14 March 2008

CSUN 2008/Flexibility - the first technology

The conversants had varied backgrounds. Some of us had been good at school. Some had not. Some who had been good had kids that struggled, some of us who had struggled had kids that did not.

As we worked through a magnificent dinner, we told stories. School stories. University stories. And in the end, all of the stories we told centered around one simple idea - Kids are all different, but most schools want all kids to be the same, and most teachers - at every level - want students who are just like the teachers.

So we "teach this way." We run our "classroom this way." We go at "this pace." We sit in "these chairs." We meet at "these times." We read "these books." It doesn't matter if two thirds of the students in any class or course are miserable - whether bored to death or left far behind or just desperate for things to be explained in a different way.

All this came on a day when a new research study stated that math educators should stop trying to argue over instructional methods.

"The report tries to put to rest the long, heated debate over math teaching methods. Parents and teachers have fought passionately in school districts around the country over the relative merits of traditional, or teacher-directed, instruction, in which students are told how to do problems and then drilled on them, versus reform or child-centered instruction, emphasizing student exploration and conceptual understanding. It said both methods had a role.

"'There is no basis in research for favoring teacher-based or student-centered instruction,” Dr. Larry R. Faulkner, the chairman of the panel, said at a briefing on Wednesday. “People may retain their strongly held philosophical inclinations, but the research does not show that either is better than the other.”

Unfortunately the report misses it's very own research point. Though realizing that arbitrarily choosing an instruction method is wrong, this 'panel of experts' decides to set arbitrary age standards for math achievement. "[B]y the end of the third grade, students should be proficient in adding and subtracting whole numbers. Two years later, they should be proficient in multiplying and dividing them. By the end of the sixth grade, the report said, students should have mastered the multiplication and division of fractions and decimals."

In other words, different kids may learn differently but they all must learn at exactly the same rate. Got that?

What is it which makes so many 'educational experts' so clueless? A key part is that education is run by people - the small percentage of people - for whom school-as-we-know-it has always worked. Another key part is that research is too often done in ways that forces people to "study" rather than see or hear. And another? An inability to see beyond the limits of industrial-style education.

Is this about technology in schools?

Yes, because the fact is that our first uses of technology in school tend to destroy students. We stick them in cell-like classrooms, force them to sit for hours in uncomfortable seats ("stress positions"?), force them to accommodate to an absurd - anti-educational - schedule. We deliver content via antique technologies (printed books, chalkboards or whiteboards) which make individualization ("differentiated instruction") nearly impossible. We stick with pre-written curricula and syllabi. We light these cell-like classrooms harshly with flickering fluorescents. We create stress-creating corridors, lunch "hours," transportation systems. We evaluate learning using the idiocy of tests.

And, of course, we depend on a completely fraudulent research model - one which mistakes "statistically significant" group success for anything having anything to do with the way an individual human learns.

These are all technologies - human created tools - and they are all bad technologies - abusive, destructive, and anti-child and anti-human.

No excuses anymore.

But as my group of friends know, all the technologies exist now to break through all those bad choices. A student can sit in a classroom or not via podcast technologies. A student can move at any pace - right up to grabbing course curriculum from, say, MIT. "Time to learn" can be the student's choice. Amazon can ship you any book overnight, or put it on your Kindle, or you can grab it from Bookshare or Gutenberg.org. There are millions of audiobooks, great text-to-speech systems. Free tools for student collaboration like Google Docs and Google Notebook. Hell, you could prove your competence by fixing or improving a Wikipedia entry, or publishing a blog, or publishing a book.

It is time to stop abusing students, abusing children. It is time to embrace the technologies of our age to allow universal access to individually appropriate education. It is time to stop thing of students as a "normed" raw material which we will process.

It is time to be flexible, connected to our current century's tools, and human. It is just time.

- Ira Socol from sunny Los Angeles

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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holstroma said...

This is my first time blogging. We'll see if I can get this post to go through, as my first trial did not.

Unfortunately, I agree with your posting. We DO try to make our students into ourselves, just as we tend to raise our children the way we were raised.

I believe every child is entitled to an education that is appropriate for them, but it hard to provide it within our current educational system. And my time and energy is used up just keeping the status quo. I keep thinking that when my own kids are grown and gone, maybe I can become the teacher I could be. But by then, retirement will probably be just around the corner.

Off the topic comment: I tried one of the links on your post and was blocked by my district's server. It said it contained inappropriate content.

irasocol said...

I hope it was "40 things to do while bored in class" (a school can't let that kind of site through, can it?) and not MIT Courseware - but then I've seen US school districts block many, many things - including almost all free accessibility sites and downloads.

But yes, the industrial model is so wrong, and so pervasive, that it is hard to imagine real change happening.

But we keep trying, and hoping.

(by the way... if the "bored" site was the one blocked - it is the site of that most dangerous of all places - a public library in Taylor, Ohio. The other links? - in order - The New York Times, MIT, Amazon, Amazon, Bookshare.org, Gutenberg.org, audiobooks.com, Freedom Scientific's Learning Systems Group, Wikipedia, Google's Blogger, and lulu.com - an internet-based book publisher. Which would be most dangerous to an American school? It is hard to say)