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Changing Education Paradigms

This video expresses some of the ideas about education that I have tried to argue here on a number of occasions and does it better than I ever have. While school boards and politicians and parents and teacher stand around pointing their fingers at each other.... and complain about students being disinterested and cheaters and lazy, they fail to question if an education system designed for the industrial revolution is really trying to teach any of the right things in any of the right ways. Not to mention that once upon a time, an education meant a job, now its only certainty is debt.



I agree with much of it, but there are two things I might take issue with. One is that I see this drugs-making-kids-into-zombies thing popping up. That's simply not how ADHD medications work or what they are intended to do. There's a bit of uncertainty about the mechanisms behind ADHD (and which apply in which cases), but two prime candidates are dysfunction (especially slowness) of the frontal lobes, causing impulsivity, and a low level of dopamine, which causes behaviors to feel less intrinsically rewarding.

One result of taking stimulants is to improve the speed and function of parts of the brain involved in planning and self-control. The major side-effects are nervousness and insomnia, similar to caffeine (drowsiness is an occasional side effect largely due to the insomnia). The reason these medications are given to kids is not to make them too dull to cause problems, but sufficiently alert to not easily fall prey to feelings of boredom, and to better understand and manage their own behavior.

One can argue about whether such drugs are over-prescribed (and I'm sympathetic to arguments that ADHD is sometimes merely a disorder in our expectations of people rather than the people themselves), but it should be done without a misunderstanding of what they actually are. Ritalin and Adderall and the rest of the medications in the public consciousness are stimulants; the drugs which Robinson may have referred to as "anesthetic" such as anti-psychotics, are usually prescribed not merely for lack of focus, but also for severe behavior problems or when stimulants fail to work or are medically contraindicated. The more common stimulants do not generally put people into some sort of stupor where they don't care about what's happening to them (or can't appreciate the arts, which seemed to be vaguely implied).

The other thing I wanted to take issue with is this divergent thinking concept. For one, there are plenty of abilities that we lose as we get older. An obvious one is language acquisition. I don't know exactly how one could justify the claim that this one particular basic cognitive ability is somehow drilled out of people with the educational system. In fact, it's possible that divergent thinking is directly opposed to crystallized intelligence; the more you learn, the more you have a bias towards what you already know, as opposed to constantly generating a huge variety of new ideas.

Another problem is that extremely divergent thinking hasn't yet demonstrated much utility. Thinking about a two hundred foot rubber paper clip may be good for winning at a contrived task, or for creating extremely surreal art. It's not so good when you actually have a set of building materials and you're supposed to do something with them. It may be the case that moderately divergent thinking is actually better in many cases; thinking and thinking through a million ideas until you've got an absolutely fantastic one is often not so good as coming up with a few pretty good ideas, picking one, and implementing it quickly and well.

I wonder whether the loss of language acquisition might be caused by the same thing that causes the decline in divergent thinking. Maybe if rather than simply being trained for the workplace, students were encouraged in things like language acquisition and divergent thinking, we wouldn't see these declines or the declines wouldn't be as significant. In any case, it seems to me that both divergent thinking and language acquisition are punished in our society. The new idea is sometimes adopted...eventually, but not until after the person who had the idea is beaten to a pulp, and Americans are strongly discouraged from learning foreign languages, especially Spanish.

The other thing I wanted to take issue with is this divergent thinking concept. For one, there are plenty of abilities that we lose as we get older. An obvious one is language acquisition.

Language acquisition and deterioration as we age: turns out this is subject to our outlook, for lack of a better word (maybe my skillz r die-ing, heh).

I've had this discussion with linguists. It turns out that anyone who is truly open to learning a language can be come fluent - at any age. Big Daddy is on to something here, but it's more than that. Why should a person bother to learn a new language if there's no real need? If you don't use it, you lose it to a degree, although language - like any skill - can be brought back up to a high level.

I wasn't referring to language acquisition as becoming impossible or being fundamentally limited (I think everyone should ideally learn at least a passable amount of two or three languages, so I'm hardly a fatalist about it), but to certain aspects becoming much more difficult. Children go from speaking their first word to being clear native speakers within a couple of years, and without intensive systematic study or coaching in most cases. Most motivated adults cannot do that with a foreign language that employs different phonemes; with a few notable exceptions, they will either retain a chronic accent or have to invest a great deal of time and energy to coach themselves in something that nearly all infants can do through immersion alone.

