Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Disrupting class

I recently read Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn's book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Christensen is best known for his book The Innovator's Dilemma, which chronicles how various industries have been wiped out by technological progress over time. Personal computers ultimately replaced the mainframes of yore, but in the early years, they didn't compete for the same market. Disruptive innovations usually come in from below. They're much cheaper. Only over time do they become better. But become better they do. Meanwhile, established companies focus on better serving their existing customers, but as a result, they don't change to accommodate the disruption until too late.

The question in Disrupting Class is what this will look like in education. The book was written in 2008, so the predictions are already almost obviously old, and yet many that seem obvious haven't entirely come to pass either. Education is a resistant entity. If what you want to do is listen to a lecture on the quadratic equation, there is no reason not to hear it from the absolute best conveyer of the quadratic equation on the planet. Any kid who wants to take any language should be able to (Disrupting Class features a speculation about a high-achieving student wanting to take Arabic, and being able to through an online class). Years ago, I had a history teacher whose approach to US history involved putting questions and answers on the chalkboard, which we then spent the time in class writing down. What a waste of time when, these days, you could be listening and watching lectures from the best professors of US history around. Kids could look at those same questions and answers on a computer. And yet in many cases, these things don't happen.

Why? There are vested interests, of course. But even in the theoretically more efficient and adaptable private sector, established companies can almost never innovate into new versions of their same industry. So Christensen, et al, see disruptive innovation coming from outside the usual channels. Hence, Khan Academy. Online and digital learning is more likely to take hold first in after school programs, summer school programs, and in alternative education programs (credit recovery, juvenile detention centers, etc.) Charter schools, likewise, might give it a whirl. At first, it's not as good. But over time, it gets better. And eventually, school will look very different.

Or at least that's the idea. The authors predict that by 2014, about 25% of kids will be doing some kind of digital learning, and it will be at a tipping point. We're probably not that close now, but the field is changing rapidly, so it may not be too far off.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fitting in

Over in Australia, a recent study of the state of gifted education has found that gifted kids face enormous pressure to fit in. According to a story in The Age, the report finds that children frequently face bullying when they don't conform to the social standard ruling everyone else their age.

While I'm glad to see this issue get some attention, I can't say I'm surprised. Growing up in "normal" schools in heterogeneous classes, the gifted child soon gets one identity: the smart kid. While a few other attributes can expand that identity (massive athletic talent, for instance) generally "the smart kid" is what you're stuck with. You soon learn that "the smart kid" is not necessarily the cool thing to be. So you don't stick up your hand. You don't ask a lot of questions. Or you do, and suffer the consequences.

People always talk about how heterogeneous grouping helps with socialization, but I think this world view misses what happens in real life. In a homogeneous grouping, the gifted child gets a one-dimensional personality. In a heterogeneous grouping, where "smart" isn't necessarily the biggest thing distinguishing you, the gifted child can discover other aspects of her personality, and how to relate to people in ways that aren't just about being the smart one. You learn that maybe you can be funny. Nice. Inquisitive. A prankster. Or anything else. These social skills are good to know, because eventually, many people wind up in semi-homogeneous situations on their own. At university, for instance, or in the workplace. It's probably safe to say that most software engineers at a major tech company are pretty smart. So what else do you have going for you? Unfortunately, many gifted kids don't get to think about this until much later. Or they dumb themselves down to fit in -- and miss out on opportunities for a better life later on.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer reading time

I have fond memories, from when I was a kid, of using my summers to read. Summer hours seem to have less filling them, and while I read on the bus to school, skipping that daily commute and the 6 hours in the classroom opened up many more hours for paging through books. I'd get so absorbed that I have a memory of absentmindedly walking around the yard with my head in a book, feeling something sharp, but ignoring it. Later I looked down and saw my toe was covered in blood. Never even noticed!

This is the first summer that my 5-year-old can read in a way that would make reading fun. I've started reading aloud the Winnie-the-Pooh stories to him (before this year he couldn't sit through a whole one...they're not short!) He reads through his dinosaur and astronomy books, but I'd love to introduce him to some easy reading but enjoyable books for young readers. I welcome suggestions. The first chapter book I read was called something like Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims, but I'm not sure it was great literature. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books, too, but I'm curious if little boys get as excited about those books as I did.

