30 June 2011

The art of seeing - afterthought - opening eyes

 part one      part two       part three  

I have a suspicion that, after about 30 days of any school year, most of your students could get from the bus, or the school's property line, to their seats in the morning blindfolded.

In San Francisco, abstract art gets close scrutiny
"When it comes to sleep," says Dr. Patrick Wolcott, the medical director of the Sleep Center of Southern California, "our bodies crave routine and repetition."1 Which seems both absolutely true and thus, an odd way for us to begin our children's educational days.

In a conversation from ISTE11 with @ChristianLong @BudtheTeacher and @NinaMehta I tried to sum up what we were saying about students entering a classroom in the morning: "If you're kids don't have choice of where to sit and what to sit on (or not) every day you are missing a critical educational moment in decision-making and consciousness."

Or, as I said at the TIE Colorado Leadership Event, "maybe your students should enter your school or room in a different way every day." The idea being to break routines, to stop mindless repetition, and to get the brain wondering, investigating, thinking...

Schools tend to train the opposite: Enough school, and the world becomes an absolute pattern. When the school leaders of Colorado gathered that Thursday morning, their training - in this case their "conference training," kicked right in. They grabbed coffee, sat down, worked on their own stuff, and waited for someone to give them information at the appointed time. These are great people, passionate educators, really smart people, but years of training in the captivity of schools and academic conferences have forced training upon them. Not one picked up any of the stories or pictures we had scattered on the tables - we had not, you see, created obvious packets at each place which indicated "this should be read" - and when four video screens popped to life across a sixty foot wall no one got up, and few even looked up. The "appointed time" had not yet come, and no introduction had yet been offered.

"Don't worry," a superintendent once told me when I complained about an 11-period day for fifth graders, "It just takes 60 days to form a habit." (I responded, "Great, we can have them all smoking by Thanksgiving," but, you know me...)

Do we really want to form these habits? Yes, habit makes management easier. People who follow routines are already deeply compliant, and so, perhaps fully ready to learn the checklist for the test, fully ready to not "waste time" with complex questions, even ready to give up their nights to the lectures of Salman Khan.

Harvard, where America's elite try to make the rules for all the rest of us, thinks routines are good for school ("Classrooms have routines that serve to manage student behavior and interactions, to organizing the work of learning, and to establish rules for communication and discourse. Classrooms also have routines that structure the way students go about the process of learning. These learning routines can be simple structures, such as reading from a text and answering the questions at the end of the chapter, or they may be designed to promote students' thinking, such as asking students what they know, what they want to know, and what they have learned as part of a unit of study."), but remember, Harvard's mission from its founding in 1636 to today, has been reproduction of the American social system as it exists.2

For most of our students - who'd get arrested if they walked the hallowed streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts without sufficient justification3 - the idea of preserving our system intact is a problem. The system will keep them poor, or at least struggling, forever. If they are to re-create the system, re-invent it, they must learn the art of seeing, they must gain the kind of vision skills which only come from needing to keep one's eyes open.

When most students enter a school, the institutional mission is - very clearly - safety and efficiency. Our goal is to get kids to their places without injury, and on time. And that mission is incredibly clear to our students, who see that mission as the only thing the adults think is important. But what if our mission was different? What if - not throwing safety out the window, but - our mission was to get kids thinking, wondering, exploring, and challenging.

Do anything to break visual and auditory routine as kids move through your school.
Even airports (hells on earth that they are) can do this. Example: O'Hare's United Terminal tunnel
When I worked at Grand Valley State University in Academic Computing, our "big boss," the Vice-Provost, bought one of those banner signs on stands you see at conferences. It said "Grand Valley" or something and he put it outside the Academic Computing "office maze" which sat one one side of an enormous student computer lab. After two days there I began to move it each morning, to one spot or another around the lab. About two months later I forgot to move it one morning.

By 10 am the Vice Provost was sitting on the couch in my cubicle.4 "Ira," he said, "you didn't move the sign today. You know, looking for the sign has become an important part of my morning. I have to look over the whole lab." He paused. "Go move the sign!" So I did.

Uncertainty, just a tiny absurd bit of uncertainty, had turned a place he never looked at before into a place he carefully observed every morning. And he knew that this made him a better administrator.

messing with the idea of "the ground" - ArtPrize 2010 Grand Rapids, MI
This is true for all of us. Uncertainty requires vision, and not just "looking," but real vision. Uncertainty forces us to depend on our very human observation skills - "what's different?" "is it an OK difference or a dangerous difference?" "should I explore further?" - which get our brains spinning.

And if this - if getting a child's brain into investigative mode - makes him 6 minutes late for something, unless it is emergency heart surgery, well, that's no cost at all.

So rethink your school's, your classes,' "morning routines." Or all your routines. Routines numb the brain. They allow our students to move through the day as if blindfolded.

That can't be what education should be about, can it?

- Ira Socol

1- Costco Connection (hows that for an academic journal) July 2011, p. 35
2- I'll note that Harvard is quite brilliant at controlling its visible reputation, the only criticism of the university allowed to stick around on Wikipedia are accusations that it is "too liberal"
3- Hell, Cambridge will attack their own if they even look like outsiders.
4- having a couch in my cubicle caused the director of Academic Computing to nickname me "Sgt Bilko" - well, maybe that wasn't the only reason

28 June 2011

The art of seeing (Part III) Visiting Delphi

part one      part two          afterthought

Bill Gates is one of the most influential people in American education, by virtue of the way US leaders worship money. It is not by virtue of what he knows about education or his ability to imagine a future - and that is the critical issue.

Real computer pioneers. My father
built a Sinclair in 1979.
Bill Gates has gotten incredibly rich, but it is essential to remember that neither he nor his company has ever invented or created anything. There were many people who imagined the Personal Computer, from IBM researchers to Steve Wozniak, but Bill Gates wasn't one of them. Gates did not even have the kind of vision which would have allowed him to see, in QDOS, something he could sell to his mother's friends at IBM, that was Paul Allen. All Gates brought to Microsoft were the accidents of birth - parental wealth and connections - which are the most important things in both American education and the American economy - but make one about as automatically reputable as Paris Hilton.

And Microsoft did not invent the office suite, that was a copy of the Smart Package and Lotus 1-2-3 of the early 1980s. They didn't invent the browser - they copied Netscape. They didn't invent Windows - they copied Apple. Today they are rushing to copy Google and Mozilla. Honestly, they are pretty damn good at copying, and sometimes even improving. But still, neither Gates nor Microsoft has ever invented or created anything new.

The fact is that Bill Gates' legacy to the American economy is the advice that the best thing you can do to get ahead is to start rich and copy the work of your smarter friends.

There are leaders who can see beyond "what is." But none of them sit at the heart of America's Orwellian "Education Reform" movement. Rather, the people determined to use education to maintain America's socio-economic status quo are like Eli Broad, who got rich by playing America's business game well - by buying other people's ideas, and paying people smarter than them less then they deserved, or people like Arne Duncan, who learned early on how to make big money off of taxpayers (you learn to do this when you grow up among "investment bankers" and others who don't pay taxes).

Now, there's nothing wrong with making money these ways, not legally anyway (at least Andrew Carnegie was afraid of hell), but this is probably not the kind of job we really want to prep most American kids for anyway - because for those who will do most of that kind of exploitive money-making, the Ivy League and its feeder academies do just fine.

What we want is a nation of problem-solvers, of inventors, creators, global citizens who can see a future beyond the next quarterly stock dividend.

Leaders looked to the future, not their own childhoods. The ruins of Delphi
And to do that we have to stop looking at the future of our children through the eyes which, say, missed the idea of the computer mouse and the problems of the housing bubble, and start looking to those who can help us 'visit Delphi' and imagine a future.

I'm not a mystic or a prophet, but some things are obvious to me when I look around. For example: the IWB - the "Interactive White Board"-Smartboard-Promethean Board - was history the moment touch screen computers and the Nintendo Wii appeared. You didn't need a crystal ball to understand that these technologies promised both more interaction and better interaction than the big white one-hand-at-a-time device bolted to the Teaching Wall as a reinforcement of the idea that classrooms have fronts. Yet schools continued - even now continue - to spend huge amounts of money to acquire these dinosaurs.

They continue to purchase IWBs not just because their leaders fail to see the future, but because the American education system is led by people who refuse to see the future. These people include Presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama, education secretaries like Rod Paige and Arne Duncan (both failed big city school leaders), and the leadership of the American Educational Research Association, which - to create an analogy - would have insisted that manned spaceflight was impossible until it had occurred. No "evidence-based research" you understand.

Augmented Reality Mirror, via Microsoft Kinect
or, if every student's handheld could also present (Samsung Android phone below)
It is a refusal to see the future rooted in the worst habits of rationalism and scientific management. Performance has meaning, but when we insist on measuring performance alone we tie ourselves irretrievably to the past - for the future is not measurable. I cannot prove to the AERA that Kinect apps will change interactivity, or that phones yet to appear will transform learning, but both are obvious if we choose to look up.

Everyone in this picture is at work... just not for the same company (JP's Coffee, Holland, Michigan)
Similarly, it seems almost impossible not to notice the dramatic shifts in the global workplace, in global knowledge creation, in global communication - at least the shifts which have occurred everywhere but the typical American school.

Information no longer has - OK, it never did have - anything to do with the "five paragraph essay" or the book report. Writing no longer involves hands holding pens. Reading takes many 'mechanical' forms - from decoding to listening to watching. Attention no longer means staring at a person in the front of the room. And work no longer always has set hours, set locations, or even set hierarchies. The publisher no longer defines cognitive authority, nor do the letters after one's name.

Where work gets done in MSU's College of Education - if you want quiet and privacy
you plug in your ear buds.
So, it does not require an oracle to look into any coffee shop in the world and realize that we must help students find their own work/study environments, rather than organize that for them. That we must help them discover what creates "privacy" for themselves, rather than enforce group silence. That we must help students learn to construct their own scheduling systems - say effective use of phones, Google Calendar, and text-messaging, as one example - rather than creating a schedule for them.

Quicken Loans new headquarters in Detroit. The future workplace doesn't look like your
high school econ classroom.
While one need not be an oracle, one does have to keep one's eyes open. If, in 2006, you did not notice that everyone on HGTV's House Hunters owed 110% of the cost of their home, you weren't paying attention. If, in 1970, you did not notice that the influence of writers like Kerouac, Dos Passos, and Ferlinghetti were putting pressure on the 500 year old idea of "the page," you weren't paying attention. If you chose to never look at what workplaces such as Digital Equipment looked like in 1980, you weren't paying attention.

Jack Kerouac wanted to write without
changing page sheets
The future belongs to those who see beyond what they saw at last year's vendor fair. The future belongs to those to dream differently. Page and Brinn saw a search engine no longer tied to the 18th century idea of shelving books. The engineers at Xerox PARC saw a way to navigate a computer screen without a keyboard. They saw/dreamed these things because they were not locked into the "I know what I see" paradigm. Henry Ford's true genius lay neither in automotive engineering (he was copying many others), nor in the assembly line (which had long existed), but in two futurist ideas - that the automobile might completely replace the horse and that you must pay your workers enough to not just keep them around - but to make them customers.

If we do not bring this Delphic Vision to our schools, we will continue to prepare students for life in the year their school leader graduated from high school - which is all too often what we do now - or, at best, do what Bill Gates does, copy the best ideas of five years ago. Gates can copy Nintendo's Wii, for example, he can even improve it, but it is up to us to figure out what Kinect can do, because even Microsoft knows that it really cannot do that with the culture Gates created.

When I say I want our students to be creators, not consumers, I mean it. I want to "graduate" students who are capable of creating their own workplaces, their own learning habits, and most importantly, their own solutions to their problems and the problems of our world. But in order to do that we must allow ourselves to see beyond the past (which is what "the present" is endlessly becoming), and we must encourage our students - every day - to do the same. We must look to leaders who have created - not those who have copied others or manipulated wealth - and we must help our students investigate what separates a Sergei Brinn from a Bill Gates. What worldview leads one to imagine that which does not yet exist, and what worldview pushes the other to copy and acquire the existing.

We must create environments which support creation of the new. If our school design remains "the shelf" - rooms lined up according to age and/or pre-determined topic... If our school schedule remains "the shelf" - time lined up by topic and pre-determined function... If our assessment measures what we expect rather than what might be imagined... we are failing to see the future and we are - very literally - blinding our students.

And we need to stop doing that. So open your eyes. Really. Open your eyes, and bring your students to Delphi, where we can imagine a new world.

- Ira Socol

27 June 2011

The art of seeing (Part II) The Practice

part one      part three      afterthought

learning at the Brooklyn Museum - photo: Trevor Little
Last weekend I sat on a plane from Dallas-Fort Worth to Michigan, next to a young (11-year-old?) woman traveling 'unaccompanied' from her new home in Dallas to her old home and her (now divorced) father. To overcome the loud twenty-something women behind us who were declaring the small plane "unsafe" and "very scary," we talked. She loved flying. She was going to watch The Polar Express for the "hundredth time" on her little DVD player. She was looking forward to swimming in Lake Michigan. And Texas schools were both "much much bigger" and "much much easier" than what she had attended in Michigan. "Fifth grade there was the same as third grade [in Michigan]," she declared. "I'd done everything before."

A few days before I'd watched an 8-year-old girl climb a massive climbing wall, bottom to top. It was a dramatic lesson for me in perseverance, in mentoring, in scaffolding, in courage.

Emma's Climb. Copper Mountain, Colorado (yes, the room had only a plywood "Murphy Bed")

And yesterday I talked to three boys hunting turtles and tadpoles along Pine Creek just north of Holland, Michigan. We looked at the tiny legs emerging on the tadpoles, and wondered at how turtles could be both so fast and so slow.

I like to watch. I love to watch children and I love to watch learning. So I watch these things everywhere. At skateboard parks and on summer sidewalks. In parks and along beaches. In stores and on playing fields. In front of houses and in restaurants. Anywhere. Everywhere.

As I said in Part I of this sequence, education and capitalism have worked very hard to stop us from seeing as complete humans. We literally live in a world where "very smart" people go around insisting that they are only capable of single focus - that they cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. "Attention" - in the Protestant, Capitalist, Rationalist world we live in - means staring at one thing, one person, handling only a single idea or experience at a time. You can't - the experts in The New York Times and on NPR insist - love the wind on your skin and appreciate the music of the incoming tide as you read Byron to the one you are very focused on getting into a highly intimate situation with. The brain, these "smart folks" tell you, can only do one thing at a time.

This is, of course, nonsense. It is the kind of thinking which occurs when people fall into the "science" of measurement completely, and stop observing.

When I observe a school I start by watching how I, and how kids, approach it. I watch how the corridors operate, both when filled with movement and (if) when empty. Empty corridors during a school day speak loudly to me. So do classrooms with one kind of seating, one kind of lighting, or one "teaching wall." I watch the feet of kids in a class. I watch them fidget. I listen to how they talk to each other. I need to see cafeterias and gyms. I need to see from under desks. I listen for the roar of air-handling systems and the buzz of fluorescent lights. I look at hallway and classroom bulletin boards to see if student work is student-designed/student-organized or assignment-compliant. I look at things like references to honor rolls and athletics and ask if all kids are honored or "Lord of the Flies" "choirs" are being created. I listen for the noise of learning. I sniff for the scents of physical activity. I, unlike Marzano and McRel, constantly look for engagement.

This multipli-focused kind of observation helps me to begin to deep map a school.

But the linearity and single-focus of traditional education has, perhaps, robbed you of, or severely limited, your human observation skills. Tens of thousands of hours of single subject lessons, of staring at teachers, of conference sessions divided into "tracks," have stunted the human abilities you had before you entered school. So, if you feel out of practice, here are a few ideas:

Eavesdrop: It's a lesson I've used for fiction writing, but it is essential for learning to observe - getting better at eavesdropping. Sit in a coffee shop, a restaurant, an airport, a park, and listen deeply to the conversations around you. This is how I worked on writing dialogue. I didn't want to sound like some authors where characters make little speeches. I wanted to know both how humans speak and what humans know.

So you need to learn to hear students (and teachers, and the community) when they are not speaking to you, when they think you are not listening, especially when you are not framing the limits of the conversation with your questions. And you can go out, have coffee, and practice this summer.

Look for something you haven't looked for before in a place you've been a million times: Avner Segall, a great Teacher Ed prof who I had for qualitative methods suggested this. So, for his class, I spent about three hours one Saturday watching people check out at Meijer. I was looking for how they interacted with the cashiers and with others in line.

This will build your skills for looking for differing things. Suppose you watched a classroom focused on which students were uncomfortable, or which kids were most frustrated with their technology (often their pens, pencils, paper, and books), or which kids didn't rush out to recess? What might you learn?

What is happening here? Really...
Stare: We're not supposed to do this in America, but you really need to learn how. You need to be able to stare deeply at a group of people and pull in all that you see. From clothing to hand positions, from movement to voice modulation, from body language to eye contact. You need to be able to see your students in all of these details, and a million more.

But you'll need to practice this. Perhaps begin in places where anonymity is easy - sport, the beach, a concert. Then move on up to the streetcorner, the playground, the bus or train.

Talk to strangers: Never pass up the chance to hear a new world view. I have learned from many people, perhaps most importantly from my "spousal equivalent" (a Gary Stager term), how to talk to anyone, anywhere. How to really listen to waiters and the people who help me through airports, cops I meet and people sitting nearby in parks, kids I run into and parents I overhear talking about education.

This is essential. We cannot "talk among ourselves" and learn the world. We have to open ourselves up and let the world in.

At EduCon 2010 Pam Moran and I entered Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy and looked in ways I think many others do not. We did this not because we don't think SLA is a good school - it is a great school - and we did it not because SLA chooses its students when most public schools cannot - there is a place for these "chosen one" schools, from SLA to Bronx Science, however little they tell us about strategies for public education. We did it because everyone in every school needs to do this, because all of us can always get better.

So at SLA we noticed the "Apple branding" of the school. We noticed the "No students on elevator" sign. We asked the very smart white-coated students helping with coffee in the school's library if they had coffee and food in the library during the school day. We talked to students about grades and motivation. We asked why the girls never had time to play on the ping-pong table. We wondered why some of the science equipment looked so dusty and was piled up in big heaps. We wandered through the theatre and asked the students about plays. We asked kids to show us their favorite classroom, and asked why they thought it was the best. We hung out with the student tech team.

Did our survey describe the entirety of the school? Of course not. But I think it did add to Chris Lehmann's deep map of SLA, and for a great school leader, the deeper the map, the better the school becomes.

So we need to see. We need to deep map. And we need to learn to pull the world into our brain in the most "ADHD-way" possible.

And then - next installment - we need to understand how our "educational reformers" are not doing that.

- Ira Socol

26 June 2011

The art of seeing

part two    part three     afterthought

How do you see a classroom? What do you see when you look at a “learning space”? What questions do you ask when you watch someone teach? Or watch someone learn?
I sat in a conference session recently and listened to Matthew Kuhn explain how a “Marzano-Approved,” “Bill Gates-Loved,” “Arne Duncan-Endorsed,” iPad app from McRel could allow you to understand pedagogy in your school while “observing” for “three to five minutes.” Well, not actually observing, more like staring down at your high-gloss iPad screen while sitting in the back of a classroom. (for a look at Marzano's research regarding products he is paid to research, see Jon Becker)
Where's this on Marzano's checklist?
Mr. Kuhn promised “accuracy,” “reliability,” “validity,” and many other buzzwords of America’s corporate elite – from Jeb “You can buy my brothers school stuff” Bush to Joel “Give me your kids Money” Klein, from Salman “Learn via my home lectures!” Kahn to Bill “I copied all my major projects” Gates, from Michelle “Tape their mouths shut” Rhee to Arne “I hate schools, teachers, and students” Duncan. He also promised his that his company’s checklist for teacher evaluation was “non-evaluative.” And it is.
It is every bit as non-evaluative as the above paragraph.
There is a deep misconception which runs through the world of our educational policy “leaders.” It is a misconception based in enlightenment philosophy and the scientific management systems which grew up during the second industrial revolution. It is a very dangerous disbelief based in a sad underestimation of the human species and a specifically trained inability to actually see.
This misconception is the belief that human behavior and experience can be reduced to a numerical scale.
"We can't measure engagement" - Matthew Kuhn
It is the belief that you can take me and Michelle Rhee and add us together, then divide by two, and come up with an “average” educational change advocate.
It is the belief that you end up with an “objective truth” when you take a specifically chosen set of questions and determine that there will be a correct answer to those questions.
“You watch the video of this teacher,” Kuhn told us, “then discuss what you see at your tables, and then I’ll tell you the right answer.”
Oh my.
It will come as a shock to Mr. Gates, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Khan, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and others, but I’m here to tell you that quantitative analysis of your school will always tell you what the “researcher” wants to hear. And that analysis has no more validity than if you let anyone wander your building and report on your school. You will have a minimal snapshot, a story framed by the personal beliefs, experiences, and grudges of the person who chose the questions and the person who decided how, when, and where, to collect the “data.”
Imagine: I am at a gathering and I ask everyone, “how tall are you?” “how much do you weigh?” “can you explain Einstein’s theory of relativity?” And I ask these questions at the start of the event. Or, if I ask – after everyone has had three drinks, “who’s your favorite poet?” “what island would you most want to live on?” “can you explain how Liverpool beat Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final in Istanbul?”
Would I get the same view of the guests?
The comparison to education is not ridiculous. The questions asked, the checklist provided, the rubric you’ve created, will always limit your ability to observe. And the measurements you report will always limit your imagination and your ability to create and change.
“Where’s the checkbox for “kids drawing on the floor?”’ I asked the conference later. Where’s the checkbox for “student movement”? for “kids had seating choices”? for “students seemed really happy”? As Tomaz Lasic once asked, “Where’s the tickbox for “student smiled for the first time today”?

Those who only see the checklist will never be artists, or creators, or even valued observers
Because if that’s not on your checklist, you will not see it. Surely not in your five minute “power walkthrough.” And if you don’t see those things, and a million more things not on Marzano’s checklists, you will not see your school.
You have to learn the art of deep mapping. You have to learn the art of “ADHD vision.” You have to learn to see a holistic world made of many tiny elements. You have to learn again to see.
“This was hard,” one school administrator said after Pam Moran and I had sent a conference session out to try “ADHD vision” during a 15-minute walk, “I really don’t know how to observe people.”
She is not alone. The ability to observe humanity is taken away from us by a combination of our North American views of privacy and our belief in magical numbers. We think it impolite to look too closely at each other. We distrust our human vision and have been taught to rely on statistical models.
New York Mayor John Lindsay walks unplowed Queens streets
When I was young a huge snowstorm hit New York City. It took hours after the snow began for plows to begin rolling, and the result was a mess that took weeks to clean up. I still remember the city official on the news, “We can’t send the plows out without a report from the weather bureau,” he said. “Weather bureau?” the Sanitation Union leader laughed in response, “all you had to do was look out the window.”
And today, while Gates and Duncan count, they have taught us to not look out that window. No Child Left Behind tells us tons of things which everyone knows are not true, but our policies, our editorials, and our political campaigns keep claiming – in John Lindsay administration terms – that “no storm is coming.” Duncan says that NCLB will show next year that 82% of our schools are failing – which is obviously absurd – and that he will let you escape the failing label if you enrich his friends by buying their reform models. And “everyone” sits back and lets that untruth stand. Duncan says, high-stakes tests should determine teacher salaries while not forcing teachers to “teach to the test,” and gets away with this observable lie. From one end of America to another politicians claim that both “teachers make all the difference” and that “teacher training does not matter” (Teach for America) and fewer news media call anyone on that crazed contradiction than called Donald Rumsfeld on his duality of “Iraq is filled with weapons of mass destruction ready to be used in 15 minutes,” and, “Iraq will be very easy to conquer and control, and we need very few troops.”
On the other hand, none of the numbers we have show the brilliant, creative work being generated by kids in great classrooms. None of the numbers show the teachers struggling everyday to overcome America’s embarrassing cultures of poverty-acceptance and child disregard. None of the numbers show that system-changing adaptations – open classrooms, multiage education, studio-style schools, project-based learning, passion-based learning – lead to kids with more adaptable human skills.

Angels in America
, the work of another victim of whole language instruction

Observation, however, shows that the much maligned progressive education of the Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers produced the world's most inventive economy. The group without rigorous testing, the "whole language victims," the "new math victims," produced everything from micro-computers to Google, from effective solar power to Pixar, from Foursquare to Burning Man.

Deep Mapping
So we must stop being blinded by our incredibly limited view of "science." Rather, we must learn to see again, to see widely and complexly. To build our own deep maps of the people, places, and experiences before us. You cannot describe the experience of a middle school English class without knowing what happened in the corridor before class began, or what happened the night before at home. You cannot describe the work coming out of a tenth grade math class without understanding the full experience of students and their parents with mathematics to that point. You cannot tell me anything about reading among seven-year-olds without deeply considering the brain function and homelife of each student. And you cannot tell me about the "performance" of any school if you have not deep-mapped it to include a million data points - most of which cannot be charted or averaged or statistically normed.

Human observation and deep mapping are hard, but hardly impossible. These are skills which we all had before school began, and which we must recapture. We'll start by putting down our checklists... and in the next post, we will start to practice...

- Ira Socol

17 June 2011

"the rich are different from you and me"

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different." - F. Scott Fitzgerald, from a short story called “Rich Boy

Michigan's poor communities get around $7,000 US dollars each year to educate a child - about $400 less next year than last - but as the video above notes, it costs way more than that to educate a rich kid. The school in the video is where billionaire Michigan governor Rick ("I sold Gateway computers to a foreign country and wiped out thousands of American jobs") Snyder sends his daughter. So committed is he to this school that he has refused to move anywhere near Michigan's capital city - where schools blowing $20-$25,000 per student per year are hard to find.

Rick Snyder isn't just a pig - that's not news - he's the classic rich American leader, from Bill Gates to Barack Obama, who is absolutely sure that their children are incapable of surviving unless they receive far more support and resources than poor kids or even middle class kids get.

And maybe they're right, because few of the poor can manage to grow up as dumb or as anti-social as rich kids. I mean, I was a cop in Brooklyn and The Bronx in the 1980s but I never met anyone as immoral - as willing to hurt people for their own profit - than the rich who lead the United States and United Kingdom. People who steal? Who on the mean streets of The Bronx could compare with the folks at Goldman-Sachs, Royal Bank of Scotland, AIG, or Bank of America? Hurt people and lie about it? What street thug could possibly match up with George W. Bush? Kick a homeless person and steal from them at the same time? Can't match what David Cameron or Paul Ryan do.

Scott Fitzgerald, the ultimate chronicler of America's myth of opportunity, knew this absolutely. There are criminals in The Great Gatsby, but all are more moral, more educated, and better societal actors than Tom and Daisy Buchanan.
"The Green Light turns into our greatest illusion, covering our difficulties, permitting us to take evil steps with no guilt, hiding our daimonic capcities and our problems by its profligate promises, and destroying our values en route.  The Green Light is the Promised Land myth siring Horatio Alger... Gatsby's tragic flaw was that he took his dream -- the American Dream -- for reality..." - Rollo May quoted by Joseph Campbell
But as I say this I must recall that, "that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that [I’ve] had." That I had the advantages of growing up pretty poor, with six people living in about 600 square feet, so, unlike Rick Snyder's daughter, or Bill Gates, I needed to learn how to get along with people. That I had the advantage of growing up needing to learn to get the things I needed myself, and how to take care of the people around me. That I had the advantage of needing to learn how to entertain myself. That I had the advantage of being quickly forced to learn how to collaborate, solve problems, and communicate.

Poor kids grow up with those skills, which are the real skills of life. Rich kids too often don't. So it, perhaps, is no surprise that it costs three to five times as much per year to educate rich kids. I just wish Greenhills School, and Sidwell-Friends, et al, would do a better job. Hell, give 'em the money if they can limit some of the damage their graduates wreak upon the world. Because, as we continuously learn, the costs of the misbehavior of the rich and powerful are far, far greater than anything the poor can manage.
“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
- Ira Socol

12 June 2011

Measurement and the Overpromise

Measurement has its problems.

Listening to the American "Main Stream Media" speak about education today, or reading most of what passes for educational research, is much like waking up too early on a weekend morning and watching infomercials.

There's the "prosperity theology," 'just give two years of your life to Teach for America and God will smile on your CV for all time.' There's "weight loss," 'lose hundreds of pounds of poverty with our KIPP program.' There's "get rich on government money," 'just become a charter school operator!' And then there are dozens of miracle cures for what ails us, the 'Marzano Magic Learning Machine will cure boredom and everybody gets smart.' The 'Slavin Super Reading Pill,' will solve illiteracy. Or the "Harvard Lecture" will make all your students upper class success stories. Or just ridding yourself of unsightly unions will cure all.

And just like those infomercials, anyone with half a functioning brain knows this is all nonsense, and that the peddlers, wearing their wealth (Bill Gates, Eli Broad) or their connections (Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp) or their PhDs (Marzano, Slavin, the entire Harvard Education faculty) like the white coats of hair restoration tonic hucksters, are self-serving phonies. And yet...

"Education Reform" has been very
for Our Miss Broomstick
And yet "we," as a society, are fully suckered in. And the fault lies not just in the work of the evil rich - Gates, Broad, Koch, Bloomberg - but in our very belief in scientific management.

Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution "we" (the "western" human) have been obsessed with measurement. We measure "production" and "gross domestic product" and "per capita income" and the height, weight, and intelligence of our children, and we compare these against the measurements of others.

Actually, it goes back a bit further, to the Protestant Reformation, and the belief that humans and communities might "measure up" to the perfections described by Calvin and Luther, or not. And to the idea that wealth (responsibly handled) indicated God's love and approval.

The problem with measurement is that it does three very negative things: (1) It creates false comparisons against a fiction - "the average human" and "the average human experience." The child born in the village in rural Kenya is made to line up against Bill Gate's children, on a scale created by Bill Gates. Thus that child is "not white enough," "not Protestant enough," "does not read enough books," and simply lacks "computer time." (2) It ties us firmly to the past - we can only measure against a known, thus measurement itself binds us to prior function and blocks future dreams. The measurer wants a faster horse, he/she cannot conceive of another method of transport. And (3) measurement limits what a society thinks is important. A local bad businessman measures European tax rates against those in the US and insults me by damning European society (no, I won't come back). He focuses on what Americans consider valuable (not supporting their neighbors and children) rather than what Europeans might (supporting their neighbors and children) and thus comes to the set of decisions which put people like Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Rick Snyder in power, which, in turn, probably terminates the American future.

And of course, "measurers" become "fixers." No one "measures up," an idea which has kept preachers employed for 500 years, or 5,000. So the "fix" is needed. "Oh my, I'm not as rich as my neighbor, I need a fix." "Oh my, my child is not as smart as my neighbor's kid, I need a fix." "Oh my, our children do not interpret alphabetical symbols as quickly as those in Scarsdale (on average), we need a fix."

The "fix" is, of course, joined to the overpromise. With so many "fixes" competing for money and attention (and "attention" leads to money), every "Hooked on Phonics" huckster, every aggressive PhD candidate, every professor with dollar signs in his or her eyes, every politician desperate for a CNN or FoxNews soundbite, claims that "their fix" is "the fix" - God has smiled on them and made them the conduit of the perfect truth.

any difference between these two videos? ("fixers" at work)

And each of these fixes limits, and ties us to the past, and preserves the status quo. Dr. Robert Slavin has never spent a minute considering (publicly) what "reading" means. He just wants kids to spend their entire childhood chasing his grandchildren, so his grandchildren stay on top (those other kids cannot possibly catch up unless Bob's grandchildren stop moving forward, since they've begun so far ahead). Bill Gates has never spent a minute considering (publicly) what "education" means. Rather, he sells a system which lists his kids as the 'best in the world' and measures all children by what's going on in that big house outside Seattle.
build your own Bill Gates house, and your kids can grow up to be like his...
Thus, we as a society don't consider how we might re-imagine reading so it is no longer the elite activity of the Gutenberg/Reformation era. We don't consider how we might re-imagine education so it is no longer the industrial process crafted by 19th century Social Darwinists. We don't consider how we might re-design our social structure to eliminate the poverty which destroys opportunity. Instead we run in circles chasing the fictional... that "average" human which does all the things important in the past pretty well.

Measurement has its problems. Measuring ensures that most will be "left behind." Measuring ensures that destructive competition will rule. Measuring blocks truly new ideas. Measuring rates the status quo as the best we can do.

So maybe, just maybe, we should stop doing it.

- Ira Socol

10 June 2011

Making Windows Accessible

Making Microsoft Windows Accessible in Your School
Ten quick solutions to implement this summer...
1.       Shortcut to Accessibility Settings on your desktop
This is often “locked down” on school computers when it should be open to all.
a.       Create a desktop shortcut to the “Ease of Access Center” and allow your students to adjust their computers to their personal requirements, from cursor and keyboard response to alternative alerts.
b.      If students have individual log-ins their chosen settings will be retained for their use. If not the computer will re-set to the default settings with each new log-in.

2.     Shortcut to Speech Recognition on your desktop
Windows7 (and Windows Vista) have the finest Speech Recognition/Voice Dictation/Voice Control system available built in, all you have to do is make it available to students. There is significant evidence that students who struggle with writing can benefit from using Speech Recognition to get their ideas down quickly, and students with dexterity issues will benefit as well.
a.       This must work with individual student log-ins so that a student’s voice profile will be saved.
b.      Students will need to train the computer to their voice, you have to assist some students by whispering the training scripts to them, as their reading may not be accurate enough.
3.       Install the "MITS" accessible version of the Firefox Web Browser
a.       Firefox provides free accessibility options which are either not available or only available at great cost on other web browsers. In addition, most network administrators world-wide find that Firefox offers increased security from intrusive malware. It is completely free and has proven itself safe. Firefox 4 has already been installed over 200 million times this year alone.
b.      The Michigan Integrated Technology Supports has crafted a custom set of “add-ons” which make Firefox accessible. The primary set can be found at
This set adds many features which provide access to web browsing across the disability spectrum, including the FoxVox Text-To-Speech application.
You may also want to add:
FireVox http://www.firevox.clcworld.net/ which offers full blind access when installed
as well as
AnyDaisy https://launchpad.net/daisyextension the Bookshare-designed DAISY reader add-on for Firefox.

4.       Install Balabolka, a free Text Reading System
Balabolka is a new, free, Text-To-Speech system which reads with word-by-word highlighting (an important tool for building sightword recognition. http://www.cross-plus-a.com/balabolka.htm
There are hundreds of options and it is very easy to use with media player type controls.

5.       Install WordTalk if you use Microsoft Word
WordTalk is free software developed in the United Kingdom which turns Microsoft Word into a Talking Word Processor, with word-by-word highlighting. http://www.wordtalk.org.uk/Home/
An “add-in” toolbar allows students to listen to books pasted into Word or their own writing.

6.       Use the Ghotit online spell-check system
Designed for “dyslexics” and English-Language Learners, Ghotit.com offers an entire new level of spellchecking support. http://www.ghotit.com/home.shtml
Words are defined, and Ghotit allows spelling to be “way off.” (There are school network versions with teacher tools available.)

7.       Install PowerTalk for use with Microsoft PowerPoint
PowerTalk is a free program developed in the United Kingdom which makes Microsoft PowerPoint accessible, as it speaks the text on the slides. http://fullmeasure.co.uk/powertalk/
a.       You may want to have your staff review the advice offered in Creating Accessible Presentations. http://fullmeasure.co.uk/powertalk/#creatingpresentations

8.       Install GraphCalc, the free Windows graphing calculator
For over 15 years students have been using GraphCalc to make math more accessible. GraphCalc puts a full-featured graphing calculator right on the desktop, and allows students to record every step of their work, every part of every equation, and every graph they make, and transfer that (via copy/paste) into homework, classwork, quizzes, and exams (you can paste in Word Docs, Open Office docs, or Google Docs). http://www.graphcalc.com/
a.       SpeedCrunch http://www.speedcrunch.org/en_US/index.html is a simpler on-screen calculator, also free, and offers your students options based in their individual needs.
b.      The online talking calculator from PBS Kids http://pbskids.org/cyberchase/games/calculator/index.html offers another level of accessibility, and can easily be “bookmarked” in your school’s Firefox installation.

9.       Install AMIS, DAISY Playback Software
For use with Bookshare’s (free to schools for qualified students) books. http://www.daisy.org/projects/amis

10.   Install Click-N-Type, the free, adaptable, on-screen keyboard
Click-N-Type is a fully customizable on-screen keyboard for those with limited dexterity and other needs. You can change the size, the key layout, it can speak back what is typed (in many languages), it can change letter-forms when the shift-key is pressed, and it works perfectly in scanning/switch mode. http://www.lakefolks.org/cnt/

11. - Ira Socol

05 June 2011

Dyslexia and Life

It is probable that struggling to read alphabetic text is "more normal" than reading well. That "struggle," that "difficulty," also might provide some very human advantages... except, of course, in school, or elsewhere among the "print-centric." 
"Dyslexic children use nearly five times the brain area as normal children while performing a simple language task, according to a new study by an interdisciplinary team of University of Washington researchers. The study shows for the first time that there are chemical differences in the brain function of dyslexic and non-dyslexic children," said a 1999 University of Washington study.
'"People often don't see how hard it is for dyslexic children to do a task that others do so effortlessly," added Berninger, a professor of educational psychology. "There are learning differences in children. We can't blame the schools or hold teachers accountable for teaching dyslexic children unless both teachers and the schools are given specialized training to deal with these children."'

So, when I received this wonderful birthday card last month, I thought about all of this. And I thought about the young Mr. Justin Hamilton, @EDPressSec on Twitter, who called me "a bomb thrower" in a Twitter direct message when I called his Department of Education's "crackdown" on alternative testing for special education students, "child abuse." (I could not respond to Mr. Hamilton privately, since he refuses to follow me on Twitter, as he refuses to follow virtually any other actual educator.)

But we know that if, for example, the United States Department of Education insisted that you could not graduate from high school without running a sub-6 minute mile - and offered no exemptions for those who might use a wheelchair or walking supports - we'd see that as abusive. Imagine that video, the kid who can't walk trying to drag himself around the track. And there is nothing at all different from that image than Arne Duncan and Justin Hamilton insisting that a dyslexic student "read" the way Arne and Justin and Barack prefer to - forcing a student who - genetically cannot do something "that way" - to struggle and find themselves, their teachers, and their school communities punished for their "failings."

This, like much of what happens to dyslexic kids during school reading programs, is abuse. It is an insistence that people be converted from who they are, at any cost. And this is true of Reading Recovery, of Success for All, of all the KIPP Academy reading efforts, even most of what you hear at TEDxED.
'"Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, but dyslexics may learn to compensate for it later in life. We know dyslexia is a genetic and neurological disorder. It is not brain damage. Dyslexics often have enormous talents in other parts of their brain and shine in many fields, e.g. Thomas Edison and financier Charles Schwab."

"In the language tests, the boys heard a series of word pairs that consisted of either two non-rhyming words such as "fly" and "church," two rhyming words such as "fly" and "eye," a non-rhyming real word and non-word such as "crow" and "treel," and a rhyming word and non-word such as "meal" and "treel." The boys were asked if the word pairs rhymed or didn't rhyme and if the pairs contained two real words or one real and one non-word. They responded by raising a hand to indicate yes or no. In the music test, the boys heard pairs of notes and raised one hand if they thought the notes were identical and the other if they believed them to be different.

"While the dyslexic boys exhibited nearly five times more brain lactate activation during a language task that asked them to interpret the sounds of words, there was no difference in the two groups during the musical tone test. This means the difference between the dyslexics and the normal children relates to auditory language and not to nonlinguistic auditory function, according to Richards and Berninger"
That 4.6 times the brain area, why does that matter? Speaking with a colleague's class of sophomore future teachers a few years ago one of the students asked, "If you could read "normally" - they did use their fingers to make the quotation marks, which I appreciated - wouldn't you want to?"

"What would I have to give up in exchange for that?" I asked in return. The class was confused, so I tried to explain that the 'clumsy' 'inefficient' form of reading I do is just part of what I consider a vastly different brain system which just might be far better at processing the complex imagery of multitasking (which "good readers" often claim is impossible) and multi-level perception. I think of all the things I have been "good at" in my life - design, storytelling, visual memory, police work, comprehending differing cultures, and I think all of those successes are due, in part, to the way my brain processes information - that "disorder" called dyslexia. If I could process print efficiently, would all that be lost? It seems likely, which is probably why "poor reading" is far more common among humans than "proficient reading."

Dyslexics do not use the left temporal region (as "good readers" do)
to sound out words. In fact, dyslexics and other poor readers
even avoid using that region when "successfully
compensating." (Shaywitz, 2003)

The world of evolution chooses "winners," and the multitasker, the multi-level comprehender, the visual thinker, remains extraordinarily valuable in many places around the earth.

The fact that, as one example, the United States has never, in over 150 years of trying, gotten two-thirds of Americans beyond the sixth grade reading level (what NAEP calls "proficient) suggests that facts are facts, more struggle with reading than succeed. More brains are wired "abnormally" - by school standards - than are wired "normally."

This was a gigantic problem during the Gutenberg Era, but thankfully, the Gutenberg Era is pretty much over everywhere but in school, and for everybody but the U.S. Department of Education. We don't read manuals anymore, we find the right clip on YouTube to lead us through a process. We don't write checks anymore, we swipe cards or punch numbers into our computers or phones, or we bump phones, or our phones get scanned. We don't use handwriting anymore, because it is slow and difficult to read, although our Windows tablets can convert our handwriting into real text. And if we struggle to read alphabetical text stamped onto paper or displayed on a screen these days, we turn on our reading software, and convert it to audio.

Even "out in the real world," where once menus written in fancy script like the one on the front of the above birthday cards had generations of American boys telling waiters "I'll have what she's having" on our dates, we can now go online, pull down the menu, convert it to normal text or audio, and act like we belong in the world when that waiter arrives.

But in schools, and especially on Duncan-promoted high stakes tests, none of these current century rules apply. Instead, we're back in the 1950s when dyslexia was often called "minimal brain damage" or minimal brain dysfunction," and those who "had that" disease were called - without any code words being used - "retarded." ("Retarded" meaning, since the 1870s in U.S. education, "unable to operate at the "normal" grade level for your age.")

We don't teach kids how to use these solutions, we don't teach them to choose the right solutions, and we don't evaluate them on how they'll actually function when they escape school. Instead "we" - starting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his flak Justin Hamilton - bully these kids, and torture them on standardized tests, and call them, and all who try to help them, "failures."

And sorry Justin, insult me if you must, but this is child abuse. There is no other way to describe it. And we need to stop it, and realize Gutenberg is dead, and we need to give students the tools they need to access communication and information, and to express themselves.

Because the alternative is awful. I want Justin and Arne to know that. I've even written a book, in part, about that. And if Mr. Hamilton or Mr. Duncan won't order it from Amazon (or the accessible pdf form), if they ask, I'll send them that chapter. Maybe, using their preferred reading method, they can read it, and start to understand. And then maybe they can go down the hall and actually listen to Karen Cator, and read her plan, and start to make education less about force from above, and more about letting the most kids succeed.

- Ira Socol