26 February 2011

Choosing Not to Create Change

I was on a panel Thursday morning in Minneapolis. One of the panelists was the director of Teach for America in Minneapolis/St. Paul. And he and I, well, yes, we clashed. The clash did not dominate the event, but I think it was there for all to see.

The topic was technology, so I'm still struggling to figure out why Daniel Sellers was there, beyond talking about videotaping teachers so they could "become more proficient."

But something Mr. Sellers said at the end, struck me. He agreed with my assessment that "schools are designed to fail students," noting that just two weeks ago in Washington he had heard someone say that, "you could not design a worse system." But then he insisted that was not where our efforts should go. "The kids we work with can't wait," he said.

So, instead of fighting to redesign the system, Mr. Sellers offers, hmmm, untrained teachers?

TFA collected $149 million last year
. They expect to collect $189 million this year. They are an organization with constant access to the US Secretary of Education, the President of the United States, and powerful governors and mayors, and... they choose to do nothing.

Let's just point out that over the span 2007-2011 alone, the money spent on TFA - not on teacher salaries (which are paid by school districts) but on TFA operations alone, could have bought a million kids their choice of a laptop, an iPad, or a really smart phone.

But that's not the critical point, with all this access to power, Wendy Kopp, like Michelle Rhee, Sellers, et al, have deliberately chosen to not challenge the system at all.

Our schools are designed to filter students out and preserve the status quo wealth structure.
Millworkers, 1910, Knoxville, Tennessee
Though Wendy Kopp was 'well-enough endowed' as a 21-year-old at Princeton to be able to connect to Ross Perot and other billionaires, though Michelle Rhee had all the connections in the world, though the composite Teach for America corps of any year is born with more connections than Verizon makes each year, these people who are (the self-proclaimed) "so passionate about education" have chosen not to challenge anything about the educational system except the idea that teachers begin to do their best work after about three years in the classroom.

Why? Why, if they know that schools are a bad design, if they have all this collective power, have they chosen to take a billion and a half (or so) dollars over the past two decades and change nothing?

Because they cannot conceive of themselves being in the position of their students.

So I went back to this audio file, Michelle Rhee laughing about causing her 8-year-old students to bleed because she was so completely unready - as a first year TFA corpsmember - to be left alone with children.

Why was she laughing? Because, again, neither she nor Wendy Kopp, nor Daniel Sellers, nor anyone on the Teach for America board of directors, can imagine themselves, or their children or grandchildren, in that classroom with that TFA teacher.

Their children and grandchildren sit safely away, as they did as children, from these kinds of troubles. Which is why they choose missionary work rather than the political work of creating change.

That plus self-interest.

Because when the wealth elite of the US can convince the public that all our problems can be solved if only we stopped training teachers, and paid them less, and privatized schools, they have succeeded in preserving their position at the top of the steep American income-distribution pyramid for the rest of this century.

Wendy Kopp has done a great job for her 'home team" - those families who can afford to pay full tuition for their daughter at Princeton. She has diverted massive energy, and considerable money, away from things which might actually give a much higher proportion of students a chance at success. Wendy, Michelle, Daniel, they have all done their best to ensure that the status quo in American education - and thus wealth distribution - never changes.

Look carefully folks, this is the top-third of the pyramid
Unlike those of us who discuss abandoning age-based grades, or testing for compliance, or might use donor money to make schools available for parent-learning, or who might infuse schools with contemporary technologies which would allow for individualization and support for the widest range of learners, Teach for America speaks all day about high standards and classroom management and modeling a behavior system. They love tests (Mr. Sellers' profile is all about the test scores of his two-year teaching "career" where he claims to have, "essentially eliminat[ed] the achievement gap between his students and their peers in wealthier communities."). They prepare their teachers for traditional classrooms. They work every day to, essentially, keep the system the same because that is the system which has worked for themselves.

"Back then the prevailing notion—backed up by all of the research at the time—was that students' socioeconomic backgrounds determined their educational outcomes.," says Kopp in a depressingly unchallenging Mother Jones interview. And that is more true today then it was "back then" when Kopp began Teach for America. In fact, social mobility has slowed to a trickle, the funding gap between rich and poor classrooms has increased, and those Ivy League schools have become less and less economically diverse.

And through it all, Kopp and friends have offered us exactly what? By grabbing not just the media attention, but a huge amount of public cash as well, what they have offered us is protection for the status quo.

Some of us choose to try to create change. Some of us choose not to.

- Ira Socol

21 February 2011

Cairo, Bahrain, Wisconsin: Teaching Democracy

How do you bring the controversies of the world into your classroom?

And why is it important to do so?

Democracy can only survive if citizens can successfully interact with each other and if they are able to successfully interact with information. And both things need to be practiced.

Different cultures have different forms of debate, and different comfort levels with debate. And so different students begin in different places. My child, raised in a family and culture where "political combat" is both art and game will enter this differently than the children of parents in Zeeland, Michigan who would not let their kids trick or treat at houses with Democratic Party campaign signs.

But wherever the starting point is, we need to carefully support listening skills, research skills, crap detecting, and a level of discourse that may find ideas repugnant, but not people.

That is, we must hear each other, we must research our positions widely, we must refuse to accept emotion or nonsense as facts, and we must respect our fellow citizens.

A vital resource on this is Teaching on Controversial Issues by Alan Shapiro.  Shapiro's opening advice, "A good citizen questions, informs himself or herself, thinks issues through, reaches conclusions, and participates in public life. A good teacher helps students to understand that controversy is the lifeblood of democracy, to learn how to inquire into past and current controversial issues that are meaningful to them, and to participate in public life," lies at the heart of the citizenship education we hear so much about.

Shapiro's last article, on the WikiLeaks controversy, provides a great model.

If we do not practice, we will end up with, well, the absurd level of debate we have currently in the United States, where up to two million people a night watch Glenn Beck uncritically and every politician we don't like is "Hitler" or "Stalin."

So step one: Prepare: We don't just begin the discussion, we ask students both what they think and why they think that.  When we do this it enables us to ask them to search both for information which supports their beliefs and information which challenges those ideas. You can't just say, Unions have rights, you need to explain why (yes, the United States has agreed to the right to collective bargaining by international treaty) and you need to understand the controversy. You can't just say, "Wisconsin can't afford it," or, "taxes are too high," you have to explain what that means, and what Wisconsin can afford, and what taxes are.

Step two is discuss and listen: We need to model an important behavior here. Argument can be impassioned without becoming abusive. If your student's father or mother is in Afghanistan, the military base in Bahrain might seem, might be, more important to you than Bahrainis voting. That does not make you evil, it means you are making a self-interested decision, which, we all tend to do in certain political situations. If you believe that Bahraini democracy is more important than potential disruptions to US military operations, that does not make you anti-American - rather suggests a different understanding on "American interests." Here, your role, your behavior, your actions within the classroom, as the teacher, truly make a difference. You have to decide how opinions you express, how reactions you have, will impact the conversation. If you say, "I worry about how a different Egyptian government might treat Israel..." or "I could lose 10% of my salary..." or "My son is a Marine in Afghanistan..." will that fundamentally change how your students debate this?

And as we discuss, Step three, is to challenge: It is essential that we raise a generation of doubters. Just tonight on Twitter I responded to a statement about the evil of Mao's regime in China by wondering if the "industrial revolution" Mao presided over was more deadly - proportionately - than the equivalent industrial revolutions in the United Kingdom 1700-1900? After all, in just one decade 12% of the population of British ruled Ireland died and a third fled. I don't bring that up because moral equivalency is an argument, but because perspective is. In another Twitter moment I asked why a teacher badmouthing her students on Facebook was worse than what New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie or US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said about teachers? "Are you defending [the teacher]?" I was asked. "No," I said, but I wonder how we apply rules only from the bottom up.

So it is vital that students challenge statements. In fact, the more "accepted" a statement is, the more important it is for the doubt, the challenge, to be welcome. I don't care if the statement is, "the deficit is huge" (I don't know, is it? historically? internationally?) or "democracy is good" (let's define democracy, first, then, really? does it always work out?), it should require defense based on "real" information.

And when challenged, we need to expect better than we get from many of our current "leaders." We need to raise a next generation of leaders who can handle disagreement intelligently, and can provide workable defenses for their positions, or even, gosh, show an ability to change their minds based on new information.

If we can't raise the next generation to be better than this
angry, sarcastic, no facts form of argument, we're doomed

The politics of controversy in the classroom are complex, but if we are to continue to succeed as a society we better get better at it. And we need to convince our students that they can do a much better job than "we," or their parents, have done as generations.

- Ira Socol

16 February 2011

Experience another way to vote

This week students in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain have a chance to learn something significant about "democracy." That is, they can learn that not all nations think of democracy as "we" do, and that not all elections are won simply by "the person with the most votes."

Next week the Republic of Ireland will hold a General Election for the 31st Dail, that nation's primary legislative body. And your classes can follow it all via news sources such as The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Irish Examiner, or RTE, as well as via the statistical record for elections - Elections Ireland.

Why watch what how a tiny (less than 4 million people) European nation votes? Because it will show students that the way things work in "their" nation is not inevitable - it is the result of choices, and definitions.

Ireland does not have "First Past The Post" (FPTP) voting. That's what elections in the United States, Canada, and national elections in the United Kingdom are. The candidate with the most votes wins. Which is why an American student, asked to define "democracy," will often say, "majority rule."

Of course, with a few exceptions, like Louisiana, "majority rule" in the US, Canada, or the UK, is "plurality rule." Candidates need not get a majority of votes to win. Thus, Canada is ruled by a right-wing government chosen by 37.65% of the voters in competition with four leftist parties, and the United Kingdom is led by a Prime Minister backed by 36.1% of the voters. France utilizes a "second round" of voting - the top two candidates in the first round meet unless someone has won a majority.

Now, an Irish student might not define "democracy" as "majority rules." In fact, they might say that democracy is protection of the minority - an important concept in Ireland.

Irish elections operate under a system called "Single Transferable Vote/Multi-Member Constituencies," and are, by design, protective of minority opinion. Each legislative district choices 3 to 5 members of the Dail. Each party may run several candidates within that district. And voters rank the candidates in order of preference on the ballot.

The ballot to elect five "TDs" - Members of the national legislature - from Wicklow in 2002 (Trinity College)
It is almost unheard of for any party to sweep a constituency. The most any party might expect would be to win 3 of 5 seats. Thus, while in American congressional districts many, sometimes 49% or more, feel unrepresented, and in Canada and Great Britain this often approaches two-thirds, in Ireland it is highly likely that someone you voted for was elected. Wicklow, above, elected representatives from three different parties in the last General Election, and over 40,000 out of 64,000 voters had their first choice elected. This might produce a much stronger feeling of having a real voice in government.

2007 Results, Wicklow Constituency
Wicklow is a kind of conservative place, and the top vote getters reflect that, both being from Fianna Fail, the dominant 20th Century party. But if you were a left-wing Labour Party voter, you had your woman in office. And if you were a Fine Gael voter, you are also represented.

The result has been many, many coalition governments over the years, with it increasingly difficult for one party to achieve a majority. These coalitions might tilt left or right, but tend to be less extreme in philosophy than a single party might be - like, say - US Congressional Republicans. That might either leave Ireland stable or slow-to-react, depending on your view.

(Coalition and collaboration often have a bad connotation in the United States, but I like to point out that the French Fourth Republic, much maligned for the instability of its left-center coalitions, rebuilt the nation's transport and university systems after World War II, introduced universal health care, and created the European peace we know today.) 

In your class...

This is a chance to compare, contrast, debate, wonder. What might your national government look like if chosen by the Irish system? Perhaps you could combine the five Congressional or Parliamentary districts/constituencies/ridings around your school and see what the total votes in the last election might indicate. Perhaps you could hold an election in your school using this system. Perhaps hold two votes for the same positions, one "the American way" and one "the Irish way" and see how the results differ.

Challenge your students to consider how changing voting systems might change democracy. Might change a nation and a society. After all, just because we have very old voting systems, need not suggest that we don't have choices (the UK will get a choice this year).

And then, follow the math (now we're interdisciplinary), watch the results flow at Elections Ireland, follow the math from Wikipedia. The Irish electoral count is slow and complicated, but that's OK, we don't all need results on Election night as CNN insists.

- Ira Socol

14 February 2011

Passion-Based Learning

"we are assuming (1) that learning takes place best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests as well as "subjects" form a realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them."
- Alan Shapiro and Neil Postman 1969-1970

We spend so much time telling the kids in our schools that we are not interested in them, and somehow we think they should be interested in us.

This is not really a teacher issue, though there are teachers who do this. This is mostly a societal and government issue. People accuse me of having a 30,000 foot (10,000 meter) view of education at times, and maybe so, but its a clearer picture than any seen in US State Capitols, or in Arne Duncan's US Department of Education, or in Canberra, or Westminster, or in any of those places where they talk tests and measurement and "Core Knowledge." Unlike all the people in those places, I can see the kids' faces. I can see their boredom. I can see their disdain. I can see them adopt the role of Prisoner of War in a battle our politicians and wealthy and powerful are having with our own children.

We expect kids to learn to read by giving them meaningless exercises and meaningless stories. We expect kids to learn to write by assigning them things no sane human would ever want to write. We expect them to sit in one place when they don't want to do that. We expect them to be interested in history without ever connecting it to their lives. We ask 21st Century teens to read Ethan Fromme and A Separate Peace.

And yet, we dismiss almost everything about their world - their interests, the things they most wonder about, the things they need to know, they way they need to move. We act not just as if we are disinterested, but as if we profoundly distrust kids, and really don't like them very much.

Project-Based Learning is the "How," Passion-Based Learning is the "Why"

The essential flaw in our form of education is expressed in this statement about the purpose of Teach for America's 5-week summer training "institute," "which builds skills in delivering lessons and managing a classroom."  I quote them because they are the teacher training program most beloved by the United State Secretary of Education, and because they are willing to be very blunt about their incredibly low expectations for teaching1, but the real message from too many colleges of education isn't that far from that - "deliver" content knowledge, while "managing" the classroom - and after that, take care of the needs of children.

This turns teachers into a sad combination of parcel delivery people and boot camp sergeants. It turns kids into sullen, passive receivers. It leaves those kids without strong support for passion-based learning at home, way behind. And - it divides kids into the compliant - those who will win in education, those most like their teachers - and the non-compliant - those we really want to kick out of school.2

Project-Based Learning crosses boundaries of age, development, current capabilities, and our ridiculous divisions of content, and gives a wide range of students a chance. But Passion-Based Learning, passion-based projects, brings kids in, by exploiting the natural curiosities of humans, and by not squelching the learning styles kids have built before they come to school.

Any entry point is good

I don't care if it is racing Hot Wheels cars, playing a first-person shooter video game, building a house, wondering about weird food, or jumping on a trampoline, you have an entry point for a project, and thus a whole range of "curricular" learning.

you may want to skip the hypothesis, and stick with observation

Hot Wheels? You have physics, math, geometry, the history of transportation, automobiles and wheels, the art of industrial design, car-related music, and a rich literature on human movement. Playing video games? You have the science of the game itself, the origins of the art, the physics of the human control v what occurs in the game, a world of interesting mathematics, the history of games, the literature of conflict. Building a house? "The students spent last year learning how to calculate quantities for building supplies, building stairs, and learning about the home building process," which includes maths, sciences, communication skills, and perhaps you'll want to read Tracy Kidder's House. Jumping on a trampoline? Obviously physics and math, materials science, biology of muscles, art of acrobatics, history of entertainment, literature focusing on the circus? Who knows. Every topic of interest to a segment of your school should be your entry point for that group of students. And if you work it right, as students progress, you will be expanding their interests and accepting their expanded interests.

I hear an awful lot of math and science in this project, did the school carry that through?

As I said to a teacher one night on Twitter, "if you can't make anatomy interesting to adolescents you must be looking at the wrong bodies." And if you can't make physics interesting to kids, you're not bouncing a ball. If you can't make stories - both learning them and telling them - interesting to students, you've got the wrong stories. If you can't make history interesting to kids its because you're starting with dates and dead white guys instead of toilets, food, weapons, and animals.

On Sunday night I helped an eight-year-old with a report on Ireland. We Skyped and I shared pictures with him. He had talked first to his great grandmother, then to me, but he never asked about the size of the nation, what continent it was part of, its major exports, because, at eight - who cares? He instead asked about what games kids played, what the schools were like, what they ate. Real questions. But as we talked about those things, we talked about history, and geography, and why they didn't grow corn but did make lots of software. These things just came up. They won't "stick" in a big way in an eight-year-old's head, but they'll be there the next time the topics come up. And we got to history the way you get to history with an eight-year-old boy, through a photograph of cannons pointed at houses.

In simple terms, we don't take an assignment and "individualize" it, we take individuals and bring content knowledge to them on their terms. We don't deliver, we offer. We don't manage, we take advantage of who our kids are.

We don't talk a lot about "passion" in our schools. But I think it is time we started.

- Ira Socol

1 See http://www.teachforamerica.org/the-corps-experience/becoming-an-exceptional-teacher/http://www.teachforamerica.org/the-corps-experience/becoming-an-exceptional-teacher/ and read the silly little "real teacher clips" - we "organize" for better delivery, tell kids that they're not 'permanently dumb,' and have unwavering rules.

2 This piece by Frank Beard (TFA '08) is really worth reading, and thinking about. It touches on the fundamental problem with Teach for America even among its most thoughtful participants. The author sees the system failing the students most like himself, because in his untrained eye - and the TFA attitude - success means being like a TFA recruit:
"As a teacher, I saw firsthand the very people who were failed by my district’s leaders:
"They failed C.P., a quirky, wonderful student who was reading Plato’s Republic for fun in seventh grade
"They failed D.W., a bright, talented student who although sometimes lost his temper due to problems at home, would always apologize afterwards.
"They failed M.J., the sweetest, nicest, most prim and proper student I’ve ever met, who was forced to endure disruption day after day by one of her classmates who threatened to shoot others, was arrested for armed robbery, and made sexually harassing comments to girls
"They also failed M.W., a student who although acted as a class clown at times, was incredibly smart, motivated, and had the potential to do anything he wanted to in life."
But the author does not see that the system has dramatically failed the "15-25% [of students] that were chronically disruptive," and that he wishes were removed from the school (or in KIPP philosophy, never admitted). Education for some.

07 February 2011

Instructional Tolerance and Universal Design

In a Virginia classroom we discussed, with elementary teachers, student seating choice during whole group meetings. "Does it make any difference," I asked, "if some students are sitting on the floor, some on chairs, some are lying down, others standing up, maybe even if one or two are walking around?"

My suggestion was that not only might students be comfortable - and in my mind students cannot be cognitively uncomfortable (and thus ready to learn) without being physically and psychologically comfortable - but that we might be teaching actual social skills as well. It's OK to walk around, as long as you do it quietly and without bothering others. It's OK to lie down as long as you don't fall asleep. And it is OK to be lying down and decide that you need to stand up as long as you can do it without disrupting everything.

But I could tell that the teachers were struggling with part of this. So I said, "I understand, you are teachers, you've been taught to alert on movement, because movement suggests disruption. But what if you learned to alert on discomfort instead? On the child squirming, for example?"

You can't have Universal Design without understanding Instructional Tolerance. You can't. It isn't possible.

So what is Instructional Tolerance and what does it look like?

Since the 19th Century, Montessori has modeled a different concept of attention,
one not based on the Reformation-style "gaze"
At the start, Instructional Tolerance is the opposite of "classroom management" as taught in education schools and the Teach for America "You-Can-Be-A-Teacher-in-25-Days" program ("For the first hour, most corps members work directly with four to five students to build skills in math and literacy, to gain experience in facilitating group work. For the second hour, corps members lead a full class lesson, which builds skills in delivering lessons and managing a classroom."). With Universal Design and Instructional Tolerance you will neither "deliver" nor "manage," but rather engage, adapt, problem-solve and sometimes, "re-direct."

You will not assume - and falsely assume in every case I have ever seen - that you actually know what every student is doing, or thinking, or learning, but rather, you will lead an environment in which students are truly "doing, thinking, and learning," but are doing that in ways which work for each of them.

