The Erratic Future of Education

8 06 2009

A recent episode of This Week In Tech, Twit 197, focused on education.  Along with host Leo LaPorte were Don Tapscott, Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and Jeff’s son Jake Jarvis. Now, Don is the author of a number of books, including one of my favorites — Grown Up Digital, which looks at the generation of kids who have no memory of world without computers and the Net.  The group spent a large amount of time talking about what is wrong with high school and college education today.

They’ve mostly got it right, but not really.

Now, most of you know that I teach at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, normally known as the USC Film School.  So I have a bit of vested interested in both improving education and making sure that it doesn’t get destroyed in the rush to improve it. Some of you are going to claim that I’m part of the problem, and I’ll cop to some of that, as well.

But, let me back up a few seconds. Just what were those Twitters talking about?

First, let’s say that I agree with them that much of 7-12 and college is broken.  There is way too much teaching to the test. Jeff made the point that Jake (who is beginning his college application thought process now) has to take these crazy AP courses, which force him to regurgitate facts, just so that he can apply to Really Great Colleges.  I’d add that here in California, high school students spend more of their valuable class time and homework time ingesting facts that normally don’t make it anywhere into their brain in any lasting way.  And, with a student/teacher ratior of 35 or 40 to 1, that’s completely wasted time.

At USC, I see a lot of teaching that is, what I’d call, “Sage On The Stage”  That is, it’s the professor dishing out The Facts to the student, who needs to take it in, so that he/she can get proper grades. I find myself guilty of that at times as well.  Sometimes, it’s just easier.

But there’s no class that I teach that doesn’t rely primarily on projects. Honestly, I can’t figure out how to teach otherwise. Projects are considered a vital part of what is called “learner centric education” (in which the curriculum takes into account the learning style and capability of each student).

The guests on TWIT 197 spent a lot of time talking about how formal education, as it exists today, just doesn’t work. Taking a look at the success of a number of tech entrepreneurs who didn’t complete college (or who never went at all) they surmised that it was better not to be taught in our present system.

But here’s the thing that the guests on TWIT 197, in their glee at piling onto the faults of the normal educational model, fail to take into account. Every student learns differently, and students in different cultures learn differently as well.

Right now, I’m working with a group of Vietnamese filmmakers who have come to USC to take a six-week course in digital filmmaking, in the hope that they’ll improve their world storytelling skills. I’ve done two lessons so far — in one I played a number of film clips and discussed the shape of the story with them. In another, we worked on the Avid to examine alternatives in cutting.

Surprisingly, this group wanted more of the film clip discussion. And we’ve added an additional class on just for that purpose (they’re going to be making four short films, so there’s going to be plenty of time for project work).

Some students in my regular classes look at the editing screen and need to start moving things around. Others need to understand some of the “why” behind it, before they can feel good about moving things around.

In short — everyone learns differently. Not everybody works better when they’re left to their own devices. And not everyone works the same way in every subject.

So, while I basically agree with most of what was said in TWiT 197 about the failures of education, a huge missing piece in the discussion for me was the acknowledgement that sometimes the Sage on the Stage does work — for some students, in some subjects, at some ages. Most of the time, it’s a combination of many different methods. At some point, I’ll tell you about a project on learning that I’m working on in New Mexico — that can be a real incubator for change in teaching. And some time, you’ll hear about the really exciting work that Nolan Bushnell is starting in education — something that can revolutionize that industry in the way that he did for gaming with Atari.

But, for now, what I’m going to say is that anytime anybody makes a broad statement about anything — look twice at it.



6 responses to “The Erratic Future of Education”

8 06 2009
Curtis (14:16:31) :

Within different forms, people learn facts, then meaning, then application. The Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric stage of Trivium-based education.

8 06 2009
Libby (20:01:32) :

First, a disclaimer: I’m one of Norm’s many students. I returned to school to become an editor. Now, the comments.

