Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’

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….


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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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Said the Columbia University student: ” You have to  understand, I’m paying for a degree, not an education.”

And there you have it.  This is what it’s become for so many.  How did we get here?

It’s not far-fetched to see this as the logical conclusion of a system that emphasizes test scores as a measure of who climbs to the next rung.  Teachers teach the test so they get solid student scores (and the school/district gets better/more funding), students cheat and do what they can in order to get the scores because they sense the nature of the game is to get the grades, not the learning. (See here).  By the time they are in college they have mastered the game: don’t worry about asking a lot of questions or really engaging, just find out what’s necessary to get the grade/degree and do that.  Nothing more.

Our culture supports this by having created  this sense that “without a college education you’re nothing”.  Reports of  earning potential as correlated to level of education tell the same tale: if you have a high school education you’re going to be stuck at the bottom.  It’s a funny phenomenon.  Sure, going to college can make you a better and more thorough thinker, more generally informed, more able to function at a higher intellectual/conceptual level.  But this is only true if  you’re in college for the right reasons and taking the kinds of classes that will lead you to this place.  If college grads actually have the above qualities as people then they are likely to do better in their careers.  The problem seems to be that when we started talking about this we focused on the fact that they went to college, rather than on why this mattered.  We were too concrete in our analysis.

It’s what happens while in college that matters, not the fact of attending and graduating.  That is, it’s about learning and becoming, not just showing up for class and getting the grades.

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In a valiant effort to make the case for better homework, Annie Murphy Paul in her recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times simply fails to grasp the immensity of what she’s up against.  She truly can’t see the forest for the trees.

Paul goes on about how the better way to approach homework can be found in some studies that show how to improve test scores and retention via some “new methods”.  Those would be “trees”.  The forest is a real education, real learning.  Paul has no idea that better test scores are not an indication of better, or actual, learning, just as better retention (recall) is also not an indication of learning.  Learning is most emphatically NOT remembering. That’s been addressed here before, so let’s not go there.

Great that she sees that most homework out there is busywork and of little value, but unfortunate that the solution is focused on improving test scores.  Why is it so darn difficult to understand that learning is something different from retention as evidenced on a test?  Is this such a radical idea? So thoroughly on the educational margin that it’s out of focus to most –  strike that, it’s not out of focus, it’s out of sight.  Sadly, some educators will jump on this latest “fix”, change-up their approach to homework, have a parent night about how this will repair things and “boy, have we got a great solution for your kids”…. and in 3-5 years they’ll move on to something else, having forgotten that THIS was supposed to be the fix.  What a system: conceive, apply,  fail, repeat.

However, those marginalia ideas are out there, and slowly, in little blips, they  are making headway.

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What on earth will it take?

The NY Times ran a story the other day about an Arizona school district that has spent millions of dollars on classroom technology over the past 5 years, with little to show for it when it comes to assessing learning.  How many such stories do we need before we come to realize that the way to improve learning is not to replace the teacher’s chalkboard with an electronic one, it’s to replace the teacher’s style, approach and materials.

Stories about how technology has failed to make any gains have been around as long as technologies have been touted as silver bullets.  It’s true – look it up.  It doesn’t matter whether it was the radio (yes!), television, computers, the internet or smart boards – every one of these was championed as the thing that will solve the educational problem- the holy grail of education.  Not one ever did.  Not one ever will.

The problem, as has been written about extensively in this space, is one of style not technology.  The solution lies not in how we present content to learners but in the very emphasis of presenting content.  Conventional education remains what I call a “content delivery system” with its emphasis on passing along content, as if that’s what learning amounts to or how it occurs.  Until we come to recognize that learning is something the learner does, through a process of self-directed, self-initiated action, we’ll not make any meaningful, long-lasting improvements to education.

Has our culture been so permanently hoodwinked by flash and speed that we can no longer see the issue for what it is?

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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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