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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

TAKE EDUCATION, for example...


The Technology Revolution is trying to teach us some things that must not be ignored.  I have chosen today to talk about Education as a prime example, but this post goes beyond basics to talk about biases, new models (paradigms) and politics (of course).  Reference to the work of Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, titled Abundance: the future is better than you think continues throughout.
Emphasizing politics right from the beginning, let me say very clearly that the Charter School Movement does no better than public schools in rejecting old patterns and models, and embarking on new ones that fit with today’s technological revolution and the global reach of data and communications.  Charter schools simply privatize the same outmoded models perpetuated by public schools, intended solely for the profit-making of pseudo-educational organizations funded by elitist millionaires and billionaires.  Charters have proven to be useless in terms of catching up to where we need to be in this 21st century.
PUBLIC EDUCATION is NOT Dealing with the new reality
We are today educating people in the same way we did in the 19th century, or even earlier.  Symbols of the past abound:  isolated and ordered classrooms, teacher up front and pupils seated at all-in-a-row desks, using accessories like pens, pencils and notebook paper. The most antiquated symbol:  that blackboard with chalk for writing.  Every class is devoted to learning about paradigms (models) of living that are at least 60 decades old if not older. 

Abundance: “Our current education system was forged in the heat of the Industrial Revolution, a fact that not only influenced what subjects were taught but also how they were taught.  Standardization was the rule, conformity the desired outcome.  Schools were organized like factories: the day broken into evenly marked periods, bells signaling the beginning and end of each period.  Even teaching, as Sir Ken Robinson put it in his excellent book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, was subject to the division of labor: “Like an assembly line, students progressed from room to room to be taught by different teachers specializing in different disciplines.”
Following are some more of the premises and assumptions perpetuated by the current public school paradigm:
Ø  Learning is still seen in terms of committing facts (and fiction) to human memory.  Certain subjects are required that do not reflect student needs or society’s demands. 

Abundance: “We’re teaching the wrong stuff, but just as alarming is the fact that the stuff we’re teaching isn’t sticking.  Two-fifths of all high school students need remedial courses upon entering college.  Knowledge of algebra is required to pass state tests and is a near universal requirement for college admissions.  But why is that?  Graduates of MIT were recently surveyed regarding math.  The assumption was that if any adults use higher-level math, it would be them.  And while a few did, the overwhelming majority reported using nothing more than arithmetic, statistics, and probability.”

Ø  Students are grouped together by age or by functionality reinforcing the false concept that one curriculum fits all

Ø  Classes are all the same length – often inadequate for the subject matter sometimes making homework a necessity, when it isn’t just given as “busy work” unrelated to a specific purpose

Ø  Tests of some sort are part of the belief that regurgitation of facts and figures is the essence of evaluating what has been learned; today it is also tied to measuring which nations have the most competitive students.

Ø  Poorly written and flawed textbooks are still used in many classes, even though some are written under contracts influenced by special interests who dictate a political or social bias, presented as factual.
Education is more than learning by rote, teaching a one-size-fits-all curriculum, testing for ability to reclaim rote-learned facts and figures.  Learning is more than sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher, absorbing facts and figures, being told what has to be learned; being confined to a building/classroom/teacher or being de-individualized, isolated, and segregated by age or ability.
Abundance has several conceptual examples to offer on the process of teaching and learning.

A)      Self-organized Learning Environments (SOLES) – the authors tell the story of Indian Physicist Sugata Mitra and his incredible development of SOLES.  Through ever-expanding actual experiments in the slums of India and throughout the world, Mitra learned that kids can learn on their own.  In small, unsupervised groups, without any formal training, they can learn to use computers very quickly and with a great degree of proficiency.  As a professor of education technology at England’s University of Newcastle, Mitra developed a new model of primary school education called “minimally invasive education,” now in countries around the world. 
 
“These SOLES are really just computer workstations with benches in front of them.  The benches seat four.  Because SOLES are installed in places where good teachers are not able to be found, these machines are hooked up to what Mitra calls the “granny Cloud” --literally groups of (foster) grandmothers who agree to donate an hour a week to mentor these children via Skype.  On average, he’s discovered, the ‘granny cloud’ can increase learning scores by 25 percent.  Scores also increased where major questions are presented for resolution, and four students work together on one computer.  These children not only learn at a high rate but they have what one could call “an unprecedented retention of information.” Reporting on this, the Wall Street Journal said: “one child in front of a computer learns a little; four discussing and debating learn a lot.”

Abundance concludes: “Taken together, this work reverses a bevy of educational practices.  Instead of top-down instruction, SOLES are bottom-up.  Instead of making students learn on their own, this work is collaborative.  Instead of a formal in-school setting for instruction, (this) method relies on a playground-like environment.  Most importantly, minimally invasive education doesn’t require teachers.”  With a global shortage of qualified teachers, such new solutions may save a whole generation of kids from being written off and left behind. 

