Teaching “things” … and the disconnect of education!

I don’t understand the education system in this country. We have all the resources imaginable – yet we can’t seem to get it right. Each year we see our standing in the world’s education community slipping. At present we sit somewhere in the middle of the pack for “developed nations.”
We continually “tweak around the edges.” Oh, and we can’t forget about the schools and the teachers not having enough money. As if throwing more money into a malfunctioning abyss is going to do anything but make a malfunctioning abyss … that costs more.
I believe the problem is our education system focuses on teaching our children “things.” Most all reform efforts involve improving our methods in teaching these “things” or facts. Whether it’s better teachers that engage their students to absorb these “things,” or reducing class size … it all comes down to teachings “things.” Even if we succeed in finding and implementing the ultimate ways of teaching and learning “things,” we still have the issue of what “things” should our kids be learning. With the current of obsession of trying to keep up with the Chinese and the reliance on standard tests to solve all educational ills – the situation is only getting worse.
At present, this decision is being made by people two decades or more removed from the present world – let alone the world when our children join it. Restricting Twitter, and the enormous amount of incredibly useful information available at our student’s fingertips, via the web – only helps the old guard “circle the wagons.” “We know what’s best and what the students should learn and we’ll be damned if anyone will tell us otherwiseWhat’s wrong with teaching our students how to think, how learn on the fly and adapt? By using tool such as Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube and the rest (and yes they are tools) – we teach our children to investigate, to digest different points of view and recognize the world is not just one book of facts … but rather a plethora of views, opinions and interpretations. And best yet, what these electronic tools do for our children – is they engage them. Most students have multiple access to the web at home – so why should they have to step back into the “stone age” when they go to school, seven plus hours a day!
Education … circa “70s

Engagement is the single most important factor to successful learning. No teacher, no new building … and no endless amount of money’s going to open up a child’s mind to absorb what they think is useless, irrelevant facts and figures. Unless they see a reason what is being thrown in front of them every morning, in the name of learning – is going help them after they leave the “iron walls of school” … it will be nothing more than useless, irrelevant facts and figures. And I believe no textbook book written twenty years ago – according to the bias specifications of some special interest group, a special interest group with immense buying power – is going to engage any eight year old, any twelve-year-old … and especially any eighteen year old.

No one can say what lies ahead in the future for each of our children. To be so pompous to say we know what will be the best opportunity and proper future for a young individual in a formative stage (and what should be learned to prepare for this erroneous assumption) is wrong and irresponsible. All we can do is provide a foundation, a platform for which we can help them develop an “ongoing” lifetime habit of learning and adjustment … adjustment that will most differently be needed in an ever-changing future.

And for some reason … I don’t think “teaching things” is going to do that!


I can be reached on Twitter at @clayforsberg


The Real Problem with Higher Education

This week President Obama unveiled his Higher Education student loan relief program. The program has nice sound bites. Lower interest rates, an extension here and there and so on. I’m not going to get into it here. I’m sure you can find more than enough on the subject elsewhere.

In my humble opinion, it’s like bringing a box of band aids to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The problem is fundamental and rooted in behavior – no band-aid is going to stop the bleeding. The problem and solution lie well beyond the pearly gates of our esteemed institutions of higher learning.

The problem lies at home … with us.

A big part of the “American Dream” is going to college – and even more so having your children go to college, especially if you didn’t. Every parent envisions standing in the audience, watching their child walk across that stage receiving their college diploma in full cap and gown. After all, what parent wouldn’t want that experience. And plus it gives them standing with their friends. “The better the college my kid went to (i.e. most expensive), the better the parent I must be.”

That’s the problem. It’s their dream as much, if not more than their offspring’s. It’s a dream that is rooted in tradition. How could someone not want a college degree. Unfortunately, that revered degree comes with a price … and often that price is more a liability than the asset generated by the degree itself.

The “ball and chain”

The cost of a college has become exorbitant at best, and some cases outright crippling. Stories of graduates coming out of school $100,000 in debt are not uncommon. And with this debt – there is no guarantee of a job to pay it off. And on top of it, school debt is one thing that cannot be dismissed in a bankruptcy. In other words, there is no key to unlock that ball and chain you will care around for years, and years.

Now let’s assume there are no parents in the picture, no grandparents either. No societal preconceptions on what you should, and what you shouldn’t do. The only thing that matters is you, the prospective student – your well-being, and your future.

Let’s break convention, and let me give you some alternatives.

  • Don’t go to college. Or if you do, wait a few years until you have some experience in the real world. Contrary to popular belief, not all careers require a college degree. This is the route my daughter took. Well able to get into, and do well in college, she chose to take a job with Apple out of high school. Now, just turned twenty-two, she is about to become certified – which will pretty much punch her ticket to wherever she wishes to go. Being a voracious writer, I’m sure she’ll go to college sometime. But now she better, and productive ways to spend her time. We also have to take into the financial obligations, of which she has none.
  • Go, but wait a year. Get your feet wet. Find the path you want to take. High school is not the real world. Only the real world is, well … the real world. Too often we enter college with no idea why we’re there in the first place. Maybe we listened to some, average at best, high school guidance counselor  – but that’s about it.
  • But if you’re hell-bent on going to school, go to a community college for the first two years. The first two years of college, especially in a major university, consists of taking entry-level classes with three hundred of your not so closest friends taught by a teacher’s assistant not much older than you are. With a community college you get smaller classes taught by a real professor, probably one with real world experience (unlike most universities). With any other purchase, getting more and paying significantly less – pulling the trigger would be a no brainer. But with higher education, ironically we lose our minds.

None of these options will saddle you with tens of thousands in debt, at least not before you can actually start paying it off. Obama’s trying to help you, but his efforts are misguided. Debt, restructured or not, limits your options. It limits your mobility – mobility that very well take you to the opportunity, that great opportunity that you went to college for in the first place.

But with the ball and chain … you go nowhere, literally and figuratively.

Now there’s certain professions where you must have a degree, and for several an advanced one. In these cases, medicine, law, engineering, etc., you’re just going to hunker down take initial financial hit and hope it comes around in the long-term. If you want to go into business or become entrepreneur … you’re an idiot if you go down the traditional route.

Now everyone has their own “Perfect World” and their path will be different than the person sitting next to them. But the education taken should be the education appropriate for that path. But understand there are options … the four-year university degree is not the only avenue to success. In fact it very well could your barrier to success.

The “American Dream” of a college degree and a white picket fence may have been right for your parents … but is it right for you.


I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+


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Invest in the future … fund a ChangeMaker!

There ‘s been a lot of attention recently about the benefits of crowds. Everything is being crowdsourced. A project that wants to get crowdfunded, posts its project or idea on a website dedicated to soliciting small investments. These investments are often as small as ten dollars and seldom larger than a hundred. For your investment, you get a token of appreciation. This token could be a white paper, a shirt or anything else the project head wishes to give you for your support. There are also levels of appreciation which correspond to the level of your investment.

This whole crowdfunding thing got me thinking about when I was young in Minot, North Dakota (pop. 35,000) – where I grew up. When I was in high school, there was a professional golfer in town, Mike Morley, that was trying to hit the PGA tour. He had his tour card, but didn’t have enough money to go from event to event to compete. A group of Minot businessmen decided to back him and pay for his expenses. I don’t know the details of their arrangements, but I suspect that if Mike made money then they would participate in the spoils. This was kind of an informal local crowdfunding.

If we can participate in a new company or project through crowdfunding, why can’t we participate in the success of the individual themselves, like what happened with Mike – only even more esoteric. OK … work with me.

Meet the ChangeMakers

Imagine a web site or portal with a variety of different people on it, people looking for career assistance. For the sake of argument – let’s limit it to young people. Each of these individuals, let’s call them ChangeMakers – would have to put up a profile or online portfolio. These portfolios would be a “Here I am world, this is what I’m all about and why you should invest in me.” The portfolio could be an essay, it could be pieces of art, or a video or whatever vehicle the ChangeMaker wants to use to present themselves to the world.

