We need real education reform


There is much controversy surrounding Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. She is pro-education reform, but what does this really entail? She has advocated for charter schools and other private school options for students. Is this enough to fix all that is going wrong in public education? In my opinion, it is not. Private schools and even charter schools have been around for some time. While they have achieved some positive results, the net effects are still low.

For example, Betsy DeVos has helped implement many charter schools in Detroit. These schools outperform the nearby public schools, but Detroit still has some of the poorest performing schools in the entire nation. Is it enough to have only slightly better results?

Instead, we need true school choice. We don’t just need opportunities for students to study the same general academic subjects in a different school, but opportunities to study areas that are truly different. Apprenticeships are a great way to allow students to study different types of knowledge and skills, especially when they don’t plan to attend a university. It is well known fact within psychological research that people learn better in “context”. Nothing exemplifies the meaning of learning in context better than learning on the job.

Furthermore, the “problems” of education are pretty well known, but education reform efforts are not really addressing them. There is, of course, the drop-out problem. Will moving students from one school to another really going to prevent them from dropping out? Is a student’s experience at a new school going to be that much different that it will suddenly provide them with a love of learning and a desire to stay?

Another key problem, that is rarely addressed, is that students have to take a large amount of remedial coursework when they enroll in post-secondary education. This remedial work does not apply to their degree, but they still have to pay for it. Remedial work is the most common reason that students drop-out, leaving them with no degree but much debt. Is attending one school over another really going to instill that much more learning that students won’t need to take remedial coursework?

A final problem is cost. Education is simply too expensive. Public schools are constantly struggling for more funds, and there is a greater and greater need for post-secondary education which most people cannot afford.

All of these problems could be solved by giving students real choice in their final two years of high school. Apprenticeships are a great way to learn in context while also saving money in public education. Distance learning courses could also be provided in a potentially unlimited number of subjects. Students of like-minded interest and ability can be teamed up to view these courses and complete projects together. Along with community college courses and real projects in the community, the last two years of high school could have real choice. Remedial courses (or computerized learning of remedial coursework) could also be provided in the final two years of high school, so students will be completely ready for post-secondary education. Lets have true choice in education reform!

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life. Visit her site at www.learnthroughlife.com.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What is Intelligence?


Most people believe they know the meaning of the word “Intelligence” but, in fact, there is really no consensus on its true meaning. The accepted psychological definition of Intelligence is “that which intelligence tests measure”. This sounds circular, but it is the only definition that meets the validity and reliability requirements. It implies that whatever skills society determines as “intelligent”, then a test that accurately measures those skills will serve as an indicator of intelligence.

Let’s think about this for a moment. If societies can vary on what skills they consider  “intelligent”, then shouldn’t we begin to consider what those different skills might be? In the industrialized world, it had historically been verbal and mathematical skills that are deemed as most intelligent, and it is true that current intelligence tests mostly measure those abilities. But, we could question if there are other skills that could be considered as equally “intelligent”?

This discussion also has a big impact on how we educate. If we consider that only verbal and mathematical abilities are the most important, then schools should focus primarily on those skills, which is mostly the case now. However, if we determine that other skills, perhaps those now considered “vocational” are equally important skills, then education should be expanded to cover those additional skills.

It is an important point to consider because our world of work is greatly changing. Technology skills are becoming more and more important, yet they are still considered as subservient to our original skills of math, reading and writing. We have a new education secretary coming into the Trump administration who advocates for school “choice”. But school choice is really just trying to find the best school that teaches the same three Rs. It does not advocate allowing people to choose different subjects or skills to learn.

Perhaps we should begin to consider expanding our definition of intelligence past the three Rs. As Americans, we had always had many paths to achievement. You would hear stories such as “I dropped out of college and then I starting working at a restaurant. Now I’m head chef and I love it.” You don’t hear as many of those stories anymore, and it seems like success is only determined by completing a college degree.

We should allow true school choice that is based more on a person’s individual passions and the needs of society. How about letting the last two years of high school be a true choice based system with Educational Savings Accounts that can let a person direct money to learning the skills they are most interested in. We are probably not ready to focus on anything but the three Rs in the lower grades, but the upper grades could easily have more choice incorporated. Then we could be sure that we are truly creating the most “intelligent” citizens for our society.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life. Visit her site at www.learnthroughlife.com.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We’re all adult learners now!


I’ve worked in business and industry for over 20 years writing technical documentation and training materials. All of this has made me reflect on how truly different learning is in the workplace as compared to how learning occurs in schools. Because of this, schools leave many people unprepared for the kind of learning that is required in adulthood.

Training within business and industry is very specific. Training designers look at the characteristics of each learner group and then design the training to meet their specific needs. A group of engineers would not be trained in the same way as a group of factory-line operators because they have very different backgrounds and needs for the training. Training has always been a necessity within business and industry, but it is very expensive, and the amount of learning required — with more and more technology developed everyday — is growing exponentially.

This made me think even more about the fact that increasingly, people are going to have to take control of their own learning. The employer is going to take and less of a role in determining and providing training for the employees. It will be the employees themselves that will need to determine and complete the learning that is best for them — in order to keep up and remain competitive.

Students really need to begin to learn how to be adult learners. The process should start and high school and it requires that students take some control over their own learning. It also needs to utilize technology because technology is increasingly going to paly a larger role in how information is transmitted and received in the future.

Sharing the opinion of many other countries, I believe that formal education should begin to slow down and even end by the age of 15 or 16. At this point, students should begin to determine for themselves what is important for them. If they are planning on attending a formal university, they may continue in a standard academic route. But if college is not a good fit, there should be other options. Only this way can they determine where their interests and abilities lie, and begin the process of developing and continuing to develop those interests and abilities throughout life.

Technology can definitely play a part in this process. It can provide a useful “scaffolding” or integration of adult learning methods. Once students become familiar with choosing different applications, such as self-paced tutorials or distance learning courses, they can begin to direct more of their own learning, and they will be on their way to preparing for a life of continuous learning.


Posted in Adult Education, learning with technology | Leave a comment

How we Learn in Three Ways


Did you know that the brain has three distinct memory types — Semantic, Episodic, and Procedural memories? It’s an important point because the way we teach and learn has always been focused primarily on catering to one memory type — Semantic memory or memory for knowledge. Acquiring knowledge has always been seen as the holy grail of learning, but knowledge is abstract and is of little value when it isn’t associated with related experiences and skills.

And with the world changing so radically, is sitting within a classroom, memorizing facts and concepts, and taking tests on our retention of knowledge going to suffice for all of the learning that we need to obtain throughout our lives? It is not. We need other ways to learn, and technology can provide those other ways.

Experiences, or what is contained in Episodic memories, provide the important context for learning. If you learn about some knowledge, say about the Holocaust, and then visit the Holocaust museum, you are going to solidify the knowledge of the Holocaust so much more than if you didn’t have the museum experience. Visual and other memories gained through the senses are the most powerful memories we have.

It is why you remember exactly what you were doing when you heard about the terrorist attacks of 9/11 more than you can remember any specific facts about the event. But while it is not always possible to experience an actual event, like going to a museum, it is much more possible to experience events through technology, such as visiting a virtual museum, or even playing a game. Games like Sim City, where you experience the activity of building a city, can be a very powerful learning experience.

Technology can also better help direct learning to our Procedural Memories — or memory for skills. You can’t really learn skills, you can only practice them until they become “automated”, which means that you can perform the skill without an conscious thought. Skill learning means memorizing a series of steps, like when you learn how to ride a bike. Once you have automated those skills, you can jump on and ride a bike for the rest of your life with little conscious thought.

With technology such as Simulations, you can practice any number of skills until you have automated them. This can help a great deal with preparing us for jobs in our increasingly automated workplaces. Once you have learned a skill, you can receive a certificate or “badge” for reaching a certain level of proficiency. These skill-based badges can greatly enhance any knowledge that you have already gained in your field. It is the same way that pilots practice with flight simulators so they can automate their skill of flying through many different weather or other potentially dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, skill-based learning has always been down-graded to “vocational education”, and that is something that most definitely needs to change.

Knowledge is important, but so are skills and experiences. Though not as easily learned in a classroom, acquiring more skill and experience-based learning in our lives can greatly enhance the knowledge we have, and make it more possible for us to apply the knowledge within the context and work-requirements of our lives.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life. Visit her site at www.learnthroughlife.com.






Posted in Adult Education, learning with technology, Public Education | Leave a comment

A Grand Bargain for Education!


Education reform is always on my mind — mostly because it is such an important issue. It may be the most important issue our country faces right now. How can we educate a person for life, a very long life, a life that will encompass many future decades —  unknown and unpredictable decades.

I’ve said this before and I hope this message gets out, but I often feel like I’m throwing a bottle with a note in it out into the ocean, never to be heard from again. I think we can have a grand bargain. With a bargain, both sides can have what they want. It’s a win-win, a quid-pro-quo.

Who are the sides in this grand bargain? They are the educational traditionalists and the educational reformers, because in a lot of ways I think that both sides are right in their beliefs. The grand bargain would go something like this. We could have standardized and local control of school districts until the second year of high school. All students would complete similar coursework. School districts would have total control over their schools and be able to do whatever it takes to make sure kids stay at grade level — extra tutoring, computerized learning, accelerated courses, whatever it takes. Isn’t this really what the best schools do — they do whatever it takes to achieve great learning.

By age 16, we graduate everyone. This would eliminate the drop-out problem for good, because most everyone can make it to Sophomore year. Then we leave the next two years totally up to the student, with input by the community. Each student can receive a voucher for $20,000 — which is the average cost of educating a student in the public school system for two years. The student is free to “spend” that money on any educational opportunity he or she wants — perhaps it’s an apprenticeship, perhaps it’s advanced distance learning courses, or perhaps it’s the two final years of high school, with a sprinkling of community college courses, whatever.

Wouldn’t that be so empowering to lower income students to now have $20.000 to apply to their post-secondary schooling. Who wouldn’t want to continue on? It would be use it or lose it. Community members could also compete to get this money by providing apprenticeships or areas of study that would be useful to students in the areas.

This approach could be a grand bargain because it could please both the educational traditionalists and the educational reformers — traditional education until age 16, and vouchers with educational choice after that. America is the land of opportunity. We need an educational system that provides opportunity. We need choice in learning, but only when it is built on a consistent and stable foundation of common knowledge. It’s time for us to try something new. It’s time to break the status quo, but we need to retain the best of what traditional schools have always provided — the three R’s. Let business and industry have a say in the later years of high school of what is learned. Only then can we provide a well rounded citizen, educated but also possessing the skills that employers really need.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life. Visit her site at www.learnthroughlife.com.


Posted in learning with technology, Public Education, Technology | Leave a comment

The Educational Making of an Innovator

Steve Jobs

I wrote last time about the techniques of the One-Room school house — different ages learning in one room (at their own pace), one teacher with each student for his/her entire school career, and regular school stopping after 8th grade. With those ideas in mind, I’d like to tell the story of one successful innovator. I am reading Steve Job’s biography, and his educational background is quite interesting. It lends itself, I believe, to these principles I mentioned of the One-Room school house.

Steve was adopted. His real parents were graduate students, but his father was a Muslim, and didn’t think he could marry outside of the faith. His parents decided to give Steve up for adoption. But they had one criterion for the adoption agency — they wanted college educated parents. When the agency was unsuccessful in finding a couple like this, they settled for allowing him to be adopted by parents who promised to one day send him to college.

When Steve came toward the end of his elementary school years, it was becoming apparent that he was quite a bit smarter than most, including his parents. He had a great 4th grade teacher, who bribed him to do additional math problems with a giant lolli-pop and $5.00. He called her, Imogene “Teddy” Hill, one of the “saints of my life”. At the end of his 4th grade year, Teddy had Steve tested, and he tested in the mid-high school years. The school made the astounding proposal that he skip 2 grades so that he would remain interested and motivated in school, but he was a shy and socially awkward youth. His parent suggested he skip only one grade, but that still put him into middle school in a totally different neighborhood.

Steve started to get into trouble. He was pulling pranks and looked like he was headed for a life as a juvenile delinquent. Luckily he had great adults in his life that keep him in the right direction. His adopted father, who was a mechanic, often tinkered with cars in his garage during his spare time. He got Steve involved. His father believed in great craftsmanship, in that you do great work in whatever it is that you do. Steve really internalized this, and it was well known what a perfectionist he became, making sure his Apple computers were perfectly designed on the inside and out.

Steve was also lucky in that he lived in Southern California during the cold war years of the late 60s and early 70s. There were engineers up and down his block always taking on projects in their spare time, and getting very involved with the schools. They had electronics clubs and regularly gave presentations of what they were working on in the latest technologies. Steve developed some great relationships with these people and it introduced him to the potentials of technology.

When Steve graduated, he applied to only one college – Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which had a hippy culture that he liked. His parents had made a promise to pay for his college so they had to take on a lot of debt. Steve felt guilty about this, especially because he realized he was only interested in certain courses — those in technology and art. He dropped about out the college and audited the courses he wanted. The school permitted this because he was already a leader on campus.

So, what can be gained from learning about Steve Job’s educational background? The first idea is that, although young students need to learn the same basic information — the three R’s, they learn at different paces. However, in most cases, students will still do better when learning with students their own age, even if they are above or below them academically. With technology, we can have students learning at their own pace in one classroom. The second principle is that young adults do great when surrounded by caring, mentoring adults. We need to let students develop good productive relationships with adults, inside and outside of school. Unfortunately, schools these days are overly focused on test scores and achievement, rather than letting students find and explore areas of interest.

Lastly, the fact that school ended after 8th grade in the 1800s, should tell us that formal education does not have to go on throughout high school. Students should have choices — perhaps an apprenticeship, perhaps the ability to take courses of interest over the internet. We should explore these time-tested principles of the One-Room school house — there was no oversight or Department of Education in those days, but these schools were pretty good at producing well-rounded students that were ready for adult life.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life. Visit her site at www.learnthroughlife.com.





Posted in Individualized Learning, learning with technology, Public Education | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Bring Back the One-Room School House!

one-room school house

Long below there was a Department of Education, there was the one-room school house. According to the book: Why School – Reclaiming Education for All of Us, by Mike Rose:

The one-room school typically included first through eighth grade; ages and attendance varied widely, and class size ranged from half a dozen to forty or more. For all their variety, and given the minimal centralized regulation, – they epitomized local control – they were surprisingly uniform in their organization (young children in front, older in back), pedagogy (heavy on memorization, drill and recitation), and curriculum: reading, writing (grammar, spelling, penmanship, arithmetic, U.S. history, physiology, geography).

What is interesting to me is how similar these schools were even though they were not centralized or regulated in any way. That should tell us, intuitively, that these schools taught what was truly needed. Have we gotten away from the common sense purpose of school? What is it that students really need to know? According to Mike Rose, education is “what the culture deems important enough to support and organize.”

But who is the culture in this regard? It consists of the people in the community. These are the people who will directly utilize the services — the learning — done in the schools, so they should be the ones to determine what is taught and learned. And that, I believe, is why a country-wide standardized learning curriculum can be detrimental to the culture at large.

The quote noted that schools were uniform from the first though the eighth grade. Isn’t that really what we all believe all schools should be like. They should deliver the same basic knowledge and skills to all children. This seems like standardization but it’s really common sense. All citizens in a country need to have the knowledge and skills that are important for living successfully in that country. However, there are also different ages within one classroom. There are no grade levels, just differently aged students learning at their own level and at their own pace. A teacher is there to guide and monitor their progress, which consisted mostly of drill and practice.

What happens after grade 8? Does school continue? Usually the learning transforms to on-the-job learning. What can be gained from this fact? It is that students are capable of determining what is best for them at that point — age 15-16, or late adolescence. And they should have a choice, a choice about how they want to continue their education. What about ending school after Sophomore year — it would eliminate the drop-out rate — and then letting students determine how they can learn best. Maybe they can learn best through an apprenticeship, rather than a typical school.

And what about the notion of the one-room school? Certainly it could be done through computerized learning. One teacher could monitor the work of all students proceeding at their own pace through an individualized program. What’s old could be new again. Common sense led to the formation of the one-room school house so it could best support the people who lived in the community. We could do it again, if we regain local control and let the people in the community decide what is important.


Posted in Individualized Learning, learning with technology, Public Education | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment