Posts Tagged ‘science’

February 2, 2013


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






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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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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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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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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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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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Isn’t it all the rage?  Who’s NOT interested in outcomes, right?

Outcomes are good – they provide a goal to aim for, a set of expectations, an “end” to determine the means.

The question is what the outcomes are, of course.  How do we decide how to define those outcomes?  Today this mostly has lead to “high test scores”: we want high test scores as  outcomes.  But why? Isn’t the goal/purpose of education to prepare us for adult life? for our future?  If so, why is it that high test scores are the outcome of choice?

How many of us in the working world know anything about the high school or college test scores of our colleagues?  We know the research tells us that SAT scores are no indicator of how students perform in college.  We know that plenty of people who weren’t great students do very well for themselves.  So why are test scores the typical outcome being measured?  Why not measure outcomes like responsibility, accountability, creativity, time management, self-direction, and initiative?  Aren’t THESE the very things that make a difference in the working world?  Wouldn’t those outcomes lead to good things for students?  If you had these outcomes and not-so-great test scores, wouldn’t you manage to make your way in the world and with a decent, or great, deal of success?

Part of changing the education paradigm must include this. It must include shifting what we value in education and what we think an education is supposed to offer students.

Outcomes that consider what life requires seem pretty important.  Yet, traditional education either doesn’t consider this or it claims to but does nothing about “delivering” on it because of its emphasis on test scores.  We need to change that.  Traditional schools are delivering to the world students who can’t perform in it – they’ve been prepared for school, not for life.

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