Public Education: Start Again

If you could start from zero, what would public education look like?

Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

Clayton Christensen Uncovers Change In Schools

Posted by Stephen Dill on June 18, 2010

Clayton Christensen at the 2009 Microsoft CEO Summit conference held in Redmond, WA

The research team behind Clayton Christensen’s 2008 book, Disrupting Class, deserves a lot of respect. It would have been easy to cite Howard Gardner’s “theory of multiple intelligences,” point out that schools homogenize the learning experience along a one-size-fits-all model, note some statistics of the increase in use of online education resources in order to predict big change, and called it a day.

Instead, they have dug deep and presented 30 or more years of research into how humans learn and how humans teach to assess what is facing America and the world in the education systems most everyone adopted from their predecessors going back a century or two. This is not casual reading, but because most of us are products of a school system, are working in one, or are parents of children going through one, the skillful presentation of this information revives our own personal histories like electric shocks to the brain can induce cold sweats and generate perfect smells of an occasion long ago. The results are as visual (or aural, or kinesthetic, as your learning preference dictates) as they are intellectual.

If you take away anything from this book, make it this: innovation happens in many ways, but the most successful innovation has happened when the new was competing against non-consumption, not the existing products or services in the marketplace. People will be delighted to have the product, even if its capacities are limited. Online courses are making fast headway into school systems that cannot offer similar classes, not in systems where there are teachers and class materials for all the topics the students want to learn or the district has to teach. It’s the absence of competition where innovation thrives; identifying “nonconsumers” and their needs then becomes the primary function of the disruptive innovator. The book uses personal computers as an example. When mainframe and minicomputers roamed the land looking for customers for their $200K and more products, upstart Apple offered their Apple II products as toys to children and home science experiments to hobbyists. None of these people were consumers of computers before, they never noticed the differences in capabilities or performance between the Apple products and those from DEC and IBM. Innovation improves over time. Within a few years, technology improvements made the personal computers capable of doing much of what the behemoths could do, making computing widespread and much cheaper. As the world improved with the use of personal computers—under the noses of DEC and the other minicomputer manufacturers—another disruptive innovation brought down the competition without ever stepping foot on the same playing field. Read Chapter 2 if you cannot read the whole book.

Resisting the urge to paste in the hundreds of phrases and passages of the book I underlined and highlighted, I will instead encourage your own reading of this powerful treatise by sampling Christensen’s take on a few of the most closely aligned issues that inspired All New Public Education. The very first paragraph captured my attention, as it may well yours:

We have high hopes for our schools. While each of us might articulate these hopes differently, four seem common to many of us. We summarize these aspirations as:

  • Maximize human potential.
  • Facilitate a vibrant, participative democracy in which we have an informed electorate that is capable of not being “spun” by self-interested leaders.
  • Hone the skills, capabilities, and attitudes that will help our economy remain prosperous and economically competitive.
  • Nurture the understanding that people can see things differently—and that those differences merit respect rather than persecution.

While I have moved away from a patriotic motivation for rebuilding the education system (see The World Is Flat, wherein we realize that borders are no longer as relevant as they were and we are moving to a global economy) and hoping that we can approach the rebooting of education as a global challenge, translation of these pronouns to the global scale should be relatively simple. We want education to help us all become collaborative, peaceful, productive, supportive, satisfied world citizens.

On the causes of educational malaise: “Motivation is the catalyzing ingredient for every successful innovation. The same is true for learning. … Unless students (and teachers, for that matter) are motivated, they will reject the rigor of any learning task and abandon it before achieving success. … When there is extrinsic motivation for someone to learn something, schools’ jobs are easier.” The book goes on to describe prosperity as “the culprit” in declining interest in subjects that take hard work or involve long periods of study or apprenticeship. This is one explanation for the engineering and science advantage shifting first to Japan, then to India and China.

On the future of assessment: “With the change to student-centric learning, assessment—the art and science of testing children to determine what they have learned—can and should change, as well. Student-centric learning should, over time, obviate the need for examinations as we have known them. Alternative means of comparison, when necessary, will emerge.”

As with virtually all of the other foundations of our current system, the dominant school categorization scheme that society uses today is outdated and no longer relevant. It’s geographical location. We go to school nearby, right? Why? Is transportation a problem? “The constraint that limited transportation and thus imposed this geographical categorization scheme in education is largely gone. And yet we continue to follow a policy whose implicit assumption is that all children within a given geographic district are best served by one type of school architecture. When students are in primary schools, sorting them by geography perhaps is logical. … But as students progress in age, geographic categorization makes less sense.”

