29 April 2009

Real World Math

Nancy Stewart, a teacher I have come to have great respect for, asked for help through Twitter. She has two students heading for eighth grade next year. Both are "Special Needs." Both are very far "behind" in their math skills. "Any ideas?" she asked the learning network that has sprung up in the world of 140 character microblogging.

I said, "get them out of school." Figuratively if not literally.

Let me back up and start with this story. I have perceived myself as terrible with math all of my life. And surely almost every teacher I've had would agree with that perception. But I'm really only bad at math in school.

My son, who has a Bachelors Degree in Mathematics, tells this story. "I never could figure it out," he says, "Ira [he has always called me by my first name] can't subtract a two digit number from a three digit number on paper. I've seen him end up with a bigger number than either trying to do that, but when he coached my baseball team he'd know everybody's batting average as each at bat happened." And I tell this story. It was only as my son broke past the standard high school math, and got into conceptual stuff, that what he was talking about made sense to me. "How do you get this stuff but not division?" My kid would ask. "Division is just too hard," I'd answer.

But here's the thing. I can't subtract on paper, but I could do really well in architectural engineering courses. I can figure out sports statistics. I understand the mathematical concepts behind statistics well enough that I can tell you why most statistical analyses used in the social sciences is fiction. How's that work? And how might that help Nancy's students?

Math (or Maths, depending on your side of the Atlantic) is a series of ideas. These ideas are important. In fact, not understanding them can be disastrous in many ways. Arithmetic, on the other hand, is simply a tool set for expressing some math concepts. Arithmetic is to math as forming letters is to writing. Traditionally, a tool set you needed, but perhaps not anymore.

The problem is that we use arithmetic as a gatekeeper stopping kids from getting to math, just as we use alphabetic decoding as a wall keeping kids away from reading. "Math" thus becomes, in the minds of many kids, a nightmarish battle with a bizarre symbolic code, just as reading does. They never get to what's important, what's useful, or surely, what's fun.

The Telling Time Joke starts at about 8:30 in

Telling Time and Negative Garbage Trucks

All right, I'm no math teacher, but I know a few things. One of the things Ms. Stewart told me is that one of these boys "can't tell time." She immediately followed that up by saying that this didn't matter, he has his phone in his pocket.

Issue 1: Problems of decoding shouldn't be mistaken for problems of concept.

Ms. Stewart knows that this boy does indeed know "how to tell time." His phone has a clock on it. He can look at that clock and, apparently, know what point it is in the day. So, he can tell time. What he can not do is interpret a strange antique system for displaying time. While it might be nice if he could, there is no reason to waste a minute of school time on this. It would be nice if I could tell the month by watching Stonehenge, but I can't, and its no big deal - I have ready alternatives.

Which brings me to the question of how we teach everything to do with math. We all too often create fake issues, fake circumstances, fake problems - which strip all motivation from the subject. We say, "you need to learn to tell time," when we are already quite good at that. The "clock face" of yore is a fake issue. And fake issues drive kids away.

Issue 2: Reality or Not.

When I finally passed "college algebra" I initially really struggled with the course. In an early week we had to graph this problem about finding the optimum number of garbage trucks for a community - you get the idea, productivity goes up as you start to add trucks but then it drops off if you add too many. I did the graph.I got 50% of the credit. "You didn't do the left half of the graph," the professor told me. "The left half?" "Yes," she replied, "the negative garbage trucks."

"What the f--- is a negative garbage truck?" I yelled. "Does it come and dump sh-- on your lawn early in the morning?"

This brought up the biggest issue with much of math education - dumb story problems. Don't mention garbage trucks if you're not dealing with reality. Don't send the train east from Tokyo to collide with the submarine headed west from Denver. Nothing drives kids away faster than this kind of nonsense.

If you want to use real world examples, go outside. Make them real. Make them relevant.

Real World Math

What's your batting average? Your on base percentage? Your earned run average? Your goals against average? Your yards per carry? Your shooting percentage? What's the mean of batting averages for your team? What's the range? Whatever the sport that gets your kids going, if you can't teach a world of math ideas through that sport you may not be trying.

I laughed last year when I watched a bunch of educators struggle with this simple question: There are 65 teams in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. It's single elimination. How many games in the tournament? I asked, and people pulled out pencils and papers. They were trying to do arithmetic, and I was asking for a math concept.

What's great about sports is, you need to grasp very specific statistical rules, rules, in this case, which the kids usually know. What are the rules of batting average? This matters because every system of math is based in a set of rules which allow it to work. Change the rules, or misunderstand them, and your answer will change. That's such a basic idea. Two apples plus two apples equals four apples only if we accept the rule that every apple counts as "one" no matter what size or quality. So sports stats teaches that rule idea clearly. Once you've got the rules, you need a formula - in batting average we've got hits divided by at bats. If you know how to find the rules and where to find the formula, you've got it. The rest is punching numbers into a calculator.

Issue 3: The Calculator.

Of course you use calculators. We're humans. We use tools. As I mentioned on Twitter, if you ban calculators you should probably require mittens as well. Don't want them counting on their fingers.

How much will it cost to buy a car? Buy that guitar? That drum set? How do I figure interest? If I spread the payments out over 12 months what will it cost? What do those "cost per unit" stickers in the grocery store mean? How do I know my gas mileage? If I spend this much driving to school when gas is $1.92 a gallon (or £0.94 per liter) and it goes up 30% how much will it cost to drive to that concert?

Money matters to kids. Money is real. Most teachers know that when understanding decimals gets hard, we just need to put a currency sign in front of it (we'll not deal with Great Britain or Ireland before 1971). Why not start with that currency sign. Money gives you so many real examples of the need to find unknowns from knowns (how many payments, how much per payment, how much interest are they charging) that you could run with this for years.

If you are building a roof, how do you know what size lumber to use? How many bricks do you need to build that wall? Can you carry this many pieces of concrete in that truck? Construction takes you from the simple math of area and quantity to the complexity of bending moment and shear diagrams. But unlike the way these math skills are usually taught, these are real - even get dirty - issues which attract kids. I once coached an Odyssey of the Mind team, most who struggled in math, to a medal in the structure competition.

How far did you run? How fast can you drive? Why do different gears on a bicycle switch the distance traveled per pedal turn? How long will it take to get there? Distance and speed, when connected to real life, are essential to kids. Throw out those stupid story problems - your students have their own.

If Henry V's longbow archers at Agincourt could shoot 17 arrows per minute while the French with their crossbows could fire only four times per minute, and the French had 5,000 archers and the English just 1,000, who had the advantage? Integration of math into everything is a huge part of the solution. How far did that book's character walk? (Google Earth, Google Maps) What does a "marginal tax rate" mean? What does "4gb" of memory mean?

The biggest problem with most math in school is that it is taught as a disconnected skill. No wonder no one is interested. Math is really part of everything we do, and if we demonstrate that, we will motivate our students.

Issue 4: Solve non-math problems.

So kids can focus on the learning. If writing the symbols is a problem, use Equation Editor (in Microsoft Word) and stop writing. If arithmetic gets in the way, drop it. Pick your cognitive loading carefully.

A few tricks:

Use calculators which integrate with taking notes and recording answers. Graph-Calc is free and everything can be copied to Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

Beware using b, q, d, p as symbols, beware of using Greek symbols too close to our alphabet. Many of the "math disabilities" I see are really reading disabilities. Switch to distinct symbols and use those consistently. Math textbooks like to switch things around, but that just drives students crazy.

If you need to, eliminate the reading (see paragraph above), if a student can not get to the question because of reading problems, they can not demonstrate what they know about the concept.

Those are my thoughts, but I am not a math teacher, so I'd love to hear yours.

- Ira Socol

24 April 2009

Twitter or Not

Through Twitter I found this article from a student in Allendale, Pennsylvania. A high school student journalist with some fine writing skills.

Alex Groves, in The Morning Call, thinks, "As a social network, Twitter is a pointless dud."

Social networking in general is a wonderful thing when not abused or used in excess. Most social networking sites have the potential to connect people around the world and are almost always valuable tools in communication. That being said, there are always things in this world that are kind of pointless, and social networking has its own pointless duds, Twitter being one of them.

Twitter is just another fad based on popularity, similar to MySpace and Facebook. The only difference is it doesn't relay information quite as well as other social networking sites. But it still detaches us from reality and lets us become absorbed in what we are doing rather than what we should be doing or what we want to do. It's pointless and ultimately brings those of us who already have Facebook and MySpace to the point of excessiveness.

For those who haven't heard a lot about it, Twitter allows members to post blurbs or ''tweets'' about what they are doing in no more than 140
characters. These tweets are subscribed to by followers, often friends or fans of the person tweeting. The followers receive the tweets online or via external services such as cellphones.

Twitter has attracted the attention of celebrities like John Mayer, Soulja Boy Tell 'Em and Britney Spears. Politicians such as President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain tweet as well.

The only problem with all this twittering by celebrities and politicians is that they are on Facebook much more often. Their Facebook walls are loaded with more information than their tweets. Anything they tweet about is usually also on their Facebook walls. So why spend time on both Twitter and Facebook?

By spending more time on social networks and the Internet than we need to, we enable ourselves to become reclusive, sheltered from family and friends.

How does one know if his friends are OK? We also miss the world around us. We don't get to enjoy a crisp, clean-smelling spring morning. We miss being involved in fun and recreational things. We miss the important things our family and friends do. We don't get to open an actual newspaper and enjoy it if we're constantly online.
So, why have people become so fascinated with finding out what celebrities and politicians are doing rather than what they, themselves, could be doing? With all the good we can do online, including disseminating information and spreading knowledge, why do we become obsessed with Britney Spears tweeting about playing with the boys on tour?

When do we utilize technology for positive change? When do we use the Internet to our advantage, rather than as time-killing entertainment? Call me old fashioned, but I think that Twitter is unnecessary in a world already too obsessed with social networking.

Alex Groves is a sophomore at Emmaus High School, where he is a writer for the school newspaper, The Stinger.

I read this, then I looked at my Twitter feed.

willrich45 Please say hello to IT Directors from across the SW. Why should we use social tools in schools?

shareski @willrich45 Because learning is social. If the only thing we use the internet for is to look up stuff, we're missing the best part.

courosa @willrich45 Hi Directors from Canada. Social tools serve only to amplify & accelerate existing processes. Proper use in schools vital.

jameshollis @willrich45 Hello from Aurora, IL -Social Netwrking provides access 2 the knowledge-base of ideas & resources of people w/ similar interests

haretek @irasocol Agreed, what makes twitter an effective learning tool is I get to use and practice skills in real time and real life w/real people

willrich45 Join us live in 15 mins here: http://bit.ly/163yCz Model the network for some IT directors across the SW.

And then I wrote Alex this reply:


As a PhD student and educational researcher, I can tell you that for me, Twitter is a continuous stream of incredibly valuable information. The people I choose to follow are not celebrities, but other researchers, professors, teachers, web developers, software developers, and global thinkers. All day long we exchange articles, resources, and ideas. We ask questions and cast doubts. We debate and challenge. And, through Twitter, we do this instantly, across continents and time zones, via a tiny window in the corner of our computer screens.

Is it all work? Of course not. Just as much conversation in my College of Education building is personal, so is much of Twitter, but that's because we are humans.

In the end, every communication system is only as valuable as the user makes it. Most of the books on the shelves at your local Barnes & Noble are "trash." Most phone conversations are nonsense. While there are great newspapers, most are worthless intellectually. Honestly, the majority of classroom time is useless. But all of these "tools" can be incredibly valuable if the producer and the user make them so.

With Twitter, you are producer and user, so the value lies almost entirely in your own capabilities. You make it what you want it to be.

I am not suggesting that anyone must use Twitter. It is always a choice. But I am suggesting that this kind of stripped-down instant social networking is, through the collaboration of a vast group of remarkable people, serving as a transformational tool in many ways. In my field it is changing classrooms, changing teachers, changing teacher preparation programs, and changing research paradigms.

In other words, we are indeed "utiliz[ing] technology for positive change." And we are using, "the Internet to our advantage." Our tool is Twitter, yours might be something else, but attacking the tool makes no sense.

- Ira Socol

book recommendation for Alex: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

17 April 2009

Learning Video Games and The Cost of Failure

I often hear some variation of these two quotes coming from teachers and school administrators, and even parents:

"He can spend hours learning a video game, how come he can't do the same in school or with homework."

"He pays much more attention when he is interested in something."

Yes, these are "duh" quotes And these are part of a ridiculous, if typical, search for a way to demean children by pointing out that they are disappointing "you." But they are also symptomatic of why schools fail.

Schools fail because they do not connect learning to the learner. And schools fail because they have made the cost of a student's failure so high, that most students will simply not try. and all but a very few (the ones who would do fine without school) will choose to never "take a chance." And schools fail because they make student failure public and permanent, stopping students who otherwise might persist in their learning.

Why do kids learn video games so easily? Why do they persist in the task of learning the game far beyond anything they do in school?

I'm not here (right now) to talk about video games in education, that's a different idea. Instead I am, like James Gee, talking about what schools can learn from video game learning.

What do video games do?

The learning is self-directed. When a kid sits down in front of a video game he or she is in charge. They make the decisions in the game. They accept the consequences. They take breaks when they need to. They don't have to stop when a bell rings. They make themselves comfortable. They collaborate if they want and compete if they want.

There are no age-based grades in video games. It is fully accepted that a ten-year-old might be ahead of a 16-year-old on this game or that, and that the 16-year-old (or 30-year-old) can learn from the ten-year-old. In the world of video games all are teachers and all are learners.

There are multiple paths. Every good video game allows you choices, empowering the learner. The fastest route might not be the best route, or, at least, might be no better than others. You can choose different weapons, different strategies. How different than textbooks or the dreaded "middle school planner."

Speed of learning is never an issue. So it takes you five days to get through level five but only two to get through level six - no one cares. You are neither behind, nor ahead, you are doing it as you need to.

The learning begins with interest. Video games are (well, good ones) interesting. They are also varied. And learners choose what to play. They (for the most part) might be teaching the same things, but you enter through your interests - cars, spies, World War II, wild fantasy worlds. "He pays much more attention when he is interested in something." Duh. Don't we all? (Funny, I can do sports statistics and had no problems with architectural engineering courses, but totally struggle with academic maths and statistics - there are paths of interest, and there's the route to boredom.)

Video game learners collaborate and scaffold each other. "Let me show you." "Here's how you do this." There is an amazing amount of peer-tutoring in person and online. In school, of course, we usually call this "cheating."

Failure can be private. The video game does not call on you to publicly humiliate you. You can be public or private as you choose. Thus practice "costs" much less in social terms.

Failure has almost no cost. What's the worst thing that can happen? You die, either dramatically or in a cool explosion. The game doesn't send a note home or call your parents. The game doesn't yell at you or separate you from your friends. When the cost of failure is low, humans are willing to try again. Raise the cost, and people stop trying. Example, you try to climb a fence and fall, getting a scratch: You'll try again. You try to climb the fence and get a massive electrical shock: You won't try again. Simple psychology. If Edison had tried to develop the light bulb in school, he would have been labelled a failure after the first 50 filament failures, and we might still be lighting gaslights.

In other words, learning in video games is opposite - in almost every way - learning in the traditional school. So, if students are learning, and persistently working on learning, with their games but not in your school, you might want to spend some time considering why this is.

- Ira Socol

13 April 2009

Arne Duncan's Long Day

Arne Duncan thinks your kids should spend more time in school. Well, President Obama said it, but we all know this idea flows from his Secretary of Education and ex-Chicago Schools boss, Duncan.

Meanwhile, in Britain, teachers are asking to scrap the whole idea of homework in primary grades.

These two ideas really do need to be discussed together.

More time in American schools, longer days or more days, is probably a terrible idea. At least it is a terrible idea without completely changing American education, and American schools first. And I'm not saying this for the same reason the paranoid wackos at FoxNews are saying it. I'm saying it because, if we ever stop and think, we know that doing more of something which is not working is rarely a good way to accomplish something.

The school as we know it has to be re-designed. "School" as it usually is today, is a factory. It is a series of small lecture halls, with the day divided into discrete segments discussing unrelated information. It divides things in every way. By age, by random measurement of "intelligence," by wealth of family. It is a design that was doubtful at the start (around 1840 as we have 'learned' previously) and a design which is now as far out of touch with our contemporary world as an 1840s iron mill would be.

"School" has to become something altogether different. A place for collaboration and exploration - a place where learners come together. A place where learners group according to needs and interests.

And if we re-design schools, then we can consider the school day.

Because, I do agree, our notion of the school day is ridiculous as well. We start in the early morning when surely every adolescent body clock desperately wants to be asleep. We take long summers off but miss the essential breaks people need throughout the year (most other nations do this better than the US, with holiday every six weeks or so and far more four day weeks). And we shutter our schools, which contain crucial community and family supports (libraries, gyms, health facilities, meeting rooms, theatres) most evenings.

So, if schools were redesigned to be open, non-age-graded, non-subject-divided, places, then the school day should lengthen as well. Schools should be open most of the hours of the day. They should feed kids when kids are hungry. They should offer library and gym access. They should give access to kids (and adults) to things like music, art, and sports in the evenings and nights. All of what we now call "homework" should happen in school so that homework is no longer a simple reflection of a student's socio-economic class (is a parent home to help with homework? does a child have time for homework? - or are real world concerns intruding? what's the parent's education? is there a safe, quiet environment to do academic work?). Students could do more things, catch up on things, move ahead on things, if the school day was longer.

But: does that mean the teacher's day should be longer? Hell No. We'd need more teachers, with more diverse interests. And we'd need teachers who might choose to work different hours as well.

Does it mean the student's day should actually be longer? Probably not. Instead, just as in universities, students would have more choices. They'd be able to schedule their day so it fit their needs (what a crazy idea!), take breaks as they needed, or, if school really were "that safe place," they could effectively hide there.

Of course my vision of a longer school day is very different from Arne Duncan's. That's because I want systemic change and he is a 'tinkerer.' He rose to fame in Chicago not because he did anything particularly dramatic or well (he did not), but simply because he is a better collaborator and communicator than Paul Vallas (so is Dick Cheney, but, ya know...). Essentially, nothing actually changed in Chicago schools while Duncan was in charge, they simply did things "less badly."

I am tired of "less badly," and I think President Obama should be as well. And it interesting, because the Chicago area (suburbs, not city) led the way earlier this decade in the investigation of "learning center" schools (halfway to what I am suggesting here). So if Duncan was interested in actual school change he had lots of evidence within a 25 minute or so drive from his office. And if Obama had really been "palling around with terrorists," he'd know this argument as well.

Anyway, longer school day? Sure Arne. Just change the schools first, and we'll all be there when we need to be.

- Ira Socol

09 April 2009

Ideology and Education

How can a nation whose deepest myths enshrine the ideas of "doing it on your own," "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," and "sink or swim," possibly create an educational system which works for all students?

Look around, we can't build an economic system that works for all. Or a health system. So why would we pretend that "no child [will be] left behind"?

Well, we pretend for the same reason that people who oppose national health insurance, school funding, and parental leave manage to go on TV and claim they are "pro-life." Cynical politics. But that's not my point.

Recently, through Twitter, I came across a blog post which talked about a Texas Tech economics prof's so-called "experiment with socialism." And then, soon after, I was reading an Alfie Kohn article titled "Only for MY Kid" and following that, discussing No Child Left Behind in a class we got into the classic question: Since capitalism requires a certain percentage (roughly 25%) of people to fail - to create an impoverished underclass whose existence keeps the middle class working through fear of that fate, how can a capitalist education system ever provide success for all students?

This is not a merely an academic question. Ideology matters because ideology so often controls thinking in ways which limit our apparent choices. A society devoted to competition - to winners and losers - is not a society which will embrace universal solutions.

Kohn, quoting an Oklahoma school superintendent: '"I thought if it was good for kids, everyone would embrace it, and I thought all adults wanted all kids to be successful. That's not true. The people who receive status from their kids' performing well in school didn't like that other kids' performance might be raised to the level of their own kids'."'

Well, let's look at this story, or parable, which originally comes from a guy named Marc Warnke who calls himself, "The Family First Entrepreneur":

""An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before but had, once, failed an entire class. That class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. The professor then said ok, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism. All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A. After the first test the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little. The second test average was a D! No one was happy. When the 3rd test rolled around the average was an F. The scores never increased as bickering, blame, name calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great; but when government takes all the reward away; no one will try or want to succeed."'

Let's forget that this "economics professor" doesn't appear to know what "socialism" is, and mistakes it for the fascist "state socialism" of Stalin's Soviet Union (remember, Nazis claimed to be "socialists" too - it is a much abused word). That's not so unusual among American "economists" - who are far more likely to have been trained as ideologues than as social scientists. Having spent their whole lives hearing nothing but "Socialism, Bad," and their academic lives reading nonsense from the University of Chicago School of Economics ("Architects of Today's Golbal Economic Disaster!"), they really have not had any chance to engage in comparative discovery.

But I wish they could read dictionaries, or travel occasionally, or perhaps even study John Nash's Equilibrium- which explains that the greatest success comes from the combination of self and group interests.

And I wish they were better teachers.

What's wrong with this prof? And how has ideology blinded him?

First, he doesn't have much faith in himself as a teacher, "so no one would fail and no one would receive an A." He has already decided that he can not bring all - or even the great majority - of his students to excellence. His ideology, based in capitalist competitiveness and, of course, the Bell Curve, has already established in his mind that one-third of his students will do badly. If he believed instead in actual socialist theory, he would be able to imagine a classroom where - given differing tools and differing supports - every student might succeed.

Second, perhaps intellectually fatally for an economics prof, he does not understand what is being measured, or how to measure it. "The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little. The second test average was a D! No one was happy." What is dear TT professor teaching? And what is he assessing? When he began his experiment he shifted from a lecture and reading based lesson strategy to an experiential strategy. But either he himself forgot that or he deliberately set a trap for his students. Essentially, he had shifted the standards without shifting the measurements. He wanted his students to learn from what was happening around them, but he refused to assess that learning.

This is, unfortunately, a typical problem, especially among US economists. I watch news in the US and constantly hear right-wing politicians discuss how "the standard of living is lower in Europe than in the US." They usually go unchallenged when they say this. Yes, Europeans tend to have smaller houses, smaller cars, fewer television sets, and smaller refrigerators than Americans. They are all - in this professor's terms - doing less well. But, we know other things. Europeans are healthier, better educated, they have more leisure time than Americans and parents spend many, many more hours per year with their children. So, a lower standard of living? Or a different set of standards?

This professor, like much of our education system, is likely evaluating things which really do not gauge success for most involved. In schools most tests are tests of test-taking ability. In economics we measure many things, but not whether people are living good lives. It seems to me that if the goal of this prof was to prove that what he pretends socialism is does not work, and his students learned that through his lesson, then the whole class has earned an A. This is not an absurd notion in schools or in economics. If you consider European "standard of living" progress in the 60+ years since World War II, then it seems to me that everybody gets an A. If you consider what the EU has accomplished in Central and Eastern Europe since 1989 - current setbacks included - then everybody gets an A. And if you ran a student-centered classroom or school, where all students progressed along their own paths, everyone would effectively be getting that A.

Third, this professor does not understand "democracy." Or - and I don't want to sound insulting here - he has the peculiar American view of democracy, which essentially means, "consumer choice" combined with "winner take all." His students have chosen to take his class, so they get what he gives them. If the majority make bad decisions, bad decisions happen. And once the consumer has made the choice, as in an American presidential election, that's it for their say. (This is something I call "plebesceterial" - the Napoleonic - III not I - vision that you approve the leader, then have no oversight - as Dick Cheney would have it.) But socialism can't really operate with America's vision of democracy.

In socialist nations (the British national government being somewhat of an exception), voting is a more collaborative thing, democracy is as much (or much more) about protecting minorities from majority tyranny as it is about ensuring majority rule, and change of direction is more possible because terms in office are not quite "fixed" (France being the exception here). Few nations not formerly British colonial possesions vote with "first past the post" elections. Most have one form or another of "proportional representation" which allows multiple winners and favors coalition governments.Coalition governments, being less inherently "stable" tend to prove more adaptive. Even the "laughing stock" of socialist coaition history - the much maligned French Fourth Republic - managed to rebuild the nation after World War II, create free universities, establish universal health care, and begin the European Union. So, in a classroom experiment in socialist theory, the students should have been empowered to alter the experiment as it moved along. That would have truly created a class full of learners.

Fourth, he misunderstands the purpose of education. He says, "When government takes all the reward away; no one will try or want to succeed." But what is he incentivizing? Not learning. He is really not interested in all his students succeeding - as Kohn suggests. Which is why, going back to my first point, he does not expect them to. Rather he wants them to fight it out - a steel-cage death match in which the winners get credentialed and the losers get booted to the bottom.

Imagine if he taught in a way that made relevant economic information seem important to his university students? The "reward" then would be the knowledge and the understandings. Imagine if he inspired them to understand the economic system well enough to help others understand it as well - to build a better informed citizenry. Then the "reward, " the "success," would be in helping each other comprehend it all. "Rewards," after all, are not all individual or selfish, we are social creatures by nature,people do things - as John Nash documented - out of a complex mix of intentions - both personally and socially motivated. If TT professor were a better teacher he would not need competition to motivate, he would not need grades to motivate. Both have proved to be poor motivators for most, encouraging more to quit than to excel. But TT prof can't see that, he is blinded by his ideology.

In the end "education for all" is a socialist enterprise. It can not be a capitalist one. We can only give all of our students what they need if we tend to follow that old Marxist maxim - giving to each what they need and expecting from each what they are capable of giving. When we let our capitalist ideologies intothe classroom we carry with them the guarantee of failure for that 'left side of the bell curve.'

- Ira Socol

05 April 2009

A Toxic Mix and Children at Risk

Childhood - at least in 'western' nations - is really not usually the ultra-high-risk place that one would imagine after watching television news or reading alarmist web sites. This, in fact, is - in many ways - the safest of times to be a child. Subtract idiot parents who oppose vaccinations and the threats from disease are way down (I have siblings who grew up when polio was a major risk). Vehicles are much, much safer (even if back seat rules create new dangers by forcing parents to look backwards continuously). Homes and product packaging are safer. Policing is typically better. No one sells actual lawn darts anymore.

And yet...

We know the risks are real. We have so many terrible schools where students' spirits and potential are crushed. We have so much poverty. We have so many parents with poor access to health care and mental health care. We abuse children with everything from physical and sexual violence to completely inappropriate high-pressure testing.

And now we have a dramatically increased risk in America. We have a toxic mix - economic disaster combined with a lack of a responsible socialist safety net and a national tolerance of privately owned assault weapons - that threatens all of our children.

In the past three days: A shooting rampage in Binghamton, New York at a citizenship training center. A shooting rampage in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that left five children of police officers without fathers. And a father murdering his five children near Seattle, Washington. Coast-to-Coast. Desperate (and desperately weak) people offered no help by America's society except the right to own weapons inappropriate in the hands of most soldiers, snap under relentless pressure, and destroy lives en masse.

I can not imagine America embracing the right to health care anytime soon. Nor can I imagine America becoming realistic about guns. Nor would I suppose that Americans - as a society - will stop viewing poverty as a personal moral failure in the near future. And I can't see a time when Americans - again, as a society, I'm not discussing individuals - will give the same inherent value to life, children, or families that European societies do. So, the toxic mix which has generated this weekend's nightmares will remain.

And that puts far more pressure on our schools and our educators to do whatever 'we' can to help.

Walking the corridors of every school in America are the children of families under enormous stresses. Parents are unemployed. Bills are unpaid. Health is uninsured. Homes are in foreclosure. And far more American families are likely to own high-powered weapons than are likely to have good mental health services available to them.

Sitting in chairs in every classroom in America are children who will go home to newly unstable families. Who face desperately confusing immediate futures. Who might lack the food they need. Who are now crowded into shared living situations. Who may have frustrated parents who are now drinking too much, or are struggling with now financially unsolvable health issues, or are now working too many jobs for too little pay.

And everything a school does - from expectations regarding homework or materials to be purchased, from science fair projects to parent-teacher conferences, from sports to dress codes, from beginning reading to college applications, impacts all of that and is impacted by all of that.

Pressures applied at the wrong moment can have catastrophic consequences, and unless we are paying very close attention, we will have no idea of what are the wrong moments or the wrong pressure points.

Last week in a presentation on Online Accessibility I briefly diverted the conversation to a face-to-face classroom issue, something I called "humiliation from the start." I described how very often - college professors/instructors/lecturers and secondary school teachers especially - we humiliate students with disabilities or force unplanned and unwanted disclosure on the first day. How everything from "ice breaking activities" (popular among more progressive educators), to "fill out this form - or card" activities, to "read this" declarations, can be so horribly destructive when you are not yet sure who can walk well, speak well, hear well, read ink-on-paper well, or write well with a pen. I know, in my academic career, how often I have abandoned courses after one session because of these humiliating teaching strategies (I am actually dealing, right now, with the ongoing fall out of one such situation). Afterwards, as I was getting on the elevator, a faculty member thanked me for that segment. "I never thought of that, or imagined it as a problem," he said, "and I should have." He explained that he teaches our 'Diversity in Education' course.

