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Education Re-Form, For the Sake of the Future

After a couple of years of intense and on-going research into education world wide, trends, fashions, innovation, methods, approaches, doctrines, special education, unique education, religious education, private education, public education, with technology, without technology, with money or without – I need to put in writing just a few of my observations and conclusions, to date.

The future of education lies with the recognition of each student as a unique individual.

The acceptance of uniqueness and diversity is the key to a better future for all and greater success in education achievements.

Old news: Some kids are good in Math and lousy in literature. Some are great in Lit and lousy and Math. One kid can excel in Math and Lit, but he sucks in Physics and Art. There are kids who suck at all topics, but are social stars. There are those who excel at everything, but are still unhappy. Oh, there are so many types of kids, and yet there are no types – because every child is his own special one and an only package of can-do and can’t-do, of wants and non’s. Still the teachers get a classroom filled with many different kids. Usually the things that bind those kids together in one classroom is their age and sometimes where they live or the financial background of their families. That’s a very artificial binder. Look around your adulthood friends and make your own deductions.

So this classroom, turns into a class, a group of kids, now has to study fractions. Great. But while some kids get it in a blink, others may find it difficult, or maybe not difficult, but simply boring, so boring they can’t concentrate or get what the teacher is talking about. And at the end of the day they have homework or exams and behold, some kids get less then a perfect score. Fractioning this group titled a classroom into mini groups….

Greg Whitby, the Executive Director leading a system of approximately 80 Catholic schools in greater Western Sydney Australia, talks about uniformity Vs. diversity here:

One of my own eye openers is my youngest son. A second grader he told me that he loves to learn, but only when he chooses and what he chooses. While the professional educators around him criticize his independent thinking and work constantly to turn him into a uniformed student in his classroom, who does everything the same as the rest of the class, I am observing and here are my findings:

He hates his Arithmetic class and homework. It drives him nuts. Yet, when his father went abroad he produced an amazing shopping list – listing the prices of the toys, after he converted them from US dollars to Israeli Shekels. He can also Arithmetic percentage of time, to know exactly when his eggplants will be ready for harvesting on FarmVille.

How important is it, for a kid like that, to go through a methodical, framed, graded system of teaching him Arithmetic? To be honest – there is no simple answer. As we are in an education system – the education is systematic, automatic, and cannot be adjusted to individual persons. Or can it?

In an education system that is based solely on the transference of knowledge or information from a single teacher to a class of kids – there is indeed no room for recognition of the individual.

So, what’s the purpose of the education? Have we forgotten about it?

I think if a child knows how to calculate foreign exchange rates and percentage (on time!) – he is well beyond simple Arithmetic. So what’s the point of insisting on teaching him one booklet after the other of things he is way passed? Is the purpose of the education here is to transfer the specific books into the child, or is the purpose is that the student actually gets a knowledge in the particular subject and knows how to use it?

Well, neither is enough. The major declared goal of education has always been about preparing the young students to their adult life, to acquiring professions and making a living. Arithmetic was important to learn, and very methodically, in a time where trades men managed their own little businesses and they didn’t have computers or even calculators.

But what does today’s education system do to prepare today’s students to tomorrow’s professions? Those professions which have not yet been born? What did yesterday’s education system did to turn me into an internet communications specialist? Or a multi player online game designer? Or my neighbor to a genome researcher or my friend to a researcher of the structure and function of the ribosome? Answer: nothing. Those are individuals who are born with an important quality or two: curiosity and the ability to ask and to teach themselves.

Self teaching is indeed a quality some lucky people are born with, but eventually, all people are in need of this quality. The amounts of information are growing constantly. It is not possible to transfer all this knowledge to any individual. The diversity of occupation is increasing, allowing people to develop expertise in what really interests them. Turning some knowledge they acquired in school irrelevant.

Those who are afraid of the individualism of education often talk about the importance of wide education. But is it really necessary for a physicist to study how to analyze a poem? Or is it enough to assign reading assignments, to those who do not read enough on their own? And while you assign those books to read, how about some classic films? Classical music? Classical rock bands? Tours in various museums world wide and in archaeological sites around the world? If we are talking about expanding horizons let’s do it with pleasure – and not with pressure. Not every subject in school requires grading and marks.

And as individuals are encouraged to learn and expand their horizons let’s allow for one more thing to change in the classroom: let the kids express and teach – teach other kids, teach the teacher. Because only when the teacher becomes a learner, then he can become a learning enabler. A real 21st century educator.

Here Greg Whitby talks about the 21st century new teaching DNA:

A facilitator or a teacher?

Which is it? A learning facilitator or a teacher? Which of those would better serve the future of education? The future of today’s students?

I have been pondering over this question since I read and loved the post by WM Chamberlain who wrote “…I evolved. I am a better teacher … My students have a better opportunity to succeed … In a few short years I have become less of a teacher and more of a facilitator for learning. My students are taking a responsible role in their own education.”

