Edubabble from Ontario

My co-conspirator at the Workflow Institute, Sam Adkins, sent me a delicious link to the Organization for Quality Education, a group of Ontario citizens up in arms over the poor quality of their public schools. Nothing is funnier than the truth.

OQE logo

Let's start with a few definitions of education buzzwords.

Buzzword: Research has shown...
What parents THINK it means: It's proven.
What it REALLY means: Other people say so, too.

Buzzword: Child-centered
What parents THINK it means: Your child is of greatest concern
What it REALLY means: Your child does what he wants to do

Buzzword: No memorization
What parents THINK it means: No boring stuff
What it REALLY means: We don't teach facts

Buzzword: High-order thinking
What parents THINK it means: Thinking
What it REALLY means: Lost in the fog

Buzzword: Brain-based learning
What parents THINK it means: Science teaches a lot about learning
What it REALLY means: I believe in feng-shui, too

Buzzword: Discovery learning
What parents THINK it means: It's fun to learn
What it REALLY means: Kids will spend a week learning what lively, engaged instruction could teach in a day

Buzzword: We don't "teach to the test"
What parents THINK it means: No drills just for the sake of passing some test
What it REALLY means: We don't like being told what to cover in class

Buzzword: Education theorists
What parents THINK it means: Deep thinkers about education issues
What it REALLY means: People who spout opinions without any supporting data

Buzzword: Education researchers
What parents THINK it means: People who analyze data about what actually works
What it REALLY means: People who summarize the view of the theorists

OQE logo

That was just a warm-up. What is a quality education? How can you judge? You look to your customers.

    A quality education system produces students with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, and work habits needed to become productive, fulfilled citizens. It provides clear goals, high standards, good teachers and a well-organized curriculum.

    Much of what is wrong with Ontario education today is the result of the system's clinging to an outdated concept of quality. Over the past 30 years, organizations in the private sector - and now increasingly in the public sector - have come to the realization that quality can no longer be patronizingly defined by the providers of goods and services. Today, quality means meeting or exceeding the expectations of customers. In other words, something isn't good quality unless the customer says it is.

    So what are the customers of Ontario's schools saying? The employers and post-secondary educators, the school system's most obvious customers, are its most vocal and consistent critics. Meanwhile, parents line up overnight to enroll their children in academy schools where high academic and behavioural standards prevail, in stark contrast to the laissez-faire attitudes in most schools. Much like sixties Detroit automotive engineers who largely ignored the requests from motorists for smaller, fuel-efficient cars, the education system dismisses these criticisms as coming from people unqualified to determine what constitutes quality education.

    Modern quality is about outputs, not inputs. Yet status quo educators define quality primarily in terms of inputs to the education system, such as funding levels, class size, and teacher certification. The effects of these inputs on learning outcomes, however, are anything but clear. Studies in some jurisdictions, for example, have found that the more school boards spend, the worse students learn!

OQE logo

Meanings are important. I maintain a glossary at Internet Time, one of about five edutech glossaries on the net that aren't simply copies of someone else's glossary. OQE offers a glossary for debunking edubabble. It's extremely thought-provoking. The definitions come from The Schools We Need & Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D. Hirsch.

    metacognitive skills = A term that, like “constructivism,” has a legitimate technical but an illegitimate nontechnical meaning. The illegitimate, broader application of the term identifies it with “accessing skills,” “critical-thinking skills,” “problem-solving skills,” and other expressions of the anti-knowledge tool conception of education.

    multiple intelligences = ...Despite the fact that schools are not competent to classify and rank children on these highly speculative psychological measures, the concept had become highly popular, probably because it fits in with the already popular notions of “individual differences,” “individual learning styles,” “self-paced learning,” and so on, not to mention its appeal to our benign hope for all children that that will be good at doing something and happy doing it. The distinguished psychologist George A. Miller has said that Gardner’s specific classifications are “almost certainly wrong.”

    portfolio assessment = A phrase for a version of performance-based assessment. In portfolio assessment, students preserve in a portfolio all of some of their productions during the course of the semester or year. At the end of the time period, students are graded for the totality of their production. It is a device that has long been used for the teaching of writing and painting. But there its utility ceases. It has proven to be virtually useless for large-scale, high-stake testing.

