Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fixing it All

In 2010, I posted a set of rules to fix our beloved U.S.A.. I have updated and amended some of them. Think before you reply, please. All thoughtful comments will be appreciated. Knee-jerk reactionism will cause a bat-winged demon to fly into your dreams and devour your soul.

Rule #1
Teaching Why instead of How
We are educating our kids in the worst way. We allow our children to be taught as if they are all developmentally the same. And, we allow them to be taught that the very worst thing they could ever be is wrong.
In any given lesson scenario, 20% of the kids in the class get it immediately. 20 % won’t get it without extended additional help. The remaining 60% get it by varying degrees. So why is it still permissible to teach them all in the same way? (Note: I have nothing other than my own observations to corroborate these numbers)
Sure, there are cognitive and developmental milestones that the state education system has identified as reasonable for a child to reach by certain ages, but that, too is part of the problem.
We teach our kids as if they are all just numbers. Student #1, student #2, etc. Any teacher worth their salt will tell you otherwise. Evaluating teachers based on test scores ignores this fundamental, developmental gap between children in any given class.
Here’s the model: A teacher stands before the board and teaches a subject. Examples are given and explored. “Everybody got it? Good. Here’s your homework. Do 20 of these problems. Bring it in tomorrow and we’ll see how many you got wrong.”
In order to prepare our kids for the world they will inherit, this model of churning out obedient workers needs to be destroyed. Utterly. In its place, we need to flip this model.
Here’s a new model: The teacher assigns for homework a video lesson. Kids watch it at home. Either on their computers, mobile devices, phones, or whatever. It can be checked out of the library. The parent groups can offer after school viewings. Whatever it takes in a particular environment. The next day, the worksheet that would have been homework in the old model is done in class, with better and more comprehensive instruction and interaction by the teacher.

The focus turns from right vs. wrong to understanding vs. working harder toward understanding. This puts the value of any lesson on why, instead of how. Valuing why over how is the basis for critical thinking, an absolute necessity for our kids’ education. Nothing else is acceptable.

Rule #2
Get over the industrial revolution. America's industrial revolution is over, and its the developing world's turn. This isn't a fairness thing, it's a natural occurrence. We have to continue to be the dream makers, the brilliant ones, who come up with not only the next big idea, but the next ten or twenty big ideas. And we can't do that by being halfway down the list when counting a nations' college graduates. We need to put more importance on math, science, language proficiency and how the creative arts enhance those skills. We need to put less emphasis on shit that doesn't matter. Football is fine, but it ain't gonna make us stronger as a country. Sure, it helps sell beer and tires, but that's about it as far as relevance goes.

Rule #3
Gasoline is five bucks a gallon for the next fifteen years. The oil companies get three, the government gets two. No flucuations in prices. There will be nothing but windmills and solar panels as far as the eye can see. Renewable energy tech takes huge amounts of capital to develop. Every time gas creeps up past, say, $3.25 or so, people get all uppity about it and start complaining. Then, they start talking about renewable energy. By the time our politicians get around to giving lip service to "how the American People feel", gas prices drop down. People get complacent again, and renewable energy discussions stay just that, discussions. No venture capitalist is going to sink a dime into a technology that people only care about during the summer and the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Now, before anyone starts screaming about Socialism vs. the free market, take a look. When it comes to oil prices, the free market doesn’t work. Speculators drive up the price of per-barrel oil, based on their hopes and fears. It isn’t a free market. It’s a market controlled by a handful of people. A handful of people determine the energy efficiency and viability of all of us. Call me crazy, but I'm just not ok with that.

Rule #4
Term Limits:
From dog catcher to Senator... two terms, that's it. Demand it.
Now, a very learned colleague has expressed that we already have term limits. Its called voting. If a particular elected official isn’t doing right by the electorate, we can vote them out. Excellent on paper, woefully failing in the real world. Voter apathy, political machinery and all the other insidious corruptions that surround elections have made this virtually meaningless. But, the biggest problem we face in elections is money. Big money. On both sides of the aisle, corporations control the purse strings, the ad buys and the messages from their media companies.
Public service shouldn’t be a career. Yes, one needs to work their way up the ladder from alderman to County Executive to State Senator to Congress. But term limits will go a long way to help ensure that votes are cast based on personal beliefs and less on party line politics.

