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Life Changing Curriculum

The Life Changing Curriculum

by Dr. George Albercook

As audacious as the idea of a 'life changing curriculum' may seem, isn't that what every good teacher wants? Maybe even more remarkably, I will attempt to prove to you that this can be done.  

Prove, in both a scientifically sound and an emotionally self-evident way.  

My first experiments with these ideas were inspired by the work of Sugata Mitra.  He brings a delightfully irreverent twist to the Socratic method. Mitra has demonstrated what I think every educator, that I have ever admired, knows. Children teach themselves.  

We are facilitators that create the circumstances for a natural phenomenon to happen.  

After all, in the course of human history, long before there were schools with traditional teachers humankind had mastered languages, cultural memory, observational natural science, etc.

Experiments in Education

I'm always particularly attentive when two unrelated efforts produce the same conclusion.  The experiments of Robert Rosenthal starting in 1964 have made it into the public arena. Rosenthal basically lied to teachers.  Telling them that some of their students were poised to experience dramatic growth in IQ.

Amazingly, the mere expectation of teachers was enough to actually increase the IQ scores of these students.  What has not made it into public knowledge is that while these results were very robust for decades they could not be repeated without deceiving the teachers.  

New Advancements in Education

Recently the puzzle has been solved by Christine Rubie-Davies , and others.  She showed that communicating higher expectations by giving students more control over assignments, allowing them to work in teams and, through extensive coaching, changing teachers subconscious frowns, shrugs and wandering eyes to fixed gazes with raised expectant eyebrows.  This is exactly what Mitra does!

The very question "Can students teach themselves a biotechnology curriculum without a teacher and in a foreign language." Has embedded in it the deeply committed expectation that -- Yes they can!

Both Mitra and Rosenthal/Rubie-Davies give us robust evidence from independent research pathways that when teachers get out of the way, in a very precise manner, students excel in remarkable ways.  

Putting Mitra Into Practice

I had a group of middle school students scheduled to learn statistic.  After consulting with Mitra, I gave them the most confusing statistical problem in popular culture, the Monty Hall problem.  

Monty Hall shows you three doors only one has a car. For all the world it seems that the odds are one in three that you can win the car but you can up your odds to two in three.  The students devised scratch-off game cards which they gave to friends and family to demonstrate that the odds are actually two in three.

The class went on to derive the binomial distribution and show that one flavor of gum was preferred over seven others. They did this by disproving the null hypothesis that "there was no preference" with a greater than 98% likelihood.  

They were confident that they could teach themselves the official objectives of the class, the definitions of mean, median and mode.

The Importance of Growth Mindset and Grit in Education

Carol Dweck popularized the idea of a growth mindset. Angela Duckworth demonstrated the importance of grit.  Not only did they demonstrate that these characteristics are great predictors of success over a broad range of measure, they showed that both can be learned.   

The important thing with elementary aged students is that they benefit greatly from a facilitator who can reflect back to them their own growth.

Without this reflection they are slow to change their opinion of themselves even when there is evidence.

Again I wanted to try this in my classroom.  I convinced both of the 3rd/4th-grade teachers in my school to let me have two students for 90 minutes once a week for 8 weeks.  I told the students that this was an experiment and I had never heard of anyone trying to do it before but if they succeeded they could each have two of students of their own in the next round.  

They were to try to learn C++, true coding in a text-based language. The same language that was used to write most of the software that runs the internet.

Robotics and Computer Programming in the Classroom

When they arrived in my science classroom, I gave them two robotic vehicles (smaller than a shoebox) and two computers open to a website with some examples and videos.  

I told them this was going to be difficult and they might not succeed. No shame in that but give it your best shot.

Given the challenge this way they immediately became very animated and totally engaged.  By the 7th week, they had managed to build and program their robots to drive around on the floor and avoid objects that they detected with optical sensors.

I challenged them in the last 60 minutes of the course to try to modify the robot and the code so that it could drive about on a tabletop and not fall off, no matter where I placed it on the table.  This time without any use of the internet.

They figured out that the sensors had to be pointed down and that the "rules" had to change from "drive forward until you see something then back up" to "Drive forward until you see nothing and then back up."  They succeeded with about 30 seconds to spare.

Mind-Blowing Results

I asked them if they thought that they could learn more of this computer language or even another computer language without my help. They were very confident. I asked, could you each help two students in the way that I helped, or didn't help you? In addition, would they help their students if they got stuck when they, in turn, had students?

At that point, about half of a class would have learned this stuff. Did they want to help that half teach the other half? What about the other 3rd/4th class and the two 5th/6th classes and the one 7th/8th class? They were very excited about the idea.

Then I asked, "Would you then like to dress up in your best clothes, pack up all your computers and robots and take a bus across town to a school where you may not know anyone and set up and teach the whole 8 weeks to older students at that school?"

They loved the idea.

While Dweck, Duckworth, Mitra, Rosenthal and Rubie-Davies gave us precise and scientifically rigorous tools to measure our progress, those tools were not what was going to convince those kids beyond a shadow of a doubt that they could learn new things in groups with the internet and a minimally invasive teacher.  

They would forever know in their hearts that they could grow and learn because of the self-evident assessment that was their final performance.

Science and Engineering Leads to Mental and Emotional Growth

This leads me to my final point. Science and Engineering are intoxicatingly good at giving use validated, predictive models of the world that have helped humankind make almost unimaginable progress.

But Science and Engineering have nothing to offer to help us understand courage, sacrifice, hope, love, imagination, commitment or so many other important aspects of the human experience. Those are the realm of the arts.

How do the arts measure results? By performances, critiques, gallery shows, best sellers and moving words.  This is where the arts shine. They understand how real performances are self-evident assessments that convey so much that standardized assessments and scientific publications cannot!  

The courage, commitment, and integrity with which the surviving students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school speak are self-evident.



  1. http://www.psych.ucr.edu/faculty/rosenthal/index.html
  2. https://unidirectory.auckland.ac.nz/profile/c-rubie
  3. https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/education/about/schools/tchldv/docs/teacher-
  4. expaction-project/Rubie-Davies.doc.doc
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Hall_problem
  6. https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/
  7. https://angeladuckworth.com/