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Monthly Archives: February 2020

The Design Failure in Education Today

When students do poorly in school and end up failing out, educators reflexively pin the problem on the students themselves. Most students don’t really care. Many of them don’t have the discipline it takes to succeed. Some are probably just not smart enough.

Problems with motivation, self-discipline, and intelligence are the three most common diagnoses (in descending order) that educators put on students who fail in school.

That last one is not typically shared outside the private space of teachers’ heads or the lounges where they gather and commiserate. But it must be a diagnostic option, right? What other possibilities are there?

In the field of higher ed, Math is one of those subjects where lots of students do poorly. Passing rates hover right now at under 50 percent, which means that less than half of students currently enrolled in a Math course will make it through. Colleges are scrambling to figure out what’s going on here. Certainly Math is more abstract and analytical than most subjects, making it difficult for students who may not have the “knack” for it.

Not having a strong Math intelligence doesn’t mean that students lack intelligence, however.

Current education theory identifies at least ten distinct types of intelligence, based on the research of psychologist Howard Gardner: logical-mathematical, verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal (intuitive), naturalist, existential, and moral. So a student’s lower-than-average Math intelligence doesn’t mean that he or she is not intelligent in other ways.

It wouldn’t be reasonable, however, for educators to pass off student failure in Math (and other subjects where success rates are low) as an issue with the students themselves, without also looking closely at the system that’s failing students and the possibility of their own complicity as educators in the outcome. I’m not suggesting that blame needs to be shifted now from students to our schools and teachers. Surely there are responsibilities on both sides.

In this post I want to focus on the responsibility of schools and teachers in providing students with the instruction and support that will maximize their opportunities to succeed. Success here refers not merely to making it through the gauntlet of grades and courses, but to the progress in learning that leads to genuine understanding.

My observations are that students are not being adequately prepared for their compulsory ascent from one level to the next.

To get the key ideas into focus, my diagram offers a simplified schematic of a student’s climb through grade or course levels, arriving at the “current” level after having passed through a “former” level, and on his or her way to the “next” level of instruction. Each level (grade or course) is accountable for a portion of the general curriculum that students need to learn before moving on. The green ascending line represents the intended progress of learning, as students build their knowledge, grow in understanding, and are able to apply what they learn in increasingly complex ways.

Before students arrived at the current level, they had to take a class designed to prepare them with the prerequisite knowledge and skills. The angle of that green line depicts what I’m calling the “challenge gradient” elevating students from one level to the next. It goes without saying that students need to learn things they don’t already know, and the difficulty (challenge) of the new material needs to be within what the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky called their “zone of proximal development.” In other words, they need to be prepared and ready for it.

If the challenge gradient is too great (depicted by a red line turned 90° into a vertical wall) students are not able to progress but instead give up in despair. An example from Math would be holding a fifth-grader who is just getting the handle on arithmetic accountable for learning calculus. There’s a good deal of Math competency in between (e.g., algebra) that applies arithmetic in more complex ways and prepares the student for success at the more abstract conceptual levels. For our fifth-grader, the complexity of calculus would be a wall blocking his or her progress in learning Math.

At the other extreme, the challenge gradient might be virtually zero (depicted by a flat grey line). In this case, students get bored quickly with instruction and the material doesn’t engage them. Consequently their learning fails to progress and they can’t move on to the next level.

You should be asking, “But why would the challenge gradient of a given course be set so low? Don’t educators want students to progress in their learning?”

I’ve reflected on this question in other posts, so here my answer will be shockingly straightforward. In recent decades schools and teachers are more interested in getting students through the system than in properly educating them. And they have done this by putting in place an array of accommodations which effectively lower the challenge gradient and make it more likely (even certain) that students will pass from one level to the next.

As a consequence of over-accommodation, students are arriving at course or grade levels under-prepared. They lack the requisite knowledge and skills for successfully meeting the challenge of learning higher-level material. But teachers and schools can’t start holding students back now, since funding and salaries are determined on the basis of student retention, persistence, and graduation rates.

