Don’t reform education, redesign

Reinventing High School was topic of an editorial yesterday in the New York Times. The piece praised various efforts to change the current system of secondary education. As they pointed out:

The American high school is a big part of the problem. Developed a century ago, the standard factory-style high school was conceived as a combination holding area and sorting device that would send roughly one-fifth of its students on to college while moving the rest directly into low-skill jobs. It has no tools to rescue the students who arrive unable to read at grade level but are in need of the academic grounding that will qualify them for 21st-century employment.

The editorial discussed a number of ideas to improve high schools, ending with a focus on teacher training.

No matter how hard localities try, the best-designed high schools in the world will still fail unless the states and the federal government finally bite the bullet on teacher training. That means doing what it takes to remake the teacher corps, even if it means withholding federal dollars from diploma mills pretending to be colleges of education, forcing out unqualified teachers and changing the age-old practice of funneling the least-prepared teachers into the weakest schools.

Teacher training is a key factor in improving schools. But, I would argue that the best trained teacher put back into an Industrial Age educational system will fail. The Times editorial was correct that the system was designed to provide minimally skilled workers for the factories: workers who had enough basic literacy and organizational disciple to fit in on the assembly line. Unfortunately, the worst schools now provide neither of these outcomes.
We need a re-design of the entire system stressing both the new skills needed for the intangible economy and the importance of continuous learning. Well-designed high schools can do this. There are some great examples in the report from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, “Learning for the 21st Century”. The report makes a strong case for re-design of the educational enterprise:

Today’s education system faces irrelevancy unless we bridge the gap between how student live and how they learn.

Key is understanding how people learn. The Partnership is not the only group undertaking such efforts. For example, the Federation of American Scientists is spearheading a Learning Federation to undertake fundamental research on learning science and technology. The Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO-IT) is seeking legislation to channel funds from auctions of unused, publicly-owned telecommunications spectrum into an educational trust fund that will help transform education, training and lifelong learning.
Many of these efforts seek greater use of information technology in the education process. I have some concerns about the potential over-reliance on technology as a fix to our educational problems. But more importantly, these projects are actively seeking a new model of education. To my mind, finding that model is key. We aren’t there yet. We still see education as something that most people do in childhood (roughtly from ages 5 to 18) and some do for a few more years in college.
We need to expand the view to one where education in childhood creates the foundation for learning that continues throughout a person’s life. Yes, we all agree at the level of rhetoric on this new view. But deep down, the practical understanding of what this means and the mechanisms for doing this are lacking. For example, we still measure the health of the educational system on how many people “finish” a certain degree program (8th grade, high school, college) – thereby reinforcing the notion that education is something to go through and be done with.
The educational process is still back in days of measuring fixed output, similar to when manufacturing measured quality at the output stage (how many errors) rather in the current processes of kaizen (continuous improvement – which, I am told, comes from the combination of the Japanese words Kai – school and Zen – wisdom). When we can develop a metric for how many people learned a new skill last year (or some such measure of kaizen – “school wisdom”), and measure our education system on these factors, then I will believe we have truly made the transition to a learning system for the intangible economy.

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Information denied: the case of evolution

The New York Times has a story this morning on the teaching of evolution that I find very disturbing. According to this report, biology teachers are routinely skipping over evolution for fear of “getting in trouble.”

Teaching guides and textbooks may meet the approval of biologists, but superintendents or principals discourage teachers from discussing it. Or teachers themselves avoid the topic, fearing protests from fundamentalists in their communities.

There is already concern that the United States is falling behind in math and science. So, what is our response: run and hide from one of the major scientific concepts.

Even where evolution is taught, teachers may be hesitant to give it full weight. Ron Bier, a biology teacher at Oberlin High School in Oberlin, Ohio, said that evolution underlies many of the central ideas of biology and that it is crucial for students to understand it. But he avoids controversy, he said, by teaching it not as “a unit,” but by introducing the concept here and there throughout the year. “I put out my little bits and pieces wherever I can,” he said.

All of this does not bode well for the US maintaining its position as the leading scientific nation. As the story points out:

These findings set the United States apart from all other industrialized nations, said Dr. Jon Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University, who has studied public attitudes toward science. Americans, he said, have been evenly divided for years on the question of evolution, with about 45 percent accepting it, 45 percent rejecting it and the rest undecided.
In other industrialized countries, Dr. Miller said, 80 percent or more typically accept evolution, most of the others say they are not sure and very few people reject the idea outright.
“In Japan, something like 96 percent accept evolution,” he said. Even in socially conservative, predominantly Catholic countries like Poland, perhaps 75 percent of people surveyed accept evolution, he said.

Nor is it simply biology:

But several experts say scientists are feeling increasing pressure to make their case, in part, Dr. Miller said, because scriptural literalists are moving beyond evolution to challenge the teaching of geology and physics on issues like the age of the earth and the origin of the universe.
“They have now decided the Big Bang has to be wrong,” he said. “There are now a lot of people who are insisting that that be called only a theory without evidence and so on, and now the physicists are getting mad about this.”

There is some good news, however. This is not necessarily a religious versus secular humanist fight. For example:

two popes, Pius XII in 1950 and John Paul II in 1996, have endorsed the idea that evolution and religion can coexist. “I have yet to meet a Catholic school teacher who skips evolution,” Dr. Scott [Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education] said.

Being a product of Catholic schools, I can vouch for that. But the fundamental concern remains: are we shooting ourselves in the foot? And, at some point, does the information society and intangible economy shut down because people don’t want ideas that conflict with their dogmas?