William Deresiewicz writing about how the Ivies are overrated:
It is true that today’s young people appear to be more socially engaged than kids have been for several decades and that they are more apt to harbor creative or entrepreneurial impulses. But it is also true, at least at the most selective schools, that even if those aspirations make it out of college—a big “if”—they tend to be played out within the same narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.
Experience itself has been reduced to instrumental function, via the college essay. From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify. The New York Times reports that there is now a thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers, but what strikes one is the superficiality of the activities involved: a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance, “a whole day” with a band of renegade artists. A whole day!
I’ve noticed something similar when it comes to service. Why is it that people feel the need to go to places like Guatemala to do their projects of rescue or documentation, instead of Milwaukee or Arkansas? When students do stay in the States, why is it that so many head for New Orleans? Perhaps it’s no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service as something they are ultimately doing for themselves—that is, for their résumés. “Do well by doing good,” goes the slogan. How about just doing good?
If there is one idea, above all, through which the concept of social responsibility is communicated at the most prestigious schools, it is “leadership.” “Harvard is for leaders,” goes the Cambridge cliché. To be a high-achieving student is to constantly be urged to think of yourself as a future leader of society. But what these institutions mean by leadership is nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to. I don’t think it occurs to the people in charge of elite colleges that the concept of leadership ought to have a higher meaning, or, really, any meaning.
Read the whole thing.
It may be many years until Philadelphia’s education budget matches its curriculum requirements. In the meantime, there are a few things the district—and other flailing school districts in America—can do. Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books. At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job. Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them. Until these things change, it will be impossible to raise standardized test scores—despite the best efforts of the teachers and students who will return to school this fall and find no new books waiting for them.
Amazing, and depressing read.
Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab:
I’m a three-time college dropout, so learning over education is very near and dear to my heart, but to me, education is what people do to you and learning is what you do to yourself.
And it feels like, and I’m biased, it feels like they’re trying to make you memorize the whole encyclopedia before they let you go out and play, and to me, I’ve got Wikipedia on my cell phone, and it feels like they assume you’re going to be on top of some mountain all by yourself with a number 2 pencil trying to figure out what to do when in fact you’re always going to be connected, you’re always going to have friends, and you can pull Wikipedia up whenever you need it, and what you need to learn is how to learn…
…So I think the good news is that even though the world is extremely complex, what you need to do is very simple. I think it’s about stopping this notion that you need to plan everything, you need to stock everything, and you need to be so prepared, and focus on being connected, always learning, fully aware, and super present.
How do we learn to learn what we need to learn when we need to learn it with the people who can best help us learn it?
John Hagel, from his “A 21st Century Global Declaration of Independence:”
We find ourselves now at a crossroads in history. The institutions – commercial, educational, political and civic - that we created in an earlier era in an effort to expand our potential have now become increasingly significant barriers to progress. It is not surprising that our trust in these institutions is plummeting around the world. We see so much opportunity and yet the institutions that are supposed to be helping us are increasingly standing in our way.
It’s not schools themselves, obviously, that stand in the way of progress. It’s our nostalgia for what schools are supposed to be. It’s our lack of a modern context for developing a vision for what schools might become.
Saturday, I asked 500 or so school trustees from across Canada this question: “How can you make relevant decisions about curriculum, budget, technology, assessments, staffing, infrastructure, pedagogy, scheduling, support and all the other things you deal with on a daily basis if you yourselves are not powerful, connected learners with technology in a modern context?” I’m not saying that those folks weren’t trying their best to serve the kids in their boards. I’m also not saying that their current decisions are all terrible. But, to paraphrase Gary Stager, you can’t make relevant decisions about 21st Century learners if you haven’t learned in this century.
As I’ve noted before, the rhetoric coming out of Canada is pretty “enlightened” if you will. The British Columbia Ed Plan says
Our education system is based on a model of learning from a different century. To change that, we need to put students at the centre of their own education.
Ontario’s Vision for Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age states
The new role of education is to ensure all students have the opportunity to use their interests and passions to connect to all areas of knowledge.
