More the twenty years ago the educational reform in the US has started, four Presidents in a row made the reform the national priority, but the truth is we still have lots of problems in this area (*). I used to teach a problem solving class and I believe, the more clearly we see the problem, the more chances we have for beating it (in addition it helps sometimes to turn the emotions off when analyzing a problem).
Valentin Voroshilov, PhD in Education
Physics Department, Boston University,
Boston, MA, USA
Three Ways to Speed up the Reform of Education
Billions of dollars have been spending to reform the system of education during the last two decades, but nobody can say the significant improvements were achieved. Yes, we get closer to the old competitor, i.e. Russia. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (nces.ed.gov/TIMSS) the differences in average mathematics scale scores of eight-grade students between the U.S.A. and Russia was 24 scores in 1999, and reduced to 4 scores in 2003. This is not a big surprise considering the political and economical difficulties which Russia has been meeting during the past twenty years, but, still, even now Russia is ahead of the U.S. Nowadays other competitors are getting more significant role on the educational scene, like Singapore, Republic of Korea, and China (including Hong Kong). Comparing with them the deference in scores is 87 on average (not in a favor of the U.S.A.) and have been remaining the same since 1999. Considering the fact that every year the U.S. educational budget is almost ten times as greater as the Russian, it seems we need to find some radical ways to move the reform ahead. In this article I would like to introduce three possible ways to do that.
The first way is being reforming what must be being reformed.
I like using analogies, in particular, jokes to help to clarify my ideas.
There is an Old Russian joke.
A policeman is coming to a drunken guy which is creeping about the side road light and asking, “Sir, what are you trying to do?” The guy is answering, “I am looking for the keys to my apartment”. “How could you loose it at such a light place?” said the policeman. “I didn’t loose them at this place, I lost it somewhere over there”, said the guy. “But, for the God’s sake, why are you looking for them over here?” said the policemen. “Because”, said the drunken guy, “it is lighter at this place.”
Where have we been looking for the key to the educational reform?
Two major goals are wanted to be achieved by the reformers: a) to make more and better educational tools (textbooks, learning aids, educational software, etc) to put more knowledge into the students heads and to train students to solve effectively certain problems; b) to make better teaching environment (school buildings, hardware, teachers, etc) to put more knowledge into the students heads and to train students to solve effectively certain problems.
A perfect example of trying to achieve these goals is the boosting the development of early high schools by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (an early high school is a good educational environment filled up with good educational tools). It is a good initiative, indeed. It will help many boys and girls to enter into a college. The result will be good for those boys and girls, but it will not be as good as it is being expected for the economic and civic health of the nation.
The Foundation’s logic is simple. The nation needs a bigger number of educated people. Where are educated people coming from? They come from colleges. Hence, we have to help high school students get into a college. The result of this logic is $ 30,000,000 being used for “by fall 2008, more than 170 early college high schools will exist throughout the country, ultimately serving more than 65,000 students”.
The only problem is that it does not mean that the total number of college students all across America will be increasing by 65,000 students, and it does not mean the public high schools are going to work better(**). The actual increasing will be significantly less. The actual result of building 170 early college high schools will be the redistribution of the high school students between the “old” public schools and the new early college high schools. But, the total amount of high school students well prepared to a college will remain almost the same.
This is one example of the common logic of the reformers. They keep saying (and this is obvious) that in the third millennium the leadership in education is the basic condition for the leadership in technologies. The world becomes more complex and difficult. People should solve much more complicate problems and use more information to make decisions. Therefore, we can hear often, today students should receive much larger amount of knowledge and we are trying harder and harder in order to pour more information into a students’ head (this idea is the main reason for boosting the amount of new textbooks and curricula, which in a year will be replaced by a new textbooks and curricula, which in a year will be replaced by …).
Let’s use an analogy again.
A space shuttle really looks like an airplane. However, it is impossible to invent, to construct a space shuttle just by making better and better airplanes. Even the very idea of a space craft (including a shuttle) cannot be derived from the ideas leading to the creating of airplanes. Scientists and engineers had to find out an absolutely new principle to just start thinking on the possibility of getting off the Earth.
