PISA Scores reflect need for SOLE & Maker’s Schools

adults brainstorming

It seems old hat to repeat the same tired criticisms of American factory model education producing uninspired clerks who can do worksheets but lack the ability to think clearly. Now there’s another round of teeth gnashing and wailing; from the EdSurge Newsletter (#147):

Alarm bells went off this morning as the 2012 PISA scores came out. Asian countries–and cities–continued to top the charts, while the U.S. dropped from its 2009 rankings. Among peers from 65 participating countries, American students ranked 24th in reading (down one spot from 2009), 36th in math (down six), and 28th in science (down nine). U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called it a “picture of educational stagnation.” Other responses here from Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten. EdSurge’s Mary Jo Madda took a deeper dive into the 52-page report and writes Why America’s PISA performance may not be as dismal as some claim.

From the apologists to the reformers, everyone loves a tragedy as it provides a platform to publicly criticize problems with the old model.  But when pressed for solutions that will help our students rise from 48th place, sparse ideas emerge.  In its November 2013 issue WIRED Magazine highlights the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak landscape of mediocrity.  Nevertheless, an innovator who I have been following for quite some time is shaking things up for the global rural poor.

As part of my dissertation (Being-In-The-Web) I did extensive work on the power of open source solutions to promote democracy and education as a counterweight to the concentration of power in fewer global plutocratic circles.  It was during that research that I encountered the work of Sugata Mitra via “The Hole In The Wall Project.”   With a 2013 TED grant Mitra is again redesigning the frontiers of educational access and introducing organic pedagogy to a wider audience:

The School In The Cloud: Trailer from Docs & Pieces on Vimeo.

The School In the Cloud and the maker movement are a natural fit.  Imagine a school with the technology to create prototypes, iterate additional ideastudent-drivenon and one that provides a supportive environment where student driven learning is the norm rather than the exception. Imagine a school that welcomes the arts and humanities as an integral asset in creating sustainable futures for coming generations.  Imagine rich storytelling and creative science that provides useful data to the community.  That’s the philosophy behind the Maker’s School Project.

The way it’s going: Education of the future now!

After 17 years of teaching in varied higher ed environments, I am firmly convinced that “what is wrong with my students” reflects what is wrong with their K-12 experience.   I have been lucky enough to teach many creative, gifted and capable students along with a giant group of persons attending college because it is the logical next step after K-12.  Both groups are critical for our economic and sustainable future.  Neither group is inspired by their education, considering it a necessary drudgery that must be endured until they are credentialed enough to “get a job.”

The problem is not the students; it is our model.  It lacks real experiences and practicality in helping people prepare for the “designed future.” In order to engage students experientially at the university level, it is necessary that they have independently driven learning experiences at the K-12 level to draw upon. Unfortunately, for all but a handful of my 12,000+ undergraduate students, pragmatic, experiential learning opportunities were either largely absent or too few in number to teach the skills necessary for independent learning and project management.

This is not an indictment of the already overburdened public education system, but a comment on the model that we seem unable, or unwilling, to change. Our public schools are still using the same teaching methodologies and philosophies that were part and parcel of the standardization of American education in the 1938-1960 era. Producing workers for an industrial economy dictates the practices that we are all familiar with as basic elements of formal education: factory-like social policies, uniform (quasi-military) style discipline, one-size-fits-all training and mass testing in order to rank the “candidates” for graduation.  We are preparing our children for a world that no longer exists. We are no longer in an industrial economy, but rather in a global, technology infused, specialized economy with strong industrial bases scattered about the planet.

The old pedagogic model requires a refurbishment, or tear-down, in order to experience renewal.  The dispiriting trend since the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, has been to further regiment and standardize curriculum at the expense of hands-on learning in the arts, crafts, humanities and liberal arts. There has also been a deliberate turn away from pragmatic design along with vocational/technical training, another symptom that we have become a culture of passive consumers rather than makers, innovators and doers.  Educating “passive consumers” rather than producers is the wrong direction for an economically healthy and sustainable future.  Significant regional and local implications will follow if we cannot remake the K-12 schools.

The following studio model offers a promising way forward. Please watch the entire 6 minute video in order to fully appreciate this worthwhile proposition for the transformation of education.

We Need SOLE: American Adults Failing Modern Literacy Standards

A new OECD report comparing American adults’ mathematical and technological literacy indicates that we do not stack up well against our global competitors.