Some kids may be reading, others writing. Some on the floor, some on chairs, some sitting on or under tables, some walking around. Some may be using books or drawing on paper. Others might be using computers or drawing on the floor. Kids might be on 10 different web sites, or six different text-to-speech systems, or many different kinds of computers, tablets, handhelds.

Attention need not be group attention
Some might be working on math, others on science stuff, or literature, or combinations of those. They might be working alone, or in ones, twos, threes, fives, whatever. And students might change what they are doing according to their schedule, not yours.
"Both the popular press and Montessori’s own writings identify human perception as the target of these pedagogic interventions. These texts problematize perception as being simultaneously voluntary and involuntary. A calculus of compulsion and free will is central to Montessori’s pedagogy (this is not unique to Montessori, of course). An example of this dual movement is captured in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 1915 claim that ‘‘the secret of the Montessori theory is to bring out the individuality of the child and force it to exercise its own initiative.’’ ...

"To be sure, there is much evidence that students paying attention in school is a long-standing, persistent concern of educators. For several centuries now, references to the attention of the child have appeared in educational literature. An eighteenth-century American manual for tutors and governesses, for example, spoke of the need to keep order among children, noting that ‘‘feuds and contentions are continually arising among them, which always take off their attention from learning.’’ In this instance the child’s attention is understood as an aid to instruction and as subservient to it. By the late nineteenth century attention had become a central concern across a range of domains. In educational theory, for instance, attention was no longer considered merely an add-on to instruction; instead, there was an increasing sense that attention could be the crux of schooling, the solution to the entire problem of education, as it was for Montessori."
But attention has different definitions.

"To come to terms with the uses of attention in schooling, we need more elaborate and specific studies of how power circulates in different locales (a Foucauldian project, in fact). Montessori’s 1915 demonstration classroom is an ideal site for exploring the making of subjects of attention. In the interests of a specific study, we now turn to the attention Montessori sought and why this was so attractive," Noah Sobe (p. 287) says. What Montessori saw, in Sobe's work, was absorption. Students absorbed in a work to which they were deeply connected. They were not absorbed in what the teacher was doing. And because they were absorbed in something they were individually connected to, they could not be distracted from their work even in a glass classroom surrounded by bleachers filled with spectators in the middle of a World's Fair in San Francisco.

"He pays more attention when he's interested."

Absorption and Instructional Tolerance are the answer to that "duh" statement above which I hear far too often in IEP meetings. "He pays more attention when he's interested." Of course. Everyone does. And, perhaps short of spending between $15 million and $500 million on 60 or 120 minutes of entertainment, you're not going to hold the interest of any diverse group with a single presentation. People have been trying it for years. People fall asleep in theatres with the best actors and musicians on stage... your audience may gaze at you - even SLANT you KIPP-style - but they will rarely be absorbed.

So despite the shortcomings of some of Montessori's theories and the antiquated conceptions in which some are based, the concept that attention is the result of connecting a student to an object of interest remains a powerful idea.

In this realm attention is not gaze at a performance - in which case any more interesting performance - say the child next to you scratching or the university student next to you drinking coffee - will pull your attention away. It is instead the attention built of interest, powerful, connected interest.

And powerful connected interest requires different things for different students. Different subject entry points. Different presentation forms. Different technologies. Different places to sit or not sit.

Which requires Universal Design in spaces, schedules, and technologies, and which requires Instructional Tolerance.

The tolerant learning space looks different and is different. Large group instruction is minimal or non-existent. Behavioural controls are few, though real. Disturbing other students directly isn't acceptable, but walking out of the door is. Talking is OK, but so are headphones. Movement is fine, but so is stillness. This is a "real world" environment - not a simulation of a sermon in a church on Sunday.

This "tolerance" for learning without your explicit knowledge or direction isn't easy. Is that student really doing anything? Are those boys looking at porn? Will they be able to get themselves ready for the test? You will - surely at first - ask yourself a thousand of these questions a day. But day-by-day you and your students will learn how to learn together as a community, and you will all learn how to better create your individual learning environments, and you may find yourself walking around less, supervising less, and having much more time for mentoring, for supporting, and for helping students find their way.

And if we do it well from the start, Instructional Tolerance will build the kind of self-directed, self-confident, internally motivated learners we need, eventually allowing you to echo Philadelphia's great 1970 school principal... "I asked [the head teacher] if he would identify the kinds of things that were going on about us. His response - quick and unqualified - was to the effect that he had no idea what the activities consisted of, that it was furthermore not his business to know, and that the participants had defined the content, value, and details of their pursuits and were probably doing whatever it was they felt it important to do." - Greenberg and Roush. Philadelphia

- Ira Socol

06 February 2011

Beyond Disability

I woke up this morning in a city which could not conceivably exist if technology did not allow humans to exceed their own capabilities.

We can start with elevators. Yes, there are a few humans who can run up the stairs of the Empire State Building. But its a small group. And there's even a smaller group that can carry, say, furniture to the upper floors of any of thousands of buildings in New York City, or even just groceries or the lunch order.

So we have technologies which enable us to exceed our abilities. And those technologies allow more of us to live and work together in ways impossible without technologies. And, in ways which do not require us to divide ourselves into people who can, (a) climb 3 flights of stairs, from people who can (b) climb 6 flights of stairs, from people who an (c) climb 9 flights of stairs.

