27 July 2010

Of Cognition and Memory, Technology and Cities, Learning and Schools. Part I

Byzantium. Cities became the engine of human progress
because they were places where diverse voices met...
an early technological clash point - incoherent languages,
customs, and world views.

A couple of years ago I wrote a long, strange "paper" titled Literacy (as) Tyranny. Let's start here with a long quote:
"This focus on privileging one form of literature, one form of communication, can only be maintained by one of two philosophies: A belief that human communication forms are static, or, a belief in a steady trend of human progress in human communication forms which reached its apex in 1900 in northern Europe and the United States and which must be preserved as static now.
'“Technology is frequently held to be transforming social relationships, the economy, and vast areas of public and private life,” David Buckingham says. “As Carolyn Marvin (1988) has indicated, such discourses have a long history. She shows how the introduction of electricity and telecommunications in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was both encouraged and challenged by discourses that attributed enormous power to technology. … The telephone, for example, was celebrated for the way in which it could make business more efficient and facilitate more democratic forms of social life, yet it was also condemned for its disruption of intimate relationships and its unsettling of established social hierarchies.”[1]
"Technologies are assigned either magical powers – socially transformative, liberating, democratizing – or they are viewed as demonic threats to established social structures and hierarchies. But in both arguments there is a strong sense of technological determinism. “[T]echnology is seen to emerge from a neutral process of scientific research and development, rather than from the interplay of complex social, economic, and political forces,” Buckingham adds. “Technology is then seen to have effects—to bring about social and psychological changes— irrespective of the ways in which it is used, and of the social contexts and processes into which it enters.”[2]
"Technology, however, rarely arrives without a societal need. The ancient Greeks and Romans both had steam engines, but without a societal function, these essential tools of the industrial revolution were simply toys. The French Second Empire had fax machines but no interest in fax machines. The idea vanished for over a century. Would Gutenberg’s typesetting system have been such the grand success it was without the concurrent rise of the Reformation? Would railroads have been developed prior to the need to transport coal?
"So technology succeeds because it fills an apparent cultural void. And culture responds to the technology by transforming around the new technology. Various genres of writing grow, and the percentage of literate citizens grows, and a religion based on written text develops – then – movable type appears to support those developments – then – using this new technology, new genres of writing grow and literacy expands and changes. Fiction, supported by the printed text in ways poetry – with its oral tradition – is not, outstrips the older form. People learn to write novels and they learn to read novels. The success of novels produces other forms of writing – the beginnings of journalism. These new forms of writing and reading create the need for machine made paper, rotary presses, the linotype machine. And as these new forms of writing – in this case journalism in particular – grow, the need develops for rapid communications, and the telegraph, telephone, and radio are developed, along with even newer forms of representation, photographs and films.
"At each step education tends to lag behind, teaching the prior technologies and prior communication forms."
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) change, and these changes change cognition - both individual and community. Once you saw cave paintings, story telling often needed more than words. Once you saw a photograph, paintings didn't look quite so real [3]. Once you watched a newreel, you wanted a different level of proof before fully believing an event occurred. Once you saw live television coverage - think of the Kennedy Assassination and especially the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald - your concept of transmitted reality shifted.

But there is much more. These changes, in turn, change the ways in which we communicate, again, both as individuals and as a community, and change the way we remember, including our collective memories. Those changes in cognition and memory alter information and communication norms in a way which demands new technologies...

Yes, let's begin there. It is not a straight path, of course, and not a stairway. Its more like something out of Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, we're going round and round this rocky mountain, with plateaus and cliffs and lots of places to fall.

Edison film of the Boer War

But along the way things change. This began with the invention of technology number one: language, and technology number two: art. It accelerated when humans first broke tribal boundaries and began to occupy trading cities, where differing technologies (types of languages, types of art, and thus, types of world views) met and collided. There, in those cities, the need for new types of boundary crossing ICTs sped the circle up further. And humans moved through all kinds of technologies, from memorized Greek drama to Egyptian architecture and hieroglyphics to Assyrian seals and Hebraic scrolls, to Opera and Gutenberg's mass printed books. Each technology altering us as we used it.

In 19th and 20th century terms, you can't have John Dos Passos[4] without the cheap newspaper and the phonograph. You can't have Jack Kerouacwithout Dos Passos. But then Kerouac demonstrates (literally) the limits of the page, which is also demonstrated by television and the teleprompter, which then makes the Word Processor essential, which...

And in each of these cycles our entire way of visualizing life, the universe, our experiences, and our memories shift. Did Napoleonic War vets remember battles as newsreels? as paintings? as poetry?