Looking out across our classrooms, our schoolyards, our corridors - we must work doubly hard right now to see our students as individuals, with individual needs, with individual problems, with individual skills and talents, and individual struggles. And we must look out and see children (or adults) who go home to environments which are not of their own making. And we must be flexible in everything we do, so that we are helping, not applying pressure where we need not do so.

This extends to everything from behavioral tolerance to assignment due dates. To rescheduling when needed. To accepting alternative solutions. To going out of our way to provide multiple possibilities for communication.

And it means listening to your students in new ways. And to reaching out to them. Assuring them that school is not just a "safe place" - but a place to build the resources which support personal safety. A place where adults are 'here to help' (or to help find help) - no matter the problem.

I hate to put any more pressure on teachers. But I've watched the news in the US this weekend, and I do not think we have any choice.

- Ira Socol

03 April 2009

A bad airline trip, and a few lessons for schools

In 14 days at the end of March I crossed 16 time zones as I attended two conferences. This required eight airline flights on two airlines. I flew American from Grand Rapids (Michigan) to Chicago (O'Hare), Chicago to Los Angeles (LAX), LAX to Dallas (DFW), and Dallas to Grand Rapids. Then, after some 9 hours at home, I drove to O'Hare in Chicago and flew Delta from there to Atlanta (Hartsfield) and on to Gatwick, which is "sort of" London (actually quite well connected by fast, inexpensive train). And finally, Delta again from London/Heathrow to JFK in New York, and after an 11-hour layover spent mostly prowling the streets of New York and Brooklyn with old friends (including dinner at Junior's), JFK back to O'Hare.

For someone who has been, essentially, locked in the house for three months, this was a fabulous chance to rejoin humanity beyond the boundaries of blogs and email and Skype and Twitter.

Of course I have disability issues when travelling. The flood of print information which comes at me during airport or unfamiliar rail station experiences can overwhelm- though "the woman in my life" and I did discover one key dyslexic/word-shape-recognizer advantage in the travel experience that I'll get to later on. But this time I was also struggling to walk, and in real need of a wheelchair to navigate the vast distances and many stairs/escalators of the contemporary travel hub.

The trip to the CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference was fine. American Airlines crews and the staff at all four airports was supportive, helpful, and raced me - at breakneck speeds in Dallas - to ensure that my son (travelling with me and helping me through this) and I made all of our connections. I might complain about the lack of an alternative to motorized revolving doors at the entrance to American's LAX baggage claim (and surely those enforcing the ADA should complain), but overall I was treated with dignity, was asked about my needs, and I received all of the assistance I needed - from check in, to security, in flight, and in terminal.

Not so on journey number two. Not so with Delta Airlines. Now, let me begin by saying that I pre-warned both airlines about my needs. In fact, every boarding pass was labelled "Wheelchair Assistance" or "Wheelchair Requested." And this is no 'hidden disability' - I walk with a cane and the cane is clearly not in my hand for 'style points.'

So, on the way to the CAL '09 "Learning in Digital Worlds" Conference in Brighton (which was fabulous), I was abandoned in a corner of O'Hare when Delta ticket counter agents refused to request a wheelchair despite being asked by "the woman in my life" three different times (finally, TSA workers came to my rescue). I had to wait until a wheelchair was found in Atlanta, standing in the path of all other departing passengers. Then the wheelchair would not come down the jetbridge, which was about 200 meters long, slanted, and filled with trip points, so I had to struggle up that to the chair.

At Gatwick Delta failed to tell BAA airport staff how many passengers needed assistance, forcing a long, difficult walk until airport workers came to my rescue.

At Heathrow what was described as a "short jetbridge" ("Will you be able to walk a short jetbridge?") turned into a four story high downramp (downramps are the single most difficult thing for my knee to handle). And then it got worse.

When the plane landed at JFK (and again, the wheelchair attendants were not allowed onto the jetbridge) I was told that I could either use the wheelchair or have my companion with me - a completely ridiculous and unfair choice. Considering how Delta had treated me so far I chose to walk supported by my companion. At the end of this, I was so exhausted that I fell at Passport Control, hurting myself (the Border Agents were minimally sympathetic if not at all helpful). In a baggage claim room with no seating I fell again, and was treated to the flight crew from my Delta flight stepping over me in their rush out of the terminal (other passengers rushed to my aid). Those helpful passengers requested and finally got a wheelchair, but after customs, the woman with the wheelchair took it away from us, leaving us a 1/4 mile and a full story below the passenger pick up area.

The next morning's flight out included a between-JFK-terminal journey on a van with no way to secure a wheelchair, allowing my knee to be slammed into the wall of the van on a turn, long waits in rooms without toilet facilities, and, to top it all off, being left for ten minutes blocking the base of a staircase at O'Hare as other customers banged past me with their carry-on bags and Delta struggled to figure out where an elevator might be.