All of these ChangeMakers would be put in a central virtual location where we, the investors, can find them. They could be organized by location, or life focus or even age. Each ChangeMaker would determine their own tokens of appreciation they wanted to give investors. Chances are, financial participation probably wouldn’t be one – but who knows.

Rather than just giving money to a faceless charitable cause (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you’d be investing in the future of an actual young adult, one that you could watch grow and progress through life – on one that you had a vested interest in. You could create a portfolio of ChangeMakers, not unlike an investment portfolio. You could diversify … or could you throw all your weight behind a single industry or group of ChangeMakers in a similar field.

Ingenious ChangeMakers wouldn’t limit the parameters of investment to just money either. They could solicit mentoring and expertise in their areas endeavour. If they were an artist, they could request studio space. If they are interested in public policy, they could request a legislative internship.

And on top of it, not only would these young ChangeMakers get the resources they need to jumpstart their future – they’d have to figure out what resources they need on their journey to success. This organizational prompt might be worth more than the assistance itself.

As we search for ways to reform schools and prepare our young for the future, we almost always overlook one of our greatest resources – our community. We look to the public sector for all the answers through political debate ad nauseam … when the solution is just down the street, or in the next town or on the other side of the country. But it’s never potentially further than a mouse click. I believe we all want to help and we all have the same goal – success for our young. But we just don’t have the vehicle to pull it all together, a vehicle where we can put a name and face to those that need our assistance – whatever assistance we may be able to give them.

I’d be interested in hearing your views on this idea I’ve been rambling on about. Maybe it’s just a pipe dream, but I don’t think so. Please give me some feedback.


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Is corporate accountability right for public schools?

The recent appointment of Cathleen Black’s as head of the new York school district got me thinking about putting corporate leaders in charge of a public institution like a school.  Below is piece I read in LearnBoost this morning about the situation and my corresponding response.

Corporate governance

Over the last month, talk of Cathleen Black’s appointment as Chancellor of New York schools has sounded through all the major media. Some people rally behind her no-nonsense focus on the bottom line, but others worry that with her utter lack of ties to public education, she cannot possibly help students succeed.

As Joel Klein makes his exit from education into the media arena, Cathleen Black is stepping in straight from the corporate world. Eli Broad, education philanthropist and businessman, recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post exalting the appointment. He noted Black’s outstanding performance in management and track record for holding herself and others to high expectations.

Without a doubt, leadership ability is a top priority, but is it really possible to be a great leader without any experience in a given field? Black has no teaching experience. What’s more, neither she nor her children attended public school. I have no doubt that Black will be able to make shrewd decisions to help the ed system stay on budget and take measures to improve the efficiency of the system. Having had a high up boss without teaching experience, though, it worries me that Black may place unfeasible demands on educators.

Below is my response:

Education seems to be a magnet for new leaders to come in and ‘shake things up,’ epecially with the inevitable saber rattling that will occur after yesterday’s world student test results hit the airwaves.

Unfortunately for teachers, being on the front line, they have to endure the brunt of the change sword. But by no means are they the only factor in a child’s education. And this comment isn’t meant to get them off the hook.. In reality, running a school district isn’t a lot different than running company. There’s different inputs and different outputs – but it still comes down to creating goals and picking and motivating a team to achieve those goals.

Maybe having a history of accountability as Cathleen Black has had, at least according to Eli Board (for whatever that’s worth), might work out. But unless the teachers buy into the goals and strategy she sets up … it will not work out. Student success is a direct result of teacher engagement and their desire to go that extra step to get their ‘kids’ engaged. If the teachers come in in the morning with a chip on their shoulder – this engagement chain won’t happen.

While I truly believe that the far majority of teachers really care about the future of their students … I don’t believe that is the case with their union. The extra flexibility needed in any modern day organization, in all facets of the process (yes pay included), is tantamount to the success of its, especially one the size of the New York School District. But will the union allow this flexibility? We can only hope.

Black’s success will be dependent a lot on how she is accepted going in. If the rank and file are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and choose to band together with her for the greater good, the students … then maybe it just might work out.

