Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Shaping Education: Form, Reform, or Transform?

President-Elect Obama's pick for education secretary is all the buzz. Should he pick a reformer or a transformer? What will make the unions happy? Who can bridge the gaps between conflicting schools of thought? What will become of NCLB? Newsweek writer Jonathan Alter is betting Obama will tap Denver superintendent Michael Bennet to fill the job, based on his record of negotiating well with the teacher's union. Other names include Chicago's Arne Duncan, Linda Darling-Hammond and South Carolina's Inez Tenenbaum.

I have my fingers crossed for an education leader with the vision, courage and ability to transform schooling into a learning enterprise. School currently drives about half of students out before graduation day. How can we transform the system into one (or many) that prepares students well for their future? It's a tall order, yes. And so worth doing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Real Learning

My 11-year-old daughter came home from school several weeks ago all fired up about an idea she and a friend had. They noticed during lunch that the trash can was overflowing with styrofoam lunch trays -- they keep piling up and they aren't biodegradable. So Dana and Claire decided they would DO something about it! They could research the problem, raise money if necessary, change the world -- or at least change the school's use of environmentally unfriendly lunch trays! They discussed it with their teacher, who said she'd get them an appointment to see the principal about it. So far, nothing has happened. Every so often I talk with Dana about her and Claire's idea. As the weeks go by, I can see the spark of passion fade, buoyant determination replaced by dull resignation.

Meanwhile, the Challenge group Dana and Claire participate in is investigating environmental issues. They walk the neighborhood looking at potential environmental problems and solutions. Last week they discussed vandalism. (Yawn. Shrug.)

This is real learning. Dana and Claire have a topic that interests them a lot. They aren't working on it in school yet. They're learning that changing the world takes some effort. They're seeing that their days (and their teacher's and principal's days) are already full. I hope they will learn that in the real world, unlike on television, making something happen takes effort and persistence. These habits of mind are keys to success in life. I'm hoping their interest and passion will find some expression beyond the idea stage -- maybe the upcoming science fair project, or maybe in a project that happens outside the school day.

I'm learning too. I'm passionate about powerful teaching and learning, and so is a growing cadre of educators in Colorado. For each of us, our days are full. The curricula are set, the CSAPs are coming, and our to-do lists are longer than the work day. It takes effort, action and persistence to change the way we work and learn. It's a work in progress and it couldn't be more important.

Information Theory of Learning, Part 3

Applying constructivist learning theory pretty much rips apart the way we do school.

Learning theory says that the learner must make meaning of new information. To do that she needs context — a way to connect new input to what she knows already. Not this-will-be-useful-later appeals, but real connection — like reaching a personal goal, satisfying curiosity, or doing something that really matters (to the learner).

Learning theory says the learner needs to work the new information — apply it; reflect on it; change it — in order to fasten it to her existing knowledge network.

Where in school do students work information in authentic contexts? Athletics; student publications; theater/arts productions; vocational ed; clubs/activities. These experiences — considered peripheral to the mission of school — create powerful learning for students, the stuff that sticks throughout their lives.

Can math be as compelling as football? If not, we’re just wasting time.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Information Theory of Learning, Part 2

In the preceding blogpost, I claim that constructivism is a theory of learning. So…?

This means that the theory of behaviorism — the lodestar of schooling — is wrong.

We do not learn in response to the application of rewards and punishments. We adapt our behavior to get the rewards and avoid the punishments. We comply, not learn. So, grades, high stakes tests, and monetary reward for appropriate behavior do not promote learning — other than learning how to be “good students.”

We do not learn by accumulating ordered chunks of information in a linear sequence. Our knowledge expands simultaneously in multiple dimensions as our brain circuitry rewires.

We do not learn by memorizing. We need to work with new information — apply it; reflect on it; change it — in order to fasten it securely to existing knowledge.

If school were about learning, how would we do it?