Why Teachers are Associated with and Traditionally Given Apples

Why Teachers are Associated
with and Traditionally Given Apples

by Sarah Stone

Widespread publicly funded, mandatory education has only been around since about the 19th century. Before then, the responsibility of providing schooling to children fell primarily on their families. Upper- and middle-class families tended to hire tutors or send their children to a private school run by a schoolmaster. That didn’t mean the children in lower-class families missed out on learning how to read and write. They often learned this at home, through apprenticeships, or at church-funded schools.

In addition, some poor families scraped together enough money to pay for their children to receive an education. Some even worked out a barter arrangement with teachers where they paid with surplus produce from the family farm. For instance, poor students from farming families in Denmark and Sweden often brought baskets of potatoes or apples to school as payment, among other staples (the potato being used for food, and the apple generally used for making drinks at the time).

In the United States, things changed when various social reforms came about in the 1800s. The reforms addressed issues ranging from food sanitation, treatment of the mentally ill, and even education. Schools became publicly funded and subject to regulations in order to ensure that all students were more or less getting the same educational opportunity.

By 1913, a majority of the states in the United States of America required that schools be paid for by the government. However towns on the sparsely settled western frontier still often bore the responsibility for paying for a teacher in the town. As before, they recruited teachers, and they provided a schoolhouse where classes could be held, a place for the teachers to live, fuel for heating, and often food. In these sorts of arrangements, students were also often tasked with helping the teacher maintain the schoolhouse, such as gathering on Saturdays to give it a thorough cleaning.

That tradition of bringing food to teachers continued even as the United States government took over the responsibility for funding public education in the West. The baskets of food were eventually replaced with smaller amounts as the old “Boarding Round” room and board pay system was replaced by more in the way of a cash salary.

But why do schoolchildren traditionally give apples to their teachers? As mentioned, there are records of students from such places as Denmark and Sweden bringing both apples and potatoes to their teachers, among other things, so why don’t students traditionally give potatoes to teachers? There are two generally accepted answers, one or both of which possibly contributing to this tradition over other food items like the potato.

For the first theory, teachers were often seen as a moral influence into the lives of children. (Indeed, the “Boarding Round” system often insured that teachers toed the line with the community’s moral standards- teach something outside of this, and suddenly see something like your food or heating fuel payment disappear.) Along with this, the “Tree of Knowledge” in the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis has often been mistakenly referred to as an apple tree. This is partially thanks to Aquila Ponticus, who was a second century translator translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek.  He took the liberty of referring to the Tree of Knowledge as an apple tree, even though the original text doesn’t say that.  It’s likely that he chose this due to the fact that he was translating it into Greek for Greeks and that in Greek mythology apples were seen as symbols of desire and destruction.

Due to the prevalence of this “Tree of Knowledge” / apple tree idea, it wouldn’t be an out of place gift, then, for students to give their teachers an apple, the fruit representative of knowledge.

On to the second popular theory for the continuance of giving apples- apples arrived in North America shortly after the Jamestown Colony was founded in the early 1600s. These apples, unlike the ones found in supermarkets today, tasted bitter, but they could be used to make hard apple cider. Many people, whether rightly or wrongly, considered hard cider a safer beverage than water because widespread sanitation of drinking water did not yet exist. Apple trees also flourished in a variety of climates, contributing to the popularity of the fruit.

The sweeping social reforms that allowed schools and education to become regulated also posed a major problem for apples. The temperance movement that spanned from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century sought to eliminate the drinking of alcohol in the United States. Apple growers scrambled to re-brand the fruit in order to remove themselves from the controversy. Careful cultivation caused the fruit to lose its bitter taste and to become sweeter and sweeter with each new generation of apples.

Marketing campaigns also played a part in the apple’s new image. Phrases like “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” were dusted off and used to brand the apple as a healthy snack. So the theory goes that students and their parents who wanted to get on a teacher’s good side saw apples as a way to give the teacher a healthy, cheap snack, which was also quite versatile, able to be used now for both drink and a sweet treat. Thus, they chose to keep giving this food item, rather than something like the potato.

Why Aren’t Recent College Grads Getting Hired?

Why Aren’t Recent College Grads Getting Hired?

by Bruce Kasanoff

Among the sons and daughters of my friends are a ridiculous number of well-educated unemployed – or underemployed – young people. These are graduates from top schools who have had every advantage in life. They are smart and talented, with excellent social skills. They are hanging around watching Oprah on TV.

Yes, a bit part of the reason is the uncertain and changing nature of our economy. I don’t mean to minimize that. But there’s a larger problem, and I can sum it up in one word:


These kids don’t understand that the way you find a solid job is through other people. They don’t understand the power of networking, or what it takes to build and maintain a professional network.

Instead, they churn out letter after letter to every training program and job posting they can find. This is like playing the lottery, because 750 people apply for every opening. It’s not an utter waste of time, but it is darn close to it.

A far better approach is to get up every day and reach out to other people that you know, or to the contacts of people you know.

Many recent grads don’t want to do this. Perhaps it seems fuzzy, or incomprehensible, or too personal. I don’t know. All I know is that it works 100 times better than anonymous application processes.

Let’s get specific. If you know someone struggling to find a job, forward this list to them and urge them to do one or more of these activities every single day. All will expose grads to other people who can lead them to meaningful work…

Be generous: Before you get into your “gotta find a job” mindset, take some time to consider how you can help other people. Look for articles or information that others might find valuable, and forward the resource to them. Share knowledge on social media. Do someone a favor. Be “other” focused.

Be expert: Recent grads get obsessed with figuring out what they want to do with their careers, but the truth is you won’t know this for years to come. Instead, focus on becoming expert at one or two things. These can be very simple, very basic things, like making a 30-second video, building a simple website, or conducting thorough research The important thing is that you are good enough at something that other people can recommend you.

Be trustworthy: Especially when meeting you for the first time, other people look for clues whether you are someone they can trust. (Being smart is not the same thing as being trustworthy.) Make certain your clothes, online presence, posture and conversational style provide people with positive clues. I’m not suggesting you pretend to be someone else, just that you be the most credible possible version of yourself.

Be clear: Every time you reach out to another person, have one intention – and one message – in mind. People get confused by grads who are all over the map. “I like surfing, but I’m really worried about starvation in Africa. I’m good with numbers, but I hate being stuck indoors all day. Have you seen Lucy? I love that movie, even though it’s sorta weird.”

Don’t be that person. Instead, try: I want to learn more about what you do and why you are so good at it.

Be open-minded: If your professor, friend, neighbor, parent or local elected official suggests that you go meet someone, do it, even if you can’t understand why you would possibly drive 90 minutes to meet a random stranger. Other people see connections and possibilities that you do not. This is not because they are smarter than you; it is because they are not you.

Be adaptable: You might be obsessed with living in Manhattan and working in fashion, but to get out of your parents’ basement you might have to live in Nashville and be the personal assistant to a best-selling author. Life seldom offers us straight paths to the things we think we want; be willing to travel along winding paths, because your alternative is to remain stuck in one place.

Be persistent: Meet someone new every day. Reach out to actual people, not training programs. Help other people. Do this day after day, week after week, month after month. Don’t get frustrated and whiny and ask your parents how long you have to do this. You have to do this for the rest of your life, because other people are the source of all richness in life.

Be present: In my experience, most people who ask for guidance only listen to about 30% of the guidance offered to them. They literally walk away from a conversation having missed most of the important insights, because they are too distracted to listen. The best advice ever given isn’t “wear sunscreen”, it is: pay attention! When someone talks, listen. Forget about the past, ignore the future, and be 100% focused on right here, right now.

Never Stop Learning: How Self-Education Creates a Bullet-Proof Career

Never Stop Learning: How Self-
Education Creates a Bullet-Proof Career

by Paul Jun

Business writer Tom Peters once said, “A career is a portfolio of projects that teach you new skills, gain you new expertise, develop new capabilities, grow your colleague set, and constantly reinvent you as a brand.”

At the heart of expanding your social graph and reinventing yourself is an unquenchable desire to learn—a mindset that stays fluid and facilitates personal growth. It is the learners, those willing to open their minds and augment their skillsets, who will be poised to succeed in the future.

But how do we foster this desire to learn? Dont we all want to learn? Who ever says, “I really hate learning new things?” Yet, in the midst of searching for security and comfort, I think we often lose sight of whats important and enter a sort of tunnel vision that can lead to stagnation. After a long day at work, Netflix sounds more seductive than spending one or two hours diving into a book that challenges you to think deeply about what you do and who you are.

That said, complacency does not beget success. In today’s networked age, companies and jobs rise and fall in a matter of months. That thing you do? Theres now an app for that, for free. Or there will be soon. That job title of yours could change next week. When thinking about our careers, no one is safe.

The concept of getting and holding a job in one industry for decades is outmoded, a byproduct of the industrial mindset. Nowadays its not unusual to hear of drastic career changes like a CPA becoming a yoga instructor or someone leaving a job that they had for a decade to pursue their art. These transitions are not only difficult, but they require a mindset that helps the individual be flexible and motivated.

The concept of getting and holding a job in one industry for decades is outmoded, a byproduct of the industrial mindset.

By embracing a student-like mindset and learning to turn self-education into a daily habit, you can hone your current skills and develop new ones while enriching your mind. Then, when the time to adapt arrives, the transitions are less bumpy.

Here are some ways to ignite and sustain a passion for learning:

1. Start with heroes from the past.

I must use these great men’s virtues as a cloak for my weakness.”
—Michel De Montaigne 

Having heroes gives you something to live up to, a higher standard. You can pick someone in your field and always point toward them. “That is what they do in times of self-doubt” or “That is what they do every morning to make sure they get their work done.” Its not about constantly comparing to make yourself feel unworthy or unproductive, but rather using a model of aspiration, something to motivate you to find your own rhythm and exert a bit more effort.

Many of my heroes arent alive, and if they are, I have not met them in person (yet). Their teachings are laid out in books, interviews, and articles, and their quotes are scattered throughout my notebook. Whenever I have moments of confusion or self-doubt, I re-read quotes or passages from these books to center myself.

Wouldnt it be great to have a mentor that slaps your hand when you reach into the cookie jar or someone to say, “Hey, I’ve been in this situation before, heres what you should do?” Truth is, you may never get this kind of mentorship, and waiting for someone to pick you is the same as waiting for something great to happen. But you can actively choose your heroes, study their work and journeys, and identify the specific elements that make them great and utilize those lessons in your own life. What’s more, you can learn who inspired them and expand your knowledge from there.

2. Take advantage of free educational resources.

“How can you squander even one more day not taking advantage of the greatest shifts of our generation? How dare you settle for less when the world has made it so easy for you to be remarkable?”
—Seth Godin

Technology has transformed us into excellent gatherers of information. From books, podcasts, blogs, online courses, and tools that provide access to whomever youre trying to connect with, you can study any subject. The access to tools that can bolster our desire to learn is incomparable to any other time in history. Picture your great-great-grandparents learning that you have access to all this information. They would likely be stunned that you didn’t spend all day reading and learning.

Picture your great-great-grandparents learning that you have access to all this information. They would likely be stunned that you didn’t spend all day reading and learning.

As an experiment, I started drawing in December 2013. My first thought was, “I should take a few electives at my university” but one course would have cost me close to $1,000. Instead, I searched online and found a portrait-drawing course for $20 on Skillshare. I went on YouTube and searched for “Drawing 101 tips” and studied the videos I found relentlessly. I followed artists on Instagram, studied their sketches and watched their time-lapse videos. I emailed a few artists and asked questions. I purchased books and skimmed through them. But above all, I did the work. The knowledge that I obtained from these various sources improved my mindset and methodology.

The tools and platforms that facilitate self-directed learning are growing by the day. Websites like CreativeLive, Skillshare, and Khan Academy provide content that is invaluable to our education. Its easy to overlook the value of the tools and options that we now have compared to 20 years ago. Take advantage of them.

3. Explore unrelated subjects.

“Creative insights often occur by making unusual connections: seeing analogies between ideas that have not previously been related. All of our existing ideas have creative possibilities.”
—Sir Ken Robinson 

Say youre a graphic designer. Why not study something like Greek architecture or fashion? Or lets say youre a fitness coach. Why not study public speakers or read biographies on famous sports coaches?

One of my favorite joys in learning is studying seemingly unrelated subjects and then connecting them to my interests. Knowing that my mind is being exercised to connect the dots, even if its a subject thats unfamiliar, allows me to unearth new insights and develop a richer understanding. It helps with cross-pollinating ideas, exercising creativity, and exploring the edges.

If you find yourself devouring the same kind of information constantly, change it up. Dive into subjects that youre unfamiliar with and extract insights that have potential for connection. It may not be important now, but who knows what frontiers will open up. Lifelong learners collect dots, but they are even better at connecting them.

4. Make learning a habit.

“Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do for yourself. You’re not going to be on top of mountain all by yourself with a #2 pencil … What we need to learn is how to learn.”
—Joi Ito

A desire to learn is a fruitful asset that will fuel you throughout your life. Without this unquenchable desire to grow our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, we stagnate. We become comfortable with what we know and may feel that there isnt anything else to learn. Of course, that kind of thinking is poisonous: there is always something that we can learn that will improve how we lead our lives and do our work.

Learning isn’t everything, however. On top of all these practices, its also important that we engage, discuss, and experiment with the knowledge that we obtain.

There is always something that we can learn that will improve how we lead our lives and do our work.

In the words of the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, “If wisdom were offered me on the one condition that I should keep it shut away and not divulge it to anyone, I should reject it. There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.”

Learning is the lifeblood of a fruitful career. And it’s available to you right now. It’s neither a personality trait nor a gift. It takes humility to admit that we have much to learn, but this realization can be a catalyst to the kind of lifelong learning that helps us improve, thrive, and contribute in a way that is deeply meaningful to ourselves and others.

How to Take Control of Your Quest for Learning:

Organize a group study with co-workers or friends: 

Everyday I try to engage in a conversation that explores or questions the things that I’ve learned. How is it useful and why? How can I apply it to my life? Why do I find this important or useful? What are the elements and what am I failing to see or understand? You can do this with anyone. Carve an hour out of your day to simply discuss something that you learned or found interesting. Get weekly drinks or host dinner parties with people you respect. Share a passage of an article or an idea that challenges your current beliefs. See how other people think about it so you can expand your thinking.

Apply what you learn: 

Reading information prepares your mind, but are you actually utilizing it in your daily life? When you read something that can improve your work, do you apply it and experiment? Learning is about improving the way you live and how you make decisions. It would be foolish to collect knowledge without implementing it.

Question everything: 

My friend sent me a funny meme, and I replied with a quote that I had saved in my notebook. But for some strange reason, a part of me wanted to research the quote I was sharing. I never had that urge before, but I’m glad I did. Thirty minutes later, I found out that the quote wasn’t even true—the actor never said it. How did I find out? She clarified it in an interview, and that interview was on the second page of Google. Weigh everything. Do some research on your own. Keep asking why. Take the individual parts and examine them, try to understand how each part functions and supplements one another.

Share what you’ve learned: 

After I finish books, I write about what I’ve learned on my blog. It’s a way for me to practice connecting the dots, to examine my pattern of thinking and my level of comprehension. I can take the information gained from the book and connect it to other notes that I have saved. You dont have to share it publicly if you dont want to. You can keep a journal for yourself, sort of like an archive of your own thinking. The purpose of this exercise is to be aware of how youre thinking about a subject, and to find the weak spots that need attention and development.

Keep a commonplace book: 

Right now I can slide my thumb across my phone, tap on Evernote, and access an archive of all my learning. From quotes, anecdotes, metaphors, studies, and links to videos, I have an organized database of knowledge and wisdom. This is my favorite tool for self-education.

Whenever I highlight something in a book or hear an amazing story in an interview, I write it down, along with the author’s name, source, and page number. I write one or two sentences before the quote stating what it is about and what other subjects I can connect it with. The idea is that you want to have something that is immediately accessible and organized. If I’m having a bad day I can search in my file under “Dealing With Adversity” and have a wide range of perspectives and solutions from a variety of thinkers. It’s like having all your teachers and mentors close by.

A Job Description For Teaching

A Job Description For Teaching

by Grant Wiggins

A rarely discussed weakness in education is the lack of a true job description for teachers in hiring. Being told that “you will teach US History” or “we are hiring you to be a 4th grade teacher” is not a job description. It doesn’t say what you are responsible for causing. It merely describes the content and level you will be teaching. It doesn’t demand that you achieve anything in particular. It only says that a certain slot and set of roles should be filled and certain content should be covered.

A real job description would be written around the key learning goals and Mission-related outcomes. What am I expected to cause in students? What am I supposed to accomplish? Whatever the answer, that’s my job.

The Danielson Framework for Teaching doesn’t really address this problem, despite its many strengths. All the domains are about skills, not achievements; inputs, not outcomes: Planning and Preparation, the Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. Couldn’t you therefore have these skills but not be an achiever of outstanding results? Vice versa: I have known many teachers who do little more than cause learning, yet would be found wanting on many of the components (think: Jaime Escalante or any gruff loner – but respected veteran teacher).

Interestingly, job descriptions in other fields are typically far clearer about results sought. Here is an excerpt from a job description for a manager of marketing (arguably just a different version of “teacher”) from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development:

  • Plan and prepare advertising and promotional material to increase sales of products or services.
  • Inspect layouts and advertising copy and edit scripts, audio and video tapes, and other promotional material for adherence to specifications.
  • programs that meet identified buyer targets.
  • Monitor and analyze sales promotion results to determine cost effectiveness of promotion campaigns.
  • Read trade journals and professional literature to stay informed on trends, innovations, and changes that affect media planning.
  • Track program budgets and expenses and campaign response rates to evaluate each campaign based on program objectives and industry norms.

Notice how the italicized phrase in each item establishes a performance goal for the role: “to increase sales…for adherence to specifications…that meet buyer targets…to determine cost effectiveness…to stay informed…to evaluate each campaign.” How odd, reslly, that teachers are rarely hired in terms of desired outcomes like this.

Some years back I had an illuminating conversation with a high school principal about the problems in our hiring. We were arguing about what to do with the problem of so many teachers merely marching through textbooks. I said to him: well, you’re the Principal, you can change this. “Whoa!” he retorted. “I don’t have control over what they do. I just rent space to them in the mall.” A tad sarcastic and overstated, perhaps – but a sobering view of an all-too-common reality. Once hired, you can often define the job as you see fit.

4 “Things” Every Teacher Must “Cause”

I think we can boil the desired results of “teacher” down to a few core obligations. An educator must arguably cause four things in learners.

  1. greater interest in the subject and in learning than was there before, as determined by observations, surveys, and client feedback
  2. successful learning related to key course goals, as reflected in mutually agreed-upon assessments
  3. greater confidence and feelings of efficacy as revealed by student behavior and reports (and as eventually reflected in improved results)
  4. a passion and intellectual direction in each learner

1. For some odd reason the issue of student boredom and lack of interest in school work is rarely addressed in job descriptions and evaluation, even though it is arguably one of the greatest impediment to higher levels of student achievement. No one is going to meet higher standards if the work and classroom are boring. Our student survey results make the needs and solutions crystal-clear.

2. Successful learning understood as gain from a baseline is a no-brainer: make a difference in each learner, beyond the predicted effect size that results from just growing a year older in school. Even if value-added metrics are bogus at the macro level, they are essential at the local level. We should demand pre- and post- results on worthy assessment tasks that get at the heart of ongoing key goals such as argumentation, clarity of communication, problem solving, etc. (Many of the newer accountability systems try to do this but many of the SGOs or SLOs are invalid or silly, designed to game the system.)

3. Make students feel more competent and confident. No one – teachers included –is likely to learn if the learning environment is makes one feel alienated, stupid or irrelevant. We also know that if students feel that the locus of control is outside themselves that learning to high levels is unlikely, and reaction to failure will be dysfunctional. Changing such fatalism ought to be a highly-valued component of a teacher job description.

4. You cannot achieve great results without knowing kids and playing to their strengths, no matter how fixed the standards and curriculum are. How many students are regularly helped to play to and recognize their strengths as a central part of planning, teaching, assessing, and reporting? The ideal was framed nicely by the SCANS report: students should leave school with a résumé, not a transcript. How many teachers (besides primary-grade teachers) spend the first week of school mostly getting to know the strengths, weaknesses, talents, interests, and styles of all learners – and then taking a few days to modify plans accordingly? Interestingly enough, almost all coaches do this: early practice is primarily about seeing who you have and what they can do; and adjusting accordingly.

“I have to cover the content”

With a genuine job description we can finally tackle a great problem in education, the common view that the job is to cover the content. No: marching page by page through a textbook (or the written curriculum) can never be your job as a teacher – ever. The textbook or curriculum is written completely independently of your goals and students; it is a generic resource that merely pulls together a comprehensive body of information and lessons in a package for use by thousands of people with varying needs all over the United States. It is utterly insensitive to formative assessment results and the near certainty that deviations from the pagination will be needed to cause high levels of learning.

Textbooks are thus really like dictionaries or encyclopedias. And we don’t ask you to learn English by going through the dictionary from A to Z. Yet, this is what almost all textbook-driven teaching amounts to. As with dictionaries and encyclopedias, you would consult them as needed – i.e. in light of specific overarching goals. That this approach to textbooks rarely happens may be the biggest indicator of the pressing need to clarify the job.

Once the goals are clear, intelligent decisions about the textbook can be made:

  • Which chapters in the textbook are central to my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?
  • Which chapters are not vital, relating only somewhat to my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?
  • Which chapters can be skipped since they are irrelevant to my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?
  • What must I do to supplement the text in order to achieve my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?

“No, you don’t get it! I have to cover all this content to prepare them for the tests! That’s the bottom line, not my goal, and I am hassled about it regularly. We have to prepare them for the test, so we have to cover everything.”

But as I have long argued, backed by both evidence[1] and common sense, this widely-heard lament simply doesn’t make sense. Here’s what you are saying, really: “I would rather teach for understanding and engagement, but I can’t. I ‘have to’ just cover all this content superficially and right out of the textbook. That’s what the tests demand.”

Really? The tests reward superficial and disengaging teaching? You need to teach badly to get higher test scores? The work has to be scatter shot and uninteresting to be good preparation for a test?

Such a view defies common sense as well: the best teachers I have seen make their subject interesting and they make it hang together via interesting problems, big ideas, and clear performance goals. Endless content coverage is actually the approach of someone who has no explicit course goals and strategy for staying focused on them. In other words, someone not clear on their job.

I blame the employers, not the teachers: the job description is their obligation. Hiring against it and evaluating against it is one of their primary obligations. It’s time we got this basic act of professionalism in the workplace right.

Education vs Learning

Education vs Learning

It is time to set learning free.

Over the past 24 months since we started developing bibblio.org, my head has often hurt from the sheer volume of new knowledge I’ve accumulated about how we learn. I’ve read, seen and digested more than I can express in a pithy statement, but fortunately Joi Ito found an important and short maxim that’s a good place to start:

    “Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do for yourself”

– Joi Ito –

The quote opens a fundamental and interesting discussion about the nature of learning, and what we can do to support it. Surely learning and formal education are not entirely the same thing? But what exactly is the difference?

What I can say is that after these last two years, I have become increasingly convinced that there is a paradigm shift underway. One in which technology is acting as a catalyst for an explosion in the production and publication of free learning materials. There is a natural divide appearing — with different stops on the route to education and learning.

Here it is visually represented:

Most of us are very familiar with the left side of this graphic. We went to school, university, or some other formal education, and we are largely familiar with the rules of engagement. You listen to the teacher, stick it out, jump through the hoops and get your reward in the form of an accreditation. While many people flourish in this system, many others don’t. It remains the basis for most formal education around the world.

The current paradox is that while the price of education is rising exponentially in most countries, the cost of learning is actually trending towards zero — with millions of great learning materials freely available online. As we move forward, the process of testing against a standardized curriculum will increasingly be challenged by a new collective opportunity to learn anything we want, as well as choosing the content, time, teacher and device we want to learn with.

Here I am echoing the words of Brandon Busteed, Director of Education from Gallup. His speeches are well worth a watch, if only for the sheer wealth of empirical evidence he puts forward in favor of a more open and constructivist approach to learning in the digital age.

However, when you ask people about open and free learning, the answers you get are often very vague. Most of us intuitively feel that we learn best outside of the formal system — through work and throughout life. But how can we understand this informal learning process? And how does it work compared to a more formal educational structure? Let’s go back to the education vs learning paradigm for a definition of how they are different.

“Education is largely considered formal, a notion that shapes resources from the top down. Formalized education flows start with an institution that offers accreditation and then provides resources and groupings that meet that expressed goal. On the other hand learning starts with individuals and communities. The desire to learn, a natural desire, is often constructed as informal learning and comes from individuals or groups with interests, who may organize and access resources in pursuit of that interest.” (1)

For the vast majority of us, learning “stops” when we wave goodbye to our last educational institution. So — we then have at least 50-60 years of our lives left… not learning anything? Various commentators suggest that as much as 70% of learning might occur outside of formal educational settings, yet informal learning rarely gets mentioned and appreciated (2 & 3).

I am not in favor of spreading doom and gloom about formal education. It serves a valuable role in society, and many talented and intelligent people do passionate work every day inside the formal educational system with great outcomes — not just knowledge, but behavioral and social functions are developed which simply couldn’t be replaced by a screen.

However, the aim of this article is to argue that we can do a better job of connecting an ecosystem of content creators, educators and learners for informal learning purposes of many kinds. It is increasingly clear that the formal education system and the publishing industry surrounding it are doing a relatively poor job of recycling and distributing all the public knowledge that is being created — and we’re reaching a tipping point.

It’s not simply a case of making knowledge available, but also making it accessible.

Why am I so convinced change is near? Well, for one thing, this man:

Do you know him?

His name is Michael Stevens and his show, Vsauce, has more than seven million subscribers on YouTube. Vsauce investigates all sorts of aspects of our world together with its loyal and quickly expanding community, and they discover loads of new things. It doesn’t count towards anything, but I am convinced that for millions it is some of the best quality teaching they have experienced. In fact, thousands of them say so in the comments and my own brother is one of them.

People like Michael represent a new generation of creators and educators who make learning voluntary, free and social. It is on-demand and highly engaging for the same reason. Now, compare that to the average university lecture. Vsauce has more subscribers than all of the major US universities combined. The point is not that all of those seven million shouldn’t educate themselves in formal settings in the future, but that social learning increasingly have the power to assist a vast audience of curious individuals.

From theory to learning design

So, if we accept that learning can happen outside of educational establishments, do we know exactly what happens when we learn? Interestingly, the most progressive concepts in the history of education were actually introduced over 150 years ago. Educational pragmatism was conceived by Charles Sanders Peirce, and the idea was further developed by his student John Dewey in to a progressive view on education often called constructivism. This favors, at heart, a view on learning that is based on experience. With my own background in communication, I would add that learning is essentially what the students hear and understand — not what the teacher says.

Later, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and Italian physician Maria Montessori pioneered how these ideas could be formalized and applied to childhood development. Montessori’s greatest insight was perhaps that everyone learns differently, at his or her own pace. We’re natural learners, she said, born with an insatiable curiosity. Other contemporary European approaches, spearheaded by such figures as Reggio Emilia and Rudolf Steiner, agree with the constructivist idea that experience is central to achieving a positive learning outcome. They value curiosity at least equal to curriculum, and they respect the emergent nature of learning.

While the Montessori principles are primarily espoused and used in childhood development, it is increasingly apparent that people of all ages can learn when their curiosity and intrinsic motivations to explore the world are sufficiently ignited.

Intrinsic motivation

Perhaps no single phenomenon reflects the positive potential of human nature as much as intrinsic motivation; the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore and to learn. Develop-mentalists acknowledge that from the time of birth, children, in their healthiest states, are active, inquisitive, curious and playful, even in the absence of specific rewards (4).

The construct of intrinsic motivation describes our natural inclination towards assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest and exploration that is so essential to cognitive and social development and provides vitality throughout life (5 & 6)

Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde & Ryan

Professors Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of globe-spanning business school INSEAD surveyed over 3,000 executives and interviewed 500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented significant new products (7). They documented a series of very interesting results, showing a vast statistical imbalance in Montessori children that go on to become ‘outliers’ as adults. The phenomenon has even been named the “Montessori Mafia”. Could it be a coincidence that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar and Jimmy Wales all went through Montessori-based educations? In their own ways, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, all the four Twitter founders, and many other very successful individuals, didn’t exactly ‘fit in’ to a standard education system either.

And the list goes on.

But why hasn’t the revolution happened?

