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Or-Tal's Writings

entrepreneur/mother/education revolutionist/high tech addict

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What do you want to do when you grow up?

And how can I, your mother, help you achieve it?
I’ve been toying with this discussion for the past couple of weeks, after being approached by one of the TV networks, who’re doing a series of reports on the topic. Tying education to it all brought them to my doorstep.

So I asked my kids this very important question. The 16 year old said “I want to eat”. A very typical answer from a 16 year old, who just wants to… well, eat. The 12 year old said “I haven’t got a clue”. The 19 year old said what she has always said “I want to be a physicist” which in her case means a lot more than a single occupation.

So what’s my role in their future? To open as many options as possible before them.
2008Feb-whales-sharks
Going a little deeper into the conversation, the 12 year old admitted he wants to save whales and other endangered species. Something he has been talking about since he was 4 years old. The 16 year old expanded to “I want to be happy” and then said that currently the 3 most important and enjoyable areas in his life are music, games and food and “I’d like to develop some concept venture to put all those together into the best hanging out place in the world”. And my oldest, in between tests and studies she’s developing at least 2 startup ideas, following the previous venture, Globalvert, an organization to push forward the study of Algae as an alternative energy source.

What we all have in common is entrepreneurship. The urge to solve, innovate, create.

Several months ago I met with a wonderful entrepreneur and a business man. After sharing his rather apocalyptic view about the deterioration in entrepreneurship and number of entrepreneurs he shared a plan he has of adding a set of topics to pre-school classes, to train the minds of the 3-4-5 year old and develop them into our future entrepreneurs. “Entrepreneurship is at the very basis of sustaining the human race, with the ongoing depletion of resources on earth”, he explained, “We are dependent on those who will become entrepreneurs in 30 years and their breakthrough ventures”.

I strongly believe in entrepreneurship and the need in entrepreneurs. But while he’d start with external enrichment classes, I would much rather work with the teachers and educators first. With the correct state of mind and a basic set of tools they can achieve much more than any fantastic “thought shaping” “mind developing” external content that hosts an hour a week.

This state of mind is the one I’m struggling for at home. Trying to keep doors open, or at least within reach. Keeping the creative vibe going. Being attentive to my kids’ interests and passions, putting those well ahead of any concepts of “should and shouldn’t”, but not striking off rules. And, not ignoring society’s high road called “schooling” although sometimes I wish I could.

By now I have a 19 year old student at a university, a 16 year old in high school and a 12 year old in elementary school. I’m counting 28 years in the schooling system as a mother. I must admit that even though all three of my kids enjoy what constitutes the best to elite schooling in Israel, I’m generally dissatisfied with the education system. It’s the same disappointing system worldwide but it doesn’t make me happier. As a parent I am doing my best to offer the widest possibilities to my kids. However, the schooling system limits them.

What’s happening to my brilliant girl at the Nobel Prize winners’ academic institute reminds me of what happened to my wide eyed youngest in first grade. From the shining smile, sheer excitement and hopeful dreams of knowledge and exploration down to a thin reality of memorization and teachers’ mind-reading. She might be better equipped today to deal with it, looking at it as just a phase to go through, it still feels like a system putting you down.

And so does the whole testing system I’m going through, for the second time as a parent, with my high schooler. “Teaching? I wish I could teach”, one of his gifted teachers told me, a fantastic creative and beloved teacher, “I’m not teaching, I’m prepping for exams”.

So back to “what are we doing to help our kids prepare for a vague future we have no way of predicting?”. One thing is for sure, 3 years wasted on test preparations hardly contribute to it. Education must develop a stronger affinity to the entrepreneurship state of mind if we want it to contribute to our future. To be blunt, for a period in history lead by the workmen, the manufacturing line approach to education was fine. For an era lead by entrepreneurs – education needs to be recreated as something else, something different, some fertile ground for budding entrepreneurs.

No Educational Games For Me, Thanks.

As I am recovering from the worst case of flu I have ever encountered I’m beginning to list all those blog posts I cooked in my head for the past two weeks. Over a 26 hour flights schedule home I was contemplating all that I have learned and experienced in the two consecutive conferences I attended in Austin Texas this month: the SXSWedu and the SXSW interactive.

Both conferences offered many events, sessions, workshops, keynotes, parties and shows around the two topics which I find most interesting and relevant these days: educational technology and games. The mix is inevitable, but is also, unfortunately, too often a very disappointing mix.

It’s like every student going to study how to become a teacher is going through a crash course titled “games” which is actually a course in how to try and appeal to your students by trying to talk the kids’ language, the games talk. And so they are trained in taking the boring stuff out of the text books and turning it into a “fun” page, or: take the assignments and try to convert them into something that might fool the kids into thinking the boring set of actions they are required to do is in fact a game.10-04-2013 10-09-58

Kids are no one’s fools, and all those flash card apps are, sorry to say, really, passé. Creating a new game, a real game, which is both fun and educational, is a challenge. And I admit that one of the biggest disappointments at both conferences is that I have met no real innovation: not in education nor in games. Sure, there were some cute ideas. But when a teacher like Lucas Gillispie can take real games, like WOW or Minecraft – and apply them in the classroom, you can’t help wondering why bother developing an “educational game”? What’s the point?

