Category Archives: Education

More Important to Teach Principles than Facts

This week I read The Leader in Me, Stephen Covey’s new book about teaching the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to elementary school students. Schools in North Carolina, Alabama, Illinois, Guatemala, Singapore, and elsewhere have successfully incorporated 7 Habits into their curriculum.

As an outsider to education, what most interested me were the chapter on teaching effectiveness principles in the home (chapter 10) and the following thoughts on curriculum.

Parents, teachers, and business leaders recognize that simple transmission of facts is no longer a sufficient education, as it may have been many years ago. This is what makes teaching effectiveness principles so attractive. Principles and habits transcend facts.

While factual information remains a key factor for survival in today’s world, it is no longer sufficient. With the massive spread of the internet and other digital resources, facts that at one time were closely guarded trade secrets and only available from the top universities can now be accessed in most every nook and cranny on the globe at the click of a mouse. As a result, many of the so-called elite professions that once required extensive schooling are today being passed on to computers or to people at far lower education levels and wages across the planet. Factual knowledge alone is thus no longer the great differentiator between those who succeed and those who do not. (Stephen R. Covey. The Leader in Me. p. 7)

What’s needed, in Mr. Covey’s opinion, is a greater emphasis on “meta” skills such as being proactive, setting goals, resolving conflicts, and listening well. (I previously wrote about “intellectual self-sufficiency”, which I believe is one of these meta skills that is larger than other academic skills.)

Perhaps we could teach better by teaching less:

“It is time to recognize that the major flaw in the de facto curriculum of American public schools is not that schools do not do enough, but that they attempt to do too much. Even though American students have fewer school days each year than their Asian and European counterparts, they are expected to learn far more curriculum content. Confronted with a curriculum that is ‘a mile long and one-half inch deep,’ teachers have become preoccupied with ‘coverage.’ They feel unable to teach for student mastery of knowledge and skills because of the race to cover content. One of the most meaningful steps a school can take to promote significant improvement is to develop a process for identifying significant curriculum content, eliminating non-essential material, and providing teachers with time to teach the significant curriculum.” (Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker. Professional Learning Community. p. 165. Quoted in The Leader in Me. pp. 197-198.)

“U.S. mathematics textbooks address 175 percent as many topics as do German textbooks and 350 percent as many topics as do Japanese textbooks. The science textbooks used in the United States cover more than nine times as many topics as do German textbooks and more than four times as many topics as do Japanese textbooks. Yet German and Japanese students significantly outperform U.S. students in mathematics and science.” (Robert J. Marzano. What Works in Schools. pp. 26-28. Quoted in The Leader in Me. p. 198.)

I’m not saying these are magic answers for education, or even that they’re new, but I thought they were interesting. As the internet makes it easier to connect with people and access any information, I see wisdom in learning and teaching better personal effectiveness skills.

Eric Hoffer said, “It is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

Teaching the unteachable skills

If you tend to perform tasks you’ve never performed before, what does this mean for education? Does your school teach you to solve problems, prioritize tasks, and prepare you for non-assembly-line jobs?

“Training a student to be sheepish is a lot easier than the alternative. Teaching to the test, ensuring compliant behavior and using fear as a motivator are the easiest and fastest ways to get a kid through school. So why does it surprise us that we graduate so many sheep?” (Seth Godin in Sheepwalking)

Maybe teachers should ask harder questions — questions they’ve never answered — and allow students to use “real life” tools.

Here’s what just about every exam ought to be: “Use Firefox to find the information you need to answer this question:” And as the internet gets smarter, the questions are going to have to get harder. (Seth Godin in The Wikipedia Gap)

In the past, you had to memorize knowledge because there was a cost to finding it. Now, what can’t you find in 30 seconds or less? We live an open-book-test life that requires a completely different skill set. (Mark Cuban in Time magazine)

I’ve called this intellectual self-sufficiency, the ability to search out answers for yourself.

How about these test questions? (Internet and cell phone allowed.)

  • What can you buy with 1 yen, in Japan?
  • Find a picture of Rio de Janeiro taken today.
  • Who is the most famous author of all time? Defend your answer.
  • Your friend is visiting downtown Boston and calls you for help. Help her get to D.C. You’re in Provo, Utah.

The answers don’t really matter, but the process does.

Jon Udell on technology in education

I recently listened to Jon Udell’s interview with CJ Rayhill, CIO of O’Reilly. They talked about O’Reilly’s Safari U project which allows college professors to compile chapters from various books into a custom book for their own classes, available in print and online.

I’ve written before about what I wanted in a college textbook. I wish I had had Safari U in college, though I was in the business program and Safari U may not have many business texts. Being able to search textbooks would have been incredible.

They also talked more generally about technology in education, including Jon’s vision that most lectures could eventually be available online, to be viewed at the student’s own pace and schedule. Classroom time could be reserved for group projects and class discussion, never for one-way lectures.

This is actually how BYU teaches its introductory accounting class, Accounting 200. Professor Norm Nemrow’s lectures were available on CD-ROM, with video, audio, and notes all synchronized. It was great to watch these on our schedule and at our own pace. (Most students downloaded a plugin that played the video at 2x speed!) The class only met 6 times that semester, and the in-person lectures were more anecdotal and conversational.