26 April 2011

Fantastic Windows and the Classroom Telectroscope

I believe in transparent classroom walls. I do, to quote a Christian schools superintendent in Holland, Michigan, "we want our students to see the world."

So, I'm completely against those 1970s school buildings with blocked up windows, and I'm against anything covering windows which connect the classrooms to school corridors, and I'm against closed classroom doors under the vast majority of circumstances. I want students to interact with the world, with the weather, with birds that may fly by and with cars which may drive by, and I want them to see and hear other learners doing interesting things.

This isn't distraction, it is opportunity. Every thing which a student sees can create questions and open passions, and both of those are the gateways to learning. So clear off those windows and open those doors, but then, go a big step further.

If you have a projector or an interactive white board in your classroom, keep it turned on, and keep it tuned to something fascinating. That is, throw open a "Fantastic Window" on the world, or even on the universe.

These days many classrooms around the world are tuned in to the Decorah Eagles via UStream. This has been incredible. In just the time I have been able to watch I have seen, live, an egg hatch (the third eaglet), many feedings, the remarkable parenting of these birds through rain, snow, and high winds, the parents working together building what is definitely a safety railing surrounding the nest, and the amazing transformation of these tiny downy babies into the clumsy children you'll see today.

Because I can't help but be fascinated, I, like millions of students, have dug into every bit of eagle information I can find: information which runs from genetic, to maturation rates, to hunting preferences, to the stunning size of the nests, to the political battle to save the bald eagle in the United States. It has been a learning experience of remarkable breadth and depth.

Yes, I've known eagles as national symbols, and I've even watched them hunt over the Muskegon River flats, but I've never lived with these magnificent birds who top the food chain, and now I know a lot more about my world.

You can look at other things, of course, say, the view from the top of Seattle's Space Needle, or watch the view from a satellite orbiting earth,  or check out St. Pierre - the last bit of French North America, or a school in Iceland, or any of these (hundreds from everywhere).

Wherever your Fantastic Window opens to you will be opening the universe to your students.

But beyond transparent, you can be interactive.

Peering across the Atlantic, from London to Brooklyn
The Telectroscope which linked Brooklyn and London is gone, but the idea, the live and casual audio-visual linking of remote points should move to your classroom.

As with the Decorah Eagles, a Skype video link connecting your classroom with another, across town, across grade levels (let fifth graders see middle school), across the state, across the nation, across the globe, lets you begin to see new environments and cultures with many fewer filters. It also opens up great collaboration possibilities. Can your 8-year-olds in the US ask for maths help from 8-year-olds in Ireland? In Venezuela? In Quebec? Skype has created a whole education community to promote this.

So tomorrow, don't just throw open your classroom's doors and windows, add a Fantastic Window and a Classroom Telectroscope, and bring the universe in.

- Ira Socol

12 April 2011

The Problem with Hypotheses

In what I would call "an informal study" I have ranked the "atmosphere" in various high school hallways around the area in which I live. Yes, it is a "convenience sample," consisting of schools I happened to be visiting. No, I had no particular method of recording observations. No, I will not provide a long bibliography of sources cited. Yes, I have developed my own way of coding the "data" and my own way of ranking the "school atmosphere."

And yet, my study has one thing I think is essential for validity. I began this study with no hypothesis. I had no idea, no theory, no assumptions in mind when I began visiting these schools. Thus, unlike almost every study of education in the United States I have read in the past five years, there is no "confirmation bias" in my study, because their was nothing to confirm.

In my first semester of graduate school, in my first research methods class, we read a study that Dr. Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University had done on the reading project he sells. In fact, almost everyone connected with the study had a very strong financial incentive to make the product, Success for All, look good.

My professors thought this was a great study. It followed "all the rules" in Scientific Research in Education1, the "bible" of "gold standard" educational research created by top AERA professors for the Bush Administration.

But I, and a number of other students, found the study to be, as research, worthless. First, as I noted, it was conducted entirely by people with a financial interest in proving the program's success. Second, it combined dozens of changes in school operations with the introduction of Slavin's product, including things like free food and massive tutoring efforts - how could anyone possibly suggest which part of those changes produced any effect? Third, it refused to look at any "side effects" - what happened to students in other areas when most of the school day became devoted to chanting sentences?

