Square pegs for round holes – why education reforms fail: Bill Watson at TEDxPurdueU 2014


Translator: Feike Laffeber
Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo Thank you. So I do deal with video games. I don’t have any cool video games
to show you today, though. But we’re going to be talking
about educational reform, which I think is so important, because with a lot of my work,
doing video games, again and again I encountered situations where it’s challenging, it’s difficult, to actually structure the games
in a way we can use them in the classroom. So I started with video games,
but moved into — you know, we have problems, we need to really
change the system as a whole, so these video games can work. I’m going to be talking about
educational reform today. If you haven’t been paying attention — and I’d kind of be shocked
if you haven’t seen this — educational reform is getting
a lot of attention these days. This isn’t really anything new. A report came out in the early 80’s, called: “A Nation at Risk”,
done by the Federal Government and it said that our schools
were dangerously failing. Big time statement there. But really, since the mid 80’s to now, not really a whole lot has changed, except that push reform has now moved out into our magazines, our TV shows,
our movies, even into our
State of the Union addresses. A more recent report, 2012, said that our schools were actually
a threat to national security. I’m serious. Condoleezza Rice said that our country perhaps faces no more, no greater security challenge
than education. So a lot of doom and gloom going around. But what if I were to tell you
that our schools are actually operating at a near optimal level of performance? Is that possible? Can schools be performing optimally, but still be totally inadequate? Well it’s possible and it’s true. The thing is, our schools have been using the same model of education
for a very long time now. And they’re very, very good
at applying it. The problem is we haven’t really had
a significant paradigm shift in education since the Industrial Revolution. Before then, schools were
in the one-schoolhouse model: suddenly, everyone moves into the cities
to take the factory jobs, so schools are tasked with educating
mass numbers of students. Furthermore, these students are largely
going to be educated to work in the factories themselves
one day. So schools adopted
a factory model of education, perfect for the Industrial Age. In a factory model of education, we group students into grade level,
based on their age, we give them all the same amount of time
to learn the same content. Now luckily, as we all know, all children
are exactly the same as each other. (Laughter) I was just checking to see
if you’re paying attention. Everyone knows we’re all individuals with our own strengths and weaknesses, our own interests and passions. Treating everyone as if they’re the same
when you know they are not, is not a problem
in the Industrial Age model, — the factory model — because you’re not actually
that interested in learning. You’re focused on sorting students. If we know people are different, but we give them the same amount of time
to learn the same content, we’re forcing their performance to vary. So we’re sorting them into those
who can learn in the time they’re given, and those who cannot. Those who can learn,
move on through the system, those who cannot,
acquire learning deficiencies and fail. This is perfect for generating
two classes of workers: a factory line worker who follows orders and the manager who gives them. The problem is, by and large
we don’t live in that world anymore. We live in an increasingly dynamic world. We’re seeing massive change,
whether it’s social or technological, everything is speeding up. Today we need complex problem solvers. We need collaborators,
we need life-long learners. People aren’t working in the same job
or even in the same career, or multiple careers anymore. You’re having to learn all the time. So why are
all our educational reforms failing? They’re failing because we’re trying
to slap wings on a car in order to fly. You don’t try to drive a square peg
in a round hole, you design a round peg. The factory model was never meant to do what we’re forcing it and asking it to do. So if we’re talking about a system
that is focused, a school that is focused on actually
providing learning for all students, what might that look like? It would look very different
from the factory model today. In the factory model,
we’ve got people in their grades, we have people in their classes. In a customized model of education: grade levels –
we don’t need them anymore. The purpose of a grade level is
to group students as if they’re the same. If we know students are different, but we’re giving them the same
amount of time to learn the content, we’re forcing their learning to vary. We’re forcing some of them
to fall behind. Without grade levels — the grade level focus is basically saying:
all you 12-year-olds are the same, that’s forcing those who can’t learn
in that amount time to fall behind. It’s also forcing those
who can learn more quickly to slow down and wait
for the others to catch up. It’s not an accident that
many of our most gifted students they are bored out of their minds. It’s also not an accident
that our disadvantaged students feel like the system is
stacked against them — because it is. So no grade levels. No classes. Classes are another way
that we’re grouping the students. A class lasts a finite amount of time, and then it moves on
whether you’ve learned of not. We’re also, with these classes, dividing them up into these disciplines as if a mathematician never uses
English skills. Or a scientist never uses math-skills. It’s an artificial remnant of a system
that’s focused on delivering content rather than actually teaching
real world problem solving skills and applied knowledge. What about math and English? OK, classes. We’ve got these disciplines
here like this. It’s an artificial way
of structuring things. You know, when I was in school,
I was pretty good at English, read a lot at home,
I liked reading and writing. I wasn’t too bad at math either. It came to be a time,
sometime around the 5th grade or so, where I hit a patch
where I was struggling a little bit. I just needed a bit more time
to kind of get things. But the system does not allow for that. Whether or not the teacher
wants to give you that time, there is no choice there. So I moved on. I didn’t struggle so badly that I failed, but I acquired learning deficiencies,
