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Graduate School at the Primary Level: Thoughts on Improving the System

September 13, 2011

“How can America lead the world in higher education while lagging at the primary level?”


The above question was a reader comment on an article I read last week. And a succinctly poignant one at that. While the answer most likely lies in a heap of bureaucracy and politics, this question got me thinking…


All things being equal, why not restructure our K-12 education system to mirror that of an advanced degree program? Of course it would be much simpler since the core curriculum would remain fundamental in nature, but the rules of engagement would become significantly more…engaging.


Many of the top U.S. business schools tout “experiential” learning methods whereby students work in small groups to solve real-world business problems. They learn the value of teamwork and how to harness each individual’s skills for the betterment of the team. But most importantly, they learn practical applications for theoretical strategies.

So, why not mimic such an integrated curriculum at the primary level, too? As I noted in this post last week, students at Charlton Manor Primary School in the UK are already beginning to take a step in the right direction. It’s time our K-12 classes in the U.S. do the same. The way I see it, there are two key components that need to be addressed:

  1. Relevance. This will always be the crux of anything worth committing to memory. Unfortunately, our current education system can’t remember that. Especially as our attention spans shrink, it’s time to trim our lectures and expand our case studies. Plus no matter how old or young, we’re all inherently selfish. So, we must rewrite the curriculum with the thought of “what’s in it for me?”
  2. Integration. This stems directly from creating a more relevant curriculum. For example, why do humanities and math classes have to be held at separate ends of the hallway? Why not integrate them to show how everything we learn is interwoven when you step back and look at the bigger picture.

What do you think? Would our K-12 education system benefit from being remodeled after an MBA program?


Relevant Education: A Lesson in Beekeeping

September 7, 2011

What do beekeepers and primary school students have in common? They’re one in the same.


Students at Charlton Manor Primary School in the U.K. are learning the trade of beekeeping, and the results are astounding. Beekeeping is completely woven into the fabric of the school’s curriculum. Students study the bees’ social behavior and how different cultures make use of bees. But it isn’t the direct study of bees that has the biggest impact on the students.


As head teacher Tim Baker states in this article, “One of the big things for me is getting children to think of others, and to be aware of their responsibility to others. With some children, you can’t get them to understand that in relation to other children, but you can show them using bees, chickens or plants.”


It’s difficult to inspire young minds just by teaching theories or abstract equations. But when you attach such material to relevant, real world scenarios like beekeeping, the students instantly engage.


At Charlton Manor, students sell nectar on the school playground. They weigh the honey and work out pricing, write ads for the shop and design branding for the jars. They are learning essential teamwork skills and business fundamentals. But they’re not learning it by sitting in a desk and staring at a chalkboard all day.


Lectures have their place in a scholastic setting. But we can’t rely solely on this anachronistic teaching style if we want to rebuild our school system. Kids need to learn by doing. And by doing things they enjoy. That’s not to say that Charlton Manor is a breeding ground for the next generation of beekeeping superstars. It simply means that it’s easier to inspire students when you engage with them instead of talking at them.


Kids don’t have to love bees in order to love learning from them. According to the article mentioned above, one student who was struggling academically, “discovered that he excelled at the practical side of beekeeping: making the wooden frames that go into the hive, and dismantling the hive to access the honey.” Perhaps this student will recognize his innate talent and go on to become a world-class carpenter…all because he studied bees at Charlton Manor Primary School.

Distance Learning: Instant International Education

September 1, 2011

I recently read this inspiring article on distance learning and how the Internet is allowing students who live in remote areas of the Amazon jungle to learn from teachers far, far away.


Now, distance learning is nothing new. But logistically setting up a virtual classroom in the harsh conditions of a remote Amazonian village is quite a feat. If it weren’t for this innovative initiative by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS), children in the small village of Tumbira wouldn’t have access to the knowledge they do now. I’m curious why we in the developed nations don’t utilize distance learning as much for our own benefit?


“Live online” learning is common as a training tool in the private sector, but not utilized nearly as much as it should in traditional academia. We talk a lot about internationalizing a global curriculum, so why not integrate our classrooms…literally. Students in Texas can attend class in Taiwan, and vice versa. Allowing students and teachers from half way around the world engage and interact in real time will go a long way in promoting the exchange of ideas and cultural tolerance.


In no way should virtual distance learning replace traditional study abroad programs, but it could definitely be a great tool to complement them.  It’s obviously possible, and it’s certainly being done. But not enough. In order for a global curriculum to truly exist, we must internationalize our classrooms. If small Amazonian villages can do it, why shouldn’t the rest of us?

3 Lessons from Steve Jobs

August 26, 2011

In case you weren’t aware, Steve Jobs is retiring. To commemorate his contribution to society, I propose three lessons educators can learn from the man behind the Mac.

