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.

A Fledgling Teacher-Led School Trend

Palmer Park Preparatory Academy

My husband found an interesting blog post on the idea of the teacher-led school model.  The idea of a greater presence in the classroom for decision-makers is one which piques my interest.  I am fortunate to work in an educational community where everybody’s involved in student life.  It’s a bit like living in a small town.  Mrs. Crabtree tells your Sunday School teacher what she saw and the milkman noticed something too and we’re all talking to your mom.  But I digress… Enjoy the post:

A Fledgling Teacher-Led School Trend.

“Reconceptualizing” K-12 Education (1 of 4)

Like Coca-Cola, penicillin and plastic, it seems inventing a workable school reform plan is only going to happen accidentally.  Everything that should work (NCLB, teaching to the test, the bell curve) doesn’t, and some novel approaches to learning show more promise than 110 years of testing and measurement. Dr. Tony Wagner, Harvard Professor and author of The Global Achievement Gap, calls this “reconceptualization”.

In a column we could label “reconceptualizing”, one of the most exciting innovations is happening online with Salmen Kahn‘s discovery of a learning model that works almost magically.  Khan created a series of videos demonstrating math concepts as a way to help his family members understand challenging ideas.  As he created more videos, a thought occurred:  He could create a self-paced software allowing learners to study at their own rate.  Students could practice concepts at home and hone them with teacher-mentors at school.  According to the Huffington Post, “his innovative methodology turns the classroom dynamic upside down.”  The article goes on to characterize Khan’s own view of the discovery, “Khan says his program’s success is largely happenstance.”  Happenstance or not, deep pockets such as Bill Gates and Google have been funding the Kahn Academy of late and according to Forbes online, “You Tube told him he has the most popular open-course video library on its site, with more views than MIT, Stanford or UC-Berkeley.”

Khan is not the only innovator in the reconceptualization game.  But he does represent a type of thinking emanating from theorists outside the usual channels.  Sometimes the brilliant accident occurs when the innovator is thinking about something else.  Khan simply wanted to make some videos to teach his cousins a few math concepts.  When they shared these videos with friends, it spread like an Internet meme.  Fortunately, Khan’s experiment doesn’t carry a lot of overhead.  This may be one reason educators in Los Altos, California have been willing to try his ideas in a  school setting.

For more on this story, look for a continuation in the next three posts.

Arts Education Advocates Speak Out

A block of marble reveals a secret

I am sharing some insights by a few profound thinkers on the subject of arts education.  I hope you will find these ideas though-provoking.  Please let me know what you think.  If you have a quote that should be included, share it in your comment.

The Disappearing Arts

“In America, we do not reserve arts education for privileged students or the elite. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English language learners, and students with disabilities often do not get the enrichment experiences of affluent students anywhere except at school. President Obama recalls that when he was a child ‘you always had an art teacher and a music teacher. Even in the poorest school districts everyone had access to music and other arts.’

Today, sadly, that is no longer the case.”

– U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, April 9, 2010

 

The Integrated Arts

“The arts in the schools do not, cannot, and should not exist in isolation.  They necessarily must operate in the framework of general education.  When they are part of the curriculum of American schools – and this cannot be taken for granted – inevitably they are there because they give students an indispensable educational dimension… The arts are affiliated with the schools’ important responsibility to pass on civilization.”

-from Strong Arts, Strong Schools by Charles Fowler
1996 Oxford University Press

 

The Arts Equation

“Education minus art? Such an equation equals schooling that fails to value ingenuity and innovation. The word art, derived from an ancient Indo-European root that means “to fit together,” suggests as much. Art is about fitting things together: words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs.

It is both a form of serious play governed by rules and techniques that can be acquired through rigorous study, and a realm of freedom where the mind and body are mobilized to address complex questions — questions that, sometimes, only art itself can answer: What is meaningful or beautiful? Why does something move us? How can I get you to see what I see? Why does symmetry provide a sense of pleasure?”

-Jeffrey T. Schnapp is director of the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, a prominent cultural historian of the 20th century, and a frequent curator of art exhibitions in Europe and the United States.

 

The Squandered Arts

“All kids have tremendous talents and we squander them pretty ruthlessly… We (educators) stigmatize mistakes… We are educating people out of their creative capacities… We don’t grow into creativity, we are educated out of it.”

-Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources.

 

The Teaching Arts

“Learning to think within the affordances and constraints of the material is one of the things that the arts teach… we can look at the arts as tasks which develop the mind because of the kinds of thinking that they evoke, practice and develop… What we need in American education is not for the arts to look more like the academics… but for the academics to look more like the arts.”

-Elliot W. Eisner, Lee Jacks Professor of Education and professor of art at Stanford University, speaking in September 2006 on “What Do the Arts Teach?”

Art is Everywhere!

The Seth Thomas Clock Company-manufactured clo...
Image via Wikipedia

Art is everywhere.  It is in everything we use, see or express.  The art we experience is the art created by millions of people who express creativity through design.  These are people who move beyond traditional models of art.  They have all been practicing artists.  Because of their commitment, training and creativity, we are so immersed in the arts we aren’t even aware of it.  We respond to the arts as a fish responds to water.  We rarely acknowledge its existence.  When we do, we speak of music, visual art or theater as if they are things we must create in order for our children to have an “arts experience”.   Kids are no more cognitively aware of their arts immersion than the adults.  Let me give an example: When I wake up, I often hear music on my radio.  This is an obvious arts experience.  But when I trudge to my bathroom I am immersed in design.  My toilet, mirror, sink, the colors on my bathroom walls, the shape of my toothbrush may be based on utilitarian notions, but there is an artistic design element to everything I use.  Even if everything were gray and made of steel, someone would find a way to insert a level of personal expression into a utilitarian product.  This ubiquitousness of artistic expression is not limited to design.  According to Mr. Webster something is theatrical if it “has the qualities of a staged presentation”.  If I attend church or synagogue or mosque or even a Buddhist temple, there is theater just as there are players in a courtroom, classroom or sports arena.  We call these events by different names but the term ‘live theater’ applies.  Dance is also an area of self expression that shows up everywhere from the traffic circle to the crowded hallways of Grand Central Station.  Many of our driving patterns are choreographed as are the flight patterns around an airport.  It is our perception or lack of it that makes artistic expression seem scarce.  Let’s return to my modern morning ritual.  At some point I will dress in clothing designed by an artist.  It won’t matter if I bought it at a thrift store or WalMart or Saks Fifth Avenue.  Before it could be made, it had to be sketched.  The design was then rendered through an artistic process.  Trial and error revealed a useful, aesthetically pleasing garment.  Fabrics and details were selected which were also designed by artists in those fields.  After all this creativity a piece of clothing appeared. The same goes for my coffee and creamer and anything that didn’t come directly from the earth.  The coffee maker I use is different in design from my brother’s coffee maker, or my sister’s, or my parents’.  If there is no need for art outside the areas designated for expression, why is there a need for differently designed appliances?  Business leaders understand the appeal of design.  They spend billions of dollars on designers and artists every year to create products that appeal to our cultural and aesthetic sensibilities.  If there is no need for art outside of its designated areas, there is no reason for design.

There has never been a time in history when art was not being created.  There are numberless examples of profound works of art emerging from dark periods of human history.  This includes the great Jewish artists of the Holocaust, Byzantine art following the fall of the Roman Empire, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the photography of the Great Depression and Dustbowl period.  Even the balladeers, bards and brilliant thinkers of the dark ages whose work is lost to us set the stage for the European Renaissance that followed.  The indispensable and urgent human need to express has been with us since cave paintings and dances ’round the fire.  After I finish writing this blog post, I will grab my beautifully composed leather bag and place in it my aesthetically pleasing computer full of music and media files.  I will walk outside my house that was designed by an architect who was  an artist in the field of building design.  I will press a button on the elegantly fashioned car key that opens the door of my goldenrod minivan.  There will not be a moment in my day when I do not experience another human being’s artistic expression.  This expression is not about talent, it’s about practice.  For everyone who believes it is more important to learn the answers on a test than to learn how to artistically express an idea, it’s time to wake up and smell the artisan coffee.

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:

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

Four Rules of Failure


The blogger works on the hem of her daughter's prom dress.

I am a huge fan of failure.  I believe there’s no better instructional tool than a solid F.  The reason I do not support grades as a teaching tool is because we have trained our students to view an F as something to be avoided.  As a result of this pseudo achievement culture, we have created generations of scaredy-cats.  Fear of failure makes students dishonest.  They cheat on tests, allow their parents to do their homework and make themselves sick with stress.

 

Don’t misunderstand.  I am all about achievement.  I want my students to push past their limits.  The only way I see to really break through is to be willing to fail, and fail extravagantly.   Here are my top four classroom strategies to support student failure and discovery:

 

Guide your students by telling them the result you expect but not how they should get there:
As a drama teacher I spend some time having my students learn to read a script.  Giving a line reading is when a director speaks the line for the actor with the preferred inflection.  People do this all the time.  It’s faster than having the actor work through the process of understanding.  But it has no more value for professional actors than it does in educational settings.  Giving a line reading keeps actors from owning the lines.  There is no discovery, no depth of understanding, no honest expression that happens when you are simply mimicking your director.  It works against the objective of telling a captivating story.  If you give your students a short rubric of expectations including the things you need to see as an instructor and then let them create out of their own experience, the result can be breathtaking.

I know, I know; what about the student who can’t do a project if they have to come up with too much of it on their own?  I have said many times that teaching middle school is a cross between herding cats and pushing chains.  They either bounce around like a high points pinball or lie there like a lump of lead.  That’s why I have three more strategies.

 

Ask a lot of open-ended questions without a “right” answer in mind. Listen to their answers and be prepared to learn from them.
This is one of my favorite strategies.  It turns students into teachers and vice versa.  When I ask a question in class, my students know by this point in the school year that I am game for anything that comes out of their mouths.  Even the inappropriate stuff can provide opportunities for learning appropriate social behavior.  The trick is never make them wrong.  “What if they are wrong?” You say.  There is no wrong way to learn.  If your math student gives the wrong answer, it is an opening to look at how he got there and is there another way?  I know several math teachers who are brilliant guides in the world of numbers.  Rather than hearing “nope” when an answer doesn’t solve the problem, students hear phrases such as, “let’s look at that”, or “let’s think about how you got there and see if you can modify your approach.”  The word “wrong” never shows up in the classroom.  It’s only the learning process that gets the focus, not the failure.  If we take away the stigma attached to failure, we will have an educational revolution on our hands.

The second part of this strategy has to do with keeping the teacher engaged.  On days when I don’t have a 5-Hour Energy drink handy I have to work extra hard at listening.  But as soon as I let go of listening for a “right” answer, my students tend to rock my world.  If what they say becomes valuable to me not as their teacher but as another human being, I will walk away from the exchange a richer person.  Kids say amazing stuff to me every day.   I have a group of 4th grade students who enter my class without preconception.  They know that what they imagine is only the beginning and I am willing to listen to their ideas even if it means inviting them to elaborate.  “But there’s no time for this fiddle-faddle” you say.  There are ways to make this sharing of ideas more efficient, and it is vital to their learning.  Break them into small groups and allow them to share ideas with each other, put a time limit at the beginning of class on all shares, give them a prompt and have them write in a journal for a few minutes at the beginning of class.  Most importantly listen to your students rather than the conversation in your head that tends to provide the running commentary.

 

Push them to their point of failure and beyond but lightly and with a sense of fun.
When first confronted with the idea of pushing to fail, students will often react with a confused expression.  This was my experience as an adult when I was working with a trainer.  She had me attempting to lift weights that were just outside my ability to complete a set.  I remember that she would say, “push to the point of failure.” Why not “push to success?”  Because lifting weights that are too light for you to fail means you will experience little or no muscle growth.  The same is true of our brains.  If we already know we can succeed, what’s the point?  Isn’t it more exciting to try something that has an air of possible failure?  For kids who treat school as if getting good grades is the objective (not so far-fetched), the only danger is burn out or boredom.  If you put classroom focus on the grade, learning will move at an unendurably slow pace.

It’s possible to become too serious about pushing your students to their point of failure.  Failing for fun means you attach no significance to the failure, only to the learning.  When the focus is on the learning, the grade loses its power.  Some might say this is a bad thing.  The grade is a motivator.  But when the grades fade into the background, the motivation changes.  The motivator becomes curiosity, or discovery or the challenge of mastery; all of which trump the motivation of a letter grade.  Make the challenges interesting, add a failure component, and success becomes sweeter and more lasting.

 

Give plenty of opportunities for them to choose to trash a creation.  Students should become accustomed to the idea that anything they create is able to be re-created even better.  There’s always more where that came from!
In the last decade there was a Doritos commercial that stated, “Crunch all you want.  We’ll make more.”  If we could approach ideas with this same mentality, the willingness to let go of the preciousness of a thought or a project or a paper would be liberating.  It would increase a student’s desire to write a 2nd or 3rd or 4th draft, look over the answers more completely and start over again without any tears.  We have to learn how to improve with gusto if we want to learn and grow.

I have been sewing since 7th grade when Mrs. Hulsey gave me a C in Home Ec because my stitches were so sloppy.  I know I really hate it when I sew and I realize I have sewn the wrong sides of a garment together.  I have to take out the stitches, read the instructions and try again.  Inevitably, I learn what to notice and I hardly ever make this mistake anymore.  But it took a few badly sewn items to learn this lesson.  Interestingly, not only am I better at avoiding this mistake, the care I take while avoiding the error keeps my stitches from looking sloppy.  Even though your students may balk at first, don’t be afraid to challenge them to do it again.  And, as always, keep it light.

Humor and a friendly attitude will keep a frustrated learner from going ballistic.  As teachers we have the responsibility to challenge our students to take the work seriously without taking themselves too seriously.  Guide, listen, push and encourage them to try again… with a smile.

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