July 23, 2007

What We Teach: Questioning the Conventional

What we teach diagram.jpg

This image and the text comes from an English website Kathy Sierra's blog.
"If you studied math, science, or engineering at a four-year college in the US, much of what you learned is useless, forgotten, or obsolete. All that money, all that time, all that wasted talent. If all we lost were a few years, no big deal. But the really scary part is that we never learned what matters most to true experts in math, science, and engineering. We never really learned how to DO math, science, and engineering.

"Toward the end of his life, legendary mathematician Jacques Hadamard asked 100 of the top scientists of his time how they did whatever it was that they did (math, physics, etc.) Hadamard's survey found a massive disconnect between how we teach math and science and how mathematicians and scientists actually work. The majority of his contemporaries apparently claimed that using the logical, left-brain symbols associated with their work was NOT how they did their work. These were simply the tools they used to communicate it. What they used to do the works was much... fuzzier. Intuition. Visualization. Sensation (Einstein talked of a kinesthetic element). Anthropomorphizing. Metaphors.

"We are in sooooo much trouble.

"What experts use to do their work are the things we don't teach. We focus almost exclusively on how to talk about the work. Obviously this doesn't mean nobody learns to do it... we have plenty of expert engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, who become great either in spite of faulty teaching or because they lucked out and had excellent, clueful instructors and mentors. But we also hear more and more teachers, experts, and employers railing against the sorry state of our advanced technical educations today. The problem is, many of these same teachers, experts, and employers have a tough time articulating what's wrong, let alone how to fix it.

"And what do we do to try and improve things? We just do MORE of what's wrong. We redouble our efforts. We drill and test students even harder in facts and rote memorization. We work and test them even harder on using the tools for communication (e.g. code) rather than the tools for thought (e.g. intuition, visualization, etc.)

"Our educational institutions--at every level--need drastic changes or we're all screwed. The generation of students we're turning out today need skills nobody really cared about 50, 40, even 20 years ago. Where we used to prepare students for a "job for life", now we must prepare students to be jobless. We must prepare them to think fast, learn faster, and unlearn even faster ("yes, that drug was the appropriate way to treat the XYZ disease, but that was so last week. THIS week we now realize it'll kill you.")

"The Waterfall Model of education is failing like never before. We need Agile Learning.

"Three of the many people who've been leading the charge on this are Roger Schank, Dan Pink (his "Whole New Mind" book is a must-read), and computing/learning guru Alan Kay. One of my favorite Alan Kay notions is something like this, "If you want to be a better programmer, take up the violin." He claims that the more time he spends playing music, the fresher and better his approaches to engineering become. He's an outspoken critic of engineering students focusing too early in their education, because he believes that with a more liberal arts education, you get metaphors and ways of thinking and seeing that are vital to your later engineering work.

"I'll end this with two quotes:

From Jason Fried:
"Hire curious people. Even if they don't have the exact skill set you want, curious, passionate people can learn anything."

"And from Jacques Hadamard:
" Logic merely sanctions the conquests of the intuition."

"If intuition is the heart of what true experts do, then shouldn't we be trying to teach that? Or at the least, stop stifling and dissing it? And yes, I do believe that we can teach and inspire all those fuzzy things including intuition and even curiosity. But we are running out of time.

"[UPDATE: Martin Polley brought up the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, and if you haven't seen it already--I urge you to check it out ASAP!

"Mark Fowler was surprised that I didn't bring up the book What the Best College Teachers Do, and I can't believe I left it out of the post. I believe it is the single best book on helping someone learn. When we had our most recent author's bootcamp, it was the one book we gave to all attendees. Thanks Mark.

"I highly recommend the comments to this post -- they're insightful on all sides, agreement and disagreement and all points in between. And before you tell me I'm advocating for throwing out fundamentals, memorization, facts, logic, etc... PLEASE look again at my venn diagram ; ) This is about brain balance, and addressing much more of the brain than just the narrow channels that are the parts of the brain that actually "talk." ]

Posted by Kathy Sierra on November 2, 2006 | Permalink

Posted by Wayne Jennings at 10:25 AM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2006

Radical Alternative: Unschooling

World.jpgPerhaps the most radical way to consider educational alternatives is to see school as an alternative to learning. This view is shared by some homeschoolers. Ivan Illich and Everett Reimer promoted "Deschooling" along with many others. Googling "deschooling" or "unschooling" brings up a considerable range of references and links. Unschooling, termed by John Holt is described in an article about an unschooled 10 year old. For insights into the logic of unschooling read the attachment by Kelly Lovejoy who thoughtfully describes the concept from the standpoint of her own children and other examples.