Now, lets give "our field" the benefit of the doubt. Let's say that lots of schools are trying to get themselves current. People are going to Google Teacher Academies and iPad Academies and Intel Academies and EduCons and all, but these are catch up. We know they're catch up because they are almost always tied tightly to the present through their corporate sponsors. So, even if the tech is current, the cognition we're imagining is what led to that tech... in other words, we're back in the 1960s with Tom Wolfeand the modern origins of blogging, and the 1990s and the emergence of AIM.

Today, of course, our technology allows everyone to live in big complex cities. We can all meet globally. We are all impacted by the vast amount of information pouring in. Wherever we are we have more data coming at us than if we were standing in the middle of Times Square. And that is forcing a rapid change in cognition, communication, and memory.

Not everyone joins in, of course. There are people in New York who still speak Ukrainian. There are Americans who only watch FoxNews. There are Brits who hide away with The Mirror. None of this is new. American Mormons walked a thousand miles to hide out with their own kind in the 1840s. English Calvinists fled the Netherlands and religious pluralism in the 1620s. At every technological and cognitive turn there have been dissenters, and yet, things keep changing anyway.

And they will continue to change. We may not know the direction, but we know change will happen.

So, what would it look like if we're enabling the next instead of the present? Even concretely. So, lets face it, whatever I or anyone else says, tablets, iPads, laptops are transitional technologies. What happens to cognition, and to collective memory, when every student at every age has their phone in their hand linking them universally and able to connect both intimately and via projection? To look through augmented reality. To ask any question of anyone? These are actually present, if not yet ubiquitous, technologies. As they appear, and cognition changes, in, oh, 3 years, what do we, as educators do?

What happens to our teaching? Our spaces? Our curriculum? Do we really teach state history anymore? How many languages do we use and translate? Forget the "no teaching wall [pdf]," is there even a "teaching floor" - and what does that mean? Obviously age-based grades vanish... subjects? yeah, those too. But we're still not "there." The very notions of the "student" and the "teacher" are obviously altered. As information becomes more free, expertise becomes more distributed [5][pdf, and yes, trustable] and the controls of grade-level-expectations, standardized tests, and text-books become laughably irrelevant. Does our fixed time schedule - hours, periods, days, semesters - survive?

Is it possible to imagine a school which prepares students for their future? Which operates with, and builds skills for, the flexibility which humans require if they are to succeed when the world changes?

Can we imagine that? Can we train for it? Can we begin to implement it?

I'm asking because we need to do better. I was horrified this past weekend when I watched a University of Phoenix advertisement. OK, yeah, but... after promising this entire new concept of education, the ad ends with a Phoenix graduate teaching a primary school class that is absolutely traditional.

And talking about "how the world works now" is simply not enough. Because when our kids graduate, the world won't work that way anymore.

- Ira Socol

Comments are desperately sought, Part II (and further) depends on the conversation...

[1] Buckingham, D. (2008) Introducing Identity. In Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. MacArthur Foundation paper. p. 11
Buckingham, D. (2008) Introducing Identity. In Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. MacArthur Foundation paper. p. 12
[3] See Jonathan Crary (1992) Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century
[4] "Whereasthe Congressoftheunitedstates byaconcurrentresolutionadoptedon the4thdayofmarch last-authorizedthe Secretaryofwar to cause to be brought to theunitedstatesthe body of an American whowasamemberoftheAmericanexpeditionaryforceineuropewholosthis lifeduringtheworldwarandwhoseidentityhasnot beenestablished for burial inthememorialamphitheatreofthe nationalcemeteryatarlingtonvirginia

"In the tarpaper morgue at Chalons-sur-Marne in the reek of chloride of lime and the dead, they picked out the pine box that held all that was left of

"enie menie minie moe plenty of other pine boxes stacked up there containing what they’d scraped up of Richard Roe

"and other person or persons unknown. Only one can go. How did they pick John Doe? . . .

"how can you tell a guy’s a hundredpercent when all you’ve got’s a gunnysack full of bones, bronze buttons stamped with the screaming eagle and a pair of roll puttees?

". . . and the gagging chloride and the puky dirtstench of the yearold dead . . ."

[5] See James Paul Gee (2007) What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

26 July 2010

Freedom Day in America

"Literary works distributed in ebook format when all existing ebook editions of the work (including digital text editions made available by authorized entities) contain access controls that prevent the enabling either of the book’s read-aloud function or of screen readers that render the text into a specialized format." United State Copyright Office 

This is one huge paragraph. It's confusing and legalese, of course, its from the United States Government, but it changes a world of things for schools and students. It is a rare victory for human differences and human choice over the forces of corporate and individual [2] greed, and it is a bit of proof of what a change in elected leadership can accomplish... even when that leadership is essentially clueless on education.