Today in the field of education we have to use a new leading principle to get the new direction in reforming the system of education.
It is useless to increase the amount of information “pouring” into students’ head, because the amount of information is not the most important thing needed in order to make/construct a complex, complicated, and having an influence decision/conclusion/solution. Rather, a correct and efficient using of the information is the most important one. To be successful today (and especially tomorrow) a person has to be able to analyze received information, build a variety of reasoning, evaluate the probability of possible results and the consequences of making conclusions/decisions, etc. In other words, a contemporary person must be able to think intensively and effectively. Therefore, the main teachers’ goal is to teach students to think and to make (to create!) conclusions (decisions!). Hence, the key to the school reform is not a “knowledgebuilding” but another “building”. But what should be being built?
Any lasting system changes are based on significant changes in a system’s structure. For example by changing the structure of atoms of Carbon we can transfer the pencil stuff/filament into a diamond. The lasting system changes of the system of education must be connected with the change in the structure of education as a whole. We have to refocus the education. But what has to become the new focus?
Let’s use another analogy.
If we want to develop the students’ ability of running we could work on the developing of students’ lungs, but first of all we need to work on the developing of students’ legs, because legs are the main instrument for running.
What is the main instrument for thinking? The answer is obvious. The main instrument for thinking is a brain. A brain is the physiological basis of thinking. Hence…
The developing of a brain has to be the long-term focus of the educational reform.
It does not mean we have to forget about making kids knowledgeable/skillful, it means they have to become both – knowledgeable/skillful and brain developed, and achieving of the latter has to automatically include achieving of the preceding.
Keeping in mind the new goal, the first thing we should be concerned of is the influence of training/teaching methods/techniques on the functioning of a student’s brain.
I will use an analogy again.
Let us assume that students have been doing for many years one type of physical exercises only, which are squats. Then at the end of education, they could squat many times without any difficulties. However, all the other muscles, which are not involved in squats, would be highly underdeveloped. Students would not be able to perform any other exercises effectively.
A brain works the same way. If for years the majority of school lessons have been based on memorizing and reproducing/recitation, other kinds of intellectual activities would be difficult for students to perform (and, please, keep in mind that the getting well with the college Algebra, for example, a brain has to be able to juggle/joggle with a big number of thoughts simultaneously, and this specific skill must be trained specifically).
We can find today lots of publication on necessity of developing problem-solving skills, but the authors do not focus on the brain development. I believe that any school subject must being used firstly as a tool for “brainbuilding”, and only secondly as a tool for “knowledgebuilding” or “skillsbuilding”.
“Brainbuilding” has to be the motto for the reform of the system of education.
The well trained/developed brain is able to solve difficult problems. The underdeveloped brain can deal with easy tasks only. The thing is, at the age of 14 – 15 the human brain – as “a muscle” – is at the end of its development. It means, to make a significant progress in the further brain development, significant efforts and time are needed. Hence (I know it sounds sad, but the hard truth is better than the sweat lie), if a high school student is not able to enter into a college after an ordinary public school, it is unlikely he or she will be able to do that after an early college high school (or other kind of a “super” school; plus, entering into a college does not necessary mean being able to keep doing well at the college).
All I just said does not mean that the current reform of the system of education is useless. In particular, it does not mean that early college high schools are useless. The existence of those schools will give the positive effect. Every school of that kind will become a center of attraction for high professional teachers and highly motivated students. The public schools around an early college high school will be feeling a pressure of a competition from the early college high school (but, it is kind of hard to compete if your bets students and teachers are gone). The officials will have to find the ways to support public schools, etc. And, of course, lots of boys and girls will find a better educational environment at the early college high schools. But, we have to understand that we will not achieve the significant structural changing in the results of educational system as a whole.
If we want to increase nationwide the total number of high school students well prepared to a college significantly indeed, we have to increase the number of high school students having the well developed/trained brain. To achieve this goal we have to go onto the preschool and elementary school levels and reorganize them making accent/stress/effort on the students’ brain development (this is what the early childhood education must be about!).