In only 15 years, the internet has delivered not just one but several landmark achievements in the aggregation and sharing of knowledge. Early digital platforms like Wikipedia and Google have already transformed how we search for information. However, it can reasonably be argued that learning is fundamentally different from search. It is only now, as the internet enters its truly semantic age, with millions of videos, slides, podcasts and advanced social tools, that we face a truly Cambrian moment in the possibilities of learning technology to set learners free.

“In a world where discovery is more important than delivery, it’s the people who find, remix and direct attention to old stuff that should be rewarded, not the people who deliver it or sit on it waiting for someone to show up.”
– Joi Ito –

While the initial wave of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have succeeded in scaling the reach of formal school and university curricula to a broader audience, and should be applauded for doing so, they largely stay true to the traditional form and structure. You have to go to places such as YouTube, Slideshare or Soundcloud to find significant innovation. It is outside the established institutions that the majority of new content, formats and ideas are being developed. Khan Academy and TED are obvious examples but the truth is that there are now thousands of great learning channels scattered across the web.

And it’s here that we took the inspiration for Bibblio. Put simply, the world needs a library which makes all these great things easier to find and easier to benefit from. Availability is one thing — accessibility quite another.

It’s also helped us to refine our guiding principles.

Howard Gardner, with his concept of “5 minds for the future” argues forcefully that we can and should cultivate many forms of wisdom and literacy, some which cannot easily be measured. The learning design of Bibblio is heavily inspired by Gardner. The platform aims to develop discipline, synthesis, creativity, respect and ethics among its users using a peer-to-peer learning model. This way Bibblio will become a free, vibrant and curiosity driven supplement to formal education.

Canning and Callan reported on three higher-education institutions in the UK that have used a self-determined approach to learning (8). Their research shows that it supports an individual’s control of learning, professional development, critical thinking and reflection. Reflective practice helped students to gain more control over their learning, comprehend it and apply it to practical situations. Many other studies provide similar results (9).

We have only just embarked on what is, without a doubt, more a marathon than a sprint, but Bibblio wants to develop these ideas and help set learning free. In many ways, our learning design is aligned to other digital age theories in that it places an importance on ‘learning to learn’ and sharing, rather than the hoarding of knowledge.

Ultimately, the point is strikingly simple. While the cost of education is exploding, learners are increasingly going to be able to develop and grow at their own pace.

Why don’t you try it for yourself?

by Mads Holmen, Founder

This post owes credit to some very inspiring people — Steve Wheeler, Stewart Hase, Chris Kenyon, Scot Hoffman, Fred Garnett and Lisa Marie Blaschke. Thanks for helping us so much.

(1) Research in Learning Technology, Vol 20, 2012.

(2) Dobbs, K. (2000) Simple Moments of Learning. Training, 35 (1), 52-58.

(3) Cross, J. (2006) Informal Learning: Rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance. London: John Wiley and Sons.

(4) Harter, S. (1978). Effectance motivation reconsidered. Towards a developmental model. Human development 1, 661-669.

(5) Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rathunde, K. (1993). The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation. J. E. Jacobs
(Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation, Vol.40: Developmental
perspectives on motivation,

(6) Ryan, R. M. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. Journal of personality, 63, 450-461.

(7) Dyer, J. H., Gregersen, H. B., & Christensen, C.M. (2009). The Innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Review, no. 12, 60-68

(8) Canning, N. & Callan, S. (2010). Heutagogy: Spirals of reflection to empower learners in higher education. Reflective Practice, 11(1), 71-82.

(9) Blaschke, L. M (2012). Heutagogy and Lifelong Learning: A Review of Heutagogical Practice and Self-Determined Learning. The review of research in open and distance learning, Vol 13, No 1. 56-71

International Education: Learning Personal Finance as a Life Skill

Learning Personal Finance as a Life Skill


The Hague — As the world claws its way out of an economic crisis, a recent global comparative study on the financial literacy of 15-year-olds has placed a spotlight on the growing importance of economic competency training in secondary schools.

The study, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 18 different countries, produced some surprising results: For example, young people in the United States, the world’s largest economy, know less about money than their peers in eight other countries; and teenagers in the Shanghai region outscored everyone else, despite living in a nominally communist country.

Much less of a surprise is the fact that, compared with other skills tested and tallied by the study, like math, reading and problem solving, the skill of money management is not one that most young people have grasped.

Experts appear to agree that this is an increasingly necessarily skill, but that the PISA findings show that not enough has been done to teach it.

Ángel Gurría, the O.E.C.D. secretary general, called the results a “Sputnik moment,” referring to the turning point in the Cold War space race. And Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, who presented the results in her function as a special advocate of the United Nations secretary general, said the results served as a “wake-up call.”

But the inclusion of financial literacy in PISA, considered the most important global comparison of 15-year-olds, is a sign that the subject is taking center stage in the education discussion around the world, paving the way for its inclusion in already packed primary and secondary school curriculums.

In countries where it is being taught, financial literacy has been in classrooms for less than five years, but many national programs are currently being developed, strengthened and formalized with a network of leading countries discussing and comparing advantages and strategies.

Besides having to understand a more complicated array of financial products available to increasingly younger consumers, young people are more often forced to make major financial decisions early, as many economies turn away from state-funded health care, welfare and higher education, experts say.

“If you have less job security, you need to think harder about saving and creating financial buffers,” said Mathijs van Dijk, a finance professor at the Rotterdam School of Management.

“There’s been a shift, from risk being held centrally, to risk being held by individuals,” said Mark Fiander, a director at Money Advice Services, an independent agency created by the British government in 2010 giving citizens free advice on financial matters and debt reduction.

Like other financial experts, Mr. Fiander warns that many adults are having a difficult time keeping their financial affairs in order. “Even in the good times, certainly in the U.K., you have about a third of people who struggle to make it to the end of month without running out of money,” he said.

In response, countries have developed different ways to improve financial literacy, competency or behavior — the terms vary — among the young. Some focus on training teachers, others on providing curriculum material, making the subject accessible through mobile apps, or focusing on specific events, such as a national financial literacy week.

Flore-Anne Messy, a senior policy expert at the O.E.C.D.’s International Network on Financial Education, who was closely involved with the design of the financial literacy portion of the PISA study, explained that besides national strategies for better financial literacy, the impetus of different global players to train their young varied. Citing the example of the Czech Republic, which did particularly well in the study, Ms. Messy said: “When they moved from communism to capitalism, they needed to train the new generation, because they knew that the welfare system is changing.”

The newest financial literacy portion of PISA tested approximately 29,000 15-year-olds in Australia; the Flemish community of Belgium; Shanghai; Colombia; Croatia; the Czech Republic; Estonia; France; Israel; Italy; Latvia; New Zealand; Poland; Russia; Slovakia; Slovenia; Spain; and the United States, representing that age group in 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.

There were five levels of difficulty in the test, which was taken by students in 2012. The results, published this month first in Paris and then in Washington and other partner countries around the world, varied widely across countries.

Shanghai, Flemish Belgium and Estonia scored best when it came to the overall PISA score. But students in Australia, New Zealand and the Czech Republic had the best financial sense compared with their scores in other PISA subjects.

Colombia, Italy and Slovakia scored the lowest in overall ranking, with Israel — fourth from the bottom — doing especially poorly in financial literacy compared with its general PISA score.

