30 January 2010

Game Changer?

What is changing?

When Steve Jobs came out of his Fortress of Solitude last week to announce the iPad, I heard the phrase "game changer" over and over.

The iPad will save newspapers, end the Kindle experiment, completely alter education, change the design of computers forever, its potential, or the potential of this style of device, will alter the world.

Now, at the start, I'll admit that I don't believe in historic "pivot points." Yes, those are convenient solutions for history quizzes ("America was discovered in: (a) 1342 (b) 1492 (c) 1817 (d) 1776") but they always suggest the heroic breakthrough of the individual rather than an ever changing, ever evolving ("evolve" used in a non-progressive sense - is an elephant really "better" than a Mammoth? a panther better than a Sabre-tooth Tiger?) human race.

Humans change, their environments change, and thus their needs change. As those needs change, humans - the world's greatest tool makers - the world's most consistent tool users - start to look for solutions, and begin to invent answers. Multiple people went after the "voice telegraph" (the "telephone) in the mid-19th Century, because people wanted more than the telegraph. And multiple people "invented" it at the same moment. Multiple people went after the "moving picture" in the late 19th Century because people wanted more than photography, and multiple people "invented" it at the same moment.

On his blog, Shelly Blake-Plock and I have wondered about the impact of the iPad, and Shelly makes the assertion that perhaps this is the moment when those in power in education truly begin to learn the value of digital community. If so, it will be a "moment" - perhaps transformational.

Breakthroughs do occur, even if they are public conception breakthroughs. Looking back through my "new social history" lens, I've found a random few such moments:

The cheap Polaroid camera: Edwin Land had introduced (not invented) the Polaroid instant film camera in 1948. I can remember my father bringing home a massive, bellows style one using black and white film and a "do not ever touch this" leather case in 1962 (obtained used from Lord-knows-where, you would'a need to know my Da), but these were strange niche market items. In 1965 however Polaroid slashed prices on a new plastic-bodied camera and changed the perception of photography.

Prior to the Swinger photography was about memory, now, photography was a concurrent social activity. Digital photography, Flickr, etc enhanced this, but the creation moment happened 45 years ago.

The penny newspaper: In 1830 a newspaper appeared in Boston which was priced at 1/6th the price of any other newspaper in the United States. The Boston Transcript cost a penny and, for the very first time, allowed average people to carry readable news with them. And thus, the "penny newspaper" was born. It represented something else as well, the first time "published information" was provided to a mass audience far below cost because the bulk of the costs were born by advertisers (essentially, the penny cost was covering only the distribution network).

The idea spread wildly, across the US and the world, dramatically "lowering" journalistic standards (mass sales became essential to attract advertisers, thus heavy coverage of sensational crime news) - read Jack Finney's Forgotten News: The Crime of the Century and Other Lost Storiesfor an amazing view of this - and destroying the old elite journalism which had carried the nation since colonial times.

From this point on, the model which so built US network radio and television, and which is now so despised by most newspapers, was invented. Users paid for the "delivery device" - not the content. If you bought a radio or TV the content came free. If you needed newsprint you paid for the newsprint and the delivery. The New York Times may rage at the unfairness, but it is their system. It is they who want to change the rules now, not the rules which have changed.

The dial telephone: The telephone had existed for generations before it became "self-service." Surely the phone was transformational, and yet, its function changed forever once you didn't have to ask someone to make a call for you - and perhaps - once you didn't assume people were listening in on your conversations (this is the period between the introduction of the dial phone and the George W. Bush/Tony Blair era).

So the dial telephone created a new form of non-face-to-face communication. A new kind of immediacy and intimacy not possible before. It also created the first distance communication system in which the "technology" began to become "invisible." You didn't know how it worked, you didn't care - you just picked it up and used it.

The Sears, Roebuck, and Company Catalogue: I almost included Amazon here, remembering, as I do, how Amazon was a national laughingstock in the year 2000 - "the world's largest non-profit" - because the idea of Amazon sure seems transformative - except - it wasn't really. The idea had been perfected more than a century before.

Was Sears the first? Of course not. Aaron Montgomery Ward beat him to it by more than a decade, Hammacher-Schlemmer by over almost a half-century, but Sears made shopping from home "the big thing." He transformed our way of "wishing for products." No longer did we just walk past shop windows, now we sat and browsed through a book of representations, and began to depend on descriptions and labels ("Sears-Best" "Lady Kenmore").

The arrival of the Sears Catalogue was that moment when it became "perfectly OK" to stay home and dream about consumer goods, stay home and research products, stay home and shop.