We do not have to pour into the child’s head a larger sum of knowledge (rather the structure of knowledge and the ways of obtaining it should be changed); a head is not just a storage for information, but rather the place where new thoughts are being created (the best way to store information in one’s memory is to deal with it, use it, but not just to memorize it ***). We have to exercise/train the child’s brain by using different tasks/problems/exercises to help it to become as developed as the Mother Nature allows do this.
We used to say the health of the Nation is based on the personal health of the citizens, we force kids doing exercises every day helping them to keep their physical health, we try to keep kids in a good mood and give them a good sense of self-respect in order to keep their psychological health, we debate the ways to keep kids in a good social/moral health, way do we not care about the intellectual health of our students?(****)
And must importantly, there is no contradiction between developing a brain and developing the knowledge bases during the school years. To work on developing a brain a teacher has to use exercises. When taken from a specific science area the exercises can simultaneously provide the knowledge of a subject. It is just the matter of priorities (what is education about?) and of the creating curricula according to the priorities.
One of the consequences of the offered view on the educational reform is that one of the most important problems of educational science is the problem of the influence of training methods on the functioning of a student’s brain. I consider Math and Physics as the best subjects able to be used as a brain developing tool. I’ve been reading two major magazines oriented on teachers, i.e. “Journal for Research in Mathematics Education”, and “The Physics Teacher”. But, so far I have not seen any publication on the “brainbuilding”.
The second way to speed up the reform of education is that reorganizing the educational research making them more helpful for teachers.
Let's carry out a mental experiment. Let us assume, hypothetically, that we have created a group of the best designers/inventors of car wheels and gave them everything that they have asked for doing their job. Then we have separately formed a group of the best designers of car engines. Plus, we have independently formed a group of the best car body designers. Etc. All the groups have invented finally the best car wheel in the world, the best car engine in the world, the best auto body in the world, etc. Now, ask yourself, what would turn out, if we tried to put all these best auto parts together? The obvious answer is nothing! They will not match to each other.
The absolutely same situation is happening now in education. Someone writes fine textbook for middle school students. Other person independently writes a collection of problems for high school students. A third person creates an electronic encyclopedia for students at the college level, and, etc. Each didactic tool can be helpful for students of a certain grade, but they do not match to each other! Hence, they do not make a big change in the results of education (instead of having a car schools have a bunch of different car parts which do not fit to each other). Furthermore, if we combined together the newest and the best existed learning instruments and tried using them in a class we would create a terrible situation for our students. Why?
Learning is a long and complicated process; as any process it has stages and phases which are based on sequences of learning actions like “reading the text of the problem”, “making a sketch”, “listening to a teacher”, “writing the question”, “observing the data”, and many others. Each learning action takes a certain period of time (different for different students, by the way). An effective/efficient learning process obeys to the certain timing, which means an effective/efficient teaching process must obey to the same timing. However, you will not find a researcher today who would care much abut the time frame of using of his/her newly invented learning tool. Maybe, this textbook or that collection of assignments is good indeed, but a teacher is just unable to fit them all in the existing time frame of teaching. If he/she would try to put all new learning tools into the lessons, the whole learning process would be get just broken down. So, we have lots of new and good educational instruments, but they are useless (*****). And instead of trying to reconstruct the learning process in order to make existing tools more useful, the main effort of the majority of educational researchers is concentrated on creating more and more new but functionally disconnected learning tools.
The main reason of the “crisis of variety” of educational instruments is that there dose not exist yet a remedy/means to combine/cooperate/unite all the creative works in educational research.
What, for example, had made united all the scientists, engineers, generals and all the staff of Manhattan Project? If you said “The mutual goal”, it would not be specific (too general). And, such a goal as “Making a new high destructive weapon” could only separate people because everybody has the own idea on “high destructive weapon”. But, the goal “Making a U-bomb” had made people united, because this goal was an absolutely specific object/outcome, which “everybody” could see, touch, use. Analogically, “Making a good education” is not the uniting goal. But “Making a certain/specific educational environment” could be the one. The efficiency of the result of the achieving the goal would depend on the specificity of the goal, i.e. the environment chosen to create. If we want significant/structural changes, the goal has to have a nationwide influence (******). It means, the government has to make a decision on this matter, but so far officials do not pay enough an attention on this side of the educational reform and keep spending millions on creating more and more teaching tools with no system in the sets of the tools (if the Government would stop tomorrow those funding we would get two results; the huge roar on the “irresponsible behavior of the Government” and the schools working as usual with no sliding down test results).
