"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, November 15, 2010

Teaching what kids need to learn with varying modalities

Below is a link to a Freakonomics podcast discussing a NYC school experiment called "School of One." It combines three basic concepts in a new model for schooling. First, teach what the student actually needs to learn. Sylvan and Huntington tutoring systems have been practicing this for a long time. They have each student take a pre-test to figure out what skills they have mastered and what they need to work on. Then each skill is presented separately, given guided practice, independent practice and then assessed. The student continues to work on the skill until she demonstrates mastery (at Sylvan that was 80%.) You don't waste time teaching the kid what she already knows, and you don't let her get away with pretending to know something she doesn't.

This reporter compares this sort of individual tailoring of instruction to Pandora Radio. If you haven't tried Pandora, you have to. The report describes it, but in brief, it builds a library, starting with the musicians you tell it you like, tries to identify common characteristics and expose you to new music. If you don't like it, you can skip it, and the system learns what you don't like. They compare it favorably to conventional radio, where everybody gets the same tune (and the same commercials) at the same time, whether they like it or not.

How Is a Bad Radio Station Like Our Public-School System? | Freakonomics Radio
(Approximately 28 minutes)

Next is where School of one gets really interesting to me. They employ at least five different modalities of instruction, namely, large live instruction (teacher in a big box of kids); small live instruction (teacher in a more intimate box of kids); small group collaboration (each one teach one); virtual tutoring (one-on-one with a tutor you communicate with online in a Skype-type set-up); and independent practice (working on skills with the software). I would guess this is far better suited to basic skills and skills in the math, science and nuts-and-bolts literacy than it is for higher-level humanities. Still, this is just where we're weakest.

At first glance, it might seem as though this requires more teachers. But not necessarily. A lot of these students are working independently, or only require intermittent consultation or support from a teacher. My thumbnail estimate is that roughly the same number of teachers is needed, but that they are performing more different types of functions than they do now.

And third, and here's the real kicker for me -- students select their own modalities. They don't have a Child Study Team or psychologist telling them how they learn. It's student directed.

School of One has only been in place for a year, but so far it seems to be working well. At least, when I was a student, I had much rather been learning from a playlist than a curriculum.

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