The following chart was taken from the report and shows that American adults are not prepared to lead the way in creativity or innovation during the 21st century due to below average proficiency in mathematics and  problem solving employing technological solutions.

The implications are vast. According to the report:

“The median hourly wage of workers who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments in written texts is more than 60% higher than for workers who can, at best, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information. Those with low literacy skills are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed.”

For anyone who has spent time in an American classroom over the last 20 years, the information contained in this report is old news. With the increase in administrative requirements and quantitative methods of assessment, our overall ability to educate American children and promote adult literacy has fallen by the wayside. Instead we have opted for a two-tiered education system.

On the elite tier we have private day schools with student-teacher ratios of less than 15:1 where qualitative models of curriculum development, student led learning and holistic projects are the norm. In this system students produce portfolios/projects to show competency across a wide range of subject areas. They are guided by teachers who have diverse backgrounds in mathematics, literature, science and the arts to create meaningful learning experiences that cannot be easily measured on standardized tests. Nevertheless, these students generally outperform their counterparts on traditional measures of learning too.  Their ACT and SAT scores are significantly higher that those educated in steerage classrooms, the feed lots of contemporary education.   When students raised on the day school model enter college, they are ready to engage in research, pursue creative ideas, and occasionally, as the dot com era shows, start global companies that can change the world.

On the steerage tier small schools have teacher-student ratios of 25:1 in elementary school generally increasing to 35-40:1 by high school. As Sir Ken Robinson notes in his TED Talk students are turned into low-level clerical workers and spend years repeating the same redundant base literacy skills learned in elementary school throughout grades 7-12.  They take fragmented classes that last 45 minutes or less in large groups where student-teacher interaction is minimized. If students are lucky enough to encounter a creative teacher who can build assignments around projects/portfolios, they are very fortunate.

When students finish up in the steerage tier system, only 10-20% are ready to tackle even the most basic college assignments. A stunning 60% will require remediation in math and reading when they enter college. Still, many will manage to complete a bachelor’s degree and will earn significantly more than their counterparts who do not choose college and are not at all prepared for adult life.

Enter the SOLE Project:

The OECD report also shows that older adults have a significant knowledge gap in problem solving with technology versus their younger counterparts within a particular country.  Certainly the gap is attributable to the rapid advance of technology over the last 30 years.  While younger adults ages 25-34 have grown up on the web, their older counterparts ages 55+ have had to gradually adapt to an increasingly technological environment. The skill gap is significant and has dire implications for the economic well-being of both the Baby Boomer Generation (B. 1946-1964) and Generation X (B. 1965-1985).  Adults in both groups lacking technological skills have few options to participate in the 21st century economy and earn a living wage.

The solution to this problem is not to send older adults for retraining in the same dead schools that created the present situation. The American university is collapsing at the undergraduate level due to the deprofessionalization of academic teaching and the growth of administrative bloat. Neither community colleges nor overpriced for-profit vocational training can adequately address the skills gap. We need SOLE, if we are to prevent American adults from falling into dire poverty as  employment opportunities for low skill workers disappear.

SOLE stands for “self organized learning environment.” Learning environments based on the SOLE philosophy are needs based and student driven.  The SOLE philosophy is equally applicable for K-16 models too, but the entrenched interests that promote steerage tier practices are resistant to change and unlikely to loosen their grip given the profitability of the standardized assessment testing methods currently in place under NCLB.  At present only the wealthy enjoy the choice of enrolling their children in innovative day school environments or traditional rote learning academies.  For the rest, the steerage tier is the only option available.  Thus, for the survivors of third class education, we can offer a more engaging model with SOLE that allows the learners to investigate questions that are interesting and relevant for their lives.  Community based SOLE projects are needed if we are to increase skills in our neediest adult populations.

Some of the key characteristics of a SOLE environment are as follows:

  1. The learning environment is open and oriented toward problem-solving;
  2. Learners determine the methodologies and practices used to both investigate and propose ways to address the question at hand;
  3. Teachers are optional; SOLE environments are based on student led learning communities with teachers in the role of posing interesting questions for individuals/teams.  While teacher led environments may be more efficient, especially for those who are learning to use technology, the “grandmother” method seems to work equally as well to promote proficiency level skills.

Check out Sugata Mitra’s talk on SOLE environments from TED.com: