From Legos to littleBits

Ayah Bdeir at TED: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach
How does approaching a complex problem with the mind of a child elicit fresh, creative, accessible new things?  Ayah Bdeir, an artist/engineer looked at Legos and was inspired to consider transistors in a new way.  I have often told my students that art is a unique expression of a universal idea.  This broadens the concept of art significantly.  If we want to inspire creative thinking, we must be willing to encourage and celebrate differentness and its contribution to the creative process.  Diversity, a buzzword for racial and gender integration, takes on powerful meaning in the world of art and education.  Diversity is a necessity for artists.  But children who are different often feel at odds with a system that rewards sameness.  I look at a classroom full of middle school kids and I sometimes wonder if teaching them how to work to a standard is one way to let them off the hook.  Kids do the minimum required rather than push for greater understanding, deeper knowledge, and personal best skill development.  Once a student recognizes the objectives of the academic game, he or she is free to play at any level.  If good grades are the goal, many savvy learners do what is required to get to the goal, but no more.  For those not interested in the game, playing at academics is boring, annoying, or off the radar.  For those who have been trained to believe their grades have some connection to an individual’s character quality, the game of school can produce paralyzing anxiety.

How do we, as educators, provide the assessments kids want without attaching them to a child’s self-worth?  This non-judgmental assessment feature is no fantasy.  Children who play video games live in a world of action assessment.  When a character dies on a video screen as a result of a lack of skill or knowledge, there is rarely a response like some I have seen in school when children do poorly on tests.  The gamer’s reaction to a lack of skill is to get better at the game whether through repetition, research, or online cheats (don’t be fooled by the name; cheats have their own learning curve).  When the expectations for schoolwork reach beyond skill building and touch the sensitive nerves around a student’s developing sense of self, there is room for reassessment of our assessment tools.

Rather than push for homogeny, we could reward new ways of thinking.  The weird girl who thinks differently will be included at lunch because the school’s environment embraces and rewards her contributions.  The weird boy who daydreams will be lured into conversations to mine his mind for unique ideas that cause an upward spiral of abstract thought in the classroom.  We have a role to play as teachers in creating an environment where divergence is no longer frowned upon but encouraged.  In fact, we now know it is this divergent thinking that creates great ideas such as Legos and littleBits.  It’s about time we stop rewarding imitation.  Let’s celebrate the weird kids and give everyone permission to reveal his or her diversity.

Grammar’s Not Your Gramma

Cover of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Ze...
Cover via Amazon

I remember the videos on TV in the 70’s under the title Grammar Rock.  I really loved these videos.  Grammar seemed like a fun concept when I was a kid.  Lately, though, we seem to have lost some of our enthusiasm for excellent grammar.  Back when Grammar Rock was playing on Saturday morning television I had a junior high teacher named Mrs. Wallace.  She taught me how to diagram a sentence.  It was a game to figure out where prepositional phrases fit and what could be done to repair a dangling participle.   I believe this activity is now limited to college linguistics classes.

Since the 70’s I have been a grammar champion.  I know the difference between lie and lay (thanks to my Aunt Gwen) as well as how to use  objective and nominative pronouns.  A few years ago, my eldest daughter asked for a book titled Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a hilarious take on the misuse and correct use of English grammar.  We referred to her as the Grammar Nazi all through high school though she was not allowed to use the moniker online as it contained the dreaded ‘n’ word.  She corrected spirit signs in the hallways of her school with a little red Sharpie.  She later took to calling herself the Grammar Bandit.  Very few people knew who was defacing their grammatically impotent signs but still she found satisfaction in the act.  It’s not a crime to break the rules.  It’s limiting, though, if you don’t even know what the rules are.  My other daughter is a writer who knows the rules and chooses to break them regularly.

It seems to me there are more and more journalists and other types of writers graduating without a solid foundation for their writing.  Grammar is important for linguistic continuity and as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) point out in a position statement on the teaching of grammar in American schools, “knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.

I thought playing the grammar game in junior high was a lot of fun.  I really enjoyed diagramming sentences and I work hard not to end a sentence a preposition with.  This is, sadly, something many radio and TV journalists have forgotten.  Many times, I hear them say things such as, “where the economy is headed to” or “here’s where we’re at” and I cringe.  I know the preposition they are adding is superfluous but, clearly, it seems necessary in an age where words seem cheap.  But words are not cheap.  It’s how we use them that cheapens them.

Part 2 (of 4) – Reconceptualizing Education

Educational innovator, Dr. Jim Taylor, Huffington Post blogger and author of twelve books on parenting, education, and sports psychology, asserts that it’s time we trade in the S.T.E.M. educational model “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”and, as he puts it, “Broaden our focus into S.T.A.M.P.E.R… which stands for Science, Technology, Arts, Mathematics, Physical (activity), Emotions, and Reason.”

Everyone admits the current system is inadequate to the future we envision, but changing anything often means spending money.  Right now, with districts cutting everything from teacher salaries and jobs to closing entire schools, folks cannot imagine affording any kind of sweeping change.  It causes many reform-minded administrators to lose heart.  Taylor argues for the inclusion of the arts in the new model because, “Inventive thinking cannot be “taught” in the traditional sense of the word, but it can be experienced and nurtured through the various forms of artistic expression.”  Experience, free play, and the freedom to fail and recreate a project is not unique to the arts but arts teachers understand better than most the value of these concepts.  Without ‘failure freedom’ actors would hesitate to get on stage.  Without the experience of playing with a particular medium, an artist might not consider combining it with another medium to create a new form.  Recreation is essential in dance where an artist must return to a piece again and again to perfect her physical communication.

Dr. Taylor is recently fond of pointing out that success in education begins before school starts.  In addition to supportive families and a loving home environment, he supports free play and recess for the development of children’s imaginations and he is definitely interested in encouraging kids to push themselves hard enough to fail.

Our most famous innovators would certainly agree that free play and social creativity, ‘freedom failure’, and experience make for success in nearly every field..  Henry Ford was interested in social creativity.  He once said, “I am looking for a lot of people who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.”  Thomas Edison was known for monetizing his failures.  He famously noted, “I make more mistakes than anyone else I know, and sooner or later, I patent most of them.”  And Pablo Picasso remarked, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Perhaps Taylor is not saying anything particularly new and fresh, but if enough educators such as Taylor speak out about these common sense strategies we may finally begin to reconceptualize education for the 21st century.  We may indeed learn to honor the current generation’s needs more than we honor education’s poorly performing past.

Arts Teaches 21st Century Skills

In 2004 The Partnership for 21st Century skills released a document that should have everyone in the world of education jumping through their hatbands.  Although there are some articles touting the efficacy of this bit of research, there isn’t quite the fanfare one would expect for such a project.  I have my theories as to why we might want to ignore a project that turns our current learning model on its ear.  But it is out there.

Cutting edge businesses such as Apple, Blackboard, Intel, Lego, Microsoft, Oracle, Verizon, Cisco and many others are deeply involved in the conversation to raise awareness.  If we pay attention to what progressive business leaders and visionary educators have to say about why, what and how we are teaching rather than how much it costs to prop up the old model, we might see positive, groundbreaking, grassroots social change.  According to Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, (this link is less than a minute and worth your time). “There is no doubt that creating an aligned 21st century education system that prepares students, workers and citizens to triumph in the global skills race is the central economic competitiveness issue for the next decade.”

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills arts map is a simple, colorful, 17 page, brochure-style document that can be used for curriculum development in all areas.  There are four other skills maps and three literacy maps as well as a variety of other resources and valuable information.  Each of the maps comes with a more precise framework definition document.  The entire project looks to the future of knowledge and education.  The emphasis on media literacy,  life skills and technology seems a no-brainer, but we avoid considering the obvious because of economic short-sightedness.

It is no surprise to arts teachers that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has at its core an education model that looks very similar to the one arts educators have been using for decades. It features critical thinking, collaboration and innovation and emphasizes integrated learning.  For some of us, integrated means we made an art project depicting the Lewis & Clark expedition.  But for arts educators we understand the value of integration in our curriculum.  It isn’t necessary to explain to students that “today we are going to learn a math skill” when they enlarge an art project using a grid.  We don’t have to explain integration of physics in our curriculum when demonstrating how the pulley system works to operate the grand curtain at a stage proscenium.  There is no discussion of a history lesson when the choir teacher explains the Baroque period.  It is commonly accepted that all arts teachers are integrative.  It is not otherwise possible to teach an arts class.  I am by no means suggesting that science teachers do not expect to teach some writing skills or that English teachers wouldn’t run across a history lesson.  I am saying that our current model compartmentalizes learning in a way that has no parallel in the real world.

If we are to address widespread resignation, poverty, labor skills deficits, teen suicide, juvenile crime and our economic position in a global market, we must first address the most profound influence on young people outside their families; we must transform our education system.  If we do not, we will see a continued increase in the gap between haves and have-nots, a rising budget deficit, decreased standing in a world market and an eventual slide into 2nd World status.  It is time we got serious about joining the 21st Century.



The Arts, Not Testing Practice, Improve Test Scores

“We started to treat the arts program like we treat all the other departments that matter in our school.”  That’s what Rose Greco, literacy coach, for  MS 223 in New York City says about the reason for the success of the School Arts Support Initiative (SASI) in her school.  An article in the February 2011 issue of Middle Ground (the National Middle School Association‘s practitioners’ magazine) features a different kind of educational program.  In 2008 the Center for Arts Education launched, “a multiyear research project in four New York City middle schools that provided little or no arts education.” The program began having immediate results.  According to the article, “The impact was apparent in improved student attendance and social behaviors. Results on local and standardized tests showed greater overall proficiency. The culture of each school began to change. Faculty members, administrators, and visiting artists noticed the changes… Attendance has improved dramatically… English Language Arts scores improved despite less time devoted to test preparation… Suspensions declined. Students have also acquired artistic skills that have increased their likelihood of being accepted to arts-focused high schools.”  In this video from MS 223, staff members reveal the reasons they believe the program works:

This Ain’t Your Mama’s Teaching Model

your mama's teaching model

Lately, I’ve been studying up on the origins of the American public school system.  There is agreement, it seems, that the first modern schools began in the middle of the 16th century in Germany.   Soon after, John Calvin set up mandatory schools in Geneva.  It should be noted that even the Spartans had compulsory education for students in military settings long before the German model.

The difference between earlier Spartan versions of education for the masses and the evolving Calvinistic model is that after nearly three centuries of compulsory public education, German idealism began to creep in to the Calvinistic model.  While I can’t explain German Idealism, I can tell you it was developed by a cadre of well-known philosophers including the lesser known Johann Gottlieb Fichte.  Fichte was a German philosopher born a little more than a decade before the start of the American Revolution.  He was part of a group of philosophers that included Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who were committed to German Idealism.  Of the ideal education Fichte is quoted as saying, “If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.”  This thought seems sinister by modern standards.  The new and improved model for compulsory education was a response to an age of steam powered printing presses, telegraphic communication, consolidation of postal services, scandalous dancing (the waltz introduced the touching of arms in 1816), the invention of chemical processing for photography, and in France, freedom of the press was introduced in 1819.  This was a world on the verge of converging.  Nationalism actually became relevant and nations needed their citizens to think alike.  For those of us who remember the emergence of the Internet, this may seem familiar.

According to Wikipedia (my new favorite resource), Prussia was an influential European player from the mid 16th century to the end of WWII. Prussia included parts of modern-day Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium, Czech Republic, Netherlands and Switzerland.  It was really, really big (by European standards).  In an attempt to assert its national superiority, Prussia led the charge against Napoleon in the early 19th century.  Though their army had really dapper uniforms, the Prussians learned a lesson about regimentation from the French.  Despite Prussia’s size, Napoleon’s forces defeated the Prussian army in 1806 in the battle of Jena.  It was after this embarrassing defeat that compulsory public education exploded in Prussia.  By 1819 the model was in place and would soon be responsible for educating 92% of Prussian children.  Another 8% were educated privately.

In 1843, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann visited Prussian schools and became the most influential spokesperson for compulsory public education in the U.S.  In 1844 in his Seventh Annual Report as Secretary of the Board of Education in Massachusetts, Mann proclaimed, “Among the nations of Europe, Prussia has long enjoyed the most distinguished reputation for the excellence of its schools.”  When he returned to the U.S. he campaigned with fervor for a similar education model in his home state. There are many who believe that Massachusetts based their model on Calvinism.  Though Horace Mann was raised a strict Calvinist, he rejected it in favor of Unitarianism.  A lot of different ideas powered his concept.  He believed, “A human being is not attaining his full heights until he is educated.”  He called education “the great equalizer” as well as “our only political safety”.  In addition to his political motivations, he was also very concerned with teaching compassion, morality and reading.

While the Prussian model may have seemed progressive in the mid 19th century, it is little changed in the 21st century.  C.J. Westerberg of The Daily Riff (a popular education blog) says of modern schools, “If you put a doctor of a hundred years ago in an operating room she would get lost, yet if you placed a teacher of a hundred years ago into one of today’s classrooms she wouldn’t skip a beat.”  This is not to say we throw the baby out with the bath water.  A wildly different education model doesn’t necessarily mean a better education model.  After all, students today are no less in need of lessons in good citizenship. But the definition of a good citizen has experienced a transformation in the age of instant access.  We’re still citizens of nations but we are fast becoming citizens of the world.

My kids know more about everything than I did at their age except, maybe, how to roller skate.  We are fooling ourselves if we think our kids go to school to learn facts.  They have facts about anything they care to know at their fingertips.  We need to quit complaining about their calculators, laptops and ear buds and start addressing the way they learn.  They haven’t stopped wanting human interaction.  We just won’t acknowledge how they do it.  Rather than whine and bemoan the loss of traditional ways of interacting, it’s time we really look at how kids learn today and prepare to take another quantum leap.  We have a plethora of studies and empirical evidence that kids learn faster outside traditional classrooms.  Horace Mann and his generation taught a type of groupthink they believed was necessary for a docile citizenry.  While we watch as revolution surges in the Middle East, it seems a docile citizenry is not docile so much as it is demoralized.  For those who want to make Mann the villain of our current system, I have a newsflash.  He’s been dead for over 150 years.  And I learned all that while sitting in bed and surfing the Inter-webs.

Good Teacher Gone Bad

I am recommending an entry I read today on Huffington Post. I am totally on board with the Timothy D. Slekar. As both a parent and a teacher I understand the frustratio­n of teachers who have the life and learning sucked out of their classes. It’s no fun to teach uninspirin­g material. Many teachers were drawn to the profession not for their love of the status quo but for the excitement of the Aha Moment! If we have that taken away, both teachers and students will burn out and on a large enough scale this can lead to more sinister outcomes. Thanks for your post. DEEP BREATH and… BLOG!
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Hungry for Ideas

Albert Eistein was a fun guy.
Einstein in a Silly Mood.

What education in general has been saying to our students is: “You’re here to learn about your culture but not impact it.”  But the progressive educator is saying to his students, “Go out and make a statement, make a difference, interpret,  inspire and elucidate!”  The mentor is all about inspiring his students to make an impact.  Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

One of the assumptions of the past is that the more knowledge we collect, the more educated we are.  This is a form of education but, unless students draw conclusions and really think about and link these bits and bobs of information found on tests, there is no real learning.  Despite the fear mongering concerning our students’ test performance, there is, and always has been, a basic human hunger for learning.  This is most evident in the meteoric rise in popularity of TEDtalks.

If you haven’t seen a TEDtalk yet, I invite you to take a look at one of the more than 700 15-20 minute talks on every subject imaginable.  It is very likely that you will find more than one TEDtalk to feed your brain.  I treat these nuggets of delicious learning like mind candy.  You shouldn’t view too many in a row, they are so rich with information, your system might get overstimulated.  But one a day or a couple a week; this is good for your soul.  I recently viewed a TEDtalk by TED Media Director, June Cohen.  In her presentation she notes, “In the  last 4 years TED has put 700 talks online for free and these talks have been viewed 300 million times.” This really speaks to the hunger we have for good ideas.

If life was only a fact-collecting expedition we would lose interest before we hit puberty.  We are hungry, but not for facts.  We are hungry for ideas.  Because TEDtalks are a forum for the spread of ideas, in 2006 TEDtalks went online free of charge.  The single stated goal was “to spread ideas.” On the website there is a list clarifying this goal:

* An idea can be created out of nothing except an inspired imagination.

* An idea weighs nothing.

* It can be transferred across the world at the speed of light for virtually zero cost.

* And yet an idea, when received by a prepared mind, can have extraordinary impact.

* It can reshape that mind’s view of the world.

* It can dramatically alter the behavior of the mind’s owner.

* It can cause the mind to pass on the idea to others.

The goal of the foundation is to foster the spread of great ideas… Core to this goal is a belief that there is no greater force for changing the world than a powerful idea.”

This interest in ideas gets at the core of being human, alive and on the planet.  What is the purpose of education?  Currently, it is an institution based on a cultural-economic model whose time has come and gone, yet we cling to this format as though we are waiting for Godot.   Unlike libraries, schools often point to a small collection of core knowledge and tell the student to “memorize that”.  While I believe in mentoring and providing educational focus, I also think schools are not the last word in learning.

Learning happens wherever there is an open mind.  Take, for instance, libraries, those repositories of learning where a person can choose independently what to learn.  Anyone from anywhere can walk into a public library and take a book off any shelf and read it.  Before the Internet, this was our main public access to ideas.  Providing public access to ideas sometimes creates anxiety for people in power.  Recent troubles for Google in China illustrate this still exists.  Fear of public access to ideas did not  start with Google, however.

David Greene of National Public Radio tells the story of an age before libraries were common: “There was a time in Britain, say 160 years ago, when some in Parliament didn’t believe in public libraries at all. The worry was, if the working class read books, it would get dangerous ideas and rise up against the government.” This dire prediction, of course, never came to pass.  People want access to learning for reasons that supersede politics, domestic life and work.  People want access to ideas in order to grow.

Albert Einstein had quite a lot to say about education and learning.  His opinions may be based on the fact that his grades in school were so poor that a teacher told him he would never amount to much and he dropped out of school at age 15.  He later said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”  There are so many examples of great thinkers being told by their teachers they would fail.  The very people at the heart of the education institution have misidentified some of the greatest minds in history.  Isaac Newton faired poorly in grade school and also failed at running the family farm.  Ludwig van Beethoven’s music teacher once said, “As a composer, he is hopeless.” As a child Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything.  Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade.   It seems obvious to us in hind site these teachers were mistaken.  They noticed a child thinking differently and labeled the child as “wrong thinking”.  We are so often quick to judge the flexible mind.  It is, somehow, easier to call a child ‘slow’ when they might be thinking so fast we are unable to keep up with them.  Let’s encourage these crazy ideas and look for ways to make our teaching relevant.  As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Race to Nowhere

documentary movie poster
poster from the documentary film Race to Nowhere

At my school’s professional day this morning, the entire faculty from pre-K through 12th grade, watched the movie: Race to Nowhere, a Reel Link Film by concerned parent and filmmaker Vicki Abeles.  I felt very fortunate that my school administration thought it was important enough to create a mandatory faculty viewing time for what I think is a crucial message.  The theme of the film is: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture.  It would be a challenge at best to recreate the film’s impact in a blog so I encourage anyone interested in knowing more about what this achievement culture is doing to our nation to see the film.  There is a link in my blogroll that will take you to the film’s website.

Watching the movie reinforced an impression I already had: We should absolutely encourage our children to achieve great things, but we may not know the recipe for achievement anymore.  Our children will not succeed in their future using models from our past.  Future generations will be faced with the challenges of a very different economic engine.  We are no longer a production-oriented society.  Yet we perpetuate a factory-based education model.  So much depends on young people being able to make decisions about events we cannot imagine.

Our national emphasis on tests, standardization and information regurgitation means we are not educating for creativity and problem solving skills.  Maybe we never were. This lack of a creativity teaching model means we are flying blind when it comes to emphasizing the skills they will actually need to survive, let alone thrive.  Of course, because I am an arts teacher (or maybe I am an arts teacher because of this) I believe the model for arts education is as close to ‘educating for the future’ as we have available in the current system.  Right-brain thinking, self-expression, large motor movement and non-verbal communication are all part of the arts experience.  One student interviewed in the movie makes the point, “There’s no standardized test for art or different ideas.”  One activity rarely associated with arts classes, other than practicing an instrument, is homework.

In Sara Bennett’s book, The Case Against Homework, she cites Duke Professor Harris Cooper’s Review of Educational Research (2006) that looks at over 180 studies considering the correlation between homework and achievement and notes, “too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive.”  She further points out, “Many countries with the highest scoring students on achievement tests… have teachers who assign little homework.”  Conversely, “countries… where students have some of the worst average scores, have teachers who assign a lot of homework.”  There is, however, a basic flaw even in this line of reasoning.  The achievement review is based on success in testing.  Testing is given so much power over how children are educated as to make any other teaching values pale in comparison.  The move toward portfolios and non-graded classes may be going the right direction but it is difficult to know when the assessments seem like comparing apples to kumquats or when there are no standard assessment tools.

If the goal of secondary education is college preparation or even preparation for the workplace, it seems that teaching to the standards of these institutions is appropriate.  But with students spending the bulk of their waking hours in school, there is little time left for kids to address the more basic quality of life issues.  The reason we want good educations is to get good jobs that lead to good lives.  But what if a good life can be had without spending a king’s ransom?  We have collapsed money-making with improved quality of life.  Once you make enough to pay the bills, the two really don’t have much in common.  Time with loved ones, good health, pursuits involving self-expression, being part of a community; these things can be had without spending any money and they provide the foundation for happiness.  In our current direction we spend family time in the car on the way to other activities.  Playtime is squeezed in or lost altogether.  And sleep, what some researchers believe is the most vital adolescent activity is, at best, inadequate.  We are teaching our children we value something other than a great quality of life.

As a parent in the movie points out, “People get caught up in this race to nowhere.”  Students interviewed in the film confirm what we think might be true, “How are you expected to do well when you can’t even make mistakes?”  Another student admits, “I stopped trying because if you don’t try you can’t fail.”  Rather than sounding absurd, this student’s comment resonates for many teachers as we see it repeated in the classroom.  A child who struggles with the expectations of the adults in his life will either rise to the expectation or give up.  In some cases, “giving up” will look like “getting by”.  A student who is resigned about his ability to succeed might be performing at an average level that gets him under the radar of parents and teachers.

Films such as Race to Nowhere bring this issue to light.  Rather than provide a solution, it gives us a springboard for conversation.  The sooner this conversation becomes a priority, the sooner we will be able to make a difference in the lives of all children and eventually, the world.

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