Public Education: Start Again

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

Archive for the ‘Mission’ Category

We Are Not Alone!

Posted by Stephen Dill on February 17, 2013

The premise of this site is the idea that the system we call public education is broken. In the years since its launch, I have come to know that the concept of education itself is flawed as it’s perceived by most—that it’s learning that is what we need a new system for. Learning is individual, education is generally seen as a group activity.

As with many ideas that challenge years of status quo, the idea of starting over to build a new system—much less one that puts the responsibility on the individual much earlier than most are comfortable with—there are many who feel this to be ludicrous, ignorant, rash, even anti-social. So when you cross paths with those who feel as you do, you want to make sure that others know – strength in numbers, right? Thus it was a pleasant surprise to find this on Ira Socol’s blog:

If education in the United States of the 21st Century is failing, that failure has been built over a very long time. And I do not think that it can be “fixed” in any meaningful way unless people understand that the failures we see today are our system working exactly as it was intended to.

Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Our American public education system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It is separating “winners” from “losers” and it is reinforcing our economic gap. The system was designed in the 1840s and at the turn of the 20th Century to separate society into a vast majority of minimally trained industrial workers and a small, educated elite. It was designed to enforce White, Protestant, Middle-Class, “Typically-abled” standards on an increasingly diverse American population. A few blessed children in each generation who met those standards might move up in society. The rest would be consigned to low wage manual labor. It was designed to ensure that the children of the elites had the opportunities they needed to remain the elite. Everything about the system – from the way schools are funded, to the way standards are created, to the system of tests, to our peculiar form of college admissions, to our notions of disability – was created to meet the employment goals of the United States from the mid 19th Century to the mid 20th Century.

Unfortunately we are 50 years past that historic moment, and we are no longer happy with the results.

But if you want different results you will not get there through changing teachers, or changing managers, or expecting more from students. You can only change the results by changing the system itself.

Ira Socol, education technology professor and consultant.This concept of a class-motivated altruism motivation behind public education is found repeatedly in education histories. But those same histories rarely draw the conclusion that the system built upon it is impossible to fix and should be replaced. It’s a key element in the argument for revolution, but it falls on deaf ears when parents hear it. Ira goes on to discuss the debilitating effects of age-based segmentation, grades, and the inadvertent constraints placed on teachers, making it near impossible to adjust curriculum to the individuals they are charged to inspire and guide toward learning. Those are the topics that raise the interest and pulse of parents. Talk about societies and you lose every parent long before they read the punchline. But talk about children being denied their individuality, their independence, their democratic rights, their promising future and more and you have completely engaged those same parents.

For those who have read this site, these are familiar points, some may wonder if there will ever be progress. The good news is there is change afoot. Observing the various homeschooling groups and pages on Facebook, the many listservs for democratic schools, and the rise of unschooling in mainstream press (albeit misunderstood and often with incorrectly characterized methods), there are signs that access to alternatives is being sought by many more students and their parents who have realized that their dissatisfaction with public education is not their fault and can be remedied.

Stay tuned – soon there will be an announcement here of a new site offering knowledge and resources for those who seek to change their circumstances and options for learning.

Many thanks to Ira for being another voice in the growing chorus for revolution.

Posted in Ideas, Mission | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Was There Ever Joy In School?

Posted by Stephen Dill on May 14, 2012

Learning is not always going to be about following rules.You might have seen the article in Forbes by Jessica Hagy that recently was shared by the many who would wish for a different learning environment for the world. Her list of 9 things that school taught you that would make no sense if not in the context of memory rang true for most of us, I am sure. But I found the responses to my posting of it in Facebook interesting. Much like my post earlier this year comparing public school failure with the denial of slavery’s inherent evil that frustrated abolitionists, there are some who see no problem with our current system or the system they were in (survived) when they were young—which, of course, resembles in most measures the system we are sending our children through today.

Understanding why people cannot sense the distinct differences between a joyful, empowering, enlightening learning experience and that which the clear majority of adults experienced and the children of the world currently experience is fundamental to what All New Public Education is all about. For every person who agrees with me that there is a need to start from scratch to build a better system, there are 100 who think the system is just fine, or can be fixed with, in essence, a few tweaks and more money.

