Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Education Doctor

David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor

"Maybe there’s something in all of us that aspires to greatness; that wants to save whole planets."

(Dedicated to those Whovians who have had a really emotional day today)

I’ve been trying to avoid this -- an education blog post about Doctor Who. But face it, my summer has been all about the Doctor.  And today was Doctor Who's Big Reveal of the identity of the Twelfth Doctor. So here’s one of my own.

See, I have to put education activism on hold every late-spring through the end of summer to concentrate on producing jewelry inventory enough to last through show season. This year it was particularly difficult; I have a dozen-odd education projects going, and have to simply put them aside to do some work that might actually have some chance of making us some money. I had to have something to hold me to the work.

So I propped my son’s Ipod close enough to see but out of the way of torch flames and made my way through the 9th, 10th and 11th doctors while making my usual fabulous beadies.

Now, the true confession comes when I reveal that I’ve fallen into my first major movie-star crush since getting married 18 years ago. I’ve been gobbling everything actor David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor) has done that’s available for viewing, legally or illegally. (By “illegally” I mean on YouTube, of course. Ya gotta believe me.) It sparked an emotional spiral similar to the one I went through in the Fall of 1984 when Derek Jacobi came to New York with the Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac.

I was 23 years old, everything before me; just recently returned to the city of my birth with plans to become a playwright and join the circles of New York City theater. Nothing brought me flat down to earth like seeing those shows. And I saw them each twice! Got on line in the wee hours waiting for the cheap tickets, four times. And what I got from it was heartsick because I knew I would never be that good At. Anything. Ever. With an embarrassing intensity -- and not a little drama -- I was both deeply moved and violently cast down.

DT did it to me again (real fans do that. We call him DT). Funny that one of his own acting inspirations was Derek Jacobi. And for the first time since that year, I felt like I was blundering about in the world of the mundane, destined never to transcend.

Until these words came to me. “I’m the Education Doctor.”

Maybe there’s something in all of us that aspires to greatness; that wants to save planets (“I had to reboot the universe,” says Matt Smith sometime in Season 6). Sometimes a fictional character can make us look inside ourselves to try to find what greatness might be there. The Doctor makes many mistakes but he goes for it full-tilt anyway. He’s a hero.

I’m sure of my footing: 

  • The first priority in public education should be to provide the support, resources and time.needed for every student to be able to pursue his/her passions and interests. 
  • Give kids the freedom to do work that matters to them and to the world. 
  • Get rid of standardized testing. 
  • The only good curriculum standards are the ones derived from a student’s goals and interests. 

I’m an advocate of the rights of children; I call for building relationships with children based on mutual respect and trust.

I play devil’s advocate with myself more than most people do. (The part of me that must try to understand every side of any argument is part of what makes me an almost decent playwright.) I have enough folks who believe what I believe that I don’t feel I’m out on a limb. I’ve done my homework and when all’s said and done....I’m really quite cock-sure that I’m right about education.

A little humility is called for...even the Doctor, when he chose to die for Wilf, an ordinary man, said “It would be my honor.” 

While not everyone has done the homework I’ve done, I have not had their experiences in life. Everyone deserves to be listened to. Nobody’s experience should be dismissed. I get very excited by the possibilities I’ve been exposed to; great ideas that yield great results for kids, and I want everyone to see what I see. And I get impatient with people -- I don’t want another generation to have to live under the heel of the education industrial complex. So my emotions get in the way of a discipline of careful listening to what others have to contribute, when it runs counter to my own ideas. That's why the Doctor's companions are there -- to bring him up short, and back down to earth.

I work on that. I can’t help who I am. High passion, high intensity, constant work.

I want to be great at doing good. Truth, justice, fairness. A better life for children. A better future for us all. 

We can do it. Trust me. I’m the Doctor.


Saturday, August 3, 2013


by Lisa Cooley and Lindy Davies
I’m sure there are a lot of folks around me who wonder why I stick to views on education that  seem so extreme. It is the most unlikely eventuality that I will ever see my vision of education become reality. So why fight for what seems so far afield from the mainstream? Why not stick to what is do-able, and maybe makes life a little better for students?

It just doesn’t make any sense to me to be in this fight for anything but what is right.  

Does an “extreme” viewpoint only seem that way because the way things are is so skewed that you don’t notice how wrong it is?

  • Individuality or intrinsic differences between students should play little or no role in their educations. This will best prepare them for a future world that needs great ideas, creativity and innovation.
  • An approved, standard course of the  best preparation for success in a constantly-changing global community.
  • A regimented, authority-driven school experience will yield connected, intelligent and compassionate kids.
  • With the new technological horizons that are now open to us, it is especially important to limit student connectivity.
  • The best use of the knowledge, experience and instincts of teachers is to make sure that measurable quanta of knowledge are efficiently installed in each student.

These statements represent the status quo in education today. Rejection is the only appropriate response. Once we target a reasonable and appropriate destination, we can chuck the solutions that don’t get us there.

  • Want innovative kids? That requires freedom of exploration and creativity.
  • Want critical thinking? Allow kids to create their own challenges and follow them through.
  • Problem-solving your priority? Let kids grapple with the messy world of real-life situations and difficulties.
  • Worried about our ability to compete in a global economy? Want to see them collaborate and cooperate? Use our robust technology to get kids talking to and learning from folks following similar interests all over the world.
  • Want compassionate kids? Create an environment where kids are in control of their lives, not under the thumb of the constant, inappropriate authority of adults. Connect them to the world through their passions and give them your permission to try to make the world a better place. They’ll take you up on it, every time.
  • Want to see our teachers succeed in helping students succeed? Don’t stand between them and their students; let the relationships develop without grinding the gears on test-prep and enforcement of standards.

As Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia says, “If you challenge kids to do real work that matters, you better be prepared to get out of their way.”

Who’s in charge here?
Someone always benefits from new approaches, new ideas about education. Companies latch onto them, like parasites, bleeding a system for what it’s worth until the next idea comes along. They grab hold of the national education narrative (“the problem in education is that you can’t fire bad teachers” is one) and milk it dry.

The current non-solution solutions are no exception. We read words that seem right and seem to take education in the right direction. Take these words for example:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

Carefully crafted, yes? Pushing all the right buttons? Of course. But the Common Core Standards are not only very expensive to implement....they are also very far afield from what our kids really need. (One glance at the impact that the Common Core Standards and the culture of testing has on special-needs students and English-language learners reveals how extreme -- and inhumane -- we have allowed our education system to become. How do we raise compassionate kids when they observe harshness around them?)

Ordinary people don’t always look under the hood; they don’t see that these “solutions” make a bad situation worse. And publishing companies, testing firms, consultancies, educational data management systems, often represented by honest, well-intentioned educators who seem to know what they’re doing, are all making a tidy profit from not unearthing the real trouble. But like scavengers on roadkill, the profit-makers are always circling public education. We have to look very closely at what they are offering when they take our money.

A simple shift in the workings of a school district, such as to a “standards-based” system of grading, can’t dig out the problems either, even when the shift takes an incredible amount of professional development, structural reorganizing, curricular revamping and money. It's still pushing content at children whether they want it or not, regardless of what really turns their engines on -- and measuring, measuring, measuring.

It still deprives kids of the right to take their own ideas and create something great.

And that system is still subject to high-stakes testing and all the negative pressures that brings to schools. There is no innoculation against that particular disease.

Be extreme. It’s easier than ever!
Extreme is the new normal. Be extreme in response. Accept no solution that doesn’t put students fully in charge of their learning. Insist on a system where kids choose their own goals, their own challenges, and create their own curriculum.

There are always examples of a school or teacher getting it right; but we have to fashion a system where this happens all the time, not by serendipity or happenstance.  It is known that children from well-off, active and involved households are more likely to respond to any educational approach. We need to design a system that isn’t tailor-made to those students who are "easy to teach," but to all students. Even those who are compliant, curious and trustworthy would be better served by an approach to education that wraps itself around the needs of each student.

A top-down, traditional environment is the one we have all experienced; it seems organic; grown from a naturally-existing need. Not so: the current way of organizing schools was imported from Prussia around the turn of the last century and designed to create good factory workers. The fact that this framework still exists is what we all expect to see; it just seems sensible. But it isn’t; it’s extreme.

How do you teach a class full of kids all different things? The logistics alone seem extreme, but it isn’t. It’s possible, it’s do-able, and in the schools that are doing it, it is successful.

What our kids live with every day is so far off-kilter as to make the reasonable seem extreme. It is wrong to accept the sight of kids who have not themselves chosen their educational direction based on who they are and what they themselves most need to learn. It is wrong for the kids, but it is also wrong for a world that needs creative solutions to problems that seem impossible. 

See this, and you can begin to see what might create an education system full of happy learning children.