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Posts Tagged ‘education’

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

 

 

 

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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.

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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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Yes, true education reform remains the hot topic.

Education needs to be reconceptualized as “that which a human being requires to develop from birth to maturity”. That is such a different focus from the conventional conception of education as the transmission of data/facts.

All we can do, in this new understanding, is “to  assist life”.  What does this mean? : what does life “want” and how can we assist it?  What does it mean to ask  this question or to even think this way?

Life, all life, not just human life, wants to thrive.  A basic element of biology  is this: living things want to thrive.  We see this everywhere in nature: the wildflower growing out of a rock face or through dried leaves in early spring; the instinct of animals that serve to protect or propagate.  It would be wise to learn from nature – being a part of it.  The secret is there for us to see, if only we’d turn our gaze to it.

Children are born ready to learn, to thrive.  Our task is to clear  the way and provide safety and security for this life to unfold.  Nature knows what to do.  We’ve learned about the nature-nurture dance, about the value of  enriched environments.  Let’s do that: prepare the environment that nature requires, then stand aside and let it work its magic.

This is what it means to “assist life”.  It’s easier than we think.  Nature is a lovely, beautiful, integrated and powerful  system –  let’s unleash it, respect it, honor it.  Instead, conventional  education has blindly and misguidedly tried to invent something that doesn’t need inventing.  Education is a natural process if you conceive of  it as life merely unfolding.

This is a different way to conceive of education and if there’s a chance for education, for children and for our world, we need more people  to begin to come to this understanding.  Montessori schools get this.

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Education talk is so frustrating.  Especially those who wear the self-appointed label of “reformer”.  The frustration comes from their having misnamed themselves- they are no more calling for meaningful reform than would be the case if “Oreo reform” was a call for red cookies on the outside instead of black.

Now what’s being discussed is the collective reference to the “school reformer movement” that has groups (Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, StudentsFirst) pushing against the status quo and teachers unions.  It’s supposed to be about these groups wanting something better, etc.  BUT all they call for is “value added” assessment of teachers’ performance, measured by test scores.  really??  We think we can assess teachers by how much stuff their students “retain” (let’s not bother calling it “learning” – see elsewhere on this site for that discussion).

Why is it so hard to get the point across? Is this going to  reform anything of substance?  If you keep standardized tests and add measuring teachers by the progress made on them, don’t we see the writing on the wall: motivation to cheat, to be easy graders, teaching EVEN more to the test and other forms of dysfunction and mismanagement?  Do we really think that teachers will “teach more or better”?  And with what methods? The same old ones that have failed for generations, focused on the wrong things, etc.  THIS is where the reform is needed- why is this so hard to see?  What are we looking for? “the king is dead, long live the king”? new paradigm same as old paradigm?

When will the meaningful talk of TRUE reform come to the forefront?  What will that take?

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A business executive recently said in an interview that “You’ve heard this a million times before: The only way to fail is to not fail, because otherwise you’re not taking risks. You’re not getting better.  You’re just doing the things that you know will work. Now, the difference is that you really want people who learn from their mistakes.”.  Get that? ” The only way to fail is to not fail” : which means that failing is the key to success.

So why do our conventional schools not understand that?  In schools it’s all about the “one right answer”.  Red marks on your paper are an embarrassment: a sign of wrong answers – failure.  To be avoided.  Students “learn” to regurgitate and not take risks.  Like I  said in my previous post, how you go about “teaching” conveys a great deal about what you will actually convey – the process is inherent in the message.

We need to embrace failure as the necessary road to success, to achievement. There’s truly no other way there.  Avoid failure and you avoid success – now that’s not what schools teach students, not the conventional ones.

Tied up in this are parenting styles that endeavor to “protect” children from disappointment, helicopter parents and any parenting that amounts to “making sure it all works out”.  How will our children learn to cope, to persevere, to manage disappointment, if they aren’t allowed and encouraged to fail?  I’ve written about that here too.

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The business world, the world where people work once they move  out of schooling, knows the value of “doing”- it’s called “experience”, and there’s no substitute for it.  Employers regularly complain about new hires out of school who can’t do anything. They can’t think, they can’t apply a principle if they “didn’t have a case study about that” — in short, they aren’t good at DOING.

In rethinking about what education needs to be about and how we can then go about achieving this two things always come to the surface.  One is that education needs to be conceived as more than the transmission of data/facts and second is that the means by which you go about doing it conveys as much as what you are conveying.  In other words, how you go about the  business of education says a lot about what you are teaching. In fact, the two are inseparable.

Want to teach engagement and creativity/innovation?  You have to give students the opportunity to ask their own questions, explore and discover.  Stop “telling”.  Figuring out what the good questions are will always be more important than finding  out the answers to any questions.  Yet, schools today still provide the question and send students off to find the answers.  “Innovators” in education today think they are making significant strides when they  provide iPads as a tool to find the answers.  This is what passes for thoughtful and “forward thinking” solutions to the education crisis.  Myopic indeed.  This is what happens when people who have not truly been “educated” are old enough to be in charge.

Of  course, “doing”, if we’re lucky, often leads to failing.  More about  that in the next post.

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