26 March 2012

Question Everything

It has been tough to write the past few weeks. Too many medications. So I have 13, yes 13, blog posts started but unfinished. Thus, I needed a simple question - a small idea - to get myself over the hump of my current cognitive fog. It came last evening, somewhere between basketball and the Mad Men season premier...

"Questioning everything is idiotic and a waste of time. Teach them to question wisely." appeared in my Twitter stream. It was a response to my statement, "The future comes from questioning everything."

I'm not backing down from my assertion, the context of which is the argument that, as educators, our job is to help students learn to "question everything." And that exists in the bigger context of the weekend's arguments - that we must develop administrators and teacher preparation faculty who help teachers to be rebellious, so that we have teachers who can help students be rebellious, so that we create a future which begins to solve the intractable problems of the present.

The classic American Classroom Map of the World
Begin with me here. Often, when I talk with educators about Toolbelt Theory, I show them a few different maps of the world. One is the classic Mercator Projection shown above, "presented by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator, in 1569," and centered on the United States in millions of classroom versions from the 1870s to the 1990s.

The teachers can almost always rattle off what is wrong with this projection, including the innate cultural bias attached - the diminuation of the southern hemisphere (Greenland, 1/14th the size of Africa, appears larger than that continent), the Americentric splitting of Asia, et al - but if I ask why this map is important, where it would be valuable, those same educators often freeze.

but will this map help you get home?
They know what they've "learned" (memorized) about the Mercator Projection, but as generations of U.S. educators never questioned the map which unrolled over the chalkboard, our educators today fail to question the shortcomings of the new maps. "All lines of constant bearing (rhumb lines or loxodromes — those making constant angles with the meridians), are represented by straight segments on a Mercator map. This is precisely the type of route usually employed by ships at sea, where compasses are used to indicate geographical directions and to steer the ships. The two properties, conformality and straight rhumb lines, make this projection uniquely suited to marine navigation: courses and bearings are measured using wind roses or protractors, and the corresponding directions are easily transferred from point to point, on the map, with the help of a parallel ruler or a pair of navigational protractor triangles." (Wikipedia) Add to this nautical navigation issue the concept that this version of the map was created for American sailors, who needed to sail to both Europe and Japan, but did not need to walk from Moscow to Vladivostok, and the purpose, the value, of that old classroom map comes into focus.
What gets onto Yelp? Why? How?

Why did gasoline stations give
away maps
? What might have
been on them? not on them?

So, when someone presents a map to a student, they need to, on some level, doubt it, question it. Who made the map? Why?  What are they supposed to do with the map? What information is left off? Why? This is true in the classroom, and it is true when they look at a Yelp map on their phone.

I knew an executive at SPX Corporation back in the last century who created a very odd map from the airport in Muskegon, Michigan to the corporate headquarters. He sent it to all visitors flying in. The map was designed to show off some of the best parts of the community while dodging most signs of the incredibly persistent poverty which enveloped the area. I can also recall drawing directions to my home in Brooklyn, for non-Brooklonians, which were designed to showcase Brooklyn as a place "way cooler" than Manhattan (or "New York" as we called that part of New York City). So, avoid the BQE, take people down Flatbush, past Juniors, through Grand Army Plaza, alongside the park, down Ocean Parkway.

Anyway, if we have to doubt maps, and we do, we probably need to doubt everything.

We doubt everything, we question everything, because this is the way we create a future unlike the past. This is true in the "big" - Einstein doubting Newton, Darwin doubting Bishop Usher, the guys at Xerox PARC doubting the keyboard interface, Tesla doubting Edison, a couple of 20-somethings in Cairo doubting the Egyptian government, and it is true in the "small" - Ray Kroc taking car hops, cigarette machines, and pay phones out of the Southern California hamburger drive-in, a couple of guys at a tech start up opening up their internal 140-character messaging system to the world, or just the billions of times every day that someone figures out a better way to do "that."