US Copyright Law had been re-written in the last 20 years by corporate suits trying to preserve their profits forever. It is Mickey Mouse Law, literally - concerned with Disney and RIAA profits and not user rights or freedoms. I have the suspicion that, if they could have, those behind the Digital Millennium Copyright Act would have outlawed libraries - "You're going to lend that book to anyone? No way!"

The law was written in such a way that even if you owned a book, it was essentially illegal to convert that book into, say, an audiobook for a student, unless that student had a diagnosed "print disability." Of course, the US flatly refused to define "print disability," creating a nightmare of uncertainty for educators, and blocking effective use of either Universal Design for Learning or Response to Intervention when it came to reading.

Even when the publisher sold you a digital book, these limits remained in place.

Now, the United States Government has switched direction. In a wide ranging ruling slapping down Apple, mobile phone networks, the Author's Guild, and the Hollywood studios, the US Copyright Office said today that, essentially, ownership is ownership. You can take your device or purchased content and do with it what you may, as long as its a non-profit use.

So, now you can, quite legally, circumvent digital blocks which prevent books - including textbooks - from "speaking." In my - non-lawyerly - opinion, if that circumvention means the low-tech solution of reading the book onto a podcast, well, go to it if your student will benefit and - you own the book. Of course you can also use text-to-mp3 converters, whether paid, or free.

Most importantly, you can do this for any student. You don't need to diagnose them as having a pathology. If you think your eight-year-old will do better listening than reading, if your high school chemistry student might understand better by listening, you now have the right to convert the media, and give it a try.

It also means that you now absolutely must demand, with every book sale to your school, that an open digital version be included which can be used with any student. The law is now on your side.

Thanks Barack Obama. I think (and say) that your educational policies are doing real harm to America's kids, and my thinking on that hasn't changed, but this change is one very big example of the idea that elections matter. On the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, information gained a big bit of freedom today, and the need to be declared "disabled" dropped a bit. That matters.

- Ira Socol

[1] "At least 40 e-books from Random House, including major titles from Toni Morrison and Stephen King, can no longer use the Kindle 2's TTS feature to read the books aloud." Electronista 2009

[2] "If you have a new book contract and are negotiating your e-book rights, make sure Amazon's use of those rights is part of the dialog. Publishers certainly could contractually prohibit Amazon from adding audio functionality to its e-books without authorization, and Amazon could comply by adding a software tag that would prohibit its machine from creating an audio version of a book unless Amazon has acquired the appropriate rights. Until this issue is worked out, Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books." - The Authors' Guild in 2009

23 July 2010

Lord of the Flies: How Adults Create Bullying

All over America kids will read William Golding's Lord of the Fliesin school during the coming year. And in most of those "English" classes the interpretations sold by the teachers will blame the "nature of boys" for what happens in the story.

Let's look at what the Bellmore-Merrick School District (on New York's Long Island) has to say: (district picked randomly from Google search)
Ralph vs. Jack
Ralph represents order and composure in society. Eventually Jack grew tired of Ralph being in charge. He let the barbarism inside of him transform him into a savage-like creature and he went on a rampage, destroying the makeshift civilization the boys worked so hard to create.

Boys vs. Nature
The boys went hunting many times to try to keep themselves alive. At first, Ralph was afraid to kill the sow. Towards the end, Jack's warrior identity brutally murdered the sow and hung his [sic] head on a stick.

Boys vs. Piggy
Piggy represents the weak who are often victimized. The boys tortured him because he was fat and needed such thick glasses. His torture can also be considered a lack of understanding, because the boys had likely never met anyone with problems like his. This can be seen in the boys lack of understanding of asthma, or "ass-mar".

Jack vs. Society
The barbaric quality that arises in Jack throughout the book is really a rebellion against society. He grew tired of taking orders from Ralph and participating in the democratic system that they had. This sense of anarchy must have existed inside of him before the encounter on the island began, but his experiences served to bring it out of him.

The Need for Civilization and Order
Laws and rules are definitely necessary to keep the darker side of human nature in line. When all elements of civilization disappear on the island, the boys revert to a more primitive part of their nature, and they turn into savages and anarchy replaces democracy. Society holds everyone together, and with out civilization and rules, the boy's ideals, values, and basic ideas of what is right and wrong are forgotten, and the evils of human nature emerge. Bellmore-Merrick School District
When Lord of the Flies is taught this way, it encourages the adults in school to continue to behave as they do, and blames children, and their inherently evil nature, for all that is wrong in society. This, of course, is the tack taken by administrators such as Anthony Orsini who claims to run the Lord of the Flies Middle School in Ridgewood, NJ. And it lies at the heart of how bullying is usually combatted in our schools.