Everybody gets to push the button and go up.

But we could go back further. New York City is a port built on an archipelago on the edge of a continent distant from its primary trading partners. Without first ships and then ships and bridges it could not ever have functioned as anything more than a great place to eat oysters.

The "default" methods of human movement are, I suppose, "bipedal locomotion," crawling, climbing, and perhaps swimming. The default method of moving "goods" is to carry them. The default method of storing and transmitting knowledge are face-to-face speech and memory. The default methods of learning are trial and error and memory.

"Assistive Technologies" - George Washington Bridge (background), rowboat and oars (foreground),
because not everyone can swim the Hudson River.
Anything beyond those "biologic basics" involve technology which increases human capacity and capability.

So, am I awakening in a city of cheaters?

Too many schools think so. They equate technological enhancement with cheating. Or, like those who understand why Oscar Pistorius might walk using artificial limbs - maybe artificial limbs which look like those they expect - but are very unsure he might run or race using limbs which seem unlike those they expect - they equate the unfamiliar technologies with cheating.

Schools have long accepted print literacy, for example, which Socrates derided as a symbol of learning's descent into laziness, though that technology dramatically - and artificially (there is no "reading center" of the human brain) - enhances human capability. They have also come to accept eyeglasses, pens, artificial lighting, they have even accepted - well, demanded - math on paper, distrusting those who do it "naturally" - in their heads.

In other words, certain "disabilities" are not "disabilities" at all, according to the "typical" school, and certain human "enhancements" are perfectly all right. So people are allowed to "cheat" in school regularly by storing information in books rather than memory, except on many tests, but if information is stored elsewhere, say, on the internet instead of a book, or if recall is needed during an artificial assessment process, it is "cheating." And people who might struggle with reading because of something different about their eyes are not disabled and get to use a whole variety of individual devices to help themselves, but people who might struggle with reading because of differences in brain use are disabled, and are often denied the use of their tools by teachers, school administrators, and state and federal politicians.

Parents who have money enhance their children's natural learning path with everything from houses full of books, to computer access, to travel, to tutors. But children without resources are denied these same enhancements in schools.

In other words, the idea of disability and the concept of enhancing the human is not just a social construction, but specifically a social construction of wealth and power. In New York the rich enhance their bodies via car ownership and access to cabs and limos. The poor lack those enhancements. Joel Klein wore eyeglasses and Cathie Black wears contact lenses to enhance their vision and reading as Chancellor of New York City's schools, but poor kids in those schools are denied the use of Text-To-Speech systems and audiobooks which would allow them to read. Arne Duncan daily enhances his human mobility and multitasking capabilities by being driven and flown around the country, but poor kids can't access tools which might get them to Duncan's "schools of choice" nor can they use the Blackberry which organizes Duncan's life in the schools he favors.

Friday I was lucky enough to meet people from DARPA and the MIT Media Lab Biomechatronics Group and the New York Hall of Science and the NYU ITP program, and many other brilliant people, and we pretty much came to the conclusion that our entire understandings of disability and enhancement need to be reconceived.

There are many examples of why, but I thought of one I personally observed. A high school non-reader I worked with was introduced to the WYNN Literacy Software. Within a month he was using this software to read at over 300 words per minute. Yes, in a month he went from not reading to exceeding the average adult fast reading speed by 20%. Thus, his tools, allowed him to "exceed capability." And certain educators were troubled by this. They actually wanted us to slow this boy down, so he would not have an advantage. These people never wondered about finding tools for the other kids which might maximize their abilities, rather, they were horrified when I suggested that this "special needs: kid now really needed to be in their gifted classes. He, like Oscar Pistorius, wasn't really doing it, his technology was, so he was "cheating."

Most of those teachers and administrators wore eyeglasses, one had hearing aids. And so I was confused.

Is "disability" a "thing" or an "idea"? Is "enhancement" anti-human or what humans do? And if we re-think these ideas, what does that mean for the way we operate schools.

And with that I will travel 985 miles in the next three hours. Am I enhancing my human capabilities? And if I couldn't afford the plane ticket, would I be disabled?

- Ira Socol

03 February 2011

Chris Lehmann, Alan Shapiro, and sitting on a Philadelphia floor, almost 40 years ago

On a rainy morning back in the 1970s a few students from New Rochelle, New York's Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study ("3Is") walked the couple of blocks from New Rochelle High School down to the Mayflower Elementary School parking lot. One student had a mother who taught there. I guess we were old enough to have drivers licenses, yeah, or this tale might have other components than the relevant ones. At the elementary school there may or may not have been a conversation between mother and daughter, and then we piled into a Ford Country Squire station wagon, filled it with gas at a Getty station on North Avenue, and drove to Philadelphia.

We didn't ask any adults about this. There were no permission slips. Not much of a plan. We were students in a different time and in a different kind of school.