In any case, I wasn't saying that "you use it, you lose it" isn't a possible explanation. Even in the case of language, it may be easily possible that anyone who learns a new language every few years for their entire life would be able to become fluent in any new language quite quickly (I'm agnostic as to whether this would happen, or why). I was instead responding to the claim that divergent thinking declines because education actively suppresses it, rather than simply failing to encourage people to think divergently.

For languages, there was a position that children (about aged 9 and younger) stored various vocabulary in different parts of their brains, depending on grammar. The older humans got, the more the new language words were stored only in one area, thus confusion with new/foreign languages learned later in life.

Then this supposition turned out to be incorrect, unless the learner was closed to learning new things. Probably we should look to another method for teaching new languages just as we need to look for new ways to educate our populace.

I don't know exactly how one could justify the claim that this one particular basic cognitive ability is somehow drilled out of people with the educational system. In fact, it's possible that divergent thinking is directly opposed to crystallized intelligence; the more you learn, the more you have a bias towards what you already know, as opposed to constantly generating a huge variety of new ideas.


I was instead responding to the claim that divergent thinking declines because education actively suppresses it, rather than simply failing to encourage people to think divergently.

For the divergent thinking argument, I think you and Ken Robinson just have different ways of describing the same phenomenon. Part of the deal is that brainstorming type learning activities (whether verbal or physical or on paper; these [are supposed to] encourage divergent thinking and allow for "wrong" input) can take a long time. Teachers often can't find the time for such lessons. getting students actively involved in the learning process is equally difficult and involves more time.

Thanks for your input. Great points.

Thank you for the post, what a charming presentation on education.

We may see early tentative steps to explore some of these issues in "What Doctrines to Embrace" (1969) wherein the notions of the Enlightenment about Reason and the Mind were challenged by modern Psychiatric impressions that we are messier mortals. Inherent class prejudice in the educational establishment, strengthened indeed by their belief that the role of the school was to create the appropriate working skill set for the Industrial Age is also noted here, though the critique of it is muted - perhaps because the authors' thinking was still self censored by recent (at the time) exposure to the McCarthy era.

I recently had occasion to reread Freud's "Civilization and it's Discontents" wherein he attempts to frame an otherwise inexplicable assertion by an esteemed friend that the source of religion is that feeling;

"He would like to call a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless unbounded - as it were, 'oceanic'. This feeling, he ads is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings it no assurance of personal immortality, but is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels.... One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion." (page 11)

Now, Freud has never experienced that feeling, but with respect goes on the speculate in most reasonable and convivial terms that perhaps this sensation represents a vestigial portion of the Infant Ego, which has not yet begun to differentiate self from other.

('Course, being Freud, he then tells us what he REALLY thinks of this 'sense of eternity'. To wit, he proclaims, "The origin of the religious attitude can be traced back in clear outlines as far as the feeling of infantile helplessness." (page 21).)

But, my point is not religion, but rather this view that our educational system trains us away from thinking outside ourselves. As children we are better as creative tasks because we don't limit our thinking to what we've been told is fact, but rather might include what we imagine might be. I like the notion in the video that Creativity is then focused imagination. I like the notion expressed in other posts, that perhaps different people locate the physical/emotional/whatever boundaries between themselves and the world around them in different spaces.

I noted an interesting ad during one of the televised Stanford football games. The Pres. of Stanford decided to make his rahrah speech about the role of ART in education, the conviction by Stanford that creativity is such a critical thing for our future, that we must focus on how to help develop it.

Fantastic piece, despite the inaccuracies mentioned by Wu. Ken Robinson also gave a TED talk not long ago:

Here's the follow-up to 2006 talk, from May 2010 - Bring on the Revolution!

I did like hearing this talk, and will be visiting the TED site for Robinson's talk (as well as Julien Assange's, but that's another story).

I'm wondering if when Robinson said that art works the aesthetic vs. an anasthetic type of learning, he actually meant kinesthetic or tactile learning (the core of Montessori as I understand it).

Arts - be they performing, visual, literary, industrial (what have I left off?) - involve many types of thought processes and almost always involve a kinesthetic experience. In the world of standardized testing and the push for high scores, arts and other electives get the axe in favor of more emphasis on math and science. This poses at least 2 problems:

  1. Focus on one type of learning, often mired in "seat time." Granted, there are labs in science, but so much of academia is rooted in book and homework time that there is no wonder some students get fidgety. Those who have a sport outlet later in the day may have a big advantage in this arena.