Just how insidious the damage is that can be wrought by the current public education system is the subject of a book by Kirsten Olson I have recently read, Wounded By School. In the remarkable foreword by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the true value of Kirsten’s work is summarized by this statement:

At this time, when the public discourse about schooling tends to focus on the quantifiable indices of access, achievement, and opportunity, when the measurements of inequality use a rhetoric that is literal and objectifying, when educators and policymakers tend to be preoccupied with “achievement gaps,” with “high-stakes testing,” and with statistically based assessments and accountability, Olson raises up another specter of injustice that is more randomly spread. She speaks about the wounds of schools that cannot be easily classified by race, class, or gender, by the disadvantages of disability or giftedness, by the things visible or countable. … But she also, importantly, underscores the ways in which people who seem to thrive and excel—the perfectionist, the overachiever, the valedictorian, the brilliant athlete—may also be carrying around the pain that dulls curiosity, limits creativity, stifles imagination, and ultimately may one day lead to inertia and depression.

In an equally inspired second foreword by Parker J. Palmer, he adds:

Equally sad and profoundly ironic is the wound that may be the most widespread of all: the eagerness to learn that we all bring to the world as infants is often diminished and even destroyed by our schooling.

The wounds of schooling do not belong to students alone. They are frequently shared by teachers.

Yes, there are teachers and parents who participate in the wounding of children, adults who have grown so numb (and dumb) that they have lost touch with the feeling-life of the child, adults who subject the children in their care to the same kinds of cruelty that led to their own deformation.

And so begins a powerful examination of what so many of us experienced in our public and private schools:

  • Wounds of creativity
  • Wounds of compliance
  • Wounds of rebelliousness
  • Wounds that numb
  • Wounds of underestimation
  • Wounds of perfectionism, and
  • Wounds of the average

Kirsten Olson's powerful book, Wounded By SchoolOlson based this book on interviews to support her own research while a Masters of Education candidate at Harvard. She speaks of how “almost immediately I began hearing stories about educational wounding. Although in this project I was speaking with very “successful” individuals … individuals who felt that learning was at the center of their lives, as I tried to capture their educational biographies, nearly every one of them told me they felt they had a lot to recover from in their school experiences, and that their learning lives had developed primarily outside of, or in opposition to, their experiences in school.”

The stories Kirsten recounts are gripping and make for engaging reading. But more importantly, there are few aspects of any of them that I could not remember either going through myself or feeling that I had witnessed similar scenarios happen to my friends or children of friends I know now or have known. I would posit that the depth that Olson goes into would shake a scintilla of recognition from even the most hardened advocate for sustaining the current system. Who can deny that—at the macro level—schools (as represented by teachers and administrators) are “more focused on managing kids’ behaviors than fostering their academic growth”? And even more disturbing, the government-fostered perception that “If you get good grades, test well, and overall do well in school, you are intelligent, but if you do poorly, you are not intelligent.”

This deep dive into the unintended consequences of a system whose effects rob us all of our creativity, flexibility, understanding, higher cognitive ability, and social confidence is critical reading for everyone: educators, administrators, legislators, parents, and students. For the many parents who have been suckered into thinking it’s acceptable to hold their public school responsible for taking care of their child from age 5 or earlier to age 18, Wounded By School is a wakeup call. True, there are bright spots, there are the Sudbury Valley Schools that allow for student-centric learning. There are the halfway houses (charter schools) that allow for some individualized programming, though still heavily supervised by an adult. But the clear majority of public and private schools use conformity as a measure of success, testing as a measure of results, and ignore the rights of the individuals trusted in their care to seek, find and express their inner calling, their true passion.

Kirsten Olson is a saint. As a consultant, she willingly enters one school district after another to identify and document what is a repetitive and monotonous scenario: these few teachers respect the child and thrive in spite of the environment and system, the rest are here to get through the day without hitting anyone. Olson writes that “School administrators often function as barriers to parents and “protectors” of the teachers, “doing their job” when they keep parents from intruding into the classroom or the instructional workings of the school.” The more enlightened of these will allow her to walk the halls, observe classes, and speak with their various communities, but to what degree they will agree with her assessments and recommendations is anyone’s guess. And in the quagmire of a system that is based on an incorrect foundation, one school on stilts above it will not last long, much less make a difference.

Posted in Mission | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Education Is Unique To The Individual

Posted by Stephen Dill on June 2, 2011

So if education is unique to the individual, why is it that most students are forced to learn what all their peers are learning at the same time? And why must they learn it in the same way as everyone else? And why must they be tested in the same way as their peers, and be judged as having learned the topic only if they can recite as much or more of the facts than the majority of their peers?