The third way to speed up the reform is making it revolving about the person who is really interested in the succeeding of the reform.
It seems, the majority of the people involved in the reformation objectively do not interested in the finishing the reform. Of course, I am talking the worst–case scenario here, but who knows?(*******).
There is a simple for understanding but far leading fundamental principle, that is, one of the strongest properties of any biological system (including a human being) is an aspiration to keep the own existence (simply saying: nobody wants to get killed and even hurt - sounds pretty obvious, isn’t it?). This property governs the functioning of a system throughout all the living cycle of the system. There are rarely exceptions from this “rule of life”, but those extraordinary systems usually do not have a long life because of their self-destroying tendency. Simply speaking, every biological system, including human beings, wants to be alive as long as it is possible (does not sound strange, does it?). But, to be alive a biological system must utilize some resources like food, for example. Where can a system get a food? Only from outside itself (it cannot eat itself and keep a long life). In the contemporary social world it means usually – from other people; but instead of taking an actual food or something, we take money as the universal equivalent for goods. The only problem is that we do not print any money by ourselves. Other people give them to us, and usually it is not a gift, usually other people give money to us in the exchange for something they need from us. So, the logical sequence is simple; to support our life we need resources; to get those resources we need money; to get money we need to give out to other people something they need from us.
Let’s say it shorter; to support our life we need to be needed (!), and it is not just our wish, it is a strong motive for our activities that is hidden deeply inside of a human nature.
We are successful until we are needed; we are successful until there are other people who want something from us. This idea governs our life from a birthday to a death. Everybody obeys to this “rule of life” unconsciously, just because we are all biological systems.
It is good to be needed, but what if we feel a risk to become being not-needed? Our brain can always feel these things and when it does happen the brain starts looking for any way to escape that kind of a risk in order to keep us being needed – even if consciously we do not have any suspicions on what is going on. Can you imagine what people are going to do if they see/understand the risk of becoming not-needed (recall all the movies on CIA or so, where some bad guy from the agency wants to blow up civilians pretending terrorists would did it only because the government wants to cut the budget up)?
So, people always want to be needed. Sometimes to keep themselves to be needed people even fake (consciously or unconsciously) the necessity of the work they are doing. I mean, they do everything to convince other people that the work they are doing is really important and useful and promising and, etc, etc, etc. But, some times the truth is that the work is needed to the authors of the work only (and of course, they just like doing it). Two kinds of professionals (beyond just salesmen) used to be very persuasive in convincing of importance of their work – politicians and researchers. The difference is that politicians usually do it on purpose (absolutely consciously), though researchers usually do it unconsciously. But, the fact is that today you can find lots of research, which are not needed to anybody but the authors, including the field of educational research (********).
There is, of course, an important question, how can one estimate the valueless/value-ness of a research? There is not a general answer on this question, but I would offer my view on an educational research.
Talking abut education and all matters connected with it we should consider the whole system of education as a “salesman – customer relationships” system. The main rule for that kind of relationships is that; if customer does not want to buy a product, hence, a salesman must invent something new to sell or go out off the market.
Who is a central person that must being considered as a most important costumer among such professionals as teachers, researchers, officials and politicians?
It might sound strange, but researchers, officials and politicians are not really interested in significant improvement of the system of education. Why? Because if everybody had already a perfect school, perfect college and had got a perfect education, all those “big fishes” would go out off job (hence, out of money). I do not want to say that every researcher, official or politician is faking the importance/necessity of his/her work. All I want to say that there is a tendency – hence, a possibility – that the person can do that (we do not care about consciously or not the one does it).
However, there does exist a professional, who would appreciate a significant improvement in the teaching techniques. This professional is a teacher. It is obviously, that the better school, college, textbooks, curriculum, etc, etc a teacher has, the easier the teacher’s job. Only a teacher (among professional educationalists) is really interested in the getting reforming job done.
