Sunday, December 30, 2012

What is UP with the multiplication tables?

Math education is in an abysmal state in this country.

How do we know it? Count the people in your life who believe they have something called “math anxiety.” Count the people who are very willing to say about themselves, “I’m not a math person.” People are very willing to put themselves down, if it means nobody will ask them to demonstrate any sort of mathematical thinking. Get those fractions away from me. I don’t do math.

I am in a pretty funny position on this issue, myself. I have never been interested in math...never more interested than required, to get out the other end of whatever math tunnel I was required to crawl through.

And yet, in my childhood home, math was a subject of dinner-table conversation. Father, brother, sister, all lovers of math, all with high aptitude, all of whom pursued math through higher education. To reject the importance of math was to reject the religion of a normal person’s childhood home. Even now in my heart I believe a certain level of math is critical to the development of needed skills and experiences. But as I say it, I’m aware that I can’t do my multiplication tables. You should see me try to calculate the Maine 5% sales tax at my craft show booth! Can’t do it.

For math education to redeem itself for future generations, it has to look very, very different from  what it looks like now. Doing math should be as easy to use as reading words. What makes it seem like such a specialized, difficult, unattractive skill? What makes people who love to read books run screaming in the other direction when confronted with a pack of seven hotdogs and a pack of twelve hotdog buns and the decision of how many of each to buy in order to come out even?

One thing I know is that we have to take math out of quarantine. We have to merge it with the rest of life. It is pretty much too late for me -- math is a downer, always will be. But let’s not make it a downer for future generations, out of a desire to see them suffer the way we did. (Bill Cosby: “We walked five miles to school every day! Uphill! Both ways! And we were thankful!”)

It’s amazing how many people hold a view of public education today that consists only of, “Kids today need to learn their &%$# multiplication tables!” They believe that a “back to basics” change is what’s needed. They believe they have nailed the problems of public education: we need to stop coddling children with newfangled kinder/gentler teaching methods  and get them to knuckle down and do it. Life isn’t fun.

But the classrooms of today ARE “back to basics” factories. They have to be. They are driven by a testing environment which values the regurgitation of facts over the understanding of concepts and skills.That environment is failing our kids.

We ARE teaching math. We ARE teaching the multiplication tables. It’s just not taking. There are a lot of reasons for it and none of them amount to the coddling and gentle-fying of classroom practices.

I’ve watched this TED talk a few times, showing it to various math teacher friends. Math teacher John Bennett shares his struggles with the question, “When are we going to need math?” This video really gives us a chance to rethink math education.

John Bennett started life as an algebra teacher with what he thought were three three fail-safe ways to get kids interested in math. First: “Math is everywhere!” No response. Then, “Math is helpful! Math helps us make and do cool stuff.” Hmmm. No answer. Then, “A job might require that you know math! You might be an engineer or something!”

But as John explains, out of 300 mill people in the U.S., there are 1.5 million engineers. Ninety-nine percent of us don’t need higher math. (Whether algebra can be considered “higher math” is pretty highly debated.) That didn’t work all that well either. Apparently kids know when they are being snowed.

So he “went to the dark side of the force” and used fear of tests and school advancement as his reason to learn math. But that “didn’t sit well,” so he decided to tell the truth.

“Most of you won’t need higher math.”

And the kids responded with some home truths of their own.

That’s when John started realizing just how bad his students’ experiences with math had been. The story of humiliation by a math teacher is so common that it is shocking. Let’s not underestimate how much better math education would be if we just got rid of humiliation as a teacher's little helper!

Finally, he admitted to his students that they in all likelihood will not actually need higher math in their lives...unless they go into engineering or the sciences, or just like numbers a whole lot.

What do the rest of us need? Life math: money, percentages, counting, estimating, arithmetic, decimals. Basic fractions.

How can we do better at those things without torturing kids?

Here are some ideas.

Games. Games can be awfully useful to math educators and that’s my first suggestion. Fill rooms with games that develop math skills. Remember how much I love math? I just got done with Dragon Box. All levels. It was great, it was addictive, I wish there were more levels, and does teach algebra.

Some ideas about math online games:

There are also lots of real-life board games that build math skills -- and don’t forget the old-fashioned ones for which you have to count money.

Provide kids with a rich environment. Fill the classroom with lots of tools and supplies and let them build stuff. Let them invent, create, work, do, and manipulate. Right now, I’m taking my own advice and are going to design houses with my newly-homeschooling 12-year-old daughter. She loves designing floor plans to the New York City apartments she wants to live in. We’re going to design houses with her and build the models. Voila...math!

But this approach is even more significant than its ability to effortlessly make math interesting to kids. Tony Wagner, in his book, Creating Innovators, shows the lives of creative thinkers and analyzes their development and education. In his TED talk on play, passion and purpose, he claims, “Knowledge is a commodity. The world no longer cares about what you know. It only cares about what you can do with what you know.”