I think the term “educational games” is wrong in its basis. Of course it is the right of those developers in this area to call it this and feel that this is what they do, but as for me, I prefer the term learning game, as a game one might, perhaps, learn from, rather than a game that presumes in can educate, or teach. But then I’ll take learning over education any day.

Schoolyear: A Good Start

Two whole months into the school year and I must say something. So here it comes. I have two boys in school this year, as my daughter has graduated high school last year. Now I have one son who has started high school this year (9th grade), and my youngest son, who is now in 5th grade.

The new high school is so different from the one I encountered with my daughter! There are some obvious reasons, but some are really a matter of choice. A management choice.

My 14 year old son is going to Thelma Yellin High National School of the Arts. By the looks of it you could not suspect that this is one of the most lucrative schools in Israel, or that it is private. It’s an old building with crumbling trailers as classrooms. But who cares? Certainly not the people who go there. The creative atmosphere is strongly felt through sounds and sights. But it’s also felt through the teachers, staff and management attitude.

The grading system is different. Grades will go up, for instance. Not something you see every day when they’re all doing average. “We want the students to be happy”, said to me one of the consultants, not a slogan. Really meant it. For a change I don’t feel like I am forced into a combat for my kid’s survival or dignity. It’s built into the system. There’s still a long way to go. I know. But at least it’s a good start.

My youngest is into his second year at the Waldorf Education school. It’s 5th grade and I am terribly impressed by the way they chose to introduce one of the more important learning skills. They have started this year with stories the teacher is telling from the mythologies of India, Persia & Babylon. He has been telling the story and the kids are to write the story in their notebooks and decorate them with illustrations. They can add descriptions and scenes that they come up with to enrich the stories, if they wish. But they have to listen, memorize, summarize, write and visualize. Not easy or simple. But the skill is so valuable and so well developed through these tasks.

Now to end this hard work the class has went on a 3 days field trip. Slept in tents, walked tens of kilometers, met with elders who shared their stories about the history of the country and the region. Learned discipline, nature, history and fraternity. Aren’t these skills as important to any child’s future?

Analysis of a Failure

Closing down. Shutting the doors. Dissolving. Folding. Gathering. Saying goodbye. Wrapping up. My startup of the last 2 years, Saveby, now belongs to the past, or to the future of someone else. All this silence on my blog recently is due to the fact that I find it is so hard to say the words, reveal the truth, admit a failure.

Although, some good may actually come out of this failure.

We gave it our best, my partner and I. We believed, and still do, in the power of the crowds in ecommerce. We still believe that buying is an action carried out by a consumer, and shouldn’t remain a re-action to a merchant’s action, as it still is today.

But what we believe in, or how fantastic is the system that we’ve built or the patent we designed, is irrelevant to our decision to quit.

Recently I had a conversation with one of the top entrepreneurs in Israel: an experienced, seasoned, diversified and daring man. He has closed his startup just a short while before we have decided to part from ours. It was a funny meeting, in a way. Me, mourning the loss of a few tens of thousands of dollars that my partner and I have poured out of our pockets into this startup, and him, counting a loss of several tens of millions of dollars put into his startup by a lot of good investors. I thanked god, at this stage, that I haven’t lost anyone else’s money.

But we spoke about the analysis of failure. Things look so much clearer when you look back on them. There are some mistakes you know you have learned from, and other mistakes you know you can’t always avoid. Still, next time, you’ll be more aware of the dangers.

It brought back a conversation with one particular VC who said how they prefer to invest in an entrepreneur who has experienced failure, as opposed to one that has only experienced success.  “Those who have failed will always analyze what they have done right and what went wrong. Those who have succeeded could be just lucky”.

So, we were not lucky. One mistake I feel that is particularly important to share is that we believed the further we advance without the involvement of strangers’ money, the better chances we have of getting any investment and a good valuation.

We should have known better. Get investments as early as possible, even if those are small and expensive –will cost you a large percentage of your startup. The further you go on your own the bigger is the risk that you will run out of funds before you reach your goal. Which is basically what happened to us.

The other very important thing we learned is that it is better to recruit active partners, who would be in it for the long run, then to hire freelancers who are in it – best case scenario – for some stock options. Depending on freelancers or outsourcing is really dangerous. Although, I recall, our search for a third cofounder took too long and was unsuccessful. Should we have waited longer? I don’t know.

But depending on outsources is that sort of mistake which is hard to avoid. At least I am now better aware of the danger in it and would manage it differently next time.

Yea, I’m right back on that horse.

Stay tuned.

Launch: The Entrepreneurship Challenge

“Entrepreneurship is like a religion for you, or a cult”, I was recently told. And since it is really a bit of my religion I wasn’t sure if this was meant as a complement or an insult. I decided it’s a complement and I am all for missionary activities.

