Rote learning creates problems

If anybody asks Donald Norman about rote learning, this is what he would say, taken from The Design of Everyday Things:

Rote learning creates problems. First, because what is being learned is arbitrary, the learning is difficult: it can take considerable time and effort. Second, when a problem arises, the memorized sequence of actions gives no hint of what has gone wrong, no suggestion of what might be done to fix the problem. Although some things are appropriate to learn by rote (the letters of the alphabet, for example), most are not. Alas, it is still the dominant method of instruction in many school systems, and even for much adult training. This is how some people are taught to use computers, or to cook. It is how we have to learn to use some of the new (poorly designed) gadgets of our technology.

Most psychologists would argue that it is not really possible to learn arbitrary associations or sequences. Even where there appears to be no structure, people manufacture some artificial and usually rather unsatisfactory one, which is why the learning is so bad. For our purposes it does not matter whether arbitrary learning is impossible or simply very difficult, the end result is the same: it is not the best way to go, not if there is any choice in the matter. Thus, in teaching the alphabet, we try to make it into a tune, using the natural constraints of rhyme and rhythm to simplify the memory load. People who have learned to use computers or cook by rote are probably not very good. Since they do not understand the reasons for their actions, they must find tasks arbitrary and strange. When something goes wrong, they don’t know what to do (unless they’ve memorized solutions). Although rote learning is at times necessary or efficient–so that emergency procedures for things like high-speed military jet aircraft are handled quickly, automatically when the need arises–on the whole, it is most unsatisfactory.

Another EduCamp coming soon?

This week Jeff Shrager and I will be talking with a couple others that are interested in leading a new EduCamp event! Before, we were thinking it might be another year before we do another, but it be sooner than that. We’ll keep you posted.

Ability and desire

I was reading Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity and I found something so relevant to education I had to include it in my manifesto. All the case studies towards the end of the book were about redesigning large organizations. Like The Fifth Discipline, the book seems like a management book, but as a book based on systems theory, it’s about so much more.

Plus learning is a core principle of systems thinking.The bit I liked was about designing the learning dimension of the organization. It described the function and role of a learning system as reinvigorating the ability and desire of the members to satisfy their needs and desires both individually and collectively. How wonderfully put!

Very wisely, it includes not just ability, but desire as an equally important responsibility of learning systems. It continues, Ability without desire is impotent, just as desire without ability is sterile. How much of what we consider to be education concerns itself with desire as much as ability?

“Education isn’t the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” -WB Yeats

EduCamp Logo

EduCamp is coming up in about a week and we didn’t even have a logo! Well we put one together inspired by the logo for the New York EduCamp that happened a while back. Thanks to William Doane, the organizer of the NY EduCamp, for letting us use the logo. Here’s ours:

If you’re coming, but sure to register with EventBrite and then let your friends know on upcoming.org and Facebook. See you guys next week!

It’s just a class assignment

Today a friend of mine showed me a website design he was working on to get feedback on the design and the idea. It was a site to help people learn Reason, a popular software tool for music production. I told him I liked the idea and pointed out some of his design decisions I particularly liked. After I thought about it, I realized it would really get him ahead if he used a blogging tool like WordPress instead of doing this site from scratch with HTML and built the site on top of that. So I told him he should do this design as a WordPress theme. His response via IM:

eh i could
but its actually for class
: (

What does that mean? It means he would, but this is just a class assignment. I asked him if he really wanted to make this site, and he said definitely. All of a sudden I remembered so many class projects that I was really excited about either because it really interested me or because it allowed me to do it around something that really interested me. The thing about all those projects was that I was never satisfied with how they turned out, but because it was a class project made that okay.

In fact, if I took the opportunity to take something I was doing outside of class and do it as a class project, that would almost certainly kill the project.

I hated that dynamic of school. You only really have time to do things for class, but the things you do are never enough of what you would really want to do if it wasn’t for class. Then because it’s for class, you don’t really want to treat it like it was something you really wanted to do. Instead it’s reduced to what most schoolwork is: busywork.

Instead of making it a WordPress theme and getting his site started, my friend made a very sane rationalization that it would be more work and more to learn than it would be worth as a school project.

Greatness is not encouraged in school because greatness is relative, and that’s very hard to industrialize. You generally get the lowest common denominator. Not all schools suffer from this, it’s mostly K-12, but even many colleges suffer from this and they used to be the hope after K-12.

Compare this to what some of the educators are doing that use systems thinking as a foundation. I saw a talk by Jay Forrestor that mentioned how some K-12 classes are daring to do things that nobody else is. One example was a class that was redesigning the population policy of China, and they actually engaged the Chinese government to get real data to work with on this real problem. It was a thrilling experience for the kids to actually engage a foreign government to work on something real. In that context it would be a bit harder to look at it as “just a class assignment.”

Democratic Schools

There are an increasing number of schools, though still not all that many, that are based on the idea of democracy. In a country so enamored with democracy that we feel the need to impose it onto others, you would think there would be more schools built around this great thing. Sudbury Valley School founder Daniel Greenberg is one of the few that believes strongly enough in democratic education that he did just that.

He poses a good question. How can you expect a kid to know what democracy is when for 12 years or more they’re raised in an autocratic, fascist society?

The Sudbury democratic school has been used as the model for 40 other schools around the world. One of them, Fairhaven School of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, was featured in a documentary called Voices from the New American Schoolhouse. The trailer gives a glimpse at what the Sudbury model is like from the perspective of the kids attending.

Ackoff in education

The other day I broke down and installed Real Player to watch a video of Jay Forrester giving a quick talk on System Dynamics. I don’t know why, but I had assumed he was dead! He was born in 1918 and all his books were published before 1975, but apparently he’s still teaching at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Recently he’s been getting educators to use System Dynamics and systems thinking as the foundation of their curriculum. Very cool!

Then I realized I had seen some video lectures of Russ Ackoff that I couldn’t watch because I didn’t want to install Real Player, so I went and found them. Four hours of Russel Ackoff! Really fun stuff if you’re as into Ackoff’s work as I am. He told a lot of stories and covered a lot of his usual material in-depth. In the third hour he started getting into some of the work he did in Mantua, a ghetto of Philadelphia.

There were some great stories, including how he got an entire school that was suffering from illiteracy to become literate… by putting Charlie Chaplain silent films on in the auditorium that kids had the choice of leaving class for. A lot of what he does is like social engineering. There was also a story of a bunch of shops that were constantly broke into. Tenants would constantly move out because of it. What did Ackoff tell them to do? Hire the kids that were breaking in as a police force to protect the shops. Theft stopped immediately.

I decided to transcribe one of the stories about how he dealt with the gang problem in Mantua using education. He put on a program that they paid the gang leaders of Mantua to take, but let them decide the curriculum. They following is my personal transcription of the story:

There were 21 gangs in Mantua and the destruction was incredible. There was not only a lot of crime, but a number of kids killed in gang wars. There were 7 turfs and if a kid went into another turf without protection they would risk being killed. They came to us and said, “We’ve got to do something about the gangs.” The gangs were headed up by kids 17, 18, 19 year olds who were the real power brokers in the community. So we decided to open up a school for gang leaders.

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