And in “Inspiring Education,” the Ministry in Alberta writes
To achieve their full potential as expressed in the vision children must be the centre of all decisions related to learning and the overall education system.
As with anything the devil is in the details. I can’t help wonder, at the end, how much of the rhetoric actually translates into practice. I wonder, for instance, how much students will truly be allowed to organize their own learning and pursue their passions in ways that actually create a new narrative for schooling as opposed to simply tweak our nostalgia.
Reagrdless, the rhetoric of “progress” grows more interesting by the day…
From Howard Rheingold:
The PSII website illustrates for prospective students the differences between traditional and PSII curricula: where traditional schools cover subjects, PSII uncovers them. Curriculum is built on learners’ personal interests in close relationship with teachers who aim to nudge more than assign. Personal learning paths for each student are co-created between learners and teachers; “learning is based in valued human attributes, then competencies, then personal and universal learning goals.” Instead of grouping learners by age/grade levels, they are grouped in whatever configurations make sense — sometimes by similarity, sometimes by difference, sometimes by interest. “Learners are encouraged to develop real projects, based on their own inquiries.” Online networks and forums are employed when appropriate, in addition to face-to-face learning. “Personal health plans” replace traditional PE.
Kids are competent. I believe that teachers are competent too. I find it unfortunate that so many educators behave as if teachers are incapable of adapting to modernity.
There is a fundamental difference in stance between assuming that as a teacher I know everything as a fountain of knowledge and that the kids are smarter than me. There may be a “creative bottleneck,” but giving up on teachers or schools is an unacceptable capitulation.
Great things are possible when the teacher gets out of the way, but even greater possibilities exist when the teacher is knowledgeable and has experience they [sic] can call upon to help a kid solve a tough problem, connect with an expert, or toss in a well-timed obstacle that will cause the student encounter a powerful idea at just the right teachable moment.
As usual, Gary is spot on here. Last week during my Australia visit, I was asked on a panel how we prevent kids from being disruptive or off task when every one of them has a device in the classroom. I think the questioner was almost shocked when I started my answer by channelling Gary, saying “I don’t think we give kids enough credit in their ability to stay focused when they’re doing work that matters.”
Every one of the Year 3 kids who I saw at Princes Hill Primary School just outside of Melbourne had their own laptops, yet none of them, zero, were “disengaged” during my visit. And this picture was taken during the 90 minutes of free learning time that every student gets every day at Princes Hill.
Read that again. 90 minutes of free learning time to write stories, make stop action video, read books…whatever.
Kids are more than competent when we give them opportunities to pursue the things they care about. Problem is, we don’t do enough of that.
In essence, we’re participating in a click-through curriculum, and it’s one we need to teach our students to navigate and encourage them to pursue. There’s no scarcity there, no worries about available rooms or staffing needs. Instead, it’s about self-direction, passion, interests, persistence, critical thinking, curation, and outcomes. There’s a greater focus on what they have done and will do with what you’ve learned, rather than how they learned it.
With an abundance mindset, we can create click-through spaces in our schools and in our curriculum. We can empower students to direct their own learning and to take full advantage of the unlimited courses and access they already have outside of school. By shifting from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance, we can move from school world to [the] real world.
That “abundance mindset” is key. The question is how do we develop that mindset in the adults when it comes to curriculum? If heads and principals and policy makers had it, I think we’d be on a road to getting rid of over half the required curriculum we currently have. If parents had it, even more.
"cyberike" commenting on this Alfie Kohn piece:
These points illustrate the stupidity and short sightedness of allowing immature students to decide what is important, and what is worth focusing their attention on. They don’t get to decide that, and any article that implies that students should have any control over what they decide to learn not only undermines the educational process, it can cost lives.
David Perkins, author of Making Learning Whole:
To me, 90 percent of what we typically teach is a waste of time. 90 percent of what we teach probably constitutes particular skills and particular nuggets of knowledge that those kids will never encounter again in a significant way in their lives. It just doesn’t matter. Well, that is completely bizarre. We simply have to do better than that.