One of my favorite missionary activities is The Global Entrepreneurship Week, referred to as GEW and titled “Unleashing Ideas”. The next one is happening in just less than 6 months, November 12, 2012.

I intend to be ready for it with my contribution titled “The Entrepreneurship Challenge for High Schools”.

The GEW was started in 2007, by 37 countries, of which only 18 were hosts to entrepreneurship activities. A year later about 3 million people took part in the GEW events at 77 countries. It’s been growing ever since. Activities are directed at promoting entrepreneurship and bringing it to all populations, including rural, remote and to those sectors which do not excel in daring like, embarrassed to say, women.

At about the same time the GEW has started, I began working on an idea to establish an elementary school for entrepreneurship. I started with thinking of our neighborhood school. The idea was not to replace the curriculum, which is not really possible, but rather to access the curriculum through the entrepreneurship way of life, this mode of thinking. Unfortunately the idea could not take off here, despite real enthusiasm by the city’s education department, due to frequent management changes at the school. In the years that have passed my youngest left this school in favor of our city’s Waldorf Education School. My older son is now graduating this elementary school, and will be going to the Thelma Yellin National Arts High School next year. And as my first born is now graduating high school I began looking at high schools as another good target for my missionary activities. And so the High Schools Entrepreneurship Challenge is born.

During the coming Global Entrepreneurship Week I will present diversified challenges that can only be solved using entrepreneurial thinking and doing to high school students. Those students will have to build teams to take on the challenge of their choice. Each challenge will have a mentor or advisor to guide the young entrepreneurial team through. They will have 3 months to work out their solution and by February 2013 will present their suggested solution, demo, and prototype or business plan.

Don’t you think it’s a better method to appreciate learning than PISA???

To make it happen, I need your help. I need people who are willing to join me and start by collecting problems, wishes, hopes, dreams and, well – challenges, from all sectors – private and public, government (local\national\global), health, arts, sports, hi tech, low tech, agriculture, environment and social, transportation, security, education, games and entertainment – in short – all sectors that can contribute ideas or challenges. Better collect those challenges with mentors, but I will need volunteer mentors as well. So if you are a developer, business men, investor, lecturer, researcher, activist – a person who is a doer – you can become a mentor.

I intend to introduce the challenges to participating high schools in November 2012. If you are connected to any high school, anywhere in the world, that wants to demonstrate its students’ abilities and achievements – make sure they are listed as a participating high school and that the school representative contacts me.

Students will be able to browse the challenges online and teams can apply to take on a challenge independent of their high schools too. But I much rather have schools and lots of students participating. The bigger the networking around it is – the better.

By February 2013 all suggested solutions will be presented (even if they’re half baked). Any team with a feasible solution is a winner. Well, as a religious fanatic I can say, every participant really is a winner.

I am still unsure about what to do after that. Some solutions might be interesting enough for the industry to choose to continue working on, in collaboration with the students. Some would be pursued by the student teams themselves. I am pretty sure I don’t want to announce “winners”. Though “outstanding” would probably be evident. The real world would know which solutions are winning. I would like, however, to announce winning schools – those will be chosen based on number of participants in the challenge and demonstrating original thought and application abilities.

What do you think? I’m open to suggestions.

Why Don’t You Stop Out of College?

Several months ago I came across “UnCollge.org”. “UnCollege isn’t just an idea or a website. It’s a movement. It’s a lifestyle. We believe that college isn’t the only path to success.
UnCollege is a social movement changing the notion that going to college is the only path to success. We empower students to hack their education through resources, writing, and workshops. We believe that everyone can live an UnCollege life by hacking their education.“

As someone who is into the education revolution for several years now, I found this concept a real refresher. Once a high school diploma, now a college degree, it seems like modern society is creating these gates, or hurdles on the route to success. No matter how criticized are education systems and the ancient methods they deploy or how outdated they are, and how they frame the minds of the young and get kids into years of debts – all this does not matter. In today’s modern society education is still considered the one and only possible path to success.

Dale Stephens, at 19, established the UnCollege movement and has even wrote a book about it (to be published with Penguin next year), hoping to change this paradigm. Not an easy task if you look at any recruitment ads.

On his twitter page Stephens presents himself as a “20 year old Thiel Fellow”. That got me to learn about the “Thiel Fellowhip”, a program also known as the “20 under 20”.

This program and the UnCollege really convey a similar message. There are other ways to achieve and reach, other than college that is. Obviously having a Thiel Fellowship is a grand help.

The Thiel Fellowship was started by the billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel and his team at the Thiel Foundation – people like Jonathan Cain and James O’Neill.  They discussed the whole college debt situation during a flight somewhere, and how it prevents young entrepreneurs from pursuing their real life ambitions and ideals and decided to change that. The Thiel Foundation is to sponsor 20 entrepreneurs under the age of 20 each year, as long as they dedicate themselves to their venture for 2 years and not go to college during this time. In 2011 the first batch of fellows were chosen: 24 entrepreneurs in 20 ventures. Most if not all decided to “stop out” of college for this fantastic opportunity.