One of my personal examples is myself. Faced with an 80-student course to teach in a huge lecture hall, doubting all the traditional ways to both create and observe engagement. That doubt led me to ask my son to create something for me which turned into TodaysMeet. That's tiny - very tiny - of course, but it is what it is. Invention, creation, progress - all begin with doubt, all begin with questions.

The conversation at the top of this post began when I asked if we might eliminate due dates from our schools. I often doubt the idea behind the academic due date, seeing those dates as both arbitrary and usually counter-productive. In my Changing Gears series I wrote, "I, myself, am rather glad that Boeing was quite late with their 787 Dreamliner. Had they been on-time, well, from what I hear, the wings would've fallen off. Which is a classic "school 70%." The 787 is unlike any other plane ever built, imaginative, and quite remarkable. We don't get that with fixed deadlines. Something the "real world" already knows."It is not that I think that there are no actual deadlines in the world, but when I describe myself as a "provocateur," I mean to say that I will question everything, so that I will push "you" to doubt everything, and thus to find out what is truly important in the work we do. 

The difference between "hanging on" in the future, and creating the future lies in this questioning. The New York Times still believes it publishes a newspaper. Everything they do, from their "paywall" to their pre-moderation of blog comments, indicates the shallowness of their doubting. The "paper" which has become their chief competition as the English Language information source, The Guardian, is asking much deeper questions about news and information delivery, as they suggest in the video below...

So whether it is homework or due dates, school bells or school desks, or any of the "facts" we tend to put before students. You, them, we all, should be doubting everything, questioning everything.

That process not only builds a real kind of learning unavailable through memorization, it will create a next generation unwilling to accept the mistakes of the past and present.

And to me, that's what education is about.

- Ira Socol

11 March 2012

Re-thinking the Middle School

We tend to do everything wrong for kids between 12 and 15. We pretend they are "adults" in terms of care needs and responsibilities, which they are not. We pretend they are children intellectually and physically, and in terms of rights, which they are not. We dismiss their capabilities and hype their potential as threats. We are cruel to them, and we send every possible message that we don't care about them.

And then we're surprised that they don't like us, or do what we want them to do.

We need to stop denying who these kids are..
I wonder if "we" - that collective we - are looking at these kids at all. Sometimes I wonder if we are interested at all.

I begin by being stunned that every teacher of teens has not read this National Geographic article on the New Science of the Teenage Brain.
This was not written in "journal speak," it is not long, and yet, it captures the essence of contemporary brain research regarding teens, and a professional educator not reading it (since it is free to read), smacks of malpractice.

Here is a key passage from that article:
"We're so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It's exactly what you'd need to do the things you have to do then." Followed by a critical analysis: "Let's start with the teen's love of the thrill. We all like new and exciting things, but we never value them more highly than we do during adolescence. Here we hit a high in what behavioral scientists call sensation seeking: the hunt for the neural buzz, the jolt of the unusual or unexpected ... Although sensation seeking can lead to dangerous behaviors, it can also generate positive ones: The urge to meet more people, for instance, can create a wider circle of friends, which generally makes us healthier, happier, safer, and more successful. This upside probably explains why an openness to the new, though it can sometimes kill the cat, remains a highlight of adolescent development. A love of novelty leads directly to useful experience. More broadly, the hunt for sensation provides the inspiration needed to "get you out of the house" and into new terrain, as Jay Giedd, a pioneering researcher in teen brain development at NIH, puts it."

National Geographic photo by Kitra Cahana
That teenage brain is supposed to be both sensation-seeking and dismissive of adult opinion. If, in evolutionary terms, the teenage brain did not do those things, ten-year-olds would remain ten-year-olds - emotionally, socially, cognitively. 

The problem is that, despite claims to the contrary, many, or most of the actions of "middle schools" seem to be designed to keep kids at age ten, and seem designed around only the idea of training compliance. But that is not what our kids need, and it really is not what our society needs.

The Re-Think

What kind of "school" would these early teenagers really need? What could it look like? How would it work?

