31 January 2012

Algebra without Numbers

This post began with this Tweet from a high school math teacher (and "Ed Leadership" student)
Bored in Math Class
"Had 8 out of 9 stdts not complete an Alg I test 2day. Said we never did it b4. Unit started Jan 2. Had flash cards and cheat sheet. What now"
I responded
"Algebra is a method for finding unknowns from knowns in a logical way. You could use numbers, or real things...  mysteries are solved through algebra. Kids don't get it because we disconnect it from reality"
The answer?
"or because they don't do homework, take notes, participate, or pay attention"
Me again,
"I always say, kids make rational micro-economic decisions. If they see no value in the course, they will not invest in it"
And this response,
"then maybe they will see value in it when they take it again next year"
followed by
"I shouldn't have to reteach because they were to lazy to try or participate this time. It sucks."

Obviously I could write about many things here, from public disrespect for students to a bit of unfortunate egocentrism ("I shouldn't have to reteach"), but I'm going toward the math here, first, repeating an old joke...
A man walks into a pub with a dog and orders a pint. The barman says, "you can't bring that dog in here." But the man says, "This is different, this is a very special dog, I taught him to sing Grand Opera." The barman is impressed, "Well," he says, "lets hear him sing." The man pats the dog on the head, says, "Sing!" and the dog begins to howl. "I thought you told me you taught him to sing Grand Opera," the barman says. "I did," the man responds, "he just didn't learn."
"Teaching" means nothing without the learning. And in order for learning to take place, whatever is to be learned must be accessible, and attractive (in some way), and must occur in an educational space where students are physically and emotionally comfortable enough to allow for the cognitive discomfort which opens the pathways in the brain.

How does your classroom meets the needs of the teenage brain?
Teens make rational decisions, microeconomic decisions, about
what is worth investing in... Ever watch teachers at a boring
Professional Development Day?
I do need to note that I did try teaching in the exchange above, I offered many links, including these:
Real World Algebra: Budgeting and Lifestyle Design.
Algebra in the Real World Movies
Karl Fisch Student Algebra Blogs
Learning Algebra on the Right Side of the Brain
The Changing Way That Math Is Taught To Children
but clearly, I failed. I was not, of course, meeting this teacher where he or she was. First, this teacher really wasn't looking for pedagogical learning with the first "question," just as many of the students probably aren't looking for equations to learn when they enter that classroom. The teacher wanted to rant and complain about "the world being insufficiently cooperative," which is often an idea filling the teenage brain as well. Second, the teacher was not ready to make any big leap in terms of teaching. What was wanted was a method of forcing students to comply. By offering new kinds of lesson ideas, or alternative ideas to run a classroom, I was creating the same kind of disconnect between interests and curriculum which is clearly occurring in that classroom.

What I was not doing was attracting this teacher to new ideas. Which is what isn't happening in that classroom. And we can not get students interested in investing in our curriculum unless we can attract them to it, any more than I can get most teachers to give up their evenings to reading the works of Edward Said, Antonio Gramsci, and Michel Foucault, no matter how essential these works are to teaching all students effectively. So, if I want either to happen - the kids to come to the math or the teachers to come to an understanding of power - I have to "teach and reteach" trying this and trying that, looking for the hook that works. Going out fishing with just one kind of bait or lure can result in disappointment.

I cannot sit through a TED talk - rehearsed stage lecture plus PowerPoint will never hold my interest, but obviously it works for some folks. But give me a decent football (soccer) game on television and you not only have me for two hours, you can get me into everything from mathematics to culture. Put a Khan video lecture in front of me and I'll be a behavior problem, but ask me to find three different ways to explain the same thing online, and you may have your most engaged student. It all goes back to the "amazing" statement I almost always hear - stated as if it is a problem - in IEP meetings about boys, "He pays attention when he's interested in something." Duh, yes, I think the vast majority of us do.

Relevance... Why would anyone learn this? Start with an attractive purpose
and the work behind it becomes worth investing in.
Algebra without Numbers, Algebra without Computation

The idea here is that instead of presenting Algebra as a system of mathematics which is essential to learning some other things kids probably aren't interested in, or cannot imagine why they would be interested in, we present it as what it truly is: a system of formalized problem solving used to discover an unknown from knowns. It is, essentially, detective work, and we must let kids understand that. The numbers in Algebra are incidental, the concepts are important.

