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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Out with the old and in with the new: a plan for redesigning high school so that it is fun and useful

What might high school look like if we really thought about re-designing it in a serious way? By this I mean, in a way that ignores what text book makers, test makers, Common Core advocates, and teachers who do not want to change how they teach want.

Or, to put this another way, how can we make high school, fun, exciting, useful, and something that sends children off on a path that reflects their own interests and passions?

We need some clearly defined outcomes first, so let’s state upfront that there are some core skills that must be learned in any curriculum but that these are not the ones that we usually talk about when we go through the usual litany of mathematics, science, history and literature.

I assume, therefore that for any curriculum I discuss below, there will be a heavy component of reading, writing, teamwork and reasoning. And, I assume that reasoning would include, planning, prediction, judgment, evaluation and other core cognitive skills I have discussed in the past. (Teaching Minds, Teachers College Press.)

The First Year of High School

The goal is to get students excited about something. This means that students would be offered the option of working on projects with clearly defined goals in the following areas:

Science, engineering, design, art, music, health, construction, architecture, computers, business, law, finance, anthropology, philosophy, history, psychology, film, television, foreign languages, foreign cultures, service industry.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. It is meant to reflect the range of jobs one can have in the world. We can always make it bigger. Some of the terms above are quite general. So, by “business” one could mean wholesale, retail, investment banking, insurance and a range of other things. The idea is to enable a student to do any of those that a student chooses to do.

I am proposing that the list be finite. So, for sake of argument, since I listed about 25 domains of interest, let’s say that a student on entering high school would have to make a choice to pursue one of these 25 areas for one month. That month would consist of one project, with the material for it on line, and with an on line mentor available, and with a physically available teacher watching to see that students were engaged and working and available to help when they were frustrated. The students would work in on line teams of 3-5 kids, who could be located anywhere. The projects would not be teaching theory, just practice at doing something simple within that domain. They would all involve writing, drawing conclusions about how to do things, reflection, and discussion. There would be no grades. At the end of the month, the student would have a simple choice to make between these three choices:

1.     Leave this school and do something else
2.     Do a next project in the same domain that builds on the one what was done in the first month.
3.     Change domains and do a different project.

The first year of high school therefore would have no classes, no tests, and no grades.  It would have lots of choices. Eight months of high school could mean eight unrelated projects, or one project area that gets increasingly complex each month, or anything in between.

The Second Year of High School

The student would be encouraged to change the game plan that he or she has followed so far. So, for example, if the student did only music, or only computers for the first year, they would be encouraged to choose something else to concentrate on, but would also be allowed to pursue what they had started in parallel. The point here is to make sure that a student doesn’t get too narrow too fast, and to allow students who are excited by something to continue to pursue it.

The Third Year of High School

By now, a student would have tasted seriously at least two or three domains. A this point they could choose to pursue two of them seriously, or they could continue trying our new things.

The Fourth Year of High School

In the student’s final year they choose one thing and stick to it. They must produce something worthwhile or invent something or demonstrate the ability to be useful to an employer in some domain. Businesses would be encouraged to hire students as interns to try out the skills that would by this time have been honed for 1-3 years in a given domain of interest.

What would this high school produce? Happy, employable, kids who could choose further study or simply go to work.

How hard is this to do? It simply requires money to build it and help from experts in doing the building.

We can do this. We simply need to abandon the old model and get started.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Stop cheating undergraduates of a useful education

Undergraduates are being cheated. As a professor of 35 years, I always knew that I didn’t care much about undergraduates. I hoped maybe someone else did. The reason I didn’t care about them is pretty much the same reason that most professors at research universities don’t care about them. It’s not our/their job. No, really. It isn’t.

I realize that people who have gone to college and then moved on will think that what I am saying is crazy, but they don’t really get how a research university works. Professors at top universities run large research labs (in the sciences anyhow.) They spend a great deal of time raising money for these labs, keeping sponsors happy, and then actually running the lab and managing all the graduates students and researchers that their money pays for.

Usually these professors are asked to teach an undergraduate class from time to time. It is the last thing on their minds to worry about and most would admit they don’t do the job well. They know that lecturing and then testing students to see if they listened is not really education. Education is what happens when they help their PhD students individually with their research problems.

