Archive for January, 2011

Really?  Is it truly possible that 50% of Harvard undergrads are “excellent”.  That’s what the grades say.  Today half or more of Harvard undergrads receive a grade of “A”, while fifty years ago that figure was closer to 30%.

Harvard prof Harvey Mansfield spoke about this not long ago.  He describes grade inflation within Ivy League schools a a real problem.  Some are beginning to attempt to address it, but it’s not gone away and not going away any time soon.

So we graduate “excellent” students from “excellent” schools who we routinely hear cannot get the job done, can’t think or write thoroughly or succinctly.

Whether it’s due to post-modernist ideas of “well who are you to judge me?” attitudes, or lingering 1960s era notions of it being “oppressive” for “powerful” college profs to evaluate students, or entitled students of this modern day feeling like the world “owes” them (what, just for existing?)… whatever the explanation, it’s simply another symptom of a system that is broken and beyond mere “fixing” or “reform”.


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In The Social Network then-Harvard President, Larry Summers, tells the twin students who are complaining about having their million-dollar idea stolen: “every Harvard undergrad thinks that he’ll make his own job, not get one – so come up with another idea”.

This echoes what Dan Pink relates in A Whole New Mind – that today, and tomorrow, the “successful” in life will be those who can make something for themselves.  This is why Pink focuses so much on creativity as divergent thinking and on being able to take charge of your self, your  life (esp in his follow-up book Drive – about intrinsic motivation).

How is it the students are to be prepared for this?  They need it today and most have been failed by the system of traditional education which has not developed in them intrinsic motivation (by turning them  into “grade-chasers” and test takers…. which are extrinsic “rewards”).  They also have no idea.. well, that’s it.  No idea(s) about how to do much, how to figure, solve problems, innovate, etc.  You can’t “think of a new idea”, let alone have the perseverance and determination to see it through, if you haven’t been prepared.

As someone commented on a recent post here, I paraphrase, “how do you account for the fact that there ARE innovators in our midst and what about the fact that not everyone can be “great” or “in the top percentile” of idea-generation?”  There are two answers here.  On the last question, it’s true that not every one of us has the potential to be “the best” or the most creative, etc.  Not all are visionaries.  I get that.  BUT, if we have an educational experience that develops is each of us the full potential that we have, we raise the bar (or bell curve) for all.  Imagine a culture where today’s “8” is tomorrow’s “5”- meaning that what we receive today from the “8s” (out of  10) amongst us we then receive from all the “5s”…. what will the 8s give us then?  That’s a culture I wish to live  in.

The first question has two parts to the answer: sure, there will always be those who rise up, who naturally find a way to create, to find themselves, to  propel humanity forward- there always have been.  But do we wish to rely on these?  This takes us to the answer to the second question, above.  Also, I’ve been paying attention to information that shows a trend amongst some innovators (here and here) and successful entrepreneurs (Harvard Bus Review story here here, other links here and here and here) who share a similar education background in alternative independent schools which they attribute to their success because those experiences allowed them to “problem-solve” and “self-direct” by not being “fed” information but rather were provide with opportunities to explore, discover – think.

This quote from Roger Levin sums it up “too  often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve”.

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Listen, if anyone tells you that the “way out” of our present crisis in traditional education is “computers” – just run away.

Computers are no more going to solve any educational problems than changing the color off the paint in the rooms of classrooms.  Going back to the 1980s “computers” were tooted as the savior of all educational problems.  Nothing changed.  Clinton in the 90s talked about “wiring every classroom”… the internet was going to change everything and save all.  Nothing changed.

Computers have done nothing to help children learn or improve how or what they learn.  As Christensen points out in his book Disrupting Class, we’ve “spent billions putting computers into US schools, [and] it has resulted in little change in how students learn”.  He actually thinks that there’s still a way to do it, but he’s mistaken.  Using computers, whether it’s virtual classrooms or allowing greater access to teachers, will not change anything worth talking about.  This is because you haven’t changed anything fundamental.  Until we get to the root of the problem, we’re merely tinkering.

The problem is not one of insufficient information, it’s a problem of “style” – call it that.  It’s the general approach that is faulty – much like “the medium in the message”, the “style is the problem”.  We have to raise our view up to a higher level to see this.

Computers are great, and they have a legitimate place in the process of education.  But they are a tool, a new modern tool alongside pencils, rulers, pens, etc.  Nothing more.  Computers won’t help you develop thought or independence or resourcefulness or adaptability.  These are the things that are lacking and which represent the real “outcomes” that we need to reach for.

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There’s been great lively interest in getting this going.  So, how do we ensure that all the words spilled here, and elsewhere, don’t end up as just words on the electronic page?  How do we take it to the streets and bring about the change?

Here’s my plan.  Create a series of playful/funky youtube videos (could be in the style of \”RSA Animate\” for ex, or a mix of these and others) asking the right questions: HOW do human beings grow/develop/learn?  HOW is human motivation developed and how does it flourish?  What is creativity and how can it be cultivated?  If we can get some traction with these then we can get the word out about what school 2.0 looks like.

Next step: regional “education forums” – L.A., NY, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas….. – where 3-4 guest presenters present the answers to the above questions in a casual and interesting manner (not dry academia).  Once interest is stirred up and answers are offered… then we do it.  Parents/voters have to become moved to demand change from school districts, and this is the ultimate goal.