So here is the thing: I am not a teacher. I am a parent. I consider myself an educator, and I know I am a good facilitator of learning. But I am not a teacher. So what does distinguish people like me from teachers? Is it enough to facilitate learning?

I’ll start at the end. Some kids really do not need teachers. At least not for all topics. Not all the time. Some of the way they can do by themselves. But I wouldn’t start closing teaching academies yet. I have enormous respect for teaching methods, instructing, guiding. Even when discussing facilitating learning – there are different ways to do it. A parent-facilitator will never be the same as a teacher-facilitator. But somehow I feel there might be some things in common here: first, the credit a facilitator offers his students. The trust in the students ability and motivation to learn. Second, or perhaps this is the main thing, the ability to see the individual learner, and not a group, a class as one.

In a few years of web evolution, the importance of the individual has grown, starting with personalization features about a decade ago, and discovering the importance of the individual in huge social networks, that would not have existed without individuality.

Still, when it comes to education, no real development is happening. Wavy movements of for and against homework, recurring pressure regarding class sizes, the status of teachers, new books and booklets, replacing old books that looked so similar.

Our hope is really such unique teachers like Mr. C., who take it upon themselves to evolve professionally and bear a promise to change the future of education.

Beware the Social Networks!

About 12 hours ago “The Mail Online” has published an article titled: “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist“.

The top neuroscientist quoted is Lady Susan Greenfield. She is an amazing 59 year old woman and a specialist on the physiology of the brain, a professor at the department of pharmacology at Oxford university in the UK.  A serious, serious academic.

I am dedicating this post to her achievements and to the Ada Lovelace day, and to this pledge.

I had to read the article several times to try and understand what she is saying. After all, she is a top neuroscientist. You can’t simply dismiss what she says. Being a mother of 3 children – I want to know.

I am already poisoning my kids with un-organic food, we live in a polluted city, there are cellular antennas in the neighborhood, not to mention their personal mobile phones. Am I doing some more damage to their brains by letting them have a Facebook account??

Anxiously I was looking for scientific hints in the article. The research conducted… the methods and subjects… anything to learn a little more. But the most scientific reference I found was: she “believes repeated exposure could effectively ‘rewire’ the brain”.

OK.

The article quotes her saying “Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centered” and then adds the quote “My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.”

Last month, the same lady, who is a member of the house of lords said “I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues…, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,” arguing that exposure to computer games, instant messaging, chat rooms and social networking sites “could leave a generation with poor attention spans”.

Well, hello and welcome to E V O L U T I O N.

Indeed not all evolutions do well for the specie. Think Mammoth for instance. Perhaps we are doomed.

But, does this mean we have to exclude all new media and stick with the old ways? Is preserving the current wiring of the brain more important than developing and arriving at new, yet unknown, places?

Here is something to think of. My 9th grader told me about her new History text book. Text books are rarely noted or gaining any sort of comment from a teenager. But she actually pointed out that this is a rather good book to study from. The book’s uniqueness is by adding several different fields of information into each page. Allowing the students to follow the main text while absorbing other types of information, some are minor others are accented.

When I encountered this fantastic presentation by Sarah “Intellagirl” Robbins – things fit. I already wrote about it here.

I am not a scientist. But I believe that Lady Susan Greenfield is right. The young brains do go through some re-wiring. Sarah Robbins is right too. Students today are capable of handling a lot more information then students in the past. Call it “poor attention spans” if you like. I actually think it’s rich attention span.

I know that my Kids find it easier to absorb and process several sensory and information sources at once. They are certainly more successful at it than most adults I know and I believe they are better at it then I was as a student. Excuse me for not crediting social networking or penguin club with these achievements. I give most of the credit to the environment they are growing into and the future they are naturally preparing for.

Some of the many comments made to the article on “The Mail” try to dismiss everything as an oldie attacking the younger generation. Which makes you wonder really, about how society related to various media changes in the past century, or better yet – from print, through phones, to mass and digital media.

Still one question remains: can we really fight it, or should we find a way to use it to society’s advantage?

Walk backwards into the future

“We look at the present through a rear view mirror; we walk backwards into the future” is one of my favorite Marshall McLuhan quotes. The man who said “The medium is the message” and “The user is the content” tens of years before the web 2.0 made its first steps has a unique perspective on evolution.

I was thinking about the medium and the user following several education-related video presentations I watched recently. I would like to mention two; both are talking about today’s education, in relation to the past.

It will be wrong to say that we live in an era of great changes or a surprising rise of new technologies. It will be wrong, because this is not an era. This is it. It started with the invention of the writing, moving us from pre-history to history. The next great leap was the industrial revolution. Evolution has been on that course of rapid developments and constant changes ever since. Some aspects of life keeping up and some being left behind. Unfortunately, one of the most important aspects of civilization is having trouble keeping up. That’s education. Individuals are doing great jobs sometimes. But as a whole, education is in trouble.

How relevant to today’s education can a 40 year old quote be? How relevant can a 160 year old quote be?
“Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment, where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns subjects, and schedules”.
This opening statement, to a presentation made by university students, quotes “Marshall McLuhan, 1967”.
The same presentation ends with another brilliant quote: “The inventor of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not the greatest benefactors of mankind”. Quote by Josiah F. Bumstead, made in 1841 on the benefits of the chalkboard.

Looking back at the invention of the chalkboard this was the previous revolution to education. At the time it was perceived more as an innovation than as a revolution. A revolution is happening nowadays too. And surprisingly, it is also perceived more as an innovation than as a revolution.But an Australian school is demonstrating its full grasp of the revolution in a series of 9 short videos, linked to from the Flickschool blog.
Watching them I felt happy: Someone has finally got it and is actually saying it out loud.While the teacher’s role in the past was to teach, to pass on material to students, the teachers today need to understand that their role in the society has changed. It’s a revolutionary transition from a giver’s role, where the students are passive, to an enabler role, where the students assume an active role. Moreover, as a learning-enabler or adviser, the teachers themselves become active learners. And they learn from their students too.

Many teachers complain about the downgrade in the teacher’s status in the eyes of their students. Students hardly look up to teachers as they used to do some 30 years ago maybe. Teachers who are respected are those who respect their students. And I can see it every day as a mother and as an active PTA member.

As a communications strategist, working with hi-tech companies, I can honestly say that learning enabling is the highest value of all and the only expectation I have of school. If in the past a teacher would be preparing his students for a well known set of professions, it is clear, and even clearer over the last 20-30 years, that teachers couldn’t have prepared us, for those professions which they had no idea would exist. Who would have thought of a New Media specialist 20 years ago? E-business? Homeland security? Organic agriculture?

You can look around you and see who the people who learned-how-to-learn are. The teaching and studying environments change. But if you think that computers are the new teaching tools – you are greatly mistaken. Computers, like the chalkboard, mark the environment. The tool has never changed throughout the history of mankind: curiosity remains the single most important quality and tool of the learner.

The school, the web and the ugly…prospects

Israel, the home for so many of the hi-tech innovations. One might imagine children are breastfed in front of the PC, or do their potty training while learning to program. They probably play with semiconductors at the nursery school and master all forms of online communications by the age of 6…

 

Isn’t it so?

 

Well, sadly, no. My children go to school with more than 650 other students, ages 6-14. The school has only 24 PCs, no wireless of course and no more than 2 academic hours per week for basic computer skills (sometimes only half of it), starting at the third grade.

 

This school, which hosts the city’s gifted children education program, uploaded a web site just last week. One which, to be fair, I planned and worked on for an incredibly long time and with unusual patience.

 

I just ran out of patience last night.

 

Got home, read this incredible post  by Connie Weber and wanted to cry.

 

It is possible to blame the national priority in Israel, the cuts in education budgets. Some would blame the teachers’ workers organizations. There are the local governments who are to blame for municipal budgets. But really, drilling down, you are facing the school’s priority and the single teacher’s ambition.

 

I honestly believe that most teachers chose this profession out of an urge to teach, lead, instill knowledge and positively affect younger generations. I try to dismiss common convention that most teachers in Israel chose this job either because they had no other choice or for simple convenience.

 

And that’s where last night’s meeting comes in.

 

After spending 18 months on the school’s web site project, and following its announcement and publishing of the URL last Friday, I had to face the fact that out of about 55 teachers, I could hope for no more than 10 that will agree to learn how to use the web site’s content management system.

 

Due to the school’s assumption that most of the teachers won’t be “in”, the work with the group of 40 students who have already learned the skills of using the system, is to be put on hold, or rather, “we cannot advance at this pace, this has to be slowed down to the school’s pace”.

 

How can you explain to a school, which launched its web site on March 2008, that this is not an acceptable pace in the current online world?

 

Our world is evolving so quickly that today’s teachers are preparing their current pupils to professions, which do not yet exist nor could we imagine they will exist. The children today are so knowledgeable and connected, a school that doesn’t flow with the current will remain a dry isolated island that does not communicate with its environment – meaning the kids, and their parents, most of which are online to some degree, sometimes a very high degree. Such a schooling system cannot serve a population that strives to learn, innovate and lead. It can only drive ambition and performance down.

 

Thinking of the school’s site I am sharing Connie Weber’s vision relating to the community building together its house. I envy the quality of learning she has achieved through a simple social networking site she has established with 4-5 graders. I just wonder how is it, that in Israel, the home of ICQ, Disk-On-Key, Windows XP, Intel inside,  SMS, voice mail, Firewall and so many other innovations, the school teachers can be so detached from, well not just hi-tech as a whole, but from the basis, the web.

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