Adam Burk

Founder/ Director, Treehouse Institute


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Who should decide what the purpose of education is?

Over the past month TED community members have been answering for themselves "in your opinion, what should be the purpose of education?"

During that conversation, Thomas Brucia, raised a question I would like to spend some more time on. He said, "shouldn't the question be: 'who should decide what the purpose of education is?'"

In an age where control of is this answer and ultimately the fate of millions of children in the U.S. alone is held by corporations and the ultra-wealthy, I believe this is a righteous question and lever to examine.

So, predicated on the understanding that whatever is deemed to be the purpose of education defines 12+ years of children's daily activities and habits in the form of formalized learning, aka schooling, who should decide what the purpose of education is? Is it corporations? Academics? Policy-makers? Teachers? Parents? Students themselves? ::gasp:: Local communities as a whole?

I look forward to the conversations, thanks for joining in.

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    Dec 29 2011: Adam Burk Im a huge fan of Cooperative Catalysts and I sincerely feel that the people mostly Educators involved in that site are very good examples (your articles over there are very inspiring) of how a Cooperative Community discusses and is open to new ideas and open to participation from anyone(including articles posted by students) that has great concern for true human education for children. So I guess I kind of answered already half of the question. So yes indeed a community (an entire society as a whole who's goal is to build an environment that is based on developing humanistic characteristics, mutual respect aiming towards building a truly peaceful sustainable world) so that obviously encompasses and includes the students themselves as well as parents , teachers etc. Theres a saying in Africa, it takes an entire village to raise a child. so a community (society) that bases this as their goal must be highly interactive with what we determine is education. We are all influenced constantly every minute from our environment, so we as adults have as much to do and participate and learn ourselves as well in this "critically needed" upgrading of foundation in what we define is education.
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      Jan 9 2012: Hi Ruth,

      Thanks for the Cooperative Catalyst love. It's a great community and I've seen a lot of transformation happen through the conversations happening there.

      As you know, I share your vision for what a community should be. But, even in our own neighborhoods, sometimes our own families, we don't carry that common vision. How do we get there? Do you have examples of community coming together to identify its core purpose and articulating how it will achieve that purpose? Particularly communities that involve all stakeholders, even children?
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        Jan 12 2012: Hi Adam, here is a brief outlook of the educational institute that I voluntarily work and study at ( see link here to our international english site...)
        Global Education
        A global crisis calls for a global solution: the virtual education of globality, interconnectedness and mutual care from a young age.

        At present the Ari Institution has attained cooperation collaboration with UNESCO and is now writing a book together that deals with the bases of a global integral education.
        Our institution was invited by the Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN to present our educational perceptions and concepts and is showing signs of enthusiasm and willingness of collaboration between ARI and the educational body that operates inside NATO (besides UNESCO)
        Our Institute has much experience and is very active in the field of education and firmly believes in the principles of a global education.
        The institute is always ready, willing and open to cooperate with other organizations that work in the field of education.
        Yes we already have active communities and of course children have their share :) Any questions or whatever I will be happy to pass along and more than happy to share details of how we are building and articulating in how to attain this vision. Yes your right, unfortunately not everyone shares the same vision even inside our homes, In our uneasy global times I really feel it is extremely important for all these private holistic directed educational organizations to form bridges between us, to help raise public awareness and influence. I guess our's is the transitional generation, hopefully all the childrens children will be able to reap the fruits of the seeds we are now planting for a mutually compatible world.
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          Jan 14 2012: Ruth,

          Thanks so much for sharing the link and some context. Can you tell me more about your experiences at the Ari Institute? I'd love to hear some details about the curriculum and pedagogy.