Alfie Kohn, long known as an advocate for the rights of the student, has carried on a lifelong effort to eradicate the stress of homework and AP testing. In a panel discussion held in Atlanta after a showing of Race To Nowhere, Kohn and others on the panel point to the flaws of the current education system for all the reasons most ANPE readers are familiar with: high-stakes testing, homework before high school, imperfect college admission measures, and more.

Kohn also gives advice to parents who are looking for solutions to support their children’s inner urge to find their passion, or at best to cope with the environment that they are submersed in today. [Since first posted, the referenced video has been removed and cannot be found elsewhere. Instead, I offer this Alfie Kohn video for those who are unaware of Alfie’s viewpoint on public education.]

And while on the topic of Race To Nowhere, the creator and director of the movie, Vicki Abeles, is in the process of collecting stories for a book. If you have a story to tell, go to the RTN site and share it with her. Keep us posted if you have something accepted for the book! Below is my submittal:

For so many reasons well documented elsewhere, public education in the United States and around the world today is a highly unpredictable system. We cannot expect consistent results in one school over 5 years, much less the entire nation. What if we started over? What would it look like?

My 150-year goal is to be the catalyst to bring about that discussion and the design of a new education system. One that recognizes that education begins at conception and continues after death as others learn from our examples. Education that is natural and exciting, customized and managed by the individual, always a part of our lives—either as students or teachers.

As described in more detail on, youth education is seen as a family function, augmented by a volunteer force of seniors, retirees, and experts available in the immediate and adjacent communities performing the roles of teacher, coach and mentor. Such an individual education is an individual’s obligation to society, advocated by federal law, supported by employers, communities and families.

Such an individualized system will probably not be public, as so much will change and move away from centralized buildings, busing, chronologic and geographic groupings, and all the trappings of the industrial-age society that created it. Instead, education will  leverage technology to connect students with common interests across any and all boundaries when they are ready to learn or teach a subject. Learning happens in life: in the workplace, the libraries, on the farms, in the factories of the immediate and adjacent neighborhoods. Education is not seen as a formal stage of life, instead a life-long habit of reading, reflecting, exchanging and growing.

And with a new system, we need to accept that “success” will not be determined by test scores. Not all those individuals are going to want to study languages, math, science, engineering or art—at least not at the exact same time as everyone else born the year they were born. They may not test with their peers, ever. They may outshine their peers, or lag behind, but they will be creative individuals, leaders, innovators guiding their own lives at their own pace. When the individual exhibits enough maturity, progress is self-determined, self-monitored, and presented to the relevant communities for input and use by others.

I have a dream for my kid’s kids to live in a world where education starts at conception: parents are taught how to parent and raise a world citizen. Education is a daily occurrence for everyone in this world, for everyone is a student and a teacher, as soon as they have something to teach. Classes are local or worldwide, alone with a teacher or hundreds of students working one-on-one with a teacher in a hub-and-spoke topology aided by technology and managed by the student. In such a world, nations do not measure their success by how many hoops they can teach their children to jump through.

Let us all hope that we can begin the process of revolutionizing education in our lifetimes for the benefit of our progeny, and of the world.

For those who have read the site, you will recognize much of that is covered in the Solutions page. But for some of you new to the site and this topic, I would encourage you to explore the site beyond the blog to better understand the concept and inspire your own systems design thoughts. What would a wholly-new education system look like to you?

Posted in Action Steps, Mission | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Is There Time For Ed Reform? Or Is It Time For Revolution?

Posted by Stephen Dill on March 8, 2011

The President is asking for your advice. In a program called Advise The Advisor, Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council and one of President Obama’s senior advisors on education policy, is asking for feedback from parents, teachers, and students about what’s working in their communities and what needs to change when it comes to education. There is a promise within her video that all responses submitted before the end of the day Friday (3/11/11) will be read by White House staffers and compiled into a summary document for review by the President and his advisors.

Here is what I submitted. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on what you would have said (or did) in the “under 2,500 characters” they asked for.

Our system is antiquated, built on foundations that could not scale with America and have not provided consistent results for decades. When a system is broken it is a waste of time to focus on bandages if no one is developing a cure for the cause. Can we entertain a two-pronged approach that maintains buildings and programs for a little while longer while another team starts from square one? The smartest investment would be a new system that is in tune with the future: distributed, decentralized and individual. A system that is not based on capital-intense administration and buildings. One that affords every citizen the same opportunity, not just what their community can afford. We need to put a team together to rethink education from scratch.

