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Archive for February, 2011

And now, a re-post from a brilliant education scholar who understands what matters in education and what needs to be changed.  Yong Zhao recently moved to Oregon to become the Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education, College of Education at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

You can read his recent post here.

His recent book Catching Up is also a gem.

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The next element, as we begin to define what the 21st-century-education-paradigm could look like, is to understand the difference between teaching and learning.  This is critical because the conventional education paradigm wants to think as one as the means to the other: that teaching leads to learning.  That’s the whole paradigm.  The 21st century education paradigm understands that learning is not a function of teaching.

That’s right.  Learning occurs independent of teaching.

Learning happens all the time.  Long before there was any “teaching” there was plenty of learning.  Even today, we learn at such an astronomical rate in the first three years of life, that if we continued at that rate for the rest of our lives we’d put Einstein on an IEP!  Learning is nature’s way of creating a path for humans to find success.  We come to this world possibly the most fragile and dependent creatures.  We NEED to be able to do a lot of learning in a short amount of time.  So we are equipped (thank you “nature”) with a powerful computer/brain that has more brain cells than it could possibly use, and their nature is truly “use me or lose me”.  If there’s sufficient work for them to do, they get busy, and synapses are the result, then neural networks… there’s your “brain building”.

This is how learning occurs – it’s natural, it’s  nature’s way of making success possible for us.

What does this have to do with kids  in schools?  How do we take this knowledge and apply it to the new education paradigm?  What this tells us is that people learn by doing.  I was making this point today with someone at school.  We’d had a parent info night with childcare and the staff supervising the children were subs from the classrooms, subs who really acted as “aides” in those classrooms.  On this night they were required to play the lead role, not the supporting act.  They didn’t do a stellar job.  In thinking through this today I remarked that their experience as aides had not prepared them to take the lead role, so they’ve not really learned how to do it.  Merely watching others play that role is not an effective way of learning- you need to do the  doing yourself (and failing of course, because we know failures/mistakes lead to learning, that’s why mistakes are so valuable).

What the new paradigm requires is opportunities for students to “do”.  Not to sit and listen and watch in the hopes of remembering.  There’s a model for this already.  There exist alternatives to conventional education today that are seeing tremendous success, and which are based on following \”what nature wants\” and allowing for learning by doing, and it’s incredible what happens when you allow for that.

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This gets scary pretty quickly, for some – change can do that.  Remember, Thomas Jefferson really threw a curve ball at the traditions of governing society when he formally put down that  “government by the people” bit in a world of monarchies.  This is radical terrain.  Many will claim that the new education paradigm is madness. Many will claim that it is “untried” or “unfamiliar”.  But, if it is RIGHT, as in “derived from nature”, then it is worthy of us, of humanity.  We have to keep in mind the context of how unique this proposal is because it will be dismissed (like most innovative, ahead-of-their time, ideas).  Many people resist change, we know that.

In my last post I wrote, “let’s start with one basic fact: all living organisms grow/develop according to specific linear steps and stages but these steps and stages are NOT attached to a fixed, predetermined timeline.”  Since people are living organisms this is true of us too.  We don’t just need to follow the logic, we can also see that this is what we see when we look at human life developing.  From the moment of conception nothing happens because a fixed amount of time has passed.  Birth does not take place “9 months” from conception.  Infants do not walk on their first birthday, etc.

How long does it take to learn how to ride a bicycle?  To learn how to read?  To play tennis or the cello?  The answer on everyone’s mind is “it’s different for everyone”.  And it is.

If we take just this “revelation”, which is common sense, we can see a fault with conventional education.  It presumes to know “how much a child of a certain age can learn in a given amount of time”.  This is called segregating children by age and running them through the curriculum assigned to that age level/grade.  “Nine years old?  That’s 4th grade”.  And the 4th grade curriculum is fixed.  Need more time for something that year?  Less time?  That’s not an option.  Every child in 4th grade moves along at the same pace – “this is how we do it” (sing it with me!).  But, this flies in the face of that common sense observation available to all: that “it’s different for everyone”.   Why is it okay to acknowledge that we all learn in our own time how to walk, ride a bike, and so on, but somehow when it comes to geometry or spelling we’re all supposed to learn at the same pace.  That’s NOT how nature made us – living things.  No living thing develops like that, following a metronome.

So there’s our first challenge or defining principle.  We need an approach to education that acknowledges and respects this fact of nature.  It’s not a “theory” or opinion.  Nature has spoken: each individual of a living species takes the time that it requires to move through the stages of development/learning.  Let our schools work with this principle.  It will have implications and cannot be applied in isolation.  What we are defining in this space is an integrated system.  It will require ALL elements to be put into practice simultaneously, just like your car engine: all the parts working in concert to serve a purpose.  You cannot eliminate some parts and you cannot put them in action a few at a time.

