Tag Archives: education

20 Observations I made at a London inner-city school 

Over the past 3 months I have been working at a London inner-city school. Having been educated in the German system I was able to experience a British school with a contrasting perspective. Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

  1. Students line up outside the classroom and before the lesson and inside the classroom after the lesson, waiting for the teacher to invite them in or release them, respectively. They also line up after lunch break to enter the building in an orderly fashion
  2. Yellow separating lines in the corridors and on stairs make sure that two-way traffic is possible within the school building.
  3. Between lessons the teaching staff stand in the corridors to make sure that students get to their next class in a quiet and orderly fashion.
  4. Students wear school uniforms. Students in casual attire may not enter the school building. Teachers are asked to dress formally and address each other with ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. Addressing a teacher by their first name is not allowed.
  5. Nike and Adidas backpacks are terribly fashionable. I estimate that 90% of all students have one. Similarly, sports shoes are a source of pride, especially for the boys.
  6. Mobile phones are strictly prohibited on school grounds. Any spotted device will be immediately confiscated for at least a number of days.
  7. In class, each student has a work book for every subject, which they are not allowed to take home. The teachers keep them, grade the quality of the work and provide written feedback. Worksheets are glued in.
  8. Teachers try to minimise passive learning (classical teaching) and try to engage students through activities – from crossword puzzles to tinkering with circuit boards.
  9. Teachers need to be able to prove that learning occurs in every single lesson. Therefore, teachers present the ‘learning objectives’ at the beginning of the class. At the end of the lesson the students have to write into their workbooks what they learned in that lesson. 
  10. Teachers have access to a database, which details previous, current and expected grades as well as any identified special needs (e.g. learning difficulties, emotional or psychological instabilities) and financial standing (free school meals) for every student. This information is used to provide extra support for disadvantaged students.
  11. The date is also used to set the difficulty of the tasks during the lesson as well as the difficulty of the homework. Teachers are held accountable for providing each student with the appropriate difficulty. It may be that the teacher has to prepare the same worksheet in three variants in order to cover all the levels of ability of the students in a class. On top of that come special needs students.
  12. A number of staff members deal exclusively with the special needs students. They offer one-on-one tutoring and lots of psychological coaching (anger management, self-confidence building).
  13. Teachers can ask lab technicians to organise an experiment in advance and have the materials delivered to the classroom. Sometimes the lab technicians will even perform demonstrations (e.g. alkali metals in water).
  14. Students of a year group (year 7, year 8 etc,) are organised into classes (7A, 7B etc.) based on their levels of ability. The most able students are in the A-set (7A, 8A etc.). A year 8 student may be in 8A for English, but in 8C for Science and in 8D for History.
  15. Every six weeks the students are reevaluated and can move up or down in the classes. In rare cases, students can skip a year. Repeating a year practically never happens.
  16. When a student disrupts the class the teacher writes the names on the board. Two further disruptions lead to a ‘demerit’ (a negative point that is recorded school-internally). A third disruption can lead to same-day detention. Students may also be sent outside the classroom for a few minutes or their parents might get a ‘bad news slip’, which details their disruptive behaviour.
  17. Every week a few kids get excluded from school for a few days due to improper behaviour. A kid tried to trip me, which led to a two-day exclusion.
  18. The so called ‘pastoral managers’ are equipped with walkie-talkies and assist teachers upon request by paying classrooms a visit and restoring behaviour that is conducive for learning. They have the power to keep, exclude and expel students. They are highly respected by the students.
  19. Good behaviour is rewarded with ‘merits’, which are – just like demerits –accumulated over the year. Merits can lead to great prizes such as a Samsung tablet or a bicycle, while demerits may result in the student not being allowed to go on school trips. Students can be expelled on the basis of bad behavior.
  20. Every classroom is equipped with a surveillance camera, which is often times used as evidence when one statement stands against another statement. One kid was caught frequently disconnecting the power cable from the computer to stall the class.

Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

Merry Christmas!

A Case for More Discipline in Education

In Summary

  1. This post is based on a leading German education veteran called Bernhard Bueb who led the renowned boarding school Schule Schloss Salem in south Germany.
  2. He argues that the ability to ‘make an effort’  has to be taught to young people repetitively
  3. This can only occur if students accept their parents and teachers as their leaders who act in their interest.
  4. Parents and teachers carry the responsibility to act as potters who mould their children by setting appropriate tasks.
  5. As young people develop the ability to set their own goals and pursue them they earn independence of external guidance.
  6. Discipline should ideally lead to self-discipline, but it takes a lot of leadership from adults and lot of trust and discipline from young people. An old saying: “Sometimes you have to force others to their happiness”

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What This Post is Based on

bs-buebThe Schule Schloss Salem is a world renowned boarding school located in the south of Germany. It has been educating the elite since 1920 including Prince Philip – Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Sofia of Spain and Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark. Bernhard Bueb, headmaster of the school between 1974-2005, published a bestselling book in 2006 entitled “Lob der Disziplin: Eine Streitschrift” (translation: “Praising Discipline: A Polemic”) (Source). In it, Mr. Bueb talks about the importance of discipline in education, as witnessed at Schule Schloss Salem. This post recounts some of the points he made to an English speaking audience.

The Gardener’s Rule

People usually don’t like the word ‘discipline’ very much. We associate it with things like duty, rules, self-control and even compulsion and submission. Discipline requires effort, which humans actively try to avoid. However, we admire people who are disciplined. It is a universally sought after character trait because it allows one to overcome difficulties and reach goals.

PotterPlantBueb groups teachers and their teaching styles into gardeners and potters.  Teaching like a gardener means to promote, foster, nurture, encourage, facilitate and support your students. They believe that students will find their way all by themselves if they follow their interests and get the necessary support from their teachers.
On the other hand, teaching like a potter means to force, demand and push students as well as subject them to the leadership of the teacher. In other words, they demand discipline. Such teachers see themselves as blind dogs that guide students along a path they believe to be appropriate.

Today’s zeitgeist clearly favours the gardener. The teaching profession is shifting from a role of authority and leadership to a role of mentoring and nurturing. Students are given more and more choice in their studies and their extracurricular activities instead of having teachers decide what would be most appropriate for them. I would like to argue for the potters among the teachers. I believe we need more discipline in schools because it is in the best interest of the very students we teach.

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Discipline is Effort

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 22.51.00An infant is hardly able to suppress its desires. It acts out of pure impulse. By forcing a young person to do something they don’t like they can learn to appreciate the positive outcomes that come with effort. They learn that suppressing their impulses and resist temptations can have great benefits. The graph below illustrates how we reach our goals by overcoming initial effort. For example, a student prepares tirelessly for the big drama class performance. Another student studies for days on end for the upcoming exams. Such behaviour is not trivial and needs to be taught through many cycles of repetition. It takes many years of schooling and lots of parental guidance to engrain an understanding of how making an effort leads to desirable outcomes. Eventually, students learn to discipline themselves and become free from guidance – they become more free.

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Discipline and Freedom

In school, teachers impose their authority over students by setting challenging tasks they don’t necessarily want to do because teachers want them to experience the positive outcomes of their demands. With time, students learn to apply their effort-making abilities to reach their own goals, essentially achieving self-discipline. This earns them more freedom because they become able to pursue their own goals without the guidance of a mentor. However, the first steps in their early years can only be achieved with the help of enforced guidance because young people are most of the time not able to see the advantages of making an effort without having experienced it themselves. The German poet Paul Fläming said that “he who masters and can control himself can conquer the whole wide world” (translated from German).

Children think that freedom means the exemption of rules (e.g. ‘the freedom to drink alcohol’ or ‘the freedom to stay at the party until midnight’). These rules exist for the protection of young people. They can be lifted if children show that they can handle that freedom responsibly. In the ideal case, parents and teachers act like a benevolent dictatorship that gives more freedom to a child as it matures.

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Discipline Requires Trust

6060083868_4b51418347_bRelationships are two-way streets. Although young children are strongly dependent on adults to guide them, they must in return have to know that adults are acting in their interest. The idea is that children will only make an effort if they trust the guiding adult. Teachers must be accepted as professionals who know the student, can guide him or her through the education landscape and towards a brighter future. Think of teachers as guide dogs. They know the terrain and can guide each student along a certain path depending on their needs. But they can only do so if the student trusts their leadership and willingly completes the guidelines. Teachers could let students wander the forest by themselves and make sure they progress. However, only by forcing students along certain paths can they learn to appreciate things that lay outside of their perspective. An old saying is very fitting at this point: “Sometimes you have to force others to their happiness.”

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What to Do?

Bernhard Bueb suggests that schools should teach their students more discipline. The goal still is to educate independent minds that can set and pursue their own goals without the guidance of another person, but that ability needs to be taught. Teachers and the school leadership should use their knowledge of the individual student to select coursework and activities that are more beneficial to the development of the student. This requires that students and parents trust the judgment of teachers and school leadership to make the right choices towards the development of a child. Asking young people to do things they don’t like (e.g. coursework) will strain the relationship to the student, but it can endure if the student can trust the leadership of the teacher.

I’d love to hear your opinion on this. Do you agree with this train of thought and have something to add? Do you have some counter-arguments?

What The Martian Teaches Us About Scientific Literacy

The Martian

If you have watched the recent blockbuster ‘The Martian’ by Ridley Scott you will know what I mean when I say that interdisciplinary education is crucial. In the movie, the NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) struggles to survive on Mars after having been unintentionally left behind by his crew. Mark has to figure out how to survive for the next years by growing his own food, producing water and protecting himself against the arid conditions on Mars until he can be rescued. I want to reflect on why an interdisciplinary education is important and how/why we should reform our school curriculum to emphasise the interconnectedness of disciplines instead of their distinctness.

In today’s world, the sciences are usually separated into biology, chemistry and physics. This division is a very reasonable one, given the vastness of our cumulative human knowledge, which has become unknowable for any human being over the last few hundred years. A student who wants to become a scientist doing cutting edge research will eventually have to narrow her focus, but that’s what university is for. In school, we want to teach students basic scientific literacy:

“Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions…” (Source)

I see scientific literacy as a set of basic rules about how the world works, a student can apply to a novel situation in order to derive insights, make predictions and better decisions. The ‘Martian’, although he had never grown potatoes before, now had to do so in an alien environment. His understanding of these basic rules (e.g. manure contains valuable nutrients, plants need earth-like atmospheric pressure, water can be extracted from the air) allowed him to plan his survival. Most of these basic rules are not confined to a single discipline, but span across.

15911816856_72ca90d313_kImagine teaching students about ‘balance’. In biology, you could talk about how prey and predators form a stable environment, how the extinction of a predator would lead to an overpopulation of prey animals and how that would throw the ecosystem off balance. You could also talk about homeostasis and how organisms keep their internal environment within certain parameters. In chemistry, students can learn about balancing chemical reactions and in physics about the balance of forces that keep the electrons in their orbits as well as earth around the sun. Many school already have such methods in place, but the concept of ‘balance’ could be extended to non-scientific fields as well – political balance between nuclear powers during the cold war, balance within a human relationship.

Restructuring the school curriculum to highlight basic rules is not necessarily more work for students, but initially more work for teachers. Instead of following the chapters in a book, teachers from the different sciences have to come together and discuss how they could coordinate their lessons around these concepts. Maybe even have a project week in which every school subject participates! Students would be able to see how the concept spans across the disciplines and get a deeper appreciation for the world they live in.

Summary
So, what’s the point I’m trying to make. Firstly, scientific literacy is hugely important for making better decisions in life. It involves tackling topics in an interdisciplinary way in order to extract generalised concepts. The student can gain a deeper understanding about how the world works and apply their knowledge to novel situations. Secondly, I want to stress the importance of building a deeper appreciation for what the sciences are. It’s not the working hours or the pay check that gets students motivated to become scientists, but the awe and wonder that science has to give.

How Germany Plans to Get 250,000 Syrian Refugees Into School

Introduction

As a German, I would like to share an inside perspective into how Germany plans to handle 250,000 new students coming mostly from Syria. The refugee crisis has pushed every other news topic aside over the last two weeks and I’d like to share these news – which have not been communicated in the English speaking world to such a degree – with you.

German Syrian Flag800,000 refugees are expected to seek asylum in Germany just this year (Source) and with a 42% (Source) of all requests being granted, Germany would expect 336,000 new inhabitants for 2015. According to the U.N. half of all refugees are under the age of 18 (Source). That would mean an additional 168,000 students that would need to go to school. Some estimates say Germany should prepare for 250,000 additional students (Source).

It’s the sheer volume of students arriving in such a short period of time that is starting to worry authorities. Apart from the current logistical challenges of registering and moving refugees across the country to their new homes, the schools will feel the pressure in the coming months when kids will start to join their German class mates. Many schools may actually benefit from the influx of refugee students because student numbers have been declining for years due to Germany’s shrinking population. 250,000 new students may save a number of schools from closure (Source). With currently 11 million children going to school an additional 250,000 would equal to an increase of just 2%. This may not seem like much, but it’s a gargantuan challenge for the educational system. Here are 4 key challenges and how Germany plans to tackle these:

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(1) Healing Psychological Wounds and Letting Refugees Feel Safe

You can’t just empty a busload of refugees at a local school and expect them to magically adapt to their new environment. Many kids will arrive terribly scared and confused from their journey, away from home and surrounded by a completely different culture (Source). The cold winters will also pose a challenge to Syrians. The Social Pediatrics Department of the Technical University Munich estimates that 22.3% of refugee children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Family Ministry expects 110,000 refugee children under the age of six to live in Germany by the end of this year (Source). This would imply 25,000 cases of PTSD. Michael Deckert who manages Caritas daycare centers in Würzburg recalls: “All kids are happily playing in the garden when suddenly a rescue helicopter flies over the compound towards the university hospital. The German kids look up, laugh and wave – the Syrian kids hide and run screaming into the house filled with fear” (Source). PTSD can easily take years of psychological care to treat, which would be a significant cost factor for the public health care system.