And I am suggesting that it is often essential to start without the numbers, largely because of the damage done to the interest in mathematics by mathematics education before kids get to algebra. Schools work so hard at making mathematics boring, disconnected, almost absurdly repetitious nonsense, that by the time they walk into an algebra class, they do so with a combination of dread and disinterest. If you don't break through those walls first, you might as well call in sick for the year.

Philo Vance on film, with William Powell as Vance, in The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
I've been falling asleep to Old Time Radio shows lately, and one really hokey old drama, Philo Vance, a detective series from 1948-1950 has been pretty entertaining. As I thought about Algebra I thought about an episode I heard last night, The Vanilla Murder Case (clicking will let you download the mp3), and thought about using this in an Algebra class.

The murderer, "X" equals one set of facts (the whole of observations) minus another set of facts (the irrelevant).

So the class might begin by listening (which will be a bit more universally appealing than reading, but a little complicated for a generation not typically raised on audio-only storytelling, and thus, a little challenging) and collecting all the observations, as those observations begin to build up, some will begin to slide into the "irrelevant parentheses," others will be added together.

This is not a "side path" on the way to algebra, this is the path to algebra. The trick to algebra is understanding that formalized, logical thinking can help make sense of the world. That kind of thinking begins with attention to the issues in question. In the Vanilla Murder Case, in any mystery, there are many facts. Some facts cancel out other facts as we add them together. Some facts multiply the importance of other facts. If this does not sound familiar, you've been teaching arithmetic instead of mathematics.

We do this kind of "algebra without numbers" all the time. How do we decide who has not shown up yet? X = (all the people we expected to show up) - (all the people here) What is the best time to meet for this movie? X = (the people who can show up at this time) - (the people who can show up at that time) / (who are the people we really want to be there)

In other words, we are not just giving experience in this formalized structure of data collection and data assembly, we are proving that far from being some worthless foreign language, algebra is a basic part of our lives.

Once Algebra is something of value, the microeconomic decisions of the students change. Once you have brought the "cost" of engaging down for students, their microeconomic decisions change, and then, classroom behaviors change.

Next, you may want to bring coding into class, so that "right" and "wrong" and replaced with "works" or "doesn't work," which makes a whole lot more sense to most of us anyway. "It turns out that programming is just so much fun that students can't help but get engaged, which is a far cry from what usually happens in math class. Sure, we can make math fun with activities, and once in a while you hit upon a topic or a problem that kids are naturally drawn to. But much of the time I would loosely equate teaching math with pulling teeth, and programming couldn't be more different."

If you'd rather listen to a TED talk lecture than me, here's Conrad Wolfram...

"Conrad Wolfram says the part of maths we teach -- calculation by hand -- isn't just tedious,
it's mostly irrelevant to real mathematics and the real world."
"Right now in schools we're spending 80% of our time teaching students to do something by hand which computers do much better and faster. Calculating used to be the limiting step, but now it isn't. Computers have liberated math from calculation," Wolfram says.

In other words, concepts matter. And we need to change everything we do in mathematics classrooms.

- Ira Socol

30 January 2012

The Wager

Let's bet on this...

Since Republicans seem to be ready to nominate America's Gambler-in-Chief, I thought this might be a good moment to make a bet with America's Governors and State Legislators.

Listening to this NPR News story today, I considered that, if our "standards" in education are to have any meaning at all, they must be standards for policy makers as well. Because, if you've ever been in any school, I mean really been there, you know the disconnect between standards and reality. "“I went to a remedial reading class for students, there was a girl there who was getting mostly A’s in her honors classes, and she was sitting in a remedial class learning how to read,” Rick Roach of the Orange County (Florida) School Board said. “She would be taking piano if she wasn’t taking that [remedial class]. These kids get put into an academic jail because some test says they can’t read. It’s just not right.”

put up, or shut up, as we learned on our playgrounds
Roach, had just voluntarily taken the FCAT, Florida's "high-stakes" 10th grade exam. “I won’t beat around the bush. The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%. In our system, that’s a ‘D,’ and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction… It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a Bachelor of Science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities….”

And Mr. Roach's experience (hear a long interview here) led me to this idea. I want to bet every US Governor, along with every State Legislator who has supported or voted for standardized testing, supported or voted for "more rigorous" curricula, or who has supported or voted for holding back diplomas or retaining children, to take the tests. The real tests. To make this completely fair, let's do it soon (on "our" schedule, not that of the test takers), and lets give each one of these state 10th grade exams randomly chosen. So when our "leaders" sit down, they might get a test from their state, or any other state, being that we're all "Common Core" you know.
The Threat to Authenticity 

Testing cannot be anything but political and abusive [SpeEdChange]

And here's the bet. Standards being standards. You governors and legislators, you take the exam in front of you, under the conditions your students take it, and if you fail, you resign immediately.