Yesterday, I took my incredibly spoiled daughter into New York City for her first boxing workout at a basement gym in midtown. It was in a sweat-filled, fairly grungy, Rocky-type place with old fight posters plastered on the walls. And, no lie, the first person I saw when we came off the stairs was Gerry Cooney, a heavyweight boxer who almost killed Ken Norton in a fight I remember watching live on television in 1981. Suffice to say he looked older than his years.
Anyway, Tess wasn’t there to box as much as she was to work out. Without going into the details, she’s chasing a dream, and part of it revolves around getting really, really fit. We’d learned about a this trainer who worked with girls pursuing the same path, and yesterday was the “tryout.” Here’s a snip of what it was like. (I know, turn the phone sideways next time.)
An hour of that, and fifteen minutes in, she was drenched in sweat.
Both of my kids live in their bodies more than their brains. That’s not to say that they’re not smart; they both are. But let’s just say that at this point in their lives, academics and school are not what they are most interested in. They’re not chasing 4.0s; they’re not working to get into Princeton, if you get my drift. My son is focused on the AAU state basketball tournament games he has this weekend, and he’s been putting in hours shooting, dribbling, and working out. Tess is literally by far the healthiest eater I know right now. I’m totally impressed by the dedication both of them have shown to their current passions.
But here’s the larger point to the story. When Tess finished up yesterday and we got in the car so we could spend the next hour trying to get out of the city at 5 pm on a Friday (doh!), I turned to her and said “So, how do you feel?” Her response was interesting.
“My brain hurts,” she said.
Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, there were no real punches thrown; she didn’t take any jabs to the head or anything. Instead, it was about learning. That was probably about the most in-the-moment hour my daughter has spent in quite some time, primarily because she was learning something new, something that interested her, something that challenged her. “Hard fun" as Seymour Papert might have called it. I’d expected her to say that she was physically exhausted. Instead, she’d been working even harder in her head.
Obviously, there’s a whole lot more tied up in this regarding teaching and persistence and failure and more. And I know that schools weren’t built for “hard fun.”
But man do I wish that my kids would come home from school much more often with the good “brain hurt” that my daughter got at that gym yesterday.
But The List approach is, in fact, List-centered, and I’m well-anchored to an approach to teaching that is student-centered. It is, I have become convinced, the only way to teach. We cannot be rules-centered or standards-centered or test-centered or teacher-centered or list-centered, even though we need to include and consider all of those elements. How to weigh and balance and evaluate all these elements? The answer has been, and continues to be, right in front of us. We balance all the elements of education by centering on the student. As long as we keep our focus on the students’ needs, strengths, weaknesses, stage of development, hopes, dreams, obstacles, aspirations— as long as we stay focused on all that, we’ll be good.
What does every educated person need? Every educated person needs— and deserves— an education that is built around the student. Everything else must be open to discussion.
Mary Ann Reilly:
I often wonder how different school might be had the NEA task force, Committee of Ten, (a group of 90 elite men) determined that observation, reasoning, and judgment could be cultivated through multiple methods and studies as opposed to tying each to a discrete subject. I often wonder how different their recommendations might have been had a few women, some newly arrived immigrants, some people of color, some students, and representatives who hailed from work other than teaching been part of the committee. How might the recommendations have been different? Replacing 90 elite men who served on the Committee of Ten in the 1890s with corporations in the 2010s who are informing the Common Core really isn’t much of a change…
If you take 90 men, hailing from elite schools (college presidents, headmasters, professors) and ask them to name what an excellent education contains—we should not be surprised that their answers (all were in agreement) will reflect their lives, their truths. Habermas told us that without a metalanguage to challenge the given assumption, power tends to serve up itself as the model of excellence. Today it is Achieve, Inc., Pearson, McGraw Hill, ETS, state DOE, federal DOE who are the new Committee of Ten.
When people talk about student voice, they’re talking about feedback sessions and letting students be part of hiring committees. When they say, “Let’s give students a voice,” they mean, “let’s give them a seat at school board meetings.”