If they don’t, then – well … it won’t. Teaching isn’t turning bolts in in car plant. All the processes in the world won’t produce a product that is ready to go out and change the world.

Just some thoughts …


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Trends for 2011 … at least the ones I’d like to see.

It seems like the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is good for one thing … and no it’s not shopping – that’s assumed.   It’s lists of the trends for next year.  In the past four days I’ve read predictions on social media, politics, entertainment, loyalty programs and just about everything else you can think of.  Anybody who’s anybody feels they should drag out the carcass of Nostradamus and throw out their take on their view of the future.

Well here’s mine … well kinda.  I’m not going to tell you what I think is going to happen, but rather what I want to happen.  I’m not going to get into the obvious.  We all want to end the quagmire in the Middle East, we want the homeless to be fed and housed and we all want more greenbacks in our wallet – or our PayPal account.  I want to discuss things that will get us closer to these and other big picture items.  Kind of like a list mini solutions.

It pretty much follows the quote on my Twitter bio: “Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises” – Demosthenes (384 BC–322 BC)

Every day or so I’m going to lay out an item; some profound and some, well just pet peeves that I think to need to be addressed.  Understand that a lot of these are these are reflections of my day-to-day activities, so bear with me.

But most of all – I want this dissertation to be a “jumping off point” for discussion.  I want input, good bad or indifferent.  Throw out your own views, your ‘Perfect World’ for 2011.  Only through discussion and collaboration can anything get done.

Well here’s “My Perfect World … 2011.”  Suggestion #1:

Put physical education back in school.

This just seems like a no-brainer to me.  Everyday, all we hear is how physical activity helps us every way imaginable.  It helps brain fitness.  It helps prevent obesity.  Do I need to go on?

Improving school performance is one thing that everybody can agree no matter what your political affiliation.  Every president has their ideas and programs on how to solve our declining standing in education rankings.  So why do we strap our children with a ball and chain.  We make them sit in school seven hour plus a day … yes sit.  And we all do this while we as parents obsess about ourselves with our treadmills, stair climbers and fitness centers.  We worry about child obesity and fast food but do nothing about it except pass the buck to the politicians to mandate social legislation.

If as a kid you develop fitness habits when you’re young – habits you’ll carry through in later years.  Anybody who wasn’t in shape as a teenager know how hard it is to get in shape as an adult.  Why would be we want to wish this on our children.  And no, organized school sports are not for everybody.  As anyone who’s done it knows there’s a whole subculture there that is not for a lot of students.  And on top of it – a lot of kids just don’t like traditional sports.

Why don’t we have the kids help determine what physical activities they want to participate in – as long as the activity contributes to fitness.  The goal here is not so much to teach the ins and outs of a sport (a sport us as parents are interested in) but rather get the kids up and moving so their brains are ready to learn the things they have to – like math, writing, etc.  Imagine a phy ed teacher who’s a skateboarder rather than a football player.  You think a few of the disenfranchised teenagers at risk might pay attention a bit more?  You think so!

And no I don’t want to hear about budget concerns.  Does a contractor skimp on the foundation of a building to save money.  No – there’s even laws for that.  What do we expect when we build the foundation of our children on a landfill?

Figure out where the money will come from!  If enough parents pull their heads out of 24 Hour Fitness long enough – the solutions will appear.

I’ve said enough.  Now I want to hear from you …


If you’re on Twitter please follow me … there’s cool stuff happening over there too @clayforsberg.


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“The one you feed …”

With all the polarization and animosity prevalent in today’s society. Maybe we should start with thinking about where it all comes from.


Image by Jim Brandenburg

An elderly Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life…

He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

One wolf is evil — he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego.

The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied: “The one you feed.”

Kind of says it all.


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“Saving education … 2 hours at a time”

I’ve noticed with school starting again, there’s been a lot of discussion on state of the American education system.  I recent report cited our high school students have fallen even further down the rankings compared with other countries around the globe.