The 2006 Live and Learn Unschool Conference will be held in Albuquerque, NM — September 6-11, 2006. Their website has a wealth of further information on this extraordinary idea in education.

Kelly Lovejoy, 2004

My son Cameron (16) and I recently started sitting in on a college Sociology class. He asked for and received electric guitar lessons for his birthday. Mondays he goes to a nearby school and takes African drumming lessons. He's taking a weekly film class starting in March, and we'll be sending him to a weeklong film school in Maine in May.
Duncan (almost 8) just started karate lessons. Ben (my husband) has just finished a class (with tests and all) that's required before he can put on Lt Col (Air National Guard) and is now in NJ for three weeks of "rah-rah" and classroom training and tests for the two new drugs he will be selling. I'm going to a one-day intensive "Bee School" to learn to take care of my Christmas present: two beehives.

Cameron said the other day, "For Unschoolers, we sure are taking a lot of schooly classes!" That got me thinking...especially since we are one of those families that discovered unschooling after years and years of schooling.

I think that there are three "Stages of Unschooling."

Stage I
The first stage is the longest and most difficult and involves getting rid of all school-think, which includes classes and "instruction" and school-speak. We have to rid ourselves of the reliance on schools and teachers and testing and book-worship. We need to look deeply into the difference between "teach" and "learn". We ban classes and structure and nagging. It's accepting that grades and requirements and diplomas and curricula and extrinsic motivations truly have no meaning in an unschooling life. It's realizing that the whole world is related and inter-related: it's about NOT dividing the world into subjects: math is science is art is history is literature is FUN! It's a time for reflection on how we've learned the things that really matter in our adult lives. It's hard to let go of all that school-think, to go beyond what we've been *taught* was important and to value ALL learning as important.

It's realizing that we learn what WE believe is important WHEN we are ready. And it's realizing that what's important often changes. It's about abolishing coercion in learning and about the freedom to change passions. It's understanding that learning doesn't stop.

Face it, almost all of you reading this in 2004 went to school---at least for 12 years, maybe as many as 22 or 25 years! School is so ingrained in us, that it's hard to think any other way. We appreciate "straight A students" and "AP" classes and college prep high schools and term papers and "higher math" and high SAT/ACT scores. "Good" students are given preferential treatment by everyone: pizzas for reading and Chuck E. Cheese tokens for good report cards. Even our child's car insurance is lowered if we have an "A student"!

Stage one is about ridding our minds of those things, about really thinking about learning in a holistic manner. It's about examining how we learned what truly interests us---especially those things that didn't require a "teacher". What are your passions? HOW did you learn to do those things? In a classroom?

Two of my passions as a child were dogs and horses. Dogs and horses are NOT taught in any grade, middle, or high school *I* know of. But I wanted to learn everything I could about them. My parents gave me dogs and horses. They bought me books and paid for me to take riding lessons and dog obedience classes. They paid for dog and horse shows and equipment. My passion threw me into reading every book I could find (there were no videos back then—or "Animal Planet"!). By twelve I could identify every breed of dog and horse that I had ever seen or read about and tell you how it was developed, where, why, and by whom. I spent every weekend and every afternoon at a dog show/horse show/event/trial or just hanging around the stable or kennel. I asked thousands of questions and "got my hands dirty". Many of my friends were adults with the same passions. Training, breeding, grooming, showing, husbandry—all of these things I learned because I was consumed by them!

But, of course, dogs and horses are NOT school subjects—and are completely unimportant in the school world. What if I had waited for a teacher to come along and say, "Today we are learning all about dog and horses"? Not only would I have waited all my life, the teacher would only have given me a "taste" of the subject!

OH! And you *can't* make a living with dogs and horses—right!

Stage one is often referred to as DEschooling. It's the period of time we need to give ourselves in order to "step away from the box" of school and school-think. Ask yourself why and how you learned your passion: whether it was music, cooking, flying, gardening, or long-distance running. Or even more "academic-like" passions, like Shakespeare, chemistry, World War II, or a foreign language. When you are comfortable with how learning happens by indulging in passions and making connections in your learning, you are quickly heading towards stage two.

Stage II
Once you are comfortable with the idea of immersion learning—and you're over wanting or needing classes and structure, you're finally over the deschooling hump and are actively in the process of UNschooling.