          For example, how do students meaningfully engage in their studies?
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      Jan 9 2012: Ruth - i esp love your last sentence.. managing what success is or what ed is for another is one of our biggest blind spots. this perpetual beta of learning and becoming happens in action. which means we're all in it and moving and being. always. facilitating the curiosities, the curriculum if we must, inside each person is where we are going to see the brilliance, the cultures of trust and gifting, needed to foster authentic and growing communities of practice.
      thinking we need to define ed or anything for that matter is something i've been thinking about. if we, as you say, are all influenced constantly every minute from our environment, a definition brings a closure, or a death even, to that aliveness.
      i love how John Hagel describes this here in his post about infinite games:

      Adam - we are venturing out into our community just now, starting up art of hosting type convos. [last influence for that from Meg Wheatley's Walk Out Walk On.] all people, coming together to decide what the questions are that we are about.

      i love Bunker Roy's recent TED of the barefoot movement. credentialing is truly from our community. how are they doing? how are you helping that?
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        Jan 15 2012: Hi Monika, Im so inspired by all you Catalysts, and thanks for the link, I enjoyed the perspectives, so yah I think I understand what you meant when you wrote you are thinking about define ed or anything for that matter, if we are open to reception we can always widen our perception. Ive happily discovered your You Blog and Lab Connections and also thanks to your mentioning here of Meg Wheatley, found some great reads! Even though we are all still in the middle of the muddle transition with all these issues on education and all, you and all your coop catalyst community are leaving deep inspiring impressions on the students that you all work together with so your already paving them a brighter future, Im so friggin thankful that teachers like you guys exist!
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        Jan 16 2012: Monika, I saw you entered a proposal discussion(Be You A Quiet Revolution) in that Global Ed Conference in november 2011, did it come through? (dam hope so, and if not, the good intention counts!) I saw you wrote there you were representing also Israel, so Im very curious :) and anything you have to pass along is more than welcome! Also I saw your recommendations for Manish Jain,(do you have contacts with him) did he make a presentation there? I saw Schooling the World (very impressive film) was happy to see it was presented at that conference. Do you have connections to Carol Black? Sorry for my bombardment of questions I tried to follow as much as possible at that site, I couldnt hear any online presentations as that media channel they used didnt work well on my computer. If you were following over there I would love to hear about your overall impressions! Thank you!!! Sincerely,
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        Jan 16 2012: Hi Adam, thank you, Ive been in the site a few times already, I would love to attend its just just not possible financial wise, plus besides Im also a full time mom of 3 boys doing multi tasking, The convention sounds great, I hope for the next one there could be some representation from our institute, by the way, in regards to one of your upper thread questions, part of our english department team is working on creating an integral education kit for the UN, which aims to get ready by May, so we hope to have something for you and many people by then.
        We have an independent media station and the kids from our main community which consists of 200 families formed an after day school environment for the kids, one of their ever expanding projects consists of kids learning how to film and design their own media programs that are interactive with youths from all over. In one of our branch communites in my town, the amount of kids is much smaller (hopefully that will expand) so we are just in the beginning of building them an after school environment, I could expand here Im just not sure this is the place to be taking up thread space for this.
  • Dec 30 2011: Yes, the students are the backbone of the school's environment and the collective values of the parents form the value system. The facilitators are the teachers who lead everybody in activities not only on the intellectual level but on the level of social cooperation and problem solving. With these ingredients education will evolve from an artificial learning factory to a system for the growth of humankind. This is far superior to home-schools in my opinion. I home-schooled my children in the seventies and although they were superior in knowledge, they were not aware of what it takes to integrate and cooperate for the good of all. Without those around you to form the environment with which to practice the values, there is no practical application and isolation inadvertently is promoted.
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      Jan 9 2012: Cher,

      Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective. How can we create processes so that teachers, parents, and students can articulate their visions together?
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    Jan 9 2012: I was taught in law that to get the right answers you need to ask the right questions. Your question about the agenda sparked my thought process. I now think that book publishers set the agenda and have the most influence in our schools. I heard a lecture that the most important part of math is to ask the right question. The teacher developed projects and the students were required to "design" the answer. In todays class the publisher sets the question, the example, and the solutiuon in the back of the book. Teachers could easily design their own courses. Back to the purpose of education. Education should help us to question what we see, hear, and experience, and challenge the world we inhabit with our curiosity. Looking out is as important as looking in. Education needs to support children to find out who they are as well as their place in the world and how they can make a difference. There does not appear to be a finite answer to your question, however, each response opens another thought process. In this manner you are a good teacher. You inspire me to think. Thank you.
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      Jan 9 2012: Robert,

      The amount of corporate control in schools is pretty astounding. Textbooks AND standardized testing are symptoms in my opinion of the root problem. The root problem is that we have given away our power to set the agendas for our schools and thus in some ways our own lives to "the other." The other might be authority figures or agencies and outside experts.

