from my mind to yours...

August 2005
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Short Book Review: Blink
Filed under: General
Posted by: site admin @ 1:31 pm

Trust your instincts? This author describes what those instincts are really based on. He illustrates how they can work for you or against you.

Informative and entertaining. Worth a read, probably worth owning. This one has a central theme.

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Short Book Review: Freakonomics
Filed under: Politics and Economics
Posted by: site admin @ 1:25 pm

An entertaining book. It’s worth a read, but probably not worth buying. You get exactly what the author says - a series of interesting and essentially unrelated stories on various topics. There is no central unifying theme. I’m not certain what there is to really learn from this book except that abortion appears to have a tremendous effect in slowing the crime rate.

Nonetheless, it is an entertaining read.

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On K-12 Education
Filed under: Politics and Economics
Posted by: site admin @ 7:31 pm

Everyone seems to agree that there is a problem with K-12 education in the US. We here a lot of talk, and see some action that purports to address the problem. We have things such as “No Child Left Behind”, charter schools, and, in places like Minnesota, open enrollment. All of these put pressure on the system to change. However all of these approaches fail to address the core problems facing K-12 education in this country. Those problems are the dual role schools play and the system’s inherent age discrimination.

The dual role schools play is this: Besides the acknowledged role of educating, schools also have a very real role of providing day care. When all the adults in a household work, they need some place to send the kids while they’re out. We see tacit admissions of this in the before and after care programs that most schools have.

What we do not openly admit is that, in many cases, the day care role is more important to parents than the educating role. Yet the signs of it are everywhere, from the frequent notifications to parents that they can’t send their kids to school if they are sick, to the poor attendance at parent teacher conferences, to the need for on campus police. Further, schools are well aware of this.

The problem with this dual role is that as long as the day care role is significant in importance, it engenders behaviors that defeat the learning process. If parents insist on dumping their kids at school regardless, then it becomes difficult to effectively discipline those children.

Resolving this problem is simple, but not easy. It requires parents to make sacrifices that might be painful for the family in order to benefit the school as a whole. It might require no more than reviewing a child’s progress through school on a daily basis. Or it might require staying home from work with a child that needs to stay home from school, even if it results in lost income. Obviously, many parents do not perceive a strong enough incentive. I’m not yet certain what changes need to be made to create that perception.

The problem of age discrimination is much less understood, but it boils down to this: Children are grouped by age, not ability - a type of segregation that we would never allow in the workplace. While this approach may seem to work, this kind of grouping either causes the group to go only as fast as its slowest member, or it causes the group to split. This approach is based on the Industrial Revolution ideas of Thomas Dewey applied to an incomplete understanding on how children function. It shouldn’t be this way, and it certainly needn’t be.

The old one room school house is an example of an environment that worked well. Kids were age mixed and exposed to material at a range of levels. Each child could move at his/her own speed.

Something similar can happen today. Technology enables us to gear instruction to the pace of learning rather than the pace of delivery. Recorded content in text, audio and video can be presented to the student at pace that is based on how well the student grasps the material. Because this method is computer based, the pace of delivery can be infinitely adjusted on a per student basis.

“But wait!”, you say. “What about keeping the class together? What about grades, grade levels and graduation?” Let’s look at each of these in turn.

First, why would you want to keep a class together? What does that even mean? Does it mean that you want to slow down children who are learning so they learn less? If each child can learn without inhibiting others from learning, then anything that stands in their way borders on criminal. Children group naturally based on common interest. If that common interest revolves around age, it will be obvious, But many times it doesn’t - ask any parent with children of different ages.

What about grades? What does grade level mean, anyway. All it really says is that the individual has shown proficiency in a predefined set of skills and information. It doesn’t say how old a child is. Graduation is similar - it is simply the last grade level in the K-12 system. The key to note here is that grades needn’t be “level” very often. As long as a child masters ALL the required skills and material, that child has effectively graduated. Prior to that, the child still has something to learn.

In a college, when you choose a major, you get a list of required courses necessary to complete that major. That set of courses may even be organized where some courses are required before other courses may be taken. That structure of course prerequisites may extend several times. Anyone who has graduated from college knows that this system of prerequisites can require careful planning in order to insure completion of a major in the standard 4 years.

We can do the same thing with K-12 education. By work backwards from the goal of “graduation”, we can devise a complete list of all the knowledge and behaviors required, and their prerequisites, and THEIR prerequisites, and so on. We can then present every child and parent with a complete list of prerequisites from K through 12. Children can proceed with any material for which they have met the prerequisites. They can proceed as quickly as they choose. They can focus as they choose. As long as the children cover all the required material, it doesn’t matter if they do it in the same order.

The advantage to this system is that it works for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are average, below average, or above average because each child knows the path, and can proceed at his/her appropriate pace. And because the content is computer delivered, the pace can be adjusted as needed. Teachers are then free to proctor and mentor, rather than just deliver content. This enables them to focus their particular talents on those kids who need them the most.

And this system doesn’t cost any more.

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