Saturday, June 5, 2010

Education following the business model?

On our last leg of our trip back from Dominica I was bored enough to flip through the Skymall magazine. 3 flights in I was getting antsy, and plus, who doesn't love to marvel at odd items for purchase in Skymall?

On the back, like always, sat the add for Rosetta Stone language software. I think we are all familiar with Rosetta Stone, in fact, it's become an almost interchangeable term for learning a new language. Phrases like "Is there a Rosetta Stone for that?", or "I'm going to buy Rosetta Stone and then just pick up and leave the country" seem common these days.

When I graduated from college, not overly long ago, Rosetta Stone was a much smaller company set out in a small town nearby my school. Many of my friends went to work for them straight from undergrad- one even became one of their VPs. We watched them go from a nothing company to exploding into a house hold name. I'm sure they did this was good marketing skills, along with a good product. What made it good? (I've never used it, so really, I'm just going off their marketing, but I assume) It uses the science behind how people learn- brain research- to teach language.

It claims, "First, and most importantly, a child's natural learning-language ability emerges only in a speech-soaked, immersion environment free of translations and explanations of grammar. Second, a child's language learning is dramatically accelerated by constant feedback from family and friends. Positive correction and persistent reinforcement nurture the child's language and language skills into full communicative expression. Third, children learn through play, whether it's the arm-waving balancing act that announces their first step or the spluttering preamble to their first words. All the conversational chatter skittering through young children's play with parents and playmates... helps children develop language skills that connect them to the world. Adults possess this same powerful language-learning ability that orchestrated our language successes as children. Sadly, our clashes with vocabulary drills and grammar explanations force us to conclude it's hopeless."

SO, Rosetta Stone become a successful company by using their understanding of how children learn. They didn't "drill and kill" just because that's what's always been done. They didn't "take away meaningless play-time" because there are important tests to prepare for. They teach adults by understanding how good teaching must occur.

They are different than public schools, or any school, for the fact that anyone using their product is opting into using it. They do not have a captured audience. In this day and age of social networking they have to make sure the people that purchase their software actually learn something- otherwise they'll tell their friends the product was a fraud, and nobody will buy it in the future.

As teachers, Rosetta Stone cannot threaten to keep their students in from recess if they don't sit down and listen. They can't make it appear to the decision makers that there is good teaching, but in fact, not actually have students be learning. The final & true test for them is whether or not their students can communicate in another country, not an end of year assessment.

There is a lot of screaming and debating these days about making education more like a business. When people say this they mean they want students and parents to have choice, they want teachers to be able to be fired easily, they want frequent assessments to know if they are getting a worth-while product or not. They don't actually discuss what goes on inside classrooms, or, if they do, they use their own assumptions about education to drive these decisions. Most of the business-model focused advocates don't have an understanding of brain development, an understanding of learning, child development, or the actual science behind teaching. It's as though they're telling Pepsi to make better soda using the formula for mud pies.

Yet the reason Rosetta Stone has become a successful product is that it used the science. Their business model involved knowing how to successfully deliver information.

Why can't we do that as teachers as well? When did good teaching, scientifically-based teaching- get lost in the shuffle?

Ask Michelle Rhee (& others like her), what makes good teaching and she discusses quizzing students as they walk in line, having perfectly silent classrooms where teachers "bark" questions and students immediately reply in a rote fashion. Where did she get the idea this was good teaching? Not from an education class, or from any scientifically-based theories on how humans learn information. In fact, most of the "fixing education" theories these days don't involve teacher education at all. Or, if they do, the teacher education programs and professional development they push don't discuss how we, as humans learn. Everyone wants us to look like we are teaching in some 1950s movie, instead of actually doing what works.

For all those voices begging education to be more like a business I'd like to agree- let's be like businesses that truly understand what we are producing, let the experts (read: teachers) design a quality product that delivers, ignore the voices that take us away from focusing on what's important, and put all of our resources into doing what we all came here to do: teach the children.

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