The real opportunity offered here is the Thiel foundation connections and mentorship network. Not that that 50K per year is underestimated. However this network of connections is mostly concentrated around the San Francisco Bay area, meaning these young people have to move to San Francisco and learn how to manage their independent lives by themselves. Often very far from their family and friends. Learning to cook or do their own laundry for the first time.

The 2nd batch of Thiel Fellows, the 2012 fellows, will probably be announced next week. We were fortunate enough to meet the current fellows, future fellows and the program’s mentors at the programs finalists’ events in April. The event won some coverage on PandoDaily by Sarah Lacy under the title “Is the Future of Tech in the Hands of the Extremely Young?“.  Thiel Fellowship is focusing on world changing entrepreneurs, though. Not necessarily tech. Research is another field Peter Thiel is into, but his “Breakout Labs” is a separate story. This focus on entrepreneurs is really important to better understand what it is all about and to question the UnCollege concept a little bit too. Entrepreneurs posses the qualities needed to get relevant knowledge and to do –  carry out a plan. But not every occupation can rely on an independent learning curriculum. Nor is this model applicable to every learner. Not to mention the employers.

Want or Don’t? That is the Question (To Learn or Not)

Last week I drove up to Jerusalem for the closing ceremony of the National Competition for Young Scientists in Israel, where my daughter was one of the finalists and winners. Her research paper dealt with some aspect of quantum computation. I think one of the reasons she chose this particular topic was because everybody kept telling her this is the most advanced and complicated topic in physics, and that at 16 she was too young to research it. Shaii Kiriati would only see such a phrase as a challenge.

Of the 3 topics she was offered, this field seemed to her the most exciting. Her research paper was a part of a doctorate work by Oded Zilberberg, a Weizmann Institute PhD student, who served as her guide and mentor. 11th-12th graders in Israel can choose to perform a research instead of taking a test in one of their expanded topics for the Bagrut (the Israeli Baccalaureate). Shaii’s choice was to do a research in physics instead of a test. Sure, she could have spit her physics books onto the test papers and get a perfect score, but that’s not learning, she explained to me. And learning is what she wanted to do.

During the year she worked on the research she learned and read and developed in a way not possible within the regular school walls. She has earned tools and abilities she wouldn’t have been able to get in a classroom.

~Research and the Program for the Gifted~
44 students reached the final stage at the Competition in Jerusalem. I was happy to discover not all research papers were pure science and math. Some papers dealt with history, anthropology, civics, sports, cinema and fashion. The one thing all participants have in common is their desire to learn.

My daughter has been studying in a special class for the gifted since the beginning of the program in 3rd grade. One of the things they told us when we were first introduced to it was that the kids who passed the tests and were invited to join all share a desire to learn and a high level of learning abilities and that the program aims to cultivate, support and encourage these qualities.

Yet of all students in the gifted program in our city only 1 reached the finals. Only 2 bothered to do a research. The rest of the kids couldn’t be bothered. Their main desire today is to be over and done with school. Learning? They couldn’t care less. I think from all finalists only one more student came from a special program for the gifted.

What does it mean? That even a special program for the gifted couldn’t rescue the desire to learn from being repressed in a school environment. On the other hand it takes some very unique students with their environments – school and home – to keep the learning fire on. There’s no stopping these learners now.

~The Education Revolution and the Learning Desire~
Yesterday I watched again a TED presentation by Sugata Mitra from 2010 where he presented the amazing learning abilities kids poses and how they can teach themselves. I also watch the lengthier and more detailed presentation here. One key phrase he repeats in both is actually a quote by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer, saying “when learners have interest – education happens”.

It made me stop and reflect on all education reforms and revolutions and innovations I came across over the past several years I am so heavily into it. That is the key, isn’t it? The learners’ interest.

Sir Ken Robinson published an interview with teens about his dream school on his website and it hit me again – all these dreams are great for those who want to learn.

I went back to presentations I have watched before like the famous 2006 TED “Do Schools Kill Creativity” by Sir Ken Robinson, 2007 “21st century pedagogy” by Greg Whitby or the 2010 presentation by Jesse Schell “The Future is Beautiful”. Went  over conversations about technology, my own post about Waldorf education and the non-tech approach, it all comes down to one single assumption: that kids actually want to learn. That they have an interest.

~Learning: a Survival Instinct~
My daughter thinks learning is a survival instinct we are all born with. Very similar to our need to breath, eat and drink. “How else would a baby learn a language in 2 years?”, she wonders. And me, if I had to make a research, I would start with the young scientists and investigate what helped their learning crave survive 12 years of school. My guess is, that’s where the education revolution should start.

