Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jefferson on Education

Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, author of Remix, says that "we measure education by how well writing is learned. As I've already noted, this is a profoundly democratic feature of our creative culture: we tell everyone they should learn how to speak as well as how to listen." Not only how to speak well and listen well, but to articulate arguments well. To "remix" an idea, so to speak, to create your own. You can believe in intellectual property, as Shepard Fairey does to defend his use and re-use of an AP photograph for his iconic Obama portrait, but also believe in the ability to share ideas without lessening yours.

Thomas Jefferson, no stranger to democratic features, puts it quite lyrically in an 1813 letter: "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature..."

A great article in Wired by Daniel Roth illustrates the power of Geeks in reforming and remixing education. By owning their own schooling and teaching, they become "possessed," and excel in their academics, especially their reading and writing. The same demographic that usually graduates 50% of its students in traditional public schools, instead graduates 100% from an exemplar "Geek" high school, High Tech High.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Math, Science, and the Humanities

Mark Slouka's recent article in Harper's Magazine, "Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school," poses several important questions: "What do we teach, and why?... What do our kids need to know today?" According to Slouka, "What is taught, at any given time, in any culture, is an expression of what that culture considers important... In our time, orthodoxy is economic." He continues, "Education in America today is almost exclusively about the GDP. It's about investing in our human capital... It's about ensuring the the United States does not fall from its privileged perch in the global economy." Further in the article, he asks another probing question: "Why is every Crisis in American Education cast as an economic threat and never a civic one?" He concludes that we have no "language" for it, no "civic indicators" of political vulnerability. Yet what could be more politically equivalent to runaway inflation or soaring unemployment than the fact that 2/3 of college graduates cannot read a text and draw rational inferences from it!

Slouka's argument contends that American education has a long-standing love affair with math and science - "so often are they spoken of in the same breath, they've begun to feel singular" - at the expense of the humanities. Why? Because "mathandscience" is everything we want: a solid return on capital investment, a proven route to success. The evidence is surely there: The American Competitiveness Initiative calls for $50 billion in research grants to math and science over the next 10 years; the federal government will pay the cost of finding 30,000 new math and science teachers; and the New York City Department of Education announced $15,000 in incentives to lure teachers in math and science to the city's schools.

I'm a born and bread "mathandscience" teacher, but I see his point, and it troubles me. Marcus Eure, an English teacher at Brewster High School in New York, contends, "we want our students to take into their interactions with others, into their readings, into their private thoughts, depth of experience and a willingness to be wrong. Only a study of the humanities provides that." He's not alone in his thinking. Harvard president and historian Drew Faust, Mellon Foundation president Don Randel, and former University of Chicago dean Danielle Allen, all fight for more humanities education - to "dislocate the complacent mind" - to teach students to challenge not only what they are being told, but how they are being told. At the end of the day, Eure reasons, "every aspect of life... hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one's beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity."

High school, and college for sure, should not have to be about choosing between "mathandscience" and the humanities. They have lived side by side for thousands of years, and will continue to. Critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning - these are all part of the Scientific Method, yes - but they can also be applied to the humanities, to thinking about our own humanity. We can make hypotheses, design experiments, gather data, and form conclusions about the age of the Earth; no doubt we can get thousands of dollars to do so. But that grant money - the scholarship, fellowship, or college degree - won't translate into anything if you can't articulate and defend your arguments, if you can't dislocate your complacent mind.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Competing and Collaborating

The college admissions game is a very competitive one. But that's really just one symptom of the larger beast: school itself is a very competitive place. Those who have successfully made it through many of school's academic hurdles will be the first ones to say that such competitiveness doesn't end once one matriculates at the college of their dreams. The life of an academic is a constant competition - for grant money, for tenure, to get your paper or book out before anyone else does.

But why all the competition? Is learning a race that needs to be won? Perhaps it's a simple byproduct of the economic realities of higher education: lots and lots of people all want to be granted acceptance to a select few number of colleges. In other words, when it comes to college admissions, supply is low, and demand is high. Or perhaps it has something to do with personal recognition - trying to be the person whose name is selected for this medal or that prize. Or to put a more positive spin on the dilemma, perhaps a degree of competition will bring the best out in all competitors, push students to learn and achieve more than if they were simply given a teacher and a book and told to learn. Whatever the reason, all this competition has turned school (and applying to school) into something quite stressful for students.

Competition is inherent in most of the structures that school utilizes. The admissions process is an enormous competition, especially for top-tier schools (it has also spawned a college admissions industry, itself highly competitive). The types of assessments and grading methods that most schools try to use incite competition. Awards are given out, class rank is calculated, and GPAs are amassed, all to somehow enhance one's chances at future successes. The No Child Left Behind law was written primarily because of concerns of "21st century global competitiveness." And all of this, of course, is modeled in the post-school world, where the United States has been relying heavily on competition to encourage innovation and economic growth, and its citizens take open-market competition as a given in their individual lives.

