31 January 2011

The View from Here

What do you see when you look at a school? What are the clues to the education happening inside?

What is happening in the corridors? Schools are – or at least should be – learning communities. Academical Villages to use Jefferson’s lovely turn of phrase. So the corridors, the hallways, are the streets of this “Learning City” or “Academical Village.” And where those streets intersect, are the urban spaces which define a community.

So when I see a school with empty corridors during large parts of the school day, I tend to suspect that learning in that school is isolated, is private, is perceived as something which goes on best behind closed doors. Empty hallways suggest a lack of collaboration, yes, but something deeper, a lack of cross-group inspiration. Various divisions within the school, our odd separations by age and subject, are not getting to see what others are doing and how they are doing it, so the natural form of peer mentoring is absent.

I want to see students working in the halls. Not doing tests, working alone or silently – hell, our classrooms are designed for that – but being engaged in open, collaborative, and publicly visible work.

I also want to see students moving in and out of the classrooms. Are kids free to get to the rest room, to the water fountain, to the library, to just ‘take a walk’ when they need to, to shift their focus (as Alcott knew they must, back in 1832)? Or is this “city” or “village” under lockdown most of the day?

What is on the walls? It can be quite calming to have a few clean walls, sort of “pure architecture moments,” but in general the corridors of your learning community should advertise the efforts of the citizens of that community. And not just the finished products, but works in progress, so process is on-display and can be discussed.

Some of us made black Wordles and some of us made
white Wordles, but who chose a way to do
linguistic analysis?
But I look for something else. If I see a wall of student work and that work is more similar than different – if it all carries a similar format instead of being based in an understanding – I suspect that students are being taught to copy and plagiarize rather than think and create. So if the projects on display relate to, say, Ancient Greece, I want to lots of different conceptions, efforts, forms. And if the idea is analysing lingual content, I don’t want to see 30 Wordles. No teacher should ever really tell a student, “this is what I want this to look like.” It should always be, “show me/tell me what you know and think is important.”

Are punishments permanent? “What do you do in this library?” I asked students in a Philadelphia high school last week. “People come in and hang out, sometimes they do homework,” was the reply. “Can you eat and drink in here?” I asked, because visiting adults were eating and drinking in there. “No,” the students answered, “we used to be able to but not everybody cleaned up so we lost that.”

“What do you have to do to get that back?” asked another visitor. “We don’t know,” the kids said, “no one ever asked that or talked about it.”

This is the “permanent punishment.” Violations of the law result in a kind of “death sentence.” And that demonstrates to kids that learning and growth are not expected.

“OK,” I said, “but you guys are going to college, right?” “They all nodded. “So how are you going to learn to function in a university library, where everyone is eating and drinking coffee and stuff, if you can’t practice it here?” And at this point they seemed confused. Nobody, apparently, had shared with them what a university library might be like. So the other visitor said, “Go ask the librarian what you need to do to get food and drink back in here…”

Rights and expectations are a learned thing in a learning community. We do our students no favors if we offer them no path to grow.

Questions, not Answers. I like to see schools with a lot more questions up on the walls, and flowing through adult speech, than answers. When the students in the library above asked the Librarian, “What do we need to get food and stuff back in here?” the Librarian gave them an answer. “I think you should form a volunteer crew to bus the tables and clean up,” he said, after first admitting that (a) he also had never thought about this, and (b) he didn’t know what university libraries were like.

I would have preferred to hear him say, “Why don’t you go visit places with books and food, and see what they do?” or “Why don’t you get a bunch of kids together and make a proposal?” or just, “Can we get together and figure out how to keep this clean?” Because I would prefer that students be engaged in ways that cause them to think, learn, collaborate.

I look for the “Questions, not Answers” everywhere in the building. On classroom walls, in corridor displays, above the whiteboards, even on signs near the doors. Better to ask, “Are you disturbing other students?” than to say, “Be Quiet.” Better to ask, “What is the periodic table of elements and how does it work?” than to just post a chart.

Are students moving toward trust and control of their own learning? In a primary school I get disappointed if a classroom for ten-year-olds looks much more “regulated” than a classroom for six-year-olds. Or if a secondary school classroom seems more fixed and group instruction oriented than a kindergarten. If we are trying to help our students become lifelong learners, able to build their own learning environments and learning strategies, then each “step up” should move toward flexibility and and that combination of individual needs and collaborative environments which define the real world in this century.

So I look for highly flexible, comfortable spaces in our classrooms, and I look for evidence that we trust our older students more than we trust our younger students. If that is not true, I assume the school is failing completely on that “helping us build citizens” thing.

Are there bells? I do not believe in bells or factory whistles at this point in time. And I do not think we ever want to encourage students to think that learning is stopped and started with Pavlovian signals.

I also do not want students to imagine that they will respond to a “bell schedule” anywhere outside of primary and secondary education. If they’re waiting for the bell when they get to a university, there’s a problem.

A subset of this: If you have bells, and students are “late” when the “class start” bell rings, they must be free to leave the minute the “class over” bell rings. If you follow the bell for late, but claim that “only the teacher can dismiss the class” you’ve swapped even your 19th century factory logic for authoritarianism.

What can you imagine on your way home from school?
Dr. Seuss,
And to Think Tha I Saw It on Mulberry Street
More rules than suggestions? A long time ago, back when New York City operated a little democratically, Mayor John Lindsay’s Parks Department tore down the big “NO” signs at parks and playgrounds. You know, those signs with a giant “NO” on the left next to a long list of prohibited activities, from spitting to bare feet. In their place went signs which listed a long list of fun activities – with a few crossed out: “Running, Jumping, Spitting, Climbing, Eating, Drinking, Punching, Swinging…” Ever since I’ve looked for signals of inspiration for children which outweigh signals of prohibition.

Schools should encourage kids to pick up leaves and make up stories on their way home. To talk to someone they've never spoken to before. To look at an old building and imagine its past. To wonder at the cloudbanks outside the classroom window.

What I too often see, especially near doors, range from "control" statements to prohibitions, even if they are politely phrased as "expectations." Expectations are fine, but imaginative suggestions are more important.

Comfort and Joy. Look for signs that this is a comfortable place and a joyous place. Are there places, in corridors and in every classroom, that you would find comfortable? That a child of the age this school is for would find comfortable? Would find comfortable throughout their moods? Is there space and time foe for joy? Not just joy for a few, but joy for the community?

Learning can be hard work. It often is hard work. But work need not make one miserable... that is an unfortunate remnant idea of the Reformation which should be tossed away.

This can be expressed lots of ways, from evidence that every student interest is embraced by the community (in secondary schools I look for wall postings about student initiated clubs, non-school activities, etc. In primary schools I look at those walls for evidence that the school celebrates every student), to watching how students move through the corridors. I look at the furniture choices in every space, at the lighting, at how kids eat. I look for the kind of impromptu performances and artworks that make great cities of culture the great cities they are. Are kids busking during lunch? (collection of money not required in this case). Is play celebrated?

Next time you visit a school, take a look. A real look. What do you see?

- Ira Socol

30 January 2011

Alan Shapiro, 1926-2011

Alan Shapiro, a leader in student-centered education and teacher-educator for almost half a century, died Friday, January 28, at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut after a short illness, at the age of 85. 

My friend, my mentor, my teacher.

He taught for many years in the New Rochelle (NY) Public Schools and founded The Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study in 1970, a high school alternative program based on theories he developed with friends Neil Postman and Charlie Weingartner. He had written, for more than a decade, for the educational idea site, Teachable Moment.

The family has requested that those wishing to honor Alan Shapiro’s life and legacy consider contributing to
The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility
publishers of TeachableMoment.org  

475 Riverside Drive, Suite 550
New York, New York 10115
212.870.3318 | fax: 212.870.2464

I might request that the best way to honor his memory is to do everything you can to insist that our educational systems be student-centered learning and inquiry communities.

- Ira Socol

29 January 2011

The Messages

I'm sitting here in the second floor corridor of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia watching the flow of "EduCon 2.3" - a conference supposedly about educational innovation. I "know" it is about "educational innovation" because everybody says it is. Just as I "know" the SLA is an innovative success because everybody tells me that.

Traditional student/teacher status divider,
Science Leadership Academy
My goal is not to be cruel or negative. But I guess my goals are to wonder how we effect change if we never change the structures, if we only challenge the small issues?

So if a high school consists of classrooms and time periods and grades, can it really be a "game changer"?

And if a conference begins a day with an hour plus long lecture by powerpoint, and is held in discrete sessions in classrooms on a time grid, can it show people how to "change that game"?

Because I talked to a student yesterday who said, "If the teacher didn't give me a grade I wouldn't know if I was learning." And today the conference organizer seemed troubled that I was 'not in class.'

And that shows, doesn't it?, that we're modelling the same old thing?

- Ira Socol

26 January 2011

On human value

On Saturday afternoon, as my good friend Paul gathered with his family in Connecticut, I went to the closest thing I could find to a dumpy New York area pizzeria in this frozen West Michigan tundra, and had a couple of slices and a Coke.

a day which encourages interior thought
There was an essence of physical memory to be touched.

I can remember being fifteen. Fifteen? Yeah. Before a drivers license and the $100 1965 Corvair with the two-speed automatic (shifter on the dash) gave me wheeled mobility. I usually took the "M" bus up to the high school from the corner of North and Main, but I never rode it back. Instead I walked down North Avenue in New Rochelle, which the early French residents had called "The Middle Line." (Lacking a central river, French settlers needed to create an artificial divider from which "ribbon farms" could spread.)
18th Century map of Nouvelle Rochelle

I would walk and process the day, working through my world in a fully alone time. But usually I'd get hungry along the way, and often I'd stop at the G+G Pizza on New Rochelle's "bar strip" south of Iona College.

I'd order a slice of their incredibly oily pizza, blot up the grease with napkins, pour on the parmigiana cheese, and sit at a small table staring at the traffic outside.

Often I thought about things which Alan Shapiro had brought into my world.

Alan gave me a voice. I mean, I talked a lot before, but Alan Shapiro allowed me to find that my voice mattered, that people would hear what I said. He let me know that I could use my life experiences to help others if I figured out how to communicate. At a moment in my life when I knew I was going nowhere, this teacher held up a map of the universe and suddenly, there were possibilities.

But in those moments over pizza - then and now - I'd think about what I was doing through an "Alan" frame. Did it have value of some kind? Could I explain it? Could I take it another step in any - or many - directions? Was it always better to try, even if the result didn't seem likely? Could I bring others with me? How did I know what was said to me was "good information" or crap?

And if it was late, and the day had been hard, I'd work through those questions - about whatever - and I'd decide to keep going.

On this past Saturday, Alan's son emailed that Alan had woken up after a few days of being 'out of touch' and had recited this poem...

A. E. Housman (1859–1936).
A Shropshire Lad. (1896).

Into my heart on air that kills

INTO my heart on air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

He is dying, and quickly, or no, as he said to his grandson today, when his grandson said, "you don't have to fight it Papa," "I'm not fighting. I'm sailing."

It is an end as courageous and elegant and inspired as the life which preceeded it.

And I'm not sure I'd really get through this week, except that I am deep in the midst of doing Alan's work.

All his life he fought for children. All his life he worked to help teachers around him get better. All his life he refused to let rules or plans or politics get in the way of kids learning, and kids being OK. All kids. Everywhere.

And so this week, as he lies in a Connecticut Hospital I am surrounded by educational magic in the making. I watch the kids in Mike Thornton's classroom free to discover as they study, free to not follow any lesson plan, free to not limit their learning to the state curriculum. I watch kids in Melissa Techman's library move through spaces now safe and flexible and redefinable by the kids to their own needs. I watch physical education teachers breaking down all the fears and barriers which beset so many kids. I watch high school students, liberated by an inspired teacher in a library-centered digital media lab, talk about discovering self-respect and even, yes, success in school, through following their passions.

And I know the value of teachers and the value of what those of us in education are trying - every day - to do. Not the faux value expressed in tonight's State of the Union ("nation builders" LOL), but with a real understanding that there is truly no job which is more important in any society. No job which deserves more real respect, and support, including job and economic security. No job we can invest in continuing education for which will help us as a world more.

Alan taught me many things, and one of them is the power of the teacher liberated to do their best for each individual student. The power to save lives, to give voice, to open opportunities, to allow imagination to soar, and to figure out how to be what you can be.

Many people bash teachers daily these days. Many always have. Fools like the current Governor of New Jersey and other politicians and commentators are nothing new. There are always meaningless people who seek to tear down those who have chosen to make their own lives important.

But listen to me. Barack Obama wants to turn your school into a cross between a Chinese Prison Camp and a badly run factory. He wants to stop you from doing what, if you look up from your test prep, you know your kids need you to do.

Honor Alan Shapiro with me this week. Be the best educators you can be, and damn the rules, the common cores, the mandates. Be the best educators you can be every day and try to be a better educator every day.

You've got nothing to lose. They'll blame you anyway. So let's just ignore "those" voices, and let's find our own.

- Ira Socol

21 January 2011

Alan Shapiro

I am having a really hard time tonight. So are many, many of my oldest friends. We may be on the verge of losing someone incredibly important to our lives.

I think the greatest compliment which can be paid to any human's life is that he or she made life better for real people.

Alan, just a few weeks ago, with family
And because Alan Shapiro made life better for so many, I wanted to write a thank you, and not a eulogy.

I've written of Alan before. He was not just my best teacher ever, but the inspiration for the incredible high school I was so lucky to attend. But tonight I want to talk about his words, and the legacy they will leave for all in education.

I'll start by saying that above all, Alan Shapiro believes in the dignity, rights, and potential of all people. Children every bit as much as adults. He has lived through a remarkable life, from being an infantryman in World War II Europe, to holding Anne Schwerner's hands in the kitchen on Albert Place as she wondered what had become of her son - Michael, to beginning the AFT local in New Rochelle, NY, and not just getting teachers above the minimum wage level, but liberating students in a deeply troubled city school system. He sat in that same kitchen and wondered about the future of education with his buddies, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner.

An urban school district in search of answers - Life Magazine (1966)
This engagement in the world, in the entire world of education, is what makes his voice so remarkable.

And it is a voice which has remained strong all these years. It is a voice which allowed me, and so many of my friends, to rescue ourselves when life seemed too difficult. It was also a voice which altered the practice of teachers who knew him. He is why my mother literally began tearing down walls in her elementary school to create big multi-teacher multiage classrooms. Deskless classrooms in the 1970s.

So please, take some time this weekend and read...

On the essential skill of "Crap Detecting"

On politics and education.

Thinking is Questioning.

On Plagiarism.

Teaching Controversial Issues.

Teaching Social Responsibility.

Wikileaks: Terrorists or Journalists?.

Interpreting and Verifying News in the Age of Information Overload.

Teaching Howard Zinn.

On "No Child Left Behind".

On Racism and Police Violence. (Alan and I talked via email a great deal as he wrote this.)

Encouraging your class through group work.

Studying a poem.

and his 1970 proposal for a new kind of Alternative Education along with a 1974 "review" written for students.

There is so much more, but this might be a start on seeing education as I think I do, through a lens of possibility for all which Alan showed me.

I'll end by just bringing up two scenes which I'll always remember. First, during my senior year in high school, he "quit" as advisor to our weekly newspaper (which was our English course). He was angry at our anger about his editing as he typed our stories up on mimeograph stencils each Thursday night. "Do it yourselves," he told us, "I'll give you three weeks, maybe two."

Well, we made it six months, never missing a week. On Thursday afternoons ten of us would pile into an empty business school classroom and type, John Rosenthal turning my bizarre dictations into printable text. We wouldn't give up, because we knew we couldn't fail Alan, or ourselves, by not getting it out week after week. He laughed at us, but we knew we'd done just what he wanted us to do.

The other moment, in ninth grade. Well, he was explaining to us that as we wrote poetry, we needed to consider not just the words but the rhythm and the structure. This was before the alternative school. This was in "dumb English" in an old urban Junior High. Our class of misfits weren't getting it. He had just brought Gregory Corso to us, and we were confused. So Alan climbed up on the desks, and skipped around the room, kicking books and papers around and singing, "Death is here, death is there, death is around us everywhere." A lesson never to be forgotten.

Thank you Alan Shapiro, my friend, my mentor, the teacher who saved my life. A man who made the lives of many better.

- Ira Socol

20 January 2011

Fifty Years Ago

All I remember about Inauguration Day 1961 was how proud my parents and older siblings were. A Catholic1, a veteran of World War II, an Irishman, someone of my parent's generation, as he would say, a man "born in this [the 20th] century."

Sadly, I have a much stronger memory of a day three years later, of a day where I watch adults cry in ways I had not known was possible.

But I want to go back to that incredibly bright January day fifty years ago. The new President spoke just three days after his predecessor had spoken a remarkably powerful farewell address. And both spoke about leadership in ways we have often forgotten.

I want your students to read both speeches. This is a remarkable moment, and it needs to be understood, and perhaps, it needs to be seen in contrast to today.

For honestly, I have not been able to imagine a politician - especially an American successful politician - truly using these kinds of words today and meaning them. Not since President Jimmy Carter was laughed at when he had the audacity to ask Americans to turn their thermostats down, wear sweaters at home, and drive slower so the nation could get through a major crisis. (It is worth noting that if Ronald Reagan had not reversed US energy policy upon taking office, the US would be importing one-fourth the oil it is today.) Yes, all kinds of people (especially David Cameron and US Governors) will discuss "shared sacrifice" - certainly President Obama does, but few actually ask the rich to pay higher taxes - even in war - (give Illinois Governor Pat Quinn credit here), few actually ask citizens to do anything uncomfortable, few ever request that citizens live up to the responsibility of citizenship and act nobly. Not to get too partisan here, but it seems to me that the contemporary US Republican Party (and the contemporary Fianna Fail in Ireland and Conservative Coalition in Britain) have built their policies on the opposite concept - citizens - surely citizens with the most resources - deserve much for nothing.2

There is also a stunning level of reconciliation in these speeches. They are speeches for everyone, not just the politicians expected "winning slice" of the electorate. So it might be remarkable for your students to read, to hear, these words:

"...each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration; the need to maintain balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between the actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration." said Dwight D. Eisenhower.

...and, of course...

"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

"My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

"Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love
." said John Kennedy.

I'm not one to blame our children or go all wackily moral as David Brooks recently did in The New York Times ("But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness."), yet, we should be - we need to be, discussing what has changed (besides the fact that the US top marginal tax rate is no longer the 91% it was at this moment in time).

So turn your students loose on this moment in history today, and on the words which defined it. You can look at industry,

or movies,

or music, or books, or education...

Let students find their own path back in time, and let the conversation begin.

- Ira Socol

1- Please do not refer to John Kennedy as America's first Catholic President - unless you can name America's other Catholic Presidents. Bonus: Ask your students to list non-Protestants nominated for President by the Democrats, then the Republicans.
2 - Just last night, new Michigan Governor Rick Snyder promised to improve education funding, provide the whole state with preventative health care, help everyone lose weight and stop smoking, even provide "pre-natal education," all while cutting taxes on business by over $1.5 billion (in a state already facing a $1.8 billion deficit).

14 January 2011

The Sad Story of the Anti-Multitaskers

I am constantly entertained by the number of seemingly "very smart people" who are incredibly anxious to tell the world that they cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.

OK, I am being cruel, but please - We really need our "scientists" to comprehend the limitations their own questions put on their research.

Today, @derekbruff sent me to a great blog post which referenced a PBS story on multitasking. This is part of the "focus" lobby - PBS, NPR, and The New York Times are devoted to the theory that humans can do only one thing at a time. In fact, I think its at least once a week that NPR tells me that I can't possibly be driving my car because I am listening to Science Friday.

Part of what I said in a comment at that blog:
"The sad attempts to measure human multitasking via Gutenberg-era preferences continue. Here’s what these “scientists” don’t know: How human brains “looked” before Gutenberg and Calvin applied straight-line information flow and “single-tasking” to our species.

"So, 10,000 years ago developing brains were wildly multitasking. Looking for food, looking for predators, watching the weather, all while, I’m quite sure, checking out and chatting up potential mates or talking about doing so.

"We have, finally, begun to pull ourselves out of the straightjacket of 500 years of the Protestant Reformation’s belief in “focus” and linearity. Me on Human Communication

"I could indicate the level of ridiculous comments made by researchers in this video (”you cannot drive and talk or listen” – wow, there go passengers and radio) ..."
And I want to continue "that" ("indicate the level of ridiculous comments") here.  The scientists in this video imagine a static world has existed that is suddenly changing. They do this because they are not postmodernists and have not been trained in critical theories so that - I'm not just being insulting here, I really mean this - they do not know how to ask questions about the questions they are asking. And when you fail to do that, your "scientific" observations cannot be any better than the unexamined assumptions which lie behind your unchallenged questions.

So, fatal research mistake number one: "Humans have not been multitaskers before - this is new." And here I want to introduce another problem with the system - yes, even our "best" system which produces Ivy League faculty members - the division of content into separate silos. Because, in preparing their research into multitasking these scholars feel no requirement to walk through Notre Dame de Paris or Christchurch in Dublin to help conceive of the learning environments just a thousand years ago. They do not feel called to spend a week considering the work environment of the iron age. They do go to a place where they might pick berries while worrying about lions.

Instead they sat in libraries designed on 19th Century Calvinist theories, or sat at 18th Century ideas of what a "desk" is, and read research from the past half-century of their tiny slice of human knowledge via Gutenberg technology, or more contemporary technology mimicking Gutenberg technology. And when they did that the determined their conclusions before they made a single observation.

To build on an old metaphor, "the prepped their research in an entirely green environment, and were shocked to discover red when they opened the door." After all, if Dorothy had opened the door to Oz from the middle of Times Square, would the color have surprised her?

Fatal research mistake two is, "Our measuring systems are valid." Let us begin here with the understanding that ALL knowledge and all measurement is socially constructed. "If the aborigine drafted an IQ test, all of Western civilization would presumably flunk it." - Stanley Garn. Just to trouble you, is - in human experience of temperature, there as big a difference between 65 and 75F (17-23 C) as between 35 and 25F (+2 and -4 C)? In other words, as humans describing the weather, should we really be dependent on a scale based in the response of water to heat? But of course we are, and we are so acclimated to this that just hearing a number associated with weather - say "thirty" - immediately evokes radically different thoughts based solely on which side of the Detroit or Niagara rivers you live.

Here's an "IQ" question for you - "The assignment test: The subject is given a map and receives instructions to buy the following objects: half a hundredweight of potatoes, one-half pound of coffee, one-half pound of sausage, fifty pfennigs worth of fresh biscuits, and a pound of butter. He is further required to bring a pair of trousers to the tailor and a pair of shoes to the cobbler, as well as a ten-pound package to the post office. He is also required to pay a certain amount of tax at City Hall and to pick up a friend at the train station. The following rules are to be observed: The person leaves the house at 10:30. At 1:00 he should be back for lunch and accomplished all his tasks. Now the tax office is open only from 8 to 10 a.m., fresh bread is available only after 11 a.m., and the friend arrives at the station at 12:30. The post office and all stores are open between 12 and 2. Between the apartment and the train station runs a streetcar-which takes one-quarter of an hour and may be used at will." It was on this basis that the German government of 1934-1938 - using theories from the US State of Virginia, would decide whether to murder or at least castrate a person.

So, how we measure matters. This is how scientists "measure" attention and multitasking: They use flashing lines and symbols and other nonsense tasks in most cases. They ask odd questions, and yes, sometimes they even observe, but in every case they begin with a "grounding point" roughly equivalent to my sister Nancy (who I love dearly) sitting in a corner of the University of Edinburgh Library reading an 18th Century novel. Total, 100% involvement in a single task. For all of these research projects, that is "best" - 100 on their scales. It does not matter if, as I think often happened, Nancy would stumble out of the building hours later not knowing where she was or what the weather might be or if she had eaten today. In the measurement systems all of these studies are based on, Nancy is "100" and I am close to "Zero."

Essentially this is like saying that "72 F degrees" is the ideal temperature. That's lovely unless you are a polar bear or a tropical bird or...

But, and we must know this as we think about the education we offer our students, these researchers never question these measures. They are "mathematical scales" and they believe that a mathematical scale represents a "truth."

Fatal research mistake three is, "We know what multitasking is." Just as, say, we know what "North America" is (is it Canada, the US, Mexico? Include all of Central America? Include the whole Caribbean?), or we know what a "nation" is (The UN and FIFA have very different counts), or we know where Europe stops and Asia begins.

I might argue that all "driving" (operating a motor vehicle) is multitasking. I might argue this because the driver combing his or her hair while reading the newspaper is only a bit less scary than the person with the locked stare straight ahead. I sort of expect that drivers will be alert to many things around them at the same time, and would, perhaps, even notice if the child in the car seat in the back began choking. There's even a huge industry devoted to giving you things to read while driving, one major participant in that industry is the government.

I also might argue, as one website notes, that some of our most complex, attention demanding work environments are multitasking environments. "Emergency physicians epitomize what it's like to work in a time-pressured, interruption-based environment. Multitasking is necessary to survive in this environment where you are constantly shifting focus and addressing new tasks or problems as they arise." Would we really want airline pilots who could only pay attention to one thing at a time?

So, if medicine and operating a car are multitasking, as I might add, is walking down the street, what are these researchers measuring?

They have not asked. Largely because "we," education-as-we-know-it, have not taught them to ask.

Understanding the unexamined assumptions which lie beneath our "knowledge" is a vital issue that we rarely engage in our schools. And assuming that the "best" path to knowledge transfer or work is my sister Nancy's path - lovely as that may be - is offensive.

Or so I say while writing two documents plus this, answering email, tweeting, and watching Two Knights from Brooklyn.

- Ira Socol

13 January 2011

Are we a society?

I hate to give more space to Sarah Palin's bizarre speech on the horror in Tucson, but one thing she said, no not the incredible "blood libel" thing, needs discussion in the United States, in Australia, in Ireland, in the United Kingdom.

"We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker,” Ms. Palin said. “It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions."

Yes, Mrs. Palin has made her political philosophy clear: We are not our brother's keeper.

Which would be one thing if she were a "lone nut," but she is not. She speaks for a significant minority of Americans when she says this, a minority which includes many elected officials.

There has always been this "anti-society" feeling running through the history of the United States. The whole Horatio Alger myth, sold aggressively to the nation's children in the last half of the 19th Century, was all about "the individual," not ever about social responsibility.

No, it is always "the individual" who is guilty. How easy. By declaring that it is, not only Sarah Palin and her ilk who escape both responsibility and any need to change, but none of us has to change any priority.

When I noted this week on Twitter that I didn't think that a state like Michigan - a state which spent well over $2 billion on school and university football facilities this decade, and $4 million just firing and hiring a college football coach this week - or New Jersey, which could afford to lower tax rates on its wealthiest (including its Governor) last year - really "lacked the money" to support children and education, people complained. After all, people like their three-car garages and their winning football teams. If we say "society is not responsible" we need not worry about the choices we make. (The University of Michigan spent almost $125,000 last year just "searching" for a new Athletic Director on the other side of town, and Dominos Corporation will lower their state tax payments next year by expensing the cost of flying that AD around the country in search of a new coach.)

Today we see this idea more embedded in political debate than ever. This week, an event featuring American Express pitchman Geoffrey Canada pretends liberality while insisting that impoverished communities "save themselves." Of course they don't really mean that, whether with the Black Panthers in Oakland, California 40+ years ago, or in Arizona today, any actual attempt by a minority community to control its destiny is shut down. So what is meant is that impoverished communities are guilty. It is their fault that their kids are poor and their schools are bad and that heath care is often horrible.

After all, if it was not their fault, why would they be the ones whose behaviours must change.

But I subscribe to a different set of values. I'm not particularly religious, but there are concepts in human thought that I value, and the responsibility of society is one of those.

We are our brother's keeper. And we are responsible if people are hungry, are ill without hope, are educated in terrible schools. We are responsible if violence which we might stop runs unchecked, and we are responsible if our resources are so unevenly shared that many have no chance in life.

I can quote the bible, "And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest." - Leviticus 23:22 - which establishes that those with resources have a legally set - and governmentally determined - responsibility to share with those who do not. "When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow." - Deuteronomy 24:20. But that really should not be necessary. 

As humans, as social animals, we are called to understand this innately. To understand that we only have resources because our shared society enables us to succeed, and that we have a human obligation to ensure the success of all of our human community. 

Last night in Tucson President Obama touched on this obligation, in a moving tribute to the victims of last Saturday's shootings.

And now we must make good on this. Competition is fine. We should compete on the playing fields, in games, in the marketplace of ideas. But we are a society. And in the things that matter, whether it is safe housing or health care or opportunity or certainly education, the time for choosing winners and losers is over.

When it is important, we need to stop racing, we need to stop putting the responsibility on the least powerful, and we must act as a human community. 

- Ira Socol 

Thinking the Future

I had the privilege Tuesday night to participate in Steve Hargadon's "Future of Education" series of Elluminate [Blackboard/Collaborate] sessions.

The session was an opportunity for a large group of educators to gather online and keep thinking, and that is extraordinarily valuable.

You can watch/hear the entire event here. And you can look at previous conversations and put future conversations on your calendar here.

The Future of Education
The hour went very quickly, so quickly that we never even touched the SlideDeck (below), but that's OK. Good conversations never go as expected. Still, the slides might have reference value for those who want to dig further into some of the ideas discussed.

What strikes me as important about this series is the openness of the conversation, as well as its global reach. So often, especially in the United States, education conversations are designed as one-way streets. From "the top" we hear proclamations, with all arguments ignored. Notice that in today's New York Times no opportunity is offered for readers to comment on Winnie Hu's puff piece for New Jersey's school budget slashing governor.

So, as I think I remember saying Tuesday night (maybe in the conversation, maybe later on Twitter), step one is our ability to gather, to discuss, to doubt, to challenge, and to be together as we investigate how to do the best things for our students.

- Ira Socol

10 January 2011

Assistive Technology: What The New York Times didn't tell you

It is nice that The New York Times occasionally publishes a positive story about technology in education amidst their standard "oh, we're distracted" fare. But it is unfortunate when that information is incomplete and inaccurate in presentation.

Lisa Guernsey works for the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation,
not directly for
The New York Times
High Tech Help, published on January 7, 2011, has some valid suggestions, but it is outdated, and leans toward that ugly realm of "brand advocacy."

So here is what The New York Times and Lisa Guernsey left out:

Speech Recognition - speech-to-text - doesn't only come from Dragon. It is available at no extra cost on every Windows computer running Windows 7 (or Windows Vista). The Windows Speech Recognition system has some significant advantages over Dragon, especially for "immature" voices and in terms of working across the widest range of web and software applications.

There is also VLingo, for just $20 lifetime, which offers Text-To-Speech and Speech Recognition for Android and BlackBerry.

WordTalk might be the best free Text-To-Speech system. Yes, it is limited to Windows and Microsoft Word, but within those common contexts WordTalk provides word-by-word highlighting with excellent settings control and instant conversion of text to mp3 files.

PowerTalk, which provides text-to-speech for Microsoft PowerPoint, is another free essential tool. And though, yes, we all love Prezi, Prezi is not accessible, and really has no place in public education at this time.

WYNN (from the JAWS people), much less expensive and appropriate for a wider range of ages than Kurzweil 3000, should have been included in the Text-To-Speech paragraph. We should be "brand agnostics" here, looking for whatever works for each student.

I love CLiCk-Speak, and I'm proud that my conversations with the brilliant Charles L. Chen at the CSUN Conference on Technology and People with Disabilities in 2005 contributed to its development from the FireVox platform, but, CLiCk-Speak development has halted and it does not work with all systems. So it is vital to link people to newer answers, notably FoxVox (for Windows) and Speaking Fox (for Mac OS).

There needed to be a deeper discussion of EduApps from RSC-Scotland North+East. Or you might look at our Michigan version, the Freedom Stick, whose new version - coming later this month - includes the screen reader Balabolka. These "carry anywhere" tools represent an exciting way around the bad rules of bad school districts which block access.

Going back to Firefox, there are so many add-ons for accessibility, which should have been discussed. In Michigan we've collected these into two collections - one for PCs, one for Mac OS. You may also want to look at the Bookshare Firefox DAISY Book Reader.

Anyway, I appreciate The New York Times discovering "Assistive Technology" but I wish they had done a bit more research, and written a slightly more useful article.

- Ira Socol

09 January 2011

Educating Responsibility

In the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on Saturday morning responsible people all across the United States began, once again, to wonder why. Others, including so-called "political leaders" like Ex-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin began scrubbing their websites and Twitter feeds and US Senators Jon Kyle and Lamar Alexander (both Republican "Leaders") began crafting denials.

Let us begin here: In the long, ugly history of American assassinations, the perpetrators themselves have always been mentally unstable. John Wilkes Booth was a crazed narcissist. Lee Harvey Oswald and Leon Czolgosz were odd, paranoid loners. Squeaky Fromme? John Hinckley, Jr? I wouldn't want to try testifying to the "sanity" of any of these people. But in every case, other voices lay behind their actions. Each of their targets was defined as "un-American" and "destructive to freedom" and part of governments designed to hurt ordinary Americans. So, in each twisted mind, societal justification for their actions could be constructed.

And behind those other voices lay thousands, maybe millions, of Americans willing to allow that rhetoric to go forward, or even voting for those speaking with hate - or at least - via votes for legislators - voting to keep those speakers of hate in power.

And behind that lies the denial. "I didn't mean it that way." "I didn't vote for Newt Gingrich, just my local Republican congressman." "I was just making a point, I can't be responsible for crazy people."

At some point, we all need to point to ourselves and take responsibility. Yes, those who found themselves having to scrub, explain, or deny this weekend need to act most quickly - but, of course, they won't.  They won't even begin to consider taking responsibility. So those of us who were, as my Ma used to say, "raised better," need to act.

Because when assassin Loughner urges people, in a YouTube Video, to "read the United States of America's Constitution to apprehend all of the current treasonous laws."He is directly channeling not any personal demon, but Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner. And let me extend the responsibility a big step further out. If you - any of us - voted for a Republican congressperson this past November, or did not vote because we were "mad" at Barack Obama (however legitimately), you - us, we - are responsible for John Boehner being in a position of power.

"We never, ever, ever intended it to be gun sights." Ms Mansour said attemps to tie Ms. Palin to the violence were "obscene" and "appalling." "I don't understand how anyone can be held responsible for someone who is completely mentally unstable like this," Ms. Mansour said. "Where I come from the person who is actually shooting is culpable. We had nothing whatsoever to do with this."
OK, forget Sarah Palin, an opportunistic coward with no observable morals, let's look at the two responsible, sober, US Senators from the top paragraph: Here's Jon Kyle just a few months ago, of course, labelling - effectively - those who are not anti-immigrant as "pro-criminal." Here's Lamar Alexander promising, four days ago, "guaranteed retribution" to those who  might require filibustering Senators to actually filibuster. Nice talk boys. Of course, if you voted for a Republican Senator, any Republican Senator - even sweet Olympia Snowe of Maine, you are responsible for making Kyle and Alexander powerful.

I'm not saying you are guilty. That's a different level, but in basic human terms you are responsible.

But I'm not immune from this criticism. I get hot. I say things. Inappropriate things. I belittle people. I'm responsible as well.
"We live as we were reminded yesterday in a dangerous, hair-trigger time, where tempers always seem near the boiling point and patience seems a lost trait.

"Democracy's arguments have never been pretty, but technology has changed the American dialogue.

"Because we can now know of problems instantly, we expect answers immediately. And when we don't get them, we let everyone know in no uncertain terms.

"We scream and shout - hurl charges without proof. Those on the other side of the argument become not opponents but enemies.

"Dangerous, inflammatory words are used with no thought of consequence. All's fair if it makes the point. Worse, some make great profit just fanning the flames.

"Which wouldn't amount to much if the words reached only the sane and the rational, but the new technology insures a larger audience. Those with sick and twisted minds hear us, too, and are sometimes inflamed by what the rest of us often discard as hollow and silly rhetoric.

"And so violence becomes part of the argument.

"In an eloquent statement, the new Republican House Speaker John Boehner said yesterday's "attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. "

"But it is much more - it is an attack on each of us and our way of life.

"If elected officials cannot meet with those who have elected them without fear of being shot, if the rest of us allow such a situation to exist, then we are no longer the America that those who came before us fought and died to protect and defend.

"We must change the atmosphere in which this happened, and we can begin by remembering that words have consequences.

"Like all powerful things, they must be used carefully.

"More and more, we seem to have forgotten that."- 
Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation
OK. so what?

Well, in education we have a special responsibility. We have a special responsibility to responsibility.

On the same sad Sunday as we deal with the aftermath of the events in Tucson I watched this story on CBS Sunday Morning. A story which contains this exchange re: a Middle School principal, a bullying student, and that student's mother:
"But McDermott says Stephanie is still "a work in progress."

McDermott says Stephanie's behavior has not improved, in part because she still doesn't seem to grasp what the problem is.

"I'm not sure yet that she wants to change who she is," he said.

Smith asked her, "How does it make you feel to know that parents are so worried about their kids, what you're doing to their kids, that they called the school to complain?"

"I don't find it right because I don't threaten kids that bad," Stephanie said.

"That bad? If kids are scared of you … come on, this is the first time you're hearing that kids are scared of you?"

"Uh huh," she said. "'Cause they're always like, 'I'm not scared of you.'"

"But what are you saying to kids that they would turn around and say 'I'm not scared of you'?" Smith asked.

"Like, 'I'm gonna beat you up.' Like when I say that to them, they'll be like, 'I'm not scared of you.'"

"Maybe they're not telling the truth," said Smith. "Here's the thing: If you call people names, if you threaten to beat them up, doesn't that make you a bully?"

"Yeah," she said.

But Stephanie's mom, Sue, isn't so sure.

"Stephanie, you know, really isn't that bully that people label her as," she told Smith.

"What do you think she is?" she asked.

"Oh my gosh, I don't know . . . A sassy, sassy smartass little girl, you know?" Sue laughed.

"I get the sense that there's a little piece of you that's kind of proud of her."

"Exactly," said Sue. "You have to stand up for themselves, you know? In society, really, I don't think anybody would really pick on her."
We can bemoan this mother. And it is true that there's some kind of sickness there. But it is a sickness exploited by the Middle School system which remains in place. I cringed watching the little kids thrown into the horrible, completely inappropriate, bullying encouraging environment that are the corridors and classroom spaces of the school in the story. And while a "healthier" child, or a "better" mother might deal with this differently, we simply cannot count on everyone being "healthy" or "better." Certainly not in a nation with no reasonable health care system, no reasonable mental health care system, and no actual societal support for parenting.

So we have to be better. Instead of just counseling kids about bullying, this principal needs to make real changes, to rethink his middle school, to literally make his students responsible for their peers.

As we need to rethink all of our schools, so that we actually model respect for every human and differing lifestyles, beliefs, and behaviors. So that we actually model the ability to take on controversial and complex topics and discuss them in reasoned intellectual debate, and not hide them because "our community won't understand." So that we don't run from, yes, even allowing the President of the United States to speak to our students - no matter what we think of him, or "outlaw" programs we choose not to like.

We need to reconstruct our behavior in schools so that we admit our mistakes, apologize to students when we wrong them, seek their counsel on making them whole after we have hurt them. We need to flexible enough in both our belief systems and our professional actions so that they will see that there is a different way.

This is profoundly important. Profoundly. So let us take heart from a couple of examples. In New York this week new Governor Andrew Cuomo invited the leaders of the state legislature, including the Republican President of the State Senate, to speak - to speak politically and openly at his public first State-of-the-State Address. And in Utah a Civility and Community 2011 effort has been launched state-wide.

These are beginnings. But we, each of us, must do much more. Democracy, or even just "society," isn't easy. It is complex, messy, confusing. Those who hold onto hope for our future must demonstrate our commitment now.

- Ira Socol

05 January 2011

Toolbelt Theory, TEST, and RTI - the universally designed technology effort

Karen Janowski asked on Twitter, "have you helped your students optimize their performance using tech?-color choices, font sizes, text-to-speech, readability..." and when I re-tweeted her, she added, "we'll keep preaching it until it's unnecessary. Think that will ever happen?"

But I had just read this story - which, at first glance, seems so hopeful. "But these new devices, according to teacher Chris Quist, are "exciting and fun and engaging. And even in two days, I've noticed the amount of on-task time and the quiet time." Students could use the devices to watch videos to tie in with their Michigan history lessons, Breen said. And Quist said the simple fact that the phones can show photos and other presentations in color -- unlike most classroom handouts -- is significant. "I think that my job as a teacher is to make sure that the novelty doesn't wear off," Quist said." Until you get to the last lines...

"At the end of the year, he said school administrators plan to look at how well the program worked before deciding whether to maintain or expand it. If it is expanded, the principal said administrators will determine which device is best -- from smartphones to tablet computers such as iPads or laptops -- for the needs of students at each grade level."

And there's the problem. We have these ingenious, incredible options but we will not decide what is best for each student, or even each task. Rather, as we "always" have, we will make our decision based only on the chronological age of the child.

As I said to Karen, it often seems hopeless. We replace one "single technology" system - the textbook, paper notebook, and pen for everyone - with another locked-down same-for-all technology system, even if its a really cool "system" like an iPad. And we do this because we really cannot believe that the world has changed and that industrial processing is not our students' best career hope, or because we put our needs (control, ease of maintenance) above our students' needs, or because we are so completely indoctrinated in the industrial education model. Whichever, but we do it, and we do it every day.

But at the same time we are supposedly moving toward a problem identification system in education called Response-To-Intervention. Well, let me say this simply, if we don't break the "one size fits all" model of school technology, R-T-I is impossible, and we're headed straight back to the "let's cure (or dispose of) the retards and crips" policy of the past century. That is - now that I've used the offensive words - if we do not adopt Toolbelt Theory as our guiding principle for educational technology, we cannot change the failure cycle for "special education" and other "high needs" students.

I'm not saying this because Toolbelt Theory is "mine." I have no way of licensing it to you. You will not pay me if you decide to use it, so the "self-benefit" is shockingly small. I'm saying this because I began to describe Toolbelt Theory five years ago because I saw it as the only solution. Since then, the legal, national move towards R-T-I has moved Toolbelt Theory from important to imperative.

Toolbelt Theory begins with the SETT framework of Dr. Joy Zabala. SETT, Student-Environment-Tasks-Tools, was a breakthrough way of thinking about choosing technology for students in the 1990s. But despite training in it, using it, teaching it, I struggled with certain issues. SETT became the tool of "school-based teams" too often making decisions without direct student input, and it seemed to me, that the use of the descriptor "student" encouraged this (It wasn't METT, after all, with "Me" at the start). I also hate - I mean I really - as a dyslexic - hate, misspelled acronyms (SETT isn't a word). And, though I appreciated Zabala's flexible "start at any point" concept, I thought it was missing a crucial point.

That point is that humans are tool users, that everything we do in learning is really "tool-based" to some extent, but that - at the core - we humans pick tools based on the task at hand. We do this to avoid that old problem... "if all you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail." Just as, if all content is delivered via printed book or "teacher lecture" much of it will "look" like the droning adults in Charlie Brown cartoons.

So I re-wrote "SETT" as "TEST" - Task-Environment-Skills-Tools - and I described a process I called, "Task-based, Student-centered, Assistive Technology Decision Making system."

An early conference presentation of TEST

I didn't need to say "student" in the list because the idea is that the student would be making, and learning to make, the decisions. And I did not offer "start anywhere" flexibility. No matter who the student might be, or what issues he or she might face, question one, to me, is always, "What is the task?"

Because, when I wake up these mornings, if the first question is "does my leg hurt really badly?" I'm a "cripple." But if the first question is, "how is the snow going to get off the driveway?" I'm a full human, fully engaged in the world.

Which is where R-T-I comes in. In your classroom the first question should not be, "who is reading at what level?" or "who is holding a pen 'correctly'?" but "How do we make these stories, this knowledge, this information available effectively?" and "How do we let all students communicate efficiently and effectively?"

Because if you ask the former questions you are categorizing, disabling, and seeking "cures." But if you ask the latter you are including, engaging, and helping students to find their way.

Yooper Scoopers - amazing tool
"How is the snow going to get off the driveway?" Well, the possibilities range from a shovel to a yooper scooper to a snow blower to a plow to having someone do it for me. But understand, those are the tools - the last step. In between the Task and those tools I need to know the Environment - how heavy is the snow? how much is there? how cold is it? what's the wind? is it still snowing? is my driveway a hill? and I need to know my Skills at this moment - not my "average" skills, not my skills when I was evaluated 3 years ago, not even my skills yesterday, but my skills right now... is my leg in huge pain? did I sleep last night? how many pain killers have I taken? etc. etc. Only then can I get to Tool choice. And I can only make Tool choices if (a) I know about the tools, and (b) I have access to the tools. As we all know, in most schools I might get through this entire decision-making process only to discover that the school has blown all their money on one humongous snow blower that I can't quite hold on to - or - all they've got is one bent 1972 snow shovel.

Now in your Response-To-Intervention classroom you may or may not be shovelling snow, but you need the tool choices and tool options for the tasks your students face, or you will actually have no idea whether they can complete the tasks with interventions or not.

And if all you have is iPads, or PC laptops, or one-kind of smartphone, and if those devices are "locked down" to prevent change, your students have no chance.

I, for example, am no iPad fan, but many are. It doesn't quite "work for me" most days, but not everyone is me. I like PC-based solutions, Windows Speech Recognition, WordTalk, PowerTalk, WYNN, and I like Firefox as I've "accessibilized" it. So, usually, a PC-based computer is best, unless at that moment - task, environment - a Blackberry or Android phone is best (don't discount Blackberry, with VLingo added and because the browser has a cursor, there are big advantages). But, you see, my needs are not your kids' needs. They never will be. And just like your kids, my needs vary. I have good days for walking and good days for reading. I even have good days for keyboarding (I never have good days for manual writing). But I also have bad days, or afternoons, or whatever, for all of those.

So, using WYNN sometimes, Read-and-Write-Gold sometimes, WordTalk sometimes, FoxVox sometimes, Speaking Fox sometimes, PowerTalk sometimes, VLingo (with our without Sync) sometimes, audiobooks sometimes, or sometimes an index card underlining the print in a book, I can read using my interventions - that is - I can successfully get to the information I need.

And using one keyboard or another, or Windows Speech Recognition, or VLingo, I can write - that is - I can get my thoughts into a form recoverable asynchronously, using my interventions.

But if I didn't have knowledge of and access to this variety of tools, my "response-to-intervention" would be much less successful. If I hadn't been able to test out and find the tools which help in a variety of environments and under the varying "skill" levels I experience, then my ability to respond to the tasks of my every day life would be significantly less.

So, don't buy a "system" for your students, build a tool crib, so they can build their own Toolbelts. Fill the tool crib with possibility. Laptops and desktops and iPads and netbooks. Androids and Blackberries and iPods. MP3 players and Freedom Sticks. Various browsers, various operating systems, various software for every function. Then turn your kids loose to investigate. Let them respond by finding their own interventions.

You will see them perform differently, and you will enable them to be fully human.

- Ira Socol