So the broken process continues, and this is the design failure in education today.

How should it work? How can schools and teachers realign themselves with the critical mandate of education, which is to awaken, develop, enlighten and empower students in becoming skilled professionals, responsible citizens, and life-long learners?

Let’s go back to my diagram.

As students begin a “current” level of instruction, the teacher requires them to complete a formative assessment that will identify where each student is as to his or her level of prerequisite understanding. Formative assessments are not about grades, but rather provide instructors with valuable feedback to help them get a clear idea of where students are. Only then can instruction be delivered that will match each student’s zone of proximal development.

It’s imperative, then, that a teacher “level sets” his or her instruction to what students bring to the table.

The ultimate goal of instruction is to “level up” students so they will be course-ready for the next level. The slope of the challenge gradient needs to be calibrated – and frequently adjusted – so that students stay engaged and are stretched to learn. Staying with my earlier example, because not all students in a given Math class are equally proficient in math, a quality teacher will provide the necessary “scaffolding” to support each student’s progress in learning.

It’s important to understand that scaffolding is not an accommodation and does not lower the overall challenge gradient. Instead, it implements the type of personalized support that keeps students engaged and moving forward.

Colleges – particularly community colleges – are presently on a challenge gradient of their own, as they enroll students who come underprepared from high schools that were pressured to continue (and increase) the schedule of accommodations those same students were given in grade school.

Upstream is also back in time, and everyone knows you can’t change the past. These students are products of a broken system, but we don’t have to keep doing things the same way. There is hope for them as well.

The larger and lasting solution can’t rest on the colleges alone. Our education system needs to recover its mandate and renew its purpose in nurturing intelligence, shaping minds, and raising leaders to the new realities of our day.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2020 in Education

 

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World Creator

In this post I will propose that there are just four basic narrative plots upon which we – each of us, any of us, all of us – construct a meaningful life and the world we live in. The Greek word for this basic narrative plot is mythos, referring not to one story or another but to the structural “spine” upon which all stories are composed. Setting, characters, rising action, climax, and denouement are countless in their variety, but these basic plots are just four in number.

Further, I will propose that these four myths “awaken” in our psyche during specific periods of development, designated across cultures in the archetypes of the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. In other posts I have named these The Four Ages of Life and identified the chronological thresholds as the years 10 (between Child and Youth), 25 (between Youth and Adult), and 60 (between Adult and Elder).

By the time a threshold is reached, the critical work of world creation as it anchors to the myths of previous Ages will either facilitate or complicate the work of the coming Age. In the interest of keeping this post tolerably short, I will assume that things go reasonably well, and that the project of world-creation is allowed to advance more or less without a hitch.

Each of the four myths is a central organizing structure around which countless stories are composed.

The many stories arranged around a common myth will take its principal theme into a wide variety of expressions, but they will all address, in one way or another, its focal concern. Let’s look at the four Myths more closely and try to appreciate how they get weaved together into the larger story of our life and the world we create.

The Myth of Grounding and Orientation

As young children we have a deep existential need to know, not intellectually but viscerally, that where we are is safe and provident. Stories of Grounding and Orientation answer what is perhaps the most fundamental question: Where am I, and what’s going on here? This is not yet the question of identity (which comes next), but rather of security. Is this a place where we can relax, reach out, and find what we need to live, grow, and be happy?

As implied in the name, this myth is foundational to all the others. Our impression of reality during the first decade of life is recorded in our nervous system, calibrated by our brain to match and adapt to the conditions of our early environment. Our need for security, to feel safe and that we belong, overrides every other emotional need.

All subsequent experiences will be evaluated according to whether they confirm or challenge this most basic sense we have of reality as provident.