And as always happens, the saber-rattling has started.  The teachers and their beloved unions want more money and smaller class sizes.  The Republicans want a return to fundamentals and the Democrats want more parental involvement and a return to a more liberal curriculum like music and art.  It’s the same thing every time one of these reports come out.  Thanks God we haven’t heard anything about raising the “whole language” carcass from the grave.

Now here’s my take on the education debate.  Let me lay down assumptions first so you follow what I’m going to propose as the “be all, end all” to the education dilemma.

The brain is an array of synaptic connections.  Theses connection are formed through learning and our experiences.  We all know that.  The brain is also a muscle of sorts.  And like any muscle, the more we exercise it the more the muscle develops.

Now let’s look how we develop our bodies.  Any trainer will tell you, “no pain, gain,” right.  A ten minute session of jogging isn’t going to do anyone any good.  Now a concentrated twenty-minute run will that hurts – will.  My question is why don’t we treat our “brain workout” the same way.  And with the way we have our schools structured, we don’t.

Every school I’ve ever seen segments out classes in one hour periods.  Hey, it’s the way it’s always been and well … damn that’s the way it needs to be.  You know what the one hour class is?  It’s a ten minute jog.  And the one hour class isn’t even an hour.  By the time you subtract the five-minute break, the ten minutes to get the kids settled down and the five minutes at the end of class when they’re waiting to get out … the class is only forty minutes long.

Forty minutes isn’t enough time to build any significant synaptic connections.  It’s barely enough time to reinforce those that have already there in the first place.  And let’s combine that with the fact that there will some synaptic breakdown from one day to next.

If you ever took a college class in the summer, you probably found out that you learn more.  That’s because the classes are conducted over a shorter time period – four to six weeks, with longer periods.  You get into it more and don’t have as much time to forget it.  It’s been thirty years since my stint at UND, and I can still can knock out a lease vs. buy analysis or value a public company … even though I haven’t done it since.

Remember the movie, “Stand and Deliver,” starring Edward James Olmos, based on a true story.  A dedicated teacher inspires his East Los Angeles dropout prone students to learn calculus and do so well that they are accused of cheating.  He did it with a concentrated effort over just three months that often involved weekend classes.  He put those kids’ brains through a “mental marathon.”

We have to help our kids build their brains as strong as possible on the road to their future.  Would you rather send your children out on dirt or pavement?

Here’s my solution:  “Saving education … 2 hours at a time”

Make classes two hours long!

Here’s what will happen:

  • There will be more actual time for instruction and learning.  Even with a break in the middle of the two-hour period, you don’t have that mental and physical transition of the normal one hour class.  A forty minute period turns into a 100 minute period, a twenty-five percent increase.
  • The quality of the time spent in the class will rise dramatically.  Once you get going, then it’s a lot easier to keep it going.  Isn’t there a law of physics that says that?  Complex thought can only be achieved once the synapses are firing, and to get them firing takes work … no different from getting your cardio up on a run.  You can’t go from 100 to 170 in ten minutes.
  • Here’s one for the teachers.  If a teacher only has three classes a day then there is a good chance they will only have to prepare for one or two different courses.  My dad was a high school teacher and routinely prepared for three a night.  The synaptic connection thing works here too.  A more concentrated class preparation will probably lend itself to a better class preparation.  Better  teacher prep … better student achievement.  WOW, what a concept.

I don’t know why we continue to fight against brain neurology.  We all know how learning works.  Yet we don’t seem to put our knowledge into practice.  It’s like we are so determined to hold on the past – and way things have always have been done.  The only way any change happens – is if it is radical, like the “whole language” fiasco.

“Knowledge, 2 hours at a time” isn’t radical.  It doesn’t involve more money.  It doesn’t involve merit pay (so the unions don’t have to get their feathers ruffled).  All it involves is just having two-hour classes.

I remember a story a few years ago about a truck that had driven under a bridge underpass and gotten stuck.  Highway officials, firemen and engineers all caucused for hours in search of a solution.  A little six-year-old daughter of a man stuck in the ensuing traffic backup asked one of the firemen why they just let the air out of the truck’s tires.

And as Occam so rightly said, “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.”


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