Our mission was to visit The Parkway Program, a secondary school like ours, but located in the heart of a major city. We had many similar schools around us at that time, "Schools Without Walls" existed throughout Westchester County and Long Island as parts of, or adjuncts to, public high schools. We had visited them all, even played basketball against them all, but the program in Philadelphia offered us a chance to see how this translated into another environment.
"The whole scene oozed with activity and life and while there was no apparent order to it all, a sense of purpose seemed evident... I asked [the head teacher] if he would identify the kinds of things that were going on about us. His response - quick and unqualified - was to the effect that he had no idea what the activities consisted of, that it was furthermore not his business to know, and that the participants had defined the content, value, and details of their pursuits and were probably doing whatever it was they felt it important to do." - Greenberg and Roush. Philadelphia
Schools like this were notoriously hard to observe and evaluate. There were few - if any - things which looked like "classes" or "classrooms." Students were, typically, not there. And if they were there, what they were doing was either not obvious, or way too obvious (we had a brief hop-scotch craze, and we also had one student, who would go on to graduate from MIT, who entertained himself by running full-speed into the walls).  Most learning took place in projects - individual or group - or through conversations or individual reading, and might take place (in the case of the 3Is) in Alan Shapiro's living room in the evening ("Great Books") or Grand Central after midnight ("Abnormal Psychology") or at the City's Parks Department Greenhouse or the New Rochelle Hospital Emergency Room or City Hall or wherever.

This 'inability to observe' was, I suspect, part of the movement's downfall. Despite incredibly impressive graduation and four-year college attendance rates (far better than the "regular schools"), observers, especially as Reagan/Bush conservatism became the national mood, saw nothing but "kids hanging out, doing nothing." The model was too far from the expectations of political leaders to make any sense.

I thought about all this as Chris Lehmann, principal of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy (SLA) and organizer-in-chief of the EduCon conference, and I discussed education on a brief post I wrote last weekend from SLA and EduCon. It's a great conversation, which touches on all the difficulties faced by those really trying to help kids learn (as opposed to those trying to test kids, which is a different idea), and all the difficulties of observing and discussing learning.

I had gone to EduCon and been uncomfortable. Nothing wrong with that in itself. I write a lot about the mismatches between schools and students, teachers and students. One size never fits all. And, I did find SLA students to be comfortable with their school, happy with their school, happy with their learning environment, which is what matters. It may not have been my vision of radically different education, but I'm not sure that SLA claims to be that. Others, perhaps they are very well meaning educators desperately looking for "an answer" and grasping at anything which looks successful as their "model," will see SLA and EduCon as a 'Nirvana,' but - that's "reader response," not school claim or design.

School in session, circa 1975
But what had struck me, especially on Twitter, was that when I said I wasn't comfortable at EduCon or that I had questions about SLA, a flood of educators told me that what was wrong was my behavior. You can see that in a couple of the blog comments (not from Chris) as well. You can also see the flip side. People, perhaps including myself, blaming the environment for the entirety of the mismatch. And that is an old, old conversation.

Student: "This school sucks." Educator: "No it doesn't, it's just your attitude." If you wander school corridors, as I tend to do, you will hear versions of this conversation all the time.

So, as Chris and I talked, talking out an initial face-to-face conversation which went something like this: Chris (walking down the hall): "Ira, aren't there any sessions which seemed interesting to you?" Ira (sitting in the hall): "Chris, you know I don't go to classes." - perhaps you've heard versions of this in your schools - I begin to think about how we see learning.

I had come to EduCon from a week walking schools with teachers and some students. We had "done rounds," going classroom to classroom, looking at spaces and what was happening inside them. And I realized how rarely teachers "share practice" like that.

And then I thought way back, way back to that rainy day in the 1970s. And I wondered how often our students really "share practice"?

So when we arrived in Philadelphia and climbed the stairs to the Parkway Program's home base, we found something which looked as different from our space as might be imaginable. They occupied an old 1950s style office space. We occupied a never-used-as-intended third floor cafeteria. Their's was dark and complex, ours was horribly uninteresting - so blank as a space we called it "The White Room."

But when we sat down in a circle on their floor, and began to talk, we found our common ground. And we talked about all the things which were 'really great' about this kind of school, and all the things which were 'really hard.' We started with surface things. We wished we were downtown like they were. They kind of wished they had some school facilities - gyms, etc - which we had around us. We all struggled to figure out what we were doing, and why. We all understood the liberation which came when we were freed from "industrial schooling."

Parkway watching, 1970
And then it got more complex. We all had different kinds of pre-high school experiences, and we talked about how those might have shaped our sense of the "possible" were it not for the interactions we had in our schools. We talked about - yes, we talked even though we lacked the right words - about what peer-to-peer unstructured learning was like. We talked about carrying the skills which had often gotten us in trouble K-8, into this new kind of learning space and using those skills in positive ways. We asked how they used resources - teachers, businesses, museums, institutions, the city... and compared that to how we did the same. We talked a bit about the future, and we were all vague - our education was not career driven - but we all suspected that we'd avoid traditional classrooms at all costs.

I think, without getting into "meta" jargon, we, by sitting down together, we're deeply thinking about our learning. We all did this anyway. We attended schools where every bit of our education was not just under our control, but had to be created by us (Alan Shapiro's oft-used quote: "You don't like it, do something else."). I was the one who decided that I needed 'non-reading English' and rode with the midnight WVOX news guy for a few months, learning writing without "writing" and reading without "reading" and editing via audio. I was also the guy who decided that classes just did not work, and so, I had to come up with something else.

But there's something about sharing those ideas of how we learn, sharing them beyond our comfort zone, which sharpens the understanding. And somehow, before we ended up challenging the Parkway kids to a "New York v Philly Home and Home B-Ball Series," I think we all had a better sense of what learning meant to us. Because we had held it up against various mirrors and lenses, and seen it in new ways.

Which is the same thing I saw when teachers showed each other their classrooms - classrooms in action. Which is the same thing Chris Lehmann allows to happen when he lets people wander SLA, and when he lets people doubt what they see. "I forgot to take it down afterward," Chris said about the elevator sign which bothered me, "My bad. It should have come down after the weekend because I agree, students should not have the Thou-Shalt-Nots all over the building. And I've probably walked by that sign three dozen times." Learning via seeing through others eyes. Through seeing yourself reflected in others eyes.

In the end I think this is about what Postman and Shapiro and Weingartner and others called, "Learning how to learn." And it is about letting kids find their path to that.

If I think back to that Country Squire, there were kids in there reading Siddhartha, and Franny and Zooey, and Das Kapital. There were magical musicians and gifted mathematicians. There was me, the storyteller who never read anything, and one friend who mostly just drew pictures. It didn't matter. We knew how to learn, and we were a learning community.

And that should be exactly what we want for our kids right now.

- Ira Socol

01 February 2011

Looking for Universal Design (The View from Here, Part 2)

"If you buy the same thing for everyone," I told a group of educators yesterday, "pretty much anything... chairs, tables, computers, phones... you're probably leaving two-thirds of kids uncomfortable."

One book, Any style...
I believe that to be true. I know that almost any restaurant I enter has a variety of seating options. I know that homes usually look and function quite differently, at least inside. I know that if I walk through almost any office space I will see people working very hard to change the pre-created environment into their own. I know that people carry hundreds of different mobile phones, and almost as many different computer models - and those choices are only secondarily about costs. I know that even when you buy a book - outside of school - you get choices in terms of how that content is delivered to you. And I know that there are millions of different types of pens, and thst if I look around a meeting - any meeting - I'll see people working on paper, in notebooks, on mobiles, on laptops (PC and Mac), on tablets, on iPads...

So, as I continue to observe schools (see previous post), I look for the kinds of choices which will make the greatest percentage of students "OK," and I look for that in every classroom, in the library, in any dedicated computer space, wherever and whenever kids are "working on learning."

I look to see different seating choices, different light levels, different senses of enclosure (why restaurants have booths), different height work surfaces (sit, stand, etc), different options for noise control, and different tools for gaining access to communication and for communication.

I look to see if students who need to be standing are standing, if those who need to be sprawled on the floor are sprawled on the floor, if those who need space around them have space around them, if those who need close contact have close contact. I look to see, if it is not large group time, if those who need quiet, have quiet - via a place to hide or just an iPod or mp3 player keeping stray sounds at bay.
Where to work?
a few options at one
coffee shop. (also,
booths, tables, high tables)

I look to see if multiple representations are always available. Are there different math manipulatives, and are some kids using their fingers while others process in their heads and others use pencils and others keep track of their steps through (free) calculators which record their actions. Are kids reading ink-on-paper and via computer reader/web based reader and via audiobook? Are kids writing via pencils and pens (differently shaped), via keyboard (and what kind of keyboard), on phone keypad, or with their voice.

I look to see if YouTube is in use, if videos are available to explain, if audio files are available to help connect kids (what did a Babylonian sound like?). I like to see kids online looking up words, finding images, hearing pronunciations of unfamiliar words, using whatever technologies they need to scaffold their own learning.

And I look to see that in every grade, at every level. It is just as important for a high school physics student to be able to find alternatives to the teacher's explanation and delivery system as it is for a first grader.

Are there fidget tools available to every kid at every age? (the need for hat does not go away with age) Are kids encouraged to take breaks every 20 minutes? Are food and drink available in some form and with an "increasing" (with age) acceptance of personal control? (think of it as college prep if you can't imagine it any other way)

Do students have collaborative notetaking options (Google Docs)? Are assignments handed in digitally so paper and the handling of it is not an issue? Is homework limited to projects which do not demonstrate parental/home resources more than anything else? Is homework always flexible enough in description to not be ability-centric?

I look, from the very entry to the building, to see if the school is technology platform and brand agnostic. No matter how much I might love Apple or Google or Mozilla or Microsoft, I do not ever want to see "branded" schools or publicly "branded" teachers. No student should ever be made to feel 'outside' because of personal or family brand preferences or limited options.

And I need to see universal access tools on every school computer, at least all that is free or that which comes with the device's platform. We should not divide access into "ours" and "theirs."

Of course I look for complete inclusion of all of these things everywhere. The availability of universal design must be, yes, universal, or it is just another word for "Special Education."

There's more... testing, evaluation flexibility - time flexibility - teacher/student matching, things not immediately visible when you walk a school's corridors. But if you see universal design everywhere you look, there's a good chance you'll see it even where you can't quite see.

- Ira Socol