This is my third and (I hope) last column in a series on education. If things work as planned this is where I’ll make some broad generalizations that piss-off a lot of people, incite a small riot in the comments section, after which we’ll all feel better and switch to discussing the Facebook IPO. So let’s get to it. I believe that education is broken in the U.S. and probably everywhere else, that it is incapable of fixing itself, and our only significant hope is to be found in the wisdom of Sharon Osbourne.
These conclusions are based on my experiences as a teacher, a parent, on the content of those two previous columns, one visit to OzzFest, and on my having this week read a couple books:
The Learning Edge: what technology can do to educate all children, by Alan Bain and Mark E. Weston.
Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools, by Roger Schank.
The first book was a pain to read as academic books often are. It’s like the writers think that making their work harder to read will make it be taken more seriously. So to save you the pain I’ll give you the short version: 1) computers haven’t helped much, if at all, in education despite our spending $8.6 billion per year on them just for schools; 2) they don’t work because teachers won’t use them and administrators don’t know how they should be used; 3) there is, however, a body of research beginning in the 1970s that says (that proves the authors maintain) it is possible to shift student performance (whatever that means — they never really explain) by two standard deviations in the good direction; 4) alas, this technique is too labor intensive to be practical, and 5) the authors have figured out how by using cool software a single teacher can achieve that two-sigma objective for an entire class.
These authors, one of whom works for Dell, talk a good game but their argument doesn’t work for me. They illustrate how poorly we use computers in education and why (it puts too much of a burden on the teachers who don’t really want computers and therefore don’t use them much), but the authors then lay out an entirely new way of doing things that is an even bigger burden on teachers, though the authors say it isn’t.
I say if it looks like a burden it probably is a burden, and even if it isn’t actually a burden nobody is going to stick around long enough to find that out just because it looks so bad going in. Worse still, there isn’t a single example in the book where the needle is actually shown to move more than 0.58 standard deviations, much less 2.0.
If this stuff works, then give examples that show it working.
But that’s not the worst of it. They spend several pages describing how an expert teacher at an elite private school uses these techniques to teach an elegant course in projectile motion — a course that is defined in the first sentence as being five weeks long. This teacher is a rock star and really has his mojo working, but there are two conditions that are left completely uncovered in the example — both conditions that I have experienced vicariously through my son Cole, age seven.
Condition #1 — Cole gets bored after the second week. This is a second grader who is reading on an 8th grade level. Keeping him focused after he’s run through it a few times is almost impossible. Yes, you can make him a tutor or a helper or even the teacher, but five weeks? Yet only by taking five weeks is all that laborious curriculum and software development justified for the teacher or the school.
Condition #2 — At some point in the elegant presentation, another child in the class grabs Cole by the crotch, or spits in his face, or humps him from behind, or calls him any number of hearty Anglo-Saxon slang terms we don’t allow in our house. A day or an hour pass and then it happens again — same child, same actions. It’s hard to put on a good show when the theater is burning down.
You might think condition #2 is rare but it has occurred (and continues to occur) in the classrooms of two out of my three sons. Yes, we’ve been to see the Principal. This is a good public school with well intentioned teachers and administration, but the district doesn’t believe in taking disruptive children out of regular classes unless they are proved to consistently (dozens of times) act in a manner that physically endangers their schoolmates. None of those actions I described are considered dangerous, though they contribute to Cole’s reluctance many days to go to school.
Computers have nothing to do with this, but the graceful works of computer-assisted academic art described by Bain and Weston won’t survive such outbursts. Theirs is a Utopian vision and Utopia isn’t anywhere near Santa Rosa.
But my greatest criticism of this approach is that — even if it worked — it takes too long to accomplish anything. Yes, teachers don’t like computers, so we have to somehow replace teachers who don’t with teachers who do and that’s going to take, what, 20 years? Education researchers can think 20 years in the future but I’m fixated on next year. No make that this year.
In this sense I, as a parent, approach the problem like any modern CEO would, thinking a quarter or a year ahead and looking for measurable improvements in that time.
The second book was better written and a lot more fun. The gist of it is this: school is bunk so stop teaching information and instead teach skills and how to learn. This is coming from a pretty famous professor of computer science, mind you, who admits that he hates teaching almost as much as he hated being a student.
Teach skills not stuff is an interesting idea. We teach stuff (information) because it is easy to test, not because it is more useful to know. If you look at the work of Sal Khan at the Khan Academy, his screencasts are all about how to do something. When my kids are learning how to do something, they can be entirely engaged for hours, even the five year old.
Many kids watch Khan lessons for fun. And Sal, quite wisely, gives no tests.
My conclusion, then, is that schools serve a limited social and cultural function but our kids mainly learn despite them. My own experience is that I learned a lot about learning from half a dozen teachers in my life, so those relationships are both rare and essential. But are they reliable enough to even justify modern schools? I don’t know. What I do know is that if I want to improve the educational environment for my children in the next year or two, I’ll probably have to come up with my own solutions.
Which brings me to Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzie. Sharon has, not surprisingly, a couple troubled kids in Jack and Kelly. Both have been in rehab, both dropped out of high school, yet both appear to have landed with successful careers. I’m sure it helps some to have wealthy parents. But I think Jack and Kelly have actually done better than we might expect given the raw materials they are built from.
I think Sharon very consciously two-sigma’d her kids right into their current lives.
The 1970s education research that showed a two-sigma improvement was even possible was conducted by a guy named Benjamin Bloom and the technique that worked was individual instruction. One teacher per student led consistently to a two-sigma improvement.
What educators have tried to do ever since is to find a way to achieve the two-sigma without requiring the one-to-one ratio. Sharon Osbourne, on the other hand, simply created in her own way that one-to-one relationship for her children.
Watch old episodes of The Osbournes on Hulu and you’ll notice the kids are never alone. There is always a friend — slightly older, definitely smarter, and marginally cooler — for each kid. Over the course of several episodes it becomes clear that these aren’t friends at all but employees functioning in the role of friend.
We’re about at the point where technology, best exemplified by Apple’s Siri digital assistant, can go quite a way toward providing through electrons much of what Sharon Osbourne bought for her kids with blood and treasure. Imagine a device, a Bluetooth friend in the cloud with whom your kid could converse, ask questions, laugh, be monitored and advised.
“I’m sorry, Dave, but you’ve had too many beers, I can’t let you start the car…”
It’s not a substitute for school but a whole new category of educational device. It’s not a person, it’s both better and worse. It would work in my kids‘ interest but for me. And I know my kids, at least, would embrace it. Heck, Fallon (age five) carries with him much of the time a stuffed killer whale toy named Fifi.
Time to teach Fifi to talk.