Middle School often begins with the definite division of learning into so-called "content areas," an idea pushed firmly into law in the past twenty years with the myth of the "highly qualified teacher." Of course being a "highly qualified teacher" is not about subject/content knowledge, as anyone who has attended a university lecture can testify, it is about being a leading learner for a group of kids. But this "qualification" mentality - "subject area" mentality - is exactly the opposite of what kids, especially 12-14-year-olds, need. They need a holistic view of learning which encourages them to build bridges across knowledge areas, and across areas of the brain. 

no comment necessary...
Middle School also introduces an absurdly false concept of "adult responsibility" which tells kids that the adults in the school are clueless.We insist that every middle school kid "act like an adult" when it suits us, but never when it suits them, and if you have any memory at all, you know that every middle school kid knows this. "You're old enough to be responsible for yourself," counts when it comes to being marked "late" for class, but not if you are ever out of direct line of sight for a seated librarian. It counts when you get a grade but not when you ask to do something. It counts when they charge you adult admission to a theatre, but not when you want to see a film about high school. Of course it counts if you commit a crime, not if you want a drink.And Middle School starts with violating all sense of teenage time and space. The adolescent brain struggles with contemporary temporal standards - actually - most humans do, but 13-year-olds haven't yet been fully beaten into submission.

'"Bully," an documentary about the nation's teen-bullying epidemic, would exclude much of its intended school-aged audience if the Motion Picture Association of America refuses to ease its R rating"
So teens are either, depending on need and mood, in a great rush, or moving very slowly. Sometimes they run to things without much forethought, other times they need 15 minutes with a mirror, or staring out a window. Sometimes they're up at dawn, more often they really are not functioning before 10 in the morning. And in space, teens seem - to both my observations and memory - to need equal parts touching each other, and being quite isolated. They, and this seems especially true of today's more global teens, are not likely to tolerate the nonsensical Puritan "American Distance" (always an imposed value, never a natural one for most). They want real physical (not necessarily sexual) contact - perhaps because they do not get much of it from adults these days - and they need distance - "alone time" - for private processing.

Our Middle Schools frown on all of these needs. "We" don't tolerate time flexibility. "We" don't want kids touching. "We" don't want them off on their own.

In all, our Middle Schools are a recipe for disaster. And the recipe works in most places.

Our early adolescents need something completely different. They need schools designed for them, not for us. Schools designed for growth and learning, not compliance and conformity. Schools designed to build the skills teens need, not designed to be the holding cages we have created.

First of all, teens need ownership, they need to believe that spaces and programs are "their's" not "our's." Is that really such a foreign concept?

Well, begin by stopping your references to how your middle schoolers don't respect "your things" or "your room." I'm sorry folks, few prisoners respect their prison - and prison, according to Barack Obama's State of the Union speech and the statements of many other "leaders," is exactly what school is for most adolescents.

School as a learning studio suite... Brussels, Belgium
If your school is not a "prison," if students are in control of their time, space, comfort, academic choices, tools, and methods - like adults - then students will have "ownership" of their environment, and like most of God's creatures, they will respect that environment. And you know what? These kids have nothing to prove to you... it is you who have to prove your trust and value to them. Remember, their brains are already designed to ignore the older generation, so it might be wise to stop giving them reasons to do just that.

Classroom furniture from Herman Miller
Second, teens need comfort. Really. Comfort. Just put that word at the top of your list. Not your comfort, teachers - administrators - legislatures, their comfort. ""We too often consult our own convenience, rather than the comfort, welfare, or accommodation of our children," William Alcott wrote in 1832. This means choices in seating - real choices - including standing or lying down. It means choices in work surfaces, choices in tools, choices in time.
William A. Alcott
"the comfort, welfare, or
accommodation of
our children"
If this was 1832... and it was, in the book which "designed" the American classroom: "Again—no provision has been made for the pupils standing at higher desks a part of the time, because it is believed they may sit without injury for about half an hour at a time, and then, instead of standing, they ought to walk into the garden, or exercise in the play-ground a few moments, either with or without attendants or monitors. Sitting too long, at all events, is extremely pernicious...

"The relative position of each pupil should occasionally be changed from right to left, otherwise the body may acquire a change of shape by constantly turning or twisting so as to accommodate itself to the light, always coming from a particular window, or in the same general direction.