B)     One Tablet Per Child (OTPC):  School of the Future

Learning is best done not through instruction but through doing, especially when the doing involves a computer.  On that basis, OTPC has delivered laptops to three million children around the world, and undoubtedly many more by now.  “Because the initiative is based on a learning-by-doing education model, rote-memorization-based tests and other traditional measures of success do not apply.  Nicholas Negraponte, one of the cofounders said, ‘The most compelling piece of evidence…that this program is working is that everywhere we go, truancy drops to zero. And we go to some places where it was as high as thirty percent…’”

C)      James Gee Meets Pajama Sam: are interactive games educational?

In 2007, Dr. Gee, a linguist at Arizona State University, after using a video game called Pajama Sam to teach problem-solving skills to his then 6-year-old son, realized that the problems presented were a lot harder to solve than he expected.  It sparked an interest in adult video games as educational tools.  Turns out many are quite complex.  He realized that young people were paying lots of money to engage in activities that are time-consuming, energy intensive and require a lot of concentration.  Isn’t that what schools face every day – trying to get students to pay attention, work hard and concentrate on the subject at hand?  As an educator he realized that this whole area of interactive games had profound implications for education.
“Studies have shown that games outperform textbooks in enabling students to learn fact-based subjects such as geography, history, physics and anatomy, while also improving visual coordination, cognitive speed and manual dexterity.”  Such games are also helpful in teaching reading of words, especially for younger children.  Interactive games also teach collaborative skills and customizable games can do the same for creativity and innovation.  Considering all this and more, experts have come to an obvious conclusion: “we need to find ways to make learning a lot more like video games and a lot less like school.”  And what’s more, “The twenty-first century is a media-rich environment.  Between the internet, video games, and those five hundred channels of cable, the competition for our children’s attention has become ruthless.  In fact, wildly entertaining might not be enough.  If we really want to prepare our children for the future, then learning needs to become addictive.” (“Abundance”)

And some have already begun:
·         Like the Cincinnati County Day School where students are asked to compare battle depictions in Rome: Total War against historical evidence. 

·         A professor at Carnegie-Mellon who says that traditional grading systems are “demotivating”  uses in his classes a more game-like system: students start a semester at level zero avatar (an F) and strive toward a level 12 (an A).  This means that anything done in class moves one forward and students always know where they stand – two factors that serve to motivate. 

·         The New School for Design Q21, a NY City public school, uses a curriculum based on game design and digital culture, where one project was to create a graphic novel based on the Babylonian poem ‘Gilgamesh’ and then record understandings of that culture through anthropology journals. 

·         Khan Academy became an underground internet sensation with over 2,200 videos on topics ranging from molecular biology to American history.  Their vision is a “free virtual school…(with) enough content up that anyone in the world can start at one plus one equals two and go all the way through quantum mechanics.”