Rule #5
Publicly Financed Elections.
A three month election cycle, and a mandatory spending limit for national elections would solve a myriad of problems. One, this model would do away with big money control of the candidates we elect. A three month election cycle would ensure that the candidates are clear and concise in their messages, and would do away with most of the farcical demagoguery that we endure in our current two-year campaign onslaught.
Enforcement and stopping people from gaming the system would be difficult, but there are some really smart people out there who could devise a way to make this happen. Let’s get on that, shall we?

Rule #6
$100,000.00 per day and five years in jail for anyone who hires an illegal, undocumented worker. Then, find a few high-profile offenders and make a media example of them. Ruin them completely. Sure, we'll have to pay three bucks for an orange, five bucks for a tomato, but hey, you want this problem fixed, right?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Art of Learning

Never in our history has it been more important to look forward. Children that started school this year will graduate from high school in 2025. While no one can accurately predict all of the changes that will take place between then and now, there seems to be a trend that one can easily extrapolate from a growing problem to a full-blown crises of culture.

We need a fundamental shift in thinking about how we teach our children. For many politicians, educators and pundits embroiled in the education debate, the whole of the issue begins and ends with testing. School districts want to lower costs? Cut teacher salaries. But how do we define where and upon whom those cuts are levied? We are told that standardized tests will evaluate a teacher's abilities to instill the curriculum into the students' heads. So, the logic goes, failing test scores mean failing teachers. Cut them. Simple, right? Not even close.

Any teacher will tell you that educating a child is to "teaching the test" like shooting a bullet is to throwing it. Yes, both bullets move forward, but with very different results.

The availabilty of raw data has created a clamor to put it to use, but, as often happens with a clamor of any kind, the noise it makes soon outdistances the logic that spawned it. The underlying danger of teaching to the test is one that the afore-mentioned experts seem often to avoid. By relying on test scores to determine the value of our children's education we, as parents, allow our kids to be literally saturated for twelve or thirteen years with the notion that the very worst thing they could ever be is wrong. This mindset virtually guarantees that we, as a culture, will produce citizens unable to create anything, adapt to anything or innovate in any meaningful way, ever.

It will be left to those few, those creative few, who have refused to let the innate creativity that all children possess be drummed out of them. Of course, they will be ostracized, ridiculed and marginalized throughout their school years. Only when they deliver some new innovation will they be lionized as free thinkers and rebels. Until then, they are the incorrigibles, sitting in the back, bored out of their minds.

The fix is nothing short of a cataclysmic overhaul of what we believe to be important. The recent shift in importance of science and mathematics in public education is a welcome relief, but it's only half of the story. A clear-headed view of the natural world as depicted by science and a grasp of the concepts of higher mathematics provide the building blocks for a strong, rational mind,but it is the creative arts that provide the mortar. Not only do school districts need to support the arts programs in their schools, but they must promote their importance to be on level with the hard realities of math and science, for only then can those abstract concepts and real world examples be fully understood through the prism of personal experience. That is, after all, how we as humans grasp any concept... through its reflection on our own experiences.

The freedom to explore color, to sound a sour note, to be simply wrong and to be encouraged to try again are essential parts of the learning process. In this case, our leaders must be forced to follow us, as parents must demand that the creative arts be seen as equally important in a child's education. Not simply programs to weather the austerity axe when it falls every other decade, but absolutely necessary to our nation's ability to move forward. They must be seen as no less important than biology, calculus and physics and in many ways essential for proper learning of those subjects. Math, science, history, (real history, not the whitewashed version... but that's another essay),literature, visual art, music. Every day. Equally important. Anything less is simply that... less. Less than our children need and deserve.

The end result is not to churn out a nation full of Andy Warhol wannabees or Diddy clones. The end result has to be a generation of innovative thinkers, who aren't afraid to be wrong a few times in order to get it right. In order to lead, in any capacity, as a nation in the 21st century, we need to change our perceptions of the importance of the arts in education.