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Dealing with a legacy school system


"Students sit passively in separate classrooms. Everything is coordinated by a predetermined plan... with rules to keep things moving like one giant assembly line throughout each hour, day, and year. Indeed, it was the assembly line that inspired the industrial age school design, with the aim of producing a uniform, standardized product as efficiently as possible. Though the need to encourage thoughtful, knowledgeable, compassionate global citizens in the twnety-first century differs profoundly frmo the need to train factory workers in the nineteenth century, the industrial age school continues to expand, largely unaffected by the realities of children growing up in the present day."

This is from a wonderful book I just started reading, Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future, co-authored by Peter Senge (author of one of books I put in the "changed my life" category, The Fifth Discipline).

Bill Gates has been causing a stir with his recent "schools are obsolete" speech.

Roger Schank (former director of AI at Yale Univeristy, and Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, and founder of Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwester), has been on a multi-year rant about what's wrong... "The education model in school does not work. That fact, however, hasn't deterred business from adopting this model... the educational model in use today in high schools was actually designed in 1812. To put this another way, while the real world has changed a lot in that last hundred years, the subject matter has not changed at all. Education should be about preparation for living in today's world." (From one of my favorite learning theory books, Designing World-Class E-learning").

And from Publisher's Weekly, introducing School's Out, an intensely thought-provoking book on why we should nuke education, by Lewis J Perlman (an excerpt appeared as the cover story in one of the very first issues of Wired):

"Are school systems, classrooms and teachers obsolete? No less so than the horse was with the coming of the automobile age, argues Perelman, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C., in this stimulating brief for technology-based hyperlearning. "

There's hope, of course... here's more from Presence:

"But different types of learning are possible. more than five years ago, we began interviewing leading scientists and business and social entrepreneurs. We often began by asking each person, "What question lies at the heart of your work? ... Together, the two groups illuminated a type of learning that could lead to the creation of a world not governed primarily by habit."

A lot of people are offering solutions. My daughter's school was an example (I talked about this earlier here.)

Perlman believes that we can't do this with incremental improvements, and indeed the way the US has continued to throw more money at the problem with often worse results is a good indication he's right. He thinks we need a revolution, not an evolution. Wipe the chalkboard clean and start over.

I don't agree with a lot of what's being said on solutions from all these folks (including Gates), but there's no question that our educational model is horribly out of date, and as a learning experience, it was never all that good. The traditional classroom model (learners as passive listener/receiver, emphasizing memorization over thinking) violates pretty much everything we know about how learning actually happens, although kids managed to memorize and learn and graduate in spite of this.

Later I'll go into a lot more about my thoughts on this. But I'm heading out of town for a couple of days (yes, there's new skiable snow in the Rockies) and wanted to leave you with something to think about ; )

I'll be back on Monday! (No food fights while I'm gone...)

Posted by Kathy on March 4, 2005 | Permalink


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Interesting post. I teach traffic school (where you go when you get a ticket). Actually it is comedy traffic school. I try to make the classes interactive, and people actually thank me at the end of the day. Not only did they have a good time, but they learned something. I don't remember feeling that way in high school about my classes, and I don't recall many students that did.

And as for schools teaching what people need to know to get by in today's world. They are not doing a good job of it.

Posted by: Tim Sunderland | Mar 4, 2005 4:27:48 PM

BTW, as far as schools not doing their job, it happens at both ends. I have clients and acquaintances in businesses where they are looking for college grad employees with a good education and a solid base from which to grow and flourish in the business world. Tough to find.

On the other hand, I have a client who owns a plumbing business and he can't find help, either. He pays his plumbers a salary and bonues based on their ability to upgrade a project. He had two plumbers who made more than $70,000 each last year. Part of his dilemma is the inability of schools to help students find something they are comfortable in, and also to prepare all students for the need to be leaner and meaner in the workplace.

It is a tough proposition. The world is going through one of those times when things are changing at warp speed. It is hard to keep up, and it can be downright overwhelming.

Posted by: Tim Sunderland | Mar 4, 2005 4:43:56 PM

Color me a little skeptical.
- Let's see the type of education which produced the greatest, most widespread prosperity the world has ever known does not work.
- What will work is more "Blue Screen of Death" technology.
- And this policy is being advocated by the people who make money from this technology.
- Hey, I've got an idea. Instead of starting a revolution in education why doesn't Mr. Gates just fund one experimental school. 12 years from now when we see that the graduates of that school are all a bunch of Noonian Singh's he can just sell us the formula.
- Or as my friend Ty used to say, Put up, or shut up, Mr. Gates.

Posted by: Greg Marquez | Mar 4, 2005 8:33:56 PM

Ummm, Greg...

If you followed the link about what gGates said, you would have read the following:

"Bill Gates delivered a blistering critique of American high schools on Saturday, and his foundation promised $15 million to states to make immediate improvements."