OQE logo

I'm writing this as I explore the site. I was going along with Hirsch for the first few definitions but now I am beginning to suspect that he's an extremist. His message is that students need to master basic skills and learn facts with rigor. Only then will they be able to develop (Hirsch hates this term violently) "critical thinking skills." But Hirsch seems to win his arguments by setting up strawmen and then knocking them down.

Admittedly, my expertise is in adult performance, not childhood education, but I'm too big a fan of learning by doing to throw it out the window just because some teachers don't set it up right or some students don't join in. Hirsch says learning by doing is "a phrase once used to characterize the progressivist movement but little used today, possibly because the formulation has been the object of much criticism and even ridicule." He continues on, saying "The idea behind it resembles the real-life activities for which the particular learning is preparing the student. It is claimed that the best form of learning is that which best allows the student to learn in the natural, apprentice-like way in which humans have always learned."

So far, this sounds pretty good to me, but not to Hirsch, who writes, "By performing 'holistic' activities, the student, it is claimed, will reliably discover the needed learnings. This is an attractive doctrine, but it is also a highly theoretical one that has proved to be false. The value of such a method depends on its actual effectiveness. If by 'effective', one means that all students learn reliably and efficiently by this method, then the theory has been entirely discredited in comparative studies. Both recent history of American education and controlled observations have shown that learning by doing and its adaptations are among the least effective pedagogies available to the teacher."

I disagree. Situated learning -- doing the work rather than learning about the work -- is often the best way to learn. By "effective," I don't mean something works for all students, just that it's a winner for some of them. Of course learning by doing in the real world requires leaving the artificial reality inside the protective walls of schools.

I'd hoped to win one for the Republic of Berkeley, debunking public education, but I end up admitting that schooling is a supremely complicated area and that (Are you ready for this?) I don't have a clue as to how to fix it. It's late. I was looking for black and white; I found shades of gray. This is a provocative site, well worth visiting.

Posted by Jay Cross at March 6, 2004 11:33 PM | TrackBack

Regarding the criticism of Gardner's work on multiple intelligences...I respond with the fact that Einstein was almost CERTAIN that quantum theory was wrong. Guess we can't always take a smart person's criticism as fact either. Mind you, I gotta agree...a lot of the Learning Styles stuff IS baloney :0)

Posted by: mindful_learner at March 7, 2004 10:09 AM

The New York Times' Tom Friedman to the rescue. While Hirsch goes overboard on fundamentals and basics, Friedman issues a wake-up call about why America should be reinforcing "critical thinking skills" -- to stay a step ahead in the offshoring of jobs to India and elsewhere.

The Secret of Our Sauce

Published: March 7, 2004


America is the greatest engine of innovation that has ever existed, and it can't be duplicated anytime soon, because it is the product of a multitude of factors: extreme freedom of thought, an emphasis on independent thinking, a steady immigration of new minds, a risk-taking culture with no stigma attached to trying and failing, a noncorrupt bureaucracy, and financial markets and a venture capital system that are unrivaled at taking new ideas and turning them into global products.

"You have this whole ecosystem [that constitutes] a unique crucible for innovation," said Nandan Nilekani, the C.E.O. of Infosys, India's I.B.M. "I was in Europe the other day and they were commiserating about the 400,000 [European] knowledge workers who have gone to live in the U.S. because of the innovative environment there. The whole process where people get an idea and put together a team, raise the capital, create a product and mainstream it that can only be done in the U.S. It can't be done sitting in India. The Indian part of the equation [is to help] these innovative [U.S.] companies bring their products to the market quicker, cheaper and better, which increases the innovative cycle there. It is a complimentarity we need to enhance."

