As a former director of research at the Children's Television Workshop and the founding director of San Francisco's KQED Center for Education & Lifelong Learning, Milton Chen came to the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF) in 1998 uniquely qualified to advance its efforts in the realm of educational media. By leveraging GLEF's Edutopia Web site, magazine, and video service as well as its six-pronged model for public education reform, Chen has helped the organization gather and disseminate innovative K-12 teaching and learning models.
PND recently spoke to Chen about the roles of technology and student assessment in student learning as well as Chen's hopes for the future of the U.S. education system.
Philanthropy News Digest: The George Lucas Educational Foundation focuses in part on encouraging technological innovation in public education. Why has the education system in the United States been so slow to adapt to new technologies, and what is your organization doing to change that?
Milton Chen: Well, there are many reasons why the education system has been so slow to adapt. In fact, I sometimes say that if you wanted to create a system that was perfectly designed notto change, you would create the American education system: a system in which information about technological innovation is not widely distributed among the many decision-making bodies and in which there is very little incentive for change.
I think the solution to all of this lies in fundamentally changing the way people think about education. Just say the very word educationand people think about a teacher in front of a classroom with students sitting at desks. What's needed for education to succeed in this century is radically different from that.
Our task isn't going to be easy. Education is a very old tradition, and people hold very deeply entrenched beliefs about how best to go about it. There's a strong anti-technology camp — particularly educators who came up through the system in the 1950s and '60s — that believes technology doesn't work or is just a distraction. They worry that if we embrace technology, students will spend five hours a day in the classroom on Facebook. But there's another camp, which we fall into, which argues that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because a particular medium or technology — Facebook, cell phones, YouTube, Twitter — can be used for distraction doesn't mean those technologies can't also be used for educational purposes. It's all about how the technologies are used. That's why so many of our efforts have focused on demonstrating intelligent uses of technology and how they can be applied to education. We live in a digital age, so we really want our children to be skilled at using digital information. The digital revolution has happened really quickly, and we have no choice but to keep up with it.
PND: Which technologies have the most potential for changing the quality of student learning?
MC: The number one thing I would say is the Internet. The Internet is home to a world of knowledge for students, and we need to give them the infrastructure and tools — including mobile devices, laptops, and ubiquitous broadband access — as well as the skills to be able to access that knowledge. As I said before, technology isn't only about distraction. For instance, I cannot imagine teaching an American history class without going to the Library of Congress' American Memory Web site or teaching a science class without going to the Web sites of NASA or the National Park Service. I especially like to point these sites out to teachers because they were created with public dollars and provide rich educational materials — for free. And we all should be taking advantage of the content they provide.
PND: Your organization also has focused on promoting cooperative, project-based learning. Why is that method important?
MC: I believe we should be working toward making school life more like real life. Project-based learning is the school-based form of what goes on in the workplace. Whether you're designing an advertising campaign or building a skyscraper, you have to work in a team to complete a project or reach a goal. Too often teaching is carved up into such tiny, bite-sized pieces that those pieces become divorced from any practical application. Sadly, this is particularly true with mathematics. I would love to see math be presented in the context of issues kids care about, which would be easy to do since kids are so rooted in digital culture. For instance, we could talk about the mathematics of cell phones or of digital photography. There are so many ways we could get students to be more engaged with math and answer their most frequently asked question, which is, "Why do I need to know this?"
PND: What are the biggest problems with student assessment in the U.S. education system, and how do you think those shortcomings should be addressed?
MC: Once again, the problem is rooted in how we think about it. We tend to view student assessment as equivalent to testing, when in fact most people would agree that the real purpose of assessment should be to improve student learning. To change things, we need to do a better job of understanding that students have very different strengths and weaknesses. Right now, we generally test only for two of those strengths: reading and math. And we generally only test thosetopics with one kind of assessment: the multiple choice test. What we're working toward is comprehensive assessment — assessment that is rooted in an understanding of multiple intelligences and multiple learning styles. For instance, students who are more visual learners should be able to present what they know through visual means.
A valuable lesson we've learned from No Child Left Behind is that teachers teach what is going to be assessed — but often, no more than that. So our hope is that if we make assessment broader, a broader curriculum will follow as well.
PND: Given the new presidential administration, how do you see public education evolving in the near future?
MC: So far, I'm heartened by the positive messages being sent by President Obama and Secretary Duncan regarding the country's need for a new kind of education system. More importantly, their comments have been backed up with actual funding increases for education. I think the new administration has been both frank and inspiring about what can be done. In particular, I'm encouraged by the emphasis on innovation in education. For instance, the DOE recently announced the Innovation Fund, which will make $650 million available to school districts and nonprofits through a grants process. The department also has set up partnerships between schools and community centers to ensure that every day is a learning day, and it seems to see technology as a potential ally that not only supports more powerful learning but also equips students with the skills they need to contribute to a modern workforce.
I'll finish by saying that I hope philanthropic groups continue to join in on this national conversation. It's important that local communities share information on best practices to make sure all education dollars are well spent, and foundations have a critical convening role to play. We know that the methods that have been used to address education reform in the past have not worked. What we really need are even more new ideas with clear evidence of outcomes for how to improve the system and better educate America's students.
-- Lauren Kelley