Sunday, January 25, 2009

Trust, Social Networking, and Modern Education

One of the more interesting trends in primate classification is the positive correlation between brain size and sociability. We humans have the biggest brains among our primate peers, and engage in some of the most complex social behavior studied. Because of the physiological tension between our upright, bipedal stature, the size of the pelvis, and the size of our brains, we're born into this world with virtually no ability to fend for ourselves. From our first breath, we are entrusted to our parents and other adults in our tribe to provide us with the progression from our base needs to our mental enlightenment.

Those of us in education likely choose this profession because we care to be involved in this most precious of processes: preparing the future generations of adults. In this regard, educators are somewhat parents-by-proxy in the realm of concept and skill; just as parents care for their biological progeny in order to assure their genetic representation in the future, teachers care for their students in order to assure the representation of particular memes in the future. In both cases, we find ourselves in the difficult case of needing to entrust a great deal of this process to others, but feeling wary of giving that trust, or too much of it, because of the stakes involved if mistakes are made.

In the process of education, or ensuring that concepts and skills are learned so that they are brought forward into the future, it is inherently difficult to measure outcomes and to answer the question: What has the student learned? Even more difficult is to ascertain the longevity of what has been learned - when we see the evidence of learning, how do we know whether or not we are witnessing the only point in that student's life that they will display this particular knowledge? Given this difficulty in measurement, it is even more difficult, I suspect, for educators to trust one another, to give up direct control of student learning and to be comfortable that another person's process and measurement skills are sufficient enough for that student to have learned the concept and/or skill that the teacher cares so much to have brought forward into the future. Even more difficult in this loss of control is the implicit trust in our school community that not being "good enough" or "the right fit" for a particular student's learning needs doesn't mean that the educator isn't good at their job.

But it is that very trust that we need in order to create the flexible educational systems that will maximize educational opportunities for all students. How can we build that trust? My experience in blogging (and commenting on others' blogs) and in joining Twitter over the last year leads me to think that these social networking technologies are a good start toward constructing trust. These technologies aren't just about finding new ideas and answering questions - they're about social networking, getting to know the people behind the shared knowledge. The more I know about other educators - their philosophies, their methods - the more comfortable I can become entrusting them with the education of students. And the more that I can entrust the education of students to others, the more opportunities my students have when the situation arises that they need a different solution than what I can provide. Together, building trust through social networking technology that connects us with colleagues from around the world, we can become the flexible system that our future success depends upon.

These thoughts have been inspired by a recent presentation at Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter, Maine, where I learned about the benefits that arise from trusting collaboration between employers, trainers, educators, and students - and the perils that exist when that trust is not established (for example, more than 20% of high-school drop-outs are unemployed). Maine is doing some great work bringing together these stakeholders, making some very thoughtful suggestions on how we can build an educational system that will best serve all our students in their work toward a high school diploma. Check it out:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Homework Research and Practice Time

As I near the end of Gladwell's "Outliers", I'm finding more discussion on the relationship between socioeconomic factors and practice time. One chapter discusses the importance of the rice farming culture in the light of the success in mathematics demonstrated in those same cultures, and another discusses the KIPP school movement's success in educating poor inner-city students by increasing the length of the school day and inspiring students to complete their many homework assignments. If there is a theme that Gladwell seems to return to again and again in his attempt to define the factors that influence greatness, it would certainly appear to be time spent in practice (and the environmental variables that influence ability and/or willingness to practice, such as sheer luck - like access to a multi-user mainframe computer in the late 1960s / early 1970s - and socioeconomic factors - like whether or not there are books at home for students to read over the summer).

The "10,000 hour rule", combined with even more examples of the power of practice, continues to strike me as existing in tension with the reduction of practice time inside and outside the classroom, such as memorization / repetition and homework. This seems especially true when we think about the brain, which for all of its incredible capacities, is not pre-fabricated to quickly or to easily acquire and work with the facts and skills we expect students to learn as a result of modern education. The choices that educational systems make with regard to how much time they expect students to be in practice with their learning - as well as the meaningfulness of that learning experience - must, then, be a result of the underlying philosophy of schools with regard to what learning is and whether or not that system's goal is to be able to produce mastery.

In my most recent post, I discussed my reservation about the movement of some schools to reduce or eliminate homework. This movement, according to the article, has been greatly influenced by the work of Alfie Kohn, author of "The Homework Myth" (2006). Clearly, this is a book that I need to read, so that I can better understand his argument. In my recent searching for commentary about Kohn's work, I found an article by Robert Marzano [PDF link] that addresses some of Kohn's claims. I found Marzano's repsonse interesting, because Marzano has a very different interpretation of the research on homework that Kohn uses to support his argument that homework should be reduced and/or eliminated.