  2. Matriculation: you want to increase the graduation rate for high school? Do NOT take away electives! Sometimes that's the sole reason for an at-risk student to attend school. They have little interest in the rest, but will play along - and learn something! - as long as they get to do things they love best. Yes, arts are electives, but so are home economics (hmmm - culinary arts, but also budgeting and the like), foreign languages (um - language arts; I'm seeing a trend), extra phys ed classes, and computer related classes. All of this is part of learning and becoming a well-educated person. I've met enough brilliant thinkers who are bar tenders, carpenters, landlords, to know that book learning ain't everything.

(caveat emptor: as a musician, I qualify as a big-time scholarly nerd as well as an artist)

Next area to consider: how to implement divergent thinking into our education system?

This will take a long time. People are veeeeeeery resistant to change. I am fortunate enough to teach at an institution that pushes engaged learning and citizenship wherever possible. Students often enroll here for that type of learning, but it doesn't mean that they are ready for it, or are really interested in changing old habits (not studying, simply learning the one right answer, forgetting material once the test is over). It takes extra work to get those in bad habits to change their ways, and profs can't reach everyone (and our joke is that those who don't change move to the business school, but I can't imagine how many people are pissed off by this wry humor).

Thus not only does the education system itself need to change, but those who teach in it and those who participate as students in it need to change. Possible - yes, but a tough road to hoe. I have to agree with Robinson's assertion - or submission - that standardized testing has had an ill effect on divergent thinking. There is so much emphasis on give me the right answer and let's move on (and I got 2400 on SAT/36 on ACT!) that the elarning environment has become even more of a factory assembly line: put out the goods, package and distribute them.

Rubrics have their use but are tangled in this system. Yes, they help me grade faster. But is objectivity everything? If you are subjective, there's a good chance someone will complain that so and so was treated differently and that's just not fair! Sometimes those complaints are valid: undoubtedly there are teachers who play favorites. Sometimes those complaints are just whines about not getting the happy grade. Indeed, this will be a tough road to hoe.

There used to be colleges that didn't issue grades; professors wrote about each student at the end of the semester: attendance, participation, thinking processes, interaction, work ethic, etc. Transcripts were burdensome and often a barrier to employment. Matt Groening of Simpsons/Life in Hell fame is an alum of such a college (Evergreen State College), and probably a lot of "hippie" types came out of such education. HOw bad is that?

There can be trade schools, academic schools, liberal arts schools, and more and everything be beneficial for the population on so many levels. It would help if society didn't look down collective noses at those in fields that made smaller paychecks, but recognized them as contributors with brains that work as well as anyone in upper management (including brainiacs and idiots in upper management!). But now I sound like a hippie, no?

Whatever happens, the change will have to come from us - those living day to day. That may not happen until most people are economically stable. If you're just trying to make a buck, there's little time for debate and activism. At this juncture I don't feel that those in charge are being terribly helpful to the cause.

Having been a bit harsh on this piece, perhaps I can note where I do agree with it. For primary school I was somewhat sheltered in a gifted charter school (albeit a very poorly funded one). But afterward, I was a student at a high school in a lower-class suburb that was overpopulated and filled with poor and Hispanic students. I saw the following cycle that was rather distressing:

Troubling behavior on the part of some students (skipping class, over 30% dropout rate, vandalism, bringing cigarettes or pot on campus).

led to

Poor evaluation of the school, low test scoring (due to no-shows, which counted against the school, and kids that never went to class), threatened loss of funding and jobs, and general feelings of anxiety and loss of control on behalf of administration/faculty.

led to

Suspicion, close monitoring and infantilization of students, even going so far as to keep records of everyone entering or leaving the bathrooms at one point, as well as constant use of threats and promises to encourage attendance (particularly on the days of standardized tests). Corny "school spirit" events, pep rallies, and propaganda, though present in most schools, got stepped up in order to try to get students to associate positive things with the school. Several minor poster/ad campaigns about discipline, character, and the meaning of "being a Trojan" (our mascot) were put up. Lack of funding led to cuts to music, art, athletics, field trips, tech/computers, and anything else outside of basic curriculum and security.

led to

Disaffection and disinterest on the part of students, seeing that the school administration seemed to be invested heavily in controlling students, cajoling them into attending, and boosting stats, while almost entirely ignoring the quality of education. "Us" vs. "Them" mentality, with students seeing school administration as illegitimate or clueless authority. Students who didn't resonate with "school spirit" were more alienated than encouraged by corny posters and pep rallies. Students who weren't very interested in academics had little reason to show up, (or in some cases, would show up but ditch class to hang out around the campus with other students). Students who were academically motivated and did show up were largely ignored (because the school always had bigger issues). The quality of education for those within the classroom became almost entirely dependent on the degree of self-motivation of individual teachers, which tended to be rather low when teaching the low level classes, filled largely with kids who disliked school, and were more likely to be disruptive or skip class.

led to

Failure of the school to improve any of the original problems.