Doesn't this seem fair? Wouldn't this prove your political point - that the ability to pass these exams is all important?

And if you "guys" cannot pass the test, well... what might that prove?

So this is a serious wager, a serious challenge. I'm quite for that if I ask the teachers of America, they'll be happy to even come in on a Saturday - on their own time - and proctor the exam. Let's get going. If you all pass the tests you'll be sending an important message to your state's students, and surely you want to do that, right?

- Ira Socol
who asks you to copy this and email it to your Governor and legislators.

25 January 2012

Edu-Incarceration and The Big Mac Effect

President Obama baffles me. He is clearly an incredibly intelligent guy, for the most part he believes in what I might call, "the right things," he's highly educated, and the child of incredibly educated, curious parents, he has lived in a variety of places which should have given him a global perspective...

And yet...

Listen, Barack Obama isn't amoral like Mitt Romney or immoral like Newt Gingrich or a potential Taliban leader like Rick Santorum or even a guy totally confused about the meaning of "society" like Ron Paul, but he appears, as I've thought about it, to lack anything resembling empathy.

I don't want to pick and choose from the President's words, so let me quote the entire education section of his State of the Union address, and then, break out a few things.
"At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced States to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies - just to make a difference.
"Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn.
"We also know that when students aren't allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.
"When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middle-class families thousands of dollars. And give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.
"Of course, it's not enough for us to increase student aid. We can't just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we'll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down. Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who've done just that. Some schools re-design courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it's possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can't be a luxury - it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.
"Let's also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: The fact that they aren't yet American citizens. Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others came more recently, to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else

"That doesn't make sense."
OK, now, piece by piece:
It is clear that Barack Obama cannot be bothered to do the
math when the impact is on people unlike his family.
The Big Mac Effect - and - its the teachers' fault: "We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance." This is the Horatio Alger nonsense peddled by the American right for years. There is nothing wrong with our schools, if only those lazy, unionized teachers were better... poverty would disappear. First, the President bases his claim on a suspect study which does indeed suggest that a "great" teacher (that is, one who raises test scores) might raise the weekly earnings of an impoverished student by almost enough to buy a Big Mac each week.
It is surprising, in light of all the publicity, that the differences produced by the high value-added teachers are relatively small. Baker shows that the income gains are only about $250 a year over a 40-year working span for each of the students.
As [Rutgers University Professor Bruce] Baker writes: "One of the big quotes in the New York Times article is: 'Replacing a poor teacher with an average one would raise a single classroom's lifetime earnings by about $266,000, the economists estimate.' This comes straight from the research paper. BUT ... let's break that down. It's a whole classroom of kids. Let's say ... for rounding purposes, 26.6 kids if this is a large urban district like NYC. Let's say we're talking about earning careers from age 25 to 65 or about 40 years. So, $266,000/26.6 = $10,000 lifetime additional earnings per individual. Hmmm ... no longer catchy headline stuff. Now, per year? $10,000/40 = $250. Yep, about $250 per year."
Obama's disregard for the facts when it comes to escaping poverty is only one example in this one quote of his empathy and understanding problem. "A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance," which, obviously, implies that the reason we have so many people in poverty right now is that we don't have many great teachers. Take that all you fools who waste your days with our children. Now, yes, to be honest, we don't have great teachers everywhere, just as we don't have great people everywhere in any job - even President - and I'm the first person to criticize bad teaching, but, Mr. Obama, teachers are not the cause of poverty.

To explain this let me first turn to Chris Lehmann of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy:
"The nation - or at least its politicians, its pundits and its billionaires - has made this debate about labor (read unions) by atomizing this debate down to the teacher level. And while there is room for conversation there, it misses the larger picture. Our schools are structurally dysfunctional places which, therefore, makes teaching and learning much harder than it needs to be, so that teachers -- and students -- have to succeed despite the system, rather than because of it.

"As long as high school students have to travel to eight different classes where eight different teachers talk about grading / standards / learning in eight different ways, students will spend far too much trying to figure out the adults instead of figuring out the work. When that happens, too many students will fall through the cracks and fail. If we built schools where there was a common language of teaching and learning and common systems and structures so that kind people of good faith can bring their ideas and creativity and passion to bear within those systems and structures and help kids learn, we will find that more teachers can be the kind of exemplary teachers that Mr. Kristof wants.