But what if we asked different questions about this book?
Who organized the choir? Who suggested to the choir that they were superior to other students? Are there any groups in our school organized like the choir? Who organizes those groups?
How did the boys learn that Piggy was fat? That fat is bad? How did the boys learn that spectacles or the inability to run fast are signs of weakness?
Where did the boys learn how to humiliate other boys? Is this innate? 

Who taught the boys about the idea of uniforms, and the value of looking the same?
Are the boys "turning into savages" or are they recreating the hierarchy of the British Public School? (and, of course, here you will have to explain what a British Public School is...)
Public School products Cameron and Clegg are
leading the effort to move education funds from needy
students to wealthy students
and profit-based school operators.
In other words, what if these children were viewed as products of their society? What if what is being revealed is not the "nature of children," but the most trained behaviours. What if Ralph can be seen, as the story begins, as "natural childhood" - trusting, cooperative, believing in fairness, and what emerges later on is the British aristocracy - brutal, bullying, uniform in appearance, colonialist, and lacking empathy or even pity?

What might that suggest about school-based anti-bullying efforts?

I've blogged about this before. I've suggested that when we see bullying in schools we are usually seeing the results of adult labours. Adults create the hierarchies which create bullying. Adults decide which students will be deemed as superior, and which will be seen as inferior. From [American] football teams to cheerleaders to honour rolls and band camps, school and community adults divide children up and assign them a status position. Parents verbalize intolerance of differences - especially social class differences and body-type differences - and children learn these. Teachers humiliate students who are different: via homework, via calling on students, via grades, even via papers returned publicly ("please pass these back..."). Schools add to this through Special Education designations and methods of dealing with free and reduced lunches. Community members all across America tell football players and basketball players that they are more valuable than, say, soccer players or the drama club, or the kid interested in abstract art or maths. And, everyone else, from our news media to our political leaders, demonstrate daily that bullying is the way to behave.

And then, when children imitate those adults, and demonstrate that they've learned the important lessons, we blame the kids, or their phones, or Facebook.
"During the late nineteenth century the new imperialism had taken hold as European nations competed for new' lands, particularly in Africa. Indeed, there was very much a feeling of superiority amongst Europeans; the idea that the races of other nations were inferior to their own, and that they therefore had a right to claim these lands as their own and attempt to civilise' the people.

"This was very much the ethos of British public schools in which the notion of a muscular Christianity' was regarded as the ideal. Following Christian principles was regarded as important, as was a masculinity characterised by great physical strength. Thus sports, such as rugby, formed a great part of the curriculum and helped embody a sense of team spirit in the boys." Michelle Wilkinson
Golding, the non-public school attending son of a socialist headmaster, writing in the aftermath of the World War that had seen educated Europe descend into a nightmare, probably made his characters "public school" students for a specific reason. He was all too aware of how "the best brought up" children of his continent had just behaved.

So as you read Lord of the Flies with your students this coming year, ask them to ask different questions. And when you see bullies in your school, ask where they have learned that behaviour.

Children do learn, after all. And mostly, they learn by watching us.

- Ira Socol

Two Williams College profs tackled the same issue in today's New York Times.

22 July 2010

What I wish Bill Gates had learned about education from Microsoft

Bill Gates loves being a celebrity "expert," and, if you track Race-to-the-Top funding, you'll see that US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks Bill Gates is "the expert" on education.

Now, if Bill Gates was discussing business development or how to create a lifetime plan for philanthropy, I think he has great credibility. But in terms of education, I'm just not sure.

On the subjects Gates does discuss these days, I generally doubt his credentials.  He never really was a software engineer - that was Paul Allen at first, along with thousands who "contributed" their ideas to the Microsoft well. He's not much of an expert on global diseases, though he surely knows how to collect people around him who do - and that's a powerful thing. And he really has no experience or even constructed knowledge of education - having never really been much involved in it - even as a student (being a very rich, very smart kid with a powerful lawyer daddy rarely prepares you for understanding deep issues of American society - there are exceptions - Bobby and Ted Kennedy, John Lindsey, a few others, but one listen to Bill Gates Sr. and you'll realize that the young Bill had none of those influences).

What most frustrates me is that Gates doesn't even seem to have learned the lessons which his company could have taught him. It is a classic case of a smart person letting what he doesn't know overwhelm what he does, which is turning out sad for all of us.

The Gates Foundation hustles a "New Industrial Order" for American education. Rather than big 19th Century factories, Bill and friends want smaller contemporary factories. But they still want factories. Bill wants the same product for everyone, everywhere. He wants mass production with heavy quality control testing. He wants lots of managers and fewer workers - and the workers he wants will be programmed industrial robots (which are what scripted Teach for America teachers are).