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Remember the film “What Women Want?” ?  The premise was: have a man be able to “read a woman’s mind”, to be in her thoughts, so that “men” could gain insight into how women think and then presumably deal with them in  “healthier” way, equipped with this new insight.  Let’s pretend for a minute that we could do such a thing with “nature”.  Let’s anthropomorphize nature and pretend that it’s an organic, conscious entity and that we can “get inside of it” and hear it’s thoughts. You with me?  (Don’t worry, we”ll come back to earth in a minute.)

My thinking here is to learn from the “ecosystems” approach- that everything is integrated, interdependent.  Isn’t this how we’ve discovered so much over the centuries?  The world IS an integrated – interconnected –  system, and to ignore this is to wallow in the dark.  Now, our human world has caught up with this theme- no surprise since people are “of the world/nature”.  We see the globalization of the world, we see the “global village” emerging.  We trade with each other around the world as if we lived in adjacent towns, distance is of no matter.  Information is shared instantly regardless of the distance it needs to travel.  We understand that polluted water has effects immediately and down the road as well as locally and further away.  We’ve learned that to eliminate one species often means cutting into a food chain and thus causing populations “problems” with other species down the chain.  We’ve arrived.  We live in one town today- call it EarthTown.  We have to recall that country names and boundaries are a human layer on the world, the political layer.  Otherwise the world is just “there”– it’s just land and water.  Mexico? USA? Canada? – it’s just a land mass. The lines could be drawn anywhere.  They are drawn where they are because of human activity, and they move as human activity directs: no more Yugoslavia, one Germany-two Germanies-one Germany again, and so on.

What we need to do for education is identify what kind of human education makes sense according to how nature works. What makes us think that “nature” doesn’t have any guidance for us? It seems to me that all the “good” ideas are the ones that are in-sync with universal laws and principles.  This is  truly where  “green”, “sustainable” education would come from.  If we take this approach it’s bound to succeed: to help each child/student to develop to fulfill their potential- how could it not?  It would be a nature-derived approach, and nature “wants” all of its elements to be integrated, harmonious.

So what can we  learn from nature, once “inside it”?  We learn the law of interconnectedness.  We learn that every action has effects.  What does this mean for education?  It means that the principles that guide education should be founded on the broadest principles of all organic life.  What is true of bacteria and lizards is also true of homo sapiens.  There’s a lot more that’s true of us, but the base is shared.  And how can this inform pedagogical principles? Let’s start with one basic fact: all living organisms grow/develop according to specific linear steps and stages but these steps and stages are NOT attached to a fixed, predetermined timeline.  This is why that package of bean seeds says “germinates in 8-16 days”.  The stages of  germination are the same for all seeds, but how much time will pass as the stages emerge is unique to each individual seed.  We too are each “individual seeds”.  What does this mean for schools?

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This is really hard to wrap one’s head around, or so I’m beginning to think.

When I talk about a “new education paradigm” people seem to think that I’m talking about something “different”.  Sure, its different, but there’s “different” and then there’s DIFFERENT.  Thinking of the necessary paradigm shift merely as “different” fails to capture its magnitude.  This is not a call to “make some changes” to how we go about the business of education, this is about upsetting the apple cart.

Think of it this way: when Thomas Jefferson wrote that a government gets its power from the will of the people, he was presenting a new paradigm for government.  Up until then governments were mostly monarchies- blood-line rulers who claimed the “divine right of kings”.  Jefferson through this aside and asserted that the only legitimate government is one that the people have put in place and that its job is to serve the people- see?  In this model the system has been turned the other way around (okay, that’s the theory, I get that we may have strayed a little but that’s besides the point for here).  This is common today, but 250 years ago this was unthinkable.  THAT’S a shift of paradigms.  Jefferson didn’t merely make some changes to how the system worked, he introduced a new system from the ground up.

This is where we find ourselves today with education: we need to start from the ground up. This takes courage.

One more point with Jefferson’s work: the success (and beauty) of the new model – democracy – was not so much that it worked better (though it did), but that it was a model that followed from nature, from the nature of humanity.  That people should govern themselves is “right” – it is aligned with universal/natural laws.  We need to follow this approach for education and ask: “what does nature want when it comes to human education?”

When we ask this question we find that we are taken down a new road, one that diverges “in a yellow wood”, and we are well advised to take that road less traveled.

Tune in and I’ll show you what you can find there.

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If we’d like a culture of poorly motivated and critically-thinking impaired people then- sure, let’s emulate China’s education system.

