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“Oh, that’s so significant!”

Sir Ken Robinson, in this video, mentions that in some parts of United States 60% of children drop out of high school. He was ridiculing the No Child Left Behind Act whose problem stems from its highly decontextualized, one-standardized-test-fits-all approach to education. Like he talks in the video, millions are left behind and those that stay are not learning effectively. This video by Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) could well be used to summarize the effect of such a learning environment:

One way to curb such a problem would be to encourage a personalized, autonomous, contextualized, practice-based learning environment somewhat similar to the tenants that I discussed in my previous post. Recently in a Hacker News discussion, I had posted an idea for a similar learning environment:

We should look at how we can improve the ROI for education.
Millions across the world, especially in developing countries, drop out of school because they (and/or their guardians) see no benefit from long-term investment in education. Others who somehow manage to stay in formal institutions are exposed to decontextualized education that they cannot realize their full potential.
There will be many different solutions to it. One of them could be a large-scale, technology-immersed learning system that teaches a broad range of topics to students through a vocation. The vocation could be decided based on the learner’s interest and the local resources. For example, in northern Nepal, children walk through perilous snow-covered hills and mountains to recover Yarsagumba (“Himalayan viagra”), a fungus with aphrodisiac and medicinal value. Instead, the kids can be educated progressively in details about different aspects surrounding Yarsagumba – mountain climbing, biological systems, business, marketing (where they could sell the collected Yarsagumba), greenhouse and high-tech farming systems, technology, etc. – without disturbing their Yarsamgumba collecting activity.
This is a simple example. Since a diverse topics are being taught and practiced, learners would not be restricted in the same vocation.

As conveyed in the above message, for me, an effective learning environment would encompass a highly contextualized learning with active learners actively participating in the learning process and ultimately creating artifacts. Michael Wesch, in his article, mentions that a significant problem in education arises because students struggle to find meaning and significance in their education. A good example of this is a science class that Cesar Harada ran in Hong Kong where he used his students interests and real-life problems to drive students motivation and improve the learning experience:

The hope is that through a contextualized learning experience, such as the example I mentioned above and the one Cesar Herada talked about, we would make learners exclaim, with the joy of new-found knowledge, “Oh, that’s so significant!”


  1. Ken Black

    Interesting example. While this is highly specific it brings out what alot of people need to do: personalize the learning environment.

    Would you be willing to give an example of how this might work in your field or discipline? I know for architecture, this is reflected in the lab/studio environment and mentor teaching styles. However not every discipline has this educational model.

    • aakash58

      In computer science, this would be somewhat like a project-based learning environment with greater autonomy and personalization where students develop their knowledge, and in turn prove their knowledge, by creating artifacts. Projects that target attempt to solve a real-life problem or that which is required by the industry would be the ideal cases. What I am advocating for is a more practice-based educational system whose aim is to nurture communities of interest.

      This would imply letting go of the behaviorist approach where we try to control the environment through broad syllabus and hope that the information sticks (and transforms to knowledge). Each student has a different interest, pace, and style for learning and we need to cater to that. In schools, this is not supported at all – syllabus/standards are so vast that sometimes I am amazed that I went through all that! In college too, we have broad syllabus with limited opportunities to implement the knowledge and as Father Sarducci mentions in the video above, hardly any of it is learnt in the end. We can mitigate the problem by being flexible in the syllabus, focusing on active use of knowledge through practical projects, removing performance-based exams (summative assessments), using formative assessments with priority to student’s engagement in their topic of interest, and supporting involvement in community of interest.

  2. AbdelRahman

    I think this example is better being applied to college education as the video mentioned. For children at school, while it is better to change the way we deliver information to them, it might be hard to experiment every subject or topic. I think, practice-based learning could be applied but in narrower view depending on the nature of the topic being taught. Anyways, the No Child Left Behind Act was finally replaced by a new legislation two months ago named Every Student Succeeds Act that’s aimed to overcome the drawbacks of the No Child Left Behind Act.

    • I agree that to make changes in a classroom would require a lot of effort. Additionally, it would require extensive professional development training for teachers to adapt and foster such a learning environment. However, it is not impossible.
      In schools, if we let go of the stringent broad standards and rather focus on an interest-driven, self-paced learning opportunities with a focus on active participation and artifact creation (project, paper, demos, code, models, etc.), we could improve the learning experience of a child.

  3. Xiang Yu

    I agree that most effective education is context oriented, which means, the contents of education must be more or less related to students’ everyday life, just like the learning process of the Nepalese children as you cited. You also mentioned that many students in the developing countries drop out of schools due to the lack of foreseeable benefits from learning. That couldn’t be truer. Just imagine, a third world kid is worrying how to help his or her mother take care of crops and you teach them to calculate the speed of satellite in a science class! Of course they will not spend money on such things. This may also apply to American kids too. For example, this country is living on wheels and almost every family has a car. So it may be a good idea to teach children how to handle car problem. In that way they may be more attracted.

    • Exactly! I have seen the issue first hand. For example, in Nepal, during the start of the year (in May), the enrollment is high (officially 98%) but then by the harvest season the enrollment goes down to less than 60%. Hunger fears no gallows mere education which gives return far later does not look like a good option to many. However, if we can provide learning experiences around the kids daily activity and help them learn practical aspects of their daily work (or interest) then that, I think, would be quite advantageous. Even if the child drops afterwards, he/she would have learnt something useful. But more importantly, the hopes is that the education would seem more meaningful and hence, they would have a greater inclination to stick around.

  4. SilverCJC

    I like how Cesar Herada was able to localize his lessons to his student’s lives. I think he is very fortunate to be able to incorporate those activities in such a practical way, as so many people (and administrations) would likely object to this kind of instruction. It is a good argument for illustrating what the real-world application of learning is.

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