And with a new system, we need to accept that success will not be determined by test scores. Not all those individuals are going to want to study languages, math, science, engineering or art—at least not at the exact same time as everyone else born the year they were born. They may not test with their peers, ever. They may outshine their peers, or lag behind, but they will be creative individuals, leaders, innovators guiding their own lives at their own pace.

I have a dream for my kid’s kids to live in a world where education starts at conception: parents are taught how to parent and raise a world citizen. Education is a daily occurrence for everyone in this world, for everyone is a student and a teacher, as soon as they have something to teach. Classes are local or worldwide, alone with a teacher or hundreds of students working one-on-one with a teacher in a hub-and-spoke topology aided by technology and managed by the student. In such a world, nations do not measure their success by how many hoops they can teach their children to jump through.

Let us all hope that we can begin the process of revolutionizing education in our lifetimes for the benefit of our progeny, and of the world.

(and then I pointed them to this site)

Bottom line: is there really anyone out there who thinks that Ed Reform is going to direct the system we have to any semblance of stability? Consistency? Humanity? And isn’t there still that messy issue of mass testing to determine “success” (whatever that means)? How did we ever buy the idea that our child was the same as any child their age? On every continent!?!?

Posted in Ideas, Legislation, Mission | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Education Starts At Conception

Posted by Stephen Dill on January 5, 2011

Parents are the First Teachers

In the new education paradigm, education will be a lifelong habit. With the demand to stay up with the pace of change as motivation and the positive effect of learning something new as incentive, each of us will be students throughout our lives, starting at conception and continuing until death. Some may ask, “Why isn’t this happening now?” No simple answers, but “education” for so many  has been nothing but a dim memory for the majority of their lives. And most of what they remember is the dominating teachers, worthless courses, embarrassing failures, sleepless nights, and for some, physical abuse of their “formative years.” On top of that, society demanded that they leave whatever dreams or passions may have been inspired during their youth behind them and immerse themselves in the rat race.

A minority of the world population can delay that call to labor by attending a secondary institution, and fewer still go on to masters degrees and doctorates, but that’s expensive. Therein lies another factor for why education isn’t close to lifelong now: the investment is daunting and the return in economic terms is hard to determine. In other words, the world’s societies do not support lifelong education.

Most parents are not ready to parentNurture Shock is proof parents need to learn how to parent

Reading through Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman is a wake-up call for anyone who is a parent, wants to be a parent, or has ever thought about how human development happens in children of all ages. Leaving full descriptions of the book to others, let’s cut to the chase: most parents of the last 30 years have been operating on the assumption that they had an innate sense of what was best for their children. According to science, very few did. Sample a few of the chapter titles and you will begin to get the picture:

  • The Inverse Power of Praise (Sure he’s special. But new research suggests if you tell him that, you’ll ruin him. It’s a neurobiological fact.)
  • The Lost Hour (Around the world, children get an hour less sleep than they did thirty yeas ago: The cost: IQ points, emotional well-being, ADHD, and obesity.)
  • Why Kids Lie (We may treasure honesty, but the research is clear. Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.)
  • The Science of Teen Rebellion (Why, for adolescents, arguing with adults is a sign of respect, not disrespect—and arguing is constructuive to the relationship, not destructive.)

Are you beginning to understand why I was so excited as I read this book? The concept of “education starts at conception” was driven by one of the two observations explained in the first post (the Mission Statement) that spawned the whole idea of starting public education over: “Teach people to parent as well as we teach them to give birth.”

Sounded good, but I was not clear on what the curriculum was going to be based on. Now I am, or at least some of it. Beyond this will be elements of nutrition, financial management, career planning, and the crucial skills of how to learn by teaching. First their first (or next) child in utero, then others in the community that builds around them to support them and model the new world of education as lifestyle.

What could we expect for outcomes? Individually we should begin to hear of, witness, or experience for ourselves fewer examples of dysfunctional home environments. In the first few years after the program launch, society begins to see the benefits in lowered instances of pediatric medical demand, better nutrition, decreased childhood obesity, and more.