I am writing this while visiting an excellent research university and just after having been at another excellent one. The only time undergraduate teaching comes up in conversations I have with faculty is when I bring it up and then there is simply a collective sigh. How do you teach 200 students sitting in one room?

Universities like the tuitions these kids pay and fool themselves into thinking that they are prepared for something after taking 40 random courses,  even though they are certainly recommending graduate school to these students as their real option.

The other day, an official at a lesser ranked university asked me in passing what I would do if I were to create a computer science department at his university. It is was an odd question to say the least. I have only been a professor at top research universities and the answer there would certainly be to go after some great researchers and start building a great graduate program that was well funded by outside money. But there are plenty of such departments, and these days my mind goes to education rather than research.

So I proposed something radical. I suggested we could build a computer science undergraduate program that taught students to program. Students sign up to be CS majors because they like programming and then they are led into theoretical courses or arcane research courses by the faculty. (All in the supposed interest of breadth and readiness for some imagined future.) I suggested that instead we combine the student’s interest in building stuff with working people who need stuff built. This particular school happens to have a great medical school for example.There are lots of opportunities to built important medical software and medical apps. This would happen by letting the CS undergraduates hear about the issues in medicine these days and helping them to interact with medical students and practitioners. There is also a great business school at this place. Students could learn how to invent new software for use in business and also how to fund a company to market what they built possibly by partnering with students in these other schools.

So my idea boils down to this: Let undergraduates do what they came to college to do. In computer science this is rather simple actually. They love computers in the first place so let professors simply help students do interesting things that make them able to build a product and run their own company, or else become valuable employees in a  company that might employ them.  

Harvard won’t go for this. Where are the liberal arts? What about discussing great ideas? Fine, go to Harvard for that. But it is time that some universities start paying attention to undergraduates in exactly this way, by helping them be what they want to be. No courses, just helping students attain skills and practical experience in what interests them.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Pro-Choice (allowing students to make choices about professions in high school)

I have been writing about high school and what is wrong with it for many years. My articles on why all the subjects we teach are absurd and why the curriculum is tremendously outdated are easy enough to find. Often people respond to what I have written by asking what we should have instead. So, here I propose a simple answer. One we can implement, and one we can gradually get into the schools.

)Pardon me for calling this Pro-Choice (by which I mean professional choices for kids.) Yes, I know the term means something else. But I like it in this context.)

My premise is that high school should be a time in which one figures out what kinds of things one can do in life that would be just right for you. This idea has been around for a long time but used in exactly the wrong way. “We must teach chemistry in high school so we can expose children to chemistry to see if they want to be chemists” is the standard argument. It didn’t take me a year of high school chemistry to know I didn’t want to be a chemist. Had we had what I am proposing, my decision would have been even easier. (And I had to take two years of college chemistry too. Believe I knew long before then, but schools just love requirements.) In the school I am proposing there are no requirements. Just professional choices.

I happen to have spent some time with a chemist at Proctor and Gamble a few years back. He was inventing a new bleach. Let us imagine for a moment that Proctor and Gamble funded the building of three week chemistry learn by doing experience that included seeing what chemists actually do at P&G, talking to this man about why loves what he does, and actually doing some of these things in simulation. After three weeks a student would know if this was for him or her and if they wanted more of it, or if they wanted to try out something else.

Years ago we built a simulated firefighter course (at Northwestern’s ILS). Suppose we allowed high schools kids to try out being firefighters in simulation for a few weeks. They might even talk to their local firefighters during that same time.  In those days, we also built simulations about how to run an EPA public meeting and about how to plan an air force campaign. If we had build a version that kids could try, they would know if that kind of career was for them after a short while.

You say you want to be a lawyer? Why not try a case in simulation? Do contract work too, to see that being a lawyer is not all “Law and Order.”

You are thinking about being a doctor?. Be one in simulation. Talk to simulated patients. Do some lab work. Read an MRI. Tell a patient he has cancer (all in simulation of course.) Also, kids could help out in a real local hospital for a few days.