The Lisa Computer: A computer with a non-code interface. Now that's revolutionary. I recall standing in front of an Apple dealer's store window staring at thing thing, with its "desktop" and its ability to print out a real image.

You may want to skip the five minute intro, but you can look back at a time when Apple thought multitasking was really important

The Lisa was absurdly expensive and pretty much "nobody" bought it. But, and in this Shelly Blake-Plock's concept that the iPad will transform leadership thinking becomes relevant, the Lisa demonstrated that a personal computer could be used by people who were not trained technicians and the Lisa demonstrated that computers were something more than highly evolved adding machines. That was "game-changing."

Steve Jobs and his followers proclaim, of course, that the iPad is "magical." That now people will be able to go anywhere and read, write, communicate, watch video, view pictures, listen to music. "Magical" perhaps, but if I look around, if I say, walk through my campus, or my town, or ride the El in Chicago or the Subway in New York or the Luas in Dublin or the Tube in London, I see just about everyone under the age of forty, and many above that line, reading, writing, communicating, watching video, viewing pictures, and listening to music on small digital devices. The transformation, of course, has occurred. It is the packaging that has changed. Think floppy disk to flash drive, not invention of the railroad (which, although still an evolution of transportation systems, did allow - for the first time - for humans to move as rapidly on land as they could on water).

So, is the iPad transformational? My thought is that the transformation has already happened - the game has already changed. But I also know that we won't really know that for a long time. Games change when we least expect them to.

- Ira Socol

24 January 2010

Teaching Government

A few summers ago I sat in a class - for both masters level and doctoral students - on teaching international education. Many of the students were Michigan social studies teachers. It was a fascinating course taught by a brilliant professor, but it was also horribly revealing. The teachers really did not know that people in other nations might define "democracy" as something other than "majority rules." Most did not know how Canada selected its government. None knew much about America's imperial history - wars in the Philippines, occupations of Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the seizure of Hawaii.

So I asked a question: How many teachers taught in schools where student council elections were held in a way other than "the American voting system"?

The response was, "How else would anyone vote?"

So I pulled out something which looked like this - vote counting in Ireland's Dail (parliamentary) election:

This immediately confused everyone. Once I explained that "1st Pref[erence]" meant the voters "first choice" they were more confused. As you can see, the number one "1st Pref[erence]" vote recipient did get elected, but finished third. The number two "1st Pref[erence]" vote recipient was not elected.

Americans, only knowing, only learning about, "first past the post" elections, are, logically baffled to learn that this isn't the only way. So this district in the north of Dublin elected three people to their parliament from three different parties. Drilling down in the analysis, it also suggests that about 96% of voters got one of their top choices elected. In other words, quite the opposite of America's gerrymandered, 49% angry, elections, this is "democracy" based in the idea of consensus. Then there is the role of smaller parties. In the US a protest vote usually is a vote for the candidate you like least. Ralph Nader voters in 2000 were voting for George W. Bush no matter what they say. But in Ireland you get to vote, say, Green, and select Labour as your second choice. If the Green candidate is eliminated because of too few votes, your second choice vote is counted instead, you haven't voted for Fianna Fail.

Whether this produces better government than the American voting system, or the French voting system, or the German voting system, isn't the point. Nor is the question of whether it produces better politics. Ireland's Green Party has surely proven that this system is no guarantor of integrity in the past year. But it creates a fundamentally different sense of politics, government, and democracy - and that is important.

But if Ireland was too much, I asked if they understood how New York State votes. Of course, they did not know that either.

New York is a "first past the post" electoral system with single-member constituencies like most of America (we would call Ireland a "Single Transferable Vote" system with "multi-member constituencies"), but it is a multi-party system with "Fusion" voting: Candidates can run on multiple parties and their totals are added together. This theoretically allows voters to support a candidate but not a party. This has given great power to "smaller" New York parties throughout history. the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the Working Families Party.

Again, better or worse isn't the question, it is a different system. Just as a parliamentary system is fundamentally different than a "presidential" system, especially a Presidential system with a super powerful executive such as in the US, France, Russia, or Venezuela - all of which might be called "plebesceterial" (in the mind of Bush-era folks like Dick Cheney and John Yoo), in which the executive is, essentially, unchallengeable during his/her term.

I think our US students need to know these differences. Not just because they should know that they live in a society which has made certain choices, but because they will have to engage with the world in their lives. And they can not do that if they have no idea of how the rest of the world makes decisions.

So, next time your school chooses student leaders, pick a different system, or allow your students to pick a different system. Vote like the Irish, it will improve the math skills of vote counters. Vote like New Yorkers, your art students can make all those little symbols. Vote like the French, angrily, in multiple rounds. Vote like the Brits, and let people run for office in classrooms they don't "reside" in. Do one thing this year, another thing next year. Keep it changing. Keep them learning.

We might even raise a generation which thinks about how they are governed, rather than which passively accepts their inheritance.

- Ira Socol

22 January 2010

History through Fiction

As an undergrad I took a course in the history of Europe in the first half of the 20th Century, that is, 1914 to 1945. (Step one, of course, is understanding that "historically" the 20th Century in Europe begins in 1914 and ends in 1989. I might suggest that the century is much longer in the US, beginning in 1898 and ending in 2001, but that's another story.)

The course was fabulous on many levels. We had great history students in there, and a great professor. We could debate every event from "the big four perspectives" - British, French, Russian, German (my role being - until we got to 1933 - to present the German/Central European view) - and we didn't fall for the standard "causation" theories of simplistic history. But the best thing was the final assignment.

"I want you to do something," the professor said, "which demonstrates a real knowledge of some part of this period. Do whatever you want, and tell me your sources. Those are the only rules."

I wrote a short story. Well, really I wrote an unfinished novella, calling it off and handing it in at about 75 pages - which was deemed sufficient. My story was of a German Storm Trooper (think US Special Forces, not the later Nazi version) coming home from the front in the winter of 1918-1919. I made him a Czech, an Austrian citizen who had chosen to join the German Army. I placed his fiance in Munich, living with a relative during the war. This allowed my protagonist to travel by train from France to Hamburg, and then Hamburg to Munich. It allowed me to describe Germany at that moment of defeat. And in Munich it allowed me to bring him into the bizarre story of the short lived Bavarian Free Republic and its mercurial Marxist/Artist/Philosopher leader Kurt Eisner, which was the historical tale I wanted to tell.

Eisner monument in Munich on the site of his assassination (Wikipedia)

Eisner was fascinating, since his primary pre-occupation seems to have been ensuring that new authors, playwrights, film-makers, and painters were supported - this being about democracy in art, not just government. He's historically important first because it was his government which released the "German War Guilt" telegrams between Berlin and Vienna from 1914, and more importantly, because the right-wing backlash against this leftist state turned Munich and Nuremberg into hotbeds of fascism and antisemitism. You've heard of Adolf Hitler, I presume.

The story may not have been perfect writing, but as a history lesson it was the very best. By creating a protagonist that had elements of myself in him - I too have some Czech ancestry - and it was written in the first person, I allowed myself to walk through this history. With each historic discovery I made in my research, be it the state of the German National Railroads at the end of the war, or a job offer in the Foreign Ministry of this bizarre little government seeking recognition as a separate nation by the victors, I had to push myself back in time and navigate the experience. Each step forced more research: Would I have been pro-Czech independence? Which city, Prague or Munich, would have been more appealing? Would German Army service have been accepted in Prague? Was Eisner really just following Bavaria's artistic history under the Wittelsbach dynasty? Why were Munich Marxists so different than many in Berlin?

This simple assignment turned me into an expert on this little known historic moment.

Others in the class wrote plays, made videos, one did a painting, there was a dance performance, and there were other stories, and even some "academic papers." Yes, it was all good. But let me focus on the historic fiction for the moment, because recently @bryanjack asked me - via Twitter - to help mentor one of his high school students regarding a historical fiction project.

I think that, for at least a large group of students, asking them - or allowing them - to merge their creativity with their emerging writing (or video) and historical research skills is one of the most powerful ways to teach history. As is the sharing of those projects - which bring these individual, or small group - zones of historic expertise together.

Think about this. Kids are already really good at projecting themselves into different worlds. They were great at it when they pretended to be knights in the Victorian era. They were great at recreating the "old west" or World War II in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the arrival of video games, these skills have actually accelerated, as everything from The Sims and Civilization to the "first person shooter" games is based in this projection skill.

They're not only good at it, they enjoy it.

But what we, as "educators," can add is reality. We can help them research and find the realities which will change the play into play plus real knowledge acquisition. Munich was still beautiful Munich in the winter of 1919 I discovered in my dive into this kind of fantasy, but it was often easier to find beer than many kinds of meats or the manufactured products that middle class Europeans were used to (the result of a British blockade that went on long after the fighting stopped). This didn't hurt the story I was telling, of course, it created whole parts of the story. Bringing home good soap was a wonderful romantic gift. Sausage was an extravagance, and the addition of meat meal to an evening out was important.

Your students, turned loose with their stories and their online search tools, will discover similar wonders around every corner. If you want to give them hints, and they are in Middle School or above, you might try a Thomas Mallon novel such as Aurora 7 or a Jack Finney novel like Time and Again, both stunningly researched historical fiction pieces. There are fine Finney short stories which might work for students as well, such as some of those in his collection About Time: 12 Short Stories. "What," you will be asking them, "did this author need to look for in order to tell this story?"

Just a suggestion, of course, but I see so much history made so boring in school, when, it seems to me, history is the greatest collection of stories - and kids love stories. So maybe it's worth a try.

- Ira Socol

13 January 2010

Iron Educator America

It began as a Conan-kind of joke. NBC, the self-destroying US television network (when your home studio is Rockefeller Center how can you be so bad?), suddenly has five hours of prime time to fill. Sure, I thought, I'd like to bring back Homicide, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, etc, but, I wondered out load on Twitter, couldn't they give us one of those hours to get Americans thinking about education?

I proposed Iron Educator America. We could take Tuesday night, picking up that giant Biggest Loser audience.

Yes, it's a joke, but it's still a real idea. The chance for Americans to think about really doing education differently, just as cooking shows, from The French Chef to Iron Chef America, have changed Americans' ways of thinking about food.

I proposed that we start with Iron Educators Alec Couros (@courosa) and Shelly Blake-Plock (@teachpaperless) going at it - demonstrating their exceptional skills. Dr. Couros could show us the open hybrid college course. Mr. Blake-Plock could show us a Latin class run without paper. Will Richardson (@willrich45) was tabbed by our Twitter crowdsource as "Chairman" (nimble, entertaining, and vegetarian). Few challenge "the norms" in education as effectively as Will does. Chad Ratliff (@chadratliff) got the Alton Brown host role. He is one of those exceptional synthesizers, who forces out the complex explanations behind education practice. Larry Ferlazzo (@Larryferlazzo), educational reporter extraordinaire, would take the floor reporter position.

our nimble chairman, Will Richardson

Imagine: Week after week, we'd see two master educators do things differently, excite students, pull the whole class in. We'd pick "winners" because America always wants there to be a "loser," but just like Iron Chef the point would be how great both were. We could cover a wild range of styles and every grade level. See Lisa Parisi (@lparisi) and Christine Southard co-teach with Universal Design. See Michael Wesch (@mwesch) run his digital ethnography course at Kansas State. Eventually, probably during sweeps, Derrell Bradford (@dyrnwyn) and I will go at it.

Imagine: People could see what their schools might look like, instead of simply relying on their own self-serving memories of school.

Imagine: People might actually debate educational practice at "the water cooler."

Iron Educator America is a joke, of course. But maybe it's a joke whose time has come.

- Ira Socol

10 January 2010

Answering questions with questions...

Do we teach our students to answer questions with questions?

Why not?

On Sunday morning @courosa asked on Twitter, "how many countries can you name in 5 minutes? http://is.gd/60P5G"

"What do you mean by country?" I asked in return, "UN, FIFA, other?"

A little later @AltEdAdventures asked, "I named 41. Am I blind, or was England/Great Britan not an accepted country?"

Is Wales a country? Scotland? England? Somaliland? Puerto Rico? Great Britain? Catalonia? Northern Ireland? Palestine?

"FIFA," says Wikipedia, "has 208 member associations, which is 16 more than the United Nations and three more than the International Olympic Committee, though five fewer than the International Association of Athletics Federations."

According to the United Nations - or the US State Department - there is a nation off the northwest coast of Europe called "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." Nearby is a nation called "The Republic of Ireland." According to FIFA, the international soccer organizing group, there are at least five nations there: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Ireland, each of whom compete under their own national flag, play their own national anthems. If you ask the Irish government, constitutionally, they will tell you that there are two nations: Great Britain and Ireland, with part of Ireland being occupied by Great Britain and still awaiting the re-unification plebiscite scheduled for 1925. If you ask the Irish government, officially, the answer will leave you baffled as they try to describe something both unacceptable yet fully accepted.

And what of Somaliland? An independent, functioning, self-governing nation since 1991 that no one officially recognizes.

What of Catalonia? A "nation" with its own language, culture, very distinct history, even a "not-recognized-by-FIFA-but-they-can-play" national soccer team?

Of course, then, there's Palestine.

So the child faced with the "name the countries" question or the "fill out the map" worksheet needs to ask, not answer. That new question - "What do we mean when we say "country" or "nation"?" is the really valuable topic, in a way a list of memorized names will never be. And it will introduce students to the vast differences in the ways of human thinking. The child in London understands "country" quite differently than the child in Kansas City, and neither is right. Just as "democracy" is different for the child in Dublin than the child in Boise. Just as "border" means one thing in Texas and something else in Pakistan or Yemen. Even when we start adding 2+2 different cultural rules come into play. If we ignore this, we are training our students in ignorance.

This isn't post-modernism run amok. Rather, it is training our students to understand the complexities of the world. It is essential. Hell, even business schools now understand this.

So next time you ask a question, don't look for an answer, look for the questions which challenge our knowledge of our world. That's real education.

- Ira Socol

09 January 2010

Little Steps: History Anywhere, Math Anywhere

Crisis happens quickly. Recovery takes much longer. We often fall in a split second. We climb back up in tiny steps which seem to take forever.

So today, Saturday, three weeks after my "annual" knee destroying fall, I finally got out to the living room, and the couch, on a sunny day. I could see the sky in three directions. I could hear and speak to that wondrous woman in my life as she not only took care of the house but baked me amazing cookies from her grandmother's recipe. I could watch football (the world kind) on the big screen. "Little steps" @aleaness and @karenjan said on Twitter, but world changing for me. That's something, I thought, that we, in education today, often forget. The tiny steps that don't get us "to grade level," or "to proficient," don't get counted very often, but they can be world changing nonetheless. And well deserving of celebration.

Anyway, the last football game ended and I started watching Tony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out. It's an old film based in the story of baseball player Jimmy Piersall, one of American sports all-time wackos.

Fear Strikes Out means a lot to me. As a kid a condensed version of this story of family dysfunction and childhood fears run amok was part of the very first non-picture book I tried to read Sport Sport Sport(Jackie Robinson was also in there), and the story of how fear passes between generations struck home.

Many years later I met Jimmy Piersall in the press box of the West Michigan Whitecaps. He was a cool, if still bizarre, character. But that's not my story here...

So I'm watching the movie and Piersall as a young high schooler is signed by the Boston Red Sox and sent from his home in Waterbury, Connecticut to the farm team in Scranton, Pennsylvania. We see him leave the Waterbury station on the New Haven Railroad. I wondered, "what was that trip like in the early 1950s?" Piersall, I imagined, would have taken the New Haven down to Grand Central Station (why is it always really "Grand Central Terminal"?). Then he would have had to get cross town to Pennsylvania Station. Then, I'm presuming, the Pennsylvania Railroad would have carried him to Scranton. Then I thought, that's a nearly unimaginable trip for most American kids today. How much might they learn about history if they could reconstruct it, if they could envision it - the sights, the grand stations, the dining cars, the sense of regional differences which existed back then (Howard Johnson's in common, but anything else?).

Then I thought of all the real world math that might come in. How long would his trip have taken? What would it have cost? What does that cost translate to today? How long would it take today?

And while you are spinning those questions out, of course you are teaching research skills as well. Could we find old timetables? Can we figure out how to track inflation? Can we find old pictures? Can we use Google Maps to track all this?

In other words, just one moment in one piece of literature gives us an interdisciplinary "in" to so many things, things which may touch so many different kinds of kids, in so many ways. But when we carve out specific "lessons" - if we were, for example, committed to teaching Fear Strikes Out as an autobiography about mental illness - we'd rush right past those moments because they're not "really part of what we're doing," and all those other openings for all those other students might disappear.

And when those openings disappear, so do the chances for all those "little steps." But without those "little steps" so many of us remain stuck, and so many of us give up.

- Ira Socol

08 January 2010

When rethinking the school itself...

What happens if you really begin to rethink what your school looks like? No, I'm not talking about rethink from a wildly radical viewpoint - like mine or say, Neil Postman's - but just if a dedicated set of educators stops "tinkering" with little changes and wonders what school might be like...

In December Apple invited me to an 1:1 school computing "event" at Holland Christian High School in Holland, Michigan. I was initially a bit reluctant, Apple - in my "educational demonstration experience" - being one of those "hard sell" kind of firms which tolerates little dissent, and tends to make fun of you if you suggest alternatives to their "cool," but I went anyway. Doughnuts and coffee were promised, it wasn't far, and I wanted to meet Twitterpal @mrlosik who would be attending. Plus, Holland Christian interested me. In my work with students on Assistive Technology evals, few schools had been anywhere near as willing to try new things, to give "disabled" students new opportunities, or to be less "rule bound."

Three years ago when I recommended Google Calendar with mobile phone alerts to keep ADHD students on task, Holland Christian was the only area high school to go with the plan - the others - the public high schools - just said, "we don't allow phones."

Anyway, I went. @endaguinan warned me from his socialist vacation home in north London that Apple reps would probably use the word "funnest" and I promised that if that happened, I'd leave and head for the pub to work. But I went, dodging a dangerously icy morning on the roads and on the school's outdoor paths. And when I walked in, I immediately began to be happy to be there. The school had physically been rebuilt in the past year, and now I entered a wide carpeted "Main Street" area filled with comfortable chairs, and beginning with a coffee shop at the near end and a glass walled library adjoining that, and ending with an open cafeteria at the far end, with a high tech auditorium in the center. Huge flat panel displays showed students at work throughout. Students moved through talking and chatting, but the noise control of the architecture turned it into a pleasant rumble. There were no big rules posted. "Adults" were there but not obviously "supervising."

Holland Christian decided a few years ago to become a 1:1 school. That alone is a huge step, but they realized that changing student tools was just one part of rethinking. And while they were rethinking, they realized that they needed to rebuild and reorganize - that new tools would only be meaningful if the educational environment altered in ways that let the tools really change things. So, after a brief and meaningless Apple introduction our day began as we listened to Glenn Vos, the school superintendent. Glenn didn't talk about Apple, or even 1:1 so much. He talked about rebuilding classrooms so there was no "front" anymore. He talked about wide hallways where students could gather. He talked about attendance policies which allowed students to sign into classes from elsewhere in the building if that made them more comfortable. He talked about multiple projection screens in every classroom to break "single focus learning." He talked about dropping text books for authentic materials and the acceptance of multiple - and student chosen - ways of demonstrating knowledge. He even talked about having big windows in classrooms both to the outside and the school corridors - "We're not hiding from the world or hiding the world from our students" he told us.

And then we listened to teachers and students, we wandered the building, and we saw. In newly built additions classroom doors were centered on one wall, projectors, aimed from the middle of the ceiling, pointed to two corners. Window walls opened outside, big windows allowed views to/from the halls. In most rooms the two projectors were in use, showing different things. In most rooms, students gathered in clusters, often passing tablet boards around.

Students described open-ended projects they worked on. Teachers described learning to trust student learning. Voss himself told me of needing to change staff thinking. "I wanted the library completely open," he said, "the librarian freaked out, so we put these pure glass walls up. She said, "they'll steal the books." I said, "Students will steal books! If they do that I'll buy you new ones." Then he said, "The books are decoration now, the kids all download digital versions of what they need."

All in all what I saw was a 1:1 initiative that had been shaped by a commitment to rethinking school, and centering the form of school on what students need now - collaboration, access to and effective use of global information, trust in students, belief in leveraging the world of today rather than avoiding it, and universal design.

"Kids don't need a lot of special services," one staffer told me when I asked about special needs. "If they need stuff added to their computers, they find it and add it or we help them. If they have to do things differently, well, everybody does stuff differently. It doesn't matter."

The Apple stuff in the building was fine. The computers were cool. But there was nothing a school couldn't do with much cheaper Windows or even Linux laptops. They used free Open Office and many free webware programs. "There are ads there," a visitor commented about a class blog. "Yes," the teacher said, "we realize that our kids do see advertising in their lives, it's no big deal." This was no cost-be-damned private school experience. It was reasonable, it was logical, and it was technology chosen for education, not technology chosen for technology.

Maybe most importantly, they had tested and considered, and are continuing to do that. "Why no IWB's?" they were asked. "We tested them in a few classrooms," we were told. "They were expensive, they didn't seem to get used very interactively. We saw better stuff with two projectors and the wireless tablet controls." "What if mobile phones become dominant," I asked, "and laptops get outdated?" "The equipment really isn't important," was the answer, "we've learned to embrace the student control and interaction, and we'll keep doing that."

The day ended with a bizarre Apple rep presentation in which they suggested military school-like quizzing of students on the "ten reasons we have gone one to one." (No, I'm not kidding - Apple corporate culture has flipped since 1984) "We stop them in the halls in this one school and they can recite them all!" But that was just a strange addendum.

What I had seen that day in December was a school where rethinking was embraced, and it was wonderful to see.

- Ira Socol