Sunday, February 27, 2011

Preparation For What?

I'm all for the idea of Backwards Design: figure out what your goal is, then design a system/curriculum/regimen to get you there. It ought to be common sense, but unfortunately, it's not. Generally, we plod along, chapter by chapter, day by day, occasionally taking time out to be assessed on our progress towards...wherever someone thinks we might be going or should be going.

In a perfect world, no one would ever ask, "Will this be on the test?" Because they'll already know. That ought be true in Real Life, as well as in school.

We've moved, in the past few decades, from a culture of teaching to the texbook to teaching to the test, with occasional nods at teaching to the standard, but we're no less fragmented and isolated. The goals are still small, piecemeal, and unaligned to anything beyond the classroom. And I don't just mean unaligned to the Real World (though God knows, it's that); we also remain unaligned to the teacher next door, or the teacher next year. We do what we do because it's what we do. Or perhaps because it's what we're told to do. But we certainly don't do what we do because we understand how what we do fits into a larger picture or idea.

So: Backwards Design in macro. What is it we think we're preparing our students for, ultimately? Are we preparing them to be citizens of a democracy? Are we preparing them to be consumers in a capitalist economy? Or are we preparing them to be employees? I've heard all three things offered, though never all together. Of course not all together, because they don't all fit together.

The structure of public education as we do it in this country is built on the "prepare them to be employees" model. I think we all know that. The goal was to take a lot of very different kinds of kids, from very different kinds of backgrounds, and process them so that when they came out, they could all more-or-less convincingly play the role of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant laborer or clerk. That was the goal. It was no secret. In fact, it was considered vital to the future of the repbulic. Hence: a one-size-fits all curriculum. Hence: every 6 year old, 7 year old, 8 year old, and so on treated exactly the same (we're appalled at that idea now, as though our forebears were stupid. They weren't stupid. They knew all those kids were different. They point was to treat them all the same and then make them all the same).

And now, having said that, I think it's probable that the people who bequeated this system to us thought of themselves as preparing citizens for a democracy. E Pluribus Unum, and all that. It's what they were trying to do. Unfortunately, the Prussian factory model of schooling that they imported worked against the kind of critical thinking that citizens in a democracy need. Well...let's call it the Prussian model followed by the Cold War. That combination of structural sameness and ideological terror of divergent opinions probably killed Jefferson's idea of an ongoing and growing revolution better than anything.

Backwards Design: what does citizenship in a democrazy require. It's not rocket science. In fact, Thomas Jefferson sketched out quite a good picture of what Americans would need to know and be able to do, including:

  • to give every citizen the information he needs to transact his business...
  • to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas...
  • to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either...
  • to know his rights...
  • to develop the reasons faculties of our Youth...
  • to form [our Youth] to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness to themselves...

If we could guarantee that much, we'd be doing better than we're doing now.

Backwards Design: if these were your goals, how would you design a school system? Not just a curriculum--I'm talking ground up. Would you tell teenagers--people on the verge of embarking on their adult lives--that at such-and-such an hour they would be required to think about a single subject for 45 minutes, until a bell rang, at which point they would have to run to a different location and think about a different subject for 45 minutes, until the next bell rang?

Maybe you would. I wouldn't.

Express. Preserve. Duties. Competence. Rights. Reason. Reflection. Action. Virtue. Happiness.

Hell, you can get rid of all the other verbiage and just highlight those words. Does that list of words sound like what goes on in America's public schools? Do we teach our children that they have duties, as well as rights? Do we teach them to become competent--or merely responsive? Do we encourage reflection and action, and teach children how those two things are related? Do we teach them virtue? Do we give them the tools they will need to pursue their happiness?

If what we really care about is that our young people become good employees and good consumers, we have to write quite a different list of qualities we want to encourage. Here's my draft version:

Emotion. Appetite. Desire. Hunger. Pride. Self-Esteem. Obedience. Compliance.

Backwards Design: If you wanted a school system that would spit out 18-year olds ready to do whatever job they were given and then use the bulk of the money they made to buy things, what would you build? Would you have experiment? Create? Ask difficult questions? Reflect on and challenge difficult answers?