Probably the one thing that they got right at my school was the sex-ed program; it wasn't perfect, but it did yield a significantly lower student pregnancy rate than nearby schools in more affluent areas.

One take-home message for me was that, to a certain degree, treating teenagers as troubled, disaffected, or rebellious is a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the basic needs that people seem to feel more and more strongly at that stage is a need to do meaningful work, to either be able to benefit other people or to prove and improve oneself. Those who didn't have an "academic" bent, and who didn't attend classes at the local vocational school, simply didn't get that in their classes. Treating that as a character failing in the students, rather than as a failure of the school to prove itself to students, is a huge mistake.

Of course, the population of teenagers does include a lot of immature or troubled students, but that's all the more reason to make it apparent that schools can provide value and meaningful assistance to students, rather than only superficially cajoling them into appropriate behavior. And I think some of the things that need to be changed are exactly what Robinson pointed out: the "academic" vs. "non-academic" distinction (sending the message that most people never use their education), the assembly line model where students are separated primarily by age and later by stages in the curriculum rather than by understanding and interest (there is only one math track, or only one English track), the focus entirely on the parts of the core curriculum covered by standardized testing, and the lack of sincere focus on career planning or vocational pursuits (as opposed to vague murmuring about preparing students for the "real world" or "the rest of their lives", as if school was simply a holding pen shielding one from reality). Actually, I'm sure much of the rhetoric would sound a lot like religious sermons if you did some simple replacement; graduating was dying naturally, dropping out was suicide, college was judgment, and a career was the afterlife. The latter was simultaneously of vast importance and yet rarely discussed in convincing detail.

This is probably a cycle that has occurred in MANY schools across the U.S. Except that not all public schools will keep the sex ed - credit where credit is due.

There has to be some change in which students are allowed to take ownership of their education, with the guidance of at least one adult. Kids know a lot and can learn a lot, but they need a nudge; they are less mature whether they like to admit it or note.

As the school try to put the clamp down tighter on the students, the more they wiggled out of the vice. See? Teenagers are creative and smart; they got out of the situation any way. At each turn, the students could have been given more responsibility for what they learned through interaction with peers, group projects, peer evaluation, and things I don't have time to type or haven't considered yet.

Another tactic that has worked well is requiring the parents or guardians get involved in the schooling of their children. Granted, some students have no present parent, but when such programs have been put in place, those without any adult figure have been few in number so that the school can add that to their burden.

Other than that, amazing principals can lead schools to do well. We don't have enough of these wunder-adults.

As this discussion continues, I'm motivated to try new things for my classes at school. However, as an untenured faculty, I unfortunately have to be careful how far off the path I go. There's a lot of stock put in student evaluations. There's not a lot of patience for something different (as I mentioned in a post above) and gawd forbid an experience not go perfectly: I'll read about it the next semester and have to answer for it. So while I'm planning, some of my ideas my have to wait another year before implementation, although I'm trying to make things foolproof.

While I am very sympathetic to the claims made in this video we should take with a grain of salt. I found disturbing the part where he admits he is not qualified to argue that ADHD isn't real and those who are say it is real, but that he rejects that it is real anyway. In light of that, I don't trust his data on the distribution of ADHD. Can we address the evidence pllleeeeaaaase. This guy just admits he is irrational. "There is evidence for something, but I won't believe it anyway."

The ADD/ADHD discussion is surely a weak point of his discussion, but I don't think that it discounts the entire discussion.

Since I've taught many students privately, I've been exposed to a number of forms of ADD/ADHD, and there are undoubtedly more versions than have crossed my doorstep.

That being said, like many disorders, attention deficit disorders are sometimes over diagnosed by doctors at the urging of helicopter parents who want to know what's up with there kid, and can it get a quick fix? Just a pill please?

