School of TeacherOn

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Einstein

Background

While cycling back to home, I saw people protesting about the astronomical fee structure and increasing (mandatory) donations of private schools. They wanted the fee  to be regulated.

I started thinking to myself that they are called private schools for a reason. They can do whatever they want. Maybe I should open a school and do whatever I want.

I have a vision of what a school should look like. This vision has developed over time after watching and researching for the last couple of years. I am going to share that vision here.

Before I share my vision, it's important to understand why we need another school.

Why a new school [Challenges in the present education system]?

The point of learning is to become a better human being. We need to bypass "will this be on the test?" mentality so we can make learning for learning and not just for the test.

Seth Godin summarized the point of learning in the present information age: "We need to teach children two things. One is to lead, and other is how to solve interesting problems. The best way to teach solving interesting problems is to give them interesting problems to work on".

But that's not what we are doing.

Education as we know it is obsolete. We don't need to remember most of the stuff we are made to remember. We can just google most of it.

At the moment, we prime students to contain as much information as possible. Having more information doesn't make us a genius, or even a better person. The aptitude to make connections with information from various sources certainly does. As the internet penetrates ever deeper into our lives, the amount of information you carry in your brain will matter ever so less. However, the skills to use that information will command a premium in our lives, business, and the job market.

What's required for this creative use of information is the emotional intelligence. Some kids are naturals, and others are awkward like me. What's nice about emotional intelligence is that it can be practiced, taught and learned.

Even if we discount the dreams above, the ground reality of the school is:

  1. Too less one-to-one student-teacher time
  2. Not enough preparation for colleges and the independence that comes with it.
  3. Everybody is expected to learn everything at the same pace. We just don't work that way. We don't learn at the same pace.
  4. Whoever does the most work learns the most. Usually, teachers do most of the work and the talking in the classroom instead of the students.

An Education system based on fundamental truths

This is a tough one to implement but is more important than ever. Following are simple truths that everybody understands but are not used to design education in schools

  1. We have different strengths.
  2. We have different times of peak productivity.
  3. Not everybody learns at the same pace.
  4. Life would be so much better if we can do the things we like.

This school is a fiction, yet. However, in the spirit of making it a reality, I am going to write in present tense.

Vision

Our school provides holistic education, an education that focuses on all important areas of life.

Why?

Because everything is connected. There is really no way to separate one's attitude, motivations, diet, exercise, from the quality of life that we experience while in school and after it.

So the focus is on various skills and attributes required to master life. These skills include but are not limited to:

  1. Decision-making tools
    1. Awareness of Cognitive biases
    2. Risk evaluation and risk management
    3. Intuition
  2. Personality attributes
    • Honesty
    • Humility
    • Confidence
      • Knowing that you can overcome a bad situation in front of you because you have handled worse situations before in sumulation.
    • Goodness
    • Happiness attributes
      • Gratitude
      • Kindness, Compassion
      • Positivity
      • Sociability - Relations and community
  3. Creativity
    • Unlearn conventional methods
    • Ask original questions
    • Curiosity
    • Experimental mindset - Keep trying new things while balancing risk and reward.
    • Mindfulness
  4. Basic literacy in:
    • Finance
    • Negotiation
    • Persuasion
    • Reading
      • Speed reading 
  5. Health - Basics of healthy eating and living and appreciation for healthy habits
    1. Eating vitamins from whole foods
    2. Getting sunlight and going in natural environment
    3. Standing and not sitting
    4. If sitting, Sitting in the correct posture as bad posture restricts blood supply to the brain and cause various health related issues and permanent damage as well.
    5. Physical Fitness
  6. Mental fitness, Agile mind, Alertness
    • Relaxed attitude even in tense situations for clarity of mind
    • Self-control: Control over emotional state, mood, and panic states
    • Meditation
    • Perseverance, Determination, Grit, Resilience
    • Actions to change limiting beliefs
  7. Passion - Help students find their passion so they can be pushed to learn with that passion as a fuel.
  8. Responsibility
    • Knowing that nobody owes you anything, you are responsible for yourself.
    • You become what you become because of who you are and the decisions you take, not because of your conditions.
    • Focus on building internal locus of control by praising for things they are weak at - when they take initiative.
  9. Instill growth mindset instead of fixed ability mindset - Mindset matters as it affects how we approach problems and leads to self-fulfilling prophecies.
    1. Henry Ford intuitively knew this - "“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right.”
    2. When people with fixed mindset encounter a difficulty, they think they are dumb and can do nothing about it. On the other hand, people with growth mindset acknowledge the difficulty as a gap in present knowledge and try to fill that gap by hard work, smart work, and taking help.

