Last week my son’s middle school hosted an event to watch and discuss Race to Nowhere, a documentary about America’s broken education system. In a similar fashion to Waiting for Superman, Race to Nowhere points out the painful reality that despite epic funding and marathons of standardized testing, we have become unsuccessful at preparing our children with a functional education allowing them to compete in a global economy as a population that is smart enough and skilled enough to remain the most innovative country in the world. But where Waiting for Superman largely places the blame for our unsuccessful education system on teachers and more specifically, the teacher’s union, Race to Nowhere investigates the methods the schools and parents are using to teach and, in many cases, demotivate the development of our children.
The film is more about how we teach our kids than what we teach them. It raises fundamental questions about the purpose of school. Here are some of the key points that really got me thinking:
Standardized tests have being doing everything they possible could to hold me back my whole life. From timed math tests in elementary school, to placement exams, all the way up to the SAT/ACT score that would inevitably determine the quality of my secondary and postsecondary education. Though I was smart enough to get good grades, ace spelling tests, excel at papers, and could race through flash cards faster than most, I absolutely sucked at taking standardized tests. My memory of every standardized test I’ve ever taken was, opening the booklet and racing through the first questions with sweaty palms and a racing pulse, my mind struggling to focus on the task at hand. What was the task? The task was to score well on this test to that I could get into the AP class, get into a good school, and have a fruitful life hopefully doing something that I wanted to do with my life. Then, I’d hear the test proctor say, “3 Minutes Left!” It was then that I realized I’d spent the last 10 minutes lost in a panic-stricken catatonic trance. With no choice but to race through the blanks with my No.2 pencil. At least 1/3 of every standardized test I’ve ever taken has been comprised purely by guess-work.
Though it is now clearly apparent to me that I was suffering from test anxiety, I’m still amazed that not a single teacher ever considered this as a possibility and taught me to overcome test anxiety. That certainly would have helped me a lot more than retaking Algebra 5 freaking times, ending only when I took it yet again my freshman year of college, which I aced, and moved onto business calculus, that again, I aced. Though I may have been too dumb to test well enough to get into the advanced reading group in 1st grade, I was smart enough to realize that the smart kids were appointed to the “Reading Bees” and the mouth-breathers were sequestered off to the “Reading Rabbits.” I was also smart enough to move my name that was held in place on the tack-board by a shiny red thumbtack. So, with little more dexterity required for sticking a round peg into a round hole, I moved my name from the Rabbits to the Bees when nobody was looking. Mrs. Chan apparently never checked the test results again because I spent the rest of the year reading with the kids who didn’t eat things they found in the trash can. If only getting into MIT was as easy as moving my name 9 inches on a tack-board.
So, I agree with the film, standardized testing does not test a student’s skills, it tests a student’s ability to take a standardized test, a useless skill that I’ve not needed a single time since becoming a highly functional and productive adult. Every time I hear that my kids are spending the larger portion of the week taking assessment tests at school, I am saddened by the loss of time and energy that could have been spent inspiring their creativity and teaching them something of significant value.
If you think standardized tests are a good use of time, energy, and resources, please read this Washington Post story by Valerie Strauss. You may be shocked to find out that your kids may be spending as much as 19 days taking and preparing for standardized tests at a cost of as much as $1,100 per student annually.
Though I always adored those super detailed and long projects that challenged me to build a 3D functional model of DNA, or researching a debate topic for my 10th grade Peace and Justice class, I absolutely agree that the bulk of homework is nothing more than busywork. If you want to find a clear sign of a teacher that is unconcerned about inspiring a student’s curiosity to learn, look for crossword and word-find puzzles in your children’s homework. These gimmicks teach nothing and inspire no one.
If you really want to destroy a chid’s natural desire to explore and learn, make learning as painfully repetitive and boring as possible. Student’s aren’t factory workers and they aren’t getting paid. We have to stop trying to process them and instead, we need to make an effort to inspire them. For this country to excel, we need engineers, scientists, doctors, and people who love learning enough to spend a significant portion of their early lives in school. We need to start now by making education something that students absolutely love. We need to realize that learning should be challenging and may require a significant amount of work depending on each student’s innate talents and intellect, but that we don’t need to artificially burden them with unnecessary work that does little to propel them forward. Being a student should be enlightening and good teachers should avoid piling on any work that is mind-numbing.