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(2) Adapt to the Language and Culture8154287681_f58e5c8dee_k

The German language is not your Sunday ice cream in the park. The pronunciation as well as the grammar can cause some serious headaches. Since 2005, the Federal Ministry for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has been offering “Integration Courses” for newcomers. These courses are comprised of 600 hours of German lessons and 60 hours of lessons on the German state and society. The BAMF will be spending an additional €25 million (£18 million, $28 million) this year alone and expects the costs to be much higher in 2016 (Source). This will require a joint effort of community colleges, private language schools and church institutions to find more German teachers and increase their course offers.

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(3) Varying Levels of School Performance

Many of the kids will not have gone to school for months if not years. A Bavarian teacher said: “Student ability ranges from true illiterates who have never gone to school, who have tended sheep or who have worked in some other way – to students who are able to attend Gymnasium [UK Sixth Form, US High School] and who can speak two, three languages, but not German” (Source). This situation requires individual support in order to ensure that each child can develop properly at the right pace. In Germany, the yearly average cost for public school education per child is about €6,500 (£4,775, $7,367), but this figure will be far higher for refugees as they need extra classes and tutoring to get to the same level of ability as their German class mates.

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(4) Intercultural Education and Professional Networks for Teachers

Norbert Hocke from the Education and Science Workers’ Union (GEW) says: “We need intercultural competence from educators as well as trauma specialists” (Source). Cities and municipals are calling for expert-networks that serve educators with advice and consultancies. A model project at ten daycare centers in Saxony has is already offering intercultural training to primary school teachers. It is expected that kids will learn German faster and their parents parents can connect with other parents and find more time for their German courses.

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Why Helping Syrians is the Right Thing to Do

15307288216_9e2816f682_kYes, the challenges are massive. Yes, it will demand a lot of time, effort and money to get the job done. Whether Germany will financially benefit in the long run is unclear, but also completely beside the point. It is vital that young Syrians everywhere are properly educated. I really hope that they’ll one day be able to return home. And when they do, they should be equipped with all the tools they need to rebuild and develop a prosperous nation that can feel safe and help maintain peace.

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As for Germany

9680885082_733815fbb5_kThere have been more than a dozen attacks on refugee accommodations (Source) across the country, but a resounding 93% of Germans say that Germany should host refugees (Source). Why Germans are so willing to help refugees is debatable. However, support for refugees is very likely take a dip in the following months and years. Good societal integration is very difficult and problems will surely arise. German political leaders will have to tread very carefully when justifying the billions of Euros spent on refugees rather than increasing government spending for the education system, which has been stagnating for years. Proper integration takes years of hard work and Germany is just at the beginning of things. Just 75 years ago, the Nazis moved millions of Jews via trains to concentration camps. Today, those same trains move refugees into German communities. A remarkable transformation.

Foreign Language Education (Part 2 of 3) – English Proficiency Around the World

Why English is the undisputed world language

4759535950_3da0ea181e_oIf you ask yourself whether Chinese is going to become the new world language, you just have to look at the graph below. The graph shows the most used languages world wide, but distinguishes between native speakers (dark-blue) and non-native speakers (light-blue). Although Chinese Mandarin has by far the most native speakers (1.1 billion), it “only” attracts 118 million non-native speakers. In contrast, there are only one-third so many English native speakers (375 million), but 1.1 billion additional non-native speakers. English is adopted like no other foreign language and that makes it the most spoken language in the world. Obviously, not all of those 1.1 billion non-native English speakers will be perfectly fluent, but you’ll always have a range of abilities in all languages. The underlying point here is that English is the undisputed world language.

_Statista

 

The benefits of learning English

In the professional world, English has firmly established itself as the common communication denominator. “You don’t speak German? Well, I don’t speak Japanese. Why don’t we just meet in the middle?” English is like the neutral ground among English non-native speakers.
Access to information is tremendous when it comes to English. Currently, Wikipedia lists 4,922,000 English articles, while German (1,836,000) and Spanish (1,187,000) are come in at second and third place, but well beaten by English. I visit the English Wikipedia pages first and then try to find the same page in German or Spanish – if necessary.

Better English skills have been associated with (1) higher quality of life (Source), (2) income (Source) and (3) greater economic competitiveness (Source). Although just a correlation, it makes a lot of sense why English would be so beneficial. It gives job seekers access to a global job market and countries can attract international companies with a good English-speaking work force.