Small amounts of healthy competition can be good, but competition taken to the level students experience today isn't. Learning isn't a race, and making it into one renders the runners fatigued, edgy, distrustful of their peers, and not always eager to practice. There must be some sort of alternative, one that involves collaborating with our peers and working towards a common end goal, one that involves some sort of shared experience.

This isn't a concept familiar to those of us who have ground (or are grinding our way) through the machinery of our current school system, but it is one for which we should advocate. Thinking globally, it may be the case that schools won't change until society (and what society values) changes, but we can do something. At Tutorpedia, it is our goal to instill a love of learning and a belief that the school experience is itself intrinsically valuable into every student we work with. We put a great deal of stock into the collaborative relationships we form with our students. And in the coming months, we are preparing to introduce a series of small-group workshops in which students will be encouraged to work with each other - not against each other - in order to make, do, and understand things that are themselves very much worth making, doing, or understanding. Experiences such as these in students' lives can be powerful reminders that what we do in school is bigger than what our college applications will say.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Future of Textbooks

Consider this from a recent NY Times article: "In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this summer announced an initiative that would replace some high school science and math texts with free, 'open source' digital versions. With California in dire straits, the governor hopes free textbooks could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And given that students already get so much information from the Internet, iPods and Twitter feeds, he said, digital texts could save them from lugging around 'antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks.'”

If our governor is aligned with "free, open-source" textbooks, we must be on to something. The article makes a good point about the possibility of widening the achievement gap between rich and poor: Because there is still a great digital divide (the divide between those who have access to digital information technologies and those who don't), the potential problems of putting everything online are not unfounded. However, what the Times article misses, and what I maintain, is that this is just one aspect of moving education into the 21st century. Web 2.0 technologies should not replace traditional models of teaching - that is, of the personal relationships that develop between teacher and student - they should only enhance it. And as computer prices drop dramatically (netbooks are now as low as $299!), it will be easier (and cheaper) to purchase individual laptops for students instead of individual, "antiquated" textbooks.

Continuing the shift to online curriculum, another recent article talks about the new market of renting textbooks to college students. Again, instead of spending hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars on buying new textbooks, students can now rent from Barnes & Noble College Booksellers. Smaller outfits such as Cengage Learning, Chegg, and BookRenter are doing similar things, with publishers like McGraw-Hill creating partnerships with these distributors to enhance their market share. A letter to the editor in response to this article found some skepticism about the benefits of digital textbooks, claiming that brilliant graphics and "concentrated learning" can never be replaced by these web-based books.

Regardless of how we may relate to the Internet, it is changing the way we live and learn. High schools and colleges are beginning to catch on to this trend, and I believe the only way to keep up will be to make curriculum free, online, and open source.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Learning By Experience

School, traditionally, is a place where a lot is talked about. That, really, is the function of schools - they allow us to learn about things. Specifically, school is a good place to learn about things that we don't or can't experience firsthand. Some of these things are really far away (the moon), some happened long before we were born (Ancient Greece), some are really, really big (black holes), and some are really, really small (atoms and molecules). Some things are abstract ideas (democracy) and others are models for things that exist in the real world (right triangles). School is the place where we get to learn about all of these things that we would not otherwise know about.

What, though, if we aren't content just learning about something? What if we want to learn the thing itself, and learn it directly? If I want to learn about Australia, for example, the best way for me to do that would be to actually go to Australia. Then, Uluru becomes more than a picture of a rock I saw in a magazine, and the Great Barrier Reef becomes more than the subject of a PBS broadcast. Going to Australia, of course, is not realistic for every student that learns about the country in school, so school has to suffice. But the point remains: instead of learning about something, it is much more effective to experience that thing firsthand.

Traditional models of school haven't been very good at implementing this common sense idea. Lately, though, there has been more of a push towards alternative models of learning, which include project-based learning, alternative forms of assessments (such as performance assessments and portfolio assessments), and internship and the integration of apprenticeship and internships. Each of these initiatives moves students away from learning about something and pushes them closer to authentic learning experiences. Despite its new "alternative" label, this is nothing new. Outward Bound has been engaged in experiential learning from its inception, and education pioneer John Dewey, who wrote extensively on experiential education around the turn of the 20th century. Many institutions of higher learning, such as medical school and law school, operate on apprenticeship and mentorship models. And middle and high schools are increasingly headed in this direction.

Gaining experience is a familiar topic to many college-bound students, but just as learning should not be thought of as a means to an end, the experience someone puts down on their college application or job resume should not be thought of as a hoop they have to jump through. The experience is itself a very authentic way to learn something, perhaps the best way to learn something.

