Hackschooling and the Woeful American Approach to Education

Hackschooling is a new term that proponents of democratic education are using to describe alternate modes of K-12 schooling.  For examples see the Sudbury Valley Day School or the best summary of the new approach as outlined by 13 year-old Logan LaPlante.  Logan gives me hope for the future, but most kids do not because they are trapped in our long dead public schools. Big thanks to Social Consciousness for posting this initially. 😎

Check out Logan’s TEDx talk and then think about similar 13 year olds that you know.

It is rare to meet an articulate 13 year old from the public school system, even more rare at the college level. After teaching for 17 years at the college level, I lament that those ever important K-12 years are lost as we imprison our kids in dead educational institutions.  Their fatal wound is most aptly characterized by two acronyms: NCLB and AYP, the stalwarts of American dysfunction in education.

Our schools are dead because we do not pursue best practices in curriculum design, individualized learning, technology or teacher recruitment/retention. We are so far behind the routine practices of the top ten countries that I doubt we will ever catch up. To be clear the top ten countries educate their children for creativity, happiness, innovation and proficiency in a wide-range of subjects. Think about this: 60-80% of American college students require remedial courses to teach material that was originally presented at the 6th grade level. In my own experience, American students were the least creative, poor critical thinkers and totally unprepared to perform well in college because of the lack of critical preparation in K-12 schools.

The problems are numerous. First, professionals creating curriculum in the United States lack a realistic understanding of learning research, best practices and individualized learning/assessment plans. Most have never taught in the classroom at all. Yet, these same individuals often have degrees in curriculum design with a total lack of teaching experience. That’s right; they never worked in a classroom and cannot fathom the myriad of learning styles and individuals that make up a learning community. They design content only without understanding how teachers, students and content work together.

The Finnish system seems ideal, if only someone in a position to influence American education had classroom experience, perhaps we too could implement a similar model. However, as long as we cling to “core curriculum,” deny teachers autonomy, trap students in classrooms where surviving until retirement is the sole motivator for teachers, then our kids are doomed to a third world future via the pursuit of below average mediocrity in education.

The point: we could be the best, but we have settled for “17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math on a respected exam known as the Programme for International Student Assessment. Also known as PISA. The test is given to a representative sample of 15-year-olds in participating developed countries every three years. In 2009, Finland’s students scored third in reading, sixth in math and second in science out of 65 countries that participated in the exam.”1

We are failing our kids miserably where real education counts.  The people to blame: not the teachers, but the administrators and politicians who have zero understanding of real education, but yet send their kids to private schools that resemble the Finnish model.

1 Richards, Erin. “Finland puts bar high for teachers, kids’ well-being” Journal Sentinel .  Published on November 26, 2011.  Accessed online April 23, 2013 @ http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/finland-puts-bar-high-for-teachers-kids-wellbeing-qa2tbfr-134546548.html

Open-source texts for K-12 @ Curriki

Since I’ve previously written about open source publishing and open access for scholarly resources,  I thought it would be interesting to follow a thread discussing open source curricula in the K-12 arena.  In an NYT article Ashlee Vance chronicles the slow adoption of open source resources explaining the trend as multi-faceted, and yet again, held up by the ridiculous preeminence of the California and Texas text approval processes.1 Since those processes are motivated purely by economic and political concerns rather than those having to do with sound pedagogical practices or the highest educational standards,  the California and Texas systems have warped the publishing of educational materials for the worse.  Nevertheless,  publishers and powerful school boards are loathe to cede ground and open source adoption in the U.S.  is moving at a snail’s pace.    The other components working against rapid development and deployment are:

  1. A lack of funding for infrastructure and expertise,
  2. Traditional publishers who have a tight grip on this $8-15 billion/year industry,
  3. Few assessment tools to measure the effectiveness of open source materials

Curriki is a company committed to addressing these concerns and linking the constituencies that have something to offer: open source content developers (e.g., retired teachers who write curricula), teachers willing to try open source materials in their classes to meet state standards for NCLB, and assessment developers who can create metrics and KPIs that will compare the performance of students who have used open source versus proprietary resources to master subject material.