Toying with Words: Education, Learn, Teach, Hanukkah

A few months ago a young entrepreneur, as passionate as I am about education, approached me with an idea to create a TEDx conference or similar, dedicated to the education revolution, in Israel. I had just started to think of an education-revolution conference myself, but I didn’t think of doing it in Israel only. I want to create an event happening simultaneously around the world, in as many countries as possible. A revolution in education must happen globally and simultaneously to succeed. My friend had followed the TEDx education revolution conference in London. There were plenty of ideas worth spreading there, as usual, but not enough call for action in her view. I started to think of the “ignite” concept for our conference, since we want to ignite a change and let in many voices. But what is it that we want to change?

What the Words are Actually Saying

Being a professional namer I started to think about the words, the vocabulary of education. I don’t like the word “education”. I much prefer “learning”. Looking at it from the student’s point of view, education is something pushed to the students, while learning is something the students pull. With education students are passive, while in learning they are active. A mix is probably what we should be aiming at.

However, it is education we are referring to when we relate to the required “revolution”. These are “education systems” that are being criticized all over the world, and that are attempting reform one by one.
From Wikipedia: “Etymologically, the word education is derived from the Latin ēducātiō (“a breeding, a bringing up, a rearing) from ēdūcō (“I educate, I train”) which is related to the homonym ēdūcō (“I lead forth, I take out; I raise up, I erect”) from ē- (“from, out of”) and dūcō (“I lead, I conduct”).”

Looking at it from today’s perspective – education is only a part of what schooling should be about. Yes, it is about transferring accumulated knowledge from older generations to younger generations but that’s not all; it is about taking the younger generations from the place of not knowing and leading them to a new knowledgeable place. But that’s not enough. Certainly not when education systems are actually clogging the natural learning abilities of younger generations. Schooling should aim at enhancing natural curiosity and learning abilities with accumulated knowledge of the society. Enhancing. Aggregating. Developing. And doing it all with the students, and their natural resources. Rather than take them “from” one point to another, build on what the students are, what they bring with them, including their natural learning skills. I feel like a new word should be coined: “coducation”? Etymologically combining “cum” (with) and “dūcō” (I lead, I conduct). One problem with this new word is that “ed” has become a short for “education”.

If education is about teaching and learning, let’s see what “learning” can tell us. From about the 13th till the 19th century the verb “learn” was used for “teach” as well. That’s a curious thing. In Hebrew “teach” is “LAMED” and “learn” is “LEMAD”, and they share the same root. Note that “education” isn’t related (grammatically) to neither, in Hebrew too. The word “education” translates to “HINUKH” in Hebrew, which derives from the root of “to initiate”, or “renew” or “rededicate”. What do you know? The holiday we’re celebrating now is called “Hanukkah”. It commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple (the 2nd temple) during the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. Do we want our kids “re”-anything? I don’t.

Into researching “learn” I ran across a wonderful word, cun, coming from the Old English word “cunnian”, which means “to learn to know, inquire into” and is said to belong to the same root as the word “can”. The word “can”, how wonderful, comes from the word “cunnan” in Old English, meaning “know, have power to, be able”. OH! Yes We Can!! That’s it! That’s what education is all about: Being Able. Now I feel like the new word should be “educan”. Etymology: education, learn, know, be able. What’s your new word for it?

Real Want to Learn

After the great success with his presentation about whales, my 3rd grade son has decided that he is going to prepare a presentation about our solar system next. “Astronomy interests me” he announced.

While he is embarking on a new self teaching project I am thinking about his learning abilities and process. I feel that any kid can do it given the chance, and I ache for all those kids who are not given this chance.

My son’s chance? I work from home, and this year have decided to let him spend one day a week “homeschooling”. I don’t think I am the traditional homeschooling mom, in that I am not spending every minute of the day with him. Can’t afford to – have a startup to manage. So most of my contribution is by helping him choose his plan for the day during breakfast and being there if he has questions or need specific help.

Had an interesting conversation with my 11th grade daughter about her young brother’s joy of learning. She said to me: “His joy is clear to me. We, human beings, love to learn like we love to eat and breath. When a baby is born the first thing he does is breath, then eat, then learn. How else would we get to sit, stand, walk and talk??”. Then she went on to explain that schools actually kill this natural instinct by creating limits and frames and rules that disrupt the natural evolvement of learning abilities and skills.

My daughter thinks one of the reasons she survived 11 years of school and still loves to learn is because she has created, in her mind, a total separation between “learning” and “schooling”. And I think what I do with my young son might help him create this separation too.

I only started this homeschooling-day experiment because he expressed distress and frustration when going to school. On this particular day his class studies English (ESL) but he has advanced by himself way beyond his class and the teacher said he didn’t have anything for my son to do. Then there’s a music lesson – terribly boring according to my little violin player. And an arts class – where there’s no room for imagination nor learning of techniques, but rather draw what the teacher tells you to draw. Exactly. I could sympathize with his feeling of suffocation.

So, where are we today? Learning about the planets, choosing which the most important facts to present are and improving the models of the planets created at home.