1.    Perfect the Presentation

Most people associate Steve Jobs with the iPod, iPad, iPhone and any other i-product. But that’s just consumer goods Steve Jobs. In the business world, the man behind the Mac is equally as renowned for his public speeches and presentations. When Apple launches a new product, the whole world leans forward on the edge of its seat. That’s the sort of attention that a teacher should command from her students. But it doesn’t come easy. Steve Jobs is known to practice his presentations to the point of perfection…and it shows. Watch some of his keynote speeches. Notice how every word is carefully chosen and every pause intentional. Capture your students’ attention like Steve Jobs captures his audience, and you will own the classroom. After all, people like to be inspired, not lectured.

2.    Never Settle

Those who have had the privilege of working with him know that Steve Jobs never settles for “good enough.” He not only demands perfection in everything he does, he demands it from everyone around him, too. It doesn’t make him the most liked boss in the world, but you can bet his employees respect him…because they know the results are worth the extra work. Don’t just expect perfection from your students, encourage them to expect it from themselves.

3.    Inspire Innovation

Steve Jobs is synonymous with innovation. Not only is every Apple i-product a game changer in its category, they also inspire entirely new industries out of thin air. If it weren’t for the iPhone, there wouldn’t be app developers. Help your students do more than learn from the past; inspire them to create the future.


Steve Jobs will go down in history as one of the greatest business minds of all time. Of course he has an intangible brilliance that you can’t teach. But if it weren’t for his determination and work ethic, his innate talents would never have been realized to the extent of success that Apple embodies. Encourage your students to emulate Steve’s ambition and passion, and who knows, maybe one day one of them will create the world’s most successful company.

Public School: America’s Most Pressing National Security Threat

August 23, 2011

Super teachers alone can’t save our schools.


That is the headline of this recent Wall Street Journal article by Steven Brill. At the top of the article, Mr. Brill commends Dave Levin (co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools) for his role in promoting achievement and opportunity in the American public school system. But the crux of the column is that even KIPP’s superstar teachers “aren’t enough to turn around an American public school system whose continued failure has become the country’s most pressing long-term economic and national security threat.”


While KIPP schools are doing an exemplary job of improving student and teacher standards, it’s unfair to expect charter schools to carry the load. With roughly 50 million students in 95,000 K-12 public schools, our entire system needs a massive infrastructure overhaul necessary to enact comprehensive change. Where do we start? Aside from a new, relevant curriculum, the answer is with training. Not just academic training, but psychological training.


Roughly one month ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Why Teachers Aren’t Professionals.” In that post, I suggest that the reason for a lack of professionalism among teachers nationwide is due to the cyclical nature of The Consistency Principle – society doesn’t consider teachers high-end professionals, so they in turn don’t feel, or act like high-end professionals themselves.


While we can’t expect every public school teacher to devote the same dedication to the job as their counterparts at KIPP, we must convince them to try. To quote Mr. Brill, “Mobilizing an army that large requires…creating work lives and career paths for teachers that will motivate a good portion of them to stay for a while.”


Doctors and lawyers train for years before achieving successful careers. Their ambition is long-term, and society rewards them for sticking with it. Ask any MD or JD at a dinner party what he or she does for a living, and you’re sure to get a proud answer.


Of course our public school system needs a major managerial makeover. But as Mr. Brill alludes to in his article, we need to motivate and mobilize a new generation of educators to help the upper management. And the only way to do that successfully is to alter the self-perception of being a public school teacher in the first place.

Relevant Education: A New Way Forward

August 17, 2011

In my last post, “Following Up on the Financial Crisis,” I called for a complete makeover of our education system with a focus on relevant teaching methods. The plan for this column was to continue where I left off, elaborating on the importance of a relevant curriculum. But yesterday, in a moment of serendipity, I stumbled upon an Edutopia article by David Wees entitled, “Mathematics Education: A Way Forward.”

While more narrowly focused on the subject of mathematics, Mr. Wees’ hypothesis is the exact same as mine, and to be honest, I believe his article sheds light on the matter with more clarity than I could do here. So, without further ado, I urge you to click the above link and read Mr. Wees’ article.


Following Up on the Financial Crisis

August 15, 2011

In the wake of last week’s column, “Education and the Financial Crisis,” in which I referred to investing mogul Wilbur Ross’ proclamation that the U.S. economy is failing in part due to our inability to educate workers in the fields of science, technology and engineering, BBC News printed this article with the headline, “BP Cannot Find Skilled Workers.”


Apparently the root of our financial woes have not evaded our partners overseas. While the term “global economy” is tossed around like a game of catchphrase these days, it is undoubtedly a concept of growing importance. We must not look out our domestic troubles as confined by geographic borders. What affects us, affects us all. And where there is a dilemma abroad, means we should take note in looking for solutions at home. The final two paragraphs of the BBC post read as follows…


“Oil and gas companies are expected to create some 15,000 new jobs in the UK over the next five years, according to the latest research from the industry body Opito.

But it also said that more than half of the 144 companies surveyed cited attracting appropriately skilled staff as their number one challenge.”


How can that be? While the unemployment rate isn’t quite as bad in the UK as it is stateside, this should still be a sign that our (global) education system is failing its students.


It’s time the entire system had a makeover. We must rewrite a new curriculum from scratch. The key this time is simple – it’s all about relevance.