I think that formal education has been damaged in many ways, but one well-meant standard frustrates me. Employers today tend to require college degrees for all prospective employees and limit advancement based on levels of education. For me, this is what takes the power away from education. Some students will get a degree so it will qualify them to get a job-any job. It leads to people getting rubber stamp generic degrees that don’t really focus on anything they might love. I also think it devalues the true need for mentorship and hands-on training in any field. As a corporate refugee, I can attest to hearing the comment about how college students really didn’t know anything, but that the company would train them after they were hired. I uprooted my life and moved across the country to go to USC because their materials demonstrated that hands-on training and mentoring was part of the process. Unfortuately though, I feel that programs like USCs’ are all too rare. We push young people into situations where they pick their careers based upon what they read or hear.

8 06 2009
Norman (23:03:29) :

Great perspective Libby. The problem, and the TWiT show touched briefly on this, is that everything is programmed on a track. You learn certain things in elementary school so you’re prepped for upper school. Then you learn more things there in order to prep you for the “proper” college. Then you get to college, which should be all about expanding what you know and want to know, and you find that it’s programmed for either jobs or grad school.

There isn’t much of an opportunity to play around and fuck up, to explore and discover something you didn’t know. It shocks me that high school students are being forced to decide what they want to be, in order to choose the “best colleges.” In fact, I think we do something similar at USC, where undergrads apply into the film school while they’re still in high school!! How the hell do they really know what they want to do at that age?!?

15 06 2009
Vince Anido (18:09:10) :

Fascinating topic. I think it brings up a lot of separate issues with how people learn, teach and the idea education in general. There is no doubt that there are broken links in our educational system that cause individuals to lose their way.

While they make a great podcast, I think the type of people that get into tech are of a specific mindset and mostly similar learning style. As a result, their viewpoints become very insulated and they tend to miss the larger picture. For tech jobs, I can see why they are frustrated, the traditional teaching styles do not work very well. The overall sector is so new, that most educational institutions have not found efficient ways to teach it.

Contrasted to a vocation like art, of which cinema/television is a great example, that has been around literally forever – and institutions like USC have the teaching paradigms down pat. I’m a USC CNTV grad myself, and really felt a majority of the time I spent in class was productive and a wonderful learning experience.

But really it comes down to the point you make Norman – is it realistic for someone, upon reaching the age of 18, to know what they want to do for the rest of their life? I feel I was fortunate that I knew at a compartitively young age (16) that I wanted to work in the entertainment industry. I worked my butt off, got into USC, did well my first semester and was admitted the film school program. Though, not everyone has their life figured out at that point, and there should be better options for those individuals.

But how are schools supposed to choose individuals for these programs with limited space? I suppose that’s why the AP & SAT systems have been so successful. Educators need a level playing field on which to evaluate candidates. Unfortunately their efforts to level the playing field, have only succeeded in finding a particular type of student that takes those types of tests well.

I don’t have the answers, but I’m very happy to see that people are talking about the problems and maybe better awareness will help us move towards a solution.

15 06 2009
Norman (18:34:20) :

And I thank you for this thoughtful addition to the dialogue. Clearly, not every approach will work for every students, and that really was my major point.

19 06 2009
Rob (22:27:41) :

About two years into five I spent in college I decided that I was responsible for learning what I wanted to know. I began to vet the professors that were teaching the classes I needed/wanted to see what their teaching style. I learned that I do better when I don’t take notes but pay close attention to the lecture. I learned that if the prof says something I don’t understand then I don’t hear much after that, so I learned to ask for clarification right then.

On Rote Learning: I used to be dead set against rote learning. In grammar school I resisted every attempt of the teacher to get me to spell better. To make matters worse, California wasn’t teaching phonics at that time either. So to this day my spelling is atrocious and I never win at Scrabble. The same thing happened in learning calculus. I refused to memorizing tables of integrals.

Now after many years of reading and watching PBS shows about learning and brain function I’ve come to believe that our mind is able to detect patters in this rote information and bring it to bear on problems. I think this is what happens when we have a flash of insight when pondering a problem or when the solution comes after sleeping on it.

So I think that I missed out on some things because of my stubborn refusal to memorize when asked to. However a better, less painfull way to do the memorization is to use the data in exercises and project until you have naturally memorized it.



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