At Tutorpedia, we are getting ready to offer a series of workshops for students that embody this idea. These workshops will be ideal environments in which small groups of students can experience something firsthand, and learn a great deal from it. Topics will range from recording original music to learning how to write essays - but the common thread will be that student's won't just learn about their topic; they will actually do it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Remixing Education

Anya Kamenetz has a great new article in Fast Company, "Who Needs Harvard?", where she argues many of the same points in my recent post on Free Education: "Free online courses, Wiki universities, Facebook-style tutoring networks--American higher education is being transformed by a cadre of Web-savvy edupunks." There are hundreds if not thousands of digital education models in the ether, and she highlights some of the best: 2tor Inc., eduFire, Grockit, Inigral, and Knewton. I particularly love recent Yale graduate Richard Ludlow's newest creation, Academic Earth. Inspired by MIT's Open Courseware and Hulu's innovate web-based TV design, this site brings together video lectures and other academic content, creating a free, online "educational ecosystem." Other open courseware models, such as Peer2Peer and Western Governors University, allow students to share information online and even receive a fully-accredited degree from their laptop. Kamenetz concludes, "we've gone from scarcity of knowledge to unimaginable abundance." And in Chris Anderson's Free model, once something (ie. information, content) becomes abundant, it become "too cheap to meter."

However, Kamenetz omits one glaring hole in these new models, relationships, which will always be scarce (because they're based on the scarcity of time). Before going on about the vitality of relationships in education, let me digress for a bit. Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig's latest book, Remix, is brilliant. His main argument is that our copyright laws are antiquated - why is it okay to quote Hemingway in your English paper, but illegal to repurpose Sam Wood's Hollywood version of "For Whom The Bell Tolls"? Yoko Ono certainly makes a valid claim that "permission was vital, legally" for a British artist to use John Lennon's music as she recreated his art by showing how others consume it, but why?

The central thesis in Lessig's Remix, and my argument in Remixing Education, is that as we consume one form of culture - be it literature, music, video, or other - we are recreating something else entirely. Our brains are wired to do that (see a future blog on the neuroscience of learning). Our experience, our interpretation of culture - and I include education explicitly here - is different for each of us. How we consume it - how we talk about it, express it, and repurpose it - is vital to our unique understanding of it. What is education but the recreation and dissemination of previous information for a democratic purpose? Lessig continues, "It is how lawyers argue. It is how we all talk all the time. We don't notice it as such, because this text-based remix, whether in writing or conversation, is as common as dust." The hundreds of open-source, open-content sites out there (see Flatworld Knowledge, AcaWiki, Community College Open Textbook Project) are the future of education. And this new remixing of education - hacking, editing, recreating - is the best way to share and spread knowledge in a fully digitized, democratized society.

Back to my original argument with Kamenetz's article, it's missing the relationships - the part of the puzzle that educators, especially those rooted in progressive, cognitive research - know is at the heart of good education systems. Tutorpedia believes in the power of free, open-source, online content, and we will soon publish our own "Curriculum Commons" where tutors, teachers, and professors can publish their content free on our site, increasing their own audience and reputation. But relationships matter, and the best learning will only happen when these authors (or others) have the opportunity to teach that material themselves, either 1-on-1 or through small workshops.

I'll wait for another blog entry to expand on the advantages of relationships that are built through personal mentoring, coaching, and tutoring. Suffice it to say, as this new wave of technology improves education, it is vital to remember the value of these relationships. Our new Tao of Tutorpedia (coming soon!) will promote the value of the internet, but also the value of personal relationships, to increase knowledge, understanding, and support. Human interaction can never be replaced, but only enhanced, by the power of the Internet.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Intrinsic Value

For many college-bound students, school is often just a means to an end. Students (and parents) may believe and understand why school is important, but that belief and understanding is an abstract ideal. On the day-to-day level, the experience of going to school can often be more drudgery than enjoyment. Yet, millions of students endure their school experience, holding fast to the idea that this, somehow, will pay off later. The thought process goes something like this: doing well in school will allow you to get into a good college, which will then allow you to find a high-paying job and comfortable life.

This line of thinking is unarguably correct, but it leaves something enormous out of the equation - the intrinsic value of learning. And this is a terrible shame. Both because learning has a great deal of intrinsic worth, and because when we enjoy what we're doing, we tend to be much more successful at it.

Alfie Kohn, in his book The Schools Our Children Deserve (p.119), gives us four reasons for the purpose of schools, set up on a 2x2 matrix that looks like this:




Enhancing Personal Fulfillment

Building a Democratic Society


Maximizing Competitive Financial Success

Increasing Corporate Profits

This matrix is potentially illuminating. We see that the institution of school simultaneously operates at and serves several different levels and interests. Too often, though, the "economic" purposes are what are defined as important, and the "humanistic" interests are largely relegated to the bottom of the list when our kids ask why do I have to do this?