Learning environment: Student Engagement and motivation

Extraordinary learning cannot happen in an ordinary environment. If the above vision is to be achieved, the learning environment has to be carefully crafted towards the above objectives. Our learning environment has:

  1. Student ownership: Whoever does the work does the learning. In our school, it's the students, not the teachers.
  2. Autonomy: In short, independence to do what they want to do, when they want to do. This seems very radical and counterintuitive even as I am writing this. Ricardo Semler has already proved this can be done in business and schools. You just need to give structure to the kids and help them make right decisions along the way by asking the right questions.
  3. Personalized learning: Students learn from what they want, where they want, when they want, and however they want.
  4. Mastery-based education: In video games, we go to the next level only after mastering the current level. If education has to be fun in the long term, it needs to be the same. Working like this will ensure they are engaged and in the flow much more than they would be otherwise.
    • This ensures that we match skills of the student with the right challenge.
    • Students progress to next level only after mastering current level.
    • Students don't wait for the whole class to pass a particular level. They progress as fast or as slow as they can and want. 
    • Students sit in a class based on mastery of that subject, not because of their age. eg. a student may be learning 8th grade Math while learning 2nd Grade Egnlish.
    • Learning to teach is an integral part of the mastery.
  5. Build confidence early: When we play games, they start off really easy. Then progresses in difficulty gradually thereby enabling great experience. Similarly, Students gain confidence by solving problems and building on that cycle. The program has to be designed such that we give small and big wins to students and build confidence accordingly. 
  6. Real-time meaningful assessment which reinforces learning by generating positive experiences.
    • Immediate feedback - so students can immediately work on the lacking skill.
    • This wasn't possible earlier. With technology, now it is.
  7. Relationships - with teachers
    • In a traditional school setting, teachers spend most of their time delivering the same lecture repeatedly and grading student papers. No time is left for individual discussion and problem-solving. Kids, therefore, have to keep extra tuitions for when they go home.
    • In our school, lectures happen automatically via video. So that takes care of the repetition. Assessment is automatic as well. This leaves a lot of room for individual tutoring in the class. Result? No extra tutoring required for most students
  8. A culture of high expectations from students: We are as much a product of expectations as we are of our genes. 
  9. Passion fueled learning: Joyful, fun place where students find their passions, where they achieve a lot and feel successful, feel themselves growing.
  10. Variety: Different activities for a block of 45 minutes or less - may or may not be for a single subject.
  11. Integrated information system gives a map of how students and teachers are doing. System aligned with competencies achieved, not only grades.
  12. All asked and unasked questions answered: All questions and answers related to a particular chapter/subject is documented in a central database and is made available for all students, forever.
  13. Purpose: Whenever someone tells us to do something, we ask why if we don't know the reason. Not knowing why we are doing something can be very frustrating. Children are no different. That's why we have a methodology of starting with the right questions which give a purpose and then taking the subject matter from there.
  14. Community: Making groups which can teach themselves. In here, we introduce peer learning and learning in groups. Besides, we all want to be affiliated. All students listening to a teacher in a class without any conversation is assuming that all students are at the same level and everybody gets what you are teaching. We both know how that has worked so far. Interaction of the students and teachers as a group is important to pick lagging students 

Strategy / Methodology of teaching (subjects)

  1. Start with questions - not information
  2. Engage first - teach second
  3. Learn with Games - not lectures
  4. Learn through projects - Build requirement first, give formulas later
  5. Keeping it relevant - Making students feel subject matter is relevant and engaging
  6. Giving practical skills which can be directly applied for earning
  7. Helping them earn by giving projects
  8. Teaching (for ex Maths): Focus not on just computation but posing the right questions, building models on real-world problems and verifying those models

