You have arrived at the web home of Noah Brier. This is mostly an archive of over a decade of blogging and other writing. You can read more about me or get in touch. If you want more recent writing of mine, most of that is at my BrXnd marketing x AI newsletter and Why Is This Interesting?, a daily email for the intellectually omnivorous.

December, 2004

Educational Change

By Barbara Rubin Brier

Editor's Note: My mother was inspired to write something and asked me to post it on my site. I am doing this for her for two reasons: first, because she's my mother and second, because I think it's very interesting. Hope everyone enjoys the guest entry and if you've got something you'd like printed up here shoot me an email at writing@noahbrier.com.

Having spent an increasing amount of time, of late, reading this blog (my son's) and following the links he posts – many about the internet, blogs, and the way the world is changing – I've been inspired to post my thought on how and why education has to change as well.

This is not a new subject for me. When this same son reached middle school, I discovered that the progressive Bank Street magnet school he'd attended from Kindergarten through 5th grade was not the norm, but a rare alternative to the same old lousy public school education I'd received. I went back to school. Having spent the 80's in a retail buying office dealing with the thorny theme of industry consolidation, I wanted to know this: Why am I not seeing anything I've learned about organizational change in my kids' schools? In fact, my 214-page master's thesis is entitled, "Applying Organizational Change Theory to School Reform." But I digress. My point here is that I went back to school, got my masters in Educational Change, and now work as consultant in the field. So I think about this stuff a lot.

But every once in a while, a personal situation arises that crystallizes my irritation at the system. This week, there were two. Here's the first one (and in this case, it's not even a public school, but a private college.) My daughter, a freshman at George Washington University, just got a 67 on an astronomy test. Before you jump to conclusions, this is not about the grade. I could care less about grades (although she was beside herself.) This is about GWU's School of Arts & Sciences requiring students to take 3 lab science courses in order to graduate.

My daughter does not want to be an astronomy major. She doesn't even want to be a science major. She reluctantly took A.P. Physics and A.P. Calculus in high school because she knew she needed them to get into a decent school. But her strengths are in liberal arts, music and the social sciences. She knows that, I know it, and it works for us. It just doesn't work for GWU.

I'd been promising her for years that school would be better when she got to college. It was definitely better for me. In fact, I've often said that I didn't know education had anything to do with thinking until I got to college. I thought it was all a matter of memorization and regurgitation. Of course, in my day, NYU had very few course requirements and you could take one course per semester pass/fail. I made it through geology and some prehistoric computer course where I learned a program that created a Snoopy outline on a punch card. So much for my science and math background.

Noah, host of this blog, also went to NYU. Against his mother's advice, he applied to the School of Arts & Sciences. (I vividly remember a conversation about 'needing more structure' – but I got my master's at Goddard -- yet another story.) Anyway, it took Noah one semester to transfer to Gallatin, NYU's school of individualized study, where he had no requirements, hungrily pursued his interests in media and culture, and left school with a passion for learning that inspires me.

I WANT THAT FOR HIS SISTER! I don't want Leah to feel bogged down by requirements. Believe me, I understand and applaud the philosophy behind a broad-based liberal arts education. I think of anything else – business, pre-law, even pre-med – as trade school. But don't bog kids down in lab sciences just because it's the only way to pay the science professors. It does an immense disservice to students who should be finding themselves intellectually, not cramming for endless tests and quizzes on the physical principles of the universe. (I looked it up.)

Require one lab science, if you must, but offer it pass-fail to non-majors. And tweak the curriculum! I've never taken astronomy, but I'm quite certain that a creative teacher could find any number of connections between the science and art, literature, history, poetry, drama, religion. That is what makes a liberal arts education worthwhile – recognizing that no field exists in a vacuum. You have to make those connections, create that web of knowledge, realize the extraordinary dimensionality of what it means to understand something. Only then do you want to know more. That's the secret to that 'lifelong learning' catchphrase to which so many school mission statements give lip service.

I learned a lot of what I understand about education on the internet. I learned it because I enjoy what I call tangential thinking (and others sometimes see as always changing the subject.) I just like to start a search and see where it takes me. Sometimes it lasts for weeks. At one point, I actually got into the habit of copying every search phrase I entered, and every address I visited, into my notes, so I wouldn't lose my trail and not be able to return. (Bless del.icio.us for making that so much easier.) But there I go again. My point: this is what I think education is for.

Which brings me to my second source of education irritation. Just this week, my doctor mentioned that her son is not enjoying a very competitive, suburban high school here in Fairfield County. I asked if he was interested in anything. "Sports," she said. "Just sports." I asked if he spent any time researching sports on the internet and she said yes, that he spent a lot of time participating in fantasy football, fantasy baseball, looking at player stats, and so forth. My advice to her was simple: Encourage him to write about it. If he's reading and writing, and thinking about statistics, he's got literacy and math skills. Gently nudge him into following the Barry Bonds steroid scandal, and you can add science to the mix. Left to his own interests, with a little encouragement to question what he sees and reflect on what he's learned, he'll be as prepared for college as any of his peers -- maybe even more so.

Wouldn't it be something if high schools and colleges actually encouraged this sort of thing. Imagine your high schooler seriously pursuing personal interests. What a concept. There's a lot to learn, but once you get beyond the foundational math and literacy skills, you can't force feed it. Fortunately, young kids' brains are designed to accept tons of input, so you can really crank it up in those magical and concrete developmental learning stages. But once a kid's achieved abstraction, you're into that whole 'leading a horse to water' thing.

I know you won't be hearing this here first, but please, to GWU and all those promoting unnecessary and/or pedestrian required curriculum: you can't even imagine how fast you're falling behind, now that kids have gone digital. No more sympathetic niceties: FIX IT!

December 5, 2004
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.