Schools Can Learn a Better Way: Reverse Engineering the School Day

I am passionate about many things, not the least is what we could do in America’s classrooms. The thought occurred to me recently:  How long does it have to fail before someone realizes that the time for tweaking the current education system it over? By the government’s own figures, in 2007 only 29% of eighth graders were proficient in reading and 32% in math. Surprisingly over 90% of the teachers in high poverty schools were rated as “Highly Qualified.” So it must not be the teachers. To paraphrase Edwards Deming, the quality guru: If you put a good teacher in a bad system, the system will win every time. It is time to admit that the system is broken and time to start over.

Fundamental changes need to be made in the way we teach.  It is not about parents, the government or society as a whole. It is about fundamentally changing how children are taught.

That said, a news item about doing homework in class caught my attention this week. Salman Khan[i], who founded Kahn Academy in Mountain View, Ca. has flipped homework and class work by putting the lectures on the internet, as homework, and then doing what used to be homework in the classroom. As Mr. Kahn points out, he is not the first to advocate this. Individualized instruction has been around for decades but has been used only in small private schools or with students with disabilities because it has been very expensive. However, with the internet and the ability to record video, using at a minimum a cell phone, a practical way to have the time to individualize instruction is now available to every teacher willing to put in the time.

If the U.S. public schools adopted Kahn’s method, academic achievement would soar. It is well-known that lecture is an inefficient method of knowledge transfer.   Homework, unsupervised, has its problems as well in that it is difficult to tell how much of it was done by the parent, friend or sibling. Additionally, it is not the teacher’s favorite task. In spite of these problems, homework is still considerably more efficient than the lecture.  What Mr. Kahn has done is to minimize the drawbacks of each technique by reversing them for time and place. Students can watch the video at home, which most are more likely to do than read, and practice in the class room with expert individualized assistance.

Something that he could add that would increase learning even more is a behavioral technique called fluency. Fluency is defined as “automatic non-hesitant responding”—that means that the student knows the material so well that he doesn’t have to think about it. When asked, “What is 12 X 12?” the average adult doesn’t have to think about it but responds instantaneously, 144! Other benefits of fluency are that it produces rather permanent learning.  How long do you think you will know 12X12? When one is fluent, it increases endurance as responding requires less effort. It also increases creativity and resistance to distraction when problem solving. Developing fluency requires high rates of responding – many times more opportunities to practice than is available in the typical classroom.

Founded in 1980, Morningside Academy in Seattle has incorporated fluency into their methods of teaching and produced outstanding results. The results are so consistent that the school gives parents a money-back guarantee. In over 30 years less than one percent of parents have asked for their money back. In an 11 year study of academic achievement, Morningside students achieved a 2.5 years growth in reading, almost four years in language arts, and more than three years in math per school year. Two things that are noteworthy considering what the Kahn Academy has done are that Morningside students have no homework and take a report card home every day. Forty minutes of the classroom hour is spent in practice.

In an article titled, “The Shame of American Education,[ii]” written in 1984, B.F. Skinner stated “…one could teach what is now taught in American schools in half the time with half the effort.” To paraphrase Skinner further, the shame of American education was not that we knew then how to double the rates of learning in American schools in 1984 but that we had known how for over 20 years! That is still true 29 years later.

However, hope springs eternal. Just maybe with the impressive results produced at schools like the Kahn and Morningside academies, it might soon change. We must not go another 50 years before we utilize nationwide what has been known for so long about how to teach more effectively and efficiently. Effective methods are available supported by research that has been replicated many, many times. There are experts out there that we as a country continue to ignore. Not surprising most of them are not in traditional educational systems. Private schools are paving the way. Educators need to follow quickly as we have no time to waste!



[i] Look for him on TED.

[ii] Skinner, B.F., 1984, The Shame of American Education, The American Psychologist, 39 (September, 1984). Copyright by the American Psychological Association.

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  1. Excellent points, Aubrey. The results at Morningside are astonishing, but have been known for some time. I really wonder why their methods have not been picked up already by private schools. I taught taught both my kids, at a around 4 years of age, how to read using Engelmann’s “Teach your child how to read in 100 easy lessons” and it did not even take 100 lessons. I know the stuff works from that experience. Yet it is not catching on like one would expect, at least where private capital is at stake.

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