29 April 2010

Anthony Orsini, Please Shut Up

Anthony Orsini, principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, New Jersey: Please shut up.

I'm not being rude. I'm just asking that you taste your own medicine. That you stop communicating in your preferred way. Stop talking, stop writing, stop reading, stop all those conversations you have in the school corridors, at restaurants, on the phone, at the market.

And remember, we'll be watching:
"It is time for every single member of the BF Community to take a stand! There is absolutely no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site!" Orsini wrote in a widely circulated email to his student's parents. 

"Let them know that you will at some point every week be checking their text messages online! You have the ability to do this through your cell phone provider.

"Let them know that you will be installing Parental Control Software so you can tell every place they have visited online, and everything they have instant messaged or written to a friend. Don't install it behind their back, but install it!"
OK, easy target. This guy is pretty crazy, and pretty determined to make kids miserable and break down all trust between parents and adolescents, but he is also part of a wide misunderstanding of humanity and human communications which is really dangerous.

University of Maryland researchers were widely reported to have found human communication addictive. That's not really what the study indicated, but it is what was reported, finding its way into the most recent of the monthly New York Times article about trying to break students of the awful habit of communicating with each other, and taking in information about the world.

None of this surprising. People were horrified when teenagers began talking on the phone in the 1950s, and they flipped out when the phone moved from the front hall of the home to kids' bedrooms.

Of course they didn't like kids hanging out on the corner, or at the drive-in, or cruising down the Main Street either - often passing laws against these dangerous behaviours.

I've tried to say, many times, that we as humans are tool users, specifically communication tool users, and that texting, social media, etc., are nothing "new" or "different" conceptually. Socrates was, after all, right. Literacy would interfere with face to face human communication, it would "dehumanize" knowledge. But Socrates was wrong. Literacy did not destroy human learning. Neither will any form of communication. Yes, there may be etiquette issues, but that's a matter for negotiation (and, is usually a question of power relationships, not rudeness).

Anthony Orsini probably doesn't know enough about social media, or children, to understand any of this. Like many, he is afraid. He is terrified that the kids in his charge know more than he does, that they can do things he cannot do, that they are talking about him behind his back. He is afraid that "these kids" are not exactly like him, so maybe, his skills and capabilities don't matter much anymore. He is terrified of becoming obsolete.

I'm not here to minimize fear. It is one incredibly powerful emotion, and it often trumps reason. But I am here to say to all adults who interact with kids - if you want them to "go without" their preferred communication tools, strategies, and methods - that you better be prepared to do the same. Kids give up facebook? You give up your books, newspapers, and NPR. Kids give up texting? You give up talking.

See how it feels.

Then sit down with those kids - or text them - and discuss what communication means.

- Ira Socol

25 April 2010

Teachers, Tenure, Transformation

A decade ago... well, more... I knew this new English teacher hired by North Muskegon (Michigan) Middle/High School. She was a wildly creative, brilliant educator, who, almost immediately, was not just teaching various grades in English classes, but was advising the school's student newspaper, the yearbook, and running the drama program.

North Muskegon has been a classic symbol to me of all that is wrong with our ways of measuring school achievement. Serving a mostly wealthy and upper-middle class white population, the tiny district has long claimed the top standardized test scores in the area, while, in the words of a friend and former school board member, "preparing students for good jobs in their daddy's companies." But that's not entirely fair. The mommies often own companies too.

Anyway, I saw it as a place offering a mediocre education to kids who, mostly, would have done fine if they never stepped into a school, and a lousy education - and brutal social environment - to those who didn't fit in to the sports-first, wealth-rules environment. Even today, under much better leadership, the district lists its sports coaches right after its board in its web directory, from kindergarten forward, you didn't want to not play football or be a cheerleader in this school if you wanted to be treated well by faculty and community.

But this new teacher was different. I was coaching boys' soccer at this school back then, and she was one of only two staff members who came to more than one game, watching different students play a sport. She supported a lot of the students who lived "in the shadows," those from the small percentage of poor families, kids with miserable home lives, kids who had withdrawn because of tragedies, and frustrated middle-schoolers who wanted "something more" than the worksheet driven curriculum. Age, status, previous academic performance made no difference in who she gave responsibility to, or who she helped.

When the principal doubted that "these kids" could handle performing Shakespeare or Aeschylus in theater, she ignored him, and directed magnificent performances with casts and crews that crossed every divide, which engaged all kinds of learners, which made great successes of kids who had never heard anything positive about themselves. From the kid with CP running the backstage operation to the "juvenile delinquent" on the follow-spot, to the football star playing one role, to the geeky kid with few friends playing the lead, well, it all worked.

Everything she did worked, and worked for all kinds of students in all kinds of situations. In a school of "good enough" she was brilliant.

And after three years, instead of receiving tenure, she was fired. The problem? She "didn't fit in with the rest of the staff."

Now, when people talk tenure and teacher hiring and firing, they think of New York City's "Rubber Room," but I think of Kathy Jo Tully, one of America's great educators. And I think of Gerry Crane who taught about 50 miles south of North Muskegon until they found out he wasn't "heterosexual enough" to be in the Byron Center schools. And I think of Susan Barker of Riverside, California.

Tenure, in my mind, and the teachers' unions which help police and enforce hiring and firing, do indeed sometimes protect bad teachers. But far more often they do exactly what they were intended to do, protect great, innovative teaching, protect difference, by ensuring that teachers, and humans, are allowed to take risks. That they are allowed to alter practices, to support students, to do more than be the robotic test prep machines so desired by Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates.

I have not been a great fan of most teaching in America. I think we need much better - very different - teacher training. I think we need to give all teachers far more ongoing training and support than we do now. I think we need to attract more creative, more different, people to teaching and hold on to them. I think we need to pay teachers a lot more and expect a lot from them.

But I know that teachers cannot be great if they fear being fired "at will" every time a school board election happens or a new mayor is elected.

Do you really want Mike Bloomberg deciding who gets hired and fired the way he decides who'll get other city jobs? Do you really want Michelle Rhee, who thinks poor kids have no right to arts, music, or creativity, making those decisions? How about the politicians of Utah, now all up in arms because the Alpine School District wanted to teach kids about "democracy." Oh I know - you're hoping the Texas State School Board decides who's in the classroom with your kid!

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
I's on Edjukashun - Texas School Board
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No, I wasn't raised to be neutral about this. My Ma got her first teaching job back when unions had little clout and teachers earned minimum wage with no planning time or breaks. She was one of the early people in on developing an AFT local in her district, which fought for rights, for decent pay, for educational innovation. And I'm too much the historian of education in America to not understand how power works in American schools, and how it would work without effective unions.

But even without that background, I know I'd come down on the side of tenure. I tend to trust people, and I tend to trust the people who see kids everyday - at least over politicians who run against kids and schools, and surely over those who've never spent 30 seconds trying to work with a complex group of students - you know, our experts, Bloomberg, Duncan, and Gates.

There's a simple fact at work here - when the teachers' unions operate "negatively" it is usually because they are acting like an industrial union. And they are acting like an industrial union because the work environment is, unfortunately, industrial in too many ways - and becoming more so by the minute at the hands of the very people who dislike the unions (under Duncan's regime teachers will be punished for any "defective" products which reach the end of the assembly line. See Rhode Island).

Change the environment, empower teachers, allow them to be the professionals they are, help them to get better, give them the tools they need, pay them like other professionals, and the unions will change too, as they respond to a changed work environment.

"The latest statistics put the average teacher's salary at about $46,000; some teachers earn a little more, some a little less (the average teacher's salary—not the starting salary—is $38,000 in Kansas, $36,000 in New Mexico, and $32,000 in South Dakota). Overall, that's about the same that we pay pile-driver operators ($45,980) and about $8,000 less than the average elevator repairman pulls down. Meanwhile, a San Francisco dockworker makes about $115,000, while the clerk who logs shipping records into the longshoreman's computer makes $136,000." (2004)

But don't mess with tenure. It protects our best... far more often than it protects our worst.

- Ira Socol

20 April 2010

The Very High Cost of Nostalgia

"“The Tea Party is saying, ‘We’re tired of this, you guys caused this, and if we don’t wake up to this, the American dream we’ve talked about since the ’50s will die,’ ” said Jeff McQueen, a Tea Party organizer in Rochester, Mich., who was laid off from his job in international sales for an auto parts company. “Things we had in the ’50s were better. If a mom wanted to work, she could, if she didn’t, she didn’t have to. Tell me how many mothers work now? Now it’s a necessity.”

"Mr. McQueen is 51 — born into the 1960s, not the ’50s. But he is not alone among Tea Party supporters in his conviction that something has been taken away from him." - New York Times

Yes, the glorious United States of the 1950s. Surely it was all good back then, unless, of course, you were female, or black ("negro"), or Catholic or Jewish, or disabled, or poor. Or, if you were young.

Of course we know that American "tea partiers" (even they seem to have discovered that "teabaggers" wasn't the right term) are as weak in the history department as they are on economics knowledge, but they are hardly alone in their belief in some wondrous mythical past...

Twice this year I've been in Twitter discussions centering around comparing today's schools and/or students with those of the past. In one a Twitter pal insisted British Education Minister Ed Balls was wrong to insist that British schools are now better than they have ever been. British parents, in a survey, said that wasn't true. Maybe, maybe not, but it seems as if those parents who think that school "was better back then" would have no hope of passing today's exit exams. So - perhaps - what they think is happening, isn't quite happening.

I asked this question: If schools are not "at their best" now, when were they? 1840s? 1960s? 1980s? 1890s? 1920s? 1940s? When, exactly, was the "peak" of British education? And why was that the peak?

oh, this must be Brit education at its peak, those wonderful 1960s...

...and for America, it was the fabulous fifties...

Yesterday, a group on Twitter began to wonder about whether today's students were "lazier" than those of the past. I hear this a lot. They are lazier, more "entitled," they learn less, they expect teachers to cater to them. "In that sense I agree with Adar that we now have a generation of lazy students who expect instant results with little effort on their part," was one blog comment pointed at.

And I thought back to my father. Back in the 1960s, when people criticized those students (the very students now criticizing today's students), he would point out that "in his day" only about a third of kids even went beyond the American eighth grade (or its Brit equivalent), essentially, he noted, the same group of kids still doing "pretty well" in High Schools in the 1960s.

In 1940 75% of Americans lacked high school diplomas, and 27% of American teens in 1940 would never even enroll in a high school, much less finish. At the end of World War II about 50% of American teens were graduating from high school, though only a part of that was getting any kind of academic education. This made the US the "best educated nation in the world."

Obviously, I would argue, having looked at a lot of old textbooks, that these students were hardly facing what we'd now call a "challenging curriculum." Yes, they were working with lots of rote memorization, which must have been brutal, but even in that, there were less states, less nations, fewer atomic elements, much less math and science, a much smaller literary canon. OK, one more planet, but about a hundred billion fewer known stars. The universe of knowledge, of even necessary operational knowledge, was so much smaller that if kids today could conceive of this, they'd feel completely abused.

But that's not the point. Nostalgia, whether in the hands of a frustrated tea partier who imagines the world was perfect before he was born, or in the hands of a parent or educator who imagines that schools and students were perfect "once upon a time," is extremely dangerous.

We saw this in the American South this month when Governors Bob McDonnell (Republican-Virginia) and Haley Barbour (Republican-Mississippi) "forgot" about slavery in their fond reminisce about the Confederacy of 1861-1865.  We see it daily in schools when students using today's tools are accused of being lazy - or cheating. We see it in our assumptions that since our children don't read newspapers they are somehow less informed than previous generations.

And when we make these nostalgic assumptions we demean and we endanger, while we lose our opportunity to impact either the present or the future.

None of this is new. The American Civil War itself was a nostalgia-fest tragedy. Southern political leaders, then as now, told poorly educated audiences that a northern "black" president was going to create some kind of change which would damage the "utopia" they had always lived in (a place with 90% of people in abject poverty or - yeah - much worse). "Old times there are not forgotten" as the song says (seven states seceded before Lincoln became president, they were not reacting to any actual event).

I hear this same refrain in schools every day.

Yes, it sounds funny, and pathetic, to us when Glenn Beck and his Tea Party Troopers mourn for an era when women were not welcome at most elite universities, when old people ate cat food to divert their food budget to medicine, when black people were prevented from voting, when cars were environment-wrecking death traps without seatbelts, when doctors promoted cigarettes to kids on television, when being poor meant you lacked a refrigerator, and - most amusingly - when the government and government-approved monopolies controlled all radio, tv, and telephones.

But so should it seem ridiculous when we act as if mobile phones introduced cheating and drug use into schools.

Or that we imagine that "way back when" all of our students were perfect, and all of us - as children - respected our teachers, our mothers and fathers, the cop on the beat, the flag (or the Queen) and God. Or that we all went home everyday, ate cookies with a tall glass of milk, and finished our homework before going out to play.

Or that the computer brought us plagiarism, or that video games brought inappropriate content and violence, or that sex on television causes teenage sex.

Or, to put it in basic terms, that we can create rules about technology or behavior, bans and zero tolerances, which will somehow restore an Edenic past which never existed.

It can not, because that past never existed. Schools were not just awful in the old days, they lost the vast majority of their students before kids were sixteen. Lessons were horrifically boring and geared to a tiny percentage of children. Those with wealth and power avoided public schools then, as they do now. Kids were physically abused and grew up to be abusive adults. Teachers were underpaid and poorly trained and had little access to resources, and no time for staff collaboration. Special Ed kids were locked away or kept out of school entirely. Non-white kids were sent to separate schools which often lacked everything. Girls took "Home Ec" and were shunted off to "Business English" so they could become secretaries.

Who wouldn't want to re-create those good ol' days?

When we pretend that perfect past existed we do real harm - politically, economically, educationally. When Republicans say that America's poor are better off than the poor most everywhere, nostalgia prevents us from remembering that it was only Lyndon Johnson's "big government" Great Society which made that true. When we think of the 1950s in the US as an economic "golden age" it prevents us from remembering even that the prosperity was based on massive federal spending which fueled a huge inflation rate that discounted debt for the middle class but which crushed the poor and elderly. And when we think of school as "perfect" back then we forget that the result of that system was that most students dropped out to go work at factories.

And all of this false memory prevents us from moving forward, stops us from finding new solutions, blocks us from embracing those who need help now - including our own children.

In schools everywhere our nostalgic blinders criminalize childhood, keep essential tools away from our students, and lead us to treat our children as alien failures. It is a very cruel, very costly, self-deception.

So let's stop looking backward through rose colored glasses. And let's begin to look forward by looking at our needs now. Measuring ourselves against a false view of the past gets us nowhere.

- Ira Socol

15 April 2010

The Liars and the Fools

"[T]he point of contention was eliminating tenure for Florida public school teachers and tying their pay and job security to how well their students were learning."
Thus said The New York Times, that "newspaper of record" on Thursday, April 15, 2010 in a story about Governor Crist's decision to veto Florida Senate Bill 6.

Was that bill really about how well "students were learning"? I don't think learning was being discussed at all, testing was. Teachers' jobs, pay, etc were not going to depend on anything the students might know or understand. These things would depend on how "well" students performed on standardized tests which have never been proven to measure learning.

86% graduation rate, 96% college acceptance rate, but Bill Gates and Barack Obama tell us it's a bad school 

This distinction matters. In the same newspaper it was reported that the Charter School created and run by Stanford University's College of Education will likely be closed because students tested poorly. The board of one of Silicon Valley's most impoverished school districts "simply looked at the scores" and decided that a K12 program with an 86% high school graduation rate (better than any other school in the district) and which sends 96% of graduating high school seniors to college, is a total failure.

The real problem, of course, lies elsewhere, with the Obama Administration which has decided that - even more than under George W. Bush - the standardized test is the only measure, and with the persistently destructive Gates Foundation - which despite zero expertise and zero proof of success  has become the big dog wagging Arne Duncan's sad tail.
"As Ravenswood board members pointed out, another charter school in the same district, Aspire, has consistently had better results on state tests. In fact, Stanford’s first charter school in 2001 was a joint venture with Aspire.

"The two cultures clashed. Aspire focused “primarily and almost exclusively on academics,” while Stanford focused on academics and students’ emotional and social lives, said Don Shalvey, who started Aspire and is now with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation."
Because, as "everyone" knows, focusing on students' emotional and social lives is ridiculous, when those kids could be filling out a worksheet or copying and pasting together a report on "Africa." Why that kind of frivolous focus just leads to...

Oh yeah, an 86% graduation rate and a 96% college acceptance rate among kids with no college in their families' experiences, and English as a second language.

Stanford, how could you be so dumb? 

Testing, as The New York Times declares, is learning. Microsoft's definition of academics is all that matters. Teachers know nothing, educational researchers know nothing, all knowledge is actually in the hands of a bunch of businesspeople who, from Arne Duncan to Bill Gates to Meg Whitman, to Mike Bloomberg, who have declared themselves our saviors.

God help our children.

- Ira Socol

13 April 2010

"Invisible Technology"?

Technology must be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.” - Chris Lehmann
Twitter led me to a blog discussing this concept. And the quote confused me. I thought back to the opening sequence of the film 2001, A Space Odyssey, and wondered, were the tools - the technology - introduced there really supposed to be perceived by humans as oxygen is perceived? If that were true, humans would no more adapt and improve their tools than they adapt and improve their oxygen, and that seems like a very bad idea - especially a very bad idea for "education" to embrace.

I'm not picking on Chris Lehmann who I see as one of the great educators of our time - but - I have heard this “invisible technology” argument many, many times, especially since the iPad announcement (as Cory Doctorow discusses brilliantly on boingboing), and it troubles me, and baffles me.

I guess because when I argue with schools that certain technologies need not be explicitly learned "at all costs," I am typically told, by educators, how wrong I am.

So, perhaps I'm just looking for consistency of argument, or perhaps I think that we do owe our students some solid sense of how tools are constructed, how they operate, and how they are chosen.

If I walk into a school today, what I will see is this: Though we live in a time when one can very easily absorb “written” information without knowing any of the alphabetic or phonological coding embedded in text, the schools seem extremely committed to the teaching of the explicit technologies of the alphabet and phonics. Though we live in a time when simply speaking out loud can create text in many forms, schools schools seem extremely committed to the teaching of the explicit technologies of writing and keyboarding. Though we live in a time of easy to use, solar powered calculators, schools seem extremely committed to the teaching of the explicit technologies of on-paper mathematical calculation. I have even seen teachers explaining to students the proper handling of the explicit technology of books - don't tear the pages, don't leave the books out in the rain, etc.

These are all explicit technologies for utilizing certain forms of information and communication, as Chris Lehmann's student demonstrates here:

different technologies operate different ways - that is important to understand

We spend years and years of school time teaching one specific set of technologies. Reading ink-on-paper as the ancient Hebrews did, writing as scribes did thousands of years ago, keyboarding as 19th century secretaries did, cyphering just as Bob Cratchit did in Scrooge's counting house. Then, when we get to all the contemporary technologies, we suddenly want "invisibility." See an operating system or a file system? No thanks, that's too confusing. Understand why a computer or a phone does something when we tell it to? Not important, that's over our heads. Be able to change the interface, the way a computer or phone works, in order to adapt to your needs and preferences? Crazy, that's so geeky.

Let me quote Doctorow as he discusses the iPad:
"Then there's the device itself: clearly there's a lot of thoughtfulness and smarts that went into the design. But there's also a palpable contempt for the owner. I believe -- really believe -- in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can't open it, you don't own it. Screws not glue. The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+.
"But with the iPad, it seems like Apple's model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of "that's too complicated for my mom" (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn't too complicated for their poor old mothers)."
"The way you improve your iPad isn't to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn't a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it's a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals."
And I think Doctorow is right. I think we must offer these opportunities to understand, choose, and use tools, because that is both what makes us human and what enables progress. 

In 1880 you may not have needed to know all the details of steam locomotive technology, but it was still important for students to know the difference between a train and a trolley and renting a horse at the livery stable, and how these all operated – at least passenger interface-wise – if you needed to get somewhere. And the more you actually knew, the more choices you had in life.

important to know in 1880? maybe - but how to read a timetable, how to buy a ticket, how to behave on a train, how to be comfortable on a train - all pretty essential

"Technology" is - quite definably - not "oxygen." Technology is the art of manipulating the world. Technology is, specifically, manipulating the world for our benefit. And, as Heidegger always pointed out, the technologies we live with not only give us control, they themselves structure the way we see things - the way our world is not only perceived, but actually operates.

The gun's existence literally means that the human replaces the big cat at the top of the on-land food chain, for example, which alters not only our view of large sections of the planet but how we view night and sleep as well. The existence of the alphabet not only enables a certain form of reading, it constructs many of our organization systems. The development of numbers and numbering alters fundamental concepts of society.

So, even if I can not actually read alphabetical text, it really helps to know how it works. Even I can't subtract a 2-digit number from a 2-digit number on paper (and I typically cannot), it helps me to have an idea of how that happens. And even if you are not a computer programmer it would help if you could see the file system on the iPad, so you might grow up to be the kind of person who could design a better file system.

Thus I don't want technology to be invisible at all, especially not in schools. Right now we spend years teaching kids about the functional technologies of our past, and, whether we continue that or not, we need to teach them something about the functional technologies of their future.

Remember, "invisible" is "unknown." And "unknown" can not really be our goal in education, can it?

- Ira Socol

05 April 2010

An Easter Monday Proclamation of Liberation

On Easter Monday, 1916, a group of Irish patriots seized Dublin's General Post Office and other key, symbolic points in the city, and proclaimed the independence of the Irish Republic.

The Easter Rising Éirí Amach na Cásca lasted seven days and ended with the British Empire murdering the greatest leaders of a generation in Ireland in a yard at Kilmainham Gaol. But those events began not just Ireland's liberation from Britain but the entire 20th Century of Liberation which would sweep across Africa and Asia for the next 60 years. Tiny Ireland became not just a symbol, but a literal exporter of revolution to the globe - the leaders of national liberation movements - from the Jews of Palestine to the Vietnamese, from Indians to Kenyans, came to learn  how to free themselves from their oppressors from Michael Collins - the Easter Rising survivor who led Ireland to victory in the Anglo-Irish War - and his lieutenants.

This is not about Irish history, though, this is about education.

On the night of Easter Sunday 2010 a few of us gathered electronically to battle with the Governor of New Jersey, Christopher Christie, an extremely wealthy ex-federal prosecutor elected as a Republican in 2009. The Governor, allowing his $60,000-per-year paid twitterer to spend the holiday with his family, was on Twitter himself, explaining why his first mission as governor is to cut teacher pay and funding for education in his state. (see the conversations, with @mritzius, with @lgesin, with me, and the Gov himself)

The Governor, not unexpectedly, comes across as a series of Fox News talking points, constantly demanding "shared sacrifice" - though the sharing extends neither to himself nor his class of taxpayers, who typically live in New Jersey to avoid the actual tax bills they'd receive in New York or Pennsylvania, and insisting that New Jersey needs a solution to its extraordinarily high property taxes while refusing to consider any actual solution to that (an increased sales tax or VAT, a rise in the top marginal rates for New Jersey's income tax). In fact, he is simply bullying the teachers, the group charged with developing New Jersey's future, because he knows that their commitment to their students makes them unlikely to strike or otherwise really resist.

When "reformers" in America today talk about education, they are, of course, not discussing students or children or learning or development - they are talking about political economics. They are interested in "efficiencies" not to make schools better, but to make government smaller. They are too often interested in Charter Schools not as innovative examples which lead to new thinking, but as a way to bust some of the last remaining American unions. They are interested in "choice" not for opportunity, but to continue the vicious racial and class divides in the United States. Yes Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Joel Klein, Mike Bloomberg, Arne Duncan, Paul Vallas, Chris Christie - I am talking about you.

On the same evening, Pam Moran, a Virginia school superintendent, posted a wonderful statement on the always fascinating Edurati Review on why we need to move our conversations about true educational re-design to the "front channel." For, in our backchannels, on Twitter and elsewhere, we spend our time discussing re-design, how to make education work for the most kids in the most places, how to move beyond a system designed to fail kids to one which moves kids forward, how to inspire and support teachers to be their best, how to bring parents in - in all the best ways. And these conversations are great and powerful, but they are hidden, as Pam says, from the "mainstream media" and the current political conversation, and that is a recipe for disaster.

Education is a colonial project - oh, not always as obviously or viciously as Teach for America or the KIPP schools - but it is a colonial project. The idea is to take our children and convert them to the uses of our society. And how our schools do that literally determines our collective future. We live in an American society right now in which everyone from the President on down denigrates teachers as somehow greedy, lazy, badly trained, irresponsible people. We send our children off to schools after the President has applauded firing their teachers, after Governors call teachers greedy. We defer maintenance in schools, we close schools, we refuse to equip schools with the technologies used everywhere else on the planet, we reduce education to filling in multiple choice bubbles on standardized tests - and then we are shocked - "shocked," as Casablanca's police chief said, that kids don't care and don't do well during their school day.

So, today, Easter Monday 2010 we need a new Proclamation of Educational Liberation.

Today we must say that we will stand up for our children and our future. We will do it aggressively and publicly. Today we must say we will challenge our "leaders" - Governor Christie, why do lawyers in New Jersey outearn teachers? Isn't teaching, isn't bringing up our children, the most important thing we as a society do? Governor Christie, shouldn't you and Bill O'Reilly pay a bit more of your income in taxes so teachers can earn a decent living, kids can go to great schools, and middle class families can afford property taxes? President Obama, can you please stop calling education a "race" - races have winners and losers, and we want all of our kids to succeed. Texas "Education" Leaders, please stop using schools for indoctrination and use them to help children grow in to critical thinkers. Mr. Duncan, please stop equating test scores with learning.

We need to raise these questions and challenges every day, to every leader, to demand that they break from their talking points and explain what they mean and why they mean it. We need to engage them on Twitter, on blogs, in letters to the newspaper, in phone calls to radio stations, in letters to reporters and editors and TV anchors demanding better conversations. We must bring this all to that "front channel."

But we have to do more than that. Padraig Pearse played to the grand stage in the Easter Rising and set the spark, but Michael Collins took to the hills and won the war, and we must do the same. Stop being circumspect. Talk to your neighbors, your friends, your families. Speak up at church or synagogue or your yoga retreat. We must change the national conversation not just from the top down but from the bottom up. We must explain our visions of education, and our passion for education, to all who we can get to listen. Because this really, really matters.

Americans have always been conflicted about education and educated people. This might be the only place in the world where we might think someone "too smart" to lead us, the only place where "I'd like to have a beer with him" trumps "how smart he/she is" in electing a president. And without the history of clergy/teachers that Europe and other continents have, Americans have always had minimal respect for teachers. Back in the mid-19th Century Henry Barnard wanted women as teachers because he could pay them less and listen to them less - and that was a bad start. The other "professions," lawyers, doctors, architects - almost entirely male around 1900 - raised their statuses and their salaries through exclusive organizations, teachers - mostly female - were left scrambling to create industrial-style unions to meet their role in industrialized education. So teachers, who have more education behind them than lawyers, work longer hours than lawyers, and are far more essential to the general society than lawyers, get less respect and much less income. And we often build schools as concrete block bunkers because it is cheap, while our restaurants are far more engagingly designed - thus we are fat and stupid.

So, if there is to be another "American Century" we must be better. We must make education desired, respected, and fundamentally understood. And if we don't do it, who will?

"We will loft education anew when we generate an ever-increasing ratio of educators who believe in a mission to create spaces of inspiration for learners and learning.  It will take more than 1 or 10 percent of us speaking the poetic and political voices of passion, joy, and drive to create those spaces in which young people and educators can thrive in these contemporary days. Our vision must become a vision of lift, influence, and power that creates a front channel for our voices, shifting us out of the backchannel.  We need our best educational technologists, our courageous leaders, our creative geniuses to create the front channel we must become. It’s our job, and our time, to increase the inspiration ratio in every community in this nation." - Pam Moran

Padraig Pearse and his compatriots were shot to death for their efforts. I'm not asking for that - just for a bit of time, a bit of discomfort, a bit of effort.

This is something we must do.

- Ira Socol

02 April 2010

Welcome iPad and Web 1.5

I've used tablet computers for years, and I love tablets.

I would, if I could, dump the whole Interactive White Board thing and throw a Tablet PC down in the center of every four or five students. With this tool, running Windows7 and no other paid software at all, students could see and hear text, could watch videos, could listen to podcasts, and better still, they could create via keyboard (real or on-screen), via video camera, via microphone, via speech recognition, via handwriting, via drawing, and they could instantly share their creations with their classmates or the world.

So why does Apple's iPad leave me so disappointed? OK, not the iPad itself - Apple is entitled to sell anything it can for whatever price its acolytes will pay ("I’d wear their underwear if they made it."). Rather, it is the embrace of the iPad idea by anyone in the educational community which disappoints me, because this seems - to me - a massive step backwards. 

Yes, we're moving back from Web 2.0 to Web 1.5, and Steve Jobs will only charge you $500 (or $1000) for that privilege. 

When David Pogue tells you that "techies hate it" but "everyone else loves it" he is accurately reflecting those who surround him in The New York Times building, a group who, like Jobs, has always been a bit scared of Web 2.0... of everyone having equal status as creators and consumers, of open source software and free content. So when Pogue writes, "the iPad is not a laptop. It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on," he is expressing the fondest wish of The New York Times Company, which has never been very happy with the free-for-all that the internet has become. 

"Not nearly as good for creating stuff ... infinitely more convenient for consuming it." 

As Web 2.0 has developed there have been, essentially, two different sides of the equation, but the split looks confusing to us because of the frames with which we see our tech companies. On one side we have Apple, Amazon, Barnes&Noble - all of whom want to be "your content store." Remember that Apple "got rich" by figuring out a way to take a nascent music sharing culture and switch it over to a paid, proprietary format. Yes iTunes is cool, yes, it is pretty cheap, but Napster, of course, was a lot cheaper, and a lot more open. Apple got you to buy music for your iPod then, and now they'll get you to buy your newspaper for your iPad. The iPod allowed creative mixing, but the iPod was not a creation tool, it was a storefront in Apple's conception. The iPad is an extension of that theory, as is the Kindle, as is the Nook.

On the other side, a curious mix of companies and organizations, from Google to Microsoft to Adobe to open source collaborators. For these organizations the goal has been compatible and essentially open content which can be used on virtually any device. This side sells access, creativity, and creation, but has no particular interest in actually selling you content. Of course part of this world goes back to the beginnings of the PC when Apple decided to control all the parts in their machines and Microsoft decided to make an operating system which would work with just about anything you plugged into it.

it's all consumption in Apple's iPad ad

But I'm not here to be anti-Apple. I love my MacBook Pro. I wouldn't have paid for it myself, I run Windows on it half the time, but except for those missing keys Steve Jobs tells me I don't need, its a great computer. I'm here, rather, to be against educators rushing to embrace a controlled consumption tool. I believe that education needs to be significantly about creation, and I believe that education is best served when knowledge flows freely - both with ease and at the lowest possible cost. So I do not want schools embracing a technology which limits creation, and I do not want to deliver our students as customers to Apple or Amazon. We've spent a century delivering them to textbook publishers, and it is time to stop.

should one company control access to your students?

With the iPad we are stepping back to an earlier web, a web centered on consumption, before we all created everything we wanted, however we wanted. Before we all began to meet over Skype video calls and G-mail video. Before we became more creators than consumers in our online day. 

And I don't want to go back, not even half a step. 

- Ira Socol