That is so right. As Robert Hof, a tech writer for Business Week, noted, U.S. tech workers "must keep creating leading edge technologies that make their companies more productive especially innovations that spark entirely new markets." The same tech innovations that produced outsourcing, he noted, also produced eBay,, Google and thousands of new jobs along with them.

This is America's real edge. Sure Bangalore has a lot of engineering schools, but the local government is rife with corruption; half the city has no sidewalks; there are constant electricity blackouts; the rivers are choked with pollution; the public school system is dysfunctional; beggars dart in and out of the traffic, which is in constant gridlock; and the whole infrastructure is falling apart. The big high-tech firms here reside on beautiful, walled campuses, because they maintain their own water, electricity and communications systems. They thrive by defying their political-economic environment, not by emerging from it.

Posted by: Jay Cross at March 7, 2004 12:58 PM

Marcia, I don't doubt Gardner's premise. My music intelligence is so low I can't even whistle worth a damn. Kinesthetically, I am inept. Yet I have stellar skills at talking my way out of traffic tickets, cooking shellfish, and solving word problems.

Despite truckloads of instructional design papers and good intentions, few developers have ever matched an individual's learning style to a method of instructional delivery outside of one-to-one mentoring. It costs too much, and we don't know what to do with it. Furthermore, we've tried to put the tool in the wrong hands.

Traditionally, the instructor or program designer is challenged to optimize learning by somehow tailoring the learning experience to the learner's style. This is backwards.

At the Meta-Learning Lab, we put responsibility for taking advantage of Gardner's multiple intelligences theory on the learner. A refinement of "learning to learn" is "learning how I learn." When I realized I could learn better with mindmaps and pictures than through text alone, I started drawing more...and learning more.

This cuts both ways. I once threw myself into any challenge that appeared because my ego told me I was a smart guy and I could do anything. Take programming. I have written programs in machine language, Fortran, Assembler, COBOL, BASIC, and Perl. None of them worked. Gardner helped me accept the fact that I will never be a programmer, and that there's no reason to be ashamed of it. As Dirty Harry said, "A man's got to know his limitations."

This has come full circle.

Buzzword: Education theorists
What parents THINK it means: Deep thinkers about education issues
What it REALLY means: People who spout opinions without any supporting data

Posted by: Jay Cross at March 7, 2004 01:29 PM

Quality in education?

as much as I (and everyone?) might question the validity of educational benchmarking, I offer the following:

Education in Ontario may be a mess, but it seems to be less of a mess than the rest of the world. According to these metrics, I'm getting excellent value for my dollar.

Despite the #3 ranking, this report was given little play in Canada, and that bothers me, it seems that it may be in the Governments, School Boards, Teachers Unions and Parents interests to convince people that the system is in ruin.

It's sad that I'm forced to place more trust in the work (and agenda) of UNICEF than I do in my own communities experts.

(I wonder if they'll do a report on health care?)

Posted by: Ian Leighton at March 9, 2004 04:06 PM

Could it be that we have as good and bad a system as our society and its economy require? Education in America is terrible, worse even than education here in France. Friedman is right about what the US needs, but to achieve what he wants it doesn't require a quality educational system. You only need a small minority of clever "critical thinkers" to carry the load("critical" of course means "relating to a crisis" as well as "adept at criticism", a point worth pondering).

So if that is the principle criterion, the exist system is fine: it allows us to select and encourage the small minority who will be expected to engage in economically viable "critical thinking". To be really efficient it must have built into it the principle that allows it to neglect the rest, who provide us with an army of blind, uncritical consumers, whose unlimited purchasing power (thanks to credit) ensures that the system works.

So, in a sense, we're already living in utopia!

Posted by: Peter Isackson at March 9, 2004 11:41 PM

Ok, next time I'll test the link first!

Posted by: Ian Leighton at March 10, 2004 02:39 PM

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