He's simply offering his opinion on a sytem he, and a lot of us, feel is dated. He's also offering $15m in order to start the improvements.

I think that could be seen as "puting up"...!

Posted by: Rich...! | Mar 5, 2005 5:15:51 AM

Okay, you pushed me over the edge for Presence. I'd been meaning to pick it up but this post was the final impetus. Gotta get it.

And amen to your note about The Fifth Discipline. It rocked my world too. Still does.

Posted by: Bren | Mar 5, 2005 8:52:11 PM

I have made a similar remark in a previous post. see http://2020learning.blogspot.com/2005/03/our-world-is-changing-our-schools-are.html

Posted by: Albert Ip | Mar 6, 2005 4:38:48 PM

Yesterday, we -- the small band of people organising "Transform-Ed" -- finally got our web presence up and running, which is to say that we've gone public at last. Please check us out.

I know there are a lot of people concerned about the speed at which education can adapt to the needs of society. I want my world to be one in which people can still take part at all levels. Transform-Ed is particularly geared to look at the potential for networked technology to run ahead of people's grasp of its potential. We believe that if people are going to participate in discussion and design of the structures around them in the future, they will need better preparation than education affords them at present.

If this rings bells with you, have a look, send us your comments, sign up, mention the campaign...

Posted by: Ann Light | Mar 7, 2005 2:28:49 AM

The school system is designed to produce cogs http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2005/03/the_everworseni.html

Can we destroy the school system and start over? Possible but not probable.

The worst problem is that the school system is a bureaucracy. Like a giant dinosaur even if you put a bullet in its tiny brain it would take a very long time to finally die.

Actually a bureaucracy is even worse, because it is populated with intelligent people whose financial survival is at stake. They will do anything in their power to stop the destruction of their world.

The best thing you can really do is to opt out of their system. They can't hurt you so much if you are not in their control. If homeschool is not an option a couple of hours of real education afterschool is attainable.

Don't worry about homework, worry about real learning. Grades don't matter after your first job anyway.

Posted by: Stephan F | Mar 7, 2005 2:30:35 PM

So the current system is inspired by the industrial age assembly line and based on an educational model developed in 1812? Hopefully some of you can note that there was no inductrial age assembly line in 1812 even if you attended the American school system (the system that it has been noted has created the greatest and richest and most powerful country in the history of the planet). And of course, the "learners as passive listener/receiver, emphasizing memorization over thinking" is pure strawman. I don't know of any modern school room that works this way (and I have a child in the public school system). The idea of throwing technology at the problem is the worst solution. Children need to develop relationships with human beings, both teachers and fellow students. Making learning a game played on computer terminals is the worst idea unless we want to create a generation of social misfits. The problem with American education is not between the student and teacher. The problem is between the student and parent. School districts where parents are actively involved in their child's education have consistently good results. School districts where parents are not involved have bad results.

Posted by: Tom | Mar 8, 2005 7:55:13 AM

So, Gates says that American high schools are broken, so he pours a bunch of money into...American high schools.

Boy, pretty much sums it up for the whole Windows user experience.

And American high schools.

Posted by: Sandy | Mar 8, 2005 10:09:16 PM

Well, I can see that everyone's passionate about this topic ; )
And yes, even the folks who are the most outspoken about this don't agree on *anything* but the highest-level view that the current system is somehow not up-to-date. And they disagree even more dramatically about what to do about it. My personal view is that technology is not the answer, although there are clear ways in which it can help, but only in a radically different context. I don't agree with virtually any of Bill Gates' proposed solutions... and I don't even agree with his view of what exactly is wrong (other than, as I said, that it's outdated). Don't get me started on what's wrong with having "get more kids into college" as the ultimate goal.

But Tom, I have to disagree with one thing in particular-- this issue: "learners as passive listener/receiver, emphasizing memorization over thinking" is most certainly a HUGE problem. I've spent an extraordinary amount of time sitting in public school classrooms over the last five years, across two states (California and Colorado) and seven school districts. But it's not just public schools... it's colleges (at which I've been both a student and teacher), corporate training programs (same thing, student and teacher), everything. Yes, they DO work this way, largely because they must with such difficult student/teacher ratios, and tremendous pressure for standardized tests. Although it's possible to find some great institutions where the teachers are lucky enough to have a low student/teacher ratio and are given the flexibility to do more than just prepare students for exams.

Stephan makes a great point about bureaucracy, especially when you watch how some small private schools with virtually no bureaucracy can deliver fabulous learning on a per-student budget that's not that different from what's allocated for each student in the US school system. It makes me crazy when I see how bad the situation is at my daughter's public high school (and this is a school in a fairly affluent community), and most of her teachers feel the same way, but are largely helpless to do anything. (Her favorite, and most outspoken teacher is always on the verge of losing his job... with some parent or another "demanding his resignation" for, say, not overly censoring the kids for the videos they create for public access television... I'll save that for another post.)