Why shouldn’t GE help us build a three week simulation of what it is like to be an Engineer? Why shouldn’t IBM help us build a simulation of what it is like to be a computer consultant? Why shouldn’t one of the political parties help us build a simulation of what it is like to be legislator or a campaign director? Why shouldn’t Turner Construction help us build a simulation of what kinds of jobs there are in construction and see if they’d be any fun to do?

I am naming particular companies here because I believe the only way education will change is if the big corporations which can easily afford to do help us do this and would benefit from it, helped provide students choices.

How many should their be? Hundreds. A student’s life could simply be trying stuff out, talking to experts, and going on to the next until they were pretty sure about what they wanted to learn more about.

We have built many of these already. Many of them are in health sciences and in computer programming and in entrepreneurship.  

Now. How do we get them to the kids?

No one will allow us to eliminate the nonsense that permeates high school today, but there are electives available to seniors and there are summer schools and camps and their are after school programs. Eventually maybe we can eliminate the entire last semester of high school and replace it with simulated activates that inform kids about what they might like to try in the future.

My long term plan, of course, is have this become high school, gradually replacing what is there.

What is there can easily go. If you actually needed algebra you could learn it in context. (It might be embedded where an advanced engineering simulation when a student was building a bridge or deigning an airplane. (Although I must admit I had this conversation with Boeing for high school aerospace engineering and they couldn’t find a real need for algebra there either.)

English literature?  Needed for nothing (except sounding like an intellectual.)  However, as literature teachers would say that literature is about making life decisions, I have no problem with many making life decisions simulations being part of the choices here. Writing is needed  all the time however, so each simulation should involved writing that is the type actually done in that simulation (legal briefs, medical opinions, police reports etc.)

All of education needs to involve planning, diagnosis, judgment, predication, and experimentation (as I have said in my Teaching Minds book). These cognitive processes must be woven into each and every simulated experience we build.

High school must change. Computers and the Internet allow us to make the change now. We need to think about enabling choices for students and creating individuals who know what they want to do and have trued it out before they finish high school.    

We have built many of these kinds of simulations already and will offer them to anyone who wants to try them. We need money to build more. (All of this is being done my my non profit: “Engines for Education.”)

See the web site for more information (although it it is not there as of this writing.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Myth of the Importance of Retention of Information

I heard the other day about a professor who tests his students on line continuously during his lectures and found that his students retain more information than students to whom he simply lectures.

My first thought was shock that he put students through this (although lecturing is so dull maybe it makes it more fun), but then I began speculating on the concept of “retention of information.”

We all, it seems wish we could retain more information and most people chastise themselves for forgetting things. I forgot to get English Muffins at the store the other day and I have been chastising myself because there was a practical consequence to that -- I can’t have them for breakfast.

But I have also forgotten nearly anything that I learned in college. I don’t chastise myself for that, since anything I really needed to know I have used a zillion times since and anything else, well I didn’t need to know it.

I did remember about the bubonic plague however -- you hear that story a lot. Yesterday, news came out of the UK that there never was a bubonic plague and the actual plague they had was was not caused by rats.

I retained that information, but it was wrong. Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit, and most of all endless testing by schools and the anything but student-centric College Board, have convinced a generation of Americans that retention of information is the key to something very important. I am not sure what. Good grades I suppose. And good test scores. It is well to remember that tests, especially those in college are usually an attempt by professors to insure that students at least try to pay attention to what they are hearing about. We don’t learn much from lecturing and every professor knows it, so retention of information has become an idea that professors force students to dwell upon.

I looked up some tricks for retention of information that you can find on the web. Here are some excepts from one site:

Focus your attention on the materials you are studying.

Utilize mnemonic devices to remember information. 

Elaborate and rehearse the information you are studying.

Relate new information to things you already know.

Visualize concepts to improve memory and recall.

Teach new concepts to another person.

Pay extra attention to difficult information.