English and SchoolingThe English proficiency of a country also correlates with the number of years of formal English education (see Graph). That means if (a) higher English proficiency correlates with higher quality of life, income and economic competitiveness and (b) English proficiency increases with the number of years of English education in school, then (c) students should start learning English early and continue with it throughout secondary education. This would increase their chances of experiencing these positive outcomes with which English has been associated with. “Even in full immersion environments, children need 4-7 years to gain native-level English skills”(Source). That’s a very considerable amount of exposure!
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How do four world regions compare in their English proficiency?

The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) (Source) has a wonderful website that showcases the different levels of English proficiency by country. Over the last 7 years about 5 million people have taken part in their surveys, making it the largest assessment of English proficiency in the world. Countries can be listed as having (1) very high, (2) high, (3) moderate, (4) low or (5) very low English proficiency. Native English speaking countries are not part of this assessment as well as sub-saharan Africa.
The highest English proficiency can currently be found in Europe. All of the seven countries listed in the “very high” English proficiency category are from Europe. Asia still has a long way to go, but is catching up rapidly. South America is even further behind and struggling harder than Asia. Finally, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) forms the tail light with most of the countries in the “very low” English proficiency category.

English Proficiency World Wide2

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If we look at the CHANGES in English proficiency over the last seven years we can see English proficiency rising in general. Apart from MENA countries, which have worsened, the rest of the world is getting better. Regional averagesEurope and Asia show very similar improvements. Asia is trying to catch up, but Europe is running ahead at the same speed, meaning their relative proficiency hasn’t changed. Both regions exhibit the greatest improvements. Latin America is improving a little slower.
Among the MENA countries only the United Arab Emirates made it into the “low proficiency” category.

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Regional Information

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EUROPE

Map EuropeNative English speaking countries such as the US and the UK always had a strong influence on Europe. Many Europeans still today study, spend their vacations and also live in the UK and the US. There is also a much stronger feeling of common culture, which naturally brings these parts of the world together. I initially thought that east European countries might show worse English proficiency than their western counterparts due to (a) their often times Slavic-based languages, which means less of an overlap with English and (b) the iron curtain, which made learning English very difficult between 1945 and 1991. The reality is that Poland and Romania (among others) have a higher English proficiency than Switzerland, Italy or Spain. The economic incentive of the west is probably reflected in their performance.Europe trending

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ASIA

Map AsiaIf you are looking for the largest improvements in English proficiency you have to look at Asia. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are catching up really fast with 7+ points improvement over the last seven years. Indonesia now speaks better English than Hong Kong!
On the other hand, many Asian countries are stagnating as well, especially the wealthy parts. In Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, English proficiency actually got worse over the last seven years. Asia’s improvement by 3.52 points is tremendous if you consider that about 4.4 billion people live there! In absolute numbers, I have no doubt that Asia would be the world’s top English student!

Asia Trending

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Latin America

Map South AmericaLatin American countries improved on average by 2.16 points, which is good, but the continent continues to show poor English proficiency. Only Argentina made it into the “high proficiency” category. Ecuador, Peru and the Dominican Republic have achieved the greatest improvements across time. Most of the continent speaks Spanish, which is also a very widespread language, especially in the US and Spain (duh!). I could imagine this being a hindrance in adopting English as well as the slower economic development relative to Asia. Along those lines, Argentina is one of the stronger economic countries in South America and it performed the best in English. I speculate that there is a very strong correlation between the economic power of a country, which requires a larger English speaking work force and the actual English proficiency performance.

Latin Trending

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Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA)

Map AfricaNot only are MENA countries performing the worst, they are also worsening in their English proficiency. On average, the region dropped by -2.66 points. Iran dipped by -11 points over the last 7 years. In fact, the only two countries that improved were Jordan (1.38 points) and the United Arab Emirates (1.43 points). The United Arab Emirates was the only country that made it into the “low proficiency” category. The Arab spring and Irans isolation from the rest of the world come to mind. The EF EPI website raises an interesting argument to explain the dip in performance. Currently, MENA’s internet penetration is growing rapidly, which means that the test takers have become more representative of the average actual English proficiency. Seven years ago, only wealthier people had access and they were surely more likely to speak English well (Source).

Mena Trending

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In Summary

  • English is the undisputed international language because of its high adoption rate
  • English proficiency correlates with higher income, better life quality and higher economic competitiveness. Kids need to get at least 4-7 years of English exposure in school to master it.
  • The world is getting better at English. Europe is still leading the charts and Asia is rapidly raising its average.. Latin America is advancing as well, but slower. MENA is falling behind, but that might be due to the higher internet penetration today compared to seven years ago.

