Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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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