Am I complaining? Even whining? Of course I am. Delta Airlines left me in pain and feeling humiliated. But as this was all happening I was also observing.

Whether people with differences are treated properly or not is dependent on a series of systems - macrosystems and microsystems and cultural systems and systems of human training.

American Airlines seemed to have a system which was watching out for passenger comfort in general, and that was easily extended in my case. At LAX an American staffer watched me approach the check-in kiosk and immediately came over to help and ask what assistance I might need. On every flight the crew checked in with me to make sure they were communicating my needs with the airport. American agents also pointed out the information on the boarding passes: gate, airport wing, etc, which is very, very helpful for those of us who do not read swiftly and accurately - especially under stress.

None of this kind of attention was part of Delta Airlines' system. Even with an absolutely lovely flight crew from Atlanta to Gatwick (among the best crews I have ever flown with), communication with the airport failed. So, this is not a question of individual failure, but a basic problem with the system, and the customer service culture, at Delta. Most Delta passengers seemed miserable. I was just more so. Most American passengers seemed comfortable, and I was as well.

Just as schools which work for the most students tend to work for those with "extra" needs, and bad schools are usually bad schools for everyone.

Consistency of system helps as well. The US Transportation Security Agency was unfailingly pleasant and helpful to me on these trips, and yet, because every airport was different in operation, life remained difficult. At Grand Rapids they provided me with a clear, plexiglas cane so I could walk through the screening arch. Quick and easy, and I was very impressed. No other airport had this though. So in every other case I needed at 'pat down' search. At some airports the sleeve holding my laptop was fine, in others, the laptop had to be out of that. At most airports my companion was allowed right next to me at screening so they could secure my scanned possessions, though not at LAX - where I sat worried about my computer (my lifeline), my wallet, and my phone as my son struggled to catch up.

Inconsistency in basic operations is hard on everyone, but especially on those with those 'extra needs' - that is why 'special needs' students so struggle with, say, differing testing regimes among different teachers.

Little things matter. At the 'Mens Rooms' at Delta's JFK terminals there is no way to dry one's hands near the sinks. If you are "ambulating" with crutches or a cane or a walker, this is between annoying and extremely dangerous. Directions to airline check-ins should be at every terminal door. Those directions should include words and logos. When walking is hard it is unfair to make someone walk two football fields in the wrong direction because you are too lazy to put up a sign.

Check your environment for the 'problem spots.' And check your environment not through your eyes, but through the eyes of every one of your students.

Dignity matters. I was clearly an annoyance and a problem for most Delta employees. That comes across. And that made me a less pleasant customer as that attitude kept coming. The US Passport Control guy complained about his workload to me after I had fallen in front of him. On the other hand, woman pushing my wheelchair through O'Hare (on the trip to LAX) and DFW, and the woman driving me through Heathrow, made me feel as if we were all part of a team. The TSA people also made me feel as if this was, if frustrating at times, something we'd get through together. British customs as well. Let's face it - most of us would rather be treated as a human than as a burden.

Are your 'special needs' students part of your 'team,' or do they see themselves as constantly begging for help? It makes a difference.

In the end these were wonderful trips, but one part was miserable, because of a system which failed to treat me as a human. And wherever, whenever that happens... it simply is not fair.

- Ira Socol

Note: Delta has not responded to my complaints. Though I am not a "sue first" kind of person, I am contacting disability rights organizations and legal support in order to pursue this. Through government support of airports and air traffic control Delta receives hundreds of millions of dollars (and euros and pounds) in public money each year. In my mind this obligates them to highest level of equal treatment of all passengers. Though neither US nor EU law requires airlines to make the disabled 'comfortable' in-flight (the only appropriate coach fare seats are at emergency exits, which are inappropriate) there are legal standards for treatment of those passengers which must be enforced.

Ahhh... I forgot, the "discovery of one key dyslexic/word-shape-recognizer advantage in the travel experience." I realized how much quicker I am at picking directions on the tube (London Subway) than my partner. I've looked at the map, and the map and the "strip map" signs to the platforms are set in the same typeface. Thus I am just looking for 'the picture that matches" - say, "Russell Square" or (an old favorite) "Cockfosters." She, on the other hand, is trying to read through unfamiliar text until she finds the words. So she has to read while I am simply looking for a shape - and I'm the more efficient there. Which is interesting, you find advantages in the oddest places.

02 April 2009

Accessible Web Courses - a resource collection

Today at Michigan State University my son and I will be discussing Building Accessible Web Courses with faculty and instructors. Accessibility on line is so essential. As an instructor, lecturer, whatever, you can't look out online and see the faces of those who are lost, of those you have accidentally humiliated.

Accessibility is, of course, legally and morally essential everywhere in education. And creating accessible course content can seem technologically intimidating. Which is why we've dug up a whole list of resources and tutorials...

- Ira Socol