Friday, September 21, 2007

The Individual Learner - Part 2

Prior to the 1900s, learning was highly individually directed, even if done in small groups. The early spiritual masters taught in parable and broad example, challenging the individual to think through and determine his/her actions within those truths. Socrates perfected his “teaching through questioning” methodology, idealized still today by many educators as the “perfect form.” Early teaching forms in England, and carried over into colonial America, followed a religious-based liberal arts education driven by a educator (typically a religious figure) who served more as a mentor, guiding his students into learning through readings and 1:1 or small group discussions. Formal education stopped when the student was out of money or moved out into work and commerce.

American public education was a huge social commitment coming out of the 1800s. A commitment that this country justifiably took pride in then and still now. It was generally epitomized by the world of the 1-room schoolhouse. A body of learning that could be done, underwritten by a core expectation of reading and writing, taught to students of all ages, working together in one shared environment. With peer support provided by “those who knew helping those who didn’t,” regardless of respective ages. With the teacher providing individual mentoring and guidance on the side to students as they expressed interest, aptitude, and curiosity. And out of those times and simple backgrounds America produced some intellectual and creative giants in the arts, literature, politics, science, and commerce & industry. They discovered knowledge and creativity combined with culture and entrepreneurship to produce an incredible explosion of growth and development in America.

So how do we recapture the benefits of that directed, individually-based learning environment from yesteryear, but meld it with the vast new knowledge and teaching tools that we have today?
- First and foremost, we destroy the “grade level” concept and relegate it to the trash heap where it belongs;
- we provide learning sessions grouped around subject matter (instead of age);
- we let students enroll in subject matter sessions as they are ready, interested, and capable without regard to age level;
- we let classmates help classmates;
- we certify “competencies” where the outside world requires such certifications;
- we let the student accumulate competencies over time (including a lifetime), resulting in a broad “completion” credentialing.

Under this approach, the role and goal of the educator is more clearly to:
- expose an individual (at any age) to what is available across the learning spectrum;
- help the student identify where his/her interests lie;
- bring out and maximize those talents.

The only core minimum education required should be:
1) to achieve the ability to read and digest the written word;
2) to understand how past experiences, history and culture are shaping the present; and
3) how to continually and enthusiastically learn throughout one’s lifetime.
With those three starting points, the human individual can go to virtually unlimited places.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Individual Learner - Part 1

We have all seen and heard the last few years the growing discussion about the state of education in America, a discussion probably ranking only 3rd behind Iraq/terrorism and the healthcare crisis. “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) was supposed to be the curative for our public school education ills. Yet the results from this initiative are questionable at best, partly for lack of funding but more due to a premise that remains highly suspect.

Within NCLB, all children are to have equal access and equal, if not extra, support for their educational needs or shortcomings. Millions have been invested in tutors, extra learning programs, etc. to bring the lowest levels of learning up to a national par --- a par based upon defined expectations and outcomes for specific grade levels. Yet, as a recent TIME magazine article discusses, a significant portion of this support has come from redirected allocations for programs and opportunities for the brightest kids, the “gifted” ones. These students, forced to also work to the “statistical norm,” suffer from boredom and increasing social disconnections from their grade-level peer group. Dropout rates for the gifted can be as alarming as the dropout rates of the so-called underachievers. Home schooling continues on the rise, now affecting somewhere between 1-2 million students (according to one recent statistical report). The students who are in the statistical norm fluctuate on either side of ‘average,” and overall school dropout rates are still alarmingly high in many states (over a quarter of the students in my state of North Carolina).

Bad teaching going on? Yes, but there are lots of would-be good teachers trying to make a creative difference in “learning.” Teaching to the test? Absolutely, with avenues for creative thinking and expression from our kids rapidly disappearing. Stigmatizing of our children? Yes, creating defeatism in kids who should be experiencing positive and reaffirming growth in who they truly are. The real culprit? An archaic, antiquated structure left over from the early 1900s that does not meet the needs of our students, or prepare them for their future, nor does it find, expose and develop their best individual talents. A primary culprit here is the ridiculous, counter-reality concept of “Grade Level.”

We group students together based upon their chronological age. Yet every study done about childhood acknowledges that children have different learning styles, mature at different ages, identify interest and talents at different points and from different stimuli, often differentiated by gender, geography and culture. Many new parents are often downright fanatical (and frantic) about measuring the tricks and skills their child shows at a particular age point. Yet at some ridiculously early age we put all of these individual kids together by age group and say “this is what you should now learn and show competency in.” Completely divorced from what the child’s potential and future may be, regardless of relevancy to the child.

It is assembly-line education ——— education’s version of Henry Ford’s Model-T automobile assembly line. The foreman’s job is to maintain order, ensure proscribed process, create outcomes to a predicted expectation, all the while judging the competency of the worker. The worker performs the specific detailed task, at the proscribed time, in the regulated manner dictated by the manufacturing plan. Our teaching is predominately done on the same model. Assembly-line students needed to become assembly-line workers.

So what is our true priority for educators, governments, and parents:
a) WHAT students learn, over time, when it may be relevant? Or;
b) B) WHEN students learn it? (or don’t learn it, as the case may be)

In this age of vast information and learning media made available easily and rapidly, with so many options possible for living one’s life, and longer lives capable of experiencing multiple forms of life and career within one lifetime, this narrow and limiting approach to education is not only not working, it is indefensible. Educating to the individual instead of to the statistical middle, presenting learning at the time that learning is ready to be absorbed, and helping children find and exploit their true talents and future life directions, should be our true goals for educating our children. But is this achievable in America, given our embedded institutions and way of thinking?

See forthcoming blog entry for Part 2 of this discussion.