"As long as there is little to no time in the high school schedule for teachers and students to see and celebrate each other's shared humanity, too many students will feel that school is something that is done to them, that teachers care more about their subjects than they do about the kids. As long as teachers have 120-150 kids on their course roster, and there is little continuity year to year so that relationships cannot be maintained, too many students will be on their own when they struggle. If we build schools where teachers and students have time to relate to one another as people - if we create pathways for students and teachers to know each other over time, so that every child knows they have an adult advocate in their school, we make schools more human -- and more humane - for all who inhabit them.

"Let's stop falling victim to the soft thinking that just finding more "great teachers" and getting rid of all the bad ones is the way to reform education and start asking ourselves - "How do we create schools that make it easier for all students and teachers to shine?"
"None discussed the need to address the growing funding gap between rich and poor school districts, and the resulting lack of equitable opportunities for disadvantaged kids to achieve the same goals as every other child in Michigan. Of course not, since that would not be self-serving panning to their respective constituencies.

"It’s ironic that the legislature and governor would tout the term
“best practices” while at the same time they employ some of the worst practices in public school funding. Purposely ignoring the needs of disadvantaged students, who by the way are expected to achieve the same goals as students from more affluent areas, is not what I or any person of intelligence would consider to be a best practice."
Simply put, Mr. President, perhaps if you and our national leaders start to do your job regarding our children, great teachers will be able to do their job, and, I'll bet, a whole lot more teachers will look "great."

The Hypocrite - or - why does Barack Obama think we're stupid?: "
Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn." Really? Why would this man assume that we are all "that dumb." Does he think we have not been watching the work of his Department of Education since 2009? The mandates, the requirements, the curriculum written by Pearson and friends. Obama and those governing the American states have denied us the resources children need in order to cut Mitt Romney's tax bill. Teacher pay has been slashed in many places, class sizes have grown, budgets shrunk, meanwhile, do anything Arne Duncan and his Ministry of Re-education doesn't like, and you'll be labeled a failure.

Sorry Mr. President, I know that dealing with the NEA Leadership and your "Reform" friends may have given you the wrong impression, but some of us in education are smart enough to know the gap between your words and deeds.

Edu-Incarceration - or, why would anyone stay in an Arne Duncan school if it wasn't the law: "So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen." Well, there's the answer. Our schools have become miserable dungeons of worksheets and tests under the Obama Administration, and many are deciding to Walk Out, so the solution lies in one more giant step toward criminalizing adolescence. We can't be bothered to create better schools, but we sure can lock the kids in.

Yes, I know the President, the son of two PhD students and a private school student who is now a private school parent, cannot comprehend children not being in school. It is simply beyond his rather inflexible grasp, but he ought to at least know that coercion is not the answer. "The president’s proposal is therefore merely the latest example of our tendency to craft policies that address the symptom, and ignore the root. And that’s not change I can believe in," says Sam Chaltain in the Washington Post.

Mr. Clueless about university costs:
So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down." This is tough for an Ivy League graduate, I know, and to make it all funnier, good ol' Justin Hamilton, Arne Duncan's Press Secretary - @EDPressSec - DMed during the speech to insist that I was wrong - that universities were spending more than ever,1 but those in Washington might want to know that the actual cost of running public universities has been going down. Those who have been on public campuses during this administration have seen budgets - yes Mr. President and Little Justin - that's the total cost of running the institutions slashed. 

Universities aren't spending more Mr. President,
but students are.
Here's why tuition has gone up boys. These "State Universities" which were once strongly supported by their governments don't get that kind of support anymore. "In the 1970s, the state covered three-fourths of university costs and the rest was covered by tuition. Now it’s almost reversed– state funding provides one-quarter and the rest is tuition," says Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, with, "funding for higher education has been reduced by [an additional] 15 percent for 2012... higher education has lost a billion dollars in state aid over the past decade, amounting to cuts of more than $2,000 per student."

Yes, we need lower costs Mr. President, but the way to do that is not to threaten our universities as you threaten Iran. Not all of us can - or even want to - go to the places you were educated and taught.