But, the more I thought about it, the biggest problem was the hypothesis. Slavin, of course, set out to "prove" that his product worked. That was his hypothesis. And, shock of shocks! he confirmed his belief.

We constantly teach hypothesis in our schools. It is as much the lifeblood of almost every Science Fair as the fact that parents do the project. But does hypothesis help or hurt our science?

Let's go way back to a very famous example. Galileo hypothesized, via Copernicus, that the planets circled the sun. And, yes, his "experiments" (observations) confirmed this. But when Jesuit researchers looked up they noted that what Galileo was saying could not possibly fit with their observation.

The problem is, of course, that the planets orbit the sun, but not in circles. At Galileo's trial both sides were "right" about celestial mechanics and both sides were quite wrong. Galileo had the idea but not the details, the Jesuits had the details but not the idea. Both had gotten to the wrong place through what we now call "confirmation bias." And confirmation bias is a direct result of our commitment to hypothesis.

Hypothesis should not be first. The first question when we study something needs to be "what is happening?" The problem is - a problem most social science research "leaders" gloss over - is that when someone like Slavin goes out to "prove" something "works," every question he asks, every bit of data he collects, every measure he uses, is, at least in part, designed to prove his hypothesis. Slavin measures short term reading test gains, not for example, student interest in literature. The tests he uses measure components of reading, not gains in subject interest. He does not compare "his" schools to others with extensive tutoring. He uses statistical models which presume that the human experience can be "averaged." It is not that he is lying. He is not. It is not that he falsely manipulates data. He does not. But his study (studies) are fatally flawed from the inception because the intent is not to observe but to confirm.

It would be no different if I ran a study to prove that Success for All was a ridiculous waste of school money. My questions, my measures, my statistical analysis would be selected to confirm that.

Is there another way? 

When people ask my hypothesis I tend to say, "I have no idea."  This didn't go over big on my "practicum" project with the faculty, but I tried hard to stick to it, even when measurement structures were imposed on my by the federal grant. On my dissertation, I began with the question, "how did this system develop?" and then, "why did this system develop?" If I had begun with "America's schools were designed to limit opportunity," I would - for example, have read both Horace Mann and William Shearer in very different ways. But by beginning with non-leading questions, I was free to hear these men as they wished to be heard, not through the results of 50 years or a century later.

So, could you, a researcher, walk into a school without a hypothesis? Could you clear your mind of your years of training and just "see"?

How might that change educational research?

- Ira Socol

Oh, the results of that "informal" study?

My top five "best," "healthiest" environments - corridors seemed under control, kids were polite, there was little or no bullying, kids and adults interacted well, kids seemed to arrive in class after passing times not unduly stressed...

1. Black River Public School (a small, urban, fairly diverse, non-profit charter)
2. Godfrey-Lee Middle School and Lee High School (an impoverished urban school)
3. Holland Christian High School (a small Christian Reformed Church school)
4. Hamilton High School (a large rural/suburban public school)
5. Reeths-Puffer High School (a large suburban/rural public school)

My bottom five (opposite of above)
5. Zeeland West High School (a large suburban/rural public school)
4. North Muskegon High/Middle School (a small wealthy suburban public school)
3. Holland High School (a large urban public school)
2. Zeeland East High School (a large suburban public school)
1. West Ottawa High School (a large suburban/rural public school)

What's important here is not the ratings, informal and, as with all research, highly subjective. What's important is that this reveals that, at least to me, the questions we ask about size, income level, management might be the wrong questions. If I had gone out to compare large to small, urban to suburban, non-public to public, I suspect what I would have "seen" would have changed, and my very hypothetical question would have altered my results.

1. I have called Scientific Research in Education "the most destructive book of the last decade," so, there is some bias there.

11 April 2011

To discuss in class this week

There are two big things going on in the world this week, one fifty years old, one absolutely current, which should keep your students talking, and bring them into virtually every content area in engaging ways.

The single orbit of Vostok 1, April 12, 1961
On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human to leave the earth's atmosphere in Vostok 1. He went, obviously, higher above the earth's surface than anyone before him (327 km above sea level at the orbit apogee), and he circled the earth at 27400 kilometers per hour - the previous "world's fastest human" was USAF Maj. Joseph Rogers at 2,455.7 km per hour in December 1959.  It took Magellan's expedition, the first earth circumnavigation, just a fortnight short of three years to make their trip. 339 years later, Gagarin did it in 108 minutes.