The gist of this is that key to the retention of information is to memorize better. Some of these suggestions are perfectly reasonable but completely useless to mention. If you can’t relate new information to something you already know than you can’t even hear it, in effect. Learning and listening depend upon retrieving what you have experienced yourself and checking to see how your experience relates to what you are hearing. This is how conversation works and it is why we always have something to say back when people tell us stuff (unless we simply don’t care what they are saying.) In other words, memory and learning are natural processes. Giving people a list of thing they do unconsciously is not of much use. Had the last line said “talk about new concepts” instead of “teach new concepts” I would make the same point. But it didn’t and “teach” is wrong. If we weren’t excited enough about what we heard in a lecture to talk about it with our friends, then we have no chance of remembering it, much less teaching it to someone else.

Here is another web site I found on the same subject:

GULP is an acronym for an effective four step process to improve short and long term memory.
Step 1:  G - Get It
Step 2:  U - Use It (sing or chant it)
Step 3:  L - Link It (make an acronym link; alphabetize it)
Step 4:  P - Picture It

This one just made me laugh. Alphabetize it? Is school so awful and listening to lectures so terrible and studying such a miserable experience, that we must resort to alphabetizing everything new thing have just heard? Or chanting it? I liked that one a lot. Why do they write this stuff? (This one is form a university web site.) The answer is obvious. Teaching is really broken. In fact teaching is so bad that not only do we not know what to teach (stuff you can’t remember) but we insist that you remember it. No one ever says why you need to remember any of this, of course. (“For the test” is the obvious answer.)

Here is another one:

Reading Is Not The Only Way To Learn
(And I thought reading was not even one way to learn. I guess I was wrong. I thought practice, thinking, and experience was how we learned.)
Memory Retention Is Based On Pressure
(It is? Do we push on our head in order to learn? Stress ourselves out in order to learn? Stand up on stage and recite what we have learned?  -- Actually I think this last one is what the author intended. It is a good way way to memorize a song or a part in a play of course. What it is has to do with education eludes me.)
And finally one last one:

Research is unanimous - using drawings in your class and study notes  
There is no “best way” to take notes – you need to experiment and test what works best for you.
One thing is for sure – when highlighting a book – don’t highlight every single line, only highlight what you are sure you’re going to have difficulty remembering.  
This one was written by the author of “Get The Best Grades With The Least Amount Of Effort”, a student guide that has been sold to thousands of students in more than 30 countries and translated into 4 languages.
Good. Now it is clear. No one cares about retaining information with the exception that we care about grades and test scores. We care about grades and test scores because we are forced into taking tests and working for grades by an education system that has abandoned the idea that we learn for any other reason. 
Let me make a radical suggestion: We learn so that we can do something we couldn’t do before. One of those things ought not be test taking, but in our world that seems to be the only one that matters. How sad.
I will put this simply: there is no reason to retain information, (with the exception of things like remembering the directions on how to get someplace you are going.) In other words, short term memorization matters. Long term memorization is basically of no use (except for maybe multiplication tables.)  

Saturday, March 8, 2014

does change in the SAT give us hope? not really, but something is in the air

It is a rare moment that I am hopeful about our educational system, but in the last week, there has been some reason to be optimistic.

The news has been alive with the usual silliness about educational change. What has been different is people are starting to react in interesting ways.

Take the announcement that the SAT is going to change. This was major news on the national news networks. To me, of course, all this meant that a really dumb multiple choice test would now become a different dumb multiple choice test. Since multiple choice tests are all about efficiency of grading and really test nothing except memorization and adeptness at test taking, I was unmoved.

But others had some good stuff to say:

Leon Botstein. President of Bard College, and a radical after my own heart, wrote something very nice in Time magazine:

entitled: SAT Is Part Hoax, Part Fraud

Even the New York Times, that bastion of educational conservatism printed a very good article by Jennifer Bouillon entitled: Save Us From the SAT

Of course, the New York Times also printed why the SAT change was wonderful really:

Nevertheless people are starting to show their disgust with the system. There was this, for example, from Wired about college:

Entitled: Colleges Need to Act Like Startups — Or Risk Becoming Obsolete

and there was this in Slate:

entitled: PowerPointless: Digital slideshows are the scourge of higher education.

