Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Wright Brothers - a guide to reforming education

‘The Wright Brothers,’ by David McCullough - The New York Times

‘The Wright Brothers,’ by David McCullough (New York Times #1 Bestseller) is one of the best books I've read this summer.

In very succinct fashion (unlike his previous abundant tomes), McCullough clearly outlines the benefits of an education centered around creativity, collaboration, communication (the members of the Wright family wrote considerably), personalized learning, problem-solving, and the desire to publish and make things. The story of the Wright Brothers is all of these and more.

If you haven't read it, you really should.  Every educator should.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Our Age-Based Grading Structure Weakens Learning

In Free to Learn, Peter Gray provides a strong indictment against our age-segregated systems of formal schooling.

Children learn by observing and interacting with other(s) (children) who are older and younger than they are....the segregation of children by age is an oddity -- I would say a tragic oddity -- of modern times.

Not until the large-scale expansion of compulsory, age-graded schooling, beginning about a hundred years ago in Western societies, were large numbers of children required to spend significant amounts of time in age-segregated settings.

Within the past three or four decades, in the United States and many other Westernized nations, the degree of age segregation imposed on children has increased further, to a startling degree.

The decline in the size of nuclear families, the weakening of extended family ties, fears about negative influences that older children might have on younger ones, the decline in free neighborhood play, the increased amounts of time spent at school, and the proliferation of after-school programs and other adult-directed, age-segregated activities for children have conspired to reduce greatly children's opportunities to get to know others who are several years older or younger than them. The graded school model has commandeered our culture's thought about childhood.  p. 182-184

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

When Children are Free to Play

The player is playing for fun; education is a by-product. If the player were playing for a serious purpose, it would no longer be play and much of the educative power would be lost.

...the child at play is not afraid of failure. The playing child feels free to try things out in a pretend world that would be too risky or impossible to try in the serious world.... Fear and concerns about evaluation tend to freeze the mind and body into rigid frames, suitable for carrying out well-learned habitual activities but not for learning or thinking about anything new.

Play is trivial, but not easy.  Much of the joy of play lies in the challenges.

When children are free to play, they play naturally at the ever-advancing edges of their mental or physical abilities.

Most forms of play involve repetition.

One of the defining characteristics of play is the focus on means rather than ends, and repetitiveness is a corollary of that characteristic. The player produces the same action repeatedly in order to get it right.

But the repetition is not rote. Because the repetition derives from the player's own will, each repetitive act is a creative act. ...the player is deliberately varying the act in some way to fit the game or to experiment with new ways of doing the same thing. A side effect of such repetition is the perfection and consolidation of the newly developing skill.

Free to Learn, Peter Gray, p. 154-5

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How Monitoring and Evaluation Kill Creativity and Learning

In Free to Learn, Peter Gray talks about the "playful state of mind" and how observation and evaluation have a "debilitating effect" on learning. He relies on a number of studies, some recent and some as far back as the early 1900s in developing his thesis (pp. 132-33):

When research subjects believe their performance is being observed and evaluated, those who are already skilled become better and those who are not so skilled become worse. The debilitating effects of being observed and evaluated have been found to be even greater for mental tasks, such as solving difficult math problems or generating good rebuttals to the views of classical philosophers, than they are for physical tasks such as shooting pool. When the task involves creative thought or the learning of a difficult skill, the presence of an observer or evaluator inhibits almost all participants. The higher the status of the evaluator, and the more consequential the evaluation, the greater the inhibition of learning.

Schools are presumably places for learning and practice, not for experts to show off. Yet, with their incessant monitoring and evaluation of students' performances, schools seem to be ideally designed to boost the performance of those who are already good and to interfere with learning. Those who have somehow already learned the school tasks, maybe at home, generally perform well in this setting, but those who haven't tend to flounder. Evaluation drives a wedge between those who already know how and those who don't, pushing the former up and the latter down. Evaluation has this pernicious effect because it produces a mind-set that is opposite from the playful state of mind, which is the ideal state for learning new skills, solving new problems, and engaging in all sorts of creative activities.

If you knew nothing more about the learning processes, how might Gray's points about observation and evaluation alter your view of they types of learning activities children need? What might you do different as your students walk in the classroom door this fall?