Of course, I'm also nostalgic about all this summer reading because it seems these days I rarely read novels. The last one I made it through was Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, and that was almost a year ago now. I think I'm reading and writing too much for work now, and it takes some of the fun out of digging into something meaty. Maybe I'm hoping that reading through some literature with my son will put me back in that frame of mind. What are you reading with your kids? To your kids? And what are they reading on their own?

Note: A purely self-promotional aside... I have a new ebook out this week called "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast." You can read a review here at MoneySavingMom, and an excerpt at FastCompany.com. Available in Kindle, Nook and all other e-reader formats. It's short and cheap ($2.99). Thanks for checking it out.

Monday, June 04, 2012

In praise of abnormal childhoods

USA Today has a quick post today on Sho Yano's graduation from medical school at age 21. Yano also earned a PhD in molecular genetics and cell biology, but that wasn't in the headline -- I guess people still like the image of Doogie Howser, MD, all these years after that show!

My favorite lines from the post: "The average age of students entering medical school in the U.S. is 23, and there were schools that refused Yano admittance because of his age. School officials worried that the difficulty of medical school would hurt Yano's ability to have a normal adolescence, the Tribune reports...."I never understood that," Yano said. "Why would being allowed to challenge yourself be considered more damaging than being totally bored?"

Exactly. There is nothing "normal" about being bored in school, or about being forced to learn certain things and not learn others solely because of your birthdate. If being able to learn to your full potential is an abnormal childhood, well, I'm all in favor of being weird.

Friday, June 01, 2012

NYC's gifted programs...and mine

I lived in New York City for 9 years, and my oldest two children were born there. We'd started thinking about the whole school question before we left -- though we didn't get very far down that road before moving to Pennsylvania instead.

Anyway, this past week, the NYC school system mailed out its letters informing parents whether their K-3 child landed a spot in one of the city's gifted programs. Unlike many school systems, NYC has quite an elaborate network of GT classrooms. On the other hand, getting in one is not all that straightforward. A child is tested and is labeled gifted if she scores above the 90th percentile. But there aren't actually enough seats in programs for the students who receive that label. Some 13,508 students got scores high enough to qualify. Of those, 7,562 applied for spots (the others presumably chose private schools or found other non-GT programs they preferred -- maybe a neighborhood school or a language immersion program). Of these, 5,486 received offers. The other confusing part is that there are two tiers for the program. Scoring above the 90th percentile qualifies you for "regular" gifted programs, but scoring above the 97th percentile qualifies you for "citywide" gifted programs. These, at schools like Hunter, are the most popular. But because more kids score above the 97th percentile than there are seats, in effect, you have to score at the 99th percentile.

Reading about all this has me pondering what we're doing with my 5-year-old next year. We moved to a school district outside Philadelphia that is known for being good. Certainly the offerings of contests and courses dwarf anything I experienced at the local schools in Indiana I attended for a few years. His elementary school is about a mile from our house. To enroll him, all I had to do is show up at the district office with his immunization record and birth certificate. I'm really quite grateful to have skipped all the stress of figuring out if he'd have a spot in a certain program, applying to private schools, and all that.

I have no idea if my son is officially gifted or not. We'll likely have him tested next year. But on some level, I'm not sure it much matters yet. Kindergarten is half day here. So he'll be in school for a grand total of 2 hours and 45 minutes per day. If it's all playing on the playground, we'd deal, because my son winds up doing a lot of academic work at home. He writes stories, reads books and informs us of various things he's learning about dinosaurs and planets. We sometimes do our bedtime math problems. Or we stumble into it. He's become obsessed with this guide book on San Diego (we might visit in August). He's informed me multiple times that it's 77 degrees in August (per the average high in the table). But he was trying to figure out, does that mean it's 77 degrees on August 1? or 10? or 20? So we started discussing the concept of averages (which I'm having a hard time explaining, by the way).

Anyway, I feel like next year will be about easing into school, seeing how it goes. I'm glad to have avoided the high stakes system of NYC, even though I'm glad NYC even has a system. What are your school plans for next year?