I support the open source movement because it provides  access to materials for students who languish in classrooms that haven’t had the money for texts in the last 10-20 years.  It allows for rapid innovation of materials and an exchange between professionals to create a quality pool of  “best practices”  and  ready resources for teachers struggling to teach ever larger classes to perform on standardized evaluations.  Whether the last goal is desirable, is entirely beside the point insofar as legislation mandates that schools meet standards or else. The reality on the ground is that teachers are compelled to guarantee AYP (adequate yearly progress) and are often saddled with dated, inadequate curricula and resources that haven’t kept up with standards in technology.   Finally, K-12 open source delivers on one of the great promises of the Internet,  to democratize knowledge.

The significance of opening access to quality resources cannot be understated.  States with limited budgets are not  upgrading hardware, software or text resources during this recession.  Open source contributions provide a low-cost alternative with a constantly evolving pipeline of resources that can be accessed by anyone at any time.  Organizing the material is another matter, but the situation also offers  an advantage because instead of mandating lesson plans sequenced to the NCLB standards, teachers can exercise autonomy and tailor lesson plans/presentations to meet the needs of their students.   While  meeting NCLB standards and being creative should not be mutually exclusive, some low performing schools have been forced to adopt straightjacket approaches in order to satisfy policy makers, school boards, etc.  Teachers can often assess the needs of their students in weeks, but the curricula they have access to is  dated, ineffective,  and full of unresponsive presentations via texts that are bloated and wordy.  While some open source materials may share these undesirble attributes, the proliferation of open source resources should also provide lesson plans that are creative and engaging.

Finally, open source materials allow for the possibility of open exchange between educators and the organic establishment of  new materials arising from a best practices, expert rated community.  Materials submitted to Curriki are rated by professionals who teach the subjects in question.  Teachers know what works; those who have extensive experience are often in a good position to evaluate the design of curricula and its possibilities for delivering on the educational objectives identified.  Open source presentations can also be reverse engineered to specify pedagogic methods that either help/hinder student learning with the aim of refining the beneficial techniques.

For all of the above reasons and more,  I say three cheers for open source.

1 For the full NYT article, see Vance, Ashlee. $200 Textbook vs. Free. You Do the Math. New York Times, Sunday Edition.  2 August 2010, accessed @ http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/technology/01ping.html?ref=technology on 8/2/2010.

Web 3.0 Tools and the Semantic Web

General Agenda:

  1. Using the calendar contact functions & options in AIP e-mail
  2. Using open source web tools (e.g., Wikis, Blogs, Google’s gadgets: Docs, Notebook, Scholar & Adobe.com)
  3. Using Web 3.0 semantic web for enhancing classroom multimedia, networking and research (Ted Conferences, Twine, Twitter, iTunes, CurrentTV, Vimeo & You Tube)

Questions/Answers: 15 minutes

Semantic Web:

Web 3.0 is a term used to describe interactive/semantically organized applications that are used to generate/share content and connect users based on areas of mutual interest.  The founding web development organization defines it in the following way:

The Semantic Web provides a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries. It is a collaborative effort led by W3C with participation from a large number of researchers and industrial partners. It is based on the Resource Description Framework (RDF).”   (WC3)

Cloud Computing – ubiquitous data

This demonstration from the TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design Feb 2009) illustrates the concept of pairing the semantic web with always on technology.

Web 2.0/3.0 Interactive Ingredients/Tools:


  1. 2.0: Tools that allow for information sharing – open source web tools (e.g., Wikis, Blogs, Google’s gadgets: Docs, Notebook, Scholar & Adobe.com)
  2. Tools that allow us to interact in real-time/share information (Web 3.0 semantic web) for enhancing classroom multimedia, networking and research (Ted Conferences, Twine, Twitter, Monitter, Skype, iTunes, CurrentTV, Vimeo & You Tube)>