      I am honored and happy to be holding space for you to explore! Keep going!
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        Jan 9 2012: Thanks for your reply. I am not so object to standardized testing as I am to high stakes testing. If I were to have my way I would like testing to be an application process rather than a regurgation of the materials.

        One of the "tools" used in the Shanghi system is a practicim. Student spend time with professionals in the community to gain a first hand knowledge of application and a perspective of the interrelation of the academic and the "real world".

        Todays educational design is based on extrinsic (carrot and stick) methodology. I believe that we should be devising a intrinstic approach to be more in tune with the 21st century needs.

        As a Aeronatical Engineer I no longer calculated areas such as aerodynamics or metallurgy. I entered the desired factors into a Cray Computer and bingo the answer appeared. There is very little need for pencil to paper in todays world.

        As you say our powers at the local level have all but vanished. Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, speaks of his desire that all texts, tests, syallbi, course materials, and grading should be done at the federal level. He wants education to be federally standardized. That approach is common in a Socialism agenda. I on the other hand regularly advise that powers should be returned to the states and that educational matters should be managed at the local level.

        Again I have departed from the base question. As you can see I am quite passionate about education. My "model" is full of cross outs and erasures. I eat crow a lot and learn from everones input to these sites.
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          Jan 12 2012: Robert,

          Thanks for continuing to add more and more value to these conversations. I respect and appreciate your perspective.

  • Jan 18 2012: It sounds like we are saying parents, teachers, and students desire more ownership, and shared ownership over setting the purpose of education. We need Processes for claiming ownership.
    1. Time: a process would have to allow time away from "school" (papEr grading for teachers, ordinary class work for kids) to actually have productive talk about these ideas.
    2. Atmosphere of play, constructive purpose, enthusiasm, not of fear or protectiveness. It would take a commitment by participants and a skilled leader/ facilitator, and a choice to participate by parents and teachers to make something feel positive and productive.
    3. Talking points: it might be helpful to provide a simply worded outline of several different sample purposes of education, to start the conversations. Sort of a menu of educational purposes, from which to choose, to start exchange of ideas
    4. Virtual spaces: physical meeting spaces could be offered along with live forums and blogs such as this one, where people could weigh in and listen to ideas.
    5. so many people have never been asked for an opinion about such a topic, that it may feel at first like voting: can my voice make a difference? The best antidote to that would seem to me to be a literal meeting, such as a seminar around a table with groups of 8 people or so at which everyone discusses a short reading that is related to education. something very accessible, tailored to various age groups and language levels (any language the community uses). When people realize they have feelings and ideas about this topic, they may begin to care enough and believe that their voice can be heard, that they are willing to go another step and share, work with others at their school site to shape education there.
    6. community truly can be defined here in numerous ways, but my instinct says that the smaller the local community the better, for purposes of ownership. Many within that group would bring broader perspectives to the group.
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      Jan 22 2012: Gordon, this is a great breakdown of a process for claiming ownership of education. Thank you.
      Do you know of any places that have piloted such a process?
      • Jan 22 2012: I have never heard of any, but it was a surprise when I got to school the day after my post, and found myself in a small faculty meeting facing a similar question/topic. It remains to be seen, but I felt we had an opportunity to present steps such as I outlined, and that there may be a positive follow-through in some way soon. I think if other teachers have buy-in, we could each help by contributing to the process.
        For me, our accreditation committee served as a model - a positive example of stakeholders working together for a common purpose. My group included students, parents, teachers, a principal from another school, and a staff member and school board member. If presented as a true opportunity for dialogue, new meetings could grow along similar lines with respect to the purpose of education.
        Thank you, Adam, for your positive interactions with contributors, for encouraging people's strengths and inviting us into further dialogue and deeper reflection.
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    Jan 14 2012: children, parents and teachers. in that order. nobody else.
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    Jan 14 2012: Many schools are EXCLUSIVE. What I am suggest is an "iNCLUSIVE" school. That would mean that students, parents, teachers, and administrators all work together (grass roots) to effect change. As we have become a top down society I want to reverse that into a bottom up up society. I also want to influence from the top. I have invited my Senator and Representatives to visit the school. We are no longer a number but now have a face. This gives us a reference when addressing a proposed law or the effects of current laws that are restrictive to the learning process. When we exceed the norms our successes should be released to the media, web sites, and the community. We want others to join in our change process. This must be a fluid system that accepts change as necessary and recognizes new and inovative ideas. This can only suceed if the inclusive group all work together. Leave the egos at home. We want to turn out a student that can meet the chalenges and needs of todays world. Thanks for the kind words.
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    Jan 12 2012: I support Monika's work to use a per census formula to fund community-based education - a national policy that enables local control and trans-local learning models of how to make entire communities into "schools." Educators should take on the purpose of creating maker spaces that learners and mentors can use to set their own purposes for learning - sometimes the learning will seem very idiosyncratic to the learner; sometime it will have obvious and lasting value for the community. Regardless, the learning will always enrich the community through the lives of its learners and their attention to and ownership of their learning.

