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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.