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Educational Change Easy and Quick

June 2, 2009

by John Jensen

If you saw the article “Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education” in the New York Times Sunday (about three high-discipline schools that were getting extraordinary test scores), by Mitchell Landsberg, it prompted me to attempt writing a response that I’ve submitted to several newspapers for their Op-Ed page (without response as yet). If you happen to know anyone interested in school change, please let me know.


If we sent rockets into space the way we run schools, we’d have a lot of fried astronauts and a shuttered program. But there, we operate unbelievably complex systems successfully, inventing as we go. Thinking there could be described as cause-and-effect. Reason back from results. Don’t blame your tools. Learn from what you did.
In education, a new study may be welcomed but also obscure the fact that we’ve collected data for decades, and now have over a million pieces of research readily available. Has none of it been helpful so far?

As a consultant for almost four decades, I’ve often presented ideas to school administrators who said, “That’s a great idea. I wish you well with it.” Their main priority appears to be to administer systems they’re given, and leave the rest of us to grope about the edges rather than subject their inner workings to rational modification. Consider:

1. Change is presumed to take years, yet students change themselves by going from one room to another—from a poor teacher to a good one. They change in minutes.

What would a NASA engineer do with such information? First, he’d regard it as important. If it were true, he’d think, it could change everything. So he’d 1) find out if it‘s true, 2) discover the conditions needed in the second room, and 3) apply the changes to the remaining rooms (Mars voyagers or Hubble repairs). If it matters to you to get the best results, then you find out what gets the best results.

In schools, what if it’s true that we get changes in learning in a few days by changing a few conditions? If that even might be true, then 1) we find out and verify the conditions. Then 2) we apply them everywhere. We drop the long time frames and make changes without being forced to.

2. What the second room does wrong now is to violate principles of learning. John Medina, in his book Brain Rules, explains (among other fine suggestions) that to be able to remember something, you need to record it in your mind firmly and clearly and then recall it at increasing time intervals–not a startling revelation. You first choose not to forget it, you encode it thoroughly, and then you return to it repeatedly instead of allowing it to dissipate.

This “return to refresh” knowledge is how we practice it, like what builds skill in all fields. The mind generates a field of learning by repeated practice in explaining it (teachers say “To learn a subject, teach it”). There is really no alternative. You re-explain learning (in writing, or verbally presenting or discussing it) or you lose it. In all skills, “practice makes perfect.”

3. US elementary and secondary schools don’t even invite students to build a body of mastered knowledge nor offer them means of doing so (when did you last hear anyone propose such a thing?). Though some do well, schools annually turn out millions of mediocre

students among those who endure to the end. With “finals,” “credits,” and courses on their transcript, the national design tells students that they never need to think about those subjects again. Teachers and students together cope with a system that drives students to discard their knowledge.

Unless we change that, other efforts remain patches on a leaky vessel. Teachers need to teach hourly toward permanent knowledge with methods that achieve that end. Stressing people who fail under the existing system or rewarding those who succeed in it won’t work. Just remove its intrinsic glitch. Adjust it to how students actually assimilate knowledge.

John Jensen is a clinical psychologist licensed in Alaska, an educational consultant, and author of The Silver Bullet Easy Learning System: How to Change Classrooms Fast and Energize Students for Success.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 21, 2010 11:55 AM

    I agree with your assessment of American education entirely. If you are interested, take a look at my blog, Brainisphere, to see what I have begun to try changing education. It will take a movement, a lot of instigation, and educating the masses about the truth of what children are missing. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible.

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