Day 2 – The AERO Education Conference in Portland

Once again experimenting with this thing of blogging each day from an event. Not terribly satisfied with yesterday’s quickly written piece… but on with the experiment!

As I said yesterday, this my third AERO conference, my strategy has evolved to focusing on connecting with people, not so much in attending workshops for the content of those sessions. Today I continued to reconnect with (and introduce Sally to) people I had previously met, while also meeting and connecting with some new folks.

Sally and I attended a workshop on alternative education in Japan, led by Pat Montgomery who I had originally met at the AERO conference in 2008. Pat is the founder and continues to be the director of the Clonlara free school in my hometown of Ann Arbor MI, which I believe has been in existence since the 1960s. We briefly enrolled our son Eric in the online version of Pat’s school after we pulled him out of his public school and started homeschooling.

Pat over the years got connected with leaders of the free school movement in Japan, who have repeatedly invited her to come to their country to speak about this alternative school model. She talked about how the very rigid conventional school model in that country led to the start of a free school movement. Conventional schools run morning to mid afternoon, like in our country, but Monday through Friday and Saturday. After they are done with their regular school day most kids then go to “cram schools” during after school hours. Finally, when they get back home they do three to five hours of additional homework.

As Pat told it, until recently, if parents kept their kids out of school or kids refused to go, the family would be subject to a great deal of community shame, and the kids would be forced to attend special schools where they would be “rehabilitated” so they could be then sent back to the regular school. School is so stressful that an alarming number of young children (not even teenagers) commit suicide. That stress led to the beginnings of a “free” school movement in the 1940s which has fought for legitimacy for decades, finally achieving some in the 1990s, but still fighting for full equality with conventional schools today.

After lunch I attended a workshop looking at how to develop more meaningful educational assessments. My interest in attending was finding out if there were any emerging “best practices” on doing a more holistic assessment of schools, rather than the student multiple-choice high-stakes tests featured by No Child Left Behind, leading to so much teaching to the test. Teaching to the test is doable in a conventional instructional school (though real learning suffers) where you generally follow a completely scripted curriculum that addresses all the items that might be tested.

But in an alternative holistic or democratic-free school, where the educational process is all or at least somewhat learner driven, kids are in real danger of learning things other than what might appear on those tests. Given that, these models tend to do poorly as say public charter schools, because their students tend not to do so well on those standardized tests. If those tests somehow tested students’ interest in learning and grasp of real world skills like presentation, collaboration and creativity, then these alternative schools would probably excel.

I found the workshop a bit disappointing, because the leader, Ido Roll, focused on individual student assessment techniques, rather than the area of school assessment of interest to me. But I hung in there and listened, figuring that he was a smart enough person and seemed to know the whole area of assessment well enough, that maybe we could have a quick discussion of my topic after his workshop.

So after the workshop I actually had a chance to talk to his partner Ofira, and I shared with her my interest in more holistic school assessment. She said that was the area of greatest interest to her. Finally Ido joined in our conversation and, as I had hoped, addressed the issue of emerging best practices in more holistic school assessment. He told me to Google John Bransford at the University of Washington and read the book Knowing What Students Know. He also shared his take on the politics of assessment in the federal government, that the Department of Education is not interested in any qualitative assessments of schools by human beings and only test scores. This while the National Science Foundation is saying that peer review, outcome studies, parent satisfaction studies and other more holistic assessments would paint a much better picture of school effectiveness.

Finally, I had a great discussion after dinner with David Marshak, who I had worked with several years back as part of a small group that attempted (unsuccessfully) to set up an organization to advocate for a range of education alternatives. David shared with me his thoughts on the developmental transitions that the United States and the world were going through right now. He was looking at how human development has become so accelerated in the age of the Internet and information technology, and how we have now reached “peak oil”, and the current petroleum-fueled economy will begin to unravel. All this he posits will take us to a more decentralized economy, which we need to begin to prepare for.

Even though there were more evening events at the conference, I realized that I was done for the day, my mind reeling for thoughts in so many directions. I returned to my room and sat down at my computer to write and report on my day.

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