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Posts Tagged ‘engagement’

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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Well, that’s the comment that a former Harvard president, Derek Bok, once made: that the two were about as easy to do. His replacement, Larry Summers, wrote in the NY Times recently that in 21st century universities “students (still) take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department”.

And so the cemetery of education sits. In a recent Huffington Post article, Laura Shaw suggested that there are entrenched interests that keep the system as it is.  One thing simply screams as intuitively true: in a world that is remaking itself on so many fronts, surely the approach to what education is and how it should be achieved needs to be rethought.  Innovation guru Seth Godin just published an online manifesto arguing that “School was invented to create a constant stream of compliant factory workers to the growing businesses of the 1900s. It continues to do an excellent job at achieving this goal, but it’s not a goal we need to achieve any longer.”

So what are the new goals?  Well, I’ve written about that in this space for two years now.  The question is, why is there so little demand out there?  Why are parents willing to put up with a system that is so clearly out-of touch, out-of-synch, and utterly broken?  Stories abound about the decay of the education system.  Creativity experts  decry the destructive style of  conventional schools which strip all the inventiveness and engagement that is natural to people. Yet, the system persists.

Larry Summers identified six elements of an appropriate education, if we were to make a change.  Some of his focus is on:  processing information over retaining facts, collaboration over “keep your eyes on your own work”, and active learning.  Not a bad start.

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Recently it was brought to my attention that a new charter high  school in Chicago was being shaped by an innovative idea: allowing students to engage in meaning-making activities, based largely on game-theory.  This is intended to produce students who can think critically.

Meaning-making is indeed one of the necessary core outcomes of a true education, one which has generally failed to exist in the conventional model.  But, the  people behind this new charter program fail to grasp a key point: to direct students in their meaning-making cancels out the very thing you desire to achieve.

The subtle issue here is that of “idea generation”.  The person generating the idea is the one reaping the benefit.  Having others act upon the idea may have some value, if the idea is worthy, but what will not be developed is the ability to generate ideas- to be a critical  thinker, or a thinker at all.  It’s the genesis point that matters.

This new school calls what they’re doing “digital learning” and they explicitly talk about “getting kids hooked on learning” by making learning feel like a video game.  They talk about exploring things actively, with large video screens and tools that are wii-like, to demonstrate principles of physics, for example.

But, if you step back from all the tech jargon you see that it’s simply the latest smoke and mirrors attempt to deliver “content”, much the way conventional education always has.  It’s just the latest “use of technology”, after a long line of technological saviors of education (radio, television, computes, the internet).

In the end, the program description here contains all the misguided principles of old: it’s adult-directed, geared towards covering the curriculum and while the idea that students aren’t sitting in their seats all day long is good (let’s see in practice how it actually works out….) it’s not enough to make a fundamental difference.

Understanding what fundamental change in education looks like just seems to be so challenging, I’m coming to believe.  I guess that’s why paradigm changes are just that.

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A case has been made that universities need to shift from the present top-down and insular style to a more “learner”-based style.  It is argued that if we look at the end-users (students) and see how they already modify the system to met their needs, we can create a better system that relies on the self-organization of people: people taking ownership and control of their lives (learning) and making it fit.

While the point being argued for has merit, the premise that it relies on is weak: that college is getting too expensive and courses too often don’t relate to the problems faced in the real world. A stronger argument would be based on the premise that this style/model of learning simply makes more sense if you look at how people learn and are motivated.  Further, the model can and should be applied beyond the college level: younger students would also benefit from a more learner-centered approach, engaging them in problem-solving such that their learning will be the result of the efforts, mistakes and experimentation that they will themselves conceive of.

Actual learning occurs like the scientific method: conjecture and test –  try something and see what happens, repeat, learn.

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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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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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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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