While I must also admit that I haven't read the primary literature referenced by Kohn and Marzano, my bias at this point is to be skeptical about the idea that homework isn't effective at all. The normal school day and school year isn't long enough for students to achieve mastery of all the different topics that modern education demands they learn, and so time in practice outside of school is critically important. With that said, it is also clear that homework needs to be as individualized and meaningful as the time spent working in the classroom if it is to be valuable to, and therefore more likely to be attempted and/or completed by the student. There is a great deal of research on homework (for example, here's a search for 'homework' on ERIC), even beyond that cited by Marzano and/or Kohn. I hope we'll all take some time to look deeper into this issue; our thoughtful reflection on our practice will help us all to make the educational experience as beneficial as possible to our students.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Less-homework revolution...?

This morning I've come upon an interesting article in the Parenting & Family category on MSNBC called "The Less-Homework Revolution". Some parents of elementary and middle-school students are upset about the amount of homework assigned to their children. In the article an elementary school principal discusses her school's experiment to eliminate most homework, and claims that there have been no negative results in the classroom or on test scores. What's dismaying, though, is that conclusions are already being drawn even though the school is only in it's second year of this experiment. Furthermore, the conclusions are myopic: how will these kids fare later, when the concepts they need to develop rest upon their ability to quickly access and work with the fundamental concepts learned earlier in the educational stream? How will this affect the students' work ethic? Some of the anecdotes given in the article are certainly extreme - I do agree that it's hard to imagine an elementary student requiring four hours of homework on a regular basis, and I agree that homework competes in a skills ecosystem that also needs development in family and peer relationships that only come from time spent with family and time being social with friends. It seems, though, that a group of parents and educators are looking to throw the homework baby out with the bathwater, drawing hasty and myopic conclusions. A better choice, it would seem, is mentioned only briefly - a coordination of the amount of homework with the grade level of the student (though I'd be unsure that the relationship can stay linear, particularly in high school when concepts are many layers deep).

The lessining / elimination of homework is difficult to merge with, if not contradictory to, the concept discussed in my last post about the critical importance of time spent in practice in order to achieve mastery. That post is featured in today's edition of the Carnival of Education - check it out for lots of other thought-inspiring reading.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Practice in Learning in Practice

Over the past few months I've been working my way through Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works". The title is renders the book's premise self-explanatory - Pinker's goal is to review and comment on the existing research that supports modeling the mind as a modular biological computer that exists in it's current state as a result of natural selection. Having finally finished it a bit more than a week ago, I've started Malcolm Gladwell's newest work, "Outliers". This book focuses on the environmental and chance factors that are necessary for far-above-average humans to develop their particular skills.

Pinker's text is the kind of "tour de force" most of us would expect of a Harvard & former MIT professor, the type of book that I find best to consume in small chunks of 5 - 10 pages before I need to set it down to digest the information, and then only pick it back up after no less than a few hours so that I've had time to process. Gladwell's journalism background, I think, lends to consuming his writing in larger chunks, but I still find myself putting the book down and taking a break in order to think. As you might expect, when I think about the implications of the claims made in books like these, I tend to think about educational systems.

I'll leave the more detailed book reviews to others, encouraging all to read these books. The detail that emerges as common to both which bears specific mention, though, is the critical role that practice plays in the development of long-term skill. Pinker describes the formation of complex concepts as depending critically upon being able to work rapidly with the simpler components of those concepts, a process that requires lots of repitition. Gladwell introduces a similar line of reasoning in his argument, citing research showing that highly skilled athletes, academics, musicians, and other "outliers" share in common not only inherent skill, but incredible opportunities for time to practice and repitition. The research Gladwell cites claims that 10,000 hours of practice on a particular skill set is the "magic number" for greatness.

Though, of course, neither Gladwell or Pinker claim that practice is the only variable, I think it's worthwhile to note that it's an incredibly important one. It's particularly important to think about the role of practice and repitition in skill development because many recent movments in curriculum reform have reduced the role of rote memorization in the classroom, pointing toward the persistent availability of a huge amount of factoids through Internet-based resrouces. While it's true that we now have an incredible resource at our very fingertips allowing us to nearly-instantaneously access a mind-boggling amount of information, I also think it's important to acknowledge a fundamental assertion of Pinker's work: the brain/mind is a product of natural selection, a process that works over very long periods of time, and so the brain/mind we have is the one that was selected as the most successful for our ancestors who lived long before the Internet. If we reduce rote memorization in entirety from our toolbox of methods to promote student learning, we'll only make it less likely that students will be working toward Gladwell's "magic number" of 10,000 hours. What, then, is best practice in education if the long-term learning of complex concepts depends critically upon time spent in practice?