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The End of the Local Education Monopoly
September 6, 2009

Teachers from Socrates up to the present have taught in much the same way: by lecturing in person to a group of listeners. There is a lot to recommend this approach, not least that we are all familiar and comfortable with it, and it's simple to do: take people interested in learning (or who are required to be present), add someone who knows the material, and presto! You have a class. Everything else is a frill. Add to this that we know the large majority of in-person communications is non-verbal, and lecturing has a power that goes beyond the mere conveying of data or information.

But there are two major drawbacks of in-person lecturing: it imposes a de facto geographic monopoly on education, and a one-size-fits-all mentality on teachers and students alike. Letís look at the geographic monopoly first, and then segue into differentiated instruction for each student.

If Socrates were available to lecture (or dialog) on philosophy at a public school, but not in your area, you might have to settle for Joe Schmoe just because he happened to teach at your school. Indeed, with a few exceptions, virtually all teaching and lecturing is determined by a geographic monopoly: you're stuck with the teachers who happen to be available. Until very recently, there have only been two ways to change that: lure the best teacher to your area, or go elsewhere to be with the teacher you want.

Having students taught by whoever is available locally may be a good thing, or it may be a bad thing, but mostly itís a mixture. Like many people, I had a few dud teachers, a large number of good teachers, a goodly number of excellent teachers, and one life-changing teacher in my public school education. But does it have to be that way any more? Do students need to settle for the teachers available in their local schools?

15th Century technology

Of course, teachers donít do teach based only on their own knowledge any more: they use teaching materials to supplement their talents. The classic example is the textbook, which is written by experts, and contains examples, problems, exercises, illustrations, and charts that would be well beyond most teachersí abilities to prepare on behalf of their students in the prep time available. In this way, we are already using technology (albeit based on movable type, a 15th century technology) to buttress the capabilities of local teachers. And this has worked extremely well: the education delivered by teachers today averages out to be the best in history. I say that it Ďaverages outí as the best in history because there have been select individuals, such as the children of royalty or the aristocracy, who have been tutored intensively by brilliant teachers that may have obtained better results. Todayís result is different: we deliver consistently high quality education to virtually everybody. Itís just that not everybody profits from it fully or equally.

But this brings me to my central point: Why should we stop with the technology of the 15th century to supplement and support the abilities of teachers? And why shouldnít every student have available the intensive, one-on-one experience with the best possible teachers to enable their learning? We now have the ability to do just that, and the cost is declining to the point where it is competitive with traditional lecturing.

In an earlier column I wrote that the best way to teach a given subject to a specific student depended on who was doing the teaching, who was doing the learning, and the material being taught. Letís work with that concept and do what Einstein called a gedanken (thought) experiment about what we could do if we so chose.

A thought experiment in education

We know that every individual represents a unique mix of emotional and intellectual intelligence. As well, different people learn best with different learning strategies, notably visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. In our experiment, therefore, letís assume we can customize an approach for every student that optimizes their ability to understand and absorb a given subject matter. Iím a visual learner, for example, and have to see something before I can really absorb it. Listening doesnít work anywhere near as well for me, which explains why I always took copious notes in any class I attended: it allowed me to see what the lecturer was saying. And I enjoy a high level of abstraction that starts with the familiar and concrete, but then draws inferences that takes me beyond the everyday into wider generalizations and hypotheses. Thereís something about glimpsing distant vistas of knowledge that grabs and motivates me (which also explains why the work I do as a futurist so fascinates me). So, if I were the student, we would clearly focus on visual instruction, and lead the subject matter into abstraction, generalization, and inference.

Next, we also know, whether we acknowledge it or not, that different teachers reach different students with greater or lesser success. My daughter, for example, is a real down-to-earth person, very different from me (which made it very difficult for me to help her with her homework). She had a teacher in primary school who was known as an excellent teacher, but, like me, loved intellectual abstractions. My daughter and her teacher also had very different emotional strategies for socialization as she tends towards the intimate and personal, and he prefers to be aloof and detached. The result was that the two of them struggled to communicate, and at times had difficulty even being polite to each other. Each one felt the other was being deliberately obtuse or obstructive whereas it was clearly a case of the wrong teacher with the wrong student.

Great teachers usually find a way to reach even those students that are very different from them, yet even great teachers occasionally get students they canít reach. Accordingly, we would want to match the student with the teacher, so that social styles, learning strategies, and the other intangible things that happen in the head and heart match up, making it easier for teachers to teach, and students to learn. Imagine, for example, having a classroom of students who just got it when you were teaching, or imagine having only teachers that really spoke to you in all of your studies. Thatís the experience we would aim for with all students and all teachers in our thought experiment.

Teaching strategies should change according to the material

Next, teaching strategies should change according to the material being taught. To a certain extent, we already do this. We use photographs, illustrations, charts, aural demonstrations (e.g., singing & language pronunciation), class trips, hands-on experiments, physical examples, recordings, videos, and so forth, to convey different ideas and subjects. Some things, like woodworking, dance, drama, or tennis, can best be learned kinesthetically, by actually doing them, and thatís how we teach them. So using different teaching methods and media are the areas where we have ventured farthest in todayís education Ė but we can now go much farther. Todayís electronic media can offer means of conveying knowledge and, more importantly, understanding far more broadly and more potently than printed texts or class trips ever could. They are capable of being dynamic, immersive, multi-sensory, and hyper-extensible. All you need do is look dispassionately at whatís happening in computer and online gaming to see the potential for Game Based Learning in education. You donít have to like or approve of Grand Theft Auto to see the potential for this medium.

Which brings me to actualization: How could we change what we do have into what we could have? Thatís where Iíll start next time.

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

© Copyright, IF Research, September 2009.

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