TED Conversations

Gever Tulley

Author & Founder, Founder, Tinkering School


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Test Schools, Not Children

Instead of subjecting children to an endless series of tests and grades, we should be testing the schools for how engaged the children are, and how many ah-ha! moments there are in a typical day. In the long-term we should test how durable the learning is (how much 5th grade algebra and trigonometry do you remember?), how much curiosity the graduates retain, and how passionate they are for learning as adults.


Closing Statement from Gever Tulley

People perceive many issues in education today, and it is clear from our conversation (sometimes heated, sometimes brilliant), that any attempt to address one single issue necessarily leaves many unanswered issues. In general, those well served by a traditional education seem to see little problem with continuing the practice, and those who struggled through school embrace the notion of change - not for the sake of change, but for the chance that we might invent something better.

In seeking to change how we assess children, I started this conversation with the suggestion that we switch the focus of assessment to the schools. To many, this seemed to be a naive approach. A few commenters seemed to be saying, "the system can work, we just need to be more targeted with our testing." Many agreed that there was too much testing, but that some testing can actually be beneficial. Others found merit and suggested ways that it be implemented. Some concern was raised regarding the time it would take to know when a school was failing.

Eric Mercer turned the topic around, asking, "An educational system reflects, not creates, the habits and practices of a society. So which is broken?" My immediate thought is that the best way to fix an ailing society starts with fixing education, which seems to echo the sentiments of many commenters who suggested that schools aren't doing a good job of helping students discover what they truly want to do with their lives. Lee Wilkinson's high school experience seemed to be putting up more roadblocks when it could have been paving the way; "The problem as I see it is; I told them back then that this is what I wanted to do with my life and was told to stop day dreaming."

This has been a fascinating conversation, and I thank everyone for joining in. I am doing my small part to explore new ways to create meaningful education through Tinkering School and my newest project, Brightworks (http://sfbrightworks.org). All my best,

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      Feb 13 2011: The irony is this; any system can be improved. The national focus in the United States is to keep trying to improve the current system. The problem is that the current system is nearing a local maxima. There are endless studies proving that great teachers can have a profound positive impact on the life of a child - but the limits of that impact are defined by the constraints of the school system. If the best thing for a given child is discovery-based learning, and another child would do better with a mastery-based approach, then neither of those children is being best served by the system - no matter how much the classroom experience is improved. And yet we keep pouring resources into solving the problem of making the system better, and we keep finding ways to measure and validate the improvements (typically by adding more testing).

      What is needed is a series of long-term (10-20 year) experiments designed to evaluate and discover new learning systems.
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        Feb 15 2011: Gever, the act of improving a system is reformation. However, the answer to problems in our current public education system is not reform. The fundamental premise of the system is to create economically viable products. The current reform effort is simply trying to move the system from creating employees suitable for a factory system to employees for the 21st century economy.

        Sir Ken Robinson said it tersely, we need to transform education. Is this not what you have done at Tinkering School and now Brightworks? We have to fundamentally change the aims of education.

        Furthermore, we know that schools and students do not exist in isolation. They are intimately tied to economics for example. Studies show us time and time again, regardless of what type of learning system a student goes through their socio-economic experience has tremendous effect on their learning trajectory. So perhaps we not only need to be talking about evaluating new learning systems, but entirely new human community systems. This purview would encompass education, economic, and ecological systems (and more) all at once.
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      Feb 15 2011: I don't completely agree that most of the children tend not to like going to school. Remembering my first grade (and I mean first grade primary school), most of the children were actually excited to be "going to school". And that feeling was still (!) there when learning basics of mathematics, writing and reading. But gradually, they began not to like going to school...

      How come school makes children gradually dislike learning? Yes, we should test schools, but in my view primarily to determine, where the mistake is. Some schools are better - where's the difference?

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