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School Orthodoxies

13 March 2012 No Comment

Theory is now in preschool and next year Win will be joining her.   It is a Reggio play-based school called Old Firehouse and Theory just loves it.  Both she and Win also attend a Waldorf class once a week with Tara.  But as they quickly age, education has become the burning focus of my concern.

Having just come from the Game Developers Conference, as inspired by a talk by from Quest 2 Learn and the Institute for Play, I have been thinking a lot about what education options are available to them.

When we moved back to the Bay Area, I vaguely knew that Marin had some very well regarded public schools.  The promise of good schools was indeed a primary driver.  Tara and I were just appalled after watching Nursery University and knew there was no way we could afford private schools in NY.

But I have to say I made some assumptions about what the school experience was going to be like.  Being the hotbed of technology, I just (naturally) assumed that with parent involvement and the high incidence of engineers, programmers, and other technology-related professionals, that the schools would be heavily embedded with the innovative use of technology in instructional development.  I don’t mean having computers in the classroom.  I mean adopting the innovations of technology to pedagogy.

Instead I have found a radically different situation.  On the one hand, you have a bunch of preschools that are understandably play-based.  Any learning psychologist of the last decade would fully support the pedagogy but it also takes on a strong Waldorf-orientation.  Don’t get me wrong, my kids get plenty of exposure to technology at home so I do appreciate space that is very nature-oriented.  Waldorf, however, as a pedagogical system, based on Anthroposophy,  is staunchly anti-technology.  Not only does this miss incredible learning opportunities, it also ignores a lot of what has been learned about the psychology of learning – especially as kids get older.

Moving into k-12, I am also fearful that the schools, so bogged down with national curriculum, fail to innovate in their methods as well as subjects.  My assumption still is that these schools are able to meet these prerequisites while excelling far ahead in other subjects.  The high schools in southern Marin offer courses like “Principles of Technology” (an engineering/materials course) and “Web Design” for sure, computer programming and computer graphics courses too.  Their drama department gets accolades.  I understand, this is a great school system with lots of talented teachers and kids excelling.

It is not so much that the schools will lack content.  Rather I fear that they fail to innovate in the delivery of the education.

Look at the work being done by Katie Salen at the Institute of Play, applying systems theory and game mechanics to the learning environment.  The schools that they have opened in New York and Chicago, Quest2Learn, are rooted in systems theory from the ground up.  Subjects are examined in relationship to each other recognizing the ecological relationships between history, psychology, science, etc.

As a parent with children that already exhibit vastly different personalities, I worry that one child might thrive in a traditional teaching environment but not the other. What intrigues me with the Q2L model is how they ensure engagement and participation – by leveraged game mechanics.

The core principles that define the user experience at these schools are as follows:

  1. Everyone is a participant – e.g. peer to peer teaching
  2. Challenge is constant – create need to know.
  3. Feedback immediate and ongoing
  4. Learning happens by doing
  5. Everything is interconnected
  6. It kind of feels like play

So despite the fact that the Bay Area is the epicenter for technology in the country, perhaps the world, none of the innovation that is part of the fabric of the culture has seemed to seep into the way we approach education.  Instead I see people desperate for alternatives and turning to unschooling as the only approach that is feasible.

And when you think about it, the unschooling pedagogy actually has a lot of parallels with a systems-approach model.

  1. organic participation of the child is central
  2. it notes that children naturally will challenge themselves.
  3. feedback is delivered in the moment from natural consequences instead of being dependent upon the delivery of grades/scores.
  4. As will Reggio Emilio, the child is the driver and the learning happens more from experimentation and engagement then rote memorization or passive intellectual engagement
  5. It allows parents to interweave all elements of life in a natural way
  6. It piggy backs on the natural learning inclinations of children.

But I don’t want to unschool.  I can’t afford to unschool.  I don’t have the time.  If my employment were optional, the idea of focusing on your kids education as your primary job just sounds incredible.  I just really thought that the education system here would be more then just in the top quartile of the API spectrum.

I thought the schools here would just be more, well, innovative in the pedogocical approach.

Maybe I have missed it.  If someone knows were the educational innovation is, let me know.

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