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Engage Learners with A “Do Something” Curriculum

This is cross posted at “The Innovative Educator”

The Innovative Educator’s popular post “Fix Boring Schools, Not Kids Who Are Bored” struck a cord with many readers. Add me to the list of bored, restless, and misbehaved children that fit in the educational system like a square peg in a round hole. In second grade, my school tried to hold me back for not being “developed” enough after consistent misbehavior.  As a result my mom took me to get some tests done and I tested into fourth grade. Weary of putting a scrawny ADHD dork into rooms full of boys three years larger my mom opted not to go this route.  By High School, I set a school record, but not the kind that makes a mother proud. By that time I wasn’t buying the whole scene. I got into punk rock and my record was for the most detentions served.  I was never engaged in school. My success as an adult, occurred despite, rather than because of my education. If not for reckless ambition following the onset of testosterone and political activism involved in the positive side of the punk rock subculture, I might have never reapplied myself.

The most irritating aspect about school for me was the focus on remembering fleeting knowledge.  The curriculum was content driven, and though there were some skills that came along the way – writing, mathematical, and analytical, – the daily practice of schools was in the  “do homework/take the test,” kind of vein.  I wanted dramatically to learn TO DO SOMETHING.

Even then, when the internet was still in its infancy, it was clear to me that content knowledge was almost always something you could look up and master quickly when needed, but that to learn to “do something” – to learn to produce good work, from scratch and of economic and social value – was what would be relevant in the world.

Today, I run an education focused start-up called Inigral in San Francisco.  Being an entrepreneur means having to immediately learn (and hire and support others in learning) a range of skills and procedures. I need people on board that can do things and/or throw themselves into something and learn full competency quickly.  Contract law, finance, design, product development, engineering, etc.  The world of work makes it painfully obvious that the school curriculum is not aligned to the world outside school.

Some people are fortunate to find programs where they can pick up these kind of skills in college, and there’s some validity that the core curriculum in part sets the basic platform for later economic contribution.  But, mainly, I see that people figure this out how to “do something” DESPITE the schooling system rather than because of it.  For example, in my own company our Chief Technology Officer taught himself software engineering in high school, and an intern I hired taught himself video production.

School can effectively prepare students if they don’t focus on “procedural knowledge” – the act of mastering and employing a skill to attain value.  School must start teaching that life is a series of new processes and skills you will have to master, therefore the operation of acquiring new skills is perhaps the most important skill of all.

Just as important is the ability to anticipate what kind of skills will be relevant, to adapt, and to proactively learn from them.  After all, the necessary skill set in the workforce transforms rapidly.

This is not a new idea.  We have seen trade-based courses and non-core electives that focus on skills.  We have also seen the rise of Project-Based Learning and other models of instruction.  However, I have yet to see a “do something” curriculum or school design. Somehow the American conversation on education actually devalues approaches without a singular focus on core content.  It’s that strange obsession that, I feel, has us barking up the wrong tree altogether.

School Reform Ideas and Michelle Rhee: Bankrupt on Big Ideas?

Well, I’ve been following this Michelle Rhee dictatorship for some time with much interest. With all the buzz lately – the article in the Atlantic and Time Magazine for instance – I figured I might lay down some commentary IMHO.

Michelle Rhee doesn’t have any ideas. At least she hasn’t revealed any yet. Or, most likely, the press doesn’t care enough to cover them. From what I see, her bold first move seems to be stuck in the bold first move phase.

With a long-run perspective, I’m interested in destroying the political structure that stifles school reform and allowing myriad beneficent dictatorships to bloom and comparing their results. In the short term, I’m remarkably skeptical until I see real Ideas (Ideas with a capital I) come out of DC.

Rolling heads and scaring the pants off everyone, generating resentment from most people you have to work with ( even with the applause of spectators ) isn’t an idea; it’s poor leadership and a hackneyed way to quickly get the allegiance of subordinates.

Leadership must invest in talent, must have a commitment to bringing in good talent, pushing out bad talent, and creating incentive structures that bring out the best in everyone. And in this, Michelle Rhee does have an operating principle that has been missing in education. One that, unfortunately, isn’t as revolutionary as people want to laud. Managers in the private sector have been complete champions in investing in talent, and the fact that it is so difficult to use this “must have” operating principle in more public sector services and institutions is deplorable. The fact that this operating principle has not been in use in public education is not an indicator of its revolutinonariness but is rather an indicator of a political system designed for stability and inclusion rather than efficiency and innovation. In the sense that Michelle Rhee wants to create a structure where leadership can invest in talent, I cheer Michelle Rhee on. If she has to do something with dramatic flare and uncompromising intimidation in order to shake up the system to get to where this operating principle becomes, well, an operating principle within our school system, I will be her fan boy.

The part where her lioness tactics come up short is twofold. First, dismissing hordes of people whose talent has been confined by the structures in which they work assumes that those individuals don’t have latent talent. I’ve worked with alongside hundreds of teachers, and for the most part they universally are committed and can be innovative when given the freedom and the wherewithal to do so. Second, axing people only generates allegiance when the entire community is given a coherent vision to work towards and each community member can clearly see their own role in the renaissance. Otherwise, it either quickly disintegrates into a disorderly herding of cats or behind the uncanny order is chronic dishonesty that leads to nice statistics but Great Leap Forward style mistakes.

My humble recommendations to Michelle Rhee:

1) Work with people to release their talent.
2) Publish a coherent vision with Big Ideas.

And, in case Michelle Rhee reads this, or in case you want to introduce me to her or anyone else going head first into school reform, I will list my Ideas below:

1) Scaffold skills and behaviors with more attention than academics. Once kids learn how to engage, the academic payoffs are gargantuan.
2) Streamline aligned multimedia content delivery and assessment, creating time for teachers to address real teaching and learning. Every teacher building content and assessments, stuck in continual delivery, is a complete inefficiency and wholly distracting.
3) Mandate comprehensive remediation using adaptive learning environments until every child is blue in the face or has the fundamentals to participate. Start this as soon as a child gets even a month behind. Children that don’t have the fundamentals ultimately hold back entire classrooms.
4) Build a schedule from scratch and alter building design around moments in the real lesson cycles: preview, delivery, reflection, assessment, content evaluation / activity modeling, monitored activity, individual activity, assessment, process evaluation. Hour or Two hour blocks provide no structure and make no sense.
5) Dramatically increase the number of hours engaged in school. All the data shows we lose them when they’re not in school.
6) Facilitate students relationships with authentic role models. Otherwise everyone can only imagine careers they see on TV.
7) Focus on health and fitness, the arts and creativity, and social, creative, and constructivist projects. It’s these totally neglected elements that create an environment for engagement.

I can go into more detail for anyone with the mind to chat.