Systems are perfect, I said in my last post. They do what they were designed to do, whether intentionally or not.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Systems Are Perfect

I recently attended a two-day workshop on Continual Improvement, which turned out to be much more interesting than I thought it would be: short on jargon; long on common sense and useful tools. At one point during the training, the presenter talked about reasonable variation. He drew a horizontal line representing the mean, and then drew a series of wavy lines moving above and below the mean. He talked about how in any system, you'll have performance above and below the mean at various times, which is, after all, how we arrive at a mean in the first place. He said that variation that within three standard deviations from the mean, positive and negative, is generally considered reasonable and predictable, and that when you see cases above or below that mark, that's when you should start paying attention to what's going on. He said we often spend fruitless time worrying about reasonable variation and making it go away--treating the normal as exceptional--and forget to pay attention to the special cases and what they may have to teach us.

Then he added something more interesting. He said we often blame the system for performance levels that we don't like, calling it broken or dysfunctional. But we fail to see that when this performance level is predictable and stable (even if it stinks), the system isn't broken at all--it's working give you exactly those results. Any system that gives you a predictable and stable result is a perfect system....for that result. The problem isn't that the system isn't working and needs to work better--it's that it's a BAD SYSTEM for what you're trying to accomplish.

Today I went for a stroll through the National Portrait Gallery, it being President's Weekend and all, and I came across this handsome gentleman:

Youngest of eleven children (If I remember correctly), never got past the 8th grade, ran away from home penniless. How many young people in today's America share that piece of his life story? Millions? And how many people in today's America--whether they began with his challenges or not--have achieved what he achieved? A handful? One? None?

There are extraordinary people, and extraordinary people will always, by definition, do extraordinary things. They are the special cases that live above (or below) those three standard deviations off the mean. But what is the educational mean we're hitting today, in our culture? Is it even close to what we had in Franklin's day?

Granted, education was a more haphazard affair, back then. Some kids got schooling; some didn't. Some kids had private tutors and learned Greek; some learned how to read and write and then went out to work the fields next to their fathers; some were denied the right to read at all. But taken all in all, looking at the whole society, not just the cream of the crop, would you say the literacy level, the ability to work with numbers, and the general level of knowledge about things like history, science, and the arts was higher back then, or higher right now.

Personally, I'd say It Depends. In areas like science, I would say we have more general knowledge and less general ignorance and superstition. But then, after I would say that, I would open up a newspaper and read about how people deny evolution, or refuse to admit that the climate is changing, or think that renewable energy is a Communist Plot. So maybe I'd be wrong.

In basic numeracy....well, let's face it. McDonald's had to put pictures of their food on their cash register keys, because the kids they hired couldn't add or make change. Thousands of high school students in California--maybe hundreds of thousands--routinely fail their high school exit exams because they can't pass a test that focuses on middle-school math.

Literacy? Given the fact that the rich learned to read the Odyssey in the original Greek and the slaves were forced by law to remain illiterate, that's a pretty wide margin to operate in. But I'd be willing to bet that the mean literacy level was still higher than ours. Even when families owned only one or two books, those books were a King James Bible and a Collected Shakespeare. And they could read both. How many of our high school students can read either?

If someone were trying to foment rebellion today, would he write "Common Sense"? Would anyone be stupid enough to write page after page of densely worded arguments, composed in complex compound sentences, if he were trying to reach The Masses? People don't write that way even when they're writing for an educated audience, these days. Short sentences. Bumper-sticker ideas. Slogans. 140-word Tweets. Don't try to explain. Don't bother to argue. Don't support your position with ideas or historical precedent or appeals to reason or logic. Just SAY IT. Whatever it is you think, or believe, or want people to do, just SAY IT and hope that they will DO IT.

That's us. We SAY and we DO, but we rarely think or reflect.

Is it just that the world has sped up? That technology makes it harder for us to take the time to reflect? Or have we trained ourselves out of the habit?

If the system is giving you predictable and stable results, then the system is not broken. In fact, it's perfect. It's also bad.

What is our system giving us?

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Future is Now...or at least tomorrow

There's been plenty of tinkering around the edges in plenty of places--laptops for students, computer-driven supplemental courses, online credit recovery courses--but for those of you looking to see how some of today's technology might really transform how we do schooling in America--I mean in a profound, paradigm-changing way--take a look at what New York City is working on.