Play More, More Games, For a Better World!

Back after a relatively long vacation, school vacation. Partly used their vacation as my excuse to take some time off for myself too. Well, not entirely off. I’ve been playing games. Actually, we’ve all been busy playing games, trying new games, exchanging gifts and tips, me and my kids. It’s been a lot of fun. At the end of this vacation, their off to school and I have a lot of catching up to do on my reading, writing and following and I have to admit that my game-crave is bugging me. I am beginning to think I am addicted to games.

Looked into addiction to games and found multiple groups of Farmville addicts, several addiction calculators and self-tests, and similar items relating to other games too. Here is a post Michael Arrington wrote about his addiction to Fishville about 4 months ago. Games, especially good ones, are addicting.

I started to take in the claim that games are designed to be addictive. Actually, I am pretty sure they are. Especially those with micro payments built in them. Because even if for some of us it seems completely idiotic to spend a nickel on a virtual sofa, other people do not perceive it as spending money on virtual goods, they see it as spending money on entertainment. It’s like my first online magazine subscription more than a decade ago: I remember thinking “Why is it OK to subscribe to a printed magazine but not to an online one?”. We spend money on movies, and books, cable TV, music and toys, we buy video games DVDs in a shop – so why is spending money on online games so difficult?

I cannot imagine going through a whole day without any play. I open my day with Sudoku. It’s my morning exercise, a sharpener. I might be playing more games then others, trying to figure out how to create my own game, but even without the work necessity, looking around me, are people playing games. Kids, of course, are much more play oriented. Many adults, however, feel ashamed or embarrassed about playing games… “Oh, no, it’s not me playing Farmville, it’s my little son, who has no Facebook account of his own…”. Yea, right.

It’s OK to play!

In fact – “It’s got to be serious if the New York Times puts a cover story of their February 17 Sunday magazine about play. At the bottom of this it says ‘it’s deeper then gender, seriously but dangerously fun, and a sandbox for new ideas about evolution’. Not bad… except if you look at that cover – what’s missing??? You see any adults??”, says Dr. Stuart Brown, a pioneer in research on play from the National Institute for Play in a TED conference about two years ago, just before Farmville broke records.

Then he goes on demonstrating the importance of play in the animal kingdom. It must be an existential factor if you see animals ignore their predator instinct in order to play, just for fun. His description of the hungry bear and the playful dog can take me to so many school yards…

And then yesterday I watch Jesse Schell’s amazing TED\DICE talk again (watch the full talk, I recommend it, or go for the excerpt) – about the invasion of games into our reality. An excellent talk demonstrating our ability to transform any task into a part of a giant game called our life. His ideas are as inspiring as they are crazy. And talking about it with some high-schoolers I know he is right. So really, you should face it: you are playing, whether you like it or not, the only question is are you having fun in the process.

This page linked me to Jane McGonigal’s TED 2010 talk about her belief that we must play more in order to better our world. My feelings exactly!

“My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games”, she says. She goes on to present the calculation of how many more global hours should be dedicated to playing games and explains:
“Here’s why. This picture pretty much sums up why I think games are so essential to the future survival of the human species. This is a portrait by a photographer named Phil Toledano. … This is a gamer who is on the verge of something called an epic win. An epic win is an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it. It was almost beyond the threshold of imagination. And when you get there you are shocked to discover what you are truly capable of. That is an epic win. This is a gamer on the verge of an epic win. And this is the face that we need to see on millions of problem-solvers all over the world as we try to tackle the obstacles of the next century. The face of someone who, against all odds is on the verge of an epic win.”

Going back to Dr. Stuart Brown’s presentation I give another look to his slide of the goat: “If you’re having a bad day – try this. Jump up and down, wiggle around, you’re going to feel better”.

Education Re-Form: Small Steps

Recently an Israeli fresh teacher, who wanted to give teaching a try after a hi-tech career, published his experiences on a blog. Some of his posts where quite shocking. A few months into teaching at a middle school and this new teacher has decided to give up his teaching career altogether. A university professor who tried to teach math at a middle school also gave it up after a few months. Both complained about the lack of discipline or any interest in learning by the students. They also complained about the indifference of school management.

Observers of the education system in Israel are often expressing concern that Israel could be loosing its competitive stand in the global innovation market if the education here continues to deteriorate at this rate.

Factors mentioned in most reports relate to low salaries of teachers, too few teaching hours in the classroom, too many students per class, not enough computers, not enough classrooms.

No one complained that there are too few books… In fact, no report talked about the intensive production of new school books at all. Books are produced by masses and a school year looks in most cases like a race to complete text books and work books.

I am still looking for a single report that would actually relate to contents, curriculum, relevance, methods. To, well, the system. But all reports assume that this is the system, the system is untouchable and the only thing we can do is upgrade various factors of the system.