·         And, don’t forget Jeopardy winner, IBM’s WATSON!  With increasing development of artificial intelligence (like cars that park themselves and automatically avoid accidents or actually drive themselves, plus Bots that clean and protect your house), an always-available, always-on A1 tutor will be in the offing.  Experts call this a life-long learning companion: an agent that tracks and enables learning over a lifetime.
NEW PARADIGMS for the 21st Century
If education is to meet the demands of this modern technologically-based age, we cannot ignore technology and science but must embrace what they can offer for the advancement of public education.   It is perhaps important to stress that technology is a tool, not a panacea for education and learning.  While new tools are essential to our construction of a relevant public education system, we cannot and should not simply abandon old tools that still make a meaningful contribution to the construction of the system.  Based on the technological revolution now taking place and the global reach of information and data, here are some of the new paradigms (patterns) for consideration:
  1. Use technology to train the primary trainers – the parents of children – for home-schooling their children beginning at birth to at least 3-4 years of age; emphasize reading
  2. Re-think and re-design (or abandon) school buildings; develop new paradigm of school as people learning together but not always separately from the world; take students out into the world; hold classes (gatherings or groupings) in community structures like businesses, factories, libraries, town or city halls.  Where appropriate, make use of existing community buildings that can be adapted. Where school buildings are a burden and a blockage to learning perhaps it is time to establish “school” in community places of work, business or leisure, and let community experts do most of the teaching.
The point is, of course, that buildings are tools or resources for teaching and learning, and they should be designed, renovated, re-structured or adapted to reflect the how, what and why of public education.
  1. This extends to the role of teachers – we are all teachers; so let us make use of all of our resources: parents, teachers, student peers, community leaders and community workers; plus mentors to relate education to real lives and real life circumstances.  Yes, a lead teacher might be a facilitator of learning and a personal coach of students, rather than an imparter of canned material in a curriculum.  As a Team, the facilitator and other ‘teachers’ could be planners of teaching events and opportunities.  The lead teacher does not have to be the fountain of wisdom from which all education supposedly emanates.
Abundance: “We should not assume that these developments mean an end to teachers.  Study after study shows that students perform better when coached by someone who cares about their progress.” This includes mentors and peer-to-peer tutors. “Newer models of education turn teachers into coaches.  We’ll need to expand our research into ways to make these coaches more effective.  Indeed, there is a great need for new data about how to make the best use of the one-to-one attention that now becomes possible.”
  1. Unless isolation is necessary to the subject at hand, it should be reduced to a minimum, based on what is best suited for a message of inclusion and involvement in community.  Do we need desks or would other furniture like ottomans and comfortable chairs be more appropriate tools for learning?  Perhaps we should replace outmoded learning instruments and accessories with a portable laptop or tablet for every student and the use of computer labs when necessary (in a community setting, not a school building necessarily).
  2. Every student should have an Individual Education Plan (IEP).  Some students will need on-going help developing such and mentors must be used for many such activities; volunteer mentors are needed (and need to be seen) as teachers/coaches/facilitators.
  3. Group activities and school spirit are still important; so sports and clubs must be coordinated into each IEP as warranted and desired, for they are also resources (tools) for learning.
  4. All the arts – music, dance, drama, painting, sculpture, playing an instrument, making almost anything, and video games – are crucial to creativity and using brain power, senses and emotions to see the world from another perspective.  The arts are not peripheral; they are essential tools for learning and can be taught in appropriate places like museums and theaters; art studios and sculpture barns. 
  5. The IEPs should probably influence “curriculum” and courses as much or more than school boards and administrators, although some subjects offered will probably have to be required simply because an education is not entirely ‘bottom up’ learning.  A broader purpose of teaching citizenship and community responsibility cannot be abandoned.  Perhaps a choice of large classes taught by expert ‘teachers,’ or smaller groups taught by action and bottom-up learning would be a winning combination!
  6. The IEP is what a student should be evaluated against, not a set of criteria developed by some expert.  Thus, an evaluation process based on individual progress, success and learning (like those used in work settings or by video games) might be a suitable replacement for grading based on conformity to imposed norms and on competition with other students.
“Abundance” takes evaluation or “measuring progress” to another level: 
’We can’t get deeper learning until we change the tests,’ says Dr. James Lee. ‘A video game is just an assessment,’ says Gee.  ‘All you do is get assessed, every moment, as you try to solve problems.  And if you don’t solve a problem, the game says you failed, try again.  And you do.  Why? Because games take testing, the more ludicrous, painful part of school, and make it fun.’ “Even better is the data-capturing ability of video games…As this technology develops, games will be able to record massive amounts of data about every aspect of each student’s development – a far superior metric for progress than the one-size-fits-all testing method we currently favor.” 
We have allowed the biases created by our brains to take over this most important societal function: that of educating children and youth to take on the responsibilities and benefits of being citizens of a democracy and ambassadors to the world.  Our present definitions of ‘education’, ‘learning’, ‘school’ and ‘success’ are infused with presumptions and assumptions that are simply outmoded and inadequate for facing the 21st century and beyond.  Because we can’t let go of (or meaningfully adapt) the patterns and models of the past, we can’t proceed into the future.  We are stuck in time; mired in cognitive mud; unable to dig out of a hole that is of our own making. 
And apparently, not one Republican in Congress has any idea whatsoever as to a Plan that might show us a vision of what should or could be in our future.  The Republican Party, now led by Donald Trump, is the purveyor of regressive muddy concepts and hole-digging mythologies that they tout as “ideology” and “basic principles.”  They not only produce their own myths and biases, they also play upon the biases, prejudices and attitudes of a citizen base that has been engrained with rigidity, conformity, risk aversion (‘don’t take chances’) and the stultifying of anything that looks ‘sissy-fied’ (the arts and creativity). Most important, the followers of Donald Trump are mired in cognitive biases (shortcuts) that don’t allow for informed, tested, and constantly evaluated planning.  They would rather adhere to cognitive biases, such as:
Confirmation bias – pushing people to believe their own prejudices and opinions as reality and to reject any data that goes against those beliefs
Anchor bias that is a ‘first impression’ bias – once an initial picture is formed of a situation, other possibilities are overlooked or rejected
Fundamental attribution bias or error – is a tendency to blame others when things go wrong, instead of looking objectively at the situation
Bandwagon bias or effect – places great emphasis on decisions likely to conform to current trends or that please certain individuals within an existing group
What is perhaps most unnerving is that the Trump minions have no intention whatsoever of using their minds in any other way.  They intend to live with the cognitive biases they have developed because this is comfortable for them.  They are not attuned to training their minds, clearing their minds, educating their minds or practicing techniques for enabling greater brain power. They will not change because they hate change. 
And that is one more reason why Donald Trump is a menace: he will continue to encourage such mindlessness because he knows he then has basic control over his followers, and can manipulate and use them for whatever purposes he has in his mind (so similar to Mussolini and Hitler!).  One of those purposes, you can be sure, is that of self-aggrandizement.   Donald Trump has the opportunity of a lifetime -- to make a profit off the enterprise of running for President.   You can bet that every one of his followers instead believes that he is in this race to make this country great again and to obtain something meaningful for them at the same time!  Take Education, for example...

NOT A CHANCE!