Think communal living on a global scale. Gradually everyone becomes more comfortable with higher levels of interpersonal interaction among families on both a local level and globally with online communities for learning, coaching, and support. This results in better socialization (for all ages!), greater awareness of everyone’s individuality and understanding of those differences, and overall improvement of lifestyles and life expectations. Coming into contact with so many more diverse populations heightens interest in sharing what we know and learning more.

Idealistic, I know. But there has to be a better way to inspire a desire for lifelong learning into the minds of every human being than the system we have now. And I do not believe it unreasonable to expect widespread societal improvements as an offshoot of such a system. (Ergo, I suspect there are numerous correlations between the ills of society today and the education system we are saddled with. But that is a distinctly different discussion!)

Posted in Mission | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Will Public Education Remain Public?

Posted by Stephen Dill on November 7, 2010

As already established under the Current Problem tab: “The majority of schools work on an annual calendar that was driven by the needs of an agrarian society. The curriculum still largely reflects the needs of the industrial age.” But there’s more! I posit that the roadblock to developing anyone’s individualized education plan is the very funding mechanism of public education: the public! Inherent in the school laws from the very start of this nation is the concept that the collected opinion of the residents of any town, state or nation—otherwise known as government—would know what you the individual would need to know throughout your life. And while that mandate to provide teachers for small communities and grammar schools for larger communities was a great step forward for the progress of mankind, there was never an assessment process put in place to make sure the system was relevant and in step with the times.

The colonial classroomWhile appropriate for its day (and the three centuries afterward), the inexorable inertia of that concept has burdened society with a financial commitment the founders could never have foreseen and put those who are aware of poor results of the “one size fits all” education system in a rather daunting predicament. How DO we alter our education system to address the needs of the individual?

Try this on for size: what if education of the public was a private matter? Not privatizing public education, but disassembling public education and turning it over to every citizen. What if the only “public” piece was the online infrastructure that allowed every parent, child, young adult, and adult to research, find, and schedule learning experiences?

While I have been thinking about this for years, a Facebook note from Chris Brogan pushed me to get this out to the rest of you. Lifelong learning, a core concept behind All New Public Education, is a highly individual experience. As Sugata Mitra has proven, when given the chance, every single person is going to follow a unique path to learning. What the current system institutes beyond grade 12 and age 18 (two archaic frames of reference) could actually occur much earlier (or later), and should be encouraged to happen throughout life: we each are willing to find and pay for our individual education. We are long past the mass education that Frank Feather speaks of elsewhere in this blog. It’s time to put in place a system that allows for the changes in course that all of us go through in our lives.

Recent discussions with Michelle Rhee and other educators on this topic reveal that most people in public education feel strongly that there are core subjects that everyone must be taught at an early age. For example, from Ms. Rhee:

I agree that not every child learns in the same way, and great teachers are able to individualize instruction to address those differences. We also need to make sure kids have real world skills when they exit the system, and should definitely be ensuring that children get outside the classroom and take advantage of all kinds of learning environments throughout their years in public school. But I also believe in teaching the core skills you mention below [I had cited history, arts, language, and science], and believe they can be taught in the classroom.

Is it just me, or do others hear this as the response of someone convinced that government must pay for education, and as a result, must test and grade as proof of money well spent? If education is about learning what a person is passionate about, and that changes throughout their lifetime, then the only one who determines if they have learned enough is the student. Eliminate the government funding and you return the responsibility for personal education to the person. If every course cost you money, would you have bought some of the topics you were forced to (presumably, temporarily) learn throughout your public school years (or private school, for that matter)?

I hear the exclamations now: “You’d let a child decide what they want to learn and when?!?” Yes, and no. Children will be part of a team; no one should have to operate in a vacuum. That team will be a fabric made up of parents, relatives, neighbors, and teachers the parents have learned from themselves or otherwise identified as being well suited to facilitate in children the realization of how to learn. This is society as humans once knew it, extended ‘families’ of mutual support, the trappings of which are still practiced in some of the least modernized nations. Imagine bringing the technology of interconnection into such a social fabric! Now the fabric includes people in locations dispersed throughout the world, relationships forged by mutual interests and experiences. There is the best spend for public funds: the network of resources and the process to take advantage of those resources. Can you imagine how different life would be if our property taxes didn’t have to support education?

As Ms. Rhee and a few others have pointed out, this sounds more like a philosophical discussion than education reform. Not being clairvoyant, I cannot say what the future holds, but I can only hope that other dramatic cultural and societal change has come to the world from asking a similar question: if we could start all over from scratch, what would it look like? If so, that means there is hope that such history will repeat itself and we will see a world of lifelong learners. Until then—or at least for the next 70 years or so—I will keep asking the question. Will you?

