possible, but if you haven’t developed the above then life will not be a fulfilling and joyful experience.  I think we all know this.  This is not controversial.

The fact that there is research supporting the long-term effects and benefits of early development of these skills (executive functions, self-regulation) surely will help to get some attention, but the fact that they are essential skills should not be questionable.

So where does this leave us?  We need to get serious with retooling education, that’s where.  There are small glimmers of change here and there, but we can fast-forward very effectively and implement a highly successful model now rather than stumble forward ever so slowly and maybe make a bunch of missteps along the way.  We can do this if we look carefully at Montessori schools.  The Montessori model has an integrated approach to developing these essential life skills along with all the academics you could imagine.

The New Innovators

The crisis is still with us.  Grads look for jobs and don’t find them.  People call for a rescue to save them and others.  There’s despair and longing and a sense of hopelessness.  But not everywhere.  For some there’s a better way.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  The ones you will see rise up today are the ones who can tap into what made this country what it is: intrinsic motivation, perseverance, inventiveness, confidence, curiosity, boldness, independence and courage.

Watch  this music video and what do  you see?  I see two young people ” just doing what needs to be done”.  They put themselves out there.  They are making something of value because they can, and maybe they have to.  Hand-outs are not ever an answer.  Hand-outs train people to wait for help.  It trains them to “rely on” and become DEpendent.    That’s no future.  Maybe it’s just me but the passion and confidence I see in these two is what will carry them.  Never mind the particular song if you don’t care for it – see the souls of these two, their spirit.  I’m not worried about them.

The world is spinning out and we need young people to understand what will get them ahead.  The ones who are capable of rising themselves up will be the ones to make the future, to carry the world forward.  We need education to play a role in nurturing these young people, to show them that this is possible. We don’t need schools that  train them to sit and wait, to follow the rules, to be lead and to just  do what they are told.  Maybe too many generations of that is taking its toll today.

Education needs a reality check today.  It needs to be able to show all students  (i) that they have something inside themselves that they can contribute, (ii) that they can develop the skills to make that contribution.  But that skill development is not what’s on offer in most schools today.  There’s no path there for the innovators and creators.  Half of them are “tamed” with medication to help them “focus” and be calm and controlled.  That’s a shame because the taming also suppresses that which actually makes them tick, that which would unlock their contribution.

So, “cheers” to those who are striking out on their own, who have discovered their contribution.

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