Thus, he has failed to learn anything from what Microsoft has been best at, or from how Microsoft's products are used out in the real world.

What are the Microsoft Lessons for Education?

1. Finding trumps knowing: When Bill Gates promised IBM a micro-computer operating system, he and Paul Allen didn't create one, Paul found one, QDOS, cleaned it up a bit, and sold it to Big Blue. This is the rough equivalent of promising the teacher that you'll get your paper done, then going online and buying one.

But that makes it a seminal moment in the information age. What mattered here is that Paul Allen had a skill no one at IBM did, he knew where and how to find what he needed. The entire Microsoft empire, and the Gates Foundation, stems from Paul Allen's search abilities.

2. Learning doesn't take place via lessons: Neither Gates nor Allen knew anything about business. They knew nothing about office productivity. They were hardly even the top micro-computer programmers. But through the projects they had, they built a huge knowledge base and a huge skill set. Allen, a loner by nature, learned to collaborate brilliantly. Gates, an awkward nerd, learned how to work the business world, all because they were interested in something else.

3. There are loads of ways to do things: Ever since Microsoft stole the "Mouse" idea (GUI) from Apple (which had stolen it from Xerox) Microsoft products have let people interact with their computers in all sorts of ways. Want mouse clicks on icons? fine. Quick Keys? fine. Drop down menus? fine. Mouse Keys? fine. Whatever. Going back to Windows95 and Office95 there have been a whole bunch of different paths to whatever you were doing. Unlike the Mac systems back then ("click here") or crap like WordPerfect, this was not about any "preferred technique" but personal choice.

I think the educational lesson here is obvious.

4. People fall behind and they race ahead, where you are at any moment really doesn't matter: Microsoft has been at the "top of the world" a bunch of times, and down in the dumps. Think of the headiest moments of Apple's success, say, while Microsoft was trying to create Windows to catch up. Think of their struggles with phone platforms. And compare those lows with the smash moments - Windows95, WindowsXP, or "winning" the "browser wars" of the last century.

Schools, of course, and especially "Gates-style" "accountability-centered" schools, don't let kids race ahead and fall behind. They have expectations for each year. And those expectations make failure permanent.

5. The blank sheet is better: I go way back with Personal Computers. And sometime in the late 1980s I remember loading 30 or 40 big floppy disks (what I later called, "the 45-rpm ones") into an IBM PC-AT in order to install the "Smart" software package. Back then Smart was better than Microsoft's Word or Excel because they were the massive "blank sheets" on which us early "application developers" could do "anything." Smart also let us cross boundaries, integrating the word processor and spreadsheet with the data managers, which allowed me to begin building the first NYPD precinct-based data systems for staff, for crime reports, for community interactions. (I had first worked with computers during the "MDT" (Mobile Digital Terminal) roll-out a few years earlier.) Police Administrative Aides could type in one word at the C:\ prompt and up would pop a "window" in which they could choose their database, enter data, and print reports with spell-checked headers.

Microsoft learned though, and within a couple of years Office appeared (at first for Macintosh) breaking down the boundaries, and letting creativity run.

If only Gates understood this lesson, he'd stop trying to control schools from the top down and would fully embrace individually sponsored innovation in multi-age cross-curricular environments. He'd give teachers and students more blank pages, and fewer administrators and rules.

6. It takes educators to let learners use the tools in front of them. Most users of Microsoft software use them as Apple wants the iPhone used, accepting the default setup as a permanent thing. Yes, people add "apps" to their computers, and make meaningless cosmetic changes (the desktop background) but I'd bet fewer than 10% of PC users really alter functions - in Windows or in Office. I'm constantly shocked that so few even alter default fonts or font sizes in Word, much less use tools like Auto-Correct or alter settings for spelling and grammar checks. Three quarters of the Windows Vista and Windows 7 users I've run across don't know they have Speech Recognition available. Most have never even thought of changing their keyboard to something more comfortable.

Microsoft offers a world of choices, but without guides to these choices, with education in how to make choices, the choices aren't used.

Which is a fine metaphor for why Microsoft's Philadelphia School of the Future failed so badly in its first incarnation, Gates and pals completely missed the need for empowered teachers who would empower students. Somebody, it seems, forgot that kids from traditional schools would have to "learn how to learn," and learn how to work with technology.

There is another metaphor in Windows' "openness." Windows crashes more often than Mac O/S because people can plug anything they feel like into it. Components need not be of a particular quality, or made by a particular company, or cost a certain amount. But you can plug it in. Just as you can write software without approval for PCs. And the system tries to tolerate it all, though it often fails to do so easily.

But, like knowing how to personalize, knowing how to get components to work together requires a real learning effort, with a real mentoring effort alongside that.

I really think that if Bill had absorbed these lessons, his foundation wouldn't be damaging more kids than it is helping. So Bill, please look back. Please reconsider. Please stop funding managers and assaulting teachers. That's not the way to help.

- Ira Socol

12 July 2010

Inexperience and Reproduction

Most of you know that at one point, in what I call a former life, I was a police officer in New York City. Luckily, I believe, I began my job there in the days before Rudy Giuliani twisted the concept of New York policing into what I tend to describe as a neo-fascist control system.

I started thinking about this as I read a New York Times article about policing in one part of Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood. And I began thinking about education too. 

"Sure we have order, but at what price!'' - Milhouse in the Simpson's famous "Bart the Hall Monitor" episode

Three basic ideas come through in this NYT piece: One is the value of trained and experienced people when "society" (the dominant societal group definition) intersects with social groups which are somehow "different." The second is the nature of "difference" itself. The third - what actions can change?

For the first idea, the question is, can we bring differing peoples in without being colonialists? For the second the question is, can we have identity while still being part of a whole? For the third, what should we be investing in?

"The school is a police state. Students are afraid to sneeze. And I have you to thank."- Principal Skinner to Hall Monitor Bart Simpson, Separate Vocations 


In both policing and education there is a constant tension between the desire of the powerful for "social reproduction" (Rudy Giuliani wanted New York to be "One City" where everyone behaved like an Upper East Side white conservative, KIPP wants to make sure all minority students know how to "act white") and the need to craft a new and better society. When this line is walked well it is usually by mixing a few common needs (laws against murder and robbery, a common core of knowledge) with a wide range of both group and individual adaptation. When I joined the NYPD it's 75 precincts (OK, OK, back then it was just 73) all operated very differently, based on community needs, and within even that "justice" and "policing" was a very individual things, built up by an apprenticeship system in which new cops learned the precinct and its people from experienced officers, and thus knew how to approach and deal with different individuals. "It ain't one city," a lieutenant once told me, "it's 8 million cities, plus all the commuters and tourists." Just like - standardized tests and educational statistics be damned - your school isn't one school, your class isn't one class: you have a community of individual learners.

If you are building a better city, or building a better generation, you do that by engaging and empowering individuals. If you are attempting social reproduction, you are concerned with enforcing common codes efficiently. If you are building a better city or a better generation you are adapting rules so that they work to support individual needs. If you are attempting social reproduction you are creating rules for the benefit of the power structure.
(White Plains Road in the 47 at right >>)
Now, the Giuliani idea, still embraced today (though routinely simultaneously denied) by the Bloomberg administration, was that social reproduction was the goal because society divides into superior and inferior sections, and the only way to improve society is to force the norms of the superior group onto the inferior group. Thus Rudy was deeply annoyed that officers in a neighborhood like the 47th Precinct would accept that kids would hang out on the street at night or might smoke pot outside. These behaviours just weren't acceptable on East 75th Street in Manhattan (at right >>).

We cops argued that we knew better. We knew the norms of our communities. We had learned them the hard way, by day-after-day and night-after-night of interacting with our neighbors. We knew that life was really hard for most of our community, and that most of our community wanted things safe and relatively peaceful, and we had no interest in antagonizing any of those people for picking on them by harassing them for - in a literal take from the Times article - crap like "spitting on the sidewalk." "Why would you want to bust their chops?" a veteran cop told me early on, "We want them on our side." "Never give a ticket to a guy if kids are in the car," another veteran told me, "The dad drives away cursing you and you just made two generations of enemies. Say "be careful" and leave them alone and you've made two generations of friends."

Of course we didn't think we were superior to the residents of our precincts, we realized that we were much like them, just luckier to be a few generations removed from the ghettoes ourselves.

In the same way good teachers know that there can be, for example, very different forms of story telling, reading, and writing. In the same way good teachers vary their lesson plans based on student needs and response. In the same way one evaluation method (say, a test, or homework completion) might be very telling about one student and completely irrelevant when applied to another.