The United States came in ninth, just below the O.E.C.D. average and just above Russia, with its financial literacy score roughly in line with its scores in other PISA subjects.

“If you look at the questions, they are very basic — the results are not very encouraging,” said Mr. van Dijk, the Dutch finance professor.

One encouraging result was that gender, in almost all countries that participated, was insignificant, a positive difference from gender gaps in adult financial literacy, according to the O.E.C.D.

New Zealand was one of the countries that did very well in the study.

“It is an aggregate of things,” said Diane Maxwell, the retirement commissioner of New Zealand.

Despite its name, the Commission for Financial Literacy and Retirement Income, which Ms. Maxwell heads, devotes about 75 percent of its efforts to training those who are furthest from retirement.

“I’d rather deal with people when they are 13,” she said in a telephone interview.

“We need to prepare the next generation for a very different retirement landscape.”

The commission has been overseeing an investment of half a million New Zealand dollars, or about $430,000, by the country’s financial sector to build curriculums and learning aids, many of which can be found on a special website available to all teachers. Ms. Maxwell, who oversees various programs to train teachers, says one of the most important aspect of teaching financial literacy is getting the teachers comfortable with subject.

“Many understand for the first time what the impact of being financially more literate could be on someone’s life,” she said. “They had a fire in their belly about what it means and why it matters.”

The Dutch, who were not among the nations in the most recent comparative study — though they will be part of 40 additional economies where financial literacy will be tested by PISA in 2015 — run a program called Money Wise, coordinated by the Ministry of Finance with support from various of financial service providers.

Part of the program focuses on changing general aspects of school curriculums to include more emphasis on financial transactions. Another aspect of the program is a National Money Week, usually held in March, when financial experts go to schools to give guest lectures.

Olaf Simonse, the head of Money Wise, estimated that during this year’s National Money Week some 5,000 guest lessons were given to 150,000 school children.


Why We Shouldn’t Raise Teacher Pay

Why We Shouldn’t Raise Teacher Pay

By Jason Richwine

Even without the tenure obstacle, putting the best teachers in the classroom requires
more than raising teacher pay. In fact, just that could drive down teacher quality.

When a California court struck down the state’s teacher tenure system last month, it sparked a renewed interest in how to hire the best teachers. If it’s finally possible to pry the least-effective teachers from their sinecures, as reformers see it, new and better teachers can take their spots. So how should we go about recruiting, selecting, and retaining this new wave of all-stars?

It’s not so easy. Even without the tenure obstacle, putting the best teachers in the classroom is a more challenging problem than many reformers will admit. One of the most common reformist prescriptions is raising teacher pay to attract stronger applicants. The logic seems simple, even obvious. But raising teacher pay will not work. In fact, it could be counter-productive. The reason lies not just with the well-known difficulty in predicting who will be a good teacher, but also with the entrenched hiring system of public schools.

Teachers Already Earn Too Much

Everyone from Laura Bush to former Washington DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee to teachers union president Randi Weingarten has called for raising pay. They never mention that we’ve tried it already. Contrary to public perception, the average public school teacher already receives total compensation that is greater than what he or she could earn in the private sector.

But don’t teachers earn lower average wages than college graduates in most other professions? Yes, but four-year degrees are not all created equal. For example, education—the degree held by around half of public school teachers—is among the least challenging fields of study. As measures of ability go, a degree in education cannot be equated with a degree in, say, computer science or engineering. That’s part of the reason why teachers typically receive a lower wage both before they enter teaching and after they leave for another field. Combine decent wages with a generous benefits package—guaranteed pensions, retiree health care, and job security—and teacher compensation is, on average, above market levels.

So the public is already paying for more highly-qualified teachers than it is getting. If the skills of the teacher workforce have yet to match the level of current compensation, it is not clear how an additional raise would produce better results.

Schools Turn Down the Brightest Applicants

Why has increasing teacher pay not led to a corresponding increase in teacher skills? Vanderbilt University economist Dale Ballou has an  answer. Simply put, even when schools are offered highly-skilled teachers, they don’t seem to want them. Writing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Ballou demonstrated that many of the most attractive teaching applicants—those who graduate from more competitive colleges, earn higher GPAs, or hold degrees in specialized areas such as math or science—schools often reject them in favor of less-impressive candidates who took the traditional route of majoring in education. An education degree was generally preferred even for applicants preparing for a secondary-school position.

No one knows for sure why this happens, but perhaps it’s the institutional culture of public schools. The principals and superintendents who do the hiring are themselves the product of standard teacher training—attending a large, middling university and majoring in education. These administrators tend to hire teaching applicants whose training resembles their own. By contrast, principals who have unusually strong academic records tend to choose  higher-skilled teacher applicants.

In any case, the naively dismissive reaction to Ballou’s findings would go something like this: Sure, the public-school hiring bureaucracy operates inefficiently, but raising teacher pay will at least add more skilled people to the applicant pool. Even if public schools hire applicants randomly, the higher-quality pool necessarily means higher-quality teachers will eventually find their way into the classrooms, right?

Probably not.

Higher Pay Could Lower Teacher Quality

Ballou and fellow economist Michael Podgursky of the University of Missouri have shown that higher pay without reforms could actually lower teacher quality. Their argument starts with the observation that increasing pay reduces the number of job openings (because fewer teachers will quit or retire), and increases the number of new applicants (because the salary is more attractive). This necessarily lowers the chance that any given teaching applicant will receive a job offer.

That reduced probability may discourage certain would-be applicants from making the costly investment of time and money in becoming certified for teaching, especially if they do not perceive that schools favor them in the hiring process. And, unfortunately, the best-qualified applicants are probably most discouraged.

How so? Well, imagine two young people who are thinking about going into teaching. Ken is a brilliant college student who may pursue engineering if he cannot land a job as a high school science teacher. Sandy is a cheerful and energetic undergrad, but she is not the strongest student, especially when it comes to math. She will most likely work as an administrative assistant if she does not become an elementary school teacher. (The most common non-education job education majors hold is indeed administrative assistant, according to Census Bureau data.)

Now imagine that public schools raise teacher pay across the board. Both Ken and Sandy are initially thrilled about the prospect of earning more as teachers. But then both begin to think about their reduced chances of landing a teaching job, as a flood of new teaching applicants compete for a smaller number of openings. To Sandy, this is not a big concern. Even if she is ultimately unsuccessful with her teaching application, her time spent preparing will not have been wasted. Whether Sandy majored in education or sociology, she will likely get her admin job.

But consider Ken’s perspective. If he pursues education, he is potentially wasting valuable time and money, either by displacing his engineering studies or by delaying his entry into the workforce. In economic terms, Ken’s opportunity cost is much higher than Sandy’s. If teacher pay is raised, Ken’s expected payoff from pursuing teaching—the higher teaching salary multiplied by the lower probability of getting a teaching job—may actually decline. So Ken focuses on engineering instead. At the end of this story, raising teacher pay has increased the size of the applicant pool but lowered its quality at the same time.

Now, if Ken knew that public schools would jump at the chance to hire bright students with strong academic backgrounds, he may not be discouraged from investing in a teaching career at all. But as we have seen, Ken is perfectly justified in fearing that school administrators do not value high-ability candidates like himself. And even if Ken possessed non-academic traits that might make him a good teacher—patience, empathy, dedication, et cetera—it would be risky to count on proving these hard-to-measure qualities on a job application, especially for someone without much prior work experience.

