17 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: knowing less about students, seeing more

(1) ending required sameness     (2) rejecting the flipped classroom     (3) re-thinking rigor     (4) its not about 1:1      (5) start to dream again     (6) learning to be a society (again)     (7) reconsidering what literature means     (8) maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic     (9) changing rooms     (10) undoing academic time     (11) social networks beyond Zuckerbergism     (13) why we fight 
"the passing of laws that made the US the only
developed country to lock up children as young
as 13 for life without the possibility of parole,
often as accomplices to murders committed by an adult"
"The charge on the police docket was "disrupting class." But that's not how 12-year-old Sarah Bustamantes saw her arrest for spraying two bursts of perfume on her neck in class because other children were bullying her with taunts of "you smell."

'"I'm weird. Other kids don't like me," said Sarah, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit and bipolar disorders and who is conscious of being overweight. "They were saying a lot of rude things to me. Just picking on me. So I sprayed myself with perfume. Then they said: 'Put that away, that's the most terrible smell I've ever smelled.' Then the teacher called the police."'
OK, yes, the United States is an extreme example of how societies see children and adolescents these days, and within the extreme of the United States is the uber-extreme of Texas, and yet...

Yes, State Representative Agema, let's
teach our students about their rights.

(download this student rights pdf)
I had to laugh recently when I saw a Republican State Representative from Grand Rapids, Michigan introducing a bill to force the teaching of "a sound education in our constitutional underpinnings," the "Declaration of Independence" (not actually part of American law you understand, but the US right always gets these things confused), "the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights (yes, this is part of the Constitution, but again...) ... in public schools. Really? OK, but I'm not sure that "the most conservative member of Michigan's state legislature" truly wants teenagers learning their rights... they might, you know, start to object to life in the prison state many of them live in today. But if he drops the Third Reich-esque required loyalty oath each morning, I'll support his bill, then I'll sue to force that the ACLU position be brought up in every lesson.
"In the United States today, our public schools are not very good at educating our students, but they sure are great training grounds for learning how to live in a Big Brother police state control grid.  Sadly, life in many U.S. public schools is now essentially equivalent to life in U.S. prisons."
Violent Crime Rate in American Schools,
since Clinton presidency
I have begun here because we have to understand the way that students are "framed" when adults in school see them these days. The big frame is provided by a society in which - in the US - the only way that anyone under the age of 25 can be treated as a full adult is to commit a crime. And by a society in which adolescence, and in many ways childhood, has been made illegal. "As almost every parent of a child drawn in to the legal labyrinth by school policing observes, it wasn't this way when they were young," the Guardian notes accurately. Of course the "juvenile crime rate" has risen, almost anything a teenager can do these days is illegal - well, except, the actual juvenile crime rate has not risen, violent crimes in school, for example, have dropped over 75% since today's 40 year olds (i.e. "parents") were in high school, and most of the beliefs which drove the "crackdown" on kids were based in a massive lie perpetrated by a rich conservative "christian" from Texas named T. Cullen Davis.

It isn't even 'just' criminality, it's that whole thing about kids, as "economics writer" Robert J. Samuelson argues, "The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out,1 compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate."As Alfie Kohn summed it up succinctly, "School Would Be Great If It Weren’t for the Damn Kids."

There are those who oppose this, of course, to quote one commenter on the above Guardian article, "In short, this country, across many of its institutions, endows mentally and morally unqualified people with a great deal of power over the lives of children and parents: they are so benighted that they have turned public schools into daytime prisons and public institutions into instruments of persecution of those without resources to defend themselves. Because of this mentality, public schools are the last place in which I would want to place my children, or grandchildren," but we have a long way to go to undo this faked model and this disdain (or even hatred) of childhood, which has damaged tens of millions of children and young adults over the past generation plus.

Step twelve of Changing Gears 2012 is to stop knowing what you know about your students, and to start seeing them for who they are, and who they are, because of their stages in life, will be new each day. The fact is, that teenager in your classroom is far, far more likely to be inventing, say, "facial recognition software [which] signals death of passwords" or "devis[ing a] possible cancer cure," than to be dangerous to you or anyone else. And once you realize that, that you have with you in your learning community human equals who can teach you just as much as they can learn from you, you will stop "managing" these students as if they were products to have "value-added" to them, and you will stop controlling them as if they are criminals, or cattle, and you will begin to learn together.

My friend Rand Spiro on embracing cognitive flexibility in schools

The concept of "knowing less" and "seeing more" stems from the facts of cognitive brain development. As neuroscientist Alison Gopnik says, "As we know more, we see less." Which is why medical educators are so interested in Cognitive Flexibility Theory, and whatever techniques they can utilize, to improve the vision of people in the medical field. How to see what you do not expect to see. "Cognitive Flexibility Theory is about preparing people to select, adapt, and combine knowledge and experience in new ways to deal with situations that are different than the ones they have encountered before,” says Rand Spiro of Michigan State University. “It is the flexible application of knowledge in new contexts that concerns me. There are always new contexts and you just can’t rely on old templates. Cognitive security is what people want. It doesn’t work in the modern world of work and life."
"[using] the analogy of Sherlock Holmes, because Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the great fictional detective, was also a physician, and, as all Holmes fans know, the detective’s genius lies in his observational powers. This link is not lost on Dr Brenda Moore-McCann, who set up a course for first-year medical students at Trinity College Dublin. Moore-McCann trained in medicine before she took a doctorate in art history. Her husband, Shaun McCann, then professor of academic medicine at Trinity, helped to put the course in place.

“In spite of all the gizmos, medicine is still about listening and looking, 90 per cent of the time,” says McCann. “Art is about adding a skill set. If this generation can come out of medical school less cynical, and with a broader view of the world, that would be brilliant.”

"Moore-McCann’s course is one of 11 modules, including creative writing, philosophy, ethics and literature, that first-year medical students choose from. “We’re using art to try to get them to perceive in a more attentive way, and to establish independence of thought,” she says. “It’s about not being afraid to say that you don’t know something, and I’m also trying to get to something very fundamental about the way people think.”

"In a sense, Moore-McCann’s course and the other modules are about going back to the original idea of a university: broadening the mind, encouraging different fields of inquiry and pushing the boundaries laterally; before the emphasis changed to promote goals, quotas and results-driven courses of study."

If we are to help our students to see this way, we must learn to see these ways as well, and the first place to learn to see the unexpected, is with our students.

Characters in this turned into a teacher, a lawyer, two world renowned architects, a cop,
a librarian, an important graphic designer, a unionization leader, key people at
major newspapers... Our students will change, if we didn't believe in their
capacity to change, we wouldn't (shouldn't) be in education.

"Another time, [the future Dr. Carson] inflicted a major head injury on a classmate
in a dispute over a locker. In a final incident, Ben nearly stabbed to death a friend
after arguing over a choice of radio stations. The only thing that prevented a
tragic occurrence was the knife blade broke on the friend's belt buckle.

What happens when you "know all about a student"?
Stand By Me- from Stephen King's The Body

When I first meet students to do "Assistive Technology Evaluations" I almost never read the reports from schools or other practitioners before the meeting. It's not that I doubt the information contained therein or presume that it will be "wrong" or "right," it is that I need to keep my eyes as clear as possible as I watch and listen to this human. Prior information, if I take it in, will grind my learning lens in one way or another, and staying the "neutral observer" is difficult enough without making it much harder by imposing diagnoses. This is my way to keep myself as cognitively flexible as possible, so that as I ask the student, "what works for you? what doesn't work for you? what to you love? what are the biggest issues? what's the best time of your day? what's the hardest time of your day? where do you like to sit? do you like to sit" ..." I can hear that student, and not their parent, their teacher, their principal, or their psychologist or medical doctor. And in doing this, I've found that not only do my initial recommendations vary greatly from those of others, but often whatever my "diagnostic thoughts" are do as well.

We see the failure of our dense cognitive frameworks about school and students and the presumptions which go along with them, and our "adult spotlight" vision, most clearly, perhaps, when we look at the issues surrounding "ADHD" and "medication." Gopnik: "...science isn't about applying the causal principles we know about. It's about discovering causal principles we don't know about. Psychological science, in particular, is about using evidence to find new and unexpected causal explanations for our actions and experiences. It's not about using our everyday psychological knowledge to explain what we do. When psychologists do that, we rightly accuse them of just telling us what we already know. This is especially true when scientists are trying to explain the conditions we vaguely call "clinical" or "dysfunctional" or "pathological." After all, people aren't pathological when they are angry or frustrated or sad because of what they want or believe. They are pathological precisely when we can't explain their miseries in the normal way—when the successful author suddenly kills himself, or when the bright child with loving and concerned parents just can't read no matter how hard she tries. Clinical scientists try to use evidence to discover the less than obvious causal principles (his serotonin level was too low, she can't process language sounds) that can explain these events."

"[Judith Warner's We've Got Issues] also reflects a common confusion in popular writing about psychology. She writes as if there are just two kinds of explanations for human behavior. Either the everyday narratives are right—so that children are unhappy because their parents don't care about them, or they fail at school because they are lazy. Or else the right answer is that the children's problems are the result of "something in their brains." Warner's logic seems to be that since the parents do care about their kids, the problem must be in the children's brains and therefore drugs will fix it." This fixed set of visions - a cognitive framework built so densely - that we only have two possible slots into which we might plug what we know about a child.

This is not the same child who came to school yesterday.
Can you see him for who he is today?
And we need many more ways than that of interpreting the humans around us, especially the young humans for whom we have significant responsibilities.

It is not easy to ignore all that you've heard, all that you've seen, but it is essential. All of us who have been parents, or coaches, or yes, teachers with open eyes, know that what was impossible for a child yesterday might be possible today. We all know that when we make assumptions based only on previous experience, we discover that the baby has rolled off the bed or climbed to the top of the ladder, or, whatever. So, despite the difficulty, this is something we must do.

We walk into our school in the morning, and what do we see? If we are good, we see boundless possibility and a whole new day for a lot of kids who have changed - in one way or the other - overnight.

- Ira Socol
next: why we fight...

1. It is important to note that in 1950 40% of U.S. students never went beyond 8th grade, and high school graduation rates may have been as low as 25% in 1960. This, to me, does not suggest that there is now, or was then, a problem with students, but that clowns like Samuelson and his ilk need to learn history, or to admit that their purpose for public education remains what Woodrow Wilson hoped it would be, a way to fail 80% of students and preserve the wealth of the ruling class.

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