According to his website, “Wagner identifies a pattern—a childhood of creative play leads  to deep-seated interests, which in adolescence and adulthood blossom into a deeper purpose for career and life goals. Play, passion, and purpose: these are the forces that drive young innovators.”

The priorities of those of us who are concerned with our country’s ability to compete on a global stage can be seen as the same as those of us who only want kids to enjoy school more: if you want kids to really learn more math, we need them to have more fun.

Make the learning whole. I’m in the middle of a book called Making Learning Whole, by David Perkins. It’s getting a little pedagogical for my abilities so my rate of reading it has slowed, but it’s all about that baseball game metaphor that I’ve used in about 75% of the conversations I have about education (I heard the Steve Hargadon interview with Perkins nearly a year before actually buying the book). The way we teach math (and other subjects, but particularly math) is as though we’re teaching kids to hit, throw, catch and run before they’ve ever seen a game of baseball.

We have to take math out of quarantine. We have to show students the whole game. If we don’t, not only are they not interested, they hate it, and they’re justified. They’re not even learning math in a way that will be useful to them in their lives. It’s more important to know when an equation or a math skill should be applied than to be able to answer a worksheet of 100 versions of the same equation. Without showing kids the whole game, we are depriving them of math skills and making them hate it all at the same time.

There are so many ideas for rethinking math education, and they are so easily accessed and digested, that there is no excuse to continue to teach math the traditional way. Here are a few people with good ideas on recreating how we learn math in school.

Gary Stager
Conrad Wolfram
Dan Meyer’s TED talk and his blog
Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford’s article in the New York Times

Scratch the surface and you find more and more good ideas.

So why are we stuck in the old way of teaching math?

What did the man say the definition of insanity was?

This just in: elementary school math scores are described as "pretty good," but as you go higher to middle and high schools, scores plummet. Why is that? Why is our early math education not creating good math thinkers later on?

Friday, December 21, 2012

A pledge for 2013

A pledge for 2013 and the future...

....that we all try a little harder to listen carefully to children; to what they say, and to what they don't say, about what they like and love and want and need. And instead of pointing out what they don't understand or might understand better as they grow up, think about what they DO understand.....and what we, as adults, just don't.

If you pledge to listen to children in 2013, say so in the Comments!

Friday, December 14, 2012

How will a Big Picture Learning school help? A student explains.

The blog of the Institute for Democratic Education in America now features an autobiographical post by John Dubie, a senior at the Big Picture South Burlington school in Vermont.

Dubie writes, "When I got to high school, I was a particularly snarky and jaded student. Every teacher I saw was an enemy and every classmate was a douche. I cut class and talked back to teachers. I was a bad kid. I was once again the Dishonor student." Then he learned about Big Picture South Burlington.

He goes on, "The first day of Big Picture, I walked into the room feeling something I hadn’t felt for a really long time. I was nervous for school. I sat down and looked around. There were several different types of individuals around me, all extreme. There were well dressed and put together girls, hip nonconformists, computer whizzes, musicians, and more, yet none of them fit any real stereotype. Instead they were all unique individuals. One of the things that struck me most was that it didn’t feel like there were any cliques, just one group. It was nerve-racking and overwhelming. Where would I fit in? I remember thinking to myself 'John, what the f$@% did you get yourself into?'"

He tried to scam the system, as he had done in his regular school, but something strange happened: it didn't work. At BPL, when an adult asks you what you want to do with your life, they wait for you to develop a real answer.  So he narrowed in on what he really loved: being funny. Having an audience. He realized he wanted to be a stand-up comedian.

Still, it took John awhile to turn his situation around. Even after he was enrolled at Big Picture, he struggled with depression. “When school started again I grabbed every opportunity to speak publicly about my experience in education and to advocate for Big Picture. I wanted other students to know about how it changed my life, and I wanted to let teachers know how best to support their students. Being involved in school reform helped lessen my depression more than anything, and quickly became another passion of mine.”

Still, he struggled. Even after this period, he became addicted to heroin. What happened then? He was in a system that didn’t give up on him. They valued him for the person he was, and who he wanted to become.

He’s now in his fifth year of high school. “Big Picture got me through depression and heroin addiction,” he concludes.  “I am at home, working hard, and I have been substance free for months. I know that without the Program I would probably be dead. It is an environment that makes me feel safe, taught me how to be myself, what I wanted to do, and gave me a new family that I will cherish forever. There is no doubt in my mind that Big Picture saved my life.”

How? There is more than one way to care about a child. It is possible to care without valuing and respecting the individual within. Is it caring, when we say, “You aren’t fulfilling your potential!” Is it caring when we say, “You are so bright, you should be getting all As!”

Is it caring to talk without listening? Is it caring to try to fit kids into a mold they weren’t built to fit?

Or is it caring to ask a child who they are, what they want, what future they see, and then be quiet, listen attentively, and act on the answer?

Our children’s learning CAN be built around who they are.

Join the conversation on Facebook.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Want to succeed in STEM? Listen to the experts!

Guest post by Lisa Nielsen, The Innovative Educator

President Obama believes “The quality of  math and science teachers is the most important single factor influencing whether students will succeed or fail in science, technology, engineering and math.” The problem is that our “quality” teachers  and their administrators are not given the freedom to support children in ways that will produce the scientists and innovators our country needs.  This is because we are stuck in an outdated system that values test scores and grades rather than creativity and innovation.  

This is no secret.  America’s great scientists and innovators have been clear about how our nation’s schools need to change to support great thinkers like themselves. Unfortunately it seems those with the power to make decisions (the politicians and corporations) are not listening to the very type of people we say we want our students to become.  

Let’s take a look at what those in charge are failing to hear when our nation’s historic inventors, scientists, and physicists share their advice and experiences.

  • Albert Einstein
    Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the school's regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning. At 15 he convinced his school to let him leave by using a doctor's note. After he left school he wrote a short essay with the title "On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field." At sixteen, Einstein sat the entrance examinations for the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich where he failed to reach the required standard in several subjects, but obtained exceptional grades in physics and mathematics.
  • Thomas Edison
    In school, the young Edison's mind often wandered, and his teacher called him "addled". This ended Edison's three months of official schooling. His mother supported his learning outside of school where he taught himself mostly everything he knew about science and technology.
  • Richard Feyman
    In high school, his IQ was determined to be "merely respectable. Feynman scoffed at psychometric testing. At 15 he taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, infinite series, analytic geometry, and both differential and integral calculus. His advice was to “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

    As a physicist Feyman gave
    a now famous lecture on education where he shared that he figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant.  They could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized.  He explained that he couldn’t see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything.”
  • Michio Kaku
    In the video below physicist Michio Kaku explains that e
    xams are crushing curiosity out of the next generation through the memorization of facts. In light of this he questions why we wonder why kids aren't interest in science.

Despite these insights, our schools are still places that reward compliance, memorization, and regurgitation. They give young people little time to work independently, discover passions, or pursue much of anything that requires independent thinking or hasn’t been laid out for them.  In many cases schools also restrict them from using the technology tools and online resources they need for success in the world.

Instead of fostering success in science, technology, engineering and math, schools have pushed young people to achieve success outside of school. As a result many talented youth are learning that when it comes to being innovative and creative, leaving school behind is often the best option.  To address the issue of our failing schools let’s think about how the following modern-day school rejects and trouble makers could have been supported in our school system.  

Aaron Iba
Aaron Iba is a computer programmer who became a mulit-millionaire in his early 20s after Google bought a great product he created and also hired him.  Iba shares that school was a boring waste of time but he had one exception during his entire k - 12 experience. It was in 4th grade when his teacher allowed him to sit in his own space in the classroom doing logo programming. Iba laments that he just isn't the type of person who could sit back passively listening to a teacher try to impart knowledge. He liked interactivity and engagement which was why he drawn to technology.  The school system labeled him as a multi-problem child. Fortunately, Google did not.

Nick Perez
Nick Perez is a successful software developer who was traumatized in a school system who had no place for someone with such a passion.  Perez endured a long and hard road in school that included prescription drugging, to the humiliation of being singled out from the rest of his peers, to threats of litigation. He left school at the age of 17 after deciding that he’d had enough of his school district’s attempts to forcibly shift his attention toward the classroom, and away from the studies about which he was passionate. Perez notes that this is the result of rigid systems that have yet to bend and break under the pressure of progress. Read his story here.

Mom’s Story
Education experts told Jo-Anne Tracy without any doubt in their minds, that she would be foolish to keep thinking that her son had what it takes to succeed and he was being placed in a class where ineducable children would taught life skills and a vocation. She knew they were wrong however, the school system does little to honor or respect the insights of mere parents who don’t have the “credentials” necessary to properly identify “problem children” like hers. The one-size-fits all school system experts refused to consider her input and explained they were not giving her son any other options. As a result she removed her son from school at 9 years of age. Today he is studying geoscience at university.

Jack Andraka
At 15 years old, Jack Andraka created an important test for pancreatic cancer.  He explains that he could not have done this without the use of the internet. He came up with the idea for his research when he was attempting to chill out in biology class and read a scientific journal.  Like many teachers, independent work was not allowed in her class and she confiscated the journal.  Andraka was forced to leave school to do his research which he began by going to Google to begin his research.  Then he wrote to nearly 200 actual biology labs where he could do the work of a real scientist  in a real science lab.  

You can watch Adraka’s video to hear how he was able to reach his potential, pursue his passion, and save lives.

The answer
It’s time to change tradition, change direction, and change our lessons learned from politicians and corporations to our nation’s experts.  The scientists, programmers, physicists, inventors and others are telling us that supporting them really is not rocket science. The answer is not more teachers, tests, and textbooks.  Instead it is in helping our students explore, discover, and develop their passions. It is not in doing what is common, but supporting the uncommon with personalized plans for their success. It is not keeping kids locked up in schools listening to lectures under fluorescent lights, but rather releasing them to live and learn in the world. The answer is not in measuring grades on tests and requiring the same standards for all.  It is in allowing young people to show what they know in authentic ways and develop areas of focus customized to their success.  

Parents, their children and innovative educators know the answer.  Let’s stop sitting back and start taking charge of doing what is best for our children’s success.  It’s not easy going up against the politicians and corporations, but they do not own our children’s learning. That is in the hands of children, parents, and teachers.  It’s time to take it back!

Lisa's Note: Create an education system that fosters innovation...right here in Waldo County. Join us! Help us bring a Big Picture Learning to RSU 3!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Morning After

(It is 8:00 A.M. The school-board member has coffee and a headache)

I'm not suggesting schools focus on student enjoyments and interests because it might be fun and might help student engagement.

I'm suggesting we center our schools around children's identities and passions, on developing their goals and giving them learning experiences that are meaningful to them, because IT IS THE ONLY WAY we can fix the crisis in our schools right now.

Anything else is just screwing around.

It's a crisis. Let's act like it's a crisis.

Let's act like these kids are actually important to us. Let's act like they are important to themselves.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Learn from the kids the system fails to teach.

Part of the reason I haven't posted much this Fall is....I think my ideas and beliefs are pretty well-represented by what's already here; and partly because I've got so many irons in the fire right now with respect to education activism that as one seeks priority over the others in turn, my work has been a little disjointed and unfinished. 

Then there is after all, my School Board work. That has always claimed priority over my other activities.

And then there is that business of making a living.

There is, too, lots of stuff I'm working on that I'm NOT really interested in broadcasting...developing relationships with others in my community who agree with me about the direction our district ought to take...or, as Lisa Nielsen puts it, "picking the low-hanging fruit" so I have more support for my issues on the school board.

One way to use this platform is to respond to issues that come up in the news, and recently, the Bangor Daily News had a story that I think ties in very neatly with what I'm trying to do.

Here is Damion Saucier, 19, of Belfast, Maine, who went on a tear through town this past summer. He's managed to turn the incident into an opportunity to turn himself around, but as I read the article I wonder how we could have done better by him.

The article is very clear that his public school did nothing for him. His story is typical: a smart, independent kid, he saw a system that needed to control and domesticate him and he simply refused. Sometimes kids simply can't fit into the tight spaces school requires; they can't shape-shift and blend. They have to be who they are; they have no choice. And if who they are doesn't fit into those tight spaces, there's a build-up of pressure and something's gonna blow.

We say we want our kids to be independent thinkers, but what we have here is a classic case of the system failing one independent thinker.

And it's not like he's not capable of scholarly thought. He likes math and physics.  He's capable of understanding complex subjects, and takes a great interest in technology. Still, school was a blank for him. 

Saucier speaks of a recent period of his life in which he retreated into himself, a period of “self-pity, self-loathing,” in which he felt like “a room without walls,” passing through the world without connecting with it.

“I never thought I was going to amount to anything,” he said

If we are not holding our school system responsible for this, we should. There is no excuse for a school system to NOT be part of the solution for a kid like Damion.

The first purpose of schools should be to find out who these kids are, and then devote time, resources and support to helping them become the people they want to be.

We keep kids all day, every day, and we make them sit still and learn stuff they find meaningless. What they do find meaningful is of little interest to this system. You need to learn what they tell you to learn, when they tell you to learn it. Sometimes a subject may click with a student; a stopped clock is right twice a day, too.

Who are those buildings for, again?

Shape our schools around the identities, the passions, the learning needs of our children...whoever they are. Respect them. Learn from them. Give them breathing room, space to grow and find out who they are.

If you don't know how that's done, look at the Big Picture.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Do you want to play golf, or....?

It amazes me how much effort — in time, money and resources — people will devote to not changing education.

Evidently, adults want kids to continue to be powerless in school...but we're going to go through Herculean efforts to make it look like things are really going to change.

That's why I'm turning to Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing in the HBO series, The Newsroom. Take a minute to listen. I'll wait.

Now, do you want to change education or do you want to fuck around?

I'm sorry, I know foul language is offensive to some, but Leona Lansing hits the nail of my impatience, frustration and growing anger right on the head. I've been repeating the punchline to myself for days. It just keeps popping up in my head.

Let's look at the standards-based or proficiency-based system that we are "moving toward" in my district, Maine's RSU 3.

Here's the model that's being held up to us as the One True Way out of the mess we send our kids to every day:

It looks good. We're getting kids through important learning goals by letting them decide how to go about learning it; and at their own pace they "level up," achieving goals and moving on until they have all learned what they should learn, in their own individual way.
What could possibly be bad? 

Just that we're dismissing the one thing that can get kids to believe their learning belongs to them. We should be teaching kids that they are the only ones who hold the ticket to their own learning. That's exactly what we fail to teach them, when we cling to standards, or "learning goals."
Ultimately this is a failure of adults to understand who children are and what they need; a failure to respect children. This failure occurs despite the fact that children are perfectly constructed learning machines; turn them on and they go.
They are force-fed learning from the time they are 5. Occasionally a teacher reaches a kid, but a stopped clock is also right twice a day. The successes don't negate the overall failure.
That's the missing message of the Chugach Miracle. What has been lost?
  1. An chance to explore what is most meaningful to them and see where it leads.
  2. The opportunity to build the self-respect that comes from accomplishment.
  3. The ownership of what they learn.
  4. A sense that learning might be something more than "having been taught."

Every parent I've ever talked to says they want their kids to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers. They want them to learn to make good choices, to collaborate, to create. But with the standards-based or proficiency-based system, they are getting a long march through a state-mandated, 12-year course of study. Kids are the very last consideration in this education model.

The standards-based system is built to support the profit juggernaut of the Common Core, standardized curriculum and standardized testing. It's not built for kids. It's built for bureaucrats. Wait....who are schools for, again?
Distressed that so many kids don't know anything about basic civics? Do you think the answer is to have them sit in a room and learn the branches of government? Of course not. Get kids involved in issues that are meaningful to them, let them find out who to talk to about making the changes they want made. They will be able to imagine their own place in their community. That's the only thing that will get them truly interested in civic involvement and democracy.
And if they choose not to get involved, if they aren't interested in issues, that's ok.

We need to just repeat that until we believe it. It's OK!
What they are learning is that when they choose to care about something, they will be able to go after it, learn it, master it. We all talk about the importance of life-long learning; why do we feel we have to stuff kids full before they leave public school?
Either we support kids or we don't. Honoring student self-determination is the only thing that will really "work;" and when I say work, I mean work for kids, not for whatever preconceived ideas we harbor about what kids need.
So do you want to play golf, or do you want to fuck around?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What's next for The Minds of Kids?

I'm overdue for a First Post of the School Year. In the three months of carting off to craft shows and replenishing supply between them there was little time for writing cogent blog posts on educational change. The good news is I had a lot of replenishing to do; one of my best seasons selling jewelry in the seven years I've been doing it. But I have been thinking about this stuff almost constantly though...and making plans.

Here are some questions for you:

1. How can we build a movement of change to counter the "education reform" agenda that wants schools to be places where we teach kids what is measurable, and then test them on what was "learned." Almost all the parents I know will say their hope for their kids is that they will learn critical thinking and problem solving skills, innovation, creativity; discover the world around them and their place in it. But are all those skills measurable? Nuh-uh. So why aren't more parents getting angry about what schools are doing?

2. How can we help ordinary people tell truth from nonsense, as a lot of both is thrown around in this mess called the Education Crisis?  Most particularly, how can we do it on a low budget, not having the nearly infinite resources of those on one side of the debate?

3. The brain is a lazy organ, say the folks who study this sort of thing. It doesn't learn unless it understands why. But when a kid says, "Why do we have to learn this?" more often than not they are shushed. Some teachers go out of their way to give kids a picture of why the learning they are engaging in is necessary to them. But when the student still doesn't get it, what then? The brain is still in the dark.

But that's how schools function. Learn what I tell you to learn, and it doesn't matter if you want to or not.  Why is top-down, traditional education still what we find in classrooms everywhere, when we know it's goes against how learning happens?

4. How do we move the agenda of student-driven education on a local level? With pressures from outside to comply with Common Core Learning Standards, with achievement scores well below that level that NCLB insists must happen by 2014, with funding sinking and districts under pressure to make drastic cuts, what's a school board to do?

If these look a lot like the questions I have been asking all along, you are right. This time, though, I am focused on strategy, and I have a few pathways that I am building -- pathways that will define my own participation in this movement.

My biggest question has been, how can I use both my passion and my skills and talents to help the movement to transform public education?

What is my next, best move?

Monday, July 16, 2012

What comes first, the student or the standard?

First: how can you tell the difference between a student and a standard?

They both begin with ST. One has six and one has seven letters. One ends with a D, the other with a T. So I guess they're pretty different.

A standard, in education, is a learning goal; a student is a human who spends a large portion of his/her time in learning activities; usually involved in some sort of formal educational institution.

In public education, one comes first, the other follows.

According to the past ten or twenty years of education history,  Alfie Kohn's "bunch o' facts" have come first. The teacher starts with those facts, figures out how to teach them, and then makes the transfer to the students. These facts have lately been organized for our convenience into a progression of learning goals called standards, taking a student from Kindergarten through 12th grade.

The newfangled "standards-based" or "proficiency-based" education system that many of us have been hearing about is said to be an advance in how we do public education. This is because, in generous acknowledgment of the differences between children, the elements of speed and method of learning has been been partly given over to the student's control (at least, that's the theory.) Students can decide for themselves how and when they learn that same "bunch o' facts, compressed and reorganized into learning standards.

Then there is the student: the person in the learning institution who is responsible for learning the standards.

So which comes first?

We are told that this newfangled system is the best of all worlds; that the system focuses education on both the student and the standard. How's that done, exactly? "You can learn in whatever way and at whatever pace you want, as long as you learn what I tell you.  And forget about jumping ahead or skipping around: you have to do it in a certain order."

This is our education revolution?

I don't believe you can ever make BOTH the student and the standard come first. I think that unlike the poor chicken and her egg, this is not a circular proposition. One will always push out the emphasis on the other. Either we get kids through the State-mandated, 12-year course of study called the Common Core, leaving students entirely out of the decisions over what they have to learn, OR we make the  focus to discover and nurture the desire to learn that exists in each child, and devote time, support and resources to helping them become the people they want to be.

 To paraphrase Ira Socol, What happens when an institution forgets what its purpose is?

As soon as standards supersede the wishes and needs of the student, the learning game’s been lost. I have invented a new word for it: what learning becomes when students are unwilling to do it but aren't given a choice. It's called "faux learning," or "f'learning." We need to stop thinking that learning can take place if the learner is unwilling. Motivation is a complicated thing, and it's dicey to generalize to this degree, but for the most part, if the learner is unwilling to learn, learning won't take place. How many kids in public education are not learning, but f'learning?

If we toss out the standards, liberate ourselves, as adults, from the notion that there is "stuff" that all kids need to learn; if we lay aside our own personal "sacred cows" of education, do we create a "white space" in our classrooms? A happy nothingness, something like Harry Potter casting an "imperious curse" on his friend Hermione? A void in education, an opportunity for absolutely nothing to take place?

If you take the lessons, the "standards" out of the classroom, what you have is a room full of children.

Do children have standards?

Children have what is inside them; they have the sum total of their 5-17 years of life and experience.

Their learning standards begin with who they are. If we acknowledge that a child is a fully-actualized human being, then who they are and what they do and know RIGHT NOW matters as much to them and to their world as that of any 45-year-old. They can progress from there to the people they see themselves becoming. So the standards they have "accomplished" or "mastered," (to use the nomenclature of the standards-based system) are what they know, what they fully understand. Their expertise; their passion.

Standards should be about children. Their "course of study" should start with who they are. What is a student's goals for personal success? Let's create that document, the Personal Success Plan, when they are in Kindergarten; let's work on it continually over the next 12 years, and let's make it the foundation of their activities. Their "standards." The working document of their journey through learning.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The "Passion-Driven School:" Two great arguments that go great together.

There's an interesting connection between two blog posts I've read this morning. One is about student aspirations.

"What we need is 'a shift in emphasis from ‘raising aspirations’ to ‘keeping aspirations on track,'" says Annie Murphy Paul in her post, What’s the Best Way to Encourage Kids?

Turns out most kids start their school life with pretty high aspirations for what they want to do and be; it's the top-down, factory model of schooling that discourages kids from following their dreams.

I wanted to be a naturalist when I was in Elementary first year at middle school made me think Science was boring and arcane and had nothing to do with staring into tide pools or knowing the habits of birds. I remember doing litmus tests with those little strips. Testing for acid or base didn't connect to anything that had any importance to me.

Which brings us to Larry Ferlazzo's blog post, which discusses new evidence of the importance of building on prior knowledge. From the study:
"...prior knowledge changes how ...images are processed, allowing thousands of them to be transferred from the whiteboard of short-term memory into the bank vault of long-term memory, where they are stored with remarkable detail."

Encouraging kids to pursue the dreams of what they want to be or do (even if it is a 6-year-old wanting to be a fireman) means building on what they know. Why do you want to be a fireman?  I love the big extendable ladder. Wow, how does that ladder work, do you think? And so on.

These two concepts together lead us to a better argument for passion-driven learning -- arguments that are based on research as well as the necessity of refocusing the purpose of school. Rather than teaching content, we need to discover who these children are, and devote time, support and resources to helping them become the people then want to be.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Here in our little corner of Maine, I have found an area of conflict with respect to education that is difficult to bridge.

Many of the people who agree with the principles of education that I support differ in the area of computer and Internet use. The conviction that excessive computer use in school and at home is detrimental to student learning is strong in many of my friends.

I understand the view, and a very strong part of me agrees, absolutely. But I’m trying to get a handle on the issue, even to the point where I take myself out of my own comfort zone.

If we are going to move forward, advocate for student-directed, passionate education, against the juggernaut of testing and standards and attacks on public education from corporate reformers, we need to be united.  

I am convinced that far from being a detriment, the technology -- Internet use, cell phones, and complex video games -- can give our kids the power of exploration, learning, experience, connection.

A friend who has been an elementary school teacher and is the mother of two small children writes: “Childhood is short, I want my children to climb trees, interact with the earth and the animals and people around them.”

I'm not sure those values are in conflict with kids' use of technology for learning. But there's no question that many adults see computers as something that interferes with kids' healthy development.

It is felt that kids whose lives include an excessive amount of screen time don’t develop necessary real-world skills, a lively imagination, or develop an appreciation of the natural world.

This view is reflected in my own parenting practice. I have always said I would never allow a gaming system into my house. Why? Because I didn’t want to raise kids who were addicted to video games, that’s why! So video games are my own personal bugaboo, the part of the picture that most rubs against my grain. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how that fits into the tech-in-ed picture.

I have seen these systems move into a house and take it over; nice kids became obsessed, and family friction increased exponentially. I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

As it turns out, my kids don’t really miss it. When they want games, they play Internet games.

Of course, that means I’ve stopped them from having experiences with the kinds of complex games that Mark Prensky writes about, games that require constant learning. I’ve relegated their gaming to the kind of super-simple Bejeweled-type games that I’m addicted to myself. But for better or worse, that was our decision. Other parents -- some of my best friends, in fact -- brought video game systems into their house, and their kids are neither robots nor shallow and disconnected.  

So what’s the difference between the household that manages to keep the peace in spite of complex video games? If I had hidden cameras, I could tell you...but I don’t, so my best guess is that conflict is avoided through lots of talking, lots of respectful listening, agreement reached on mutual priorities, and in the best-case scenario, self-imposed limits on game play.

There is a pattern that I see in a lot of arenas where computer use causes friction, including school systems: the tools are blamed for what is, in fact, a liveware problem.

There’s a lots of material supporting the idea that complex video games are an engaging and beneficial form of learning.  Parents need to weigh this against the oppositional material that claims that video games “rewire” the brain. Actually, the idea of “rewiring” the brain is misleading, according to Marc Prensky in his article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part 2: Do they really think differently?

“The brain is, to an extent not at all understood or believed to be when Baby Boomers were growing up, massively plastic. It can be, and is, constantly reorganized. (Although the popular term rewired is somewhat misleading, the overall idea is right—the brain changes and organizes itself differently based on the inputs it receives.) The old idea that we have a fixed number of brain cells that die off one by one has been replaced by research showing that our supply of brain cells is replenished constantly. The brain constantly reorganizes itself all our child and adult lives, a phenomenon technically known as neuroplasticity.”

The idea that video gaming and excessive computer use changes the brain in ways that are permanent and detrimental to learning may seem right to us (50-something quasi-boomers), but it simply may not be true. We do compartmentalize learning, don’t we? This kind is good, this kind is bad. The Waldorf philosophy of education is so certain that technology has a negative impact on children that they eschew any exposure to computers in their schools. I admire that kind of certainty. I don’t have it.

I’ve read a lot of the materials that claim that serious computer gaming is far from unhealthy. Keep in mind, however, that I  am aware of my position as a someone who believes that anything invented in the last 15 years is against the natural order of things. In other words, I know that because of generational positioning, I am hard-wired to mistrust the role of technology (in my case, video games) in the lives of children.

If kids are learning how to evaluate quickly changing situations and perform rapid decision-making through gaming instead of an analog venue, is it still valid learning? To discover that failure is only an iteration and not an end, is that “bad learning?”  To see success followed by new and different challenges, to understand that success is more likely when you collaborate, are these useless skills?

You know what, according to Prensky, really rewired the brain? Reading. The advent of books. Words on a page. That required a much more dramatic rewiring, and I can imagine folks -- probably over 50 or the equivalent -- lamenting the coming loss of the art of storytelling with this newfangled “written word” fad!  

A bit facetious maybe, but here’s the thing...brains get rewired all the time. We have to try to stop thinking of it as losing something. It’s simply a matter of changing. But by refusing to take an objective look at what’s really happening, we make the situation worse.

And here’s another thing, which I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts: this thing that is “rewiring” our kids’ brains? We made it. Us, the “digital immigrants.” Maybe not you or me personally, but if you’re seeing a kid on a computer, it’s because no matter how much we hate it now, we failed to suppress it in time; hence, it exists, and our kids are using it.

Our own brains were rewired by television, invented by our parents, and we returned the favor by inventing the intense interactivity of video games and the Web (we had by far the worst of the deal). In other words, we designed the world that they live in; we can’t, then, insist that kids who have Digital Native minds live bored to death because we don’t approve of the learning they prefer.

We try to steer our kids to be the people we want them to be, in ways we can’t even realize. For better or worse, who we are and what we value is reflected in our parenting and seen in our kids. My friend valued outside play for children, and her children value it as well.

But it doesn’t always work that way. We often see the values we try to instill reflected back in opposition to us, rather than in accord. In other words, they may love something just because we hate it. It doesn’t hurt to look more closely into what kids are doing; to investigate what it means to them and why, and what they are learning. The conflict here wasn’t born the day the first kid got the first Playstation. In this situation, as with cell phones, texting and social media, tools are only tools, and behavior is behavior.

Life at our house has always been pretty loosely constructed; our kids are free-range. If they want TV, they can watch it. Internet use is open. We have 4 laptops (everyone in the family has one but me, but that’s a different issue) and our dinner table and living room are the main family hang-outs -- nobody has complete privacy when they surf. Both kids have gone through Runescape phases, and we even ponied up the $5/month for membership for awhile.

And my kids are exposed to a diversity of experiences. Eli is 15 and he can no more live without his outside time than he can stop programming games and physics simulations in Action Script, the game language of Flash.  Francie is very much attached to YouTube but she also spends a healthy amount of time in face-to-face contact with friends and with the outdoors.

“Using computers,” it turns out, is a vague catch-all phrase that is so broad and general that it means nothing. Do they learn by writing in collaboration with others? Do they use Google Hangout to have a meeting with other kids who are learning the same stuff, but in different countries? Do they share videos, process their photographs in Photoshop for publication on their blogs? Compose music and lyrics? Discuss a problem in Facebook groups? Do they follow issues using Twitter? Teach basic guitar chords via Skype? Organize an online school newsletter using a Wiki, which they share with a sister school in a different country? Fundraise using online auctions to support a local family who lost their home due to a fire?

What looks like a face in a screen could be one of hundreds of activities.

At the point at which we adults feel that kids’ screen time is becoming a problem, a couple of things are needed from us as the adults in the situation: a serious reflection on our judgment; and serious, respectful, ongoing talks with our kids.

The idea that cell phones have a use in a classroom has raised more pairs of eyebrows than I can count, but start digging into the possibilities and realize that they are nearly endless. The point is, are we willing? Are we able, from our perch as the folks in charge of kids, to observe them objectively and figure out how to meet them where they are? We look with disdain and discouragement at a kid who is in a crowd of people, glued to her phone, oblivious of what’s in front of her, thumbs a blur. It’s nothing new. Again, it’s technology taking the fall for a condition of life that predates its invention.

I try to transcend the skepticism, and remember how rock’n’roll ruined my own generation.... not. The new is not necessarily the bad, even though you might have to perform surgery on your deeply-held notions of what is healthy and what is not in order to gain that perspective. (“When you take a cat apart to see how it works, what you will have is a non-working cat.” --Douglas Adams. It’s risky to dissect a foundational belief.)

(Many artists were scandalized by the advent of pre-made paint, made possible by the invention of the metal tube in 1841. While this development opened new doors, such as the ability to spontaneously paint scenes out-of-doors, it was also felt that the lost art of making one’s own paint would mean the decline of civilization - or, at least, the art of painting. I have to mention that when I first encountered the electronic tuner, I thought that we were only a generation away from becoming unable to tune a violin using our ears alone. I called those tuners the Antichrist. We all have our little peccadilloes.)

We need to re-examine our inherent mistrust of the medium and the perceived loss of what we, as adults, value. Banning or even seriously limiting Internet use prevents your child from connecting to the world; to explorations and discovery. It is as real as your backyard ecosystem; as essential as discovery of a tide pool or vegetable garden. In fact, it’s a connection to the tide pools of China and the vegetables of Uganda -- and the people who grow them, and study them.

Passionate kids are using the Internet to find others who share their passions, whether it is for World of Warcraft, new music or a rare breed of dog. It doesn’t detract from your child’s experience; it enriches it.

What I want is for kids to learn in a way of their own choosing. And I do mean their own choosing...not mine, and you know what? If they play in tune by using an electronic tuner, why do I care? Have we continued to produce brilliant artists who contributed to the development of our culture despite the fact that they can go buy their own paint?

By following passions from early in their education it is more than likely that their learning will be diverse. What I've learned is that the (literally) old-school top-down education ("we know better than you do what you need to learn") is irrelevant to our kids; boring.  To accept technology as a critical part of education is to support true student-directed, passion-driven learning.

How connected kids learn is different from how we or any preceding generation learned. But by increasing our understanding through good information, and respectful communication with our connected kids, it isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but the beginning of a better one.