This BBC article about how online students have gravitated toward face-to-face “learning hubs” reminded me to the perhaps apocryphal story of how architects design walkways: instead of determining their placement in advance they wait to see where students walk and THEN put them in place.
Coursera, faced with high drop out rates, has subcontracted the operation of learning hubs to partner organizations who provide “…a place where students following Coursera online courses can come to study together and get help from mentors.” While anyone familiar with student learning could have told Coursera that most students would not thrive in a completely isolated independent learning environment, the fact that these hubs grew organically is a testament to the fact that an organization committed to disruption can modify its approach much more quickly and effectively than institutions like colleges and– yes– public schools can. Oh… and formal “learning hubs” are quickly being overtaken by self-organized “meet-ups”, as described in the BBC article:
As well as the more formal learning hubs, self-organised “meet-ups” for Coursera students have sprung up in more than 3,700 cities around the world, based around specific Coursera online courses.
For example, in London there are groups meeting in cafes at the British Library and the South Bank Centre. In Paris, there are meetings in the Pompidou Centre and in university buildings.
Meet-ups are held in a whole range of public places, where students want to discuss and debate these digital courses.
They’re scheduled and arranged online, with the only vital ingredients being a laptop, wi-fi and somewhere to talk.
From where I sit and write this… in the Howe Library in Hanover NH, this is the future of education.
I recently reblogged a lengthy post from blogger Bob Shepherd that dealt with the relationship between the CCSS and the big data, adding a dystopian overview based on the current trajectory of “schooling”. A very brief summary of his analysis: when publishers saw that open source course materials could undercut their business they decided to develop a uniform set of curriculum guidelines that would enable them to retain a stranglehold on the sales of curriculum materials. My comments envisioned a world where 20% of the students were home schooled or unschooled, 40% attended for-profit charters using some form of vouchers, and only 40% of the students remained in “government operated” schools. i concluded my dystopian outlook with this sentence: The likelihood of this trajectory increases as long as we define “good schooling” as “high test scores” based on age-based grade-level groupings… and for that reason we need to de-couple “schooling” from “testing”.
What would a Utopian future look like? I think that it is possible that open source advocates and progressive educators could develop a De-schooling platform that would enable students to progress at their own pace through learning materials that are readily available on-line. “Schools” would be replaced by “Community Learning Centers” where teacher/counselor/coaches would help students master fundamental reading and mathematical skills and help students find materials that interest them, compel reflective thinking, and foster intellectual growth. The Community Learning Centers would also house offices for public social service and health agencies and provide before and after “school” child care. Classrooms where students are efficiently batched by age and grade level would be replaced by ad hoc seminar rooms where teacher/counselor/coaches guide dialogues.
This kind of future might be possible for some students without public schools… well educated homeschooling parents have already created their own version of this utopian platform (without the health and social services) by pooling resources to rent space and create “learning centers” where their children are free to learn at their own pace. The parents of these students recognize the value and importance of divergent thinking, creativity, and dialogue and see that those elements of schooling are not valued in schools where testing dominates the environment. If we are not encouraging divergent and creative thinking we are leaving an entire portion of a generation behind… and at this point in time our mania with testing is doing just that.
Three posts from three different sources illustrate the emerging and irresistible trend of parents resisting the “reform” that is really “hyper-standardization”.
The first post, by Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker, “The Defiant Parents: Testing’s Discontents”, describes how the Brooklyn New School is supporting and assisting parents of 5th graders who want their children to be able to opt out of the standardized tests that are used to rank schools and, increasingly, rate teachers. The fifth grade social justice curriculum at the New School asked students to consider the question “What are we willing to stand up for?”… and seizing on that question the Principal invite parents to opt out of the mandated tests and instead take two 45 minute “alternative tests” that the NYC district administers. Mead describes the “…burgeoning opt-out movement, with parents, teachers, and administrators questioning the efficacy of the tests as they are currently administered, in measuring both the performance of teachers and the progress of students.” The post also provides an overview of the shenanigans of testing giant Pearson and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s derisive comments about “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—[find] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Mead’s synopsis of the opt-out movement is different from Duncan’s:
Parents in this year’s opt-out movement are standing up for something larger than their own child’s test-day happiness: the conviction that all children have better things to do with their days than fill in bubbles on a multiple-choice sheet, and that all children have better things to do with their heads than bang them against a table in despair.
“Owning Up to Being a Homeschool Parent”, the second post, is written by Jennifer Kulynych in the January 22 NYTimes Motherlode blog. Dismayed with the lack of challenge her daughter experienced in the public schools in NYC but unable to afford the pricy private schools, Kulynych describes her reluctant decision to homeschool her child. She was initially unwilling to acknowledge to her employer and co-workers that she was undertaking this role, and describes the daunting schedule she faced once she decided to homeschool, but on balance she found the experience extremely rewarding:
What bolsters my wavering confidence are my daughter, who begs to continue home schooling, and, surprisingly, how much fun we are having. Our educational collaboration transcends the mother-daughter conflicts of impending adolescence: Together we are co-conspirators in a counterculture adventure, eating our academic dessert first whenever we like.
Kulynych concludes with this paragraph, which succintly describes the expected expansion and anticipated result of Network Schooling:
… I can’t help thinking that there must be others like me: working professionals who, out of necessity, because the economics are so compelling, or simply for the fun of it, are home-schooling their children sotto voce, on the quiet. If we spoke up, maybe we would dispel the skepticism and the stigma. And we might argue we’re in the vanguard of educational progress: According to Wired magazine, researchers find that children make the greatest academic gains when we spend less time lecturing them and more time equipping them to teach themselves. Done right, that’s home schooling at its best.
The final link in this post comes from a post by Diane Ravitch on “Hackschooling”. Ravitch’s post included a link to this TEDx Talk by a 13-year old self-proclaimed “Hackschooler” from Nevada named Logan LaPlante. While LaPlante’s educational and life goal— to be happy and healthy— is probably unattainable, it is in the final analysis more worthy that that of Race to the Top or any outcome sought by, say, the Business Roundtable or the US Chamber of Commerce. Ravtich concluded that LaPlante’s talk
…is a plaintive and passionate protest against the factory model, industrial age in which he cram information and instructions and tests down the throats of bright young people and expect them to like it. They don’t.
Earlier in the post, though, Ravtich made a statement that I thought missed a larger point, and responded with this comment:
You write that this form of schooling “…is not for everyone, only for those who are very self-motivated, curious, energetic, and industrious…” but this is precisely what schools need to turn out for the jobs of the future. Our schools today are designed to squelch self-motivation, curiosity, and energy and we are surprised when students are not industrious. Kids like Logan know they can learn more looking at screens that interest them than they can by looking at books that prepare them for tests on the common core. Schools need to change the way they do business to encourage this kind of self-directed learning instead of insisting on batching students into age-based cohorts.
And here’s what’s REALLY perplexing: the business community that clamors for standardization in schools is simultaneously clamoring for “self-motivated, curious, energetic and industrious” workers. What’s wrong with this picture?
I believe the testing regimen will soon be behind us, and the factory model of schooling might not be far behind. Once parents like those in the Brooklyn New School, like Jennifer Kulynych, and like Logan LaPlante’s leave the reservation it will be hard to get them back… and easy for them to find disillusioned kindred spirits in the ranks of public education. Here’s hoping that those students remaining in public education have an opportunity to seek happiness and health.