Re-thinking education

I want to have a talk with you about education. To have that talk, I need you to accept that a few people who are smarter than I am have noticed something is a bit … wrong

Watch these videos, and then we’ll talk:

http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud.html
http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html  (some duplication from previous link, but still important)
http://www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_canada_our_failing_schools_enough_is_enough.html
http://youtu.be/y_ZmM7zPLyI

Heady stuff, yes?

The issue as I see it is the habit of molding the student to the course material, instead of making the material suit the student. The Zombie Empire Replacement Part System continues to shamble along.

Now I know that some folks think that asking a teacher to put together an individual teaching pamphlet for each student and attempting to implement it for a standard classroom of 25-30 students is impossible.  Even if it wasn’t, that there aren’t enough teachers out there to attempt to bring down the class sizes to implement such a design, at least in Canada.

That is why Self Directed Learning (SDL) education systems are the ONLY viable answer

You might say that is a double edged sword. Yes, kids and teens will go out of their way to learn anything and everything that they can about a subject that they are interested in, but by that same token, if they aren’t, it’s like trying to catch water with a sieve. Right? And what happens when the “disinterest subject” really is a subject that the child can and will benefit from in the long run?

To me, education has an element of Darwinism in it … but perhaps not the way most would expect. If the student is taught how to learn, how to ask questions, how to think critically, and how to read, then almost –everything– else will fall into place –when– it is needed.

If it’s not actually relevant, then it won’t be part of that student’s “curriculum”.

For example, I flunked out of University in 1992 because I just couldn’t make sense of calculus. Today, I build mission critical phone systems for companies around the world, I run a successful company, and I’m an internationally published author with a book that was an Amazon Best Seller. I have never used calculus in either work or play.

In fact, almost every professional skill I use today, wasn’t even a conceivable theory 15 years ago. None of this was taught to me by a teacher. The only skills I kept are skills my Father taught me at home: critical thinking, how to posit a question, and how to learn for myself.

“That’s fair enough, but some students simply don’t want to learn. What happens then?””

I’ll beg to differ on this point. My experience is that I’ve never met someone who doesn’t want to learn, given a subject they have interest in. Most conversations at coffee shops are based on this point.

What I *have* met is MANY people that didn’t want to be taught. Or sometimes it’s just not be taught “that way”. Or even just “not that thing”.

So if you’ll give me that point in the discussion, then we can say we have a possible solution to a possible problem.

But well, is it even a “real problem?” The school system produces graduates every year, right?

If I told you that I had a business process that had a minimum product failure rate of 16% over 4 years, on production of 350,000 items a year, what might be a reasonable question to ask me?

It might be something like:

“Isn’t that somewhere along the lines of 56,000 failures? What could be done to improve that?”

… and that would be a good question. So what if I told you I had no plan to improve anything?

“I’d be asking why not. 16% isn’t awful, but given the fact that improvements are always a viable option, I’d need an explanation as to why this obviously means so little!”

Another good point. Now what if I told you not only did I have no plan for improvement, I anticipated increasing the price my of goods by an average of 7% every year for the next 4 years?

“Why are costs going up so drastically if there are no improvements on infrastructure in the works. 7% over five years is a 35% cost increase over a constant 16% failure rate!”

Yet another good question … and yet, this is the EXACT model and statistics for Education from G10 -> U4 in Canada, if not North America, since 1985. According to Statistics Canada the drop out rate for University in 2010 – 2012 was about 8%, across Canada. The failure rate was about double that, at around 16%.

Education is the only industry in which we accept a 16% failure rate on product and then blame the consumers every time.

How about a world where 16% of jet airliners will fail to fly within 4 years of purchase? You’d never fly anywhere, ever. Today, most planes are in service for 20+ years without issue.

“16% of power stations fail to produce power within 4 years of purchase”
“16% of bank tellers will make a mistake with your account, not in your favour, within 4 years of opening the account. In addition, the error will be held against you in all further lending decisions”
“16% of cars will be undrivable within 4 years of purchase.  The car must be financed over 12 years due to price and conditions”
“16% of students who take a house-value loan for higher education will be left unable to advance in their learning or apply the information learned within 4 years”

It is nothing short of ridiculous.