gaps in my knowledge. So suddenly I believe
I’m no longer good at math. But what’s a school really
going to be looking like, if we don’t have classes,
if we don’t have grade levels? That’s a radical vision
that’s so different from what we have been doing before. Well, students are going to be
working on projects now, projects that are connected
to requirements that are in their
personalized learning plans. Teachers are going to be freed up from having to focus on
delivering content, to actually being able to focus
on teaching, facilitating learning. You know, I once observed
a history teacher, using video games to teach
World War II history in his class. He only did this for one week of the year. It is the perfect example of a learner-centered versus
a teacher-centered environment. We observed him
before he used the video game, and he was great,
he was up in front of the class, he was telling jokes,
he was telling stories, he was firing off questions,
calling on students, putting forth so much energy
and effort to keep them engaged, while they sat there and stared at him. And by the end of the period, a lot of them were struggling
to fall asleep — and he was a great teacher. We observed him
using the video game in class. It’s a totally different environment. Students are engaged, they are collaborating with each other, it’s really loud in there. And this passion spilled out
into the hallways, they are talking about gameplay
around their lockers and even over lunch. And the teacher, he was practically
doing laps around the classroom, answering questions, looking for
what he called “teachable moments” to really drive their learning home. And he said it was his most exhausting
and most exhilarating and most fun week of the year, because the students were engaged
and they were interested, and they were asking him questions, and they were forcing him
to push his own knowledge. Dare to imagine a world where a student demonstrates
her social studies and English skills by writing a persuasive speech
against ag-gag legislation, and then delivering that speech
to her state legislators. Or demonstrating her science,
technology, engineering and math skills by designing a new model airplane, testing it in a virtual wind tunnel and then reporting
on the results of that test and her plans for redesign. Or collaborating with her local museum on creating a virtual,
historical tour of a town. Or conducting and capturing
interviews with Holocaust survivors. Children are passionate
about their learning if you allow them
to use their passions to learn. This sort of new paradigm system will have projects that support
meeting learning requirements, while also supporting passion. Now, if students are working
on their own projects at their own pace, we know technology
will need to be a big part of this. It’ll be needed
to plan for their learning, to store assessments, to track and report on where they are. And if they’re working on these projects, those projects are creating evidence of what they are competent at doing, what they have mastered,
wat they have learned. So we need e-portfolio,
or digital badge systems that will store these projects as evidence of what these students are capable of. If you take math class right now, you’re going to be given a grade
at the end of that. That tells us nothing other than
how you compare to your peers. It doesn’t tell us anything about
what you can actually do. With this project, sort of instruction, project-based instruction,
project-based assessment, we’re creating evidence of learning. So students can now say to their parents:
“Look what I can do”, instead of:
“Look what I scored on this test.” Now I have a colleague who moved
his family across the country, so his exceptional gifted son could enroll in this customized
education model school. Let’s hope this school sticks around
long enough in that format for his younger siblings
to actually enroll too. It’s so easy for these schools
to be pulled back to the status quo. Solitary schools are existant
in a system around them that hold them back, hold them back to do
what everyone else is doing. I once gave a talk about new paradigm, this new paradigm model of education, and a woman in the audience
got very excited and she said to me: “I went to a school
just like what you’re talking about. I was failing in my regular highschool,
I went to this new school, and suddenly learning was fun. I was doing better than I ever had.” And I said: “That’s great!
Where was this school?” She said: “Well, it’s right here
in Indianapolis, but it’s not like that anymore”. Solitary schools have
the system stacked against them to bring them back to where they are. In order to actually make this change, we have to be audacious. We have to build support,
broad support across the entire community. That means we can’t put
all the responsibility on all the schools
and teachers anymore, but parents have to be involved,
businesses have to be involved, community members
and, yes, the government. And everyone has to have
a shared vision for where we need to be. Is it going to be difficult to implement
a customized model of education? Of course it is. But I’ve seen the sort of impact
that it can have, I’ve seen a school populated
with nothing but students who were kicked out
of the local highschool. These students had been incarcerated, they’ve been violent with teachers,
they were pregnant, they were working multiple jobs
to support their younger siblings. As one of the teachers there told me, once they get here and they realize
they’re driving their own learning, it’s like magic. Suddenly, we’re not the enemy anymore and all those discipline problems
go away. So it can work, but it can’t be
solitary schools here and there. The name of this conference
is ‘Daring Greatly’. In order for us to have
a true transformation of the system, we’re going to have
everyone on board saying: “This is the sort of system
that we need to get to.” I invite you to join me. Thank you. (Applause)

2 thoughts on “Square pegs for round holes – why education reforms fail: Bill Watson at TEDxPurdueU 2014”

  1. When you understand what #theVenusProject will positively do for our education system, you will surely be impressed.

  2. Schools aren't about teaching, they're about sorting, and change in education won't happen until the model changes.

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