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How We Get Schools Wrong

Public education in America has long been the subject of hand-wringing and now, after over 100 years of the same model, it’s time we finally recognize what has worked and what has failed. Education is, in a sense, a kind of technology, and it’s time to ready its next version.

I’ve recently been asked to participate in some discussions about innovation in education; my mother co-founded a primary school in 1980 and I’ve had a chance to consider these topics as a student and a thinker. Here’s precisely where I believe we have failed and what we might do to invent the next generation of education.

Failure to recognize the importance of networks

What makes a successful student? Being around other successful students. We are the average of those around us. This simple fact is what has animated desegregation as well as programs like KIPP, Head Start, charter schools, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and private schools. If we really want to create social mobility and social justice, we need to change people’s position within the social graph to expose them to self-actualized learners and educated people. This suggests one imperative only and it has nothing to do with schools, per se: If we want children to learn, we must ensure that they are surrounded by people who value learning.

Overconfidence in Curriculum, Testing, and the Educational Machine

If a child’s success is determined primarily by their position within the social fabric, it cannot also follow that the machinery of education has very much impact. Consider that a single child surrounded by a diverse, thoughtful, inquisitive support network of adults and other children will undoubtedly flourish (assuming a base level of socioeconomic security). It is therefore incorrect to assume that the modern educational machine is necessary to produce a successful adult. We should recognize that successful learning can happen in many different ways, and not just through schools.

Confusion about what “school” actually is

The popular conception of “school” is that it is a place where we send our children to learn and be systematically exposed to an orderly program of ideas, culminating in a baseline level of performance that will prepare them for employment. In fact, school provides only a) a basic social safety-net within which children can be placed into a social fabric, b) state-sponsored childcare, c) minimal insurance of the breadth of instruction (via a curriculum), d) minimal insurance of the length of instruction (usually at least 13 years of 180 days each).  School enables some parents to participate in the workforce while insuring a basic safety net for students who would otherwise lack a supporting social fabric.

Confusion and guilt about the role of teachers

Many people intuitively understand the value of a good teacher. But look back on your own school experience and ask honestly how many truly excellent teachers you can recall. Most people will name three or four. Some might name five or six. This suggests that the best experiences in our educational system happen by accident. We all want to value teachers and the work that they do, but when performance varies so widely, it’s difficult to develop metrics that reward those who are making the most difference. Additionally, when others have demonstrated that self-directed learning is possible when children are working within a supportive social fabric, it’s not clear that the model of “teacher as the driver of learning” is sane. The child is the driver of learning, and the teacher is only an informed and enthusiastic member of the child’s social network. Children, not teachers, are the true drivers of learning; teachers are just one part of the child’s social support fabric.

Politicization of education

We have damaged both public education and social justice by conflating the two. Well-intentioned activists on the left identified public education as a civil rights issue. And certainly education is a matter of social justice. But education is a matter of one’s position within the social fabric, and we have been forced to try to use our public school system as the only available tool to manipulate peoples’ placement within it. Well-meaning bureaucrats and school boards make countless decisions that affect people’s placement within social networks – everything from what schools they can attend to what set of classes they can access. People on the right have mistaken left-wing proponents of public education as the enemy, when in fact the enemy is only the many layers of ineffectiveness that plague our system. We can only improve education when we understand the importance of social fabrics and stop fighting each other.

Historic co-opting of education alternatives by both the right and the left

Many on both the far right and left have historically chosen to opt out of public education in favor of religious education, private schools, home-schooling, or unschooling. Because they have been associated with extreme political affiliations, or with the moneyed (and oft-maligned) “elite,” many Americans have found them distasteful. Many intuitively believe that if they pull their child out of public education, they affect the social fabric of the schools they leave behind. However, many also fear that this alone is not a sufficient reason to participate in an underperforming school environment. You hear people say, “I believe in public education; that’s why I’ve got my kid in this school. I hope I’m doing the right thing.” People should put their children in schools only if they provide functional social networks for learning.

Over-reliance on causal thinking

We largely believe the myth that if you graduate as valedictorian and go to the best college that you’ll have a rich and successful life. That may appear true on the surface, but it’s arguable that more opportunities come from the social fabric that results from those experiences than from the credentials themselves. And even optimizing for “rich and successful” doesn’t necessarily translate to “happy and fulfilling.” We all know the old saw that “your degree doesn’t matter; what matters is that you have a degree.” That’s more true today than ever (at least outside of academia itself). The reason for this has more to do with our position within the social fabric than anything else. We need to start giving kids the skills they need to become life-long learners and stop trying to win some imagined game of education.

Vestigial artifacts

We educate children in an industrial model to prepare them to work in industrial environments, as if they were so many machine parts. We take off three months per year so kids can help with farm tasks. These are both obviously ridiculous notions today. So much of the system is the way it is because it has always been that way, and the system begets the system. We must break free. Learning should happen continuously and year-round, individually and in groups, and should be coupled with plenty of play and breaks.

How we might move forward

Buckminster Fuller famously said, “You never change things by fighting the existing model. Instead, make a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” This is happening right now.

First, new instructional tools are emerging. The phenomenal and free Khan Academy website provides deep instruction on hundreds of topics that kids can ingest at their own pace – and as supported by their network of peers and mentors.

Second, social tools like Facebook and Twitter enable people to self-organize face-to-face peer-driven instruction for their children. This will evolve into an effective, mainstream and apolitical home-schooling movement, and it will be a juggernaut.

People will opt out of public education because they will have found something that works better.

If we want to save the mission of public education, we urgently need to get smart about the nature of school, what it is and is not, and figure out a way to offer an effective social safety net for everyone that recognizes this new reality.

The old model simply doesn’t know it’s obsolete.

  • Jayne Matthews

    Awesome article. Your words ” Education is, in a sense, a kind of technology, and it’s time to ready its next version.” pretty much says it all.

  • http://rwinvesting.blogspot.com/ DIY Investor

    Awesome post. Khan Academy is a great resource. Another is the TED Talks. Your readers will like this one

    http://thebizoflife.blogspot.com/2011/03/sir-ken-robinson-do-schools-kill.html

    Fuller is right – we need a new model. And it is in the process of evolving – only really good teachers will survive.

  • http://profiles.google.com/pbessman Peter Bessman

    This is all more the interesting and insightful in the context of the Thiel controversy. A great, clairvoyant post.

  • http://www.twinbabystrollerreviews.com/ Stroller Twinbaby

    I read many blogs but I must say your writing style is top notch. You make other bloggers look like kids. Keep up your original writing style. :D