"[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

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Flip over and smell the coffee

Salman Khan, guru of the "flipped classroom"
If proof were needed that America is a temperamentally conservative nation, we need merely cite that when it comes to large-scale social institutions, such as education and health, we would far rather cling to an old system that we positively know is failing than try some new system which might fail, even though it might also work.  "Why even try?" we say.  "Since we clearly aren't doing this correctly now, Q.E.D., there is no possible solution and anything else we might try will fail."

So we cling to the 19th-century industrial factory model of school 40 years after most American businesses have dropped it.  Because we all experienced our pre-college education as tedious, dreary, pointless and mostly ineffectual, we believe either that all following generations must be similarly punished or that it is impossible to make early education engaging, valuable and "sticky" (that is, having lasting value throughout our lives.)

We worsen the problem by having our school districts led by educators who are forced to act as politicians defending the school system from the depredations of the mendacious hooligans we elect, which leaves them in a permanently crouching posture, trying to get noticed.  God forbid that the second most important thing government does (I will grant you that protecting our physical safety comes first) be done with intelligence, insight and the proper resources.  There is always a chance that a despised minority will attend public school and obtain some valuable tools in the perpetual conflict the overclass in the way that education can do.

Okay, I didn't reallly mean to get into this rant, but it does get me excited just how stupidly we do school and how we are unable to break the cycle of stupid even in the clear evidence of catastrophic failure.  But a few schools in Bergen County, New Jersey (where I live) are attempting one of the most workable and efficient of the proposed solutions I've heard since I began in the teaching racket.  Specifically, New Milford, Fort Lee and Northern Valley Regional are experimenting with the flipped classroom model which I first presented here in 2011.  And this idea only has become more mainstream with the advent of MOOCs.

Since I first wrote this, smart phones have become even more prevalent, and even in the inner city district in which I teach now, are all but universal.  Therefore, all materials for the flipped classroom, MUST BE AVAILABLE AS APPs on multiple platforms.  Most of my students do not have in-home access to high-speed internet on a computer.  They do, have these pocket computers, and those must be considered the primary delivery method of instruction for this system.  Which also means that visuals must be VERY LARGE and VERY CLEAR to compensate for these tiny screens.  No clusters of text or mathematical characters.

One of the great advantages pointed out by the linked article is the sheer time efficiency.  Students don't HAVE to take in the instructional videos at home.  Using their phones or tablets, they can view while traveling to sports events or between parents' homes, or while hanging out with friends.  (My students can listen to anything on headsets and absorb it while simultaneously tracking their friends' conversation.  Altekockers like me might not believe it, but I have observed that students can recall incidents and dialogue in detail from films in my media course even though they have been gabbing virtually all the time.  They were virtually born multi-tasking, whereas folks like me have had to try and learn it.)

Because the biggest downfall of our present system of education is sheer inefficiency from the student's point of view.  Sure, it's cheap and efficient from the state's point of view -- gather students in cheaply-built rectangular buildings in the largest aggregation possible and present them with uniform materials assessed with cheap-to-correct multiple choice and T-F tests.  But from the student's point of view, none of it makes sense.  We gather them at the times they are least likely to learn.  In high school, we randomly shuffle them from room to room from topic to topic for more time than it takes to absorb one new piece of data but less time than it takes to engage in and complete a genuinely valuable task.  Everyone hears the same thing at the same time and is subject to the same deadline for the same tasks.  And one is discouraged from using the fantastic communication and networking skills one is developing in one's "real" life.
I'd ask you to wake up but you won't remember anyway.

The sad truth is that high school, like college, is being run by interschool athletics.  The only reason anyone can give for high school to be from 8 to 3 is to allow time for athletics after school.  It has no other logic.  Dismissing students at 3, 3 or 4 hours before their parents return home puts them genuinely at risk.  Police will tell you the greatest number of arrests of school-age children is between 3 and 6.  Not hard to figure.

And worst of all, science uncontrovertibly demonstrates that these hours are BAD FOR LEARNING.  Does there need to be any other justification for changing a school practice?  The kids are asleep in class, and not just because they were up all night gaming and texting.  They're not designed to learn at 8 AM, and I wish the Christian conservatives would get on this issue, because our current school schedule is clearly in contravention of God's plan.  Sadly, I discover that this is not the first time I've discussed this here, but new data justifies repeating the point.  Our school schedules have no function except to facilitate team sports and keep budgets down.  They render positive damage upon learning and upon student safety.

I hope I live long enough to see this nation stop saying that children are important and start treating them that way.  Like by spending time and money on them, instead of empty rhetoric.