You know Mr. President, there were probably parts of your speech which I might have approved of. I surely, for example, appreciate the difference between you and Mr. Romney et al on the automotive industry. I favor, unlike Republicans, people paying reasonable taxes. I wish work were taxed less and sitting at home living off unearned money was taxed more...

But it isn't just that I work in education which makes me so angry about your complete lack of empathy, your complete lack of understanding regarding our children and our schools. I am angry because you are leading an assault on our future, and you are doing it simply because you will not open your eyes.

I expect better from you Mr. President. I really do.

- Ira Socol
1 - "
You don't have your facts straight (though that's not new). Sticker price and net price have skyrocketed." from @EDPressSec around 10:00 pm on January 24, 2012

22 January 2012

If you say "scale up," you don't understand humanity

The entire "educational reform" "movement" is based on an impossibility. But it is an impossibility which is, sadly, foundational to both British and American social thought. Which is why it is so difficult to explain to those in power in either British-formed or American-formed societies why they are wrong about "everything."

British society and the American society which sprung from it, assume that all relations between humans are based in two mutually exclusive concepts: Exceptionalism - Anglos, and particularly "our" Anglos, Brits in Britain, Americans in America - are 'by birthright' better than everyone else on the planet, and Replication - everyone on the planet can be converted into a copy of an Anglo. This comes from the common "Liberal Ideal" in which it is the duty of those who have achieved rational perfection, "The last best hope of earth," to convert all others to the same rational ideal so that the world becomes a safe and good place for a benign capitalism.

São Paulo, Brasil
In order to do this, we need replication. Parliament must look the same in New Delhi, Johannesburg, Nairobi as it does in Westminster. Language must be the same in Jamaica, Zambia, and Hong Kong. Walmart must be the same in Topeka, Brasilia, Shanghai. Scaling up, we take the "ideal" and we replicate it everywhere.

Of course "ideal" is a perfection designed to match a particular vision: If this be government it is represented by a structured, limited form of "two-party," prescribed choice, "representative democracy" - a very conservative system designed to make change extremely difficult. In retailing it is the low-cost, high-profit, globalized sameness whether Lipton Tea or Walmart. In education, this is the test-prep academy model, preparing students for lives of compliance.

In all of these this replication has different forms for the powerful, so both Rupert Murdoch and Mitt Romney have different relationships with their governments, since they pay people to write laws, they shop at different stores, and they send their children to different schools.

Terroir and "scaling across"

Googling "Flat World"
"Scaling Up" fails because it imagines, in the language of right-wing New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, that "the world is flat." To imagine that 520 years after the voyage of Columbus we'd love the phrase "flat world" is both highly amusing and deeply saddening, but it represents the desperation for sameness which has long characterized British and American imperial thought.

This idea would have never come out of French culture, or even German culture, where notions of difference are embedded. Hamburg, Berlin, Munich have very little in common. Saigon, Algiers, Martinique (to name three French colonial capitals) in no way operated along the same lines.

Though British colonialists always ate the same foods, drank the same tea, played the same games of Cricket, and Americans carried Hiltons and Holiday Inns around the world with them along with their hamburgers, French cuisine and culture "went native" - in the British term - everywhere. Victoria, British Columbia might be "little London," but Montreal and Hanoi could never be called Parisian. It is perhaps inconceivable that Heart of Darkness could have been written by a French author.

Tea in Victoria, British Columbia
This is a conceptual difference with vast implications. And it may begin with the word "terroir," a word I've known for a long time but which was re-imagined for me by the brilliant book Walk Out Walk Onby Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze. Terroir, in French, means something like, "a sense of the place," and is used most often to describe why the same grape vine will produce different grapes depending on where it is planted. Terroir is not simply a "natural" phenomenon. The French vinoculture understands that it isn't just the weather, the unflat world slope, or the soil which causes variation, but the way that the farmers themselves function, how they care for the vines, how they pick the grapes. So, it is presumed in France that every wine, from every year, from every different place, will be different. This is quite a different concept from the T-test which lies behind both Anglo-style brewing and American education.

"French" food in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietna
"The t-statistic was introduced in 1908 by William Sealy Gosset, a chemist working for the Guinness brewery in Dublin, Ireland ("Student" was his pen name). Gosset had been hired due to Claude Guinness's policy of recruiting the best graduates from Oxford and Cambridge to apply biochemistry and statistics to Guinness's industrial processes. Gosset devised the t-test as a way to cheaply monitor the quality [consistency] of stout."

The world, apparently, is as flat as we choose to see it.

A few years ago I sat in a session at a comparative education conference and heard people working with Intel Education describe their intention of doing the exact same thing in every school, whether that school was in San Jose, California or rural India. After the session I asked one of the presenters if he really thought that there were no differences across the planet. "Well, sure," replied, "but for the sake of this project we've chosen to ignore that."

Which describes the "flat world" cultural concept perfectly, and makes "scaling up" possible. If the world is all the same, we can find the model which works in Oklahoma City and replicate it exactly in Lagos. If this is how math is taught in Beijing, we will teach it this way in Newark.

I see this all the time when I speak to young men and women who have scored badly on community college placement tests. If they lack the proper "Anglo" stylistics in their writing, that is, if their narratives are not expressed in the straight-line form expected in British and American writing, they are deemed to be less intelligent, just as African-American children are likely to be deemed both "disabled" and "defiant."

"...it smells like victory." The Apocalypse Now version of Heart of Darkness expresses a significant
difference between American (above) and French (below) colonialism
, despite the brutality of both.
"It is the French plantation sequence that gives me the most pause. It is long enough, I think, that is distracts from the overall arc of the movie. The river journey sets the rhythm of the film, and too much time on the banks interrupts it (there is the same problem with the feuding families in Huckleberry Finn). Yet the sequence is effective and provoking. It helps me to understand it when Coppola explains that he sees the French like ghosts; I questioned how they had survived in their little enclave, and accept his feeling that their spirits survive as a cautionary specter for the Americans." - Roger Ebert
Seeding and "Scaling Across"

No two children are the same. No two teachers are the same. No two communities are the same. No two ecosystems are the same. But these facts dispute the rationalism and science of the last 300 years of "Western" thought. The entire goal of statistics is to create "norming," so that, for example, one looks at the North Atlantic and the South Pacific and says, "ocean," about both. In educational terms, Arne Duncan looks at any two children who are six-years-old and says, "first grade." It makes life so much easier if we can imagine the world this way. You barely have to look to be sure you know. Which is why Arne Duncan, and The New York Times, know a failing school, even if he or they have never seen it.

If you believe in that rational, flat world, everything can be scaled up. You define a "best practice" or a "successful design" and you just repeat and repeat.

But if you don't see humans that way, you need a different path. That different path accepts that the surfaces tell us a lot less than we think, and that no matter how much the global economic engine tries, whether that's Benjamin Disraeli/William Gladstone or JP Morgan Chase/Apple Corporation, the world will always be a stubbornly diverse place.

So instead of modeling, scaling up, building replicas, we seed, and watch ideas take root in many soils and grow in many ways. This, according to the authors of Walk Out Walk On, is "scaling across." A human representation of Cotton Mather's observations regarding the hybridization of corn.

Monocultures require constant interference with nature in order to hold,
nature diversifies and hybridizes at every opportunity (
Cradling Wheat, Thomas Hart Benton)
The trick to sharing "best practices" is to stop doing that. Instead, share "our practices" and let ideas meet, collide, mix, and take root differently in each place. The trick to "scaling up" is the same - stop trying. If BMW has to "Americanize" their cars in order to sell them in the United States (adding cup holders, etc), what makes people like Intel or the KIPP or TFA foundations so arrogant as to imagine that they can replicate themselves among vastly different communities?

Instead we imagine, attempt, describe, converse. We pass along concepts, not plans. We share observations, not blueprints. We accept that whether it is a child or a school, we can not evaluate anything with a checklist or a score, but only with very human description.

That's a less rational world which requires more humane effort, and it contains troubling mountains and deep valleys because it is not flat. But it is the world in which we actually live.

- Ira Socol

21 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: why we fight

(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     (12) knowing less about students, seeing more

This is the last of these "Changing Gears" posts. I began this to get myself to think about where I was right now on a bunch of issues in education. Now Matt Richtel, a reporter with a Pulitzer Prize in misusing data, and his New York Times employers, think blogs have little value, but in my mind they beat the "essay" or even the "dissertation" on almost every level of communication. So, I'm happy I've taken this journey, and if you've ridden along, I hope its been interesting for you as well.

I end this way because, all of our changed thinking means little without action, and so each of us has to decide what we will fight for, and how we will fight...

My father never had a good word for World War II. He might have. He might have mentioned a rather glorious if wholly unauthorized flight in a captured German glider over Plzeň, or a few supposedly amazing weeks in north London, or marrying my Ma, but, those were separated in his mind. He never had a good word for World War II, but be thought it was undeniably necessary. He saw this necessity in no other wars. His only involvement with any veterans' organization was with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and he refused any acclimations of heroic service. But he had been among the very first Americans to see a Concentration Camp, rushing his tanks to the aid of the infantry troops who had discovered Dachau. He had seen great evil. And so he had seen his nightmare in Europe as something required.

(above) Band of Brothers: Why we fight
(below) liberating Dachau, April 1945

I do not make spurious comparisons of various evils to Nazism. When those comparisons are due - from Cambodia to Bosnia to Rwanda - they are obvious. But we all know that, whoever we are, there are things we will fight for, things we will take risks for, and things which do not rise to that level of importance for us. My father found his "line," it is up to us to find ours.

There is a crisis in America today, and in England, and in Ireland, and in Australia, and many other places, and I believe it is a crisis caused by an evil, an evil I believe that we must fight. It is a crisis of the future, because it is a crisis of our commitment to our children. And our children are, or are supposed to be, the most important things in our lives.

There are many attacks on our children these days, and those attacks are stripping away our chances to radically improve the lives of all of our children. We live in a moment when global wealth, and technological capabilities, make it possible to give every kid a real opportunity to make the the most of themselves, but greed, pure greed, is ensuring that this will not happen.

US Republicans don't just favor "open marriage," they like the
idea of using poor children as slave labor.

My good friend David Britten - @colonelb - has put together a brilliant manifesto on the concept of educational opportunity - a concept everyone in the leadership of the United States, from Barack Obama on down - refuses to engage with:
"Equity of opportunity is the missing key ingredient to improving public education in Michigan and across the U.S. “…the key driver of education-development policy in Finland has been providing equal and positive learning opportunities for all children (emphasis added) and securing their well-being, including their nutrition, health, safety, and overall happiness.” (Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s Success is No Miracle, Education Week Quality Counts 2012)"
Equity, not equality. Equality of opportunity, especially in educational institution terms, is not only impossible, it is probably not desirable. Here's The Colonel on the situation in Michigan...
"[E]conomists, elected officials, and policy wonks gathered in Lansing, Michigan to update revenue projections of the past and forecast revenue for the future. Before the ink was even dry on their predictions, legislators and educators started positioning themselves on what to do with large unexpected projected surpluses. My inbox was exploding with news and recommendations from associations (MASA, MASB, and the like) and the mainstream media began reporting out interviews of anyone and everyone running to the bright lights.

"None discussed the need to address the growing funding gap between rich and poor school districts, and the resulting lack of equitable opportunities for disadvantaged kids to achieve the same goals as every other child in Michigan. Of course not, since that would not be self-serving panning to their respective constituencies.

'“The hierarchy of bureaucracy and the power of the status quo are such that, in our country, poor children and communities are treated differently compared to those children and communities from upper class backgrounds.” (Orfield, 2005, as cited in Rios, Bath, Foster et. al., Inequities in Public Education, Institute for Educational Inquiry, Aug 2009)"
So this is why we fight. We fight because every child deserves, not the f-ing chance to President, but the opportunity to do anything that they can do. Not just because without that opportunity the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom (et al) are no more "democracies" than China is, and not just because we are supposed to be ethical societies, but because our future on this planet of eight, nine, ten billion people trying to share our resources depends on our ability to best use the talents of everyone. Not just the kids who now inherit wealth and position.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder: Here, his daughter's private school explains why $21,000 per year
tuition just can't cover the costs of educating rich kids. Snyder cut Michigan  public school per
student/per year funding to $6,846.

And creating that equity of opportunity requires that we not just change funding so that kids who need more, get more, but that we change our schools so that we do not insist that kids from the homes of the "not traditionally successful" begin far behind, and stay far behind.

I talk a lot about "colonialism" in education and the need to embrace a "postcolonial" ethic, and I understand that - especially in North America where "colonialism" usually means funny hats and kind of chalky paint colors - these are sometimes difficult ideas, but the essence is that, in simple terms, we either expect all children to behave and operate as if they are white, protestant, upper middle class, English-speaking, heterosexual, passive, and externally motivated (bribery/punishment), or we do not. And if we do - under the claim that this is what makes people "employable" - that there is simply no way that children who are not all of that can ever catch up.

They will begin school "behind," and - unless all those rich, "normal" kids stop dead in their tracks - they will remain "behind" no matter what they do.

It doesn't take an accredited scholar to know the "bullsh**" spouted by those trying to keep
the colonial educational apparatus in place. Above, John Wittle on YouTube, below,
Rashaun Williams of the Science Leadership Academy.
Thus, along with funding solutions, our classrooms and schools must transform, so that the culture of our educational spaces becomes inclusive in real terms, accepting that we will not all be the same and that we should not all be the same, which includes rejecting the structures of "learning" which limit who we are and how we communicate.
"[M]y students always write more than they think they are writing because the context is so urgent, compelling, and interactive that they enjoy it and it doesn't seem like drudgery.  They work so hard to articulate and defend ideas about which they have strong convictions that it does not feel to them like the exercise of "writing a term paper."   When I put their semester's work into a data hopper, even I was shocked to find out that they were averaging around 1000 words per week, in a course about neuroscience, collaborative thinking, the technological and ideological architecture of the World Wide Web, and the "collaboration by difference" method that I prescribe as an anecdote to attention blindness, the way our own expertise, cultural values, and attention to a specific task illuminates some things and makes us blind to others.   I argue that the open architecture of the Web is built on the principle of diversity and maximum participation--feedback and editing--that gives us a great tool for compensating for our own shortcomings." - Cathy N. Davidson
What came before this post in this series are my ideas about how to transform schools into places of universal opportunity, but this is neither a comprehensive nor authoritative list, we all keep thinking together, and the list will build, grow, and improve. But - to use a phrase I use far too often when I speak - my version of "ummm" - "Here's the thing": I was at my friendly local Ford dealer last week getting my oil changed and talking to the chief salesperson who has become a valued friend. He told me a story about a "severely" autistic boy in his wife's classroom. He cannot handle the classroom, but he told me about how the parents described to her that he is a remarkable skier, who loves the sport and becomes - well - entirely different on the slopes. I said, I know. I hated classrooms, I still hate most classrooms. "Back then" my escape was in swimming ("a great sport, you can't even hear the coach"), now it is other things. The "disability" is not with the child, it is with the system and the environment.

This is what I fight for.
This is what I ask you to fight for. Fighting, of course, involves risk - not the fake risk of Wall Street or people who begin corporations (the corporation itself is designed as a means of avoiding actual risk) - but the facing of true danger. There are the dangers of losing your job, of not being promoted, of exclusion from certain communities and honors, there are real dangers in terms of time involved (and thus costs to families and in terms of other life opportunities), there are real dangers to comfort. I will not minimize any of this. Yet, I ask you to fight anyway.

We will not change the future of our children through passivity or by waiting. But if it was not this important, the forces arrayed against us would not be either so powerful or relentless. They would not include both American political parties (both Australian political parties), the richest guys on the planet, the biggest banks, the biggest corporations, and they would not have the capabilities to co-opt and bribe seemingly anyone.

These people want the poor and the different to fail, because they have done extremely well with the planet just as it is, with social stratification just as it is, with inequitable opportunity just as it is. They have no real desire for David Britten's kids to be able to compete with Barack Obama's kids or Bill Gates' kids. Those private school kids have, pretty much, a free ride to the top right now, and - parents being parents - they are defending that free ride with everything they've got.

Which means we need to be stronger than they are, better than they are, and take the kind of real risks they do not have to.

We fight for our children.
And unlike Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and friends, when we say "our," we mean it in the most inclusive way imaginable.

- Ira Socol

18 January 2012


The freedom of people
and their right to be informed,
to govern themselves,
to educate themselves,
must matter more than
lifetime guaranteed profits
for the one percent.

For more on the Blackout
Protest on Web Uses Shutdown to Take On Two Piracy Bills (The New York Times)

Stop Sopa or the web really will go dark (Guardian)

The Media Tycoons (The New York Times)

For more on SOPA and PIPA

The Guardian Explainer
Obama Position (The New York Times)
Google "Take Action    Google's Position
Sopa Explained (CNN Money)
Why SOPA is dangerous (Mashable)

For more on the unified tactics of the corporate right
For God so loved the 1%... (The New York Times)
The ALEC Agenda for Education (Parents United)
ALEC, the Koch Brothers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the "Conservative" Agenda (Daily Kos)

Vote with your votes, and vote with your purchasing power.

See SOPA Supporters List Here

Do not support those who work against you, whether in big box stores, online, or on your main or high street.

(If your local Chamber of Commerce is on this list, tell every member you meet to dis-associate or you will stop doing business with them)

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.