Sunday, January 23, 2011

Independent Schools are not the real world

Yesterday, dozens of anxious students sat for MPH’s annual Scholarship Exam. It's an amazing scene, where hopes and fears are evident on almost all the faces in the room. The test is only part of a lengthy process which also involves interviews, teacher recs, writing submissions, and even a fine arts showcase. But the test is real and so is the pressure. Score well and you might get a chance at a merit based scholarship which is essentially a ticket to attend the only independent school in CNY. My wife thought it sounded similar to something out of Charlie and Chocolate Factory. I suppose there is an element of Wonka involved, but certainly, it isn't as easy as pulling a golden ticket from a candy wrapper.

During the morning while the students were taking the exam, I had the chance to talk to loads of parents, answering their questions and sometimes even countering their remarks. One gentleman came to me and stated clearly that he was a supporter of public schools. I stated with equal clarity, so was I! He then asked me if I thought private schools somehow shelter children from the "real" world. I said, half jokingly, “what is so great about the real world?" The American status quo is not so incredible. It’s a place where the dominant culture is full of cynicism, mediocrity and bad behavior. Do we really need to place our children there if we don’t have to?

I recalled reading a post from Pat Basset on this real world issue for our schools. I tracked it down on his blog and here it is:

"Myth #2: Independent Schools are "not the real world."

Fact: Of course they are not, thank God. The real world is, sad to say, unsafe, unstructured, and — worse than values-neutral — values bereft. The independent school culture is, ironically, counter-cultural in the sense of establishing a values matrix that runs counter to the child-toxic values of the popular culture and amorality and immorality that surrounds us.

While independent schools are "not the real world" themselves, they prepare students exceedingly well for the real world(s) of college, the workplace, and life in general, as the National Education Longitudinal Study from NCES demonstrates: independent school graduates in disproportionate numbers earn college and graduate degrees, report high career satisfaction, vote and engage in civic activities, exercise, and generally contribute to make the real world a better place."

I stated as much to the gentle man at the exam, though not quite as eloquently. Pat's words speak for themselves. I don’t have any problem with independent school’s giving families an option counter to what may be available in their neighborhood. Choice is good, particularly when the status quo is not.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Knowledge and Information in the 21st Century

There is a lot of talk about the 21st Century learner. I often use the phrase when talking with parents, knowing that it conjures up certain images and sometimes even fear. And there is also a lot of hype about what role technology can play in the role of education. And again, a lot of fear. The Social Life of Information is an attempt to clear some of the myths about the information age and to offer alternative ways of thinking about the future, as well as the future of education. Authors Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown write wonderfully on knowledge, and how it turns
attention toward knowers, which is a good thing for those who believe people still have a purpose in the learning process. They write, "increasingly, as the abundance of information overwhelms us all, we need not simply more information, but people to assimilate, understand, and make sense of it."

So, while the modern world often appears increasingly impersonal, in those areas where knowledge really counts, people count more than ever. The authors give a wonderful example of this need for learning to take place in a social context when they describe how students learn vocabulary. They draw their research by two educational psychologists who compared learning words in the everyday practice of conversation with trying to learn vocabulary from dictionaries. In the daily, social example, they found that learning "is startlingly fast and successful. By listening, talking, and reading, the average 17-year-old has learned vocabulary at a rate of 5,000 words per year(13 per day) for over 16 years. The children know both what these
words mean and how to use them."

By contrast, the researchers found that learning words from abstract definitions and sentences from dictionaries "is far slower and far less successful. Working this way, the children in the study acquired between 100 and 200 words per year. Moreover, much of what they learned turned out to be almost useless in practice. Despite their best efforts, looking up relate, careful, remedy and stir up in a dictionary led to sentences such as, "Me and my parents correlate, because without them I wouldn't be
here"; "I was meticulous about falling off the cliff"; "The redress for getting sick is staying in bed"; and "Mrs. Morrow stimulated the soup."

Most of us in education have seen this - the eager student with all the right information but none of the practical knowledge that make things work, in a lab, on a project or in a debate. Information is one thing. As most good teachers know, knowledge is something far more complex.