Subscribe for Part 3:
How Countries Compare in their Foreign Language Education

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Why Schools Should Teach Meaning and Purpose

A few weeks ago I went to south London to visit one of the best public schools in the UK. As I sat in Biology class I compared my own school days to the ones of the students sitting around me. I wanted to find out what made this school so special. I noticed that students and teachers were much more structured and disciplined compared to my school days. The desire to be successful was very present in everybody’s minds and there was a sense of pride in being part of this school. Students and teachers seemed to be pulling on the same rope, but I noticed that it meant giving up something as well.

46 - Corporate CultureI spoke for an hour to two 9th grades who wished that their teachers would involve them more in designing the classes, but their teachers were not actively seeking student collaboration. I believe that the structure and discipline that is required to be as successful as this school comes at the price of student exploration, which is a relatively time consuming and inefficient activity if ones goal is to maximise student success. Efficiency means not looking to the left and right, it means making no mistakes and it also means not to question.

97 - OceanMy own school experience felt like chasing the horizon. I was given a set of tasks that I had to work on and if I was successful in the exams I could advance to the next higher grade. The problem is not that the horizon cannot be reached or that the goals were not worth pursuing. It’s actually quite the contrary. Graduating from school with honors is not an easy task and it should be celebrated if you can pull if off. But you should also ask yourself why you are pursuing good grades. If the answer to that question is ‘to have good grades’ you have identified the real problem in our education system.

Rewarding a 3rd grader with ice cream for his school work is all good and fine, because a 3rd grader hasn’t fully developed the ability to form his opinions and define his goals. But a high school student should have learned to do this; to set his own goals, to act based on a set of beliefs or convictions. There will always be people who know what they want and they will try to convince you of working for them. They may incentivize you with a title, a salary and a career, but it will be their goal, not yours. Students should learn to develop themselves in order to make decisions based on their own set of beliefs. Then they can decide to work with others who follow the same goals or act out of the same conviction.

98 - BlackboardThe structure and discipline that I witnessed at that school in south London is in itself nothing bad, but it comes at a high price. These students may be able to enter top universities and land well paying jobs, but they may one day wake up and ask themselves what it was all for. I belief it is the responsibility of a school to help students develop their personality, but this is not possible when a school tries to be efficient. You need ‘pointless’ and ‘ineffective’ student activities that don’t lead to better grades if you want them to live a life of meaning and purpose. Sacrifice a bit of your academic excellence and make room for personal development. The system won’t thank you for it, but the students will – by living a more fulfilled life.

Homeschooling – A Good Alternative or Simply Crazy?

Abstract

Currently, 2.9% of all US students are not attending school, but rather educated at home and within their community – the homeschoolers. But is homeschooling a real alternative to the traditional school setting or just a movement that will fade with time? Research findings suggest that homeschooling is here to stay. Both academically and in other domains, homeschooled students seem to significantly outperform public school students. The more unstructured homeschooling variant called ‘unschooling’ on the other hand correlates with weaker academic performance.

 

Highlights

  • Homeschooled students significantly outperform public school students in nearly all subjects.
  • Unschooled students lag behind structured homeschoolers and possibly also public school students with regards to academics.
  • Homeschooled students appear to be happier with their jobs and their lives, participate more often in protests and go voting more frequently.

 

Introduction

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 15.49.10As a kid, you probably spent around one third of your waking time in school. That is about 15,000 hours (Source), which is a tremendous amount of time if you think about it! A teacher of yours may be the reason you decided to study a certain thing and many of your longstanding friends went to school with you. Now imagine spending those 15,000 at home and in your community rather than going to school. All those teachers who will never have an impact on you, all of your friends who you will never meet. Wouldn’t your social and academic skills suffer greatly?

Despite these potentially harmful outcomes a growing number of parents in the US and other western countries are educating their kids at home. There are many variants of homeschooling and what they all have in common is their attempt to to avoid school. I find homeschooling to be very exciting because of how radically different the lives of homeschoolers can be compared to public school students. Homeschooling is an exciting experiment that could teach us a lot about our own schools to what extent they contribute to our academic and social skills.

In this post, we’ll:

  1. give a general introduction to homeschooling, what homeschooling variants exist and who decides to homeschool their kids in the first place,
  2. look at scientific studies on how homeschoolers perform academically compared to public school students,
  3. look at how they differ from public school students in other aspects of life,
  4. and what these findings might imply for our education system.