Beyond what you might see, there are two serious problems with our status quo. First, is that we are wasting the valuable life time of the student teaching them irrelevant material. Second is that we are wasting the –teacher’s– resources in trying to teach it to them.

“How do we weed out the relevant from the irrelevant though?”

That’s easy, actually. If you teach *skills*, instead of *content* then the student can go get the *content* whenever it’s required. So, teach communication, teach critical thinking, teach how to compose questions & theories and teach social connectedness. Then, with those skills, the content that the student needs or desires will be evident to the student, and they’ll have the tools to go get it themselves.

Right now, our places of higher learning are purveyors of rapidly aging content. Like Google (free), Wikipedia (free), and your local library (free).

“How do you teach social connectedness? Isn’t that largely what public school was for to begin with?”

Unfortunately, no. As noted in the videos I linked to, the public school system was to ensure a uniform standard of education amongst the middle class of the British Empire to ensure they could work anywhere in the Empire. So as the Empire grew, you could be moved anywhere within the system and be functional.

Personally, I learned more about social connectedness from playing table-top RPGs in my teen years than I EVER did at school. School just taught me that putting together a bunch of teenagers that have little in common with each other just forms cliques and nasty “them-us” social nightmares.

So, what if instead every morning when we got to school we had all been told “so, go there, check in, get a good breakfast for free, and let the teacher know what’s got your interest up, and they’ll get you some good reading for the day? Oh, and don’t be surprised if they ask you *1* seriously tricky question for you to stew over and get back to them about.”

Sample Question: “Why is perspective drawing so important in Leonardo Da Vinci’s more famous architectural works?”

Ask that to a Grade 7 student that loves drawing and watch what happens. What will likely happen is you’ll get a stumped look that slowly goes stubborn and you’ll watch said student tromp off to the nearest library or Internet connection.

Or possibly you’ll get a helluva discussion between that student and two others about any combination of 1) Leonardo, 2) perspective drawing, 3) architecture, 4) “you seem into this shit… what’s your name again?”

“…plus one student sitting in the back staring into space and wishing that the teacher hadn’t taken away his headphones and iPod…”

Ah, but you see, under the vision I’m discussing that kid still *has* his headphones and iPod. In fact, the Educational Facilitator has asked that student to tune into the school media server. In a couple of hours, do let the Educational Facilitator know what the student thinks about the comparison of Muddy Waters and Led Zepplin. Is one just a brilliant derivation of the other? Is Jack White relevant to the discussion?

Wouldn’t that be an amazing learning environment?

Why on God’s Green Earth should I force a student that wants to be a musician, for example, have anything to do with anything that doesn’t involve being able to teach himself about music?

Keep in mind, Dave Grohl  was a high-school drop out.  As were all his bandmates.

But here’s the catch. To do that, to be the musician (s)he wants to be, there are a TON of other skills they will *want* teach themselves along the way. Teach the basic mental skills for SDL, and then the job of the “teacher” is to be a *Facilitator*.

“What interests you ? Oh. Well, go check this out, then. Come back in two hours and tell me what you’ve discovered”.

“We’ll never make this kind of a change to our education system. It’s impossible!”

Well, you’ll never get the British Empire out of India, and Japan will never renounce the Caste system, either. Oh, and forget about the Sound Barrier; that’s just crazy talk.

There is a Roman proverb that roughly translates to “those who insist something is impossible, should stay out of the way of those doing it”.

It has been said that change starts with dissatisfaction and discussion.  This kind of change is generational. I agree that you cannot retool the emotional conditioning of a population of 35 million people towards the education process as a hobby on an idle Tuesday. It takes time and genuine leadership at all levels, including you, the reader.

Change starts with dissatisfaction and discussion. I think we are all dissatisfied with the spectre of BComm students working call centers for minimum wage. Now let’s start talking about alternatives.

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