    We in the United States largely need state and federal money to keep up with state and federal mandates regarding staffing, scheduling, testing, and sanctioning; we could educate more meaningfully and rigorously for less if our communities take ownership of customized, democratic education for children and adults. We don't need a curriculum to identify what matters to us or to our kids, we don't need a test to tell us if our actual work is excellent or not, and we don't need practice picking answers when we could be identifying and solving the problems in front of us in our lives and neighborhoods.

    Thanks for sparking this conversation, Adam.

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    Jan 16 2012: we did present.. all the talks are archived here:
    Carol did a keynote, which was excellent, and she also joined in our session.
    Carol has connected us to Manish in India. he is one of the narrators in schooling the world, and curator of one of the seven places Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze share in Walk Out Walk On.
    Isaac Graves of the patchwork school connected us to Yaacov Hecht and his education cities in Israel, his book, Democratic Education is excellent:
    we asked both Yaacov and Manish to join us at the global Ed conf... but neither were able to at that time. Yaacov is launching Ed cities in Puerto Rico in march.

    Deborah Frieze will be joining Paul Allison's edtechtalk session this wed 9pm est to talk about Walk On. if you're interested, follow Paul on google + and join his hangout at that time.
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      Jan 16 2012: Hi Monika thanks for the link, Ill try the blackboard again it didnt work well for me on my compute. I was just on the phone today with a friend of mine whos kids are in one of the branch democratic schools in my town of Rehovot, overall she is very satisfied cause its better than whatever else is presently available in Israel, but unfortunately today she came home after a meeting with the principal and ed, advisor of the school and they suggested moving one of her sons from there to a standard school and place him in a special class with other kids with "learning disabilities" of course a story like that doesn't give any indication (the school is still lacking tools), but never the less still sad to hear stories like this happening every second, everywhere (Israel is in a huge mess like all over) we all have a lot of work to do.
      Ill try to follow on wednesday.
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        Jan 16 2012: just talking to a friend who's returned home to india after 3 years. and one that lives in a town 20 min away. and a guy down the street.
        it is all over. we do have a lot of work to do.

        but i believe it can turn on a dime, if we're clever about zooming in and out, about true mathematical thinking. so that we can see that huge really isn't so huge if we do it together.. apart... together.
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          Jan 16 2012: Your absolutely right Monika! Together to gather together!
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      Jan 17 2012: Hey Monika, last evening took some time aside to listen to Yaccov Hechts lecture at last years IDEC, hes quite a character, I really enjoyed it! Thanks again! loved that "hey you, and you and you and you ,,,get in the box"
  • Jan 13 2012: Adam, You pose quite a thought provoking question. As adults we tend to see things from the "grownup, real-world" perspective and, since we have more power than K-12 students, we impose our perspectives upon them. After about 22 years total formal schooling I note that aside from fundamentals, I was largely taught "what you need to know so you can be like and do what we (already) did"...

