Thursday, December 27, 2012

The One World Schoolhouse

As most of us will agree, "there is an enormous difference between bemoaning the state of education and actually doing something about it." As founder of the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit organization aimed at "changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere," educator Sal Khan indubitably falls into the sparsely populated actually-doing-something category! In his book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, he shares with us the story of how he embarked upon his remarkable expedition to transform education and his vision for the schoolhouse of tomorrow.
Book review: The One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan

It all started with him remotely tutoring a cousin using Yahoo! Doodle. Within a few years, the MIT and Harvard Business School graduate had quit his job as a hedge fund analyst, was living off his savings, and posting free video lessons to YouTube. Today the Khan Academy offers over of 3600 video lectures on varied topics that have been viewed over 200 million times worldwide!

Sal Khan is a proponent of mastery learning, the idea of which is to let each student becoming completely proficient in each topic before moving on to a more advanced one. Unfortunately that is not how the systems for standardized education in most countries today work:
  • Students are grouped into classes based on age. Since every individual learns at a different pace, this grouping is not only unnatural but leads to gaps in understanding which later pose challenges in the assimilation of more advanced concepts. What if this artificial delineation were to be removed and students allowed to progress at their own pace and to completely master each concept before moving on to the next one? 
  • The dominant mode of instruction is the so-called broadcast lecture, in which the students assume a passive role scribbling down notes. What if we had a self-paced learning program where brief 10-15 minute lectures and problem solving were interspersed round the school day instead of the drudgery of a long series of lectures followed by a mountain of a homework?
  • The general practice today is to group topics into separate courses. As a consequence of this artificial modularization, students are denied the chance to identify and appreciate the interdependence across modules. Quoting the author, "No concept is sealed off from other concepts. Knowledge is continuous; ideas flow." Not only does this compartmentalization hinder deep understanding of topics, they are also in conflict with our natural predisposition toward associative learning, which leads to effective consolidation, or conversion of short-term memories to long-term ones. The nifty knowledge maps that the Khan Academy offers not only provide the learner a big picture view but also reveal both the prerequisites for a topic as well as a list of advanced topics where the current level of mastery will be useful and relevant. What if the multi-age-group, self-paced, exercise-oriented classroom were at any point of time to be taught by multiple teachers? Crazy as it may sound, it is every bit feasible at least in a K-12 setting. Imagine a tutorial style class with say 100 students, where 3-4 teachers are around to answer questions and offer help solving exercise problems, while individual students make use online lectures and other standardized resources and progress at their own pace. 
  • Then of course there is the big question surrounding examinations: "do the standardized exams measure durable learning or just a knack for taking standardized exams?" With the tremendous emphasis on GPA, the focus tends to be on exam scores rather than on learning. Coming from a developing country, I can vouch that a sizable fraction of tests I took at the K-12 level merely assessed rote learning. Also no matter how well-designed a test, there will be preparatory content available to let students ace the tests instead of mastering the course contents. There is a difference between the two. And that difference appears more severe when we shift our focus from high scores to a passing score. The idea of an arbitrary threshold set as a passing grade allows students to move on to more advanced topics with flaky fundamentals thus promoting swiss cheese learning: "Though it seems solid from the outside, [their] education is full of holes." Finally, closely tied to the grade point culture is that of "cramming" the night before exams. Mastery emerges from the repeated recall of concepts during say solving exercise problems. The more we regurgitate and use what we learn, the more deep-seated the learning. And yet the horror of pre-exam cramming continues to flourish. However, in a self-paced mastery learning setup, where complete assimilation of each topic before moving on to the next one is guaranteed, letter grades would no longer bear any purport and can be eliminated altogether. 
Today's system for standardized education in most countries is largely modeled after the 19th century Prussian education system. The idea of tax-funded, mandatory primary education for everyone, irrespective of socioeconomic rank, was truly revolutionary. And yet:
The idea was not to produce independent thinkers, but to churn out loyal and tractable citizens who would learn the value of submitting to the authority of parents, teachers, church, and, ultimately, king... The standard classroom model offered boundless opportunities for political indoctrination.
This indoctrinating style of education is quite prevalent today, although less so in the United States, where creativity finds a more comfortable place in a culture where the spirit of entrepreneurship (along with its associated risks) are largely encouraged. 
I believe that the school of the future should be built around an updated version of the one-room schoolhouse. Kids of different ages should mix. Without the tyranny of the broadcast lecture and the one-size-fits-all curriculum, there is no reason this can’t be done. 
In today's Prussian-inspired learning system, "with its stiff whiskers, stiff hats, and stiff way of marching in lockstep," the beauty of what is taught often goes unappreciated.  
When Newton or Gauss explored mathematics that unlocked mysteries of their universe, their intent was to empower—and maybe inspire—humanity. The goals of Twain, Dickens, or Austen were similar: to deeply entertain while opening our eyes and minds. Neither the great mathematicians’ nor the great writers’ goal was to create tools of torture for high school or college students—but that is how many students have grown to view their work.
Of course there remains the longstanding question of whether being creative is something that can at all be taught to an individual. The author's take on this controversial question is: 
Whether or not creativity, still less genius, can be taught, it can certainly be squelched. And our current factory model of education seems perversely designed to do exactly that.
Agreed! So then what's the alternative? What should the schoolhouse of tomorrow look like?
I believe that the school of the future should be built around an updated version of the one-room schoolhouse. Kids of different ages should mix. Without the tyranny of the broadcast lecture and the one-size-fits-all curriculum, there is no reason this can’t be done. With self-paced learning established as the basic model, there’s no reason to lump kids by age, still less to “track” them based on perceived potential. The older or more advanced students become allies of the teacher by mentoring and tutoring the kids who are behind. Younger students benefit by having a range of role models, big brothers and big sisters. 
Sal proposes having multi-teacher classrooms with three or four teachers for a class of seventy-five to a hundred students. The system that he envisions is more akin to the apprentice system, where practical learning and problem solving is not only encouraged but is a part and parcel of the training process, whether it is by means of collaborative study or industrial internships. In this regard, he highlights the success of the University of Waterloo co-ops, where internships are built into the program itself.
I would group together as many as a hundred students of widely varying ages. They would seldom if ever all be doing the same thing at the same time. And while nooks and alcoves within this imagined school might be perfectly quiet for private study, other parts would be bustling with collaborative chatter.
In this classroom setting, teachers would be more like coaches, who represent what the student has chosen to do rather than has to do. More importantly the teachers would no longer be "forced to drag students along at a set pace in a system where assessments are used to label people rather than to help them master concepts that will be relevant in succeeding in a very competitive world." 
Most basically, since teaching is a complex and multifaceted job, and since no two people have the exact same set of strengths and weaknesses, a multiple-teacher arrangement would give each teacher the chance to focus on what he or she does best... Giving teachers more professional companionship and real-time peer support would make their work less stressful. As in almost every other field, teachers would now be able to observe and mentor each other.
In this system where the students accept responsibility for their own learning and set their own pace, andragogy, following Malcolm Knowles' adult learning model, rather than pedagogy would be the norm. Clearly Sal is a big proponent of embracing technology to make resources available to the masses. With his Indian-Bangladeshi roots, he is attuned to the heightened challenges of implementing his ideas in developed world.
In many rural areas, even the most basic prerequisites for education are often missing. Child malnutrition is a huge problem; it’s hard to learn on an empty stomach or with maladies that sap strength and concentration. 
There is a terrible shortage of teachers—and an even bigger shortage of those qualified to teach relatively advanced subjects like trigonometry or physics. Because of vast distances, bad roads, poor communications networks, and administrators who are lax, corrupt, or simply overwhelmed, there is virtually no oversight of school performance, or even teacher attendance. The World Bank estimates that 25 percent of teachers in government primary schools don’t come to work on any given day, and only 50 percent of those who do actually teach.
While technology has its costs, recorded lectures can be used repeatedly for the benefit of those located in remote areas that have a dearth of well-trained teachers. DVDs can be used where there is no access to the Internet. Personally, I love his model. But when I think of countries like my own (India), I feel a twinge of pessimism. In a country where government officials routinely siphon out allotted educational resources, where little kids are forced to steal and sell fixtures from government property to make enough for a mouthful, where free lunch is the only means to keep children in school and away from the vicious throes of child labor, can kids really take charge of their learning? Can the gadgets survive the corrupt officials responsible for distributing them and make it into the hands of those that really want to use them? That said, it is certainly reassuring to imagine that maybe a handful will still benefit from whatever little survives after trickling down the thick and varied layers of corruption! To end on an optimistic note, I am all in favor of complete refashioning of today's system following Sal's model. There will always be challenges. But surely with the vision of the one world schoolhouse, we will finally be looking in the right direction. To put it in Sal's own words:
The school I envision would embrace technology not for its own sake, but as a means to improve deep conceptual understanding, to make quality, relevant education far more portable, and—somewhat counterintuitively—to humanize the classroom.

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