Click to Play vidoe on Youtube
Click to Play video on Youtube

I think it’s as if we took a 100 year old car and replaced its gear with a new automatic gear, and its engine with a new engine, or in rare cases, when there’s budget, with a totally new hybrid engine… but would it make it a new car?? Would this car run?

No.
The change has to be total.

The whole system has to be different: Teachers should become learning enablers, guides, assistants. Kids should be encouraged to ask, question, discover and choose. Tests and grades should be abolished. Assessments could be accepted if their purpose is to guide the learners and help them, as a feedback system and evaluation of personal development and growth, and not as a ranking system . Some topics should be taught in classes that are formed on the basis of interest, and not on the basis of age. New subjects should be introduced as basic required knowledge. Those are not regular text book subjects but rather things like information farming, interpersonal skills on and off line, inventive thinking, entrepreneurship skills, self teaching skills. The learning environments should change. No more rows of students facing a teacher, but rather groups of students, working together, creating teams, learning the values of social learning, with the help of a teacher guiding through.

Technology alone can not and will not save our education system. Not in Israel nor any where in the world. It hasn’t done it before…

We should all recognize the fact that technology cannot be treated as a collection of tools anymore. It’s an environment. TV is here to stay. Mobile phones are spreading. The Internet is growing. Kids today cannot imagine a world with no web. Same as my generation cannot imagine living without telephones. Or my parents’ generation that cannot remember a time with no cinema.

So what’s next?

Even a total change has to begin with small steps. I’d start with creating more choices.

Look at this scene several times. It’s Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds”, a movie from 1995, where she plays an ex-marine who becomes a high school teacher. In this scene she talks about choices. The choice to learn or not to learn. The choice to go to school or not. She claims that students who are in the classroom actually made a choice to be there. And yes, we sometimes choose what seems to be least damaging – not necessarily the best – option. “It may not be a choice you like, but it is a choice”, she says. I tend to agree. Sending my kids to school is a choice I make. I might be doing it only because I don’t like the other options – but it is still a choice.

Even though education until the age of 15 is mandatory in Israel, people are still permitted to home-school. Very few do. I chose to send my kids to school. When my daughter was disappointed with high school I told her that she is not obligated by law any more to go to school. If she rather complete her final exams out of school she is free to do so. But it was her choice to stay at school, excusing it with the social life, that is as important as contents, if not more.

So next action item is to create more options. To encourage diversity of schools and methods of teaching and learning. To take little steps out of the box titled “education system” and look for alternatives to methods which don’t work any more. The other corner stone to these new steps is to acknowledge and remember that what is a good system and can work for one person, won’t necessarily work for the other.

It’s time to realize this system can’t continue to send fresh teachers into scary classes of kids who aren’t willing to learn, and think this is the god given unchangeable education system. It is not only changeable, it has to change.

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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:

Curiosity Fed The Cat

Addressing younger Israeli scientists, Ada Yonath, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry said – curiosity was the key to scientific progress. “If one has curiosity, then one stands the chance of attaining a high level of scientific inquiry.”
Read more here.
I took this quote and asked my friends and colleagues on firesidelearning – the social network that’s doing conversations about education, what room is there for curiosity in the classroom.

Got some interesting replies, including a surprise visit from my 15 year old daughter, who was happy to share her view on this topic.

Ian Carmichael, from Tasmania, Australia said – “…So, in classrooms there needs to be space – and a record – for fruitful questions – and that means space for unprogrammed questions. There also needs to be space for the pursuit of those unanswered questions…” He then adds: “And if there’s no space for curiosity, fruitful questions and their pursuit, then my classrooms will contribute nothing to creativity, invention or understanding. I may have a future Nobel prizewinner pass through – but my classes will have added nothing to them.”

Mike from the US added: “For me…. CONNECTION is a key component to education vs factory schooling. It is next to impossible to connect with 140 kids a day…. that is an assembly line…. good for making cars…not being with people…”

The my daughter joined in and admitted: “Well, the truth is I like studying- I just don’t like to study at school. I’m just bored, and I think it’s hard for me to wake up in the morning not because I didn’t sleep enough, but because it happens to me too often that I sit in the classroom and think ‘what did I wake up for? staying in bed would be a better use of my time than sitting here and getting bored..’. …”

She goes on and amazes me with this: “I think of school and how we learn now, and it’s just amazing to think that what was said about education more than 2000 years ago is so true for today-Socrates thought that humans have a basic nature they are born with: curiosity. He thought it’s wrong that the education system, instead of developing and using this curiosity to teach the children, they kill this curiosity and instead of teaching they make the kids memorize, and while learning and understanding through thinking and researching will help the humanity develop, memorization is a great way for staying in one place.”

Are we staying in one place?

Following Mike’s questions she writes:  “It’s fun to ask questions and think about them, and finding the solution gives a good feeling – but after you find the answer, the only thing you can do with it is ask more questions.”

Well she refuses to stay in one place.

Ellen Pham, an elementary teacher from the US, suggests a more realistic view of this room for curiosity in the classroom, or lack of it. She writes: “…I don’t think the purpose of today’s public education is to develop large groups of free and creative thinkers. How would industry keep them in line for the menial tasks that await them? And in any system, these menial tasks have to be done by a large group of people. I think it helps the individual soul when these tasks are at least essential, and not just for making someone else profit.” And adds: “The way I see it is that realistically, in the system we have, it is up to the individual student to keep his/her curiosity alive. Parents, concerned teachers, and students can fight for more engaged and creative curriculum, but it remains an uphill swim.”

Latest input to date came from Janet Navarro, who teaches literacy education courses to pre-service teachers in Michigan and is a mother of 2 teenage boys. With an optimistic note she writes: “…I said to a friend, just the other day, that in my teacher education classes, if the only thing the students take from the class is the disposition to be curious (especially about the children they will teach) then I’ve done enough.
Bottom line, I said, it’s not really about the content I’m teaching: with curiosity, they can learn to teach children how to read strategically (it’s all in books and it’s all on the Internet). It’s about the development of a way of being in the world – the world we live in, the world we will help to create – or destroy – the world beyond the one in which we were raised, and the worlds of the children they will teach.
It’s better to be curious about whether or not you are teaching this child the things that will move him/her forward, whether or not you have the right books, strategies, tools set up for them, than to be able to pass a test on what those strategies are….
Yes – whoever coined the adage “Curiosity killed the cat” started us in the wrong direction. Maybe we could say, “Curiosity fed the cat!”…”

Oh, how I wish this cat is fat.

School Sweat

3 kids at school. A new and promising school year. Some thoughts to start with.

Kid #1 will spend 38 hours at school, 5 days a week, an average of 7.6 hours per day, of those 8 breaks adding up to one hour recess time. She will be studying, if I am not mistaken, 12 or 13 topics. She goes on to study math in an afternoon program for additional 3.5 hours. She is 15 years old.

Kid #2 will spend 40 hours at school, spread on 6 days, of it an average of less than one hour per day recess time. He will be studying about 13 topics. He is 11 years old.

Kid #3 will spend 24 hours at school, spread on 6 days, with an average of 40 minutes recess time per day. He will study 8-9 topics. He is 7 years old.

Coming home from school they are pretty exhausted. So they eat, and rest, watch TV or play. They hope to squeeze in their afternoon time their choice of class – sports or arts, meeting with friends and playground time.

But they also have homework to prepare.

Kid #3 spends an average of 10-20 minutes, depending on how angry he is for the fact that he has to open his books at home.

The older kids spend anything between 20 minutes and 2 hours on their homework on a daily average.

Work Laws In Israel

In Israel the workers unions are very strong. There are very clear work laws, who relate to number of working hours per day and per week. Also specific rules exist for employing kids (ages 15 and up).

And the law specifies:

A work day will not be longer than 8 hours in a 45 hour working week (6 days) or more than 9 hours per day in a 43 hours working week (5 days). Kids can never be employed for more than 40 hours per week, and never longer than 9 hours per day. Kids under 16 can not be employed later than 20:00 unless with a special permission. In a 6 hour working day a teen is entitled to 45 minutes break, at least one break is of 30 minutes minimum.

School time is our kids’ working day. It’s what they do. Their occupation. If  I look at their week in light of the employment laws I can’t help wondering how much more can they bear.

My 15 year old spends 41 hours in the classroom and is required to spend an average of 10-20 additional hours on homework.

The 11 year old spends 40 hours in school, and I can understand his frustration when he is required to spend even 5 additional minutes on homework. He is only 11.

The 7 year old, a second grader, only 15 months ago spent most of his time playing at the nursery school. He is still shocked by the fact that most of his daytime is spent in a classroom, sitting at a desk. No need to describe what he feels about homework.

Last January a fifth grader from New York wrote an essay claiming homework is illegal slavery. His essay was published here and he got immense publicity such as this.

Still, homework seems here to stay in the crazy race to the top. Top of the class, best school, highest grades…

There are more topics taught today, so more class time is needed. Instead of using the growth of new topics to allow better personalization of learning by the students, there is less choice and schools are actually competing on giving more and more. Enrichment is a key word in the marketing of schools and if it’s not enough that we are drowning in a sea of information we are doing the same to the next generation, who find themselves skipping, skimming and unable to perform real research and exploration during their school years. We don’t use the accessibility of information to help fine-tune school experience and teach the kids to reach relevant information. We simply flood.

It’s a tough choice, really. Looking at my daughter’s list of school topics I see perhaps 3 or 4 she could do without. She wants to major in Physics, Chemistry  and biotechnology – so why does she need to do a final exam in literature or bible or grammar?

Obviously the repeated answer is that kids who graduate from school need to demonstrate a level of general knowledge and fine culture. But hey, how about leaving them some free time, so they can watch movies and read books and develop their taste and personal observation of culture, while actually enjoying it?

My Vision For Future of Learning

It’s my first attempt at a video presentation… better will probably follow.

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