Comparing the possibilities with the stone wall that so many education reformers have faced for years, Christensen and his co-authors encourage all of us to soldier on, convinced that “we now have an opportunity for great progress.” Web 2.0 has its roots in user groups that came together across dial-up connections to ask questions, share learnings, and keep abreast of the latest developments and use cases. Wikis, Twitter, Facebook and thousands of online communities of learning are forming the platform for disruption, a “modular education system that facilitates customization.” These will provide the networks to find a course, gather recommendations for a tutor or content, and recruit students for a class forming around a gifted teacher.

In the conclusion, a line aimed at teachers, parents, and students struck home: “There is power in our communities to effect change.” Amen!

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Richard Louv and Nature Deficit Disorder

Posted by Stephen Dill on February 10, 2009


Richard Louv, author

Richard Louv, author

Recently Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, wrote in his blog, Field Notes From The Future, that he felt the “future is going to be better than it used to be.” Richard writes of the growing success of efforts of the Children & Nature Network to raise awareness through over 50 state and regional campaigns and the C&NN website. Their objective rings true: give children of all ages the chance to experience what you are teaching—hands on and in context—so that so much more is learned and appreciated than the one or more learning points of the lesson and the experience is so much more memorable. I responded in a comment, “Kudos on your efforts to date. You are so right, the future will be better–awareness has a way of improving things. The inexorable decline of the role of in-situ exposure as a key part of educating anyone, not just children, in the natural sciences–or physics, or accounting, or most any topic–is one of the many negative unintended consequences of the otherwise noble quest to provide basic education for every child that began as an incredible dream in the 18th Century. While our world will no doubt sustain the system of centralized, costly, inefficient schools for another two decades or more, I am advocating for the initiation of a reboot of public education to start over and redesign it from square one. If you could do that today, would your resulting system resemble much of what we have today?” 

I pose that question again to you. Everyone is either  an investor, client or an employee of one or more public education systems. If you could start from scratch, with no idea how it should look, who would it serve? How would it serve that audience? When and where would it serve it? This is the Ed Reform X Games. Starting over is hard to do! I encourage you to comment here with whatever comes to mind. No one can be wrong, for we are not yet in trials to determine what works best. But if the idea of going out into a field to teach biodiversity excites your imagination of the  public education of the future, then tell us. And then go read Richard’s book, for he cites hundreds more examples of taking education out of the classroom to a more open, resource-rich environment of learning. 

Thank you, Richard, for all you and the movement you have spawned has done and will continue to do!

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The new President’s challenge: Take a Number!

Posted by Stephen Dill on January 25, 2009

People are lining up with ideas for the new President. If you look at the site you will see the overwhelming response to the new administration’s request for public input. Countless corporate executives, recognized experts in every field, and a huge percentage of the blogosphere’s brightest are weighing in on what the next priorities should  be and what to do about them. 

Not to be outdone, Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS Institute, spoke to Steve Hamm at Businessweek about how “If Obama’s in favor of improving education, let’s do it right. It’s got to involve a curriculum. We have the most complete set of curricula available, so let’s not reinvent the wheel.” Convenient, but that’s not my point. What we see in this and most recommendations is yet another bandage. I find myself unable to consider spending time and money on the system that has gotten us where we are. Others must, this is true. But I wonder why it is that there seems to be so few gathering to consider the way out of this mess, the only true way out: reboot from scratch. This is the time to be distilling down the fundamentals for a life-long learning program. Change will not happen overnight!

My wife, an early childhood educator, alerted me to the wonderful work of Richard Louv in his book “Last Child In The Woods, Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” and the organization he co-founded, Children & Nature Network. I made a comment on his blog congratulating him on his work and suggesting that, “The inexorable decline of the role of in-situ exposure as a key part of educating anyone, not just children, in the natural sciences–or physics, or accounting, or most any topic–is one of the many negative unintended consequences of the otherwise noble quest to provide basic education for every child that began as an incredible dream in the 18th Century.” Clearly we are staying inside, relying more and more on digital representations of nature in order to maximize “learning” while minimizing the expenditure of costly resources, such as teachers and time. I recommend you read more of Richard Louv.

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