Monday, June 13, 2016

It's Time to Ditch 4 Years of Costly College for Directed Apprenticeships

Short, intense directed apprenticeships that teach students how to learn on their own to mastery are the future of higher education.

So it turns out sitting in a chair for four years doesn't deliver mastery in anything but the acquisition of staggering student-loan debt. Practical (i.e. useful) mastery requires not just hours of practice but directed deep learning via doing of the sort you only get in an apprenticeship.

The failure of our model of largely passive learning and rote practice is explained by Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code (sent to me by Ron G.), which upends the notion that talent is a genetic gift. It isn't--in his words, it's grown by deep practice, the ignition of motivation and master coaching.

Using these techniques, student reach levels of accomplishment in months that surpass those of students who spent years in hyper-costly conventional education programs. The potential to radically improve our higher education system while reducing the cost of that education by 90% is the topic of my books Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy and The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy: The Revolution in Higher Education.

Let's start by admitting our system of higher education is unsustainable and broken: a complete failure by any reasonable, objective standard. Tuition has soared $1,100% while the output of the system (the economic/educational value of a college degree) has declined precipitously.

A recent major study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, concluded that "American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students."

The typical graduate of a short, intense directed apprenticeship says "I learned more in a month here than I did in four years of college." This is a statement of fact, and it is the result of the methods deployed in structured on-the-job training.

It is a fact that passively listening to a lecture does not generate the sort of mastery that creates economic value or the sort of deep understanding that is the goal of a classic liberal arts education.

It's also a fact that rote practice also doesn't lead to mastery, and often kills the very passion for a subject that in more productive programs jumpstarts mastery.

Our higher educational system has failed so badly that many students are incapable of writing/communicating effectively. In a world of rapidly changing technologies across every field and an emerging economy that places an ever-higher premium on collaboration and clear communication across multiple time zones and languages, the ability to write clearly is absolutely essential.

To "graduate" students with poor writing skills is completely unforgivable. Yet in the current system, if a student logs the requisite number of credits, a diploma is duly issued, regardless of how little he/she actually learned.

Here's a six-month program that could replace four years of hyper-costly, ineffective university.

1. Teach the students how to learn on their own, for the rest of their lives. This could take as little as a few hours or days. Once a student learns how to pursue deep learning and deep practice on their own, they don't need years of classrooms--they just need the guidance of someone experienced in the field, i.e. a structured apprenticeship.

2. One semester in a wide variety of on-the-job experiences. Once students are given real experience in a variety of fields and industries, it's likely some spark of ignition will occur and they'll find the motivation to pursue real mastery instead of a worthless credential.

3. Directed apprenticeships plus online lectures/workshops by the best lecturers viewed before or after the students' real work. The key to learning deeply and learning fast is to push right up against the current level of competence, where failure occurs and can be addressed one piece at a time.

Interestingly, Coyle notes that the most successful incubators of talent around the world are generally in makeshift or decrepit buildings, not fancy new gleaming buildings of the sort that dot American college campuses. Surrounded by luxury, who feels any hunger to learn anything voraciously?

The entire "campus experience" should be jettisoned, not just as an overly expensive infrastructure but as a detriment to fast, deep learning that is the foundation of mastery.

It isn't that hard to teach students how to improve their writing/communications skills very quickly, and give them a taste of the classic liberal arts education so many people claim is the goal of $120,000 four-year programs that fail to generate a deep understanding of anything remotely leading to mastery.

Give them a single sentence by Melville, Austin, et al. and have them compose a sentence that is like the original in cadence, structure and meaning in one minute flat. Go, go, go. Then break down each phrase and each component and work through each one to improve their first efforts, step by step. Repeat the process, always under intense time pressure.

Then take them out into the real world to report a journalistic story by interviewing people, checking facts, confirming quotes from sources, question the received wisdom around the topic and compose the story in journalistic style. Once again, break down their efforts line by line in comparison with a professional journalists' story on the same topic.

Then, in the second class... more doing the work at a breakneck pace, more being pushed beyond their current level of expertise, more corrections of errors and weaknesses, step by step, in a pressure-cooker of deadlines.

I can pretty much guarantee the students in such a directed apprenticeship will learn more about writing in a week than they would in a year of conventional coursework.

Short, intense directed apprenticeships that teach students how to learn on their own to mastery are the future of higher education. We can continue to squander trillions of dollars on an ineffective system until it finally collapses under its own weight, or we can admit the current contraption is unsustainable and a failure, and move on to a better, cheaper system.


Homeschoolers join in on pomp, circumstance

“Pomp and Circumstance” played softly from computer speakers hooked up to an iPod. Caps, gowns, and tassels were purchased on Amazon. Diplomas, also ordered online, were signed by parents.

It was a homemade graduation for six homeschooled students Friday evening in the garden behind the public library. With more than 7,000 students enrolled in homeschool programs in Massachusetts — a 20 percent jump since 2010 — such scenes are becoming more commonplace.

While the ceremonies may lack the whistles and bells of traditional high school commencements, they provide personalized send-offs for students who may have missed out on other time-honored school rites.

At Friday’s ceremony, students welcomed the chance to celebrate their achievement.

“I feel very official,” Yousuf Sander said as a tassel festooned with a gold-colored 2016 emblem dangled in front of his eyes.

“I guess it’s legitimate,” Jackson O’Brien said as he slipped a blue robe over his checkered shirt, dark slacks, charcoal vest, and black low-cut Chuck Taylor sneakers.

