Sunday, March 6, 2011

Take chances, make mistakes, get messy! Or: The Need for Freedom, Inquriy and Motivation In the American Education System.

The 1994 Children’s show The Magic School Bus had this slogan issued by Ms. Frizzle: Take chances, make mistakes, get messy! I recently came across two pieces (presented below) that took Ms. Frizzle’s words and expanded on them. Together they present information that is essential to future classroom teachers, business owners and professionals: we can trust in beginners and freedom



First, a TED video:


Second, this OP-ED piece from the Times.


The essential information to get from the TED video is this: What have helped people creatively solve difficult problems with no set solution are not monetary incentives, but freedom and the ability to use their time as they see fit (see Candle Experiment). In the corporate world this is reflected in Google’s 20% time, which is when their systems engineers have 20% of their work time to dedicate to work projects they are excited about. What this means is that there is still a structure in place for work to be done. However, individuals get time to work on projects that they are intrinsically motivated to do. What results is some inspired and creative work (Gmail, Google Reader etc.)

In case you don’t want to read it the OP-ED here are the highlights: A legendary opera figure Goldovsky is teaching a novice student. The student found an error in sheet music that no expert had seen. Hallinan writes


“This paradox intrigued Goldovsky. So over the years he gave the piece to a number of musicians who were skilled sight readers of music — which is to say they had the ability to play from a printed score for the first time without practicing. He told them there was a misprint somewhere in the score, and asked them to find it. He allowed them to play the piece as many times as they liked and in any way that they liked. But not one musician ever found the error. Only when Goldovsky told his subjects which bar, or measure, the mistake was in did most of them spot it.

Goldovsky’s experiment yielded a key insight into human error: not only had the experts misread the music — they had misread it in the same way. In a subsequent study, Goldovsky’s nephew, Thomas Wolf, discovered that good sight readers report that they do not read music note by note; instead, they rely on their recognition of familiar patterns and on their ability to organize the music into those patterns and dependable cues.

In short, they don’t read; they infer. Moreover, this trait is not unique to musicians: pattern recognition is a hallmark of expertise in any number of fields; it is what allows experts to do quickly what amateurs do slowly.”


The key difference between the experts and novices are the read vs. infer tension, and that beginners are not in a hurry. What this indicates is that beginners are more aware and they are actually seeing, as opposed to recognizing patterns.

Awareness and visions are valuable assets to any company (Zen Buddhism has an area of their teaching dedicated to a constant beginner mindset). In the context of the classroom it is important to present students with a structured classroom pattern, but that alone does not tap students' full potential.

Where the TED video and the OP-ED piece overlap is at Vision. If you have the time (20%) and the encouragement to see (Valued as a beginner), to assess and move forward difficult problems can be solved. For students this means successes and experiences that they can look back on and feel confident about. They can become stronger learners and more readily encounter the feeling of cognitive disequilibrium (the feeling when you don’t know something) with more confidence.

20% time has been implemented as 100% time in some schools (See Summer Hill). They are taking the scientific reality of intrinsic motivation and applying to education. Now to make this about face in public education is unrealistic and incompatible to the diversity of learning styles, but affording students’ choice within a structure and acknowledging the value of being a beginner is a step in the right direction.

This is a big idea and I wanted to share its beginnings. There are complications like struggling readers, behavior issues, and students’ motivation to do tasks other then design Gmail. Plus there’s short class periods and the lived curriculum that each teacher experiences. All that said I can see this approach as valuable in all subjects areas. I also think that wealthier schools (see works on the Hidden Curriculum) have been using this approaching for some time. I’ll keep developing a vision for it and sharing it with you all.