Saturday, February 12, 2011

Half Baked Idea for School Reform Part III

The general theme of these last three posts is how we can get more adults involved in the education of our children. More expansively, we are all teachers, right? Or at least we should be, teaching and learning from each other. We should all, in some way, find ways to mentor and teach each other and especially our little ones.

At the company I work, they have recently emphasized the need to strengthen their employees because they feel the employee is among the company's most valuable resource. To that end, they implemented a fairly formal mentor/mentee program and I was encouraged to sign up to do both. Last week, I met my mentor for the first time - who, I'm a little embarrassed to say - is younger than me :-). But that's ok, we should be able to learn from anyone.

But he's also pretty impressive. He started out at my company from college, left for a couple of years to try his shot at a tech startup, and now he's back. He's constantly tinkering with new ideas, submits constantly to our "Lab Rats" - which is an in-company contest where employees submit ideas and prototypes for innovation within the company. He won once.

He gave me some really good advice in our mentoring session, invigorating advice. To that end, I want to get out my last idea for School Reform. In my last post, I used the current traditional school as the starting point for my reform. You have the current system of a relatively large-sized classrooms led by usually a single teacher. If we could get more teacher's aides into the classroom, preferably from the pool of parents, there's a greater opportunity to individualize the learning experience.

Now, I will come at the problem from the opposite spectrum. Let's take the home schooling model and modify it so that it could become a viable alternative to traditional schooling for more families. Here, in my opinion, are some problems with home schooling:

1) It takes a tremendous amount of effort from the parents. We have to come up with the curriculum; we have to prepare each day; we have to individually coax our kids (who are very experienced in opposing our best laid plans for them) into a rigorous school day; and we have to stay consistent day in and day out.

2) It's pretty expensive. Not only are we paying taxes to fund every one else's education, we are refusing societal help in teaching our own kids. We pay for all the books, the lessons, the instruments, the materials, not to mention the time.

3) Our kids lose out on opportunities to learn from a wider array of teachers and, most critically, from their peers. The ideal education is when we build up networks so that we can support each other. Nobody accomplishes anything worth doing by themselves. We need each other and we need to learn and to rely on one another. Home schooling makes this harder as we silo ourselves from others.

These critiques of home schooling can be overcome - we reach out to other home schooling families and have weekly coops. We have signed up for weekly home school PE. My kids are involved in choir, karate, and music with other kids. But its harder and as a result, most parents simply cannot or choose not to embark in it.

But, there's actually another model that's interesting, let's call it the Suzuki model that we're using to get our kids trained on their respective string musical instruments.

One day each week, my wife takes our kids to a lesson from a trained, experienced teacher in the instrument. The teacher gives our child an individual lesson. Actually, my son shares his lesson with his teacher's son who is the same age. My wife listens in on these lessons taking notes. Through the week, she practices with our children based on the material that was covered in the lesson. Additionally, there's a bi-monthly group class with other suzuki kids that provide more opportunities to get exposed to other children at the same level.

Why do we think that learning to master a musical instrument is any different than mastering math, or the English language?

I can easily imagine the classroom working in the same way Suzuki works:

1) You have a teacher (or set of teachers) skilled in child development: language, vocabulary, math, basic history. Really, elementary education seems to be more about child development than it does about being a subject matter expert. But these teachers should also be skilled at dealing with parents and families - almost taking on the role of a social worker.

2) The parent (or another suitable adult) takes their child (or set of children since you probably won't be able to get every parent engaged) to get individual or very small group instruction from the teacher on the relevant subjects - at least once per week, maybe more. And ends the session by assigning a weeks (or less depending on the frequency) worth of material to study and learn from.

3) The teacher tests their knowledge and introduces new material. The parent or adult takes notes.

4) Through the week the parent works with the child individually to make sure the child follows through on their studies.

This is exactly how music training works and the dedicated combination of both parent and child will almost certinaly lead the child to develop some suitable level of instrument mastery (based on the child's own passion for the instrument) over a number of years.

Not every child will excel at math or science or literature, but every child should have a well-rounded basic proficiency in these subjects. As the child gets older they can find their niche and develop mastery in their area of passion. In the meantime, they will be able to go on their own pace having the right amount of individual adult mentoring, and being able to access adult subject matter experts on a regular basis for feedback and assistance. Through the week, children could also have the opportunity to work with each other and learn from one another.

I'm not sure you need grades or formal tests necessarily. In the weekly session, the teacher would assess where the child was through an "oral exam" or by examining the child's work for the week - say the paper they wrote or the project they worked on - or an on the spot ungraded quiz. If the child is struggling, they slow down the progress and focus on it.

All of this happens in music lessons. Our children don't get to progress to the next, slightly harder piece, until they have mastered the current one. There are no grades or exams, but they have recitals.

It seems like this, to me is a much better model than our current one.


This paper talks about how the traditional school model has grown less efficient over the years. We're spending more money but have not gotten better results. Toward the end, they suggest looking at other models for inspiration, including home schooling and music lessons. Looks like this post is on the right track.

"The second step goes then to other learning systems, to explore what alternative visions of schooling are feasible. Talk of 'schools of the future' is too much in the realm of imagination, and bold visions are often hard for policymakers, educators, and parents to understand and support. In order to begin to consider dramatically different
production processes, such an investigation would examine various forms of organized learning routinely taking place outside public K–12 systems, and include:

  • Home schooling

  • Distance learning systems

  • Foreign language learning

  • Franchise tutoring programs

  • Summer content camps

  • Parent-paid instructional programs (music, swimming lessons, etc.)

  • Armed services training }Industry training/development

  • Apprentice programs

  • Education systems abroad"

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