27 March 2010

Reading is NOT the goal

All across America schools are desperately concerned with teaching what are often disturbingly referred to as "the 3 Rs" - Reading, Writing, and [A]rithmetic.

All across America teachers, administrators, parents, politicians from Obama to the Lunatic Right, are worried about whether children are learning to read - and to write - and to add and subtract.

And, all across America, this is wrong.

I was presenting at the CSUN Conference on Friday evening, and as I spoke, I realized that what I need to say first, every time, is that we are asking the wrong questions, we are focusing on the wrong things. And by focusing on the wrong things we have turned school into a self-defeating loop, which makes kids miserable and leaves our educational system a failure.

So, I need to begin here: If we define "reading" as interpreting little Roman alphabetical designs inked on to paper (or even "pixeled onto a screen), I don't care if kids learn to read. And if we define "writing" as learning to form those alphabetical codes with 19th and 20th Century "writing tools," I don't care if kids learn to write. And if we define "arithmetic" as memorizing "math facts" or filling a piece of paper with scribbling to divide one number into another, I really don't care if kids learn that at all.

In schools, we treat all of these skills as a "goal," and none of these should ever be a goal. Because when we treat these things as a "goal" we convince kids - and we convince them of this quickly - that all of these abilities are nothing but school chores, with no connection to their lives. And, in the incredibly short space of a couple of years, we take five-year-olds who are dying to come to school and turn them into eight-year-olds who'd rather be anyplace else. Eight-year-olds who hate "reading," who hate "writing," who really hate "math."

And that is a damn shame.

Let me say it this way: There is no reason, in and of itself, to "read." We read to access the information in written form. There is no reason, in and of itself, to "write." We write to distribute informationto others. There is no reason, in and of itself, to do "arithmetic." We manipulate numbers to help us understand and share a series of concepts we call mathematics.

And if kids want to access information, to distribute information, and to work with all the worlds which involve numbers (et al), they will have a reason to find a way - with our help - to make that work. But if we begin with the "chore first," we will have the schools we have right now.

Or, as I said Friday afternoon, "Reading is defined as getting information from a recorded source into your head, Writing is defined as getting information from your head into a form which others can access." And to which I might have added, "Arithmetic is defined as having a common system for sharing quantifiable data."

Reading matters because we want our students to have effective and efficient ways to access stories and information. Writing matters because we want our students to be creators and distributors of stories and information. Arithmetic matters because we want math concepts to be within the reach of our students. But you know what? How they get to these things, should matter a whole lot less to us.

For some kids alphabetic decoding will be a quick and efficient method of grabbing that information. For some kids, writing with a pen will be a great, fast way to get ideas down into recorded form. For some kids, writing numbers and/or remembering "the times table" will be a short route to manipulating numbers.

And for others, those routes will not work, or they will not work well enough to really give them access.

For all those kids, we need to find other routes to get them content, to get them involved, to get them excited, to get them communicating.

Which is all easy now. We have the technology, from Click-Speak to WYNN, from WordTalk to Windows7 Speech Recognition, from audiobooks to mp3 conversion, to switch to access systems that work. We can use calculators (free ones) and Word's Equation Editor.  We can get kids in, connect them right now.

See, there's a reason US standardized test results collapse after fourth grade. Fourth grade tests simply ask kids to regurgitate the processes we've been banging into them for their first four years of school. They do that well enough. But the processes really don't connect to most on a functional level, so that when they take later content-driven evaluation tests, they fail, because they are not accessing the content. They only know how to "read" to "read." I see this all the time, quick, "fluent" readers who have no idea what they've just read, or why. Kids who form letters perfectly but who can't express themselves. Kids with memorized math facts but no ability to leap into algebra or beyond.

And that's stupid. I, for example, have read James Joyce's Ulysses five times. Yes, five times. I can argue with the best of "'em" on this literary classic. But I have never even held an ink on paper version. I have read the book on cassette (or something like 64 cassettes) twice, on CD, and twice with WYNN the digital literacy system. Likewise I have read hundreds of books from The Great Gatsby to Frankenstein to really boring textbooks without ever "decoding" a single alphabetic word.
I have written two books with substantial parts of both dictated via speech recognition. I have done really well in structural engineering classes without being able to subtract on paper well enough to keep track of a checkbook. I blog and tweet to the world without beingable to write about half of the alphabet legibly, unless I am copying already printed text.

So please, when your kids have trouble with the "skills" of school, offer them the way around, the path to the "why." Give them a digital reading system and let them access what's of interest to them. Turn on the speech recognition in windows and let them communicate with the world. Give them a simple way to create math symbols and perform calculations, and allow them to see what math can mean.

These "skills" are not "ends." They are "means." And we should be opening the world to our students by any means possible.

- Ira Socol

26 March 2010

Ordering School Books?

What should the contract say when your school purchases textbooks, either ink-on-paper ones or digital ones?

NIMAS has suggested this, to ensure that accessible texts will be available for students with "documented disabilities" (a description which varies by US state):
"By agreeing to deliver the materials marked with "NIMAS" on this contract or purchase order, the publisher agrees to prepare and submit, on or before ___/___/_____ a NIMAS fileset to the NIMAC that complies with the terms and procedures set forth by the NIMAC. Should the vendor be a distributor of the materials and not the publisher, the distributor agrees to immediately notify the publisher of its obligation to submit NIMAS filesets of the purchased products to the NIMAC. The files will be used for the production of alternate formats as permitted under the law for students with print disabilities. Note that the delivery of print versions should not be delayed in cases where the NIMAS fileset has yet to be completed, validated and/or cataloged by the NIMAC."

But this is not really good enough. First, the "documented disability" limitation works against both common decency and educational practice (providing students with what they need), but also against the entire idea of Response-to-Intervention, which requires that we test accommodations and remediations before labelling kids.

Today, at the CSUN 2010 Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, Jeff Diedrich of MITS made a better suggestion.

If you buy books for your school your contract should state that the entire contents and formatting of the purchased texts be available by the delivery date in a fully accessible digital version available to every student (I'm paraphrasing his exact wording). And that version will either be (your choice) provided by the publisher or prepared by the school district (the latter option will require early delivery of a copy which can be cut apart and scanned).

Thus, we skip right past all the controversies and ambiguities of US copyright law and the Chaffee Amendment, and move ourselves directly to universal design, where students get to choose their content delivery system. And you do that simply via the power of the consumer.

We don't really want to, another speaker today, re-open the copyright law thing, since, inevitably, that would become all about Disney's 500 year copyright to Snow White and the RIAA's right to sue random people for millions of dollars and the Authors' Guild ability to stop people from reading books. Instead, we simply want to use the powers of the purchase order to create "the change we need."

A few notes are in order: 
(1) Remember, digital does not mean accessible. Many textbook publishers go to great lengths to provide completely useless digital versions, which cannot be read by screen readers, or otherwise be used creatively by students. However, Pearson Publishing is beginning to offer highly accessible html versions, so consider that.
(2) You always want format flexibility. The more digital versions you can easily create, the more accessible your school will be. DAISY versions do a lot, but can be clunky and hard to learn, and not all versions work with all DAISY players. Plain Text (.txt) or .doc (Microsoft Word) versions are easy to use, but often lack the formatting basic to many textbooks. HTML has a lot of advantages, as is shown by those produced by the Accessible Book Collection.
(3) Bookshare is a fabulous resource but books tend to come in just one format. Conversion isn't always easy.
(4) There are good resources at the Accessible Instructional Media page on the MITS-Michigan's Integrated Technology Supports site.
(5) You might also want to take a look at "The Right to Read," so we build understanding that unless access to what is in books is the same for all, we are choosing to leave people behind.

- Ira Socol

23 March 2010

The Civil Right to Broadband

Many Americans have a very limited view of human rights. At least a substantial minority not only doubt the right to health care (and thus life), but doubt all rights to privacy (see supporters of "The Patriot Act" and police search policies backed by "conservative" right-wing judges like Scalia, Roberts, Thomas), and surely a majority doubt the right to a home or a reasonably equal opportunity at education.

So I may not be on the main political pathway in the United States when I bring up the idea of a Finnish-style civil right to Broadband Access, but here I go, hoping that those in more socially advanced nations might hear the call.

Let's suppose I am in a hotel - imagine it is an Embassy Suites, a Hilton operation. I stay at Hilton properties from time to time. If you stay at a Hampton Inn you get great rooms, even a lapdesk for computing from bed, and free internet. But if you pay more, at an Embassy Suites or a top Hilton property, some of those perks disappear.

 Seaport Village, San Diego, California

So, let's say I'm staying at this hotel. It's very nice. I'm overlooking San Diego harbor. Last night there was a concert and fireworks off the fantail of the USS Midway, just across the street. The coffee sucks but the free breakfast is quite nice, as is the staff. A fresh copy of USA Today arrives at my door each morning...

But internet costs almost $13.00 (US) a day, and I don't read ink-on-paper newspapers. So, as someone with a "print disability," the Hilton chain is discriminating against me, violating my civil right to equal access to a routinely provided customer service, my civil right to equal access to information, and my civil right to access to the communication tools of citizenship.

And that is wrong.

Just as it is wrong to assign homework which requires (or may benefit from) information access if not all students have the same kind of information access. Student A's report on Zimbabwe comes from a home filled with books and with broadband computer access. Student B's report on Zimbabwe comes from a home with no books and no internet. What is the homework measuring? Student C can go online from home for help with math homework. Student D cannot. What is the homework measuring?

Student E, a first year university student, has access to the internet and the library's research tools from home, Student F, her classmate, does not. What will their respective grades likely show?

Job Applicant G can look up the employer on their phone on the way to the interview and remind himself of key points. Job Applicant H cannot. Who has the advantage?

Yes, there are ways around this. Student B can spend five hours after school at the public library, if it is open that late, if computer access can be continuous, if the walk home is safe, if he has no responsibilities at home. Student F can do the same with the college library, if she does not have to work, or care for her family. Job Applicant H can have a better memory, or be more organized. But, whatever you say, one group is at a decided disadvantage.

We shouldn't always have to be "better than"...

In the US, and in most nations, the last "civil right" might be the opportunity to be "equal." If, for example, a black man like Barack Obama had made the "mistakes" as a young man that George W. Bush made - drunk driving arrests, walking out on a National Guard commitment, drugs, etc - Obama could not possibly have become President. Obama had to be much "better than" an equivalent white candidate.

A black male, a "print disabled" person, a poor person, has to be much "better than" just to be close to equal, and nowhere is that more true than in the typical school.

There are many things we must do to break the persistent cycle of social reproduction which keeps people in poverty generation after generation, but one of those steps is universal access to information.

In other words, a civil right to broadband.

- Ira Socol

12 March 2010

The School I'd Like

I rarely respond to internet memes or challenges, but this one struck me as interesting. If I was designing a school, if I was creating my educational utopia, what would it look like?

The schools I see are almost all failures. Not because of bad teachers, as Newsweek claims - there are bad teachers - but many more great and very frustrated ones,  and not because of unprepared students, though students who come from struggling American homes abound, and not because of a lack of competition, equating education with Walmart is just sad, but because we live with a fundamentally flawed design for education.

So, "my school" would seek to address those fundamental problems.

Summerhill School

I have to admit, it would not be on-line, though much would happen in "the cloud." I think that there is value in creating a safe learning place, apart from an increasingly intolerant-to-kids-and adolescents world. This is part reversal of our current norm, and part not. Our schools, as destructive as they are to many kids, as intolerant (by design, we proclaim "zero tolerance") as they are of mistakes and failings and differences, are still refuges for many - places where violence and disrespect and even hunger can be left behind. So I like the physical place. I like a physical place filled with spatial and environmental options - noisy to quiet, outdoor to indoor, light to dark, private to collaborative, active to passive...

I believe in creating beautiful educational spaces, spaces which encourage, uplift, inspire. So many of our schools look like brick and block bunkers - increasing the prison metaphors - and I want to do the opposite. And I like schools which sit at some kind of divide, campus and city, or commercial and rural, or land and sea, because I think there's wonderful inherent tension there, as students straddle two worlds, learning the essential art of code-switching through every day experience.

There is an art to this, and it should be an endlessly changing art, with students empowered to use spaces as they need - think Black Box Theatre more than fixed purpose spaces.

And this community learning space must exist freely in time as well as space. It must at least embrace the traditional long university day, and perhaps be a 24 safe place. Students should, certainly after a certain age - if not always - use it as they require, the fixed schedule is a sad hold-over of the industrial revolutions, and has no place in education.

Likewise, the school would float within the calendar, not govern it. I don't believe in semesters or "marking periods" or whatever. Learning does not work in artificial school time divisions at all. I know I usually get most interested, most connected, to a course's content, or to a project, after about ten weeks. It is at that point that I could really roll. Of course, at that point its time, in most schools, to wrap it up and abandon the topic. Students in my school could could sit down with teacher-mentors and plan a path, and perhaps a timetable, but of course they could adjust that as it went along.

No grades, No grades

The two "grading systems" would be gone. They are both destructive and useless. I imagine a K-12 school, maybe a K-14 school, with two divisions - K-4, and 5-12 (or 14). Within these divisions children would progress at their own rates, and they would work with groupings based on interests and capabilities. There would be no "grade level expectations." No "standardized" testing. No students "retained" or "promoted" apart from their age group. (One of the most bizarre arguments in American education is the objection to "social promotion." The entire education structure right now is based on age-linked cohorts, of course we have "social promotion.")

And there would be no grading either. Call it "A" "B" C" or "100" "95" "90" or "4.0" "3.5" 3.0" it is all meaningless. In "my school" students would evaluate themselves, peers would review their work, faculty would review their work. They'd either go on or go back and rethink. We should be teaching, not accepting failure.

No subject divisions

Everything a student can study can, and should, bring every "subject" into play. Shakespeare? There's literature and writing, history and citizenship, sciences from construction through lighting, the mathematics of sightlines, the geography of England. Bridge Design? There's math and physics and chemistry and environmental science and politics and history and art and literature. Anything can include anything if the teacher-mentor pushes questions which need to be answered. And technology now allows students to reach out to information and people who can help with all of these things.

Few things damage education more than the artificial divisions the "Carnegie Units" created, it is time to consign these to the past.

Students at the College of the Atlantic

Technological Freedom

The students in "my school" would have technological freedom, they would be encouraged to discover the best ways to use media and ICT to support their learning, to build their "Toolbelts." The school could be wireless, or it could be open to 3G networks, but it would be open to the world of today, and to the world which is coming. Just as a vast paper library indicated a "great school" in 1970, an openness to the world's resources indicates a "great school" now. And just as good students learned how to use those paper libraries 40 years ago, good students today must explore the many ways to access the world's information systems now.

We wouldn't have an "Apple School," or an "iPhone School" or a "Google School." We wouldn't even be 1:1. We'd have far more devices than students around, including the student owned devices. We be linked and connected, and offer choices at every turn.

All materials would be available in multiple representations, and students would be encouraged to choose the representation system which best worked for that student in that moment. In these ways we'd be constructing lifespan learners, and lifespan technology users.

A part of the community

Students need some separation from "society." They need to be in a safe place where mistakes and failure are fine. But they cannot be "apart" from their society. Students come in to school with the world clinging to them, we owe it to them to let them find explanations, solutions, answers. We owe it to them to help them become their own change agents.

Connection also provides opportunity, as Neil Postman wrote in 1969:
"Let us assume that the City of New Rochelle, like many other cities, has serious problems with traffic control, crime and law enforcement, strikes, race relations, urban blight, drug addiction, garbage disposal, air pollution, and medical care. Students would be formed into teams, each team consisting of a teacher, a high school senior, perhaps a lay member of the community, and ten or a dozen students. Their task would be to select one of these problems for study, with a view toward designing authentic, practical solutions to it. They would do whatever they needed to do in order to learn about the problem (including previous attempts to solve it) and to communicate to others their own solutions. For example, imagine one team has selected the "crime" problem for study. Some students could spend two or three weeks at the police station, serving in some capacity that would allow them to observe the problem from the perspective of the police. (Some might even go out on calls with police officers.) Others might report regularly to the criminal court, observing the problem from that vantage point. Students could spend many days on interviewing assignments: insurance men, police officers from other towns, ex-convicts, prison wardens, merchants, town officials, et al. Students could review the available literature (both non-fiction and fiction), correspond with prisoners, write to law enforcement officers in other countries. The classroom would be used as a place of assembly when students needed to assess their findings, and to plan and organize additional inquiries. It is important to stress here that the activities described above do not constitute "field trips." Most of the students' "school life" would be spent outside the school where the realities of the problems being studied are to be found. However, included in the process must be a serious attempt to offer solutions and to communicate these to the appropriate people. This might require meeting in school for the purpose of writing resolutions, letters, pamphlets, handbills, etc. Or the students might wish to publish a newsletter about the problem, or produce an audio-tape for broadcasting on the local radio station (in which case some students might spend a week or two at the radio station), or produce a film for presentation to the town council. The possibilities are almost inexhaustible."
A willingness to change

Nothing is bigger than this. "My school" should always be willing to change - in fundamental ways. Yesterday Alec Couros linked me to this quote:
"It is interesting to me how many progressive and leftist scholars one can find in the academy, and yet so few of them actually challenge the terms of the debate within the academic system. Progressives who turn a critical eye to all the other institutions in society often seem unwittingly to assume that the academy is either a neutral or benevolent institution that simply needs personnel changes or different policies and procedures. Because the actual structure of the academy goes unquestioned—from tenure processes to grading systems to academic hierarchies—even progressives get trapped in the academy’s meritocratic myth, which either makes them insane or turns them into fascists. All the collective action we support outside the academy seems to disappear inside it—as we slave away in our offices in order to make sure everyone knows how busy and hardworking we are. Instead, we could be working together to support each other, build community, demystify the academic industrial complex, swap survival strategies, and promote life for all of us." (Smith, 2007, pp. 144-145) Complete reference: Smith, A. (Fall/2007) Social-Justice Activism in the Academic Industrial Complex. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion - Volume 23, Number 2, pp. 140-145
And this illustrates the trap so many educators fall into. They build, or enter, a structure, and then accept that structure as a "natural" and unchangeable experience. It should be neither.

Great schools change as students need them to change.

My own dream? Trinity College, Dublin. Any job openings?

I could say much more, but I'll leave it there. And ask you: What does the school of your dreams look like?

- Ira Socol

09 March 2010

41. Othering Students [the "digital native" conspiracy]

a "chapter" from a bizarre, long paper I wrote titled "Literacy (as) Tyranny," perhaps best described by one reviewer as a "precious polemic." (There are thirteen chapters, but these are given random prime numbers for reasons I will not detail here.) re: This NYT Idea of the Day

“As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.” – Motoko Rich in The New York Times, 27 June 2008.[1]

Standardized. Enemy. Precious. Common culture. Only.

While oral culture has a rich immediacy that is not to be dismissed, and electronic media offer the considerable advantages of diversity and access, print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability – and the many sorts of human continuity it allows – would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.” – Dana Gioia, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts in the preface to Reading at Risk, 2008.[2]

Irreplaceable. Focused. Contemplation. Complex communications and insights. Intellectual capability. Human continuity. Impoverishment.

"I cannot live without books," Thomas Jefferson wrote to Adams late in life, knowing Adams would understand perfectly. Adams read everything --Shakespeare and the Bible over and over, and the Psalms especially. He read poetry, fiction, history. Always carry a book with you on your travels he advised his son, John Quincy. "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket. In a single year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, among all Americans with a college education, fully a third read not one novel or short story or poem. Don't be one of those, you of the Class of 2008. Make the love of learning central to your life. What a difference it can mean. If your experience is anything like mine, the books that will mean the most to you, books that will change your life, are still to come. And remember, as someone said, even the oldest book is brand new for the reader who opens it for the first time. You have had the great privilege of attending one of the finest colleges in the nation, where dedication to classical learning and to the arts and sciences has long been manifest. If what you have learned here makes you want to learn more, well that's the point. Read. Read, read!” – David McCullough, Address to the Graduates, Commencement Exercises, Boston College, 19 May 2008.[3]

Cannot live without. Always. Central to your life. Read. Read!

We are clearly in grave danger. Let us, for a moment, skip over the fact that neither McCullough nor Gioia, or even The New York Times, can define, or be bothered to attempt to define, “reading.” Let us simply focus on the overwrought panic expressed above. This is not just language normally associated with grave security threats, it is the language of crusaders. Failure to stop the drift of our children away from books and toward digital screens is every bit as imperative as victory at the Battle of Tours (or we might say, Battle of Poitiers, or, in Arabic: معركة بلاط الشهداء ‎ (ma‘arakat Balâ ash-Shuhadâ’) the Battle of Court of The Martyrs[4]), the A.D. 732 battle for the soul of Europe.

Standardized. Enemy. Precious. Common culture. Only. Irreplaceable. Focused. Contemplation. Complex communications and insights. Intellectual capability. Human continuity. Impoverishment. Cannot live without. Always. Central to your life. Read. Read!

On the side of the printed and ‘legitimately’ published book – on the side of light – we have standards, culture, commonality. Focus, human continuity, complex communications, and intellectual capability. While in the dark flicker rate of the computer or mobile phone screen we have impoverishment and our mutual destruction.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the constant refrain of much of our literary canon. As Joseph Conrad saw the creeping threat of the non-literate natives in The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness, and the even more powerful threat created when those from our “common culture” become entwined in that darkness,[5] (Young, 1995) so we are now being told that our culture is being threatened by a powerful invader and those traitors who have aligned with them. They will as surely destroy our libraries and the fabric of our lives as the barbarian Norsemen destroyed the abbeys and libraries of ninth century England.

The threat, of course, is from our children, and we can argue (Rich), wail (Gioia), or pray and plead for conversion (McCullough), but the threat is real, the threat is imminent. Our future has become our destruction.

Standing at the gates of our civilization is a horde: Simply take the reverse of Gioia’s words about the literate society he sees as lost – unfocused, uncontemplative, simplistically communicative, with no insight, no intellectual capability, and no interest in human continuity. With this view in mind, we would certainly expect our classroom interactions to be a battle.

And it is a battle with an alien force. ‘“Nobody has taught a single kid to text message,” said Carol Jago of the National Council of Teachers of English and a member of the testing guidelines committee [said in Motoko Rich’s New York Times article]. “Kids are smart. When they want to do something, schools don’t have to get involved.”[6]

“You see them everywhere,” John Palfrey and Urs Gasser write in the excerpt from their book Born Digital that they have chosen to post on their website. “The teenage girl with the iPod, sitting across from you on the subway, frenetically typing messages into her cell phone. The whiz kid summer intern in your office who knows what to do when your e-mail client crashes. The eight-year-old who can beat you at any video game on the market—and types faster than you do, too. Even your niece’s newborn baby in London, whom you’ve never met, but with whom you have bonded nonetheless, owing to the new batch of baby photos that arrive each week. All of them are “Digital Natives.” They were all born after 1980, when social digital technologies, such as Usenet and bulletin board systems, came online. They all have access to networked digital technologies. And they all have the skills to use those technologies. (Except for the baby—but she’ll learn soon enough.)”[7]

Palfrey and Gasser add these sentences: “Maybe you’re even a bit frightened by these Digital Natives.” “There is one thing you know for sure: These kids are different. They study, work, write, and interact with each other in ways that are very different from the ways that you did growing up.” “Digital Natives are tremendously creative.”[8] “Digital Natives perceive information to be malleable; it is something they can control and reshape in new and interesting ways.”[9]

Palfrey and Gasser are not being negative. Their entire book is about promise: “And Digital Natives have every chance of propelling society further forward in myriad ways—if we let them.”[10] And yet they choose to describe “Digital Natives” as unitary, born differently, and completely outside “our” experience. They begin by describing an entire complex generation as outside of society-as-we-know-it. “Native” – as a word - carries significant connotations in American culture and American literature. The Visual Thesaurus[11] links it to words like “aboriginal” and “indigenous.” Wikipedia says, “However, in the context of colonialism - in particular, British colonialism - the term "natives", as applied to the inhabitants of colonies, assumed a disparaging and patronising sense, implying that the people concerned were incapable of taking care of themselves and in need of Europeans to administer their lives; therefore, these people resent the use of the term and consider it insulting, and at present Europeans usually avoid using it.”[12]  It should be fair to assume that two Harvard University law professors[13] did not choose this term out of naiveté. 

These “natives” use odd and simplistic communication structures. They do not speak in grammatically (for English) correct sentences. Rather they “text” and “IM” and “tweet.” They lack sophisticated language and rely instead on ideograms, whether “lmao” or ;-) or even J. They lack the intellectual focus necessary for sustained straight line study. And, they are “born” to all this. In other words, they are exactly like the Native Americans and enslaved Africans white Europeans encountered in eighteenth and nineteenth century North America. Exotic, strange, and while interesting, dangerous. Surely no complex culture could be lying among those painted buffalo blankets or recursive stories told on the plains. Surely, if Africans are to display any possible intellectual heft they must learn to dress and speak like an Englishman.

Let’s go back to Carol Jago of the National Council of Teachers of English. Does she actually believe that, “Nobody has taught a single kid to text message”? Her statement seems to imply that she believes these children are indeed, “born digital,” and that these actions are genetically determined instincts, and not a skill set. This is a surprising view of Darwinist Theory indeed, but perhaps not unexpected in an educational system in which it is often accepted that “success in mathematics depends on some innate ability” (New Jersey Mathematics Coalition 1996)[14] Whether this “genetic origin” notion is used as praise (‘Asian students do so well in math.’) or slur (‘Black students will never go to college.’) the goal is to eliminate performance incentive for the teachers by creating a “nothing I can do” paradigm.

Carol Jago does not want to teach text-messaging, or she is incapable of teaching text-messaging, but her assertion that the teaching of how best to use a communication tool is unnecessary is absurd. We “teach” many things, from how to throw a ball more accurately to how to read specific genres to how to write more clearly. We teach them even if students arrive at school having learned about these things in other contexts.

“Ultimately, like other forms of marketing rhetoric, the discourse of the “digital generation” is precisely an attempt to construct the object of which it purports to speak,” says David Buckingham in a paper written for the Macarthur Foundation. “It represents not a description of what children or young people actually are, but a set of imperatives about what they should be or what they need to become.” [15]

Those who speak of the “digital generation” and of “being born digital” and of “digital natives” are not choosing a unique path. Much literature has been created defining “generation gaps” throughout US history, and the process of “othering” children (Howe and Strauss 1992). Surely the communications battle between the “Missionary” and “Lost” Generations, between those raised with books and newspapers and those raised on film and radio, between the earnest intentions of Upton Sinclair and the creative freedom of Fitzgerald and Dos Passos,[16] parallels the arguments we see today. But the lack of uniqueness can not be equated with a lack of destructiveness.

In an educational system that has consistently struggled with “the other” (Lareau 2000, Tatum 1997, Macleod 1987, 1995), embracing a notion which makes all students “alien” carries with it the likelihood of a complete classroom communications breakdown. And there is no faster way to create that sense of alienation than by othering the language of any group not holding power.

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Othering Students by Ira David Socol is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

[1] Rich, M. (2008) Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? The New York Times, 27 June 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/books/27reading.html
[2] Gioia, D, (2008) Preface to Reading at Risk. National Endowment for the Arts.Washington DC. p. vii
[3] McCullough, D. (2008) Address to the Graduates, Commencement Exercises, Boston College, 19 May 2008. http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/rvp/pubaf/08/McCullough_BCCommencement08.pdf
[5] Young, R. (1995) Colonial Desire. Routledge. London. p. 2
[6] Rich, M. (2008) Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? The New York Times, 27 June 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/books/27reading.html
[7] Palfrey, J. and Gasser, U. (2007) Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. Basic Books, New York.  http://borndigitalbook.com/excerpt.php
[8] Palfrey, J. and Gasser, U. (2007) Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. Basic Books, New York.  http://borndigitalbook.com/excerpt.php
[9] Palfrey, J. and Gasser, U. (2007) Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. Basic Books, New York.  http://borndigitalbook.com/excerpt-2.php
[10] Palfrey, J. and Gasser, U. (2007) Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. Basic Books, New York.  http://borndigitalbook.com/excerpt-3.php
[14] New Jersey Mathematics Coalition (1996) New Jersey’s Mathematics Standards. http://dimacs.rutgers.edu/nj_math_coalition/framework/standards/std_vision.html
[15] Buckingham, D. (2008) Introducing Identity. In Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. MacArthur Foundation paper. p. 15
[16] Howe, N. and Strauss, W. (1992) The new generation gap. The Atlantic. December 1992. http://www.etext.org/Politics/Progressive.Sociologists/marthas-corner/Generation_Gap--Atlantic.Dec92

08 March 2010

The Parent Trap

On Saturday I went to use the Therapy Pool at our community aquatic center. The 90 degree Fahrenheit water lets me exercise my recovering leg for much longer than I can possibly do on "dry land," and this is a crucial part of the healing process.

The Therapy Pool has a separate "Special Needs" Locker (Changing) Room. A unisex space with private changing areas with showers, benches, lots of grab bars. For the most part people move in and out of these spaces as quickly and efficiently as their various limitations allow.

However, the Special Needs Locker Room is also utilized by another group, parents with children who choose not to use the large general Men's and Women's changing rooms. I can understand this - considering the generally unhealthy American attitudes toward nudity - most of these users are parents with children not of their gender: Dads with girls, Moms with boys - and they are afraid to either, let the children out of their site long enough to put on a bathing suit, or to allow them to glimpse naked adults. I'm not judging here. Americans are taught to be afraid of many things, and these are two of those things.

But there is something I will judge. If parents are choosing to use a facility supposedly reserved for people other than themselves, they ought to be demonstrating respect for others to their children.

So, on Saturday, as I witnessed mother after mother hustling their kiddies in to the private changing spaces as people with crutches and canes and walkers waited, I wondered what these parents were teaching. As I watched 8, 10, 12-year-old, perfectly healthy girls tie up the one accessible locker room toilet, I wondered what these parents were teaching. As I saw mother after mother smile as their children ran through a narrow corridor mostly used by injured senior citizens, I wondered what these parents were teaching.

This was not a case of class-based lack of social education on the part of the parents - at least not in my observation. Lower income community children tend to come unaccompanied, or have no problem with shared changing facilities. The parents I was watching all appeared middle and upper middle class. All were white. All, probably, as educated as it gets here, in "the second happiest place in America."

Then, finished, I crutched my way outside, where I noticed that a brand new Volkswagen Passat was parked blocking the curb cut in a "no parking" area. It had been there when I entered. I paused, crutches are still very difficult, and as I paused, a mother and her teenage son came out, carrying packages from a party (there are "party rooms" in the facility), to the Passat. "We probably shouldn't have left it here the whole time," the boy said. "It's a loading zone," the mother told him, "and nobody knows how long we've been loading or unloading." One more mom, one more lesson.

At a CIES2010 session last week in Chicago the Inclusive Education Special Interest Group met and listened to four presentations. One was about attempts to improve teacher training for inclusion in Northern Ireland. Another was about changing social attitudes on inclusion in Namibia. The third, about encouraging the study of inclusion in Germany. And the fourth on inclusion and society in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. They were great presentations.

Yet, if there was a common thread in these, it was not attitudes toward "disability," but rather the ways in which parents limit the opportunities for, and growth of, their children.

In Northern Ireland the progress being made on societal unification of all the children of that "place" (any other political descriptor is fraught with challenges for one "side" or the other), is constantly threatened by parental attitudes when the children go home after school. Parents, 90% of them, choose segregated schools for their children - in a possible glimpse of the American future if the Duncan/Obama charter school push succeeds - and parents resist, strongly, changes in the education system.

In Namibia a parent of a "disabled" child, who is also a teacher, won't send her child to school, or even take him to the store, for fear of social embarrassment.

In Germany, long held beliefs in separate education for those with "special needs" have parents of those students resisting inclusion.

In certain Middle Eastern societies parents will not "invest" in "disabled" children who seem unlikely to become potential supporters of the family, and so will not bring them to school.

The problem with allowing parents to make choices

Despite having been a charter school parent, and a very happy charter school parent, I have a problem with the concept of charter schools in the United States. And my problem is this - charters offer parents school choice, but they rob children of school choice.

The theory of parental choice is based in the very old notion that "parents know what is best for their children" - which sounds benign, but is actually an extension of the idea that children "belong" to their parents, that children are property. Americans basically view children this way (in everything but the abortion debate - only there do a sizable portion of Americans see offspring as independent entities, but only until birth). Americans will argue that parents must be in control of discipline, of what media children are exposed to, of whether children should be vaccinated, or should receive medical care. The view - even if we take the benign reading of this - is that parental judgment almost always trumps the judgment of society, or surely, of professionals.

But maybe that is not true. Almost ten percent of American parents, for example, risk their children's health because they believe fairy tales about vaccines causing Autism. More than that cripple their children's intellectual development by blocking their access to real science education. More still risk their children's sexual health by blocking access to information critical to any human who reaches puberty.

Hundreds of thousands of American parents overstress their children in bizarre pursuits of stuff like university athletic scholarships, or force them into "college application building" schedules so frantic kids become suicidal, less they have to receive a "less than Ivy" education.

And then, on perhaps a low-priority but still essential level, are the mothers I met Saturday.

Disastrous parental behaviors cross every socio-economic divide. They hurt kids of every type, from every neighborhood.

OK, wait...

Before this goes any further... I know there are lots of great parents out there, and - for the record - I am not proposing kibbutz-like societal child-rearing, though that seems to have been fairly successful. I just want to question the "parent-centric" arguments of a certain type of charter school advocate.

I have met three types of charter school advocates. The first, and the ones whose side I am on (to be honest in regards to my motivations), are educational theorists who wish to test out new ideas not yet in the educational mainstream. My child went to charters created by educators like this. On Twitter, @COCharterXaminr falls into this category - these people are creating significant alternate models. They oppose for profit charters, they are not "anti-public school," and rarely do they sound, "anti-teacher."

The second group are the free market pirates. As with everything else society ("government") does together for mutual benefit, they oppose public education because they are not sufficiently profiting from it (you'd think textbook markups would be enough, but...). So they plan to destroy public education so that they can charge everyone for it more effectively, and create new profit centers. They mouth the nonsensical mantras of "competition" (New York City used to have competing fire departments, it doesn't always work well in public services) and "choice" ("I choose the bad hospital!") and hustle 2006 Wall Street solutions, like merit pay based on illusory short term results ('test scores"). These are the same folks who sell your kids $30 Abercrombie T-shirts. And because they do that, they have the money to buy many politicians.

The third group is more difficult to discuss, and I don't want to dismiss or demean, but I think of them as "the colonized." These are people from traditionally out-of-power groups who have decided to fully "play the game" of their oppressors. They tend to wear the charter school ideology around their necks the way certain Nigerians and Indians and other "citizens of the Empire" in the early 20th Century donned British powdered wigs and joined the colonial governments.

It is tough to argue with much of what they say: They are looking to "save kids now." To open "real opportunities." To build "within the realities we have." And to argue with this is to engage in that oldest of battles among the colonized - do we achieve freedom and power on "their" terms, or "ours." Do we want our children to grow up as -and this will depend on the argument you are making - Brits and citizens of the world/Second-class Brits or to grow up as Nigerians, Indians, South Africans, Irish, Israelis/poor separatists in a global economy.

As with most great issues, the answers are not clear cut, not "black and white," as they say. We want our identities, we want freedom and possibility based in our culture, and yet, yes, we also live and work in a world designed and controlled by the powerful.

So when people like @dropoutnation argue for charters and vouchers as their "answer," it is not just a matter of being co-opted. They have convinced themselves that this is the only logical solution in the world they see now. And I can argue for greater faith in the future, for greater faith in diverse communities, but altering someone's fundamental world view is tough.

Social Reproduction

Thus, I will say this - even if you believe that "choice" is the way to go, you are giving choice to the wrong people.

The common characteristics that I find in what I describe as "the best schools" (see primary and secondary), that is, schools which "work" for the broadest range of students, is student choice. These are schools which help students discover their path, not their parents' path. These are schools which are willing to help students find success even if their parents are incapable, or destructive, or just uninterested.

Parent choice - the concept of charters and vouchers - is socially reproductive from the start. Charter schools really object if they are criticized for "cherry picking" students, but the fact is, the only students who attend those schools are those with parents who are capable and informed enough to make the choice, interested enough to make the choice, and, in most places, economically and physically able to make the choice (due to transportation issues, etc).  This means that even if charters are not "cherry picking" students (though most "for profits" are doing just that), they are, by their very nature, "cherry picking" parents.

Which means they are abandoning the neediest children. Which means, to me, that those in that "third group" of charter advocates are selling out huge parts of their constituencies in exchange for success of their elites.

This was common enough in the British Empire that the American Corporate Empire seeks to re-create. There were Irish who converted to Anglicanism, and Indians who joined the British Army, and, of course, many colonials who dressed their children like proper little English boys and sent them off to schools which seemed replicas of those outside of central London - parental choice.

But even without that sell-out, parental choice often works against child best interests. Parents pick schools based on status, on homogeneity, on sports, on reputation. The quite broken school systems of Northern Ireland are the result of "parental choice," as are the highly segregated schools of Scotland, as are the nightmares of our school literature - think Dead Poets Society.

All of this leads me to believe in great public schools. And great public schools have student choice. No two classes in the same grade or subject should be anything alike. No common reading lists or classroom management. No common grading system. No common organization. Ideally, even schedules should vary. Only with that kind of choice can students find what they need, not what even the most well-meaning adults find for them.

And great public schools are being made impossible by "choice" advocates, who pull a certain segment of students out of the mix, reducing workable choices for those left behind.

I'm a parent, and I like parents. But I've also known all kinds of parents, and I value children too much to leave all the decisions in parental hands.

- Ira Socol

05 March 2010

Constructing Disability: The Second Class Citizen

In 2008 I wrote a post with a title similar to this about the construction of disability. Consider this "part two."

On Wednesday night I was at the Comparative and International Education Society Annual Conference at The Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. I was exhausted from a day of rolling a wheelchair over vast distances on very thick carpet. My leg hurt like a m..., well, it hurt in ways that pain meds weren't touching. And my arms, shoulders, and hands were burning from the "work out" of the day - which had begun with an 8.00 am presentation.

But I really did not want to hide in my room. The real reason anyone goes to a conference like this is to get to meet, and talk to, the brilliant, fascinating people who are there - people from everywhere on the planet. So I pushed through my room door, wheeled through the long corridors, rode down in the tiny elevator which barely fit my chair, and went down to the grand lobby where two big receptions for conference attendees were being held, one sponsored by my university, the other by Teachers College of Columbia University.

I rolled through the lobby and met a friend near the base of the stairway below, which led to one of the receptions:

Entrance to the Empire Room at The Palmer House

"Are you going in..." my friend asked, voice trailing off as he turned to look. "Oh." "Yeah," I said. Now - I'm sure there is another route. I've ridden in my share of kitchen elevators, etc. But as I looked, realizing there was no indication of a disability route, no statement at all of accessibility, I decided I didn't want to be carried in through the back door to this event.

So I said goodbye to my friend and moved toward the Teachers College reception in the hotel's Honore Ballroom. There, I met another staircase only entrance, also without disability signage. Worse, Teachers College - one of the foremost and forward-thinking education schools in the nation, had placed their "check in" table on a landing in the middle of the stairs. Again - I'm certain that there is a way in - but why should I, unlike everyone else, have to beg for admission.

Blocked from the free food, and hungry, I turned into the hotel bar. But service was either unavailable to those unable to climb the six stairs to the bar itself, or I was invisible, because I sat at a table for 20 minutes, attempting to corral a wait staff member, quite unsuccessfully.

So I went back up to my room, crawled into bed, and spent a small fortune on room service. As I ate, I realized that the Thursday night dinner, the "big event" of the conference for which I had purchased a $65 ticket, was being held in the Empire Room - that first place with the big, beautiful stairs. I called downstairs, cancelled my stay Thursday night stay, and arranged to leave early Thursday afternoon.

Now, let me pause to say that I have no complaints about The Palmer House. In fact, I have never been treated so well in any hotel anywhere. Except for the bar staff, every employee was not just helpful and kind, but positively wonderful, and - and this matters - was clearly perfectly trained in disability etiquette, offering help without pity, treating me as fully human at every turn. The service was so good I thought I was on the Titanic - without the whole unfortunate iceberg thing.

And it is not the fault of The Palmer House that they are trying to fit modern function into a landmark 1871 hotel. I believe in aesthetics - I don't want them hacking through 130-year-old marble to install an elevator next to the Empire Room stairs. I could ask for better signage, sure, but historic facilities are historic facilities, and people choose their conference facilities either considering access, or not.

So, Michigan State University, as conference host, chose a facility without wifi (blocking many free accessible technologies), with poor 3G reception (blocking others), with long, deeply carpeted corridors that made mobility really difficult, with major reception rooms with stair-only main entrances, with many tiny meeting rooms which wheelchairs could barely - or simply not - fit into. This was not a "single oversight." Those checking people in to the conference sat behind a tall desk I could not see over. No conference signs referred to accessibility, either for mobility, or hearing, or vision.

There has been only a very few times in my "mobility-challenged" experience when I've been told more consistently, or more repeatedly, that I was not "fully human."

As when my university chose to favor football tailgate tents over disability access to an educational event, it was more personal, because this conference was organized by people who know wheelchair users, and knew wheelchair users were coming. It was organized by people I know.

It is not malice. No one organizing this event set out to make anyone's life miserable. But that does not make it better. I can fight malice. Instead, my disability was constructed by educators I know through complete indifference, through complete lack of empathy. That is much harder to fight, If any of these people read this they will likely be horrified. They will be apologetic. They may be even resentful that (a) I didn't help with the organization, and (b) that I didn't ask them repeatedly for help, rather than launching this "public attack." They may, even, in regard to those latter two issues, be partially justified. I did not help. I did not ask.

But should I have to? Back in 1998, when I was at Grand Valley State University, I was explaining to the Academic Computing staff why we were going to put accessible computers in to every computing environment on all of our campuses, and why we were not requiring "disabled" students to show some kind of ID card to use these workstations. One of my co-workers there got it immediately. "We don't ask anyone else to go somewhere special to use a computer," he said, "we don't ask anyone to show an ID to use a monitor or a keyboard."

That was 12 years ago. I don't know if the term "Universal Design" had entered education yet - surely I had never heard of it - and yet, people knew what was right. Today the expectations should be much higher.

There were many fabulous things about this conference. Great people. Great sessions. Great ideas. Great conversations. I would say that I would love to go to CIES2011 in Montreal, but at this grand international event, my fellow educators, grad students, and researchers were willing build my disability into something so big I felt not just like a Second-Class Citizen, but as someone less than fully human. If they'll do that here, to me, what are they doing to the students in their classrooms?

I hope the person I gave my dinner ticket to enjoyed... I hope they had no problem with the stairs.

- Ira Socol

04 March 2010

How Social Networking Liberates Teachers

This week I presented a second version of the paper on Twitter as Teacher Liberation Technology that I presented last fall at Kent State University. This time, for the 2010 conference of the Comparative and International Education Society, I discussed Social Networking as Liberation Technology for Teachers and Students.

Teaching remains one of the most isolating professions I can think of, especially since lighthouse keepers have largely disappeared, and this isolation not only has profound effects on the individuals who teach, but on all of their students as well.

Even in large urban schools most teachers spend the day essentially locked within their own classrooms. Contact with their fellow professionals is limited to short lunch moments, conversations in the parking lot, and poorly designed professional development sessions. There is none of the "just-in-time" consultation which the other "professions" - doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers - have, almost none of the collaboration which routinely define those professions. There are not even "post-mortems" to challenge and advise when things go wrong.

Of course in much of the world the isolation is near total. Rural teachers may be one of two or three, or even the only teacher in a village. They may be hours from other teachers, and completely removed from any possible physical connection to teacher training institutions.

In addition to this lack of collaboration and internal support, these teachers also lack real visions of change, real alternate solutions. Teachers don't see examples of the best schools. They don't see what a real universal design school looks like. They don't see schools-without-walls. They don't see multiage or great mobile learning, unless it is right in their building.

Finally, teachers' "sight" and "reach" are constantly being restrained by national and local hegemonic power systems. Those who fund education, those who make "the rules," are politicians imposing their own vision of social reproduction on teachers. These rules - or the design of teacher education itself - constrict the sense of possibility in education. It might be the time schedule - what you can do with students in a 50 minute period is so different than what you can do in a flexible schedule. It might be how teachers are trained - in the US Teach for America workers have just six weeks of training, often devoid of alternative ideas or ideas for differing students, while in Northern Ireland, a single-year program, "just does not give us enough time [to really transform new teachers regarding inclusion]," a University of Ulster professor told us on Tuesday, and in many education programs Special Educational Needs are, at best, a tiny sidebar and Universal Design is not demonstrated at all. It might be barriers erected to learning - teachers given laptops which block certain content and certain social networking sites, or which prevent teachers from installing and discovering new learning technologies. It might be national laws - which prevent invention and experimentation. It might be locally instilled fear - many of us have seen or heard the "be scared of the internet" presentation given by poorly educated educators, politicians, and law enforcement personnel.

The result of this isolation is teachers who get stuck, who get frustrated, who are left alone to problem-solve without support - and students who too often sit through unimaginative, unchanging pedagogy.

A small primary school in Scotland met the scientists at the New York Hall of Science because the teacher was willing to let the students crowdsource a question about gravity and the vacuum of space

Social Networking changes the space in which teachers act
Social Networking allows an altered flow of power

I combine concepts from two philosophers to explain what I think happens when social networking tools such as Twitter and blogs enter the lives of teachers. From Michel Foucault I bring the idea that we best observe human action by watching what they actually do in a conceptual transaction space. That "space" - the "playing field" on which we operate, is shaped  by the limitations we have constructed through our own cultural experiences. And from Antonio Gramsci I bring the slightly advanced Marxist Philosophy view of power - that all humans have power in some way - that there are ways in which people resist and attempt to subvert structures imposed from above (the colonial imposition of hegemony), and it is important to watch those flows of power to understand.

Teachers seem to begin using these tools tentatively. First blog posts are often a basic question, or a happy report on something in their classroom. First tweets are typically a "hello," followed by a period of lurking. Many teachers go no further. Many of those who go no further describe the experience as "boring" or "confusing."

But for those who stick with it, those who are active enough to allow themselves to be drawn into conversations, start to see their transaction spaces change. New ideas flow into them which begin to widen horizons - they meet a classroom team running an inclusive classroom, they meet a latin teacher working without paper, they meet an American special education teacher challenging convention - or an Australian one. they see classrooms unimaginable to them, they meet new professors with different ideas - and the walls which have surrounded their perceptions - and which have appeared to limit their possible actions - begin to fall.

At this point, they begin to reach out and ask for help, they begin to wonder about possibilities, they begin to document their own experiments - which expands the circle. And then, teachers begin to collaborate.

They collaborate on pedagogy, often linking classrooms together - sharing book groups, blogs, skype calls - across their nations and around the globe. And they collaborate on power, asking for assistance in changing policies and structures, and getting it. These power collaborations range from technical advice on blocked internet applications to support for tenure.

And, once this happens, students begin to see the benefits, both indirect - teachers willing and able to attempt change, and direct, actual classroom involvement in the world.

- Ira Socol