Posted in Ideas, Mission | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

Sir Ken on Why Education Kills Divergent Learning Skills

Posted by Stephen Dill on October 15, 2010

Here is a very compelling presentation by Sir Ken Robinson, of TED Talk fame, animated on a whiteboard as he delivers it to a live audience. The presentation is just under 12 minutes long and it sets the stage for the premise of this website and its fundamental question: why does the world continue to invest in a public education system based on old and outdated precepts that are ineffectual and misguided? If we could start all over, what would we base our new system on and how different would it appear to us today?

Grab a snack or drink, commit to not looking at email and sit back for the 11 minutes to watch this and the 5 minutes your head will be swimming after watching it:

For those readers here for the first time (welcome!), there are some ideas elsewhere on the site on how to fix this predicament we find ourselves in, I would encourage you to read and ponder them. And if anyone has access to Sir Ken, would you suggest that he ring me up so we can stop agreeing on what is wrong and begin figuring out how to build a new system, test it, refine it, then launch it? Thank you!

Posted in Ideas, Mission | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Amen, Brother!

Posted by Stephen Dill on September 21, 2010

The Dalai LamaThis from a series of questions asked the Dalai Lama on his Facebook Page:
Question: How can we teach our children not to be angry? —Robyn Rice, GRAND JUNCTION, COLO.

His Holiness: Children always look to their parents. Parents should be more calm. You can teach children that you face a lot of problems but you must react to those problems with a calm mind and reason. I have always had this view about the modern education system: we pay attention to brain development, but the development of warmheartedness we take for granted.

Can I hear an Amen for that observation!

Posted in Mission | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Slow Awakening

Posted by Stephen Dill on August 5, 2010

The total reboot of global public education (which will no longer be public, by the way, but personal—what we call private now) is going to take time. Lots of time. I call it my 150-year project because I suspect it will take at least that long to bring about. However, every day there are more and more small signs that thinking individuals are coming to the conclusion that the foundations of the current education system are no longer appropriate, as indicated by the poor results of the system built upon them.

My childhood neighbor, Judith Scacco Pack—another Facebook reconnection success story, linked to an article from EducationNews.Org and the title caught my eye: Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech. Unique as much for its message as the age of the presenter of that message, Erica Goldson politely and respectfully expressed her frustration with the education system to the audience at the graduation ceremony at Coxsackie-Athens High School. In her estimation:

We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something?” Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

Ms. Goldson touches on a concordant theme stated elsewhere here on All New Public Education: that “education” is not about standardization, but freedom of expression and lifelong learning. While many may nod their heads and agree to the words, few realize that this means no buildings where all children enter and are sorted by age. This means “classes” unlike any we know now, for classes will be associated by interest, not age or geography, connected by the Internet, unmeasured by tests unless decided by the pupils to have some value to help them learn the topic. Few I speak with can grasp the idea that a child may not begin learning from someone else until they are 12 or older, while other children may become teachers at age 10 without ever having taken formal training from anyone else, either in the topic they are now teaching, or the process of teaching. Throughout time the young mind, unfettered by adult constraints, consistently confounds adult’s preconceived correlations between age and mental acuity and capacity.

“Anarchy!” I hear all the time. If only a few did it, such as the relatively small number pursuing unschooling today, perhaps. But not when everyone does it, the world over. “Utopian,” is another response. Perhaps so, but we once knew the value of teaching by doing; letting children play and work alongside their peers and parents in order to identify their personal interests. But we are talking centuries ago. The last vestige of that culture is still seen in the traditional school year calendar, scheduled originally to allow children to assist the family farm. By 1854 Thoreau wrote in “Walden,”

I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life; — to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar. Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month — the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this — or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?

I applaud Ms. Goldson’s bravery in challenging the status quo and in taking to task the system that almost convinced her that chasing the goal of better grades than anyone else in her class was in her best interests. Erica has joined the many who shake their heads in baffled wonder at how such methods can persist so long after so much conclusive evidence has been accumulated to disprove its validity. Howard Gardner, John Taylor Gatto and all the many others who have paved the way to understanding the need for educational revolution must be very, very patient people.

Posted in Ideas, Mission | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

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!

Posted in Ideas, Mission | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »