Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Designing Schools for the Present Age: Thoughts on a Recent Editorial by Bill Gates

In a recent editorial (speech), Microsoft founder Bill Gates demonstrated compellingly that our schools are failing both our children and our nation. These schools are "obsolete", because "they were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age" in which "you could train an adequate work force by sending only a small fraction of students to college...." By contrast, "Today, most jobs that pay enough to support a family require some post-secondary education." As a result, "We have to do away with the outdated idea that only some students need to be ready for college...." However, our schools, as currently designed, are not capable of rising to this challenge, because "even when they work exactly as designed [they] cannot teach our kids what they need to know."

We could not agree more. We commend Mr. Gates' for his efforts on behalf of our nation's students, and for his willingness to think "outside the box" in addressing their needs. We also believe that to achieve the kinds of educational results Mr. Gates desires, our society must collectively think outside several boxes in addition to the one he has so ably described. Based on our experience as physicians specializing in helping children with learning problems, we would like to offer several observations on what children in the present age "need to know", and what current brain science suggests about the best ways to help them acquire this knowledge.

Schools Must Prepare Very Different Children For Very Different Lives

We agree with Mr. Gates that our schools should prepare most children to attend college, so they can obtain the advanced skills they need to compete in the modern workplace. However, this does not imply that all students must be prepared for precisely the same thing. When students reach college, they will not all pursue the same course of studies, nor will they all train for the same careers. Despite out-of-major requirements, each student will eventually focus on a single discipline such as engineering, mathematics, physics, art, literature, accounting, management, music, education, history, law, biology, chemistry, sociology, medicine, etc. These courses differ markedly because they are preparing students for remarkably different careers. Even within a given major, different students often have considerable freedom to choose advanced classes in areas of special expertise and interest, with particular class formats and professors that appeal to them. How do they decide which classes and courses of study to pursue? Largely on the basis of personal interests and an assessment of their individual strengths.

The broad diversity of collegiate education provides a fitting preparation for the diversity of the workplace. Mr. Gates own company, Microsoft, is a fitting example of the contemporary workplace in that it employs individuals with enormously varied skills and talents: software engineers who write code for word processing and email programs, visual artists who make designs for Xbox, specialists in sales, marketing, publicity, customer services, management, personnel, human relations, building design and maintenance, corporate governance, and on and on. Obviously, building a company with top-notch workers in each of these positions is not simply a matter of hiring generically well-educated persons then plugging them into randomly selected positions. Individuals are carefully chosen for each position based on their training and aptitude, in accordance with what each position requires. Some persons who are remarkably well suited for one position would flounder in others. Yet these differences between workers didn't just into existence when they showed up to fill out job applications, or even when they began to pursue differentiated curricula in college. The aptitudes and abilities that made them well-suited for their present adult work were present to a remarkable extent early in life, and were caused by variations in individual learning styles and favored routes of information processing and uptake.

Despite the crucial nature of these individual differences to success in college and in the workforce--and an overwhelming abundance of evidence that children differ dramatically in the ways they are best able to learn and express information--our present K-12 educational system fails almost entirely to take such differences into account. Our present system is overwhelmingly built around auditory-verbal (lecture-based) instruction and handwritten verbal communication. Yet this approach is optimal for only a minority of students. For most it is sub-optimal, and for those with primarily visual, spatial, or hand-on learning styles, and oral or visual communication preferences, it can be a disaster. In many instances, children that are actually quite brilliant can suffer chronic academic underachievement and even failure because they learn and think in ways that are not well served by their educational environment. Often these thinking and learning styles are not "impairments" or "abnormalities" in an absolute sense, but inherited learning differences that for some tasks can have tremendous benefit. Our own clinical experience is illustrative.

Because our clinic is located in Seattle we see many of the children of Mr. Gates' employees. Often the supposed "learning problems" that make them poorly suited for the overwhelmingly verbal learning environments in their schools are manifestations of precisely the same visual and spatial reasoning styles that have made their parents so successful and creative in their professional lives. Such problems are entirely unnecessary.

The Schools We Need: Teaching Each Child The Way That Child Learns Best

If our primary and secondary schools are to prepare children so they can excel in college and in the workforce, they must be restructured to reflect the same diversity of thinking and learning styles that are reflected both in the diversity of the workplace and in the college curriculum. While it is important to maintain minimum standards for communication, critical thinking, and problem solving, we must also recognize that students can perform these functions in very different ways. Our educational system must be flexible enough so that each student can pursue excellence in communication, critical thinking, and problem solving in ways that take advantage of individual strengths. More is at stake in this than simply workplace need: social justice is at issue as well. Research has consistently shown that there are variations in thinking and learning styles among different races and cultural populations, and that consistent failure to match learning preferences with appropriate teaching styles leads to predictable losses in learning achievement.

We are not advocating a system of tracking where students are shunted into strictly diverging educational pathways. Such programs close as many options as they open. Instead, we are advocating a more flexible approach to K-12 education that would allow students to pursue the core curriculum through a variety of routes that better fit and nurture their individual learning approaches. Such a curriculum would provide flexibility in both pace and approach, and would allow children to pursue their education through curricula that emphasize and expand their strengths, while helping them improve in areas of weakness. Rather than creating tracks that prevent some children from achieving basic competency in math, language, critical thinking, or problem solving, such a program would allow different students to achieve competency in these areas using learning approaches that are best suited to their individual styles of thinking and learning.

Some students, for example, are much better at processing verbal information through reading than through listening. For others the opposite is true. Some children find that they can listen better when they take notes. Others find it impossible to take notes and listen at the same time. Some students prefer visual or hands-on presentations of information to purely language-based instruction. Other students benefit little from visual or spatial sources of information. Similar differences are seen with math, where some students solve math problems using primarily verbal approaches, others with visual approaches, and others using spatial approaches. While all students need to achieve basic competency in these subjects, there is no reason to believe that all children will find their needs optimally or even adequately met using a single educational approach. This is true not only at the middle and high school levels, where differentiated curricula are used to some extent, but from the earliest days of school.

Many common educational practices and assumptions need to be reexamined if our schools are to better prepare students for college and an increasingly competitive workforce. Three seem especially ripe for reevaluation:

· The notion that all students should master a core body of information at the same rates and in the same ways, using identical educational materials and informational pathways. Basic skills can be acquired in many ways, and each child's instruction should be tailored to his or her optimal learning style.

· The notion that students are best educated in age-based cohorts. The rates at which children develop vary as greatly as their learning styles, and clustering by age makes no more sense than clustering by height or weight. The whole notion of grade-levels is equally questionable. There is no reason to assume that each year every child should make identical progress in all subject areas, nor is there any justification to prevent a child from making progress in one subject (e.g., math) because he is having difficulty in another (e.g., reading). Flexible, modular instruction could eliminate this problem.

· The notion that lecture-based classroom instruction should be the primary--even a major--route of learning for all students is unsupported by data on children's learning styles. For enormous numbers of children lecture time is not only a waste but a strong provoker of misbehavior and dissatisfaction of school.

K-12 education must be updated to take into account the variations in thinking and learning styles that are reflected in the diversity of the workplace and the post-secondary educational environment. It must incorporate the kind of flexibility of emphasis and approach that is found in college, so that students can pursue knowledge in ways that are best suited to their individual thinking and learning styles. To make these changes, we must leave behind the arrangements of an earlier era that employ antiquated technologies and ideas to meet obsolete goals. As Mr. Gates has clearly demonstrated, the needs of our students and the requirements of the workforce have changed greatly. It is now time to use our modern technological resources and more precise knowledge of the ways children think and learn to create a flexible, individualized, and rigorous education that will meet the needs of our students and our society both now and in the years to come.

20 comments:

  1. Nice summative prescription.

    I would add that a more balanced emphasis on lateral/horizontal/creative thinking instead of just a primarily singleminded focus on analytical deconstruction of concepts as the only form of higher-level thinking would also be very useful.
    Students out to be asked to:

    Generate alternatives
    Reverse premises
    Change position or perspective
    Engage in Willing suspension of disbelief
    Explore counterfactuals
    Abandon known domain rules
    Brainstorm

    and so on.

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  2. Should read " ought" not " out". Apparently I was abandoning the domain rules of English.

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  3. About lecture-based instruction: I think this is used much less than it used to be, and perhaps to the detriment of children who will be going to college. Undergraduate courses are mostly lecture-based, especially at large schools where there might be hundreds of students in a course. If you have not been trained to learn this way, it is very difficult to make the transition. Taking lecture notes may not come naturally to all students, but it is a necessary skill in college.

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  4. Great additions, Mark. A common problem is that many teachers don't have enough training themselves in critical thinking (or doctors for that matter). But this is the kind of education that really matters. Please share any favorite references or links you might have for these topics.

    Jodi- you are right of course about the need to prepare for lectures at the college level. But many of the kids we see are ones with auditory processing or writing problems -so they struggle or maybe absolutely can't learn in lecture-only classes without a syllabus or text. What happens to them? Some of them homeschool, some of them quit. If they find out about different formats for learning, they may be surprised by how well they can learn with other options like e-learning...because the auditory and writing demands don't hold them back from taking in new information.

    In college, there are many more options because there are note co-ops, syllabi, texts, taped classes, TAs, etc. We are not suggesting that lectures be abandoned. Rather that more flexibility be allowed, that education can be more modular and not come down to having to hold children back whole grades because of weaknesses in only certain areas.

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  5. Designing schools is one thing, but you need to carefully look at some of the things that engage students (all ages) and how to get them involved in the subject/s in deeper ways.

    Integrated studies.
    Enterprise based models.
    Generative learning.
    Online learning.
    etc...

    Last year went to China on a study tour, 50 students in a secondary classroom, no biggy about motivation to want to learn, they see people sweeping the streets and say no thanks, answer, work hard in school.

    Westerners don't have this form of driver, and even with 25 in class teachers still struggle.

    Flexibility and simplicity is the key (my view) and delving into a whole range of creative and innovative approcahes to cause them to have an interest in the material.

    Vertical curriculum class titles can be of assistance, but much smaller classes are needed, as well as individual on line learning, reflective activities and a heightened view of the role of schools and learning by many parents.

    Clearing the way to make the necessary changes is probably more about politics and managemnt than it is about leadership, innovation and creativity.

    Steve Gray

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  6. Steve - You make a number of excellent points. Smaller class sizes, online options, more reflective activities, and a better respect for education in general are much needed.

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  7. Pepper6:55 AM

    Sign me up for the full list! I'd like to add that the bell schedule must somehow go. Where in the real world do we think exclusively about math, band, history, and art in 90 minute mutually exclusive chunks on Monday, only to think about English, marketing, and physics in equally exclusive chunks? For ten years I've been proposing, as a modest beginning toward meaningful integration, a minimum of an inter-term where small groups of 8-10 students tackle real-world, and thus interdisciplinary, problems, maybe even with an adult facilitator from the "real world." To solve and propose those solutions, these groups would need to tie together what the bell schedule severs.

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  8. Cool points, Pepper - if you do things modularly in school, then you can have flexible grouping of students with similar interests or similar learning approaches, or divergent approaches (across ages, etc) for different periods of time. Instead of the notion of a single age cohort together for K-12, you could have different small groups of people together for basic studies and different groups for project-based learning. For the students who think best alone - you could even give them time for independent study.

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  9. Another response to Pepper's thoughts from our "other half." Thought one: in our practice helping kids with learning challenges we see large numbers of children, especially in the early grades, who have difficulties transitioning from one subject to the next, and find the present "fifteen minutes and switch" pattern in the early grades to be absolute torture. This is especially true of children with "autism-spectrum" type or sensory integrative problems, which seem to be on the rise. Going to a more flexible "bell-less" world would be a tremendous boon for these kids, especially. Second, your inter-term idea is wonderful, and is the kind of option that flexible, individualize, modular education makes possible. We gave a talk last fall to the National Association For Gifted Children where we talked about the need to provide a more historically and real-world grounded context for education in all subjects, to help students come to view the acquisition of knowledge as a means confronting problems in real world--that is, tying the teaching of conceptual developments in science and math, technology, government, art, etc., together more closely with the historical circumstances that led to them. The kind of groups you describe would be ideal for that: "Suppose you were all a bunch of 4th century B.C. Athenians..." or "15th century A.D. Chinese" and really living entirely in that environment at school for a few weeks at a time. The opportunities for problem solving and learning are immense. Two of the primary reasons we've been interested in thinking about alternative strategies are to facilitate multi-modal/multi-sensory approaches to learning, and to more greatly involve episodic/personal memory in the learning process. Aside from that, we think approaches like the one you've described also sound like a lot of fun!

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  10. Another response to Pepper's thoughts from our "other half." Thought one: in our practice helping kids with learning challenges we see large numbers of children, especially in the early grades, who have difficulties transitioning from one subject to the next, and find the present "fifteen minutes and switch" pattern in the early grades to be absolute torture. This is especially true of children with "autism-spectrum" type or sensory integrative problems, which seem to be on the rise. Going to a more flexible "bell-less" world would be a tremendous boon for these kids, especially. Second, your inter-term idea is wonderful, and is the kind of option that flexible, individualize, modular education makes possible. We gave a talk last fall to the National Association For Gifted Children where we talked about the need to provide a more historically and real-world grounded context for education in all subjects, to help students come to view the acquisition of knowledge as a means confronting problems in real world--that is, tying the teaching of conceptual developments in science and math, technology, government, art, etc., together more closely with the historical circumstances that led to them. The kind of groups you describe would be ideal for that: "Suppose you were all a bunch of 4th century B.C. Athenians..." or "15th century A.D. Chinese" and really living entirely in that environment at school for a few weeks at a time. The opportunities for problem solving and learning are immense. Two of the primary reasons we've been interested in thinking about alternative strategies are to facilitate multi-modal/multi-sensory approaches to learning, and to more greatly involve episodic/personal memory in the learning process. Aside from that, we think approaches like the one you've described also sound like a lot of fun!

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  11. If you are interested in a more sweeping analysis of the fundamental problems built structurally into our "modern" education system, read The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto (http://www.johntaylorgatto.com). I think that he touches on everything that has been covered in your posting and the followup comments.

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  12. Haven't read it, but have heard it mentioned by others. Thanks.

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  13. This was inspiring and enlightening to read, thanks to all who posted! I am so glad someone sent me this link and wish I had had it many years ago (this knowledge about learning styles). Having learned more by error than trial in 17 years of homeschooling that children learn differently and have various styles, and that its quite allright to veer to the left or right of something, it is with regret I did not know these things years ago. three of my children are now attending college, despite people telling me my children would never excel because I allowed them too much (!?) freedom in learning!???!! haha! kerry, miami

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  14. way to go y'all, you are on the right track!
    kerry, mom of 8, homeschooling since 1985

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  15. Anonymous4:00 PM

    Kudos to Drs. Eide and all who posted! So many kids who could literally change the world because they think outside the academic box (outside any box!), and who are truly innovative, don't learn in the "traditional" school manner. We need to bring these kids along, not discourage them and make them feel they're not smart because they're not "good at school"... I have been thinking for awhile that all the debate about education seems to center on the HOW and WHERE and of school (charter schools, state tests, magnet schools)--when we need to be asking: Are we even teaching the right things? Are we teaching what kids need to know to make a difference today, in the 21st century? What, in 2006, constitutes a "good education"? The module idea is exciting and practical, as are many other changes you propose. Finally, I think much of the impetus for change needs to come from parents--educators and psychologists and neurologists cannot do it without the grassroots strength of parental involvement.

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  16. B. Barrett2:32 PM

    Being an elementary teacher, I struggle every day with trying to meet the needs of all my students. There are no two students who think or learn in the same way. It would be nice if I could meet each individual need, but the reality of it is that I just can't. I feel the first step in helping teachers meet the needs of their students is to have smaller class sizes.

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  17. We agree with you there. Many class sizes are so big everyone's learning becomes compromised.

    Ideally, parents and students will also become better educated about learning differences so they know how to overcome individual difficulties and seek out appropriate help.

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  18. Forgive me but many of the things you are talking about are things I feel are the parents responsibility to teach.

    Schooling for me has only ever been a systematic course of training to give my children the basics of reading, writing, mathematics and history, etc. Most of the other, what I would call, "basic life skills" I believe is my job as the parent to take responsibility to teach my children.

    With my wife's different perspective and with other adult influence that I provide in various manners like friendly visits, grandparent visits, church involvement, & community involvement, including them in some family decisions, and etc. most of these "basic life skills" are taught.

    Also placing the child in a new situation and just standing back and letting them figure some things out for themselves.

    These things naturally answer the questions of class size, real life application, helping them see things from another viewpoint, allowing each child to learn at their own pace, etc.

    Forgive me but it seems (perhaps because of our 'modern' culture that de-emphasizes family) you have left out the role that parents play in this most important process!

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  19. Anonymous9:37 PM

    It has been enjoyable to read a discussion on addressing children’s needs rather than merely fulfilling academic objectives.
    I am a recent convert to homeschooling. After 3.5 years of sheer exhaustion with the public and private schooling, I finally divorced our dependence on an educational system motivated purely by funding or the lack thereof.
    Our 8 year old would get home at 4:30pm (she left at 8am) that would be an 8.5 hour day with a 20 minute recess. Our kids would hardly see any daylight in the winter months. There is something very unnatural about that. We have a very strong and happy family environment but we could not deny the negative toll the school program had on our children and our family’s interaction. If there is a parent that is going to try to explain how they played Monopoly or a cozy game of Life after homework/Parents work day and still have comfortable time to discuss various motivational subjects (they are kidding themselves). A short weekend and two nights a week at church (for those inclined to participation), will not minimize the negative toll a weeks worth of stress can have on children for prolonged periods of time. And yes, being stuck in a brick box all day is a form of torture. The least we can do is try to accommodate their learning styles. We are so busy filling their minds with information we rarely care to wonder what magic already lies within. Just like the blood in our veins, ideas and concepts must circulate. But in our current educational system there is no time to think they are running a schedule. (Classic scenario: did you understand what a predicate is children. Good. Let's move on to fractions.)

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  20. I have just found this blog and I am loving it. There is a lot of food for thought here. As a NYC public school teacher and a mother of two very different children, who learn, socialize and figure out the world differently, I am happy to have this resource.

    In my school, we do not have bells, we do have flexible schedules, and lots of opportunities for out of school experts to come in and help teach children and expose teachers and kids to different content areas. In my children's school, they also have some visiting teachers come in, but it doesn't happen as often. One of my children has what I have diagnosed as sensory integration dysfunction. I have been frustrated by the fact that it is very difficult for me to find someone to do a complete diagnostic on him that takes my insurance. Help!!

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