I also teach at a camp during the summer, and the nurses get to distribute the daily meds. Since they see these kids on a regular basis, they are in a position to evaluate behavior patterns. They do see kids that may not need meds in light of the physical activity that is part of this camp (it's music in the morning and sports in the afternoon, followed by more music in the evening). However, since the nurses aren't doctors, they they get to issue diagnoses - and can only offer an opinion if asked by a parent. (I see these same kids, but my degree ain't in medicine; I get little say unless someone asks me for an observation.) Sadly, some children are medicated when they shouldn't be, just as any person who seeks medical attention may be prescribed unneeded medicine.

Still, I sympathize with your point. Treatment exists for a reason: some people NEED help, and prescriptions can help.

Personally, I would like to see a public who was a little more skeptical of a doc who was all too willing to write up a scrip without considering other options; seek a 2nd or 3rd opinion without going all new-age wacko; consider activities that may help build focus (music, martial arts, meditation, crafts, etc.)

I think you need to watch the video again, Chris. He doesn't "reject that it is real." If you fast forward to the 4:00 mark, you'll plainly hear him say, "I don't mean to say that there is no such thing as ADHD," and you can watch the scribbler writing these words on the white board. He goes on to say that the majority of psychologists think it exists and that he's willing to defer to their expertise. What he says is that there isn't an ADHD epidemic. Also, what he implies but doesn't come right out and say is that, as with many pharmaceutical products, it is impossible for drug companies to turn a profit without over-prescribing and that much of what we refer to as ADHD is simply normal, healthy kids being bored witless by their Industrial Age lessons.

re: Wu Wei "One take-home message for me was that, to a certain degree, treating teenagers as troubled, disaffected, or rebellious is a self-fulfilling prophecy."

It's a funny thing isn't it. Kids learn what they are taught.

Chickens are the same. In every batch of baby chicks there are a few who are more fearless than others. They will reach up to a hand, some nip. One year, I figured this represented a teaching moment, so when they nipped I picked them up to pet and tame them.

Later the chicks all joined the grown flock. Some would come over when I opened the door in the morning, pecking at my pant's leg. One of the other birds watched a while, then said "how come she always picks you up first?". A pecking hen stopped, put her wings on her hips and sneered, "Don't you ever listen? She told us and told us. 'You peck, you get picked up!'"

The little shy hen thought a minute, then said "Oh... THAT'S what she meant!

Well. guess I trained those birds alright.

Love the story, Betty Jo.

I do have a question: do your chickens peck each other? A friend who works with a lot of farmers said that chickens will peck each other to death if their beaks are clipped. I'm very skeptical regarding this assertion, but also ignorant in this realm. What have you witnessed and/or how have you taught them?

interesting video, but GREAT thread.

g.sister is on fire, lately, and not only here. kudos to all, etc.

thx, jb. and now on to car shopping and finishing grades.

Sorry I had to come late to this thread - been away stuck in snow for a while.

I wonder if anyone has come across this piece from 1939?

"..the essence of true education is timelessness"

re: gypsy sister "do your chickens peck each other?"

We've had a few pecking problems, perhaps 2 or 3 times in a decade of chickens. Some breeds are orneryer than others, and a mixed flock of bantys (little birds) and big meat birds seems to be problematic. Once a bird is victimized, the only solution is to get rid of the victim. If you 'off' the perp, others will take her place. I think that pecking tends to be more problematic with confined flocks. They get bored and then get naughty. Our birds free range in the pasture with the cattle all day, so keep themselves entertained. I would never clip the beak of a bird. I raise mostly laying hens, mostly "Red Star" layers who are really nice tempered. Never had a bullying problem with them, they all play well with each other. They're medium sized, lay large brown eggs, (good feed to egg conversion ratio) and start laying weeks earlier than most breeds (like at 17 weeks). "Light Brahma" meat birds can be quite nasty. They dress well, but I don't like 'em. Cochins and Wyandottes on the other hand, get large but are quite sweet.

Thanks for the information. When I run into the guys i buy from, I'll ask which breeds and if they've had issues.

Interestingly enough, my friend in the eco field 1st told me about how cattle farmers have figured out that good treatment of the herd = better meat, thus higher profits, but that the chicken raisers haven't all caught on. That's when she told me about the beak clipping - as a way to protect the flock. Anyway, I'm wondering just how free range the birds she's seen are. The flocks I've seen are out in a large swath of land, and might peck a person's shoe laces if they step into the area. I don't know about any other details.


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