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.

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 3 (of 4) Reconceptualizing Education

This 19 minute TED talk is well worth your time.  I have ADD and I couldn’t find a distraction that could tear me away from this man’s talk!

Charles Leadbetter is an unintentional innovator by virtue of his intense curiosity. His interest in finding out what’s available in the world of education beyond the borders of ‘sanctioned methods’ is one of the most exciting reformist efforts today. Rather than speak about education with a collection of theorists, he is out in the field on a quest. His quest is every bit as important (perhaps more so) as the panel discussions, policy debates and academic lectures. He has discovered the purest form of learning; people hungry for knowledge are using available resources to feed their hunger. What could be any more pure? This ties in with the slide show titled “Shift Happens”http://www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/33834 created by Karl Fisch which compares India, China and U.S. digital and educational revolutions by the numbers. It’s very provocative and I think it informs the conversation concerning what’s happening in education in rising nations.

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.

“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 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:

Methods don’t matter.

 

Louise Rosenblatt's 'Literature as Exploration'

I really enjoyed reading this post.  The blogger describes the difference between the traditional transmission model of learning and the transactional model espoused by literary scholar Louise Rosenblatt.  I think you’ll appreciate the blogger’s thoughts on why relationships are important in education.  Enjoy!

 

Methods don’t matter.

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