I never let my schooling interfere with my education.
– Mark Twain
Making schooling educational requires changing school culture. School reform keeps failing not because of standards or curriculum or poverty or parents or privatization or technology or tests or textbooks or money. It certainly doesn’t fail for want of trying. It fails because of culture.
Culture is the delivery system for education, because whatever the curriculum is, children’s brains are constructing their own meaning from the context in which the curriculum is delivered. If they learn “about” democracy in authoritarian classrooms where the only real decisions they make are whether or not to obey, then they will grow up with a love-hate relationship with tyranny, and ill-prepared for democracy.
Brains are built decision by decision. Schooling acts as if brains are built data point by data point. Intelligence is a dynamic potential that grows as we take on challenges and learn from the results. Data learned in this context sticks. If a person does well on IQ tests but makes bad decisions, is he smart?
Schools are good places to grow intelligence because of their high social potential. The human brain became powerful because collaboration was the main requirement for survival—highly cognitive work. The most complex decisions are decisions made in a social context: how to respond to an insult, how to initiate a conversation and how to conduct it so you get what you want, how to differ with someone, how to conflict creatively.
Furthermore, children take to it naturally. They start working the problem from birth. Minute-by-minute they are making a mental map of how the world works and how to make it work. Watch an 18-month-old in action. How many decisions does she make a minute? How many per hour? She is making and testing hypotheses—most of them social. By the time she walks into a kindergarten classroom on the first day of school she has been researching the world by making decisions for 43,000 hours.
The quality of her preparation is a function of five variables: How many decisions did she make? Did she own them? Did she own the results? How undistorted was the feedback she got? How complex was her decision-making environment?
These same variables determine how well educated she will be after 13 years of schooling: (1) high decision-making, (2) high internal motivation, (3) high social responsibility, (4) accuracy of feedback (truth), (5) complexity of environment.
The schooling that Mark Twain complained of was low in all five variables, and the deficiencies persist to this day. Schooling is adults doing stuff to kids. Teachers are expected to oversimplify the content so that passive recipients can retain the distorted data. Students are lectured on “responsibility” but given very little, and social interaction is discouraged or outlawed except on the playground. Internally motivated decision-making is kept to a minimum.
In a good school, watch a group of fourth graders working together to solve problems; count the number of decisions they make. Or watch two second graders learning to write by discussing what they intend, then doing some writing, then reading each other’s writing, then giving each other feedback, then writing their second draft, then reconnecting for the editing process. (“I like it, but the sentence has too many ‘ands.’ What if you broke it up into three sentences?”)
Most schools of education actually teach good methods like these. Things fall apart when the culture of school makes their training irrelevant.
Real-life learning is mostly trial and error. What if school maximized the “Number of Trials” rather than trying to minimizing the “Number of Errors?” Students and their teachers could be held accountable for measuring what matters.
What if teachers were held accountable for students’ approach to learning? Imagine a report card that looks like this:
What if the students rate themselves regularly on these seven items and discuss with their teachers?
School culture shapes our brains. Therefore, instead of revising “standards” again and again and calling it reform, let’s start changing the culture by measuring what matters: our decisions.
- Decision-Making: The Key Variable in School Culture
- Making Decisions, Suffering and Learning; It All Goes Together
- Making Better Schools is a Local Enterprise
- How Should Adults Interfere with Child’s Play?
- Ten Ways Bad Technology Is Good For Your Kids.