"If a portion of the play-ground is furnished with a roof, the pupils may sometimes be detached by classes, or otherwise, either with or without monitors, to study a short time in the open air, especially in the pleasant season. This is usually as agreeable to them, as it is favorable to health. A few plain seats should be placed there. A flower garden, trees, and shrubs, would furnish many important lessons of instruction. Indeed, I cannot help regarding all these things as indispensable, and as consistent with the strictest economy of space, material, and furniture, as a judicious arrangement of the school-room itself.

"Sensible objects, and every species of visible apparatus, including, of course, maps, charts, and a globe, are also regarded as indispensably necessary in illustrating the sciences. They not only save books, time, and money, as has been abundantly proved by infant schools, but ideas are in this way more firmly fixed, and longer retained. In the use of books, each child must have his own ; but in the use of sensible objects and apparatus, one thing, in the hands of the instructer, will answer the purposes of a large school, and frequently outlast half a dozen books,"
how have we gotten so stupid in the 180 years since?
Finally, adolescents need a curriculum which engages. If you read that National Geographic article you will learn all about adolescent decision making, and, you'll realize that every kid in that Middle School is making perfectly logical decisions about what you, the teacher and administrator, are offering.

Is there any reason that any adolescent would care about what you are offering?
This is a microeconomic decision. For anything we do, there is an opportunity cost. Even the decision to pay attention to the teacher for five minutes has to be weighed against the other things you might be doing during that five minutes - daydreaming about the boy/girlfriend, wondering who'll get into the NCAA tournament, imagining tonight's soccer game, considering a more interesting subject. If what you are "selling" isn't understood as worth that five minutes, your students would have to be fools to listen to you. And they are not fools.

In a favorite school moment, a math teacher walked up to a school librarian and complained, "This kid drives me crazy, he'd rather go to Saturday School than come to my class." The librarian looked at the teacher and said, "Well, you have to think about that."

Indeed. As I once wrote in a short story, "They all say I "make bad decisions." Everybody says that. But they're wrong about that too. I make decisions they don't like, but they're not bad." Keep in mind, there are two sides to decision-making, and "reasonable alternatives" lead to better decisions.

So if you offer adolescents project-based learning which connects with their passions, you may suddenly find a bunch of kids lined up and ready to work. If you offer them pointless arithmetic, or books no one really wants to read, they will - they should - make other choices.

The time to change is now. Every year, in almost every place, 5th graders doing great work turn into sullen, unhappy 6th graders who fail those high-stakes tests. That's not genetics, and its not hormones, that is "us," with our high-school-styled, classroom-changing, grim-corridoring, bell-ringing, subject-divided, planner-driven, recess-missing Middle Schools.

So before another school year begins, if you are in the business of Middle School, there is probably damn little that you are doing that shouldn't be changed. And there are really no good excuses for not making those changes.

You're the adults, right?

- Ira Socol

02 March 2012

If learning is to be constant, Space, Time, Technology, Pedagogy, Curriculum Must be the Variables

Join us, if you can, for a deep dive into these concepts at ICT in Education Conference (Comhdháil ICT san Oideachas) in Thurles, County Tipperary, in the Republic of Ireland - 18/19May 2012

If we insist on teaching Algebra in our schools, not once but twice, the least we can do is to actually use it when we think about education. And here's the equation: If (a) (b) (c) (d) (e) are constant, x will always be the variable. In order to make x the constant,
(a) (b) (c) (d) (e) must be variable. In all circumstances where x = student achievement and (a) (b) (c) (d) (e) represent Time, Space, Technology, Pedagogy, and Curriculum.

In simpler terms, if all students are to succeed, everything else in and about the school must be flexible.

This is the easy-to-understand, mathematical way Hamilton, Michigan Superintendent Dave Tebo re-worked my thoughts a couple of nights ago on Twitter.

I have written (and talked) a lot about the history of education, and why it "looks" the way it does, but without repeating all of that, let's just say that the linear, time-constructed, subject-divided, age-organized, one method at a time, system of education does not really match with the way most humans learn. It never has, and it certainly does not in this century.


Technologies define "the school" and can either separate it from, or connect it to, education. The first technology of "school" is time. We separate "learning time" from "non-learning time." The second technology of "school" is the division of students and subjects. Boxes are created separating eight-year-olds from ten-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds from fifteen-year-olds, and then separating "language" from "history" from "maths" from "arts." The third technology of "school" is the built environment, the walls, furniture, floors, ceilings, lighting, surfaces, et al, of the place. The fourth technology of "school" lies in the information and communication system options in place, from chalkboard and paper and pencils to mobiles and blogs and cameras.

And if we are going to change "teaching places" into "learning spaces" all of these technologies must be re-imagined in wholly new ways, because the only way to make learning available to all is to re-create "school" as a constantly variable space - physical space, temporal space, virtual space, imagined space - which constantly flexes to the needs of the learners and the learning community.

Time, Space, the pedagogy of "Attention," all flex in this sixth grade language classroom
The physical spaces where students spend their time must be comfortable, adaptable, and offer a world of options. Sit in a chair or on the floor, on a pillow or on the windowsill, touching friends or consciously alone, standing at a table or sprawled across the floor, in bright light or dim, with noise surrounding, or headphones creating one's own aural place, or with the rain splashing your window view. The information and communication technology must offer the same, with information flowing via video or audio, print on paper or print on screens, through tablets and mobiles and laptops and larger touchscreens, via pens or pencils, on paper or whiteboards or washable floors or the glass of windows.

The Boeing 787, reconceiving the airliner meant
missing deadlines.
Time must change as well. We need many fewer deadlines and many more commitments to deep learning. My sister could read - and read well (as in both decoding and comprehension) - at age two. I haven't yet caught up in decoding to where she was then. Turns out, it doesn't matter in terms of what we know, or what we can do. Einstein - famously - struggled in school. Steve Wozniak couldn't handle computer science or math courses. Norman Maclean published his first book when he was 73-years-old. People have their own timelines and schedules, and we can either respect that fact, or we can do a great deal of damage. In addition, here are some projects which have arrived long after their deadlines, aircraft from the B-29 to the 787-Dreamliner, spacecraft from Freedom 7 to Apollo 11, vehicles from the Ford Model T to everything from Tesla, and a whole lot of other groundbreaking efforts. If you want your students to copy from Wikipedia set deadlines, if you want original thinking - well, that's a lot less time-predictable.

We also need many fewer "schedules." Can kids work at their desks or at studio tables with a team like adults do? Can kids work on something even when you want to move on? Can kids take breaks when they need them?

Choice in space, inputs, ICT...
Of course subject division must end. Watching that Guardian video (above) we can see how all of the artificial lines we draw are absurd. In every situation, in every analysis, in every bit of learning, the wider the context the more "entry paths" exist, and the deeper the resultant understanding. Can you read Dickens or Fitzgerald without studying capitalism? History? Can you enter either of those realms without knowledge of maths and sciences? Can you even begin to operate arithmetic without knowing culture? You can only separate these things if your goal is the shallow, "testable," understanding so prized by national educational leaders.

all students are to succeed, everything else in and about the school must be flexible. And perhaps the place to start is with this question... if it's "only in school" you might need to get rid of it. Forty years ago a German educator said, "Only in school would you find thirty people working on the same thing not allowed to speak to each other," a classic observation. Here are some others: Only in school will you find people sitting in traditional school furniture. Only in school will you find people working on computers without food and drink. Only in schools will you find absolute scheduling which consistently interrupts work... Go on, make your own list...

From gum chewing to seating, lighting to time, eating to work schedule, school is the most regimented place in our societies, training people for something which, if it ever existed, lies deep in our past, and failing to either offer all students a chance, or to help our children learn how to manage their own lives.

So the challenge is to recreate - to turn those 19th Century "Teaching Places" into contemporary "Learning Spaces" which cross the entire realm of the educational experience. Our children, our world, need us to do that.

- Ira Socol