Homeschooling is Nothing New – Historically Speaking

For most of human history, homeschooling was actually the rule, not the exception. Knowledge was passed down from one generation to the next, either by the family or the community (i.e. farmers boys became farmers). More theoretical knowledge such as the arts or natural sciences were reserved to the lucky few who were rich enough to pay for private tutoring. The institutionalisation of education only happened much later during the industrialization when more skilled and educated workers were needed. Suddenly, reading, writing and mathematics became a prerequisite for sustaining yourself and your family. School became the only place where you could acquire that knowledge and it often times became mandatory. That was a good thing because it allowed us to create more educated modern societies. Today, schools are nearly impossible to think away. After all, who would argue with 300+ years of gathered knowledge on how to teach and socialize youngsters in the best possible way? School is mandatory, so it must be good for you. And after all, it holds the promise to a better life if you perform well.

The truth is that school is not the only choice for education anymore. Information has become ubiquitous with the internet. You can tune in to the lectures of the very best teachers. School is not necessarily mandatory anymore and many universities are already accepting homeschooled students. And the argument that a critical part of our socialisation happens in school is just an assumption. Therefore, an increasing number of parents have decided to homeschool their children. According to the National Center for Education Statistics there were about 1.5 million students (2.9%) in the US being homeschooled in 2007, while there were only 850,000 students (1.7%) in 1999 (Source). The figure below depicts this trend quite nicely.

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Parents who homeschool their children are often seen as religious fundamentalists who don’t agree with the secular nature of public schools. Although this is still a major reason for why parents homeschool their kids, there are a number of other reasons for kids are being homeschooled. For example, parents are dissatisfied with the quality of education or want to protect their child from harmful experiences (i.e. bullying) (see below).Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 19.36.41

 

What types of homeschooling exist? There are endless variants, but they can roughly be put on a spectrum of how much structure is imposed over the students’ daily routine. On the one end of the spectrum lies the all-in one curriculum, where parents try to basically replicate school at home. Parents act as the instructors, buy the relevant books and follow a class schedule. On the other end of the spectrum lies the unschooling movement, which strips any form of structure from the students’ learning experience. Here is a quote by John Holt, an American educator and author who had a significant impact on the unschooling movement in the 1970s:

“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.” (Source).

Parents see themselves as facilitators rather than instructors who help children learn what they wish to learn.
Between all-in one curricula and homeschooling, there are endless variations of how homeschooling can be done. Is there an instructor? If yes, is it the parents or a tutor? How much freedom is given to the student with regards to what they learn? Does the student go to school for at least a few hours per week or is there no connection at all?

 

DOCUMENTARY ON UNSCHOOLING


RESEARCH ON HOMESCHOOLING

All of the data that I’ll be presenting refers to the US because there is virtually no research done on homeschooling in other countries. But even in the US there is surprisingly little research available. This is due to a lack of available data (Source). Homeschoolers have been fighting for minimal regulation of their childrens’ education since the 1960s. This includes opting out of general state and nation wide statistics that could have been valuable to assessing the success of homeschooling.  I can imagine that the homeschooling community feared that collected data could be used to reinforce regulation over their childrens’ education.The only available data that can be used to compare homeschoolers to public school students are standardized test scores (SAT) that both have to take for getting into universities.

I’ll present 2 studies that use standardized test scores to compare homeschoolers with public school students. The first one is the largest study on homeschooling and it was conducted by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which was founded in 1983 to “…defend and advance the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children and to protect family freedoms.” It goes without saying that the following results should be taken with a grain of salt due to their biased stance towards homeschooling. Furthermore, the following results are based on the HSLDA 2009 Progress Report, which is not a scientific paper. Therefore, I had very little insight into how the study was actually conducted and what results may have been left out!

Study 1
The study (Source) was conducted in 2007 and is based on 11,739 participants from all 50 US states.The result is quite startling:

“In the study, homeschoolers scored 34–39 percentile points higher than the norm on standardized achievement tests. The homeschool national average ranged from the 84th percentile for Language, Math, and Social Studies to the 89th percentile for Reading.”

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  1. Parent education hardly had an effect on the performance of homeschooled kids. Irrespective of whether one, both or none of the parents of the homeschooled student had a college degree, their kids always performed better than the average public school student.
  2. Teacher certification didn’t matter as well. Students with parents who didn’t have a teaching certification performed equally well to students with certified teacher parents.
  3. Family income hardly made a difference between homeschooled students, while it is very established that income plays a major role in academic performance (Source).
  4. Gender didn’t make any difference as opposed to in public schools (Source).

THAT’S AMAZING!!!
Let’s think about this for a second. Homeschoolers avoid the one place that is supposed to prepare us for standardized tests and they actually perform BETTER than public school students. Furthermore, the parents’ education, the families’ socioeconomic status, the students’ gender and having certified teacher parents had no effect on the academic success of the student.