Stage two involves really immersing ourselves—and allowing our children to immerse themselves—into passions and even into slight, fleeting interests. Seeing connections and making connections and yet realizing that some things *might* not connect for YEARS is the most important part of stage two.

Connection: I remember lying in my bed when I was about 11 or 12. My bed was behind the door, so that, when open, the door obscured the head of my bed. I had tied a string to my doorknob. I would try to shut my door with my finger at the point of the doorjamb; then I would open the door back up with a pull on the string. It took *a lot* of pressure (and pain!) to close my door at the point of the jamb. But every inch closer to the door knob I got, it would be easier and easier to close, so that by the time I was right at the edge of the door (by the knob), I could almost "blow" it shut. I had "discovered" torque—but it had no name!

School's idea that children should be given the definition of torque and then have it explained is backwards. It was so simple for me to understand the definition of torque because I already had made the personal and meaningful connection with my bedroom door.

Passion: There are people who invest their time (and many even make a living) studying Elizabethan fashion or reading/writing about the works of John Steinbeck or determining whether an 17th century chair is a forgery or watching birds make nests/feed their young or , as I heard on the radio yesterday: there's this guy who's getting his Masters degree in Soil Science! Go figure!

If allowed (and often, even if not allowed!), a child will pursue his career by following his passion(s). A wise parent will encourage this pursuit of passion, because it may be what the child decides to devote his life's work to. Maybe *more* importantly, that wise parent will step aside when a passion becomes "old" because the parent will know that *some* connection has been made with this fleeting passion.

From 10-12 years old, Cameron was a magician. I actually thought that he would become the next Lance Burton or Jeff McBride (who once referred to Cameron as "mini-me"!). He was so passionate about magic, he would practice and perform ALL day! Insert here: "If I let him, Cameron would sit around and do magic ALL DAY!" Well, he DID! Until the day when he quit. I was stunned! He'd lost all interest. We'd put thousands of dollars into costumes and tricks and gimmicks and conventions and tapes and books and private sessions with famous magicians—and he just up and quit.

At first I was incredulous. Then I realized it was just an intense, fleeting passion. We still have a huge box of magic upstairs in the attic. He can come back to it whenever—or not. What's important is that it inspired him and f ed a passion and entertained him (and us and hundreds more). He met some truly fascinating people and made connections that will last a lifetime—because he had an interest, a passion.

Stage one, deschooling, is a very uncomfortable time! It's a period of intense questioning and of challenging yourself to think differently. This is difficult, but it can be done—as with all learning: when you're ready to!

Stage two may be even more uncomfortable, because you're actually putting the ideas into action: you're allowing the passions to take over and you're not pushing the three "R's". You are beginning to trust that the child will learn and you're respecting his choices. You're UNschooling! And the more you do it, the easier it gets!

Stage three is freedom and joy and trust and respect and desire: Radical Unschooling

Stage III
The third and final stage is when we can honestly and sincerely look at ALL learning as equal and not hold one "method" or style or subject or means of obtaining information above another. By stage three, we live and breathe unschooling---it's such a part of our day-to-day living that we can't separate it from our lives: it's not just the "educational" part because *everything* is educational. We can apply unschooling principles to bedtimes and eating and video gaming and TV and "chores". We know that our children will learn because it's what they were born to do; they're hard-wired to learn. Learning is how the human species survives and progresses and succeeds.

This is the stage when we can effectively and confidently start giving out unschooling information to the uninformed or misinformed because we "get it." We can live our lives joyfully because we're not worried whether Susie will pass her algebra or whether Johnny will be able to get into a good college, because they WILL if they want to. We know that they will pursue their passions...well, passionately! And that each day will bring more connections and learning opportunities.

This is the stage when classes and instruction may eke back into our lives, as it recently has in our family's. We don't give more weight to the learning that is happening in Sociology-101 or karate or bee-keeping just because it's happening in a classroom situation. A class is just another means of pursuing our passions, making the connections, and receiving the information. Learning happens all the time in all places—*even* in a classroom!

I don't want to give the impression that acceptance of class/book learning automatically makes you a Radical Unschooler. Stage III cannot "just happen": you'll have to go through Stages I and II first. For those of us that attended school, deschooling will always exist at a lower level throughout our lives. The next generation (our unschooled children) will not have this stage to work through: they'll be able to see all learning as equal and good from the get-go.

It's a process: getting rid of the school-think and structure, becoming comfortable and implementing immersion learning, and *then* accepting ALL learning as equally valuable.

Posted by Wayne Jennings at 07:37 PM | Comments (0)