    I am not so certain that adults in the past or present have such a great track record that the (adult) past should be forced upon the (youthful) present. Sure, we need to assist youths in avoiding gross errors of judgement that might lead to physical harm, but the rest of our time might best be spent helping put the students in the driver's seat -- we can back-fill a tailored content later so as to assist them to get where they want to go in their lives.
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    Dec 30 2011: The education system is a function of society and the family. It reflects the values and traditions of the society and family. A system that might function well in one society might not work as well or at all in another society.
    The educational system in the United States suffered a shock caused by Sputnik from which it has not recovered. An over emphasis of the sciences resulted in a generation or two or three whose appreciation of the Arts and Humanities is severely limited. We were privileged in that era to see children dancing, singing, putting on plays, debating, and playing musical instruments. Of course there are still children doing those things, but the appreciation is usually found in their parent's eyes, not in the eyes of their peers.
    This came about because community leaders passed the opinion up the line to the political leaders that the USA could not dare to fall behind the Soviets in Science.
    Look at the society of the USA. Is it as wonderful now as it was when Sputnik was launched? Sure we are more technologically advanced. But are we as happy? Do people have the choices that they once had? Has society become more or less homogenized? Do we as a culture get along as well as we thought we would in the 60s?
    Our fears have eaten away at our foundations. Our greed has eaten away at the fruits of our labor. The corporations have more rights than human beings. Schools are putting teachers on leaves of absence until money can be found for salaries. And public corporations can spend $50,000 to put up one unnecessary advertizement in a public square.
    Have you read "Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand? This future was foretold in 1957. But the community did not listen. They are not listening now.
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      Jan 9 2012: Jon,

      So what do you suggest? If local control was once given away to national control, does the answer lie in reclaiming local autonomy in your opinion?

      Are their national policies that could be set to support that?
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        Jan 9 2012: we're going for a national policy - govt funding per census. : )
  • Dec 28 2011: I think the local communities would be the most influential for the purpose of education, so it would be local communities as a whole in a way.
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      Jan 8 2012: Zared,

      What do you define as local? A state? A town? A neighborhood? How might such groups cultivate their vision for the purpose of education?

      What are the advantages and challenges of having local control?
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    Jan 27 2012: Adam,
    In theory, every adult citizen in a democratic country chooses the decisions makers by voting, giving his/her individual trust to a member of parliament to do the job.
    The challenges are numerous (academic inflation, funding, creativity, you name it) and show that the expectations regarding education are not met, hence, perhaps (?), your question. And this is actually a societal debate: who should lead, if leaders don't do the job??
    It's a philosophical question of top-down versus a bottom-up.

    Having said that, I strongly believe we (we=parents) still decide what education should be. As in: should parents not be happy with the education given by our governments, we can still do a tremendous job outside the school. I'm saying that because my 9-year old son has learning difficulties and as a consequence, school can/could undermine his self-confidence. And I abide by Sir Ken Robinson's point of view: the world today is facing huge problems, which require a huge deal of creativity to tackle them. And school does kill creativity.

    Creativity means being confident enough to try something new. Kids are creative because they are not afraid to fail...until they're 6, as schools punish you if you try something new (and fail).

    We, as parents, can develop and nurture our children's confidence to try something better than anyone else or anything else, teachers, school, corporations, you name it. So, in a way, we own (big time) the education of our beloved kids.
  • Jan 16 2012: I don't want to post something huge, so I'll just provide a link.

