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Q&A: Lessons for Tomorrow

Edward Davis on a New Architecture for Education

Edward L. "Ned" Davis has been a charter school teacher, a corporate trainer, an education writer and an e-learning entrepreneur. He's also a parent. From what he's observed in all these roles, Davis has concluded the education system isn't broken. It's absolutely obsolete. In his new book, Lessons for Tomorrow: Bringing America's Schools Back from the Brink, (Oregon Press, $17.95) Davis says schools don't need more money, more teachers or more standardized testing. In fact, he calls for something more radical. In his vision, Davis - who received a bachelor's and master's degree from Sonoma State University - says the student is at the top of the classroom apex, computer and Internet learning is key, and everyone else has a supporting role.

Following is an edited transcript of a recent interview he gave exploring the issues plaguing education.

Q: Tell me about your teaching career and your frustrations.

A: At the very beginning of my career, I taught at a charter school off of Sonoma State University. I taught history, civics, physical education and English. There was a lot of freedom. The students were kids of very non-conforming types of professors who didn't want a traditional style education. I enjoyed it immensely. The students brought their own philosophies, they were self managing, an inspiration to me. That period there might have set me up for later frustrations.

Later in the 1970s I administered tests to gifted and special education students. The way we were testing people was not very revealing at all.

Q:What experience as a student and teacher had the biggest impact on you?

A: I had a psychology class in college, and the teacher came in, sat down on top of desk, handed out the syllabus and asked, all right, how would you guys like to learn this? We looked at each other. He kept pushing. He said you need to participate in what you want to learn about. I had been participating in education from K-12 as a passive sponge and I was completely unconscious about that up to that point. This changed everything about my learning life and put me in charge. It made me an independent learner. But I think that rarely happens to anybody.

Q:What led you to write the book?

A:I have two reasons, one was that college experience. The other is having two children, one who is now 20 and another who is 18, who I see as casualties of the system. I think they are typical of a lot of kids I've seen. My daughter is very bright ... but from her sophomore year she was having an increasingly difficult time. Someone finally told her mother that she is not responsive to formal education and they stuck her in a charter school. The charter focused on her interests. She totally flourished and started getting straight A's. But it was too late for her academic career. The fuel of the brain is curiosity. Memorization doesn't work. I started with that insight and asked myself how could we do something that really does stick. What could we do to make the learning process fueled by curiosity?

"The cost of education is 90 percent salaries. How can we use the money in a smarter way?"

Q:Why is much of the debate still focused on more money, better teachers and more accountability?

A:It's an enormous self- justifying bureaucracy. There's a lot of force within it to perpetuate it. You listen to politicians and the truth is they don't really know a lot about education. Another point of resistance is that is we are all a product of this system. To tell someone the system they went through doesn't work is challenging. That's one reason parents resist. They say I went through it, I'm not stupid.

Q:There is a lot of research about how we learn; do you think this will help prompt the radical change you call for?

A:There is a lot of science to back up how the brain works and if we put this to work we can transform education. It's being used on a small scale in one school here, one school there. But is it really being transferred into the design of public education?

Q:Your book calls for eliminating almost half the teachers in the country. You suggest keeping master teachers, those who inspire students with their knowledge of subject matter, and adding more support staff who understand a student's individual learning style. Explain the new role of teachers.

A:The cost of education is 90 percent salaries. How can we use the money in a smarter way? Right now there is an assembly line approach to teaching where the primary role of the teacher is to be a presenter of information. Every teacher wants to know something about each student, but that's difficult to do. So we need a design-and this may be the most radical thing I say-where the teacher is not necessarily a subject matter expert. I'm not saying to get rid of all teachers. I think that is a very bad idea. I think the experience of having one really great teacher as opposed to five boring or mediocre ones is much more inspiring.

If teachers are not great at presenting information, which a lot of them are not, then I think what we can have more of are those who are good at creating trust, who can intervene, who know developmental issues. There should be a constellation of resources. I think students won't always be in the classroom, that school should be four days a week.

Q:You suggest children can rely more on computer-based education and independent work.

A:Let's take that one class as an experiment pointing to a new way of thinking. How good a class can we create in a box, with a CD-ROM? You can have the best teachers talking about history, with re-enactments about different parts of history from The History Channel, then a game or two created by George Lucas involving history, an interactive design. If you start thinking about what you can create from $100 million, you can create a doggone good course that's a heck of a lot better than teachers we've forgotten.

Q:What will this classroom of the future look like?

A:I don't think anybody, including me, really knows how that looks. The first thing we can say is that students will be working on projects of their own selection with teachers as facilitators. Independent learning will be encouraged and rewarded early on. Students will be taking a lot of courses, a course online or ina box, an independent study project. Students will have to work from a syllabus and create an assignment that will match the curriculum and their learning style and interests. The two key words about future learning is engagement and ownership.

Q:In many ways, you advocate a return to the classical system of education-the Socratic Method and even the one-room school house.

A:I'm one of few people who went to school in a one-room school house. When I needed something, I'd go to another student. It was amazing how collaborative these kids were. Bringing in an element of collegial participation is very important. Learning is a conjoined, convivial, cooperative kind of experience. It's people working together, asking each other questions.

There are two fundamental things about learning one has to recognize. The first is learning is nomadic, and the second is it is fueled by curiosity. You are out in the world, something interests you and you figure out a way of how to find out more about what triggered your interest. Those two components of learning are key to a new design and neither is very much recognized in the system we have now.

Q:In some ways, your ideas match those who home school their children, who focus on a hands-on curriculum and individualized learning.

A:Home schoolers tend to generally like what I say. The current design asks students to learn the same things at the same time in the same way for the same reason. People say this is orderly, but it doesn't work. I think home schoolers teach us something very important. I'm profoundly moved and impressed at how educated and interested in learning these home schooled kids are. I'm thinking of how we can give home schooled children more support. Home schooling should be part of the school system. If we think of an umbrella system, where home schooling, charter schools, online learning, service learning, school-to-work learning, and apprentices are all part of one system then I think we'd have a much more exciting, real and effective way of educating.

This system we have now was formed just after the industrial revolution to create order, to go to work in factories and punch a time clock. We designed the system around these values, desks in a row, bells that ring every 45 minutes. But it is not appropriate for the world we live in now.

"Teachers have a much better idea of what is wrong, they just don't want to talk about it. They have good reason not to. If they stick their head out too far it will get chopped off."

Q:What kind of reaction are you getting from the book?

A:When I started to write it I thought the allies would be disgruntled parents who knew there was something wrong with the system. I thought teachers would dig in their heels, resist what I had to say. But it turned out to be the opposite. Parents say here at our schools things are pretty good. Teachers have a much better idea of what is wrong, they just don't want to talk about it. They have good reason not to. If they stick their head out too far it will get chopped off. They are in a system that is pretty entrenched.

Q:Do you think anybody is listening to you?

A:I like that question. I'd have to say yes and no. I really have a simple message. It actually seems to resonate with conservatives who talk about privatization, which I think is a bad idea. My central message is the system isn't broken, it's obsolete and we need to redesign it. All this talk about repair, that's rearranging deck chairs. A lot of people are thinking this way, but are not talking about it. We can't compete on labor anymore, only on being smarter and I can't think of a better way than to redesign education.