Book: Education Nation 2

Milton Chen of The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Milton Chen of The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I promised to return to Milton Chen’s ‘Education Nation’ once I had taken the time to read it properly so here goes.

This is book with an international flavour but its focus is on the largely dysfunctional US K-12 system.  Milton does not pull any punches in his description of the decline of  US schools from ‘first to worst’:

  • 6,000 high school students drop out every day
  • The US has fallen from 1st to 18th over the last 30 years in the quality of high school graduates (out of 23 OECD countries)

Given this context it would be understandable if ‘Education Nation’ was a hand-wringing and finger pointing exercise or another one of those books that tell us how corporate America would fix the education system. Instead this book brings to life the idea that the future of schooling already exists around the periphery of our current education systems. The challenge is, as ever, how we take to scale these pockets of excellence.

Quoting John Hagel III and John Seely Brown the introduction calls for a change in the way we look at education:
We must regrind our lens to monitor the periphery … At these edges, lie our richest opportunities for value creation … The edges will reshape and eventually transform the core.

Milton suggests that we need to look at edges in six areas :

  • Thinking
  • Curriculum (and assessment)
  • Technology
  • Time and place
  • Co-teaching
  • Youth

Starting with the ‘thinking’ edge makes sense as this where most education system go wrong. He picks out ten of the false dichotomies that have plagued education the world over: teacher centred v student centred learning; phonics v whole language etc. Another important one from my perspective is process v content – as if an education can somehow be one or the other rather than always both.

The ‘curriculum’ edge makes the case for the kind of project-based learning that the George Lucas Foundation has long advocated as a crucial dimension of its vision for Edutopia. With a plea for a new way of measuring success ‘assessment 2.0 is job#1’. Albert Einstein’s great quote being used to reinforce what is wrong with the narrow focus on educational attainment:
‘Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.’

The third edge, ‘technology’, rightly placed in the wider context of the other five edges rather than elevated to its usual status as magic wand or silver bullet to all of education’s ills.

The fourth edge is that of ‘time and place’ with learning in America characterised as a prisoner of these dimensions. Much as I loved my holidays as a teacher, and the time I now get with my children over our very short summer in Scotland, I have long though they were an anachronism. I watch my former colleagues (and my children) becoming more and more exhausted with long schools terms and then spend the first couple of weeks of the vacation recovering.  Added to this there is also a growing body of research evidence to suggest that children from the most impoverished backgrounds fall even further behind over the summer.

Milton’s fifth edge is ‘co-teaching’ and again he draws on the evidence that suggests that children need more than teachers to succeed in learning and crucial to this is the role of parents, peers and outside experts.

In the US teachers continue to have relatively low status compared to other professions. Milton makes a strong case for bringing only the top graduates into education, echoing Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great’ mantra ‘first who then what’ [and how].

The final edge is ‘youth’ and Milton picks out some great stories of where young people are leading the way ‘carrying change in their pockets’. I’m not entirely convinced by the digital natives argument, think it is based on very poor thinking. I prefer to see young people as learning natives with technology being just one, albeit increasing important, dimension of their phenomenal capabilities.

Overall this is a great book and pleasure to read (even If I can’t get it on my iPad yet).  Milton  has drawn on a lifetime of experience to provide a fabulous insight into what education at its best looks like now and how we need to shape it for future generations. The George Lucas Education Foundation has led the way over many years in identifying, nurturing and promoting a model of education that puts learning at the centre and ‘Education Nation’ is a valuable resource for all those who share a vision in which every student is inspired to be all they can be. The challenge Milton Chen has set us all is to take the lessons of what works  from today’s exceptional practice and make it tomorrow’s everyday practice.

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