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Fast Forward

Educating ourselves about getting a better education

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With students returning to the classroom this week, I got to thinking about how our school year and day evolved and why they are so hard to change.

Let's start with hours first. Study after study has shown that cognitive function is related to adequate sleep at all ages but especially for young brains, which typically aren't getting enough sleep in this country. Lack of sleep for teenagers affects not only memory and learning ability but also physical development. According to the National Sleep Foundation, lack of sleep also is connected to adolescent depression.

How much sleep do teens need? About nine to 10 hours a night. How much are they getting, on average? For the vast majority, less than eight and a half. In addition, biological changes shift teens' sleep patterns so they fall asleep later at night and want to sleep later in the morning.

No wonder it's hard to get up for a 7 a.m. bus or pay attention in class.

Yet shifting our public school systems to a later start time is a logistical challenge. Bus schedules have to be changed. Parents' work schedules get in the way. Fitting in after-school activities would be a nightmare.

But how about this: More, but shorter, instruction days, so those activities could be incorporated, academics wouldn't be short-changed, and kids could have more time in the evening with their families — and for sleep?

But if there's anything Americans are locked into, it's the nine-month, Monday-through-Friday, August/September-to-May/June school year.

Other countries don't do this. Australians go to school 200 days spread across the year. French students take Wednesdays off and go a half-day on Saturday. In Costa Rica, children attend school for 10 months of the year.

And why 12 years? Why can't kids learn at their own pace and move on to college, specialized training or jobs when they're ready?

One reason usually put forth is that kids plucked out of their age group experience social adjustment problems. This writer in Psychology Today, though, says gifted children will often suppress their abilities to fit in with their peers. To that I add, imagine the boredom bright kids endure because they're eager to learn and adults hold them back.

As a former teacher, I see value in the fact that, on the one hand, teachers would have more happy, motivated kids working to their potential without prodding while, on the other hand, they'd have more time for the kids who needed extra help. No more "teaching to the middle."

Looking forward, though (as we purport to do here), these questions could be moot in a few more years. As cyberschools and cyber learning mature in capability and acceptance, schooling should be better able to fit the child instead of expecting children to fit themselves to the academic system.

Is the public school system as we know it about to implode or evaporate? Hardly. But increasingly, parents and students have more choices, as long as rules and regulations don't get in their way.

But colleges and universities are already worried, thanks to the rise of the MOOC. These Massive Open Online Courses are bringing top-notch higher education to anyone who wants it, wherever and whenever — and often for free.

The business model for these is all over the map. Some MOOC "gateways" charge for certifying exams at the end, while others charge fees to give employers access to the best students.

But I expect MOOCs to turn the idea of an academic degree on its head. After all, it's a truism that no sooner is the ink dry on that fresh diploma than the academic record begins to fade in relevancy. In the workplace, it's what you can do that matters.

And isn't that the goal of education — to bring forth talent in ways that benefit society and the individual?

More choices, more opportunities — the best outcomes for everyone.

The week ahead

Reporter Jim Ryan sat down for a one-on-one with C. Alan Walker, secretary of the Department of Community Development. You can read that interview in the Aug. 30 issue.

Also Friday, Mike Sadowski reports on changes in HIPAA that will soon affect the second- and third-tier business associates of health care providers. It's part of our business focus on New Trends in Health Care.

It seems like we no sooner put our Small Business Week issue to bed (was that really three months ago?) than we started planning for our inaugural manufacturing issue, timed to coincide with National Manufacturing Day Oct. 4. Mark your calendars now and make sure your subscription is up to date!

In the meantime, you can find great midstate networking opportunities this week here.

The rewind

Our staff had a good time making a video to go with our Top 100 issue about our favorite business books. But as you'll see in the video below, we had to work hard to look so polished.

Last week I wrote about the Mindset List, Beloit College's reminder that college students' frame of reference tends to differ radically from that of their elders. If you're curious, you can find the entire list here. One highlight illustrating that change doesn't always mean progress: Threatening to shut down the government during federal budget negotiations has always been an anticipated tactic.

Earlier this month, I mentioned the IBM Selectric, the apotheosis of typewriters. If you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, I hope you didn't miss this story on why the typewriter is a still viable business for a New Jersey company. (If you don't subscribe, here's a one-sentence synopsis: Funeral homes still need them to complete death certificates.)

And speaking of learning in your own way and at your own pace, here's an unusual way to study and discuss history. After its successful Titanic Real Time project, British publisher The History Press is launching Whitechapel Real Time, following the footsteps of Jack the Ripper 125 years after his horrific crimes. It's not all about the gore and the frisson of terror up the spine. The tweeting will include facts about the investigation and the context of Victorian society, "peel(ing) back the myths of the real people of London". When I clicked to follow @WChapelRealTime Friday morning, the account already had more than 7,000 followers.

Tweets are expected to begin Aug. 31.

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