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New book by Steven Brill describes how schools do not work

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Posted on 20th August 2011 by Judy Breck in Emerging Online Knowledge, SEO and Schools We Have Now

Schools simply do not work as a way of teaching many individual children up to their potential. Schools do not work in teaching groups of children so that every child in a group has equal knowledge. Schools do not work so that a student in a failing inner city school has the same opportunity to learn as a student in affluent districts.

I have been reading Steven Brill’s new book Class Warfare. After a few chapters it hits you in the face: schools cannot be fixed. Brill describes a variety of wonderful people who have realized how schools are failing kids, thrown themselves at the problem, and failed. This has been going on for decades. Why? Because of unions, bad teachers, poverty, race, wrong theories, not caring about children. Well, no. They fail because it is impossible to put a couple of dozen same-age children in a room all day, and day after day, and thereby produce 24 youngsters who know the same thing at the same time. Think about how just plain silly trying to do that is.

Schools we have now in the United States were created in the 19th and 20th centuries. Back then, building schools gave children a place to go to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and subjects such as history, science, and languages. Except for rich kids whose parents hired tutors to teach them at home, school was about the only place a child could get this knowledge.

By the time we arrived in the closing decades of the 20th century, schools were dominating the lives of youngsters from late toddling until late teens. [Then, convention demands, on to college for more of the same.] Brill does a great job of describing the true disasters schools have become. He quotes Joel Klein, who attempted reform as New York City schools chancellor, as frequently observing: “You just can’t make this s**t up.” Having coordinated a major Mentor project in the New York City schools (1982-1992), and coached and judged high school debaters in the New York city schools (1993-2009), I can tell you Mr. Klein is correct. Schools are seldom much of a place to go to learn very much reading, writing, arithmetic, and subjects such as history, science, and languages.

But lo, in the 21st century there is another place a student can go to learn those things: the web.

The student can now have the web in his pocket or under her arm on a mobile smart phone or tablet. Every kid who has a mobile browser has access to what is known that is equal to the access of every other kid that has such a device. And the device has no idea how rich its owner is, whether it is a boy or girl, and what the kid’s age, nationality, or race are. The device has no expectation of what the kid can learn and it offers equal knowledge to all.

The primary location of knowledge is now the web — certainly much more than the dribs and drabs in textbooks that weigh down school backpacks. Why the heck are we expecting to teach knowledge to our children by dumbing subjects down and filtering them through places where “You just can’t make this s**t up” — in places called schools, where so many incredibly talented and determined people have failed to make things better?

If we make sure all the kids have their own web access to knowledge, schools can be made to work as places to meet with teachers, do discourse, arts, and sports. They will be community centers and socialization places, and of course babysitters for working parents.

Suggestion: Let’s take a break from throwing gifted people, billions of dollars, and yet another generation of children into schools, expecting somehow the kids will learn, and learn equally. Let’s get back to that after we take these steps:

  • See to it every kid has his or her own web browser with wireless access.
  • Make sure the kids know how to find knowledge to learn on the web.
  • Put some real effort into optimizing online knowledge for search engines and natural vetting.

Every child will not emerge from this new approach with the same cookie cutter education. But each child will experience equal access, opportunity, and expectations from the bountiful new virtual knowledge online commons offered freely to all on the web.

BTW: I recommend Class Warfare, based on Brill’s forthright portrayal of the New York City public schools, Teach for America, and other aspects of the education debacle with which I have personal experience. For one thing, it is hard to read this book and continue to think we can “fix the schools.” The great blessing is that the internet and individual access devices have arrived, giving us a new way to put knowledge that is untethered to schools into the hands of any and every child.

Untether student knowledge access from curricula, grades, tests

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Posted on 11th August 2011 by Judy Breck in Biology, Language, Literature, Mobile Learning, Schools We Have Now and Testing

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Yesterday I watched and listened to a recording of Lynda Weinman interviewing Will Richardson. The title of this free Webinar: Personal Learning Networks Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education — which is the title of a new book by Richardson.

The webinar is an hour long. Richardson describes his work aimed at making schools better. The discussion between these two at the end of the hour is frank. They agree and agonized over this reality: The system for conveying knowledge to students in the schools we now have is not working and it is changing very little if at all.

I know, from having been her student in several contexts, that Lynda is a great teacher. I feel sure Richardson is as well. Lynda is a major leader of digital education — essentially the supra-teacher of digital arts. Richardson has been immersed in the school mess for 20+ years — and is a father of young teenagers, and proposes ways for teachers to improve their classes against the system. These two hands-on experts do not have answers for how really to change the schools methodologies so that the kids can get a decent education at school.

From their discussion in the webinar I picked up this new word for how education could change: untethered. It implies for me the concept of handschooling: an individual student engaging knowledge by using a mobile that she owns and controls, providing her with a 24/7 web browser.

I suggest that untethering a student’s access to what is known — cutting access loose from standardized curricula, grades, and tests — is a specific, simple step. Connect a kid: let him engage is mind on his own with algebra, history, ecology and the rest of the subjects that are now for him tethered to the academic (school) brick and mortar world.

With individual wireless access on a tablet or smartphone, a student can while away boring times in school:

Underlying tension for millennials against standardized education

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Posted on 3rd August 2011 by Judy Breck in Connective Expression, Golden Age of Learning and Networks

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The way Millennials live their lives — creating their own iPod playlists, designing their own Facebook pages grates against one-size-fits-all, industrial-era public education policies . . . . The preceding words are adjusted to education from a point made this week by conservative columnist Michael Barone:

In the wake of the 2008 election, I argued that there was a tension between the way Millennials lived their lives — creating their own iPod playlists, designing their own Facebook pages — and the one-size-fits-all, industrial-era welfare-state policies of the Obama Democrats.

Instead of allowing Millennials space in which they can choose their own futures, the Obama Democrats’ policies have produced a low-growth economy in which their alternatives are limited and they are forced to make do with what they can scrounge.

Every parent who has given a youngster his or her own mobile knows that an individual kid is empowered in important new ways by owning the device. That power is far more than the social connectivity the kids enjoy. As Barone points out, in the virtual world accessed through the device, the youngster is no longer constrained to a one-size-fits-all scenario such as school classrooms and curricula demand.

I think the empowerment that a personal mobile connection to the internet gives an individual is as fundamentally transitional as what occurred at these pivotal historical events:

The network science unfolding in the 21st century will continue to give us clearer understanding and a new perspective on the fact that human creativity and progress emerge from patterns of individuals. Top down power and patterns stifle, whether it is in a political campaign or a classroom.

The individual is a node in a network. We are just beginning to understand (see network science) how connectivity both gives power to nodes link out, and wisdom to crowds. Today’s Millennials are like the new Athenian voters, Brit serfs with new liberties, and America’s Minutemen — enjoying new individual liberty and ready to fight to keep it.

Great, great amounts of treasure are being poured toward giving every child a standardized education, and the system is not succeeding. Meanwhile, a new, better, individualized — and far, far cheaper — way of learning is already in the hands of Millennials.