This is an awfully complex issue -- the US public school system has a budget larger than a huge number of countries--and I am in no way qualified to have anything more than a personal opinion on the *system*, but I'm quite qualified to address the brain-unfriendly style of learning adopted by nearly all public (and most private) education institutions.

Another thing that bothers me personally is that we--the parents and other adults who will one day live in the world *run* by today's students--have almost no ability to exercise the same rights we have in a free-market... to *take our business elsewhere*. Imagine a world where ALL education was provided by vendors *competing* for your education dollars. (Yes, I know there are a zillion reasons people give for why that won't work... but as Americans, we've certainly embraced capitalism in virtually every *other* aspect of our lives, so why not this?)

Tom: "Making learning a game played on computer terminals is the worst idea unless we want to create a generation of social misfits."

I think the constructivists feel that computer games are best used as something *created* by the students, in the course of designing systems to help teach *other* students. There's a great book about this, "Minds in Play: computer game design as a context for children's learning" by Yasmin Kafai, and Apple did a lot of research in schools around this notion a decade ago. Again, it's about kids *making* learning games, not just playing them.

And I think only the most extreme (like Perlman) are proposing a full-scale switch to all online/distance models. And even *he* acknowledges that your kids wouldn't be doing that alone... they'd attend a center where the teachers there were facilitators/mentors, ran group activities, physical education, etc. I'm not sure that having a kid spend two hours on a computer is actually much *worse* than having them sit quietly in a classroom listening to a lecture, with very little student-to-student interaction. At least online, each can go at his own pace and the learning can be customized and adapted to each individual--something a teacher with 30 students simply cannot offer.

Tom: "the system that it has been noted has created the greatest and richest and most powerful country in the history of the planet"

I appreciate this, but again, the complaints are not that it was *always* flawed (although I think that it was, given what we know about the brain today), but that it doesn't work for the world we live in *now*. And I think *that's* where the folks I mentioned in the blog all agree.

I agree with you that the problem isn't between teacher and student, though. It's between the system and the learners. The teachers are, in many cases, between a rock and a school board and legislation. Almost everyone I have ever met agrees that the subjects they were the most passionate about in school were most often because of a teacher -- one special, inspiring teacher -- and NOT the school system. In fact, I believe that when most people look back, they tend to remember mainly those special teachers who made learning what it *naturally* is to the brain-- a turn on. And often, those were teachers who had to push the boundaries of the system.

I don't think teachers aren't the problem, with the exception of those who've reached the phone-it-in stage, or who simply don't do a good job (for whatever reason, which could be because their *own* education in learning theory is lacking, or that they just no longer care). But the system in which teachers have to exist is mostly pretty awful. Yes, parents can make a HUGE difference, but the problem is much deeper than that.

But as I said, my rants on the school system are just that... my rants. Everyone's opinion is just as valid. Thanks all, for participating.

[Ann: I'm just starting to look at Transform-Ed, so I don't have much to say yet, but I already love the tagline "Imaginative learning for (un)imaginable futures." It looks like a wonderful place for this conversation and a chance for real progress. Cheers!]

Posted by: kathy Sierra | Mar 8, 2005 11:47:50 PM

"Again, it's about kids *making* learning games, not just playing them."

I can't tell you much I disagree with this! I wish they would take every computer out of every school and throw them in the street and then put Bill gates on top and burn the whole mess. We need keids to interact with each other and with their teachers and with the custodian. We don't need kids staring at computers even if they are doing really, really cool things on them.

"...but that it doesn't work for the world we live in *now*."

I don't ghet this at all. Are you saying the kids in the 50's were smart and didn;t need to be entertained in class? And that now in the cool, 21st century our kids are so stupid that unless teachers put on clown suits and juggle chainsaws that the kids will pull out their Blackberrys and send porn to each other? Arghhhh... I think maybe the problem is that we don't think kids should be disciplined enough to sit in a classroom and learn.

And my worst pet peeve:
"Stephan makes a great point about bureaucracy, especially when you watch how some small private schools with virtually no bureaucracy can deliver fabulous learning on a per-student budget that's not that different from what's allocated for each student in the US school system."

And how many special education students attend those private schools? How many autistic children? How many medically fragile children? I can answer that for you... none. Because they won't accept them because they are too expensive to edcucate. But your local school district doesn't turn them away and instead spends hundreds of thousands of dollars giving those children an education. There is a local private school that brags how they give such a good education at half the cost of the public schools but they don't pay for buses or books (the school districts do) and they aren't even wheelchair accessible, let alone actually allowing a disabled child to attend. So next time try comparing apples to apples.

Posted by: Tom | Mar 11, 2005 6:28:55 PM

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