Education: If it ain't working, continue trying the same stuff again and again

Progress is a funny thing. You can walk into a brand new house, or a house that is 50 or 75 years old, and fundamentally, it is the same. You have your electric outlets, pipes for water, drains for the sinks, ducts for the air conditioning and some sort of heat. Lights haven't changed much, Sure, your phone lines feel a little lonely, your TV antenna wires have been replaced with cables and you have a lot more junk that you don't need, but really... thing haven't changed that much in a house.

But think about how your life has changed, how you entertain yourself, how you eat differently, how you communicate and where/how you work. That has changed monumentally, but from the outside it all looks hauntingly familiar.

So, what about education? Lots of change, there. Modern elementary and middle schools look like colleges, staffing levels are through the roof, the cafeteria serves all three meals and school has become as important for its day care function as it has for its educational function.

With all of this money being thrown at education, have our children become smarter? I would guess not. For the amount of money spent on a per-student basis, you could hire one teacher for every three or four kids. It is insane.

I watched Season 1 - Episode 3 of House of Cards this evening. This is the one where Francis is involved in negotiating the Education Bill. It was a frank (pardon the pun), oblique look at what teacher's unions demand. Yeah, it is "all about the children"... my ass.

I was mulling the whole education mess in my mind this weekend and it kind of dawned on me. We don't need a change in education, we need a pivot.

My business is IT support. The more we get told that everyone is smarter about computers and that my business will become less and less important, the more phone calls we get. These calls aren't so much about crashed hard drives, mis-configured serial ports or installing the latest version of Office. The calls are increasingly about needing our help figuring things out.

To Google for help, you need to fairly understand the problem... you need to know where to start. If you don't know where to start, where do you turn? Well, if you are on one of our support agreements, you turn to us. If it has to do with IT, we can usually figure it out and if we can't figure it out, we can pull some strings to get to someone who can figure it out.

How does this concern education? Pretty simply, actually. Let's look at where the state of the art is today.

If you think that going to school every day is de rigueur, then look at online schools like The Khan Acadamy, Udacity and Coursera.
One can learn just about anything from these online courses, but would the average 8 year old be able to stick with a training regimen while studying all day from home? What happens when he/she gets stuck on something? These kids need some way to keep them on track and get them through the tough parts of the material. What I am suggesting is that rather than having front-of-the-classroom teachers (aka lecturers), they need guides. That's right, guides. No, I'm not talking about someone in tan, wearing cargo shorts and a hat like Pharrell's. I am talking about someone that can answer the question that a kid might not know what or how to ask. 

A guide can help a student discover the answer they are looking for, like my Microsoft Partner Account Manager can help me navigate a labyrinth of menu and website options to find what I need on their site. 

Think about homework. Kids are sent home after up to six different classes with six different teachers and six different assignments assigned as if each teacher was their only one. When they get home, open up their first book and the first question is to describe the events leading up to Bacon's Rebellion or solve for x in a quadratic equation, who are they going to ask if they need help? The single mom who is doing laundry while checking her Facebook newsfeed, or the dad who barely graduated high school in 1999?

Let's look at leveraging what is available, NOW. Develop a curriculum that meets certain milestones. Let a child proceed at his/her own pace, but provide guidance and help from teacher/guides and teaching assistants, who could be other kids who happen to excel in a subject and can sharpen their skills by helping others understand.

School is an important part of socialization and learning to work with others. Teams can be more than sports, too. Music and arts need interaction, and so do VoTech subjects. Kids can learn the theory behind these subjects online and then practice the application of it with others.

I am not proposing that we abandon schools altogether, but we need to be able to craft adaptive curricula for each student. Provide testing after certain coursework is completed, in a managed, proctored environment so that the student can be accurately assessed, but also use the progression (right answer/wrong answer, time to answer questions, amount of re-reading) throughout the course to determine problem areas before the test is given.

Teacher/guides would be available in each study environment to assist students. Guides, stumped by questions, can ask a subject mater expert (SME) in the school for an answer. If these SMEs cannot answer the question, there should be someone up the chain that can.

This is not a charter school and it might not be for everyone, but the idea could provide the foundation for a different approach to teaching. I find it hard to fathom that 100% of children learn best when sitting at a school desk for 50 minutes at a time, listening to a teacher teach. As a student, some teachers connected with me, but many did not. I was bored, or even worse, disappointed. I could have learned a LOT more in school.

Could a hybrid of on-line teaching coupled with in-person guides and SMEs be a better approach?


Craig Hollins said…
I was at a dinner party with mainly teachers around the table. I asked if kids today were leaving school as well educated as we were. The group gave me a unanimous "no". I then asked, with all the advancements we have made in the last 20 years in understanding the human brain, all the advanced teaching aids and all the extra money that's being thrown at education, why is that?
Stunned silence. Not one had even a suggestion.
In Australia the big school debate is on class sizes. The smaller the class size the better the education outcome is the mantra. Unfortunately all the research states that a class of 20 has pretty much the same outcomes as a class of 40. The call for smaller class sizes comes from the teachers' union and they pull on the heart strings of parents for support.
So, based on the professional's answer to my earlier question, I'd state that we don't need to revolutionise the education system but stop mucking about with how to teach and get back to the basics. You may have been bored in some of your classes (who wasn't?) but you came out knowing your grammar, spelling and mathematics.
The Asterisk said…
I firmly believe that we were educated much better with much less (I graduated HS in 1972). IMHO, most of the technology that is used in class today is a gimmick. I am still not convinced that using computers in class as part of instruction is a good idea when the class is structured as it currently is. My suggestion of a teacher as a "guide" is completely different in that it allows students to progress in different subjects at their own speed. It is my feeling that 99% of students can find something that thrills them to learn about. Of course, no education is complete without being well rounded, so the "lesser" subjects can be made interesting through computers and group instruction. It is sad that good teachers are saddled with teacher's unions which have a corrupting influence upon the whole process.

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