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.


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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.





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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.


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Needed: More Learning in Context

trade-style learning

We often compare academic classroom learning against trade-style or on-the-job training. Most people consider classroom learning as more rigorous, more in-depth, and “higher”. Why do you think this is? Is it based on fact? Somehow, we perceive that “training” is just easier than “education.” It is more focused, it is specific to the job, and it doesn’t involve higher-order thinking.

But there is an alternative explanation that is rarely considered. Maybe on-the-job and trade-style learning is “easier” because our brains just learn better that way. What we perceive as easy, is really just better grasping of the learning into our memory structure.  This means that if we remove learning from the classroom and move it to a location — in context — of what we are learning, the learning will be less difficult.

Apprenticeship-style learning is learning in context. You can see the relevance of what you are learning, while you are learning it. After a while, you begin to see the big picture. You start to understand the big concepts in an area, after you have “seen” them over and over again, and you can apply them to new and unique situations. That is really what it means to be an expert in a field. You know the major concepts cold.

Wouldn’t it be nice to take a similar approach within education — and especially higher education. Our approach to higher education is to introduce the abstract concepts first. You go to college to learn the important concepts in a field — Supply vs. Demand, for example. Then you attempt to apply these abstract concepts within the real-world. This is a difficult process, and it can take many years to do so. It is also the reason that few people can go right from college to the workforce. They require an internship. They require “experience” in their field. This path to expertise can be just as difficult, or more so, than for those who learned the skills first and then progressed to understand the abstract concepts later.

One-way, or course, to learn in context is to give credit for working experiences, or independent or group projects that involve applying what’s learned to the real-world. But we haven’t done enough of this, and the reason is again, it is perceived as less difficult, less rigorous than if we did the work in a classroom. The problem with this bias is that if we need to get more people through higher education, we will need to find ways to make the learning “easier”. Who knows, we may be able to get many people to learn complex concepts if they are introduced in a contextual way first. It is something that needs to be explored as we move into our knowledge-based economy.

If we take more learning out of the classroom, and apply it to real-world scenarios, it can provide an entirely different way to learn, one that may be more enjoyable for more people. With 40% of college students dropping out, it is definitely time to explore alternatives in learning. Computers can also provide many options for contextual-style learning. You can learn through a simulation or a game, where you can see the concepts applied in real-world scenarios. Would anyone want to fly on an airplane with a pilot that only learned how to fly in a classroom? Of course not. Is flying “higher-learning.” There certainly are a lot of complex concepts related to aero-dynamics with flying, but learning how to fly is done best through practice and experience in the cockpit.

Let’s explore trade-style learning to a greater degree. It is how people have learned throughout the centuries, and it is very effective. Isn’t that what we want for all learners? — to learn effectively. By changing the model, we can change the learner’s mindset and motivation for learning. The time is now.



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Why is Education Front-Loaded?


How can we educationally prepare for a life and career that will be radically different than what we know now? If you prepare for something, doesn’t it follow that you have to know what you are preparing for so you can design your path to reach that outcome? Technology is turning the world of learning upside-down. Everything is changing so fast, that training and education for a tech-driven world is like trying to hit a moving target. Once you think you’ve got the fundamentals nailed down, everything alters again.

Then, does it really make sense to have our current model of learning that is “front loaded.” When we are young, we mostly go to school. We don’t work much, if at all. Later in life, it is directly the opposite. We go to work, but we rarely go to school or become more educated. Doesn’t this front-loaded model seem inadequate for today’s tech heavy world.

It didn’t used to be that way. Before the industrial revolution, people began to work immediately after “primary school” — anywhere from age 13 – 16. They worked at an apprenticeship, where they learned while doing. This provided a number of benefits. They began to work while they were still young, strong and highly motivated. And they could continue to improve on their skills over a lifetime — choosing to learn what was most important to them based on their experiences working. They could tailor their learning, so to speak, to meet the needs of their profession.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a similar model today? Instead of going to school for 12 grades, plus 4 years of college, and even more years of graduate school — you could work for a while, then return to school for a few years, then work again. It may seem difficult to do, but it could be done. And it could be done if we began to embrace the apprenticeship model and the 2-year degree. By completing a 2 year degree, with or without an apprenticeship, you can get your “feet wet” in the world of work at a young age. Then you could return to get another 2-year degree later, when you are more ready, more focused and more driven to achieve you goals.

With technology changing constantly, it is the person who continues to learn throughout their lives that will be able to keep up. Can our front-loaded education model meet this need for continuous learning? It is doubtful. There needs to be a new model. One that is more agile, more rapid and more able to change to meet the needs of an ever changing world.


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A Focus on Individuality in Learning.


What does it mean to be an individual? I think it really can be summed up as the components that make us who we are. And, it is very important to carefully define this term because it has such a massive impact on our lives — at school, at work, and even in our relationships.

But how can we define individuality in a way where we can meet people where they are; help them to become more successful in all the aspects of their lives? In many respects, within our working lives and in our relationship, we understand that people are different. If we are on a blind-date, our first inclination is to really get to know a person, find out their likes and dislikes, and to determine if we are interested in the same things or have a similar outlook on life. In the workplace, it is the same; a boss (or good boss) will try to understand their employees, realizing that they have both strengths and weaknesses and to help them perform at the best of their ability.

Why don’t we do this same process in learning and education? Why don’t we truly get to know learners, their likes and dislikes, their beliefs and behaviors? We do have nibbles of this effort with the “personalized learning” movement. It is a realization that students should proceed at their own pace. Rate is certainly something that can be varied to increase achievement for all, but what about the content itself? Should content be varied between learners? Or should everyone march through the same content until they all reach a similar level of mastery. This seems to be the focus of the current “Common Core of Standards” movement.

With Common Core, we can now eliminate phrases such as “I’m a math person.”, or “I love to read literature”, or “I want to experiment like a scientist.” We can replace them with “I’m three-quarters proficient in math, and I’m ninety-percent proficient in reading”. Can we understand ourselves as individuals from this process?. Can we identify our passions and abilities? I don’t think we can.

What’s more is whether this represents what we consider ourselves to be as Americans? Americans are the people who innovate, who can achieve after a background of failure, who can come from poverty and rise above others because of their motivation and hard work. In many parts of Europe they have a Caste system. The upper classes are highly educated and wealthy, while the lower classes are not. In America, it  had never been this black-and-white. Anyone could get ahead no matter what their educational background has been.

A focus on individuality needs to return to learning in this country. And how we do it is to realize that children K – 10th grade do need to learn similarly. Everyone has to learn basically how to read and write, do basic math and understand social studies and science. After grade 10, there should be individuality in learning. Let students set their own direction, based on their own passions and abilities. Everyone could take the GED test at age 16 to ensure that they have the basic knowledge and skills required in life. After that, everyone could be on their own, take the courses and the learning that interests them most. Only then can we return America to the land of opportunity for all, where anyone can rise up and succeed no matter what their background has been.


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Why Everyone Should Embrace Mentoring


One of my very favorite PBS documentaries was entitled: “Is School Enough?” and it ran in the fall of 2012. In this documentary, there was shown a number of exceptional student cases. One of these cases was Kate. Kate was a high achieving high school student, getting straight A’s. But she had a very strong passion in the area of Eastern-style meditation and healing. The problem was that she was spending so much time studying in this area that it was taking away from her schoolwork.

Her parents decided that perhaps she would do better in an on-line school — only to find out later, after she enrolled, that the on-line school required even more work than her previous brick-and-mortar school. So her parents finally decided to do what many would consider un-thinkable. They let her drop out of high school. This high-achieving, straight A student became a high school dropout.

But her education didn’t stop there. Kate found a mentor on-line and paid him to design a program for her. He told her what books to read, and what skills to develop. A couple of years later, Kate bought her own studio and is on track to pay off the mortgage in 10 years. In this regard, she may be more successful than many college graduates.

What exactly is mentoring? The best way to understand it is to compare it with the traditional educational model — students come in at a predetermined time, take their seats, and passively listen to an instructor. This traditional model comes to us from the Greeks, who believed that one highly knowledgeable person should stand in front of a group and tell that group what he or she thinks is most important for them to know.

But there is another lesser-known model, and it comes from the Hebrews. It is more like on-the-job training. It involves a one-on-one relationship with shared experiences. This model emphasizes that both the instructor and the learner are involved in what is being learned. Within this country, we associate this kind of learning with apprenticeships or trade-style learning. We often consider that only simple skills can be taught this way, but this is not the case. In fact, one-on-one learning can encompass any kind of content and may be the very best way to learn — as personal human tutoring and coaching have shown.

Our exceptional student Kate was unusual in that she knew exactly what she wanted to do at an early age. This is pretty rare. However, as we grow older and become more settled in our lives and careers, we increasingly do become aware of exactly what we need to learn to accomplish our personal goals.

So to keep up your learning throughout life, and to stay on top of today’s fast-changing technological society, be on the lookout for good mentors. Your relationship with the mentor may be as simple as that person pointing out materials or other resources that can benefit you. Or, the relationship may be more formal and structured with time spent together.

Simply trying to attend classes throughout your life will not meet your unique needs as an adult for learning. You will need to self-determine what is necessary for you to learn. Then, it’s a matter of finding a way to acquire that knowledge. Find a mentor. Find someone who can provide the personalized learning that you require. And conversely, be a mentor for others. Always be on the lookout for someone who can benefit from your skills. You’ll be happy you did it and be rewarded in the process.





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