It was this last one that really got my attention. A professor admitting that standing up and reading PowerPoint slides might not actually be good educational practice? Amazing. It included tweets from students that said:

““for class today I’ll be reading the PowerPoint word for word.” every professor, everywhere””

“Being a college professor would be easy. Read off a PowerPoint you made 10 years ago and give online quizzes with questions you googled.”

“College basically consists of you spending thousands of dollars for a professor to point at a PowerPoint and read the bullets.”

The students are starting to object to how undergraduates are treated. Undergraduate education has become a very expensive and pointless exercise. As long as we keep insisting that “everyone must go to college” nothing will change. But when the College Board, the driver behind the SAT, starts getting scared, and believe me they are scared, there is hope.

For those who are wondering what it is I am for, it is simple really:

  1. learning through experience
  2. learning through just in time mentoring
  3. learning to do things, not know things
  4. learning that is meant to help you do something you actually might do in the real world
  5. testing of performance not memorization

Online education has been so awful in the last ten years (MOOCs being the height of the absurdity) that I am loathe to suggest that the improvement must come from developing high quality online experiences that meet the above 5 criteria. 
But there is no other way. Colleges have no incentive to change their ways.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

help your child find their passion; expose them to everything; or not...

I recently overheard a mother of college-age kids talking about helping her children find their passion. Then I received an email from a professor who I know, about a test someone she knew was creating to help kids find their passion. Numerous books exist on helping you find your passion, complete with exercises to help you remember what you loved to do as a child, or teaching you how to brainstorm. And then of course, there are plenty of academics who write about passion-based curricula.

Sounds nice. Everyone should do what they love.

On the other hand, we have the “exposure” people.  Defenders of the existing school curriculum often use the word “exposure” to defend the fact that everyone must take algebra or chemistry in high school or write papers on Dickens in college. How could you know if you are interested in these things you are never exposed to them?

This puts modern day parents in a bind. They are torn between racing around to various after school classes and summer programs and extra lessons that will help their children find their passion and, at the same time, reinforcing decisions made by educators a century ago that their child must study, and do well in school, and learn to love whatever it is they are being exposed to this year.

I feel sorry for today’s parent. So much obsession with something they cannot control. They can’t fix the curriculum (only Bill Gates can do that -- hence Common Core -- and its hardly a fix) and they can’t figure out how to help their child find their passion. (Chess club, skating lessons, flute playing, soccer practice -- there is so little time.)

So let me make a few observations. I realize I am long past the age where I have been raising children, and that the modern generation of parents takes it all so seriously (while mine just said “go out and play”). But really, let’s think.

  1. your kids passion may suck: my son was passionate about being a rock star; I said no
  2. my daughter wanted to be a ballerina; I said no
  3. my son wanted to be quarterback of the New York Giants (so did I ); I said no  -- this time because “really?” it wasn’t going to happen
  4. my daughter wanted to be a full time writer; I said she had to learn a real profession, something that would help her eat.

Yes, I know, I am out of touch. I actually vetoed my children’s choices of majors in college (english and history). I would have vetoed my son in law’s choice too (russian literature) but I didn’t get a vote.

We need to realize that high school and college are so out of touch with the real world that the choices they offer (what they expose kids to) is for the most part useless (unless of course they wish to be professors or researchers.)

The other options, the passions that we hope our kids will develop, are typically taken from a set of hobbies and are not about realistic opportunities in the real world. They should be passionate about getting a job someday.

In 1962, I chose computer science as my field of study. I didn’t know a thing about it, except it seemed to be something new that might matter, and being good at math (which I was) was supposed to be helpful. (It wasn’t.) Nevertheless I was able to find my passion within that field. 

I have found over the years that things that make me angry give me a passion to fix them. First I was angry that computers were so dumb, so I decided to try and fix them. I was angry that they didn’t understand English, so I worked on fixing that. And I was angry that they didn’t learn, so I worked on fixing that. 

Now I am angry that people don’t learn anything of value, so I work on that.

What is it that people don’t seem to be able to learn? For one thing they aren't able to make good parenting choices. (If parenting was or is your passion good luck with courses on that.)

  1. Stop helping your kids find their passion and listen to what they talk about. (My son talked about subways all the time, so I helped him work on learning how to do that for a living. He has done quite well at that. You could look him up.) 
  2. Start helping the school system change. Do this by letting your kid learn anything that seems like fun while asking constantly: how are you going to make a living from that?
  3. Don’t insist on college. Tell your kid to go to work for a few years and decide on college when they know what they want to do. After working in a real world job they might learn what makes them angry.
  4. Let your kids do something on their own. I sent my son out on the subway, or anywhere else he wanted to go when he was ten. I played on the streets when I was eight. Today’s parents would have me (or my parents) arrested for doing that. Good luck with your totally dependent children who need you to help them find their passion and who need you to expose them to things.

A simple maxim: don’t expose and don’t look for passions; just listen and make good suggestions

Friday, January 31, 2014

the old university system is dead -- time for a professional university

I once had lunch with a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. I asked him how it felt to be in charge of a fraudulent institution. He was shocked by the question, of course, but I continued. How many of the people who attend the University of Illinois do you think go there because they think they will get jobs upon graduation? He supposed that all of them did. I asked if they actually did job training at Illinois. He agreed that they didn't. I pointed out that most of the faculty there had never had jobs (except as professors) and might not know how to do any other jobs. He agreed.

I once suggested fixing this state of affairs while I was a professor at Yale. I discussed this with the President of Yale at the time, Bart Giammati. He replied that Yale didn't do training. But Yale does do training. Yale trains professors.

Universities were started as places for classical education for wealthy people. Typically they indeed had a large training component since they were usually religiously based and future religious leaders were expected to come out of these schools. Yale started as a divinity school and morphed into a school where the wealthy could hobnob with members of the their own class of people and then turn out to be the leaders of the country (who knew Latin and the classics.) Although most did go into business, business was never taught.

The world has changed in the sense that anyone with exceptionally good test scores and grades can get into Yale. But Yale hasn’t changed. One is still expected to study the classics and there are no programs for job training. Even the computer science department, of which I was part for 15 years, has no interest in training future programmers.

I am not criticizing Yale here actually. Most universities have copied the “training of intellectuals and professors model of education” and have disregarded the idea that future employment might be of major concern to students. Professors can do this because they are forced by no one to teach job skills. They don’t really know much about job skills in any case. The major focus of a professor at any research university is research. Teaching is low on their priority list and teaching job skills is far very from any real concern. So, economics departments teach theories of economics and not how to run a business, and law schools teach the theory of law and not how to be a lawyer, and medical schools teach the science of the human body but not how to be a doctor. Psychology focusses on how to run an experiment, when students really want to know why they are screwed up or why they can’t get along. Mathematics departments teach stuff that no one will ever use, and education departments forget to teach people how to teach.

Still we hear that everyone must go to college. Why?

It is time for a change.

I propose the creation of a Professional University. By this I mean a university that teaches only job skills. It would do this by creating simulations of the actual life of someone who works in a particular job. After a year or more living in a simulation of the life of an actual engineer, computer scientist, psychologist, business person, or health care professional, the graduate would actually be employable and would have a pretty good idea of whether they had made a good choice of profession. Creating these simulations is not that complicated. Small projects can lead  to larger projects that build upon what was learned in the earlier projects. Constant required deliverables with mentoring by faculty, not lectures. Students try to do things, and faculty are there to help.

The faculty in a professional university would be practitioners who had done it themselves. The students could come to campus or work on line. It makes no difference. Deliverables would not be given grades. If your business idea isn’t good, work harder on it. If your technological solution to something doesn’t work, keep working on it. Degrees would not be based upon an accumulation of credits and would have nothing to do with the time a student was in the program. The students would have to complete well specified tasks, and when they demonstrated they could actually do something they would move on to a more complicated task. If the students weren’t immediately employable, the programs would have to be modified until they were.

We can do this. It just takes money. Existing universities won’t help. They will be threatened by it. Yale can keep producing professors and intellectuals. But most countries in the world need way fewer professors than they need well educated functioning professionals.

Would graduates of the Professional University be able to speak, write, reason, and solve complex problems? Of course. Those skills would be built into every program.