So, What’s the Answer?

So if pay increases are not the answer, what is? Only root-and-branch reform. In a recent paper, economists Douglas Staiger and Jonah Rockoff noted that public schools structure their hiring exactly backwards. Potential teachers must obtain certifications and licenses—a process that discourages some workers like Ken from applying in the first place—before being hired. Once hired, however, teachers quickly earn tenure almost as a matter of course.

A more rational hiring system would feature reduced entrance requirements—perhaps just a college degree in any area, with no certification requirements except for upper-level courses—then very strict standards for earning tenure based on actual classroom performance over a few years. This is not exactly a revolutionary idea. Most hiring managers in other fields are under no illusion that they can foretell employee performance based on credentials alone, which is one reason why tenure barely exists in the private sector. Even the most famously tenured profession—academia—has a “publish or perish” system for winnowing talent after the initial hiring process.

Public school systems need fundamental changes in how they operate to improve teacher quality, and abolishing tenure just scratches the surface. The creeping emphasis on credentials must be reversed. School administrators must be willing to hire promising applicants who never received the standard education-school training. Objective evaluation systems must be adopted and refined. All parties must become comfortable with a process that will increase teacher turnover. And, finally, the public must maintain sober expectations about the value of high-quality teachers, understanding that their effectiveness is naturally limited by the abilities and family situations of the students themselves. To effect all these changes, pundits and policymakers must move beyond their “pay teachers more” mantra. The idea is attractive for its simplicity, but in reality it is no solution at all.

9 Roles For The Teacher That Leads

9 Roles For The Teacher That Leads

Re-envisioning The Teacher As A Maker: 9 Roles For The Teacher That Leads

Jackie Gerstein’s User Generated Education is a favorite of ours, with her ideas on self-directed learning, connectivity, experiential learning, and other strands of progressive teaching and learning very much in aligned with our own thoughts on what a modern learning experience should look like.

At the core of Gerstein’s thinking is the idea of making–hands on creation of compelling stuff that reflects what’s important to students. She has recently released a new book on this idea, The Educator as a Maker Educator. Among the ideas offered up in the book is exactly what you might expect from the title–re-envisioning the role of the teacher, this time as a “maker educator.”

And this doesn’t necessarily mean actual “making” and crafting of woodworking, design of robotics, creation of 3D printed widgets and the like, but rather making a learning experience–creating the conditions necessary for learning. This would be a teacher that, rather than distributing content and assessing, actually leads the learning experience from ground-zero.

Gerstein sees 9 roles in pursuit of this idea, which can be seen in the graphic, and are itemized below. Check out the book and let us know what you think.

9 Roles For The Teacher That Leads

1. Process Facilitator for producing, assessing, developing, creating, revisiting, revising

2. Lead Learner

3. Safe Environment Manager–creating
environments where learners feel free to take risks

4. Relationship Enabler & Builder for face-to-face, online PLNs, and mentors

5. Technology Tutor

6. Tour Guide Of Learning Possibilities

7. Facilitator Feedback

8. Normalizer of ambiguous problem finding and solving; framer of “failure as iterative”

9. Resource Suggester and provider

Can you learn in your sleep?

Can you learn in your sleep?

by David Robson

Sleep learning used to be a pipe dream. Now neuroscientists say they have
found ways to enhance your memory with your eyes closed, says David Robson.

Just before you climb under your duvet, you carefully prepare your room. You sprinkle a few drops of incense on your pillow, put on some headphones, and place a strange-looking band over your scalp. Then you go to sleep. The ritual takes just a few minutes, but you hope this could accelerate your learning of a diverse range of skills: whether you are trying to master the piano, tennis or fluent French. You won’t recall a single aspect of the night’s “training” – but that doesn’t matter: your performance the next morning should be better, all the same.

The idea of learning as you sleep was once thought very unlikely, but there are several ways – both low- and hi-tech – to try to help you acquire new skills as you doze. While there is no method that will allow you to acquire a skill completely from scratch while you are unconscious, that doesn’t mean that you still can’t use sleep to boost your memory. During the night, our brain busily processes and consolidates our recollections from the day before, and there could be ways to enhance that process.

Given that we spend a third of our lives in the land of nod, it is little wonder that sleep learning has long captured the imagination of artists and writers. In most incarnations, it involved the unconscious mind absorbing new information from a recording playing in the background. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for instance, a Polish boy learns English after having slept through a radio lecture by George Bernard Shaw; the authoritarian government soon uses the same technique to brainwash its subjects. More recently, in The Simpsons, Homer buys a tape to subliminally reduce his appetite as he sleeps, only to find that it is instead changing his vocabulary. When his wife, Marge, asks if his diet is working, the normally inarticulate Homer replies: “Lamentably, no. My gastronomic rapacity knows no satiety”.

Bad science

In reality, this particular kind of sleep learning is almost certainly impossible. Although some early studies suggested that subjects could pick up some facts as they slept, the researchers couldn’t be sure that they hadn’t just awoken to listen to the recording. To test those suspicions, Charles Simon and William Emmons attached electrodes on the scalps of their subjects, allowing them to be sure that they only played the tapes once the subjects were dozing. As they had suspected, the subjects learnt nothing once they had dropped off. The results were published in the 1950s, but entrepreneurs over the years have still tried to cash-in on the attraction of effortless learning with various products – even though their methods had no scientific basis.

Monitoring brain activity of sleeping people suggests they can’t learn new skills while unconscious (SPL)

Despite being blind and deaf to new information, however, the sleeping brain is far from idle: it mulls over the day’s experiences, sending memories from the hippocampus – where memories are first thought to form – to regions across the cortex, where they are held in long-term storage. “It helps stabilise the memories and integrate them into a network of long-term memory,” says Susanne Diekelmann at the University of Tubingen in Germany. Sleep also helps us to generalise what we’ve learnt, giving us the flexibility to apply the skills to new situations. So although you can’t soak up new material, you might instead be able to cement the facts or skills learned throughout the day.

Smell enhancer

So far, at least four methods have shown promise. The simplest strategy harks back to the research of a 19th Century French nobleman named the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. As he explored ways to direct his dreams, the Marquis found that he could bring back certain memories with the relevant smells, tastes or sounds. In one experiment, he painted a scantily clad woman while chewing an orris root; when his servant then placed the root in his mouth as he slept, the tart flavour brought back visions of the same beautiful lady in the foyer of a theatre. She was wearing “a costume that would have hardly been acceptable to the theatre committee”, he wrote with delight in his book, Dreams and How to Guide Them. Another time, he asked the conductor of an orchestra to play certain waltzes whenever he danced with two particularly attractive women. He then rigged up a clock to a music box, so that it played the same tunes during the night, which apparently brought their handsome figures to his sleeping mind.

The Marquis simply wanted to seed his slumbers with pleasant (and sometimes lustful) experiences, but it now looks like the same approach can also trigger the sleeping brain to replay the learning of skills or facts, reinforcing the memory in the process.


Diekelmann, for instance, asked her volunteers to play a variation of the game Concentration, in which they had to learn a specific pattern of objects in a grid before going to sleep in her lab. Some of the subjects were exposed to a subtle, artificial, odour as they played, and Diekelmann then wafted the same scent into their noses as they slept. Brain scans showed that these subjects had greater communication between the hippocampus and several cortical areas, compared to those without the cue – just the kind of activity that should lead to enhanced memory consolidation. Sure enough, those subjects remembered about 84% of the object locations when they awoke, while a control group remembered just 61%.

It’s not just sweet smells that could boost learning; as the Marquis found with his night-time waltzes, sounds might also be able to trigger recall, provided they do not wake you up in the process. In one study, volunteers found it easier to master a musical game (a little like Guitar Hero) if they heard soft strains of the melody as they slept. Bjorn Rasch at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, meanwhile, found that the same setup helped Swiss German speakers learning Dutch vocabulary, allowing them to remember about 10% more.

Tech upgrade

In the near future, technology may offer further ways of upgrading the brain’s sleep cycles. Memory consolidation is thought to occur during specific, slow, oscillations of electrical activity, so the idea here is to subtly encourage those brain waves without waking the subject. Jan Born, at the University of Tubingen, has been at the forefront of these experiments. In 2004, he found that he could help amplify those signals using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which passes a small electric current across the skull, successfully improving his subjects’ performance on a verbal memory test.

More recently, he has turned to an even less-invasive form of stimulation, which uses a skullcap of electrodes to measure neural activity, while headphones deliver sounds that are in sync with the brain waves. Born compares the auditory stimulation to the tiny push that you might give a child on a swing, so that it gently enhances neural activity that is already present in the brain. “You deepen the slow wave sleep and make it more intense,” says Born. “It’s a more natural way of getting the system into a rhythm,” he says.


If the idea of going to sleep with a cumbersome headset doesn’t appeal, Miriam Reiner at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel may have a more attractive solution. She hopes to use a form of neurofeedback, which allows subjects to control their neural activity while awake. In her setup, an electrode attached to the subject’s head feeds into a simple computer game, in which the subject is advised to drive a car with the power of their thoughts.

When the electrode records the right frequency of brainwaves, normally associated with memory consolidation during sleep, they accelerate; when they don’t, it slows down. It typically takes just a few minutes for the subjects to start revving up the right brainwaves – and the change in mind set is palpable, says Reiner. “I feel kind of relaxed – like when you’re in a garden or walking along beach. It’s just like being in a serene beautiful place.” The idea is to kick-start memory consolidation straight after learning, which then gives the sleeping brain a head-start as it sets about reorganising the day’s events. “You create a seed that then grows during the night,” says Reiner.

Play a tune

To test the impact on learning, her subjects first learned a complex sequence of finger movements – a little like learning to play a tune on the piano – before taking 30 minutes of neurofeedback. The benefits were immediate – straight after the training they were about 10% better than the controls, suggesting the computer game really had begun to stabilise their memories as if they were actually asleep. Importantly, the improvements continued to grow as they were tested throughout the following week, supporting her theory that neurofeedback could help memories to blossom as you sleep.

Needless to say, we will need to see bigger trials with many more subjects before these techniques should be recommended for everyday use. Since the experiments have so far used somewhat artificial tests of learning and memory, it would also be useful to see how they fare on more useful tasks; Reiner is beginning to take a few steps in this direction by testing whether her neurofeedback can help students learn the guitar. Diekelmann also thinks that we need to confirm that these memory hacks don’t have unexpected consequences. “If you enhance one set of memories, maybe you’d impair another set,” she says.

Sounds and melodies can consolidate memory (Thinkstock)

And we shouldn’t shy away from the problems highlighted by fiction like Brave New World and The Simpsons, she says. Although she doesn’t think that these methods could be used for brainwashing people against their will, she thinks we still need to question whether it would be right to start manipulating their children’s memories, for instance, in these ways. “Sleep is a vulnerable state.” But she’s keen to stress that these potential issues shouldn’t deter interest in sleep learning. “It’s very worthwhile. We just need to use it as responsibly as possible.”

Easy tricks

Once those questions have been addressed, there shouldn’t be too many practical hurdles for people who wish to use the techniques for themselves, says Diekelmann. Many of her students and colleagues have already found that sensory cues during sleep can help them swat-up for exams. “It’s very easy to apply,” she says.  And you can now buy EEG kits that work with your smartphone, potentially opening the door for games that help you boost memory consolidation. Even the hardware for certain forms of tDCS became commercially available last year, which could lead to kits designed to improve sleep learning.

Further evidence will be needed to show that the commercial kits can provide the benefits seen in the laboratory experiments, but Born is optimistic. “I think it’s just a matter of time before it is used as a cognitive enhancer,” he says.

At the very least, the research could change the way we view this often under-appreciated part of our lives. Sleep tends to be considered an unnecessary down-time that we try to conquer with coffee or Red Bull; we are all driven by the need to squeeze the day for every last drop of productivity. But we may take more time to catch 40 winks if we know that the most profitable part of the day really could involve doing nothing at all.

Chromebooks Are A Hit With Schools

Chromebooks Are A Hit With Schools

by Frederic Lardinois

During its earnings call this week, Google announced that it — and its partners — sold a million Chromebooks to schools in the last quarter. Overall PC sales worldwide were about 76 million in the last quarter, according to Gartner’s latest numbers, so a million Chromebook sales just to the education market is a pretty good number.

In the early days of Chrome OS, it often seemed like a doomed project. Who, after all, would want to buy a laptop that would just run a browser? Google has one big advantage, though. It’s massive advertising income allows it to stick with projects, even if they don’t catch on right away. As web apps developed, Chromebooks started to get significantly more useful, and these days, when you can do almost everything on the web (and yes, I know Photoshop isn’t one of those things), only having access to web apps really isn’t such a big deal anymore.

A lot of schools were sold on iPads right after those became available and students probably still prefer them over Chromebooks, but they are relatively expensive compared to Chromebooks and harder to manage. Google also offers admins easy ways to manage large Chromebook deployments from a single console while Apple is still catching up when it comes to this.

At its I/O developer conference last month, Google quietly announced that it was expanding its Google Play for Education app and e-book store from Android tablets to Chromebooks, too. That announcement didn’t get a lot of hype, but it’s a huge deal for Google’s push into the education market and for the schools that have bought into this ecosystem.

As Rick Borovoy, Google’s product manager for Google Play for Education, told me back then, many schools deploy both tablets and Chromebooks for their students.

Apple has always been very strong in the educational market, but even though its hardware is arguably superior, it’s also much more expensive. And as long as U.S. schools have to hold bake sales to raise funds, a $200 Chromebook is simply within reach for more of them.

Microsoft, of course, has long been aware of Google’s push, too. It loves to make fun of Chromebooks (remember its Pawn Stars ad?), but the fact that it does so only means it is aware of the threat Google poses in the lucrative education and enterprise markets. It’s now making a counter-push with low-end, low-priced laptops, but while price definitely matters, Microsoft doesn’t have the full ecosystem available that has made Chromebooks so popular in schools. While it offers plenty of apps for textbooks, for example, Google lets schools fund a Google Play for Education account for teachers that allows them to easily buy apps and books for their whole class and for individual students.

Microsoft and Apple should be concerned about Google’s success in schools. Once students get used to working with Google’s products, after all, they are likely to stick with them as they grow older. Apple and Microsoft used to play this game very well with its discounts for schools, but it feels like Google has clearly learned from this and is now a real challenger in this space.