Lecture delivery

  1. All lectures are pre-recorded and can be accessed on chrome books / laptops from anywhere by anyone. This will help not only the students but the wider community thereby increasing school profile. 
  2. These lectures are very short and may cover only one concept at a time.
  3. Each concept is followed by an assessment to see if students understand.
  4. If students don't pass the assessment, they can revisit the concept immediately.
  5. Teachers would be available to help students if they are stuck or don't understand a concept.
  6. One chapter may have tens or even hundreds of videos.
  7. This means students can go through a chapter or even a grade as fast or as slow as they want - within guided boundaries. 
  8. The advantage of doing this is that students are not wasting time on things that they already know - just focussing on the important areas.
  9. Slow and fast learners are not mentally punished by sitting in a class designed for speed of an average student.
  10. If a student manages to do everything ahead of time, they get time to play, work on a project, do something advanced that's outside the scope of the syllabus i.e. learning just for the sake of learning - not for grades.
  11. Giving power to students like this also gives them more responsibility, something which is not given until they are in college when suddenly, there's too much of it.

Assessment and Testing

Our current testing methods are archaic. They give little incentive to learn or to understand.

Testing should be about assessing mastery in a subject and using this feedback to improve upon the present knowledge. However, the dearth of time and resources has reduced testing into a labeling system.

Students take the test scores and that's really the end of it.  We effectively label students as awesome, average, and junk and send them off to the next grade.

There is little discussion, if any, regarding the test and the results and, therefore, no chances to improve.

So this is what we can do to fix this:

  • Test repeatedly until awesome: When we play games, we get multiple chances to clear a level. Similarly, in a test, if a student doesn't score awesome, that's temporary. They progress only when they are awesome. Earlier this wasn't possible due to the limit on how many times a human checker can check the same test of the same student. A computer program, on the other hand, doesn't mind. A student can keep testing repeatedly until he is confident.
  • Test for self-assessment, not for labeling: Every time students learn a new concept, they take a short test. They don't wait for the whole chapter to finish. We test on that particular concept. This wasn't possible with human teachers in a class, now it's possible with technology.
  • Set the bar high: Give more chances but set the bar higher at not 40% or 50% but at 80%. You have to keep giving the test unless you score 80%. Only when you clear a level that you proceed at the next level. Imagine the kind of positive qualities you would be instilling in students by giving them the opportunity rather than just labeling them a failure. Further to this students can be given 1 stars, 2 stars or 3 stars, depending on if they scored 80%, 90% or 100%. In games, I have seen stars affect kids perseverance like nothing else.

Homework

Homework should be as less as possible and should give enough space for kids to engage in games and sports.

Holiday Homework

Holiday homework will be assigned and would be expected to be done by kids, however good, bad, or incomplete the work. If a parent or someone the parent paid did the work, the student will be made to do it again. 

The current system where both student and teachers know that students won't actually do the work on their own is poisonous. It sets wrong precedents and instills damaging values which hurt the self-reliance of students in the long term. 

Resource allocation

This is one of those critical questions where most ideas fail, no matter how good they are. The truth is I don't have all the answers, especially in the Indian context where resources are scarce. To top it off, I don't have any experience of actually running a school. It would be nice if we can at least ask these questions before starting on this breathtaking journey.

  • How many laptops do you need for a class?
  • Can we even afford laptops?
  • Do we even need laptops?
  • Can we get free hardware, the internet and other resources via sponsorship, donation etc?
  • How many teachers do we need in a class?
  • Will this work? Why? Why not? Can we at least try?
  • Is the top management prepared for the change?
  • Are the teachers prepared for the change and are flexible?
  • Does everybody understand that mistakes will be made and we will garner flak, but in the long run, we will emerge stronger than any other school?

Answers to the above questions will vary for each school which tries to implement these ideas. The ideas, in any case, do warrant consideration.

Kindergarten too

Education starts at day 1 of life, not of school. Train parents. Teach them to teach kids. Make a parent group so they can learn about how to teach kids.

Inspiration and References:


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