Kohn's "economic" reasons for schooling point towards this idea of schooling as a means to an end - places of learning, in this light, are places that set up and maintain the basic rules of society, and that if we want to be successful in society, we need to learn and master those rules. Again, this is undeniably true. Almost nobody would deny the importance of a college education in today's economy, or the competitive advantage college graduates have when they enter the job market. Sadly, though, some of the "humanistic" reasons for schooling have gotten lost in the scramble towards college and a better economic life. It is tragic when students (and parents...and even teachers) attribute academic success, or even involvement in extracurriculuars, to the fact that "it will look good on college applications." This may be true, but to do something simply for the sake of resume-padding is to miss the point as to why it might look good on a resume in the first place.

Focusing on the economic purposes of school as justification for working hard is like focusing on the destination and not enjoying the journey. Instead of fiercely driving towards an end goal at the expense of the journey, maybe it would make more sense to focus on the journey itself, to believe and understand that every step along the way is one that has intrinsic value. Instead of putting primary importance on outcome, which has been most of our tendency, we should focus instead on process. That is, instead of being constantly driven towards the college acceptance letter, students should invest more fully in the things they are learning in school every day. Engagement with school on a private, humanistic level will make school a more enjoyable, fulfilling experience, and because of this it will yield higher levels of academic success, which in this light is more of a byproduct of the process of learning as opposed to a primary goal. Therefore, a refocusing towards that which is right in front of us would not only make students' immediate experiences with school more enjoyable, it would also ultimately increase their achievement, and in doing so increase their economic and societal viability. That is, concentrating on the process actually leads to a more favorable outcome, even (and especially) when we aren't even thinking about the outcome!

This is a difficult concept to swallow for the goal-directed thinker. And the institution of school in the Western world is, of course, quite goal directed. In order to properly refocus on the intrinsic value of learning, then, society would need to take a different approach to schooling. Here the 2,500 year old words of Lao Tzu might be of use:
Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.

The Master never reaches for the great;
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn't cling to her own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for her.

-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 63
Therefore, reinvesting students in the intrinsic value of learning should be one of the most important parts of educators' jobs. This makes school a more enjoyable, positive, and fulfilling place, yes, but it also will ultimately lead to greater overall academic success. How to go about doing this? A start is to make learning real, relevant, and rigorous. Learning should connect to students' life experiences, and tell them something about themselves and their world. It should be challenging and push them, but not so hard that they grow discouraged. Teaching should not be a series of memorizations or test-taking tricks; teaching should cultivate sophisticated habits of mind and hone skills that are generalizable to many different contexts. In this way, learning won't just be a means to an end. Learning will have intrinsic value, and that value will in turn affect positive academic outcomes.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Free Education

What if education were free? What would it be like if students and families had free access to the best teachers, tutors, curriculum, and pedagogy in the world? Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired magazine, argues in his new book that Free is the future of business, that every business that becomes digital eventually becomes free. Free is not new, but the rise of the Internet Age has created more Free models than ever before. Every two years, bandwidth, storage, and processing have doubled in speed and halved in cost. Lewis Straus, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission from 1953-1958, saw this coming, and at the dawn of the Nuclear Age intuitively predicted that electricity would some day be "too cheap to meter." He was wrong (we still write checks to PG&E every month), but digital bits - replacing material atoms - have become cheap enough that web-based businesses can round down, effectively offering their content and distribution for free (Andersen lists 50 case studies at the end of his book). Google, his number one example, makes its multi-billion dollar fortune by giving away its products for free (think gmail, google docs, and its new Chrome browser), and collects cash - plenty of it - from advertisers.

Anderson gives two Free models of education: free online textbooks and free online lectures. Flatworld Knowledge offers their content free online (and many colleges and universities participate in their archived catalog). They only have business and economics books now, but math, science, humanities and social science textbooks are coming soon. University of California, Berkeley, and Massachussettes Institute of Technology both provide their lectures free online. MIT's Open Courseware offers entire courses - including lectures, exams, and notes - free online, and Berkeley's free webcasts have allowed professors like Dr. Richard Muller to achieve pseudo-celebrity status with his "Physics for Future Presidents" lectures, also freely available on YouTube.

But what if we could offer more? Tutorpedia is currently providing or is in the process of creating the following 10 services free of charge:
Free is the future of business, and Tutorpedia is interested in creating a Free model of Education - to close the achievement gap, improve access to college, and teach better life skills and habits of mind. Our hope is to create exciting, alternative, enriching content that parents, teachers, and students will use online (for free). Then, if and when you want that material taught to you by an expert, we're just a phone call or email away. Our tutors will continue to provide the collaborative relationships, innovative expertise, and holistic vision to do just that.