This logic leads us to a simple conclusion. In the system of education a teacher must play the role of a customer, whereas researcher (official, politician) must play the role of a salesman. As a customer a teacher must make a decision on what textbook/curriculum/research/etc he/she wants to use to do the teaching work as good as it possible.
Accepting this principle, we have to reconsider relationships between all the players on the field of education, but it is really hard to expect form politicians, officials and especially from educational scientists to consider a teacher as a number one figure in an educational system (of course, the control system must be balanced, hence parents and students have to be able to monitor teachers’ work and demand necessary corrections *********).
Now, I hope, you can see we need to make some huge changes in the ways we are performing the reform of education. If we are not going to do this today, the moment of truth will come tomorrow, when the American economy becomes desperately looking for millions of high educated (which means firstly “brain-developed”) workers, trying to keep the leadership from competitors, who are getting closer (**********). But wouldn’t it be too late?
* P.S. I used to teach Physics at a small college in MA. My students are smart and hardworking, but 99 % of them have serious problems with Arithmetic, and even more serious problems with Algebra. The only reason for that is that my students were taught in a wrong way (so, I have to re-teach them). I keep reading different publication on the way to improve education, but I see the huge gap between what researchers are talking about and the every day needs of teachers. I used to teach Math and Physics to any possible grade of students, I am a good teacher and I know what a teacher needs. It seems, the vast part of money spending on research on ways how to improve results of education do not help to do that in a real school life.
** P.P.S. There is The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which is becoming more and more popular among educators. One of the reasons of the growing popularity of the theory is one of the interpretations of the one that sounds like “You can’t think? Relax, you can run pretty fast” (which means a poor teacher has a good excuse for the poor teaching job done in the class). It is a huge trivialization of the fact that human beings are capable of solving complicated problems in different fields including sport, music, design, art etc. But the fact that a person likes to dance more then anything else and can do it better then anything else does not mean that the person cannot or do not have to learn the multiplication table. The only reason that a good sportsmen do not know a basic Algebra (if it happens) is only the poor performance of the Math teacher who has to be responsible for the intellectual damage done to the student by the poor teaching work. There is a definition of “a good physical health” and if a doctor has some damage done to the physical health of the patient, the doctor gets punished very hard. Is it a time to make a definition of “a good intellectual health” and start to worry about intellectual health of the Nation? (*********)
*** P.P.P.S. There is no contradiction between making kids knowledgeable/skillful and brain developed. There is a contradiction between teaching methods used to be used for centuries and the new goals and challenges education stands in front of. We don’t have to be deep theoreticians and study the theory of constructivism to understand the fact that learning is something much more complicated then just listening to a teacher, ad hence teaching is something much more complicated then talking to students (even when using the contemporary technologies). Let’s again consider a simple example. You have never been riding a bike, and now you want to learn how to do it. You can read the books about how to ride a bike, you can watch educational movies about how to ride a bike, you can watch competitions where famous biker are participation in, you can attend a lectures “riding a bike for Dummies”, etc, etc. Will you be able to ride a bike after all of these learning actions? You know, you will not. Of course, you will get lots of information about how to ride a bike and even about how to teach to ride a bike or about a history of bikes, or about how to build up a bike and a bike will not be a scary thing for you anymore. But to learn how to ride a bike indeed, you will have to eventually start riding it. Of course, you might fell several times, hurt yourself or a bike, but there is no way to learn how to ride a bike without actually riding it.
We don’t have to be a scientist to understand, there is no way to learn how to solve problems (any kind of problems – Math, Physics, Linguistics, etc) without actually soling them. But (this is a very important moment!) when solving a problem we have to use both – a brain and a specific information! Hence, the solving of a sequence of specifically constricted problems let us to achieve to goals simultaneously, i.e. to make a kid knowledgeable and to develop the kid’s brain.
This point of view on education leads to one more remark. When preparing a course students have to learn, we have to start from the full list of problems students have to be able to solve after the course is done, and after making this list we can start working on the curriculum (nowadays the situation is practically opposite). This idea seems even more relevant if we accept that after all there is only one way to measure the level of students skills, that is to give them some problems to solve (a problem is understood in a general meaning like any assignment to solve which students have to use specific knowledge and skills, including questions to answer which students have to do something else except for recalling the memorized information).