In 5th grade I had a teacher that appointed us to complete all the puzzles and quizzes in the most insulting and insufferable excuse for educational material, called the Scholastic News Weekly Reader. It really should have been called The Lazy Teacher Weekly because it kept students busy and required absolutely zero effort from the chair warmers who dared to consider this a functional educational resource. This was the year that I began hiding the following line in the middle of nearly every paper I wrote. “Dear Mr./Ms/Miss/Mrs. [teacher’s name], do you actually read any of the papers we turn in, or do you just scan them for spelling and punctuation and hand them back.” I never required any more proof that my 5th grade teacher was a waste of educational resources, this would do it. As long as my first paragraph was topic specific and each sentence was complete and each word spelled correctly, I never received anything but a red flare, “OK,” at the top of my papers.
The best teachers I’ve ever had were genuinely excited by the coursework they taught. My 4th grade teacher gave each of us a cow’s eyeball and taught us how to dissect it. I still remember how smooth the lens felt when I cut it free from the connective tissues. My jr. high science teacher taught us how to render hydrogen from water to make explosive balloons and play laser baseball while 3 students held mirrors. He obviously loved science and he made learning about science incredibly amazing. My high school sociology and psychology teacher taught us about B.F. Skinner by performing a live demonstration of negative and positive reinforcement that proved a student could be trained to write her name on the chalkboard by simply hearing the rest of the class “boo” or “cheer” without any other knowledge of the task she was supposed to perform. I was completely amazed when she began writing the first letter of her name with a roar of cheers within ten minutes of returning to the room.
These teachers inspired me to learn all that I could because they catered to my learning style, that is, hands on discovery and excellent storytelling. My wife, on the other hand, remembers that very same sociology and psychology teacher as incredibly boring and probably couldn’t recall if it was Skinner, Jung, or Bandura who taught pigeons to play ping pong. She learns better from straight lecture, reading, and taking notes, and she is, I must admit, a significantly better student, a fact made apparent by the long string of impressive letters after her name. But, is she a better student, or were there simply more teachers that catered to her learning style than were willing to cater to mine? Also, who received a better education from that, or any other teacher? After all, I will probably never forget all the stages of Freud’s theoretical psychosexual development and she probably couldn’t conjure the name of the antithesis of the Oedipus complex much less to remember that Freud stood wholeheartedly opposed to the idea that the Electra complex exists in female children. That said, it is quite likely my wife knew the correct answer and aced the test back when she was required to know the answer.
Why, given our different learning styles, were we both taught by the same teacher and why did that teacher use the same teaching style for both of us? It is likely because schools and teachers aren’t concerned with student-specific learning styles. If a student isn’t accomplishing goals, most teachers will just spend more time teaching the same student in the same way they did last time they failed to teach the material to the student. This is an exercise in futility and certainly a case where we, as an intelligent species, should be fully capable of realizing that more effort is not the most effective or efficient means to accomplish the goals. Please consider, it took no more time or effort for my psychology teacher to inspire me to learn about the human mind by telling stories or engaging us in interesting classroom experiments than it would have for him to write key concepts on an overhead transparency for students to copy in their notes.
My wife, likely obtained many impressive letters after her name due to some fantastic teachers that inspired her to continue her education because they catered specifically to her particular learning style. Likewise, if it were not for the very few teachers that inspired my specific learning styles, it is likely that I would not have accomplished much of anything. Though neither of us feel as though we’ve fallen short of our capacity, I can’t help but think of what could have been possible if every class I’d taken had been led by teachers that knew how to encourage my specific method of learning.
How is it possible that we’ve had televisions since the early 1900’s and video tape since 1951, and we’ve not yet fully exploited this technology to completely revolutionize learning? We have computers, iPads, YouTube, podcasts, and eLearning technologies and yet we have a problem with classroom overcrowding and budget cuts? Someone please help me understand why we’re paying teachers and professors to give roughly the same lecture to multiple classes each day, semester after semester, year after year, when we could use this technology to deliver the lecture to an infinite number of students?
Now before anyone jumps through the interweb to strangle me for suggesting that teachers be replaced for a series of 1’s and 0’s, please believe me when I say that there currently isn’t and probably never will be a better method of learning than the human interaction that takes place between students and teachers. That said, we are fools if we don’t realize the educational potential and cost savings that could be harnessed by extremely well designed computer driven education.