Also: from a recent book review of Practical Wisdom the reviewer notes “Too many graduate programs… tend to force-feed information into young minds rather than teach them how to use this information to make wise decisions.”  Isn’t this the whole point we’re making here?  Yet another piece of evidence that traditional schools are pushing “information” and NOT the “how to do something with it”.  Again, as has been stated over and over again in this space, the emphasis is on CONTENT and not on thought.  It’s the “empty vessel” syndrome: as if the mere filling-up with information is what “education” is all about.

One more time: “educare”, the Greek root of “education” means “to raise up, rear”.  THIS captures the idea of education as being about “preparation for life” – the ultimate theme of this  blog and the ultimate failure of traditional education.  To “raise up” is to prepare for what will come, to provide the means to be independent and functional in one’s world/environment.  Our traditional system does not a thing in this direction.  This is the biggest problem and failure.  Hence, the themes here.  So, back to bringing this about.

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Okay,  we need specifics on what “fundamental” change/innovation means here.  If the present system of traditional education is simply flawed, then what’s it to look like in an ideal form (do not read “ideal” as “impossible).

A few basics.  Living things, like green bean plants, trees, and penguins…. okay, people too (we’re “living things” after all) do not all develop on the same time schedule.  Plant your garden and you’ll note that green beans germinate in “8-16” days.  That’s right.  There’s a 100% variation between when some seeds will germinate and when others will.  They will all develop flowers at different times and bear their fruit (green beans) at different times. All will be healthy plants and produce green beans.  No worries.  That’s just the way living things develop.

Humans too.  We all know this.  From conception there’s no fixed amount of time until delivery.   There’s no fixed amount of time until a child walks, talks, etc.  Can you say how long it takes to learn to ride a bike? To learn how to read? How long does it take to be proficient at tennis? At playing the cello?  You can’t say, right? “It’s different for everyone”.  There you go.

It IS different for everyone –  that’s one of the fundamental flaws with traditional education: it misses this point.  It just leaves it out of the equation altogether.  Grade 4?  10?  Sophomore calculus? This is how much YOU can learn this year – it’s been decided, it’s fixed.  “Really?”  But… what about the fact that it might take me less time, or more?  What effect might “the system’s” ignoring this have on my learning?  on my motivation? on how I experience education/learning?

Yeah – it’s a mess, and this is just one detail of the mess.

We need a system that allows for each person to have the time they need to learn whatever they are trying to learn.  Because there’s no “one” or “right” amount of time that it takes to learn anything – it takes the time it takes YOU and that’s all there is to it.  No one can change that.

Too difficult?  No.  It’s being done.  The model exists.

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Thank you for all of your comments yesterday.  Clearly much to discuss.

Let me straighten out a few general points:

  • I do not place ANY “blame” on teachers (for the state of education in this country)
  • I do not criticize without having solutions

This blog began nearly a year ago to do one thing: stir up interest in the need for FUNDAMENTAL change to our system of education and then to bring it about.  I’ve written a great deal.  Please review prior posts.. search for tags like “fundamental” “reform” “innovation” and “beyond SLATE.com” (I submitted an education reform proposal to SLATE.com back in November for a contest they ran and I can in 4th out of 500+ submissions.  My “beyond” series here went beyond the word-limit of the proposal to provide some detail around what’s needed), and check out the links – there are some good resources there too.

The main point here is this: we need go back to the beginning with education.  That means, start with the knowledge we have about developmental psychology, about neuroscience, about human motivation, about how people actually learn, about the role of interest in learning, about…. yeah, start with what we KNOW and design a school that is appropriate.  The good news is that schools like this exist.  I know them well.  There is a better way and we don’t have to spend years figuring it out or millions of dollars on studies to define it.

I’m thinking of putting up a youtube piece on this, or maybe get an “RSA Animate” made.

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How long before we begin to hear this refrain?  Maybe from students, maybe from “experts”.

Given developments in today’s world, and they keep coming, it’s not far-fetched to think that the present traditional model is simply not up to the task, is outdated, and out-of-sync with the needs to modern life.

We have to get our view up to a higher level to see this.  We have to get out of the myopic perspective that is leading us into the abyss.   The “fixes” and “reforms” that are being discussed are all old-school ideas based on a system that is out of date and no longer applies to the world we live in.  Look at the pace of change today, look at the shifting landscape of business and our culture.  We are in the midst of significant change – not just a little “faster” or “newer”, like for the past 50 years… no, we’re in the midst of significant change in how things happen and how our lives function.

Those who will do well in this world, indeed those who will LEAD in this world are those who will be prepared for it.  Preparation requires solid thinking skills, which means thinking in principles and thinking creatively.

A recent story in the NY Times Magazine spoke about innovation leadership and reported that “we need help thinking”.  The business world is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to consultants – the article calls them “brains for hire” – who can “innovate” for them – and the form of innovation is creative thinking.  That’s it.  There simply aren’t many good people who can do this “in house”.

This is why “school” is outdated.  School as we’ve known it maybe served a purpose 50-100 years ago, I’m still not convinced it was the best model even for that world though, but it surely is wrong-headed today.  We need an education system that prepares for today: which means preparing students for how to prepare. See the difference?  We can no longer simply prepare for the present time because by the time students get out the other end twenty years later they are already “obsolete”.  We need to prepare students for the world that they will encounter in a time when that world doesn’t yet exist (!).  We need to equip them to solve problems that we haven’t even identified yet.  Scary?  Not in the least.  We’re up to this task- it’s called THINKING, and it’s the one thing that traditional education hasn’t done a very good job of “teaching”.

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