That’s not what they need. They need a lot more. We need to give them a pen and a microphone and a hammer and a shovel and a chalkboard. We need to give them a classroom and an audience and blank sheet that says “curriculum” at the top. We need to give them a budget and a building.
Kids are disengaged. They aren’t learning, and a lot of what they are learning is no longer relevant to the 21st Century. Fortunately that’s becoming more kosher to say. It’s no longer radical; people are starting to see the problems. But unfortunately, a lot of the proposed solutions aren’t radical enough. They’re superficial.
People talk about giving students a voice. A seat at the table. If we’re going to solve these problems, we’re going to need more than that. We want kids to be engaged in learning, to be excited to show up and happy about school? Give them real agency in their own education.
We want kids to be learning, to be passionate about their work? Let them learn things that have real meaning to them. Make them the authors of their curriculum.
Read the whole thing.
I’ve been arguing more and more of late that “curriculum” is a major if not the major problem in schools right now. And it’s not just that our current curriculum is in many ways outdated, irrelevant, and bloated. (I was talking to a teacher at an international IB school last week who described in depressed tones that much of his new curriculum could be summed up by one word: “more.”)
The institutional curriculum almost necessarily denies students agency over their own learning. And this is especially damaging when most kids now have the ability to create a personal curriculum around the things they truly care about learning out of the abundance of information, people, and tools they now have access to. Nothing especially new here, but worth saying again.
But creating (not giving) agency for students to build their own curriculum changes the whole game. It requires equity in tools and access. It requires trust. It requires a whole different narrative in terms of what exactly it is that we’re preparing students to be able to do. It requires being ok with not reading Shakespaere, or not speaking French, or not knowing (or caring) what a polynomial is.
And a lot more.
But why wouldn’t we work toward giving kids “a classroom and an audience and a blank sheet that says “curriculum” at the top?” What are we scared of?
We have to ask more questions about the collection and analysis of student data that is feeding algorithms that promise “personalization.” What do technology companies actually mean by “personalization”? We have to consider if we are reducing students from people to profile — and we must ask these questions, knowing full well that education institutions have never really done a good job recognizing students as people.
How might the marketing promise surrounding “personalization” steer us away from self-direction and into pre-determined, pre-ordained pathways? Can we have “personalization” if it’s built on top of standardized of content?
If, as I said at the beginning of this talk, this is a great time to be a self-directed learner, how might technology be used to dull rather than empower learner agency?
What are the repercussions of competency-based and mastery-based learning? What are the repercussions of choice? What are the repercussions of distance? What are the repercussions of scaling? Who gains? Who gains from “choice” — how do we reconcile the individual’s needs, how the individual benefits — from society’s?
There’s a very powerful strain of American individualism — and California exceptionalism — that permeates technology: personal responsibility, self-management, autonomy. All that sounds great when you frame this — as I have repeatedly in this talk — in terms of self-directed learning. But how do we reconcile that individualism with the social and political and community development that schools are also supposed to support? How do we address these strains of individualism and libertarianism — anti-institutional, anti-governmental, and pro-“free market”? What do we do about the ways in which these ideologies are embedded deeply within many aspects digital technology in society?
I’m sure these questions are being considered in admin team meetings in schools across the country and the world.
Even if PISA had done everything properly and indeed children of factory workers in Shanghai scored better than children of lawyers in the U.K. and the U.S., it does not necessarily mean they are better educated or prepared for the modern society, considering the limitation of PISA test scores as I discussed in Part 3 of this series. It could mean something entirely different: while PISA scores can be achieved with little resources and intense repetition of narrowly defined, uniformly prescribed content and skills, what truly matters—talent diversity, creativity, and entrepreneurialism—cannot. The multiplication table can be learned with a piece of paper, but it would be difficult to force anyone to play the piano without a piano. Everyone can be forced to memorize the Hamlet, but it is unlikely to force anyone to invent the iPhone.
But testing for “narrowly defined, uniformly prescribed content and skills” is just a whole heck of a lot easier.