While no formal rite is required when students complete their studies, many homeschool cooperatives and organizations have embraced all kinds of events to mark graduation.

Last Saturday, 57 students attended a commencement in Holden held by the Massachusetts Homeschool Organization of Parent Educators, a Christian nonprofit that advises parents of homeschoolers.

In Newton, Janet Yeracaris threw a party Sunday for her son, Jason, whom she began to homeschool in the first grade. There was no formal graduation ceremony or diploma. Instead, about 90 people took part in a “free-form talking period” where friends and relatives congratulated Jason, who is bound for Carleton College in the fall.

Like many other homeschoolers, Jason has spent little time at home in recent years, taking most of his courses at the Harvard Extension School, while also learning Japanese.

For Yeracaris, who believes children are more focused about learning when given choices to discover their own passion, the party was an opportunity to honor her son’s milestone while introducing him to a slice of Americana.

“He hasn’t had any rituals, any things that mark the passage of time or accomplishments, so it was important to me to do something,” she said.

Nationally, there are 2.3 million home-educated students, up from 2 million children since 2010, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. The students, many of whom have been homeschooled since they were 5, are part of a community that traces its roots to the 1800s, before public schools were common.

Massachusetts has few regulations regarding homeschool education. Parents are required to submit an annual curriculum for approval to their town or city’s school superintendent, and students must complete at least 900 hours each academic year of instruction.

Homeschoolers aren’t required to take state assessment tests such as the MCAS. But in June, they are asked to submit samples of their schoolwork or test scores to the local district.

During their elementary school years, local students typically combine textbook learning with field trips to such historical sites as the Freedom Trail and Plimoth Plantation. Many also attend programs designed for homeschoolers at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Science, and the New England Aquarium while also enrolling in homeschool co-ops where parents volunteer and teach everything from robotics and calculus to Advanced Placement courses in science and history.

By the time they reach high school age, many of the students enroll at local universities, earning college credits while also still attending co-op classes in living rooms and rented office spaces.

At the graduation, all the hard work was behind them. It was a time for reflection, laughter, and some tears.

When Jackson O’Brien mentioned his parents in his speech he began to choke up, and hugs lingered when the names of students were read aloud.

One by one, parents were called up to the lecturn to hand out diplomas to their children. They were part of Let Imagination Fuel Education, a South Shore-based learning co-op, which has offered classes every Monday.

Two of the graduates are Eagle Scouts; one designed clothes for a TV reality show last year; others are musicians, actors, and self-described robotics nerds. All are planning to attend college.

“I guess the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is that if you embrace the challenge of life, it will change what can be a futile struggle to obtain what is commonly referred to as success, to an odyssey as winding as any story in a book or movie,” Justin Conner, one of the class speakers, told the audience. Conner, who earned a four-year scholarship to George Washington University, hopes to become a naval officer.

After the 30-minute ceremony — and performances by homeschooled siblings who sang Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” — the graduates stood and exited, waving to the 70 friends and relatives who applauded.

As well-wishers snacked on vegetarian wraps, sipped soda, and relaxed in Adirondack chairs while the Beatles and Bob Dylan played on the iPod, graduates said the event served as proof that they are not too different from their public school friends.

“Usually we have the same attitude about work,” said Conner, who lives in Kingston. “The only thing is we’re just in a different pool. We’re a fish in a different pond.”


Islamic school cops $150,000 fine for illegal employment practices

One of Australia's top Islamic schools has been hit with heavy penalties of more than $150,000 after hiring teachers on illegal contracts and later tampering with evidence to cover up the wrongdoing.

The Australian International Academy of Education – formerly King Khalid College – was found to have violated workplace law by employing more than a dozen teachers on fixed-term contracts in 2012.

Salah Salman, the school's director-general and a member of the Order of Australia, was also condemned and personally penalised $2,200 for obstructing union officials seeking to inspect the teachers' contracts.

Imposed in the Federal Court on Wednesday, the fines are believed to be among the largest penalties ever ordered against a school in Australia.  Justice Christopher Jessup described the school's actions as "calculated deception".

Based in Melbourne, the academy was Australia's first Islamic education provider when it opened in Sydney Road, Coburg, in 1983. It now has campuses in Coburg, Coburg North and Caroline Springs, and in Sydney and Dubai.

The Federal Court upheld the Independent Education Union's claim that 13 teachers at the academy's Coburg campus were illegally hired on fixed-term contracts, which can only be used to plug gaps when teachers take extended absences from classroom duties.

The union said the school was entitled to hire just three teachers on fixed-term contracts under the teachers' award in 2012.

And when union officials went to inspect the school's files, Mr Salman instructed his personal assistant to change teachers' employment agreements, altering their status from replacement staff to full-time employees, the court heard.

Maurice Blackburn senior associate Daniel Victory said the case was a "warning signal" for any schools misusing fixed-term employment contracts.  "The misuse of fixed-term contracts is not just bad for teachers and students; this case shows that it can also lead to significant penalties for schools," he said.

"This case also highlights the importance of unions, as without the tireless work of the union, these contraventions may never have come to light."

Independent Education Union general secretary Deb James said the court's ruling was significant, and the union would be turning its attention to "other schools and colleges that have made a habit of putting people on fixed-term contracts".

"Fixed-term contracts make it hard for teachers to plan and can negatively affect their teaching," she said.

"Teachers want to concentrate on their students, not whether they will have a job the next year."


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