Sunday, January 22, 2006

Rethinking Curriculum

In today's Courant, a commentary by Wick Sloane addresses many issues having to do with higher education yet touches on a number of issues that apply to high school policy and organization as well.

From: Higher Education Needs Cash, Vision - January 22, 2006 By WICK SLOANE

"...the very basic cost driver of higher education is the unexamined assumption that a degree must be four years worth of credits, which many students cannot complete even in five years.

This four-year model was developed in the 14th century at the University of Bologna. Part of the reason the curriculum took four years to impart was a shortage of books. That is no longer a problem, yet we still abide by this ancient model. Would we send an injured child today to a 14th-century hospital? Is that what we are doing in higher education?

What about innovation? The past 50 years have produced what scientists and educators call the cognitive revolution. What are the opportunities to use modern tools for learning?

Our daughter carries her language lab for Arabic with her in an iPod. Look at the new short books: "No-Nonsense Guides" or "A Very Short Introduction" to dozens of topics, from A - Ancient Philosophy to W - Wittgenstein, with stops at Darwin, Descartes, Shakespeare and Socrates. What about the Quick Study Bar Charts? At least the new dean of my Yale School of Management ought to be alarmed at how good that $4.95 "Management" guide is.

These tools are not a substitute for a great teacher. They are excellent sources on topics once available by the semester only. Can't they be used, under the direction of skilled teachers, to impart a high-quality education in less than four years?

Other than some intermittent efforts at online learning, I don't see any movement for change."


We are examining this very issue about our high school. That is, is the current organization and learning model the best way to educate our young citizens? The High-stakes Testing paradigm has long ago drowned out any real concern for the education of our young people in favor of magic metrics "accountability" games.

All policy makers these days are under great pressure to fix the educational crisis of the fleeting moment. So, every news article crying that a high school graduate can't balance a checkbook becomes an Arnold Swartznegger moment - TIME TO GET TOUGHER! (And tougher is never, ever tough enough - talk show afficiados can't press the "Inflict Pain" button often or hard enough).

So school boards have easy choices;

MORE Math! (or whatever)

MORE Accelerated Math taught by educational-NO-Nonsense, knock-you-out, serious-math-gorillas! (and, BTW, why aren't fetuses listening to banking tapes instead of Bach?)

EVER HIGHER EXPECTATIONS of students, over-worked parents, anybody willing to be the fall guy for the students perceived academic foibles (Expectations are the latest magic fix - all you have to do is say you're raising expectations and miracles happen - Jesus would be envious at how effective this is in educational rhetoric).

If we now require three years, why not four? five?

Or maybe we just invent a course that puts out the educational outrage of the moment - a checkbook course, a contract reading course, a manage your money course, and so on for every co-incidental minutia.

This is how it goes for the most part. Society confronts educators to show more muscle. But none of these solutions really address the fact that our kids aren't learning to learn and don't know how to think. Balancing checkbooks is addition and subtraction not the absence of more Calculus. And testing for addition and subtraction shows kids can add and subtract all right, or memorize vocabulary words, or whatever. But they're all unrelated test factoids. We have to get better at this.

We need to change the way we do education and we will. NCLB must be the first piece of loose, worthless baggage to get jettisoned.

More from the commentary...

"Also, if there are any Gallup-type surveys on what students want in education, I haven't seen them. Why do we know more about how much caffeine students want in what form each day than we do about learning preferences?"

Are we afraid that they're thinking despite school? Asking students is called respect. What a concept.

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