Educational Innovators Ask 'Why Can't Learning Be Fun?'

Remember the days when everything from ABCs to math and the arts were taught the same way to every student? Well now, innovations in education are changing the ways that children learn. Host Michel Martin finds out more at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Once again, we are up high in the Rocky Mountains. We are coming to you from the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado. We are focusing once again on some of the big ideas in education and learning. Now you might have heard your parents talk about walking to school in the snow uphill both ways, all the sacrifices they made to get an education. But today, we're going to speak with a young woman who literally risked her life to go to school in Afghanistan, and now she's helping others go to school in that country. That's coming up later in the program.

But we are going to start today by focusing on innovators in education in this country in their own very different ways. Our next guests are rethinking the way children are learning through technology, music and work-study programs. Father Joe Parkes is president of Cristo Rey New York High School. That's a Catholic high school located in East Harlem. That school constructs the school week in a very different way than most. Larry Scripp is the founding director and principal researcher for the Center for Music in Education. That's a research and development organization that helps schools develop arts education programs, and Jessie Woolley-Wilson is CEO of DreamBox Learning. That company develops computer-based learning programs that adapt to individual students. Welcome to you all. I'm so glad you all could be here today. Thank you for joining us.

JOE PARKES: Thank you.

JESSIE WOOLLEY WILSON: Thank you.

LARRY SCRIPP: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I just want to mention that if you missed your flight or somehow your ticket got misplaced and you didn't make it out to Aspen, you can join the conversation on Twitter. Just use the #NPRAspen. So let me just start with you, Father Joe. Cristo Rey New York High School does things a little differently. As I understand it, your students are in school four days a week and that they have a job one day a week. What does that accomplish? What do the students get with that schedule that they wouldn't get otherwise?

PARKES: Well, two things Michel. First of all, the corporate work study program was begun in our first school in Chicago in 1996 solely for financial reasons, so that we could keep the tuition very low because we serve only low income students. So our tuition in New York is $2000 a year. We opened in 2004 and we've never raised the tuition. So the idea of the corporate work study program is that five students which share an entry-level clerical job in white-collar firms. Give you an example, we have kids working at J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, several big law firms, several Aspen Ideas Festival sponsors, such as Mount Sinai Hospital and Thomson Reuters. So five kids share an entry-level clerical job. We charge the companies $31,000 for the ten months that they have the services of the students. That money comes to the school.

So in our school in New York City, 45 percent of our operating income is earned by the students themselves. But far more important than the financial sustainability that this program gives to our school is the transformative impact that youngsters working in these major firms get from their four years' experience. It builds up a tremendous sense of self-esteem and confidence in them. And I like to tell people, when our kids come to us, they're behind in grade level, by and large, but they're very far ahead of the game in terms of street smarts and it doesn't take them too long to figure out the people in these companies are no smarter than they are, but they went to school.

They know, then, if they stay in school, they can work in these places and they know that the companies want them. So it puts to the lie what they hear in their neighborhoods, that education is a waste, you're not going to get a job anyway. And our kids know that's not true, so our first graduates are working at these companies now.

MARTIN: Larry Scripp, a lot of your focus has been on music education. I think a lot of people think of music education as something nice to do, if you can afford it. You feel very differently. Tell us a little bit about your program.

SCRIPP: Well, as a researcher and a program developer, we start - I start with working with communities, with the question, what is the essential role of music and the arts in education? And when you think about that question and you really think hard about the children in front of you, you can begin to understand how important the arts and music are. And so what we do is work with communities to develop practices that involve teaching artists in schools, intensive education within the art form, also the incorporation of integration of music across the curriculum.

So arts plus arts integration is really what the practices are now evolving to be. And the successes in Chicago public schools with CAPE, or in Oakland with the school district, the MILE Project, or in New York with the Center for Arts Education, all have in common research questions that can be answered by practices developed on intensive education in the arts.

MARTIN: Is your argument, though - or is your sort of fundamental point of view that music education isn't just - is essential - is as essential as reading and as math, because I think a lot of people would say, well, that's nice to do, but if the kids can't read and can't do math, what's the point? Is your view that it is just as important?

SCRIPP: There are no false - this - it's a false argument to pit one against the other. What I did, when I started my charter school, the Conservatory Lab Charter School, which has now gone on to become a proven provider in Massachusetts and now a convener of the - and a developer of the El Sistema program in the U.S., there. That - when I first started that school and went before the state Board of Education, I said, I have as many hours dedicated to music - musical arts instruction as language arts. That was the experiment.

That's what charter schools are supposed to do, I thought. We're laboratories for change. What will happen if our children are as literate in music as they are in language arts and math, by the way? And so the experiment is run, and at first, the children were immediately scoring as well as in the mid-ground, as many Boston public schools. But the education itself completely is different.

And when we compare - when that charter school compares itself to other charter schools who might score higher in terms of academic scores, but have higher rates of student attrition and no joy in the classroom, now we begin to know and the parents begin to know, look, it's the quality of education. It's just not just the test scores, and we can show that through taking music that seriously, intensive practice, intensive understanding. But music as a literacy, not just as a talent show.

MARTIN: We want to hear from you, Jessie Woolley-Wilson. We need to take a break in a minute, but before we do we certainly want to hear from you. You are the CEO of DreamBox Learning, and your company specializes in adaptive learning technology. What is that?

WOOLLEY WILSON: Well, we have developed an intelligent, adaptive learning engine that personalizes learning in a supreme way. Essentially, we collect data, about 50,000 data points per student per hour, so that we can - and not only about what are they getting right and what are they getting wrong, but also the strategies that they're using to solve problems. So we're actually measuring how they're thinking, and we're using that to personalize the learning.

MARTIN: At what age does this start and at what age does this go and do the students spend most of the day by themselves doing this or - how does this work?

WOOLLEY WILSON: So this is a complementary math curriculum, so it is pre-K through grade six right now. And it is not something that is 100 percent, you know, they don't spend all their time on a computer. But what we do is we allow teachers to manage increasingly large classrooms with increasing diversity of learners by separating kids into smaller groups. Some are on DreamBox Learning, others are in live instruction, and they rotate.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting 'cause we've been getting a lot of tweets just as we were getting ready to go on the air, and a lot of the questions that a lot of the people have - and many of them are teachers - is, how do you diversify learning, and how do you adapt the learning experience to each child's needs in an era when classroom sizes are getting larger and when kids are coming from all different kinds of perspectives? We also heard a tweet from Monica Olivera using the handle @LatinMami and she says, you know, what about homeschooling? You can teach your kids according to the way they learn best. What do you think about that, Jessie?

WOOLLEY WILSON: So we're bringing the worlds together. The formal and structured world in a classroom is being linked, through these cloud-based technologies, to what happens in a home, and so it's an artificial separation. So right now, what we're doing is we are - we know how kids are solving problems. We know, as a result of that, what they need in order to move ahead.

MARTIN: How does this square with the fact that parents have been told since screens started to become more affordable, limit screen time, limit screen time? How does that square with the message? It sounds like it's kind of making a confusing message there. How do you...

WOOLLEY WILSON: I think it's a false choice again.

MARTIN: ...Yeah.

WOOLLEY WILSON: I think we're trying to close the gap, really, between the way kids are living and the way they're learning today. So kids are having technology all over their real lives, they would say, and then most kids, when they go to school, we lose them. We don't think they're engaged and one of the reasons is we are not talking to them and relating to them how they're used to learning. They're learning every day with technology and we can't hide it from them.

MARTIN: Larry, I want to go back to you. A number of you have mentioned the idea of false choice, that you can't - that it isn't necessarily a conflict between what we have come to understand about education and what actually works well, and what we're finding out about what works well. But I did want to ask you, who's the - where's the pushback coming from? Is there any on your ideas?

I mean, I think a lot of people, for generations, educated people have sought access to music. It's kind of a fundamental part of life, but as budgets get tighter, a lot of people say, well, I just can't afford that. So where does the pushback come from in your world?

SCRIPP: Surprisingly, some of the pushback came from arts educators who wanted to protect the isolation of the arts. Arts is to itself. It shouldn't be taught for integration. It should be something that children just learn to do. And so the idea of arts plus arts integration was a pushback for them. For general educators, it was really a matter of understanding what the arts really are and what they really do and how accessible - utterly accessible they are to all adults. For example, as an educated adult, I can show within a few minutes that you can process music notation because we do understand quantification. We understand fundamental concepts of music - proportion, reversibilities.

The ability to represent and invent representations of music is what our children do and what adults need to see their children doing to understand that it's utterly accessible. The other thing, the pushback came on the gifted education versus education for all kids. The amount of money and tracking the goes into talent - and I teach at New England Conservatory, so I know what these students are like. They are not coming from the mindset of a general education with music included.

They are coming with a certain amount of ideas about innate talent. By the time they get through New England Conservatory, they don't think that way anymore. And that - the idea of innate talent is the enemy of education policy.

MARTIN: Father Joe, I haven't forgotten you. We need to take a short break in a minute, but, Larry Scripp, just before we do, is it a - is this a, do as I say, not as I do situation? Do you play?

SCRIPP: I do. I grew up...

MARTIN: What do you play?

SCRIPP: Well, I grew up in a house with a big band in it. So...

MARTIN: (Laughing) OK, that's good.

SCRIPP: So I spoke the language of music and, you know, I have to say something about that. My family was in the Navy and we went to school after school after school. My music education came with me...

MARTIN: OK.

SCRIPP: ...I wasn't so sure the math was.

MARTIN: We are following the education conversation on Twitter at #NPRAspen. We hope you'll stay with us as we continue our special broadcast from the Aspen Ideas Festival. We are continuing our conversation with education innovators. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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