On the cultural level, the Myth of Grounding and Orientation inspired primordial stories of provident beings who brought the world into existence and created the first humans. The gods themselves are not the focus of such stories, but are rather mediating agencies that serve to project intentional design into the cosmos and our human place within it. If some stories give account of how a once-perfect order fell into disarray, there nevertheless remains the relatively stable vantage-point from which this perspective is taken and the story is told.

The Myth of Identity and Purpose

After our first decade we are thrown into the quest for who we are and why we are here. The Myth of Identity and Purpose inspires stories of heroes who move out from zones of security in search of adventure, discovery, achievement, and conquest. Just as the earlier stories about gods are not really about the gods so much as the world order they set in place, these hero stories are less about the characters themselves than the formation – and various transformations – of Identity and Purpose.

The Age of Youth is powerfully anchored to this Myth. As adolescents we are frequently confused over who we are, and we busy ourselves with trying on one identity after another. We are sure that “no one knows me,” but in truth we don’t even know ourself.

Our experimentation with different identities exposes the constructed nature of identity itself, as something that can be put on and off, made up and changed on a whim – but it’s the most urgent and serious thing we care about!

What we probably can’t appreciate so much at the time is how personal Identity and Purpose are codified into social roles, and how every role is situated in a role play. In other words, identity is essentially about who we are on the performance stage of society. If we happen to be less secure in our sense of Grounding and Orientation from childhood, the quest for Identity and Purpose can be straight-out tortuous as we try to find security in something that isn’t even real!

The Myth of Love and Sacrifice

The Age of Adulthood is about settling down and establishing ourselves in society. A sense of being supported in a provident reality and curating a competent personal identity eventually facilitate our landing in more enduring partnerships, professional responsibilities, and maybe a family to manage. The Myth of Love and Sacrifice inspires stories of commitment, fidelity, and devotion. Life is now about investing ourselves in things that are worthwhile and more lasting.

“Sacrifice” refers to the act of giving up something of value for the sake of something more highly esteemed.

Commitment to one thing implies the surrendered pursuit of other things. Along with that, a sacrifice of our individual freedom for the sake of a married relationship is a declaration of our preference for what we deem a higher value. Lest we think that adulthood is only about “giving up” on the pleasures and excitement of life, such intentional acts of sacrifice actually serve to make life ultimately meaningful.

The many stories composed on this Myth of Love and Sacrifice include those of Jesus on his cross, Mother Teresa serving in the slums of Calcutta, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his jail cell. These individuals willingly surrendered their own freedom, entitlements, and life itself in devotion to what they considered a transcendent value.

The Myth of Suffering and Hope

When we reach the Age of the Elder after 60 years, our experience of life is deep, wide, and rich in both many joys and countless pains. The lessons we’ve learned along the way are translated into a wisdom concerning what truly matters, the precious value of little things, and how to see through (or past) the distractions of everyday life. Stories of Suffering and Hope give full acknowledgement to the burdens of existence – to the hardships, the losses, the betrayals, and the personal failures – but without giving them the last word.

In traditional cultures, elders are the respected guides and advisers of society, honored for having lived so long and learning so much.

If we don’t always have “the” answer to a question, we have likely observed or undergone things that can shed some light on the matter. In the very least, life has taught us that absolute answers – answers that are final, beyond question and not open to doubt – are more often irrelevant, and usually deceptive.

A familiar story of Suffering and Hope is one we can find in every culture, holding a vision for what lies beyond this life. Once again, however, just as with the earlier stories of gods and heroes, stories of heaven and the afterlife are not really about these things at all. Their truth is therapeutic rather than literal, encouraging us not to fixate or be consumed by life’s pains and losses, but instead to keep them in perspective as only part of a much larger picture and longer view.


Throughout our life we are creating a world that carries and reflects our deepest concerns as human beings. The stories we tell are anchored in the timeless myths of Grounding and Orientation, Identity and Purpose, Love and Sacrifice, Suffering and Hope. The best of all worlds is one that makes room for others, as it gives us the support we need to become fully human.

 

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