I had coffee with a very interesting person on Wednesday, Bob Watt. He's been a player in the business of Education for many moons here in the Seattle area, across the State of Washington, and beyond.
It was obviously a great learning experience for me (considering I've only been in the education space since February), and I really appreciated Bob's time and willingness to share his insights and help educate me. Our conversation spanned many aspects of education, focused specifically on early childhood. It was fascinating.
One insight he shared, based on work at I-LABS: when you observe the brains of two sets of eight-month-old children (one in Taiwan and one in Seattle) as they are being spoken to in Mandarin, both sets of brains react the same way! Implying that both sets have the same capacity to learn a new or current language. Very interesting.
Part two. Same kids in Taipei, and the Seattle group divided in three, one control group, where each month for 12 months the kids and their parents came to I-LABS to play for 25 minutes; the second group had a Taiwanese person sit with them for the same 25 minutes and read stories and engage the children in Mandarin; the third group received the same treatment as the 2nd except that the person appeared before them via a plasma display vs. in person.
12 months later (when these children were 20 months old), they repeated the same brain scans while being spoken to in Mandarin. The Taiwanese children in Taipei obviously reacted to Mandarin; the control group had zero reaction; the "live" group reacted just like the children in Taipei (wow!); and the "plasma TV" group reacted just like the control group (double wow!!).
Interpretation: in person, 25 minutes a month for 12 months was enough to help a young child gain an affinity for a new language! And remotely, it carried no value whatsoever.
Wow! The conclusion that Bob drew for me is equally interesting and more than a bit provocative: for the first ten or so years, there is tremendous value in increasing the ratio of educators to children. After that, additional data shows that students are able to learn quite well with less touch and even with remote (or computer-based) touch.
So - here's Bob's idea: let us invest in very high student:teacher ratios (10:1 or lower) and 7am to 5pm schooling that provides the most high-touch and greatest educational foundation to our students. Then from age 10-18, let's shift to even as high as a 60:1 ratio with increased computer aided learning.
If the result of this approach is that our education system now creates great students, all of whom graduate from high school with an intellect worthy of the DNA our parents gave us, how can we not do this?
But what is the opportunity cost of doing this? At a national level, could it be less money spent on unemployment insurance, reduction in crime (because more graduates are more employable and able to legally earn a family wage), reduced unwanted pregnancies, a higher GDP, improved quality of life for everyone, happier citizens?
When do we start?