Three Guiding Questions @sugatamitra @codeorg

Everywhere I look from TED talks, to facebook, it seems that people are disheartened by education today.  “It is broken” they cry, “it is obsolete” they tweet, “homeschooling is better” they chant.

So I thought today I might take a look at what “it” is.  To me the problem is not so much with the schools as it is with the yard-stick by which we measure our schools.  That is not to say there are not schools in trouble-there certainly are.  However, even in many of their cases I feel quite sadly that part of their trouble is that they are being constantly beaten with that yard stick, which itself is an inappropriate tool.

Years ago, I was privileged to hear Shawn Sendlinger, of North Carolina Central University, at a talk for the Cadre I fellows of ICLCS. He presented what I will now paraphrase as three guiding questions.  I liked these questions so much that I have since paraphrased them numerous times in multiple syllabi, project scopes, and research contexts because I feel that they can guide almost any project from NASA research to grocery lists.

What do we want?

How much do we want?

When do we want it?

or sometimes

What do we want to know?

How well do we want to know it?

When do we want our answer?

So the cruxt of the issue in education can be summed up in the dichotomy of answers to question 1: What do we want?

Because it is from our answers to this question that the yard-stick of standardized testing has been born.  If we use our measurement tool as a guide to these answers, you will find that we want standardized students all of who have the same level of knowledge on five guiding areas Reading, Writing, Mathematics, General Knowledge, Reasoning. Now general knowledge and reasoning are more or less tested in a state by state, LEA by LEA fashion, because in the US we follow the paradoxical “local control, federal and state funding” model.  That is a completely separate blog post.

So why do we want these standardized students?  In the words of Sugata Mitra, 2013 TED Prize winner,

It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine.In order to have that machine running,you need lots and lots of people.They made another machine to produce those people:the school.The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine.They must be identical to each other.They must know three things:They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten;they must be able to read;and they must be able to do multiplication,division, addition and subtraction in their head.They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional. The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system that was so robust that it’s still with us today,continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.

Listen to the Entire TED Talk

I believe that Dr. Mitra has hit the nail upon the head.  And here is the problem, we are still feeding the machine.  However, the jobs which the school machine (as it exists) prepare people for no longer exist.  So, can the schools be re-purposed to teach for the jobs of the future?  Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg believe so. They say it is code in “What Schools Don’t Teach” a video posted by  I tend to agree that knowing code or at least not fearing it has made all the difference in my own ability to be a marketable employee throughout my career. Logo and Basic were my first code languages. Making simple images was fun for me. Now my life and jobs are much more crazy, but most day’s I’m still just a little girl making the turtle cross the screen.

Regardless of whether Code is the answer, the fundamentals of the question remain the same:  What do we want?

I believe the answer to be- employable people

So answer to Question 1: What do we want? Employable people.

Question 2: How much do we want? what standard can we apply to define employable?

OK, do we want a bunch of fry flippers?  Well yes, I do I love french fries.  I also want brain surgeons and rocket scientists and garbage collectors and waitresses and bank managers and loan officers, debt collectors, advertisers, actors, writers…well maybe not debt collectors…

So employable people who maintain and strengthen our collective and individual ability to survive in the world.  I return the the concept of education as the tool which allows us to realize the democratic ideal (this was the mantra at Illinois State University for years), as also being the key to realizing the socio-economic ideal.  And eventually the Star Trek Ideal…yes I said Star Trek.  Gene Rodenberry’s future post-apocalypse of people trying to be their best selves, that is my vision for the future.

I do not, as Dr. Mitra suggested believe in a curriculum of big questions alone however.  His Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLE’s) are too open ended in my opinion.  We as a society have pressing needs.  And those needs should focus the concepts to be organized about.  So while I do believe in guide on the side teaching methodology and inquiry.  I believe we should be congressing regularly to formulate the questions which become our focus.  It should be a democratic process, and it should be the main stream focus of educational bureaucracy  not the work of separate associations who then have to  fight to be heard above the old machine fanatics.  The congresses should focus on big questions, and allow the local groups to further congress to identify big question foci of local concern for employability.  These big questions should be shared under the umbrellas of the largest questions and this is where the self organiziation should begin.  Great teachers work with their students at that point in time.  So with attention to who those students are and what they need, teachers can provide students which question sets uniquely suited to their needs, and provide open ended options for students to explore.  Perhaps it will be code…perhaps it will be something none of us have dreamed up yet.

Question 1 and 2 answered: Employable people who maintain and strengthen our collective and individual ability to survive in the world.

Question 3: When do we want it?


OK in all seriousness we need to partner with business, and get the ball rolling now for our young learners.  We need to stop wasting weeks of their year and months of their teacher’s time on standardizing to the old model, and focus on moving forward now.  Make a 1 year-3 year- 5 year plan, but get it going and get it done already. Inquiry and problem based learning should be the mainstream of education, not its lonely much touted step cousins.  Access to the web should be a given for every student whether from home, school, phone, library or cafe. We also need to eliminate rethink our milestones. When do we want students to become society members who are employable? After 8th grade was the standard just half a century ago.  After high school?  After college?  We keep requiring more and more formal schooling with less and less concomitant payout in employability.  The milestones after 8th grade should have less to do with age and more do do with demonstrated skill at knowledge acquisition and application.  Design a test of learning a new skill, rather than a test of stagnant targets.  That is the kind of standardized testing we should strive for which would guide graduated levels of mastery.

But our system as it exists is still creating a lot of wonderful graduates who are not suited to their work environment.  They have been raised and trained and we need systems to train them in new ways in place.  That system needs to get built by employers, training for what they need on the job.  Some companies are fabulous at this, but if I hear one more company CEO talking about the lack of qualified applicants and not taking responsibility for the training for their applicant pool I may scream.  They should be screening for trainability and then training rather than leaving jobs unfilled and a stagnant unemployment pool.  And yes Americans, companies that do this for employees who have already completed former schooling under our antiquated school system should be incentivized.  

Answer to question 3: as it exists today and develops for the future.

In summary

I do not find that the educational system whether online, vs. blended, vs traditional, vs. home school is “broken.”  Merely it is misguided in its focus.  If we can channel each of these with the same mission of creating  employable people who maintain and strengthen our collective and individual ability to survive in the world as it exists today and develops for the future, if we test based on this idea.  Then perhaps we will stop feeling so disheartened and realize our potential.


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