Of course this requires training and knowledge. If you believe in social reproduction instead, enforcement or teaching is best carried out by automatons who will simply do as they are told - or, in reality - by these rookie cops in New York or the untrained Teach for America resume builders in schools.
"The United States Supreme Court established the legal basis for stops and frisks — reasonable suspicion of a crime — in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio. But the officer in that case had a far different level of experience than many of the officers walking the streets of Brownsville. He had patrolled the same streets of downtown Cleveland for 30 years looking for pickpockets and shoplifters.
"By comparison, the nearly 200 officers who operate in the neighborhood as part of Mr. Kelly’s “Impact Zone” program — flooding problematic crime pockets with a battery of police — are largely on their first assignment out of the academy.
"The data show the initiative is conducted aggressively, sometimes in what can seem like a frenzy. During one month — January 2007 — the police executed an average of 61 stops a day." - The New York Times
These rookie cops in Brownsville lack the veterans to surround them and say, "don't do that kid." Just as the Teach for America "corps" lack the experience in ed schools which might lead to systemic doubt. And both abuse with their consistency, especially abusing the most vulnerable.

But it works if you've been born into the winning class and want to make sure you stay there. Because it pretty much guarantees that those "on the bottom" cannot possibly catch up - they are starting behind, and by forcing them onto the same path trod by their better born competitors, you are keeping them behind.

Breaking the mold of society, breaking the traps minorities fall into requires new paths, and new power structures. In policing it requires police-community cooperation on goals and tactics, and it requires investment in things other than policing (if you read the Times story you might wonder why so many cops and so few locksmiths, intercom repair people, and housing corridor cleaners, for example). In schools it requires learner-teacher collaboration which finds the best way for kids to get where they need to go.

But both require individual vision, and both require massive training and hard experience, and "shortcuts" are just an excuse for not doing the right thing.

- Ira Socol

06 July 2010

What schools can learn from football/soccer and the Tour de France

It's a great moment in the sports calendar for me. A summer with the FIFA World Cup overlapping the Tour de France. I could write about how new technology like Verizon's VCast brings sports events like this to my mobile phone, which is great because, with very few exceptions, I refuse to let "life" stop for a sporting event I'm not participating in ("work" can stop, but you can't skip family events or relationship stuff or friends' needs for things like this), but what is more important is what these sports demonstrate, and how they differ from "traditional American sports," and from the cultures of our schools.

I was sitting with my not-quite-father-in-law, a Midwestern American who had really never seen soccer before meeting me, and as I explained things, I realized - again - how different the world's football game is from the sports which developed in the United States. Different in continuity of action. Different in what is prized in athletes. Different in an understanding of the rules. Different in expectations - and obligations - to spectators. And vastly different in organization.

It isn't just that Americans are troubled the soccer games don't stop so that they can get another beer from the bridge or hit the loo. Or that Americans are horrified that the game doesn't stop so the referee can tell the crowd exactly what just happened. Or that the ambiguity of the game clock is inconceivable to Americans raised on a culture of "3-2-1" countdowns. There are fundamental conceptual things which make both soccer, and cycling, a whole 'nother thing. A thing, which we, as educators, can learn from.

(1) Winning looks like a lot of different things: In football, as it is played in most nations, there are lots of winners. There is usually a season champion in each league or level - the team which amasses the most points over the course of all the games. This is "the big deal" everywhere but North America, where the "regular season championship" means nothing. Then there is a National Cup, a competition open to virtually any team - a vast elimination battle but one in which everyone can participate, and in which "success" is measured against expectations. And then there is a League Cup, a competition for the three or four top level teams, kind of like an "open" playoff.

But there is more. Here is the Southampton Football Club celebrating finishing 17th in the English Premier League in 1999. Yes, 17th. But 17th is "survival" in that league. The teams which finish 1-17 get to stay in the top league, 18-19-20 get sent down to the next lower level of competition (replaced by the top teams from the league below). So 17th can feel mighty good for teams struggling. There are also places in the Champions League and the Europa League to be won.

Likewise in the Tour de France, where winners are celebrated at every stage and for every thing - overall, young, sprinters, mountain climbers, et al.  By the time the Tour winds up over 100 riders might have been declared "winners" of one sort or another.

In the US, of course, the Buffalo Bills, an "American Football" NFL team which remains the only team to ever appear in four consecutive Super Bowls, is regarded as the ultimate loser team because they failed to win those championship playoffs. In the US, and in traditional schooling, there are few winners and many losers. See the horror expressed by many Americans when even the idea of "Class Valedictorian" is expanded.

Think about your school - where's your "King of the Mountains" jersey? Where's your party for finishing 17th?

(2) Not everyone does the same thing or is judged in the same way: In the Tour de France some of the greatest bicycle riders on the planet enter without any expectation - any thought - of winning, or really, even trying to win as individuals. They are there to support their teammates. Likewise, in football, many players can go through many seasons without scoring a goal, or perhaps, without taking a shot - their only statistical line being "minutes played."

We expect very different things from Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose, for example. Not because there are different rules for different positions (as, say, in the NFL or American League Baseball), but because people are different, athletes are different, and differing skills, capabilities, and interests create differing ways to contribute... but... unlike basketball or hockey, you still "play the whole game" in soccer and in road bicycling. You don't only play offense or defense or as a penalty killer. You can't just be put in to "give a foul" or spell a star. Once you are in, you are in, and everything that comes at you is yours to deal with.

The idea that we expect the same thing from every student (United States) or that we assign specific futures to certain students (the classic European model) are both anti-human and anti-potential. Students need to be given the opportunity to discover how they - individually - will succeed. And our measurements cannot be universal "standards" - they must be based in the individual.

(3) Failure is short, the game is long: Nobody likes John Terry much. OK. But John Terry demonstrated something essential a couple of years ago in a Premier League match. Early in that match, defending on the goal line, Terry's attempted header clearance turned into an "own goal" (that is, he scored against his own team). That is a major failure. But later in the game, there was Terry again, on the goal line again, this time heading away a potential go ahead goal from the opposition.

Because neither soccer nor road cycling stop, you may screw up but you have no time to sulk, no time to go into a funk - you have to just keep going.

I always told the soccer teams that I coached that if you get beat while playing defense the only response is to get yourself back into position to try to stop the next opposition move. The only response to a bad cross or shot is to try a better cross or shot. In US sports the action stops and your coach pulls you out of the game or tells you what to do next time. But in soccer, in cycling, you learn to keep yourself in the game - failure after failure.

We need to help students learn to stay "in our games." To allow failure to seem very important - except as a motivator and lesson learned. When "the cost of failure" is lowered, education can occur.

(4) There are many possible paths: In road cycling, in football, there are many strategies. Different teams make different choices, choices which are not "right" or "wrong" but which seem to be the best fit for the athletes involved. Could England play like Brasil? Probably not. Do Tour de France teams vary their efforts according to the strengths of their top riders? Of course. And when coaching fails miserably, it is often the result of a dramatic mismatch between a coach's pre-ordained belief system and the skills and styles of his/her athletes.

So there are no "middle school planners" in these sports. No "scripted instruction." The training sessions will never look the same between teams. Good coaches speak to different players differently. Because humans and humans. And no two humans are alike.

- Ira Socol

03 July 2010

Learning the Names of the World

Primary teachers know this. Good secondary and post-secondary teachers know this. Some businesses even know this. But way too many people around this planet can't figure it out.

It is insulting to be called by the wrong name, or to have your name mispronounced, or misspelled.

Insulting and demeaning for kids, for teens, for adults, and yes, for nations and peoples. For all of these, misnomers are an assault on identity.

That said, watching the World Cup 2010 this summer (northern hemisphere) I am hoping that we are slowly moving towards solving a long-term pet peeve of mine. Calling other nations by bizarre, antique, mis-names, something which works against international understanding in every way.

Because, lets be clear, there is no nation which calls itself "Germany," or even "Italy." No "Allemagne" or "Angleterre." Not even a "Brazil" or a "Netherlands." For that matter, there are no cities named "Vienna," or "Rome," or "Londres," either.

All of these misspellings and mispronunciations are ancient hangovers of beliefs in limited language learning capability and in homeland superiority. We didn't want to struggle with learning names in different languages, and we didn't think it was important.

But we're all part of one big globe these days, like it or not, and it is time we started thinking it's important. Especially in schools.

Google Maps made a huge leap about three years ago when their different national versions all started using actual nation names all across the map.

And we should not accept any (non-historical) maps in our schools which fail to embrace this idea. This was brought home for me at the 2006 Winter Olympics when NBC sportscasters struggled to figure out why the Finnish hockey team had "Suomi" written on their sweaters. Now "Finland" is not an "English made up name," it is what that nation is called by its Swedish-speaking minority, but "Suomi" is the name of the nation in "Suomi" - the language of 92% of the residents of that nation. I was so frustrated by this that I worked with kids on a project called "Naming the World" (below) where we tried to figure out (a) the names of nations, (b) what people called themselves, (c) what people called their language. As the project went along lots of other questions got answered as well.

As we watch the World Cup, as we see what the nations "look like," (the diversity of Deutschland, Nederland, France, the vast difference between neighbors Argentina and Paraguay), we can also start to hear the voices of these different peoples, and we can learn their names.

We have all the tools now. We have Google Maps and Wikipedia in all its languages. We have Google translate and online dictionaries with audio. There is no real excuse. If this idea is new to you, learn with your students.

Whatever nation you are in, in this century we are raising citizens of the world. Help them get there by helping all of us call people by their real names.

- Ira Socol