The study also has two major drawbacks:

  1. Public school students took standardized tests on a mandatory basis, while homeschoolers volunteered. It may have been that homeschoolers scored so high relative to public school students because only parents who were pretty sure that their child would perform well actually signed them up.
  2. The study was conducted by the HSLDA, an institute that advocates homeschooling. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but their report is not as transparent as a published research paper and it may be that some significant aspects of the study were left out. In any case, we can’t check.

Study 2

The study (Source) had 4 advantages over the first one:

  1. The study was conducted by an independent researcher group from Canada.
  2. Both public and homeschoolers were recruited on a voluntary basis.
  3. Students from public schools were matched with homeschoolers based on (1) similar family income and (2) similar parental education, to ensure that the differences between those groups are not due to these factors.
  4. The researchers differentiated between structured homeschoolers who are more inclined to replicate school at home and unschoolers who don’t impose any structure over their children.

One major disadvantage is that the study only had 37 public and 37 homeschooling participants, which means that there is a large probability that the findings of the study are simply due to chance. Keep that in mind when considering the following results.

Results:

  1. Structured homeschooling students were at least one grade level ahead of public school students in 5 out of 7 test areas (word identification, phonic decoding, science, social science, humanities), almost half a year ahead in math, and slightly, but not significantly advanced in reading comprehension.
  2. Unstructured homeschoolers performed significantly worse than structured homeschoolers. In 5 of 7 areas, the differences were substantial, ranging from 1.32 grade levels for the math test to 4.2 grade levels for the word identification test.
  3. Unstructured homeschoolers perform worst than public school kids, but the difference is statistically not significant.

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The authors argue that homeschooled students may benefit from multiple aspects. They usually have smaller classes, often even one-on-one classes. Therefore, the instructions they receive may be more tailored to them. They may also be spending more time in general on academics. With regards to the relatively bad performance of unstructured homeschoolers (unschoolers) one could argue that students need some kind of structure or guidance to learn effectively. Alternatively, it may also be that unschoolers never took standardized tests before and therefore lack test-testing abilities.

 

What About Non-Academic Effects?

Sadly, I was only able to find one survey study by the HSLDA that asked homeschoolers many years later about their day-to-day lives (Source). Here are the most striking results:

Homeschoolers are happier with their lives than public school student

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Homeschoolers are happier with their jobs than public school students

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Homeschoolers participate more in protests or boycotts and they vote more often than public school students

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The large majority is very satisfied with having been homeschooled and would homeschool their own children as well.

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Shouldn’t all of us Homeschool their children?!

The evidence that speaks FOR homeschooling is very appealing, no doubt. However, none of the studies had a level of scientific rigour and quality that could have made me into a blind homeschooling believer. I would feel very unsafe with making such an important decision based on these 2 studies. There is still a mountain of work to be done in order to establish homeschooling in the education landscape as a real alternative to public schools. Important questions might be: how much structure contributes to the advancement of the student and and what point does it become counterproductive? What factors are absolutely necessary for homeschooling to work? How can the quality of their education be measured in order to ensure equal access to jobs and higher education?

Although unschoolers performed bad relative to structured homeschoolers and public school students, it doesn’t mean that unschooling is generally a bad thing. Unschooling is a movement that resulted out of a growing dissatisfaction with the rigours and grade-focused school system. The philosophy that every child has an inborn curiosity is most certainly true and it is hardly disputable that many lose their curiosity due to the setup of the school. Unschooling is simply the extreme end of a ‘structure spectrum’. It will be up to researchers to figure out how much structure is beneficial and how much is counterproductive for the advancement of the student. Many schools are already experimenting with less structure by giving students more agency over what they learn and how they learn it (Source).

 

Conclusion

Before schools existed, students learned at home and within their community. The concept of schooling emerged in order to make information more accessible. Nowadays, information is ubiquitous and available in palatable forms such as online courses and study software. Students are performing better academically when staying outside of the one institution (school) that was specifically designed to advance them in this regard. Critics of homeschooling often argue that homeschoolers would not be socialized enough, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I would never have expected to find research studies that speak so clearly in favour of homeschooling. Given these results, I am very surprised that researchers are not taking this domain more serious by running more studies. There are hurdles, primarily the lack of data, but these can surely be overcome.

I think that we trust our school system too much and ourselves too little, which is why the homeschooling movement will most likely stay small for now. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore it. On the contrary, we should try to learn from it. If we could find out what makes homeschooling so great we could bring these aspects into the classroom. We already have a great education infrastructure with buildings, teachers and financial resources. We should try to manage all of our resources in a better way. That’s what we can do with the help of the homeschooling community. I am very curious to see how the homeschooling movement develops further. Maybe my kids won’t go to school, who knows!


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