In Salman Khan’s TED Talk, Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education, he explains how he accidentally discovered the power of using YouTube to tutor his nephews in calculus. Though he initially used YouTube to deliver the content only because it was the easiest way to tutor his nephews because they were in a different part of the country, he discovered that they preferred the videos to tutoring in person because they could pause the video, and replay parts that they wished to view again. It simply cannot be denied that a randomly accessible video is monumentally more patient than even the most patient and caring instructor in the world. [ted id=1090]
If we compare our learning by hearing or reading to a USB 1.0 cable, learning by visual explanation is more like learning via a Thunderbolt interface.
Now we’re getting close to a topic that I happen to know quite a bit about because I founded and make my living at acompany that specializes in creating advanced media designed to explain extremely complex medical, surgical, and scientific concepts to very wide audiences. The most valuable tool in our arsenal is 3D animation because 3D animation takes full advantage of the most functional way by which most people learn. Human being’s are innately visual learners. 20% of our brains are strictly dedicated to processing what we see and 40% is dedicated to vision+touch, vision+attention, and vision+spacial navigation etc. That’s a heck of a lot when compared to the 3% our brains dedicate to processing what we hear.
3D animation allows the educator absolute freedom to stimulate the student’s most powerful learning tool by moving objects and camera in 3 dimensions, cutting any object in half or seeing through any number of objects by using transparency. This allows students to understand extremely complex concepts in a staggeringly short amount of time. I believe that 3D animation has the ability to functionally teach students both theoretical and topographical/spacial understanding in a 10th of the time than lecture and reading text. If I am correct, it means that a student could garner the same understanding from watching a 3 minute animation that would require a half-hour of lecture and studying. Of course, the benefits are topic specific and 3D animation would be most beneficial in teaching coursework that lends itself well to visual explanation like physics, chemistry, geometry, biology and other sciences. Of course, I think I could also design a highly functional 3D animation to make a more engaging explanation of grammar, sentence structure, as well as explaining the concept of conditioned reflex with an animated version of Pavlov’s Dog.
In this study, published by the British Journal of Ophthalmology, the teaching advantages of 3D animation were measured to be significantly more beneficial when compared to using traditional surgical video. When 172 medical students were randomized into 2 groups to discover how much of an educational advantage was possible using three dimensional animation, the results were no surprise to us. The medical students that watched the 3D animation outperformed the group that only watched the surgical video in both topographical (16% higher understanding) and theoretical understanding (7% higher understanding). An unexpected and interesting additional finding is that female medical students benefited even more from the 3D animation than did the male medical students with 19% higher understanding over the group that viewed only surgical video.
Technology could also help reduce costs and improve teaching benefits by integrating digital video, 3D animation, text, and imagery into a fully interactive eLearning platform that dynamically presents students with dynamic lessons, lectures, and testing through the use of a LMS (Learning Management System). Technology, when designed appropriately, can help teachers communicate even more effectively with their students and vice/versa. Imagine how powerful an eLearning solution could be if it allowed students to flag a math problem to inform their teacher’s that they don’t understand it by simply tapping the help button on their tablet. Or, better yet, imagine how great it would be to ask the software to help guide you through the next step in a quadratic equation. This isn’t science fiction, this software existed in ’92 when I was taking algebra (yet again) my freshman year of college and it helped me achieve a successful outcome in ways that would have required hours upon hours of private tutoring.
Furthermore, this eLearning content could be developed to speak directly to each student’s particular learning style and allow each student to truly progress at a rate reflective of their capacity. More important than no child left behind may perhaps be no student required to move at the pace of the lowest common denominator. If designed well, the learning curriculum could help each student nurture their own learning curiosity by allowing them to explore deeper into topics that they found interesting and appealing. Because there really isn’t any technical limit to the amount of information we could pack into the curriculum, there isn’t any technical limit to how deep each topic could go. The world isn’t suffering any shortage of people who desire teaching any more than there is a shortage of people who are desperate to learn new things. Perhaps it is time we consider teachers more than simply people who process students and instead see teachers as the people trained and paid to develop learning content. Teach a student how to fish and the student may eat for his entire life. Make an eLearning course about fishing and you may just teach an entire generation how to fish. If we want to make better use of limited educational funds, then getting the most amount of education out of each dollar makes a whole lot of sense.
