Education: How to do it right

Education: How to do it right August 13, 2012

I love TED talks. I love that the best ideas from some of the best thinkers in their fields are online; it makes me optimistic that we can build a great future for humanity.

I spend a lot of time railing against Accelerated Christian Education. I feel that if you asked experts to design the worst possible education system from the ground up, they’d produce something with notable similarities to ACE. But that’s not to say mainstream education has everything right. There are lots of people who are failed by their education, and lots of talent that goes undeveloped because our schools don’t value it. I’m interested in how we can improve the situation, although my optimism is tempered by the seeming fact that every time a British politician goes near education, they make it much, much worse.

TED talks are one place with a lot of suggestions on how we can get this right.

Salman Khan suggests we use video.

[ted id=1090]

(Direct link)

If you don’t have time to watch: Khan Academy has a huge number of online video lessons. Salman suggests that teachers could assign watching these as homework, and then the assignments that would traditionally be completed as homework can be done in class, where students have access to help from the teacher and their peers. This has some appeal. I certainly find video lessons very effective for my guitar students (what, did you think I was a professional fundamentalist-basher?).

The thing that interests me about this system is that it is based on individualised mastery learning. You know what else is based on individualised mastery learning? ACE. I have to fight my knee-jerk reaction to dismiss Khan’s whole idea based on this similarity. Actually, there’s good evidence that mastery learning is effective when properly implemented. For one thing, you have to be mastering material that is actually worth mastering, which can’t be said of ACE. For another, you need assessment which requires students to demonstrate understanding, another area where ACE fails catastrophically.

The evidence for individualisation, by contrast, is that it is appallingly ineffective (this is another good argument against ACE, by the way). John Hattie argues that’s because students need good feedback about their performance. Wholly individualised learning usually fails to provide this, because students don’t get enough attention from the teacher, and don’t get any help from their peers either (evidence is that peer learning is pretty beneficial for all parties).

The tremendously appealing idea of ACE is that students learn at their own pace. It’s just that, in practice, this doesn’t happen. Khan Academy seems to take this promising idea of individualised learning, and fix many of the problems with it. Because the “homework” is covered in class, students can get the teacher and peer feedback which contribute so strongly to success. The stifling isolation of ACE is replaced with a classroom where the kids bounce off each other and the teacher.

I’m not without reservations. For one thing, Salman Khan presents this as though the only alternative is a one-size-fits-all lecture, when good teachers already know that kind of undifferentiated teaching is ineffective. For another, the computerised tests he proposes worry me. Computerised tests are fine in cases where there is one right answer, which is why it works well for the maths problems he demonstrates. For almost any other subject, any useful question has more than one right answer and an element of subjectivity. That can’t be tested by computer.

Even English grammar, which Khan mentions as another subject where this can be applied, isn’t best taught as isolated technical exercises. The evidence is that, when taught this way, students might get the exercises right but go back to incorrect grammar in their everyday writing (see excellent blog by Geoff Barton). Grammar needs to be taught in the context of enjoying reading and writing good literature.

Questions with one right answer are for people who live in a black-and-white universe. ACE loves them. That scares me.

But Khan also says some important things that reassure me. He says that students are encouraged to experiment, take risks, and fail. And he also says they don’t view this as a complete education, while ACE markets itself as total. This looks like a system which addresses the same educational problems ACE is targeting, but doing it much more effectively.

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