    Teleonomy looks at emergent purpose - tends to be used in evolutionary biology, but finds relevance in culture, education, philosophy, economics, governments, corporations - you name it. So to answer the question - all who participate play their own role in shaping the purpose. No individual or group of individuals can effectively determine the purpose of something as complex as education, and I'm not sure I would want them to even if they could.
  • Jan 13 2012: I believe it should be a combination of the basics and fluid, customized learning. Kids should be taught how to read, write in their native language and do math. After that, I believe kids should be taught based on their interests, with their talents and abilities factored in. This would require a combination of academics, vocational and technical training. In a sense, to me after a child learns the 3 Rs, the parent and the child should begin to map out their educational course. Its almost as if college would begin at 3rd or 4th grade or (to keep it age independent) when the child demonstrates the ability to understand their choices and can effective choose their education path.
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      Jan 14 2012: Robert,

      So in the frame of the question leading this conversation "Who should decide what the purpose of education is?" do you think you should be the one to decide for everyone?

      I say ask this with a smile, I know tone is very difficult to interpret in text-only formats. Please know I am not trying to be a jerk. Provocative, yes. Jerky, no.

      • Jan 16 2012: LOL Provacative can be a good thing in these types of discussions.

        I think I understand where I may have went away from the question in regards to "purpose". I say since it affects all of us as a community, then it should be decided by the community. Some may say the purpose is to train people for better jobs. Some may say its to cultivate creativity. Some may say its just to teach you about the world around you so you're better suited to be successful. In my eyes, its a combination of all those things. And I don't think that one answer is the right answer. I believe that incorporating all of those answers is what's works best because it allow individuals to do what's best suited for them and then hopefully, that translates in how they can benefit the community as a whole.
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    Jan 12 2012: Adam, During my morning exercise I thought about educational change. I started with the thought that the system currently employed is the basic Bismark German system that was introduced around the world in the 18th centruy. That being true then what will it take to change the way schools do business. How will it be possible to rid the influence of the book publishers and test makers from their billion dollar industry.

    After considerable head banging (don't do it .. it hurts) consider this:

    It is not so much about making change as it is creating the conditions under
    which change is possible and the incentive to want to make change.

    If we at the grass root level work to enhance education, then it will happen. There is nothing in law that prevents a school from exceeding standards. Therefore, as long as we meet requirements for graduation it is the local boards decision to effect change.

    I could take the time to wrap this around a lot of fancy words but I am pretty basic and wanted to get a opinion. In effect the instructor could design the course and print the course material. The school could buy one of each text to ensure that all of the major points are covered, being careful to not enfringe on copy right laws. This would lead to many inovative presentations and options to the course using 21 st century technology and tailoring to the needs of the students.

    This of course brings us back to the value of quality instructors. It also brings a flood of applications to mind. It all starts with us becoming involved.
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      Jan 14 2012: Robert,

      Keep going. I love the trail you are on here. This is a great statement: "There is nothing in law that prevents a school from exceeding standards."

      I think there is a lot of credit to what you are saying and I also think that circumstances in schools are complicated.

      As for creating the conditions under which change is possible, this is definitely what the work is. I'm interested to know if you have any thoughts on how to create those conditions.

      I have friends and colleagues working on this across the country through IDEA--Institute for Democratic Education in America, We're always looking to connect efforts and cultivate conditions for change. We have some ideas of how to do it, but are always listening for other ways and better ways.

      And bottom line, you are right, it starts with us getting involved!
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    Dec 29 2011: I refer to a speech on TED by Elizebeth Colemen President of Bennington College that there should be more Liberal Arts Colleges. All Secondary students should be brought to standards that would allow them enterance into a liberal Arts schools. If students completed a liberal arts course prior to attending university it would provide the opportunity to adjust to higher education and time to mature. During her talk she showed a slide of the departments of anthropology which I did not count but appeared to be around 50 or so choices. The point is why should a student of 18 be put into a position of electing a life career choice. Allow them to have a rounded education and then continue to university to pursue a major. If this path was followed then the "shaping of education" by interested parties would be delayed until such a time a informed decision could be made. We are a capitalist country and will always adjust to the demands of the consumer and the needs of the industrial and military complex. I am in favor of providing a mature and dedicated product to meet those needs.
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      Jan 8 2012: Hi Robert,

      Is the "shaping of education" really delayed? Isn't the education and the shaping of the individual happening through k-12? Who should set the agenda for those twelve years? If you are delaying the student's ability to inform his/her path in learning, then who has decided for him or her what the purpose of education is during that time?