A Most Stubborn Stagnation
Anyone from 1900 would find most of modern life unrecognizable.
“What’s that thing flying in the sky? What is this glowing object showing me moving pictures that talk? Where is that carriage’s horse? Why aren’t children dying from Polio? Why are women and blacks voting? What do you mean ‘open heart surgery’, are you mad? What are ‘nuclear’ bombs? What’s ‘space travel’? AND HOW CAN A POT COOK FOOD INSTANTLY?”
But that same time traveler could walk into any school, especially a high school, and say, “Ah, yes, the young ones have one teacher. The students rotate among classes organized by discipline and grade bands until they graduate, then the smart ones go to university lectures. A lot of people hate math. This is just the way I remember it!”
It’s not for lack of trying.
Bill Gates spent billions of dollars trying to transform education in the US. How did he assess his efforts?
Of course, he’s not the only one to try. After countless reforms, elections, “Class Clowns”, presidents, premiers, panels, education ministers and secretaries, commissions, budgets, studies, academic articles, books, school boards, new buildings, charter schools, private schools, independent schools, vouchers, computers, networks, videos, online classes, correspondence classes, programs, philosophies, policies, curricula, standards, tests, textbooks, textbook versions, websites, Web 2.0, tinkering, and fads and trends of every type… the reality is that the vast majority of school systems everywhere work the same way, across time and place.
Improvements at small scales are common, but so are steps backward. With the exception of literacy, pedagogy and education is the one area of life where big breakthroughs just don’t happen.
Improvements at small scales are common, but so are steps backward. With the exception of literacy, pedagogy is the one area of life where big breakthroughs just don’t happen.
Even incremental improvements are hard to sustain.
Have you ever heard a university say: “We eliminated selective admission because, over the past century, our teaching methods have improved by 1%/year, so we can now do a great job of educating any high school graduate.”
Do any schools you’ve ever attended say such a thing?
Have you ever heard even heard of such a statement? How about from private high schools, any elementary school, any corporate training or recruitment program, or really any organization at all, ever?
I’m guessing you haven’t.
Why not? Quality controls have radically improved manufacturing. Computers are way better and easier to use than they were 20 years ago. Television and movies are better than ever. The cost of air travel and space travel have decreased dramatically. Nobody wants to go back to the medical norms of 1920 because today’s are so much better.
So what is special about education that makes it so hard to improve?
The Insidious Restraining Forces of Education
Here are some of the forces preventing major improvements in education. Many experts take one or two of them seriously, but Bravo Math will attempt to tackle them all.
Let’s play “Two Truths and a Lie” but with 8 statements.
- “Every student needs their teacher to adjust to their own unique learning style.”
- “Continuous feedback supercharges learning.”
- “Every student needs their teacher to adjust to their own unique genetic make up?”
- “We don’t need to remember facts any more since we can look them up so easily.”
- “This technology will revolutionize education.”
- “Focus matters: one must master one skill or one concept at a time.”
- “Busting teacher unions will unleash educational progress.”
- “The key to learning is doing so if my students do this, it proves mastery.”
Would you believe me if I said every one of those statements is false?
Let’s take another look, but this time with a tiny sample of citations coming from ~unanimous conclusions of researchers.
- “Every student needs their teacher to adjust to their own unique learning style.” Actually, there is literally no evidence for the existence of learning styles. We misattribute to learning styles what is better explained by prior knowledge.
- “Continuous feedback supercharges learning.” Actually, if you provide feedback continuously or even at a very high frequency, you do not know what the learner is doing or thinking independently and what is coming from the feedback. You also can’t know what kind of choices and mental distinctions the learner is making. Continuous feedback is a path to Delusionville, not a supercharger of learning.
- “Every student needs their teacher to adjust to their own unique genetic make up.” Actually, most evidence shows that people can reach high levels in most disciplines with the right training.
- “We don’t need to remember facts any more since we can look them up so easily.”Actually, the kind of knowledge we can acquire next depends almost entirely on our prior knowledge – that is, facts, procedures, and concepts in our long-term memory. Do you want your brain surgeon Googling “Brain surgery for dummies” right before telling you to count backward?
- “This technology will revolutionize education.” From radios, to Thomas Edison’s motion picture, to computers, to the internet and MOOCs, we’ve seen every generation of information technology promise and fail to transform education.
- “Focus matters: one must master one skill or one concept at a time.” Actually, this is false. A math worksheet entitled “Division Word Problems” cannot tell you if the student is doing division because they see it in the word problem or if they’re using the title of the worksheet. It certainly doesn’t give them practice in making such distinctions. Forget the organization of nearly every textbook you’ve ever used. Learners need to mix it up!
- “Busting teacher unions will unleash educational progress.” LOLz
- “The key to learning is doing so if my students do this, it proves mastery.” This is doubly wrong and a gigantic mental trap. First, when students are doing work in a physics laboratory “Newton’s third law predicts X, but the friction will cause Y, so I predict Z,” but they might actually be thinking “Step 1 says to put the ramp here and step 2 says to press that button on the camera and step 3 says to lay the measuring tape over there…” This latter mental sequence causes no learning. Second, even if the students were trying to think more in terms of scientific principles, were they doing so productively? Or were they entrenching misconceptions? How much will they retain? Will they be able to transfer their learning? None of this is knowable from what students do.
From grassroots organizations to heads of state and totalitarian dictators, from committed teachers to billionaires, virtually nobody has dramatically improved their education systems. Popular and false beliefs are one reason why.
In The Great Stagnation – Part 2 – From Falsehoods to Falsification, I will write about the core of how I believe mastery should be measured.
In The Great Stagnation – Part 3 – Institutional Barriers, I will write about how the status quo entrenches itself.
I’ll wrap up the series with The Great Stagnation – Part 4 – Punching Through the Status Quo. This is how I hope to relieve the forces of educational gridlock and unleash epic change.