Now, I know the concept of eLearning may threaten a lot of people and a lot of industries. This may threaten teachers and teachers unions. It may threaten educational text book publishers and it may threaten parents and students who believe in a more traditional method of education. Change can be threatening, but change can also be good. I’d like to help reassure you, and tell you that we’ll still need A TON of really great teachers, and we’ll still need books, and that the changes that technology can bring significant benefit to your children’s educational careers. I really want you to feel reassured but I admit, if you feel threatened, it is probably because you should feel threatened. Our education costs us more and delivers less than it ever has. Anyone with a job performance record this low, should feel threatened. If you earn a living in the field of education and believe that you’ve earned the right to remain complacent and have job security while our children are ranked 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading when compared to 49 other industrialized countries, it is long past time for you to quit your job and make room for someone committed to the honorable occupation of being an educator.
I believe in using technology to make things better and perhaps it is time for me, especially after calling out complacent educators in the previous paragraph, to put my blood and sweat where my blog-hole is and do something about it. So I will dedicate my skills and my talents to radically improve the way we teach and the way we learn. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot ever since my son’s school informed us that his 6th grade health class was canceled due to budget cuts, or because they hadn’t yet decided on a curriculum, or both. I’m still a little fuzzy on why they didn’t teach health classes that year. I found it very disturbing that our educators would choose to cut such valuable class at a time when obesity has become an epidemic and for students at an age when their hygiene and health habits are likely to become predictive of the rest of their lives.
I realized that my company, Ghost Productions, was ideally well suited to do something about this problem. We have all the tools, skills, talent, and resources needed to build phenomenally dynamic educational content about everything having to do anything with anatomy, physiology, medicine, and human health. So, I chose a topic to cover that I believed would be educational, entertaining, and needed. So we wrote, designed, produced and delivered an eLearning program about teenage acne. We’ve since released the finished project with a creative commons license so that anyone can use the content to help educate teenagers about acne. Download it here on our non-profit page.
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Though this was merely a test that built a small example of what we could create for middle school health classes, the data garnered from this test lets us know that it is possible to completely revolutionize the way we deliver heath education. For significantly less than what Minnesota spent on 6th grade health books in 2009 (see figure 5), I am confident that Ghost Productions could produce a fully encompassing, interactive eLearning health course for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders for not only the whole state, but the entire country. This course would be compatible with all platforms whether that be Mac, PC, or tablet computers and include a learning management system that would automate all testing and give teachers instant feedback on each student’s performance. The course could even be designed to function as an independent study course for those unfortunate counties who were forced to eliminate health education from their budgets. Though I feel that even eLearning based heath curriculum would be best driven by a teacher, something is better than nothing.
Minnesota Budget Per Student$10,685Percent Spent on Books & Materials (San Diego)4.30%Books and Materials per Course$459.46Price per Health Book$22.97Number of Students823,826Number of 6th Graders68,652Budget for Health Books$1,577,129.06These figures were created using known values from the Minnesota Department of Education and published annual percentage of budget for books and materials from San Diego because Minnesota doesn’t record, track, or publish this number. If you don’t like my math, please contact Sheila Oehrlein at the Minnesota Department of Education at (651) 582-8448 and see if you can get your hands on better information than I was able to find.
I’ve analyzed the requirements for this middle school health education project with significant attention to detail and I’m certain we could produce an eLearning curriculum that could offer the following benefits to students, teachers, schools, and society:
So how are we going to fund this project? That part I’ve not yet completely figured out, but because we are designing all the course topics modularly, it is possible for us to begin and finish the project piece by piece as funding for each component becomes available. I’ve begun the lengthy process of applying for grants, but funding could come from any number of sources whether that be philanthropic or venture capital. Though it would be wonderful to produce this and make it available for free to the entire planet and increase an entire population’s knowledge of health substantially, it is hard to ignore the financial potential of something this powerful. As long as we deliver a better product at a lower cost than what was previously available, I’ll feel as though my efforts have been well spent. That, and I’d prefer that Frito Lay and McDonalds aren’t sponsoring the nutritional sections, or if they do, they provide the funding as a non-revocable grant and have absolutely no control over the content we develop.
So if anyone knows a philanthropy group, or has a wealthy uncle who’s desperate to change the way we deliver education, please have them drop me a line. I’m ready to get started on this project yesterday. 😉
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Ghost Productions is an award-winning medical media production company that can help you with custom medical animation and marketing services. We offer a wide array of digital representation services that can help anyone in the medical field improve their marketing, support patient communication efforts, or even streamline staff training. Our team is highly trained and has a great understanding of biomedical processes, so they can accurately represent your device or product in a 3D medical animation, or other types of illustrations you may be interested in. Contact Ghost Productions now and tell us more about how we can help you train your surgeons, sell more medical devices, or explain your pharmaceutical product.