**** P.P.P.P.S. There are many examples of a really interesting work aiming to help kids to get better education; just log on the web site of any university and you find examples of summer schools for kids, learning centers for kids etc. All those initiatives help to the specific groups of kids but they are not working on the improvement of the school education as a whole. We really need to separate in our minds two different things; a) helping specific group of kids to get better education by taking them out of school for additional learning (which is a good social practice, of course) and b) reforming the system of public education which means reforming public schools making them work better (which is involving the school oriented educational research).
***** P.P.P.P.P.S. Of course, it is too strong assertion. When a teacher begins to use something new there is a positive effect. But it is hard to say the effect is because of the new tool or because of the teacher got better understanding of the subject when learning how to use the new tool.
****** P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Personally I think, the most effective environment for redeveloping an entire system of education is an On-Line Open Public School (at least a high school). The School has to be the combination of Internet, TV and in-paper published tools by using which EVERYBODY (at least potentially, as “a horizon”) could be able to get an education from a scratch to the level enough to pass SAT-I (at least). Concentrating the efforts on that kind of educational goal gives us as the outcome a logically and technologically connected grade-to-grade sequence of educational instruments.
******* P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. This is again a too strong statement. Of course there are people for whom giving the better education to kids is a passion and the meaning of the life. There are schools and even districts where the reform is practically done comparing to the rest of the schools and districts. But haw big is the total number of these schools, especially comparing to the twenty years of the reform?
******** P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. As a person who has a good math/physics education I wonder sometimes on psychologists. After Sir Isaac Newton we have in Physics three fundamental laws, which allow us to get derived lots of particular consequences. Today it would be just a loosing of time if somebody undertook research on measuring the relationships/dependencies between masses, velocities and angles of colliding billiard balls. Any possible relationships for this situation we can derive from the Newton’s laws.
But, in psychology we can see often before-Newton methodology of making research. Many psychologists want to investigate each and every single possible particular event/action/situation instead of deriving the results from some fundamental psycho–physiological principles, like “exercises make cells/muscles more developed”. I think it is time to find a very close connection between educational psychology and neurology (the new gold mine for researches).
********* P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. There is a reason for politicians, for example, being suspicious on the role of a teacher in the reform. Teachers are conservative by the nature of the job and they do not like constant changes (and they do not like VERY MUCH being judged, even when they do it every day many times a day). But this is the Government’s job to make teachers want changes, to make teachers demand new good teaching tools from researchers. The hardest, the most important and the most promising job of the Government is creating the system in which a teacher would be constantly motivated for a continuous improvement the results of the work.
********** P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Two interesting comparison, which are not in the favor of the U.S.A., can be made.
America is so much richer then Russia that she does not care too much about effectiveness of using the money. Hence, the percent of money directly used on the visible/observable improvement of the system of education in the U.S. is less then in Russia. Russia just cannot afford spending the money on anything too theoretical or too philosophical (plus, the main ideas on education are already said and any additional theorizing cannot improve significantly our understanding of educational processes).
For the last twenty years (at least) intensive research on constructivism in education have been performed in the U.S., but you will not find at any school a textbook built completely on the principles of constructivism. On the other hand in Russia for the last ten years the sets of textbooks and workbooks for elementary and middle school grades based on the theory of developing education (which is similar to constructivism) have actively been creating and implementing in schools.
The gap between the U.S. and Russia in the using of computers in school is gradually decreasing and soon the number of computers per a school will not be a parameter as important as an efficiency of using of those computers. Russian government dose not have as much money as American, but the way of using the money is different. The major financial support can get only a research that, as part of the research (the final phase of the research shown in the research plan), will be able to prove the efficiency of its implementing during one year of the real school practice. So, if you are the great educational scientist but you are not going to implement the results of your research directly at the certain school, sorry, no money for you. Of course, it is not done in exactly this way, but this is the main approach. There is a time to theorize, and there is a time to focus on the practicing. I think, the theorizing time is already in the past. We need educational engineering (or re-engineering).