Wait!  Don’t they “perform” really well by international standards?  Aren’t they the ones we’re chasing on math and science tests?  Don’t they win most of the competitions in US schools and always “do well”.. why wouldn’t we want to emulate the system that gave rise to this?  Because our world will fail if we do.

To begin, regular readers of this blog do not need a reminder of why “doing well on tests” doesn’t matter (you can search for that content on this blog).  “Performing” is not living, and no indicator that you’re ready to live or succeed in the world.  But the biggest reason why Chinese education should be shunned is because it kills creativity and stifles innovation – the motors of development and growth.  That’s why even the Chinese are making serious efforts to  change their education system.  Chinese author Yong Zhao has written about this very subject in his book Catching Up.  He describes China’s desire to undo the damages of testing and standardization; and he accurately notes that “Innovative people cannot come from schools that force students to memorize correct answers on standardized tests or reward students  who excel at regurgitating dictated spoon-fed knowledge”.

American “reformers” who think that the ANSWERS to our current “testing” crisis lie within the model of Chinese/Asian education are just plain mistaken.  Well, let’s correct  that.  The answer to our testing crisis may very well be in that model – the problem is that our crisis in NOT one of testing – it’s much worse, much more fundamental.

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Some parents do a very good job of messing up their children’s lives.

Some fail to prepare their children for their futures. Some think they are preparing them and are in fact doing harmful and destructive things.  In the latter category you can squarely place the recently published law prof-cum-author Amy Chua.  Her recent memoir, as she presents it, tells of her successful efforts to see to it that her two daughters turn out to be perfect, or just shy of it.  That’s right, she wants to “see to it” (my words) that her daughters turn out “just so”.   She will stop at nothing to get her girls to reach perfection: only As, top of all their classes, top musical performances, and so on.  She resorts to threats, punishments, insults – all are fair tools in Chua’s mind to get her girls to turn out as she has planned.  You can read the N.Y. Times article.

Is this what parenting is?  Are children clay in the hands of parents, to mold as they see fit?  I thought parenting was about child-rearing: fostering independence and health and preparing children to live in the world.  Is it the role or responsibility of parents to shape their children’s lives? to select careers? Do parents  have this right even?  Is it a crazy new-age, “soft” idea to allow children to “discover themselves” or make of their lives what they would like? Chua’s approach is controlling and totalitarian: she sees her children as tools for her to manipulate for her own ends. Like a benevolent dictator she claims to know what’s best and they’ll become that, like it or not.

Chua doesn’t allow sleep-overs, parties, or after school activities. “No time”, she says, must practice!. They need 2-4 hours a day to practice piano and violin.   And she stands over them, literally, seeing that they put their all into it.

What are these children learning in the process?  To not love learning or making an effort.  To not care about things. To feel like your life is not yours to direct. How is that going to help them in life?  It’s the very opposite outcome that we’d want.  We want children to become able thinkers who enjoy putting forth all the effort that it takes to work hard, practice and persevere.  When you force people to do this they do not learn how to do it, i.e. make the effort, for themselves because you’re the one doing the doing. Just as traditional schools do too much for students- scheduling their time, controlling when they do their work, focusing on remembering instead of understanding, this approach of forcing children to “work hard” will not teach them to work hard but to hate work.

Has Chua been successful?  If by this we mean “did she achieve what she set out to do?”, then yes.  Her girls have performed beautifully in all areas.  So what?  Who are they as people?  Are they happy? Will they contribute to the world anything meaningful?  Or will they be two more frustrated adults who don’t know what they want and don’t have a sense of personal accomplishment?

The end does not justify the means. Punishing children is highly effective to get them to do what you want – just keep increasing the punishment as they get older and they’ll acquiesce.  It works as a form of discipline.  But it’s wrong. It’s a horrible way to treat children- all people for that matter.  Punishment works in the short-term, but in the long term the recipient has not learned how to be self-disciplined because someone else, the one holding the punishment over their head, did the doing.  You only learn to be self-disciplined when you have to control yourself- make the effort.  This is a huge area in developmental psychology these days (often called self-regulation or executive functions).

Parenting plays a HUGE role in how and what children learn.  If we’re sending them off to school every day fearful of the next test score and stressed out about always having to “be the best”, what are we doing to them? What are we saying life is about? Has Amy Chua not seen the recent film Race to Nowhere?

Here’s a quote from Chua about her own experience as a student in law school, where she didn’t really care, she admits, about the rights of criminals and never wanted to be called on in class: “I also wasn’t naturally skeptical or questioning: I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorize it”.  There you go, nothing’s hidden.  All that mattered to her was “pass the test”.  Learn something?  Care about what you’re learning or doing?  Who has time to care?  This is who she’d like to populate the world with.  You want to live in that world?

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