Science and math obviously, history, geography, culture obviously? Was Gagarin's trip celebrated in the US on the 10th or 25th Anniversary? Why do your students think it wasn't? What will they discover if they investigate that? And what about writing? How might it have felt to sit atop that rocket? How might it have felt to know the science but have no other human who could possibly share the experience? Gagarin was a lover of poetry, did that help him?

Protester defies veil ban in Paris
Meanwhile, this very week, an enhanced ban on face veils goes into effect in France. The French have very little tolerance for personal public displays of religious practice, with laws limiting religious symbols in schools and other public spaces going back to the 1870s, and having been solidified in 1905 when, of course, the offending religion was Catholicism. Students in France, for example, are not allowed to publicly wear Christian symbols, Jewish symbols, or Islamic symbols.

This sounds shocking to Americans and Canadians, and a bit troubling to Brits, and possibly refreshing to the Irish, but the idea of a secular society is deeply ingrained in France.

Can your students really comprehend laïcité? To the French, or most Turks, the United States is almost a theocracy. "My goodness," a Turkish student at Michigan State University once told a group of high school students, "it says "God" on every piece of your money!" She was deeply offended. "That has no place in a democracy." She, a Muslim, was debating with a Muslim woman from Malaysia, the French and Turkish bans on headscarves in courts and on university campuses. These two women, from the same religion but vastly different cultures, were mutually outraged by the other's opinions. It was one of the best learning moments I have ever seen in a school classroom.

A respected friend told me last night, "but wearing the veil may be much more about culture than religion," which is true, as the paragraph above perhaps illustrates, but then, nations limit dress for cultural reasons all the time. In most places in America you'll get arrested - maybe even declared mentally ill - for walking around naked, even if it is 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees C) and you believe it's fine to be seen. Is that any different, in concept, than France's law? The assumption is "cultural offense" I guess. From a public safety point of view, at least you know a naked person isn't hiding anything dangerous.

I said to her, we have to understand the histories of these nations. In both France and Turkey democracy was created by - at least in the collective memory - overthrowing religion, the Church State of the Ancien Régime and the Church State of the Ottoman Empire (Yüce Osmanlı Devleti). As the US and Ireland object to royalty (despite Sinn Fein's Gerry Adam's role as a Baron), these nations object to religion in public.

In other words, the questions may not be as simple as some suggest, and the position of France may not suggest intolerance - France was, I will point out, among the only nations to unreservedly accept anyone fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s, something neither the US nor the UK would do.

What will your students say? How will they research this? Who will they ask? This is true critical thinking, and it surely involves language, history, culture, geography, science, maybe even the math of statistics.

Watching an eagles nest 24/7
Finally, if you have an Interactive WhiteBoard or projector in your room, it should be tuned to the Decorah Eagles when not otherwise in use these days. This is just one more webcam opportunity to give your classroom a "fantastic window" which encourages thought and learning. Watching this nesting pair raise their children is incredible, and it is not just a view of nature, but a critical look at the top of the food chain. The camera is on day and night, so wherever you are, its something to see.

And this introduces you to the "fantastic window" idea. Webcams are everywhere. You can watch cities, beaches and oceans, campuses, or from space. Don't keep that window closed.

- Ira Socol

05 April 2011

The Age of Reason

These kids in our schools... are they children? are they adults? does it matter?

In Pennsylvania - a state in the human-rights-challenged United States of America - the courts continue to wrestle with the question of trying a 12-year-old as an adult for murder.

Jordan Brown (right) - an adult in Pennsylvania
Actually, Jordan Brown was 11-years-old when he allegedly committed the crime, the age which marks the entry into secondary education for most American children. Well, Jordan wasn't there quite yet, at the time he was in fifth grade.

That's him, on the right, with his father, in the year he is accused of killing his soon-to-be-stepmother.

"In Pennsylvania, there is no lower limit for the age someone can be charged as an adult with criminal homicide. If convicted, Jordan, now 12, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole." "In almost half the states across the country, children can be prosecuted and tried in adult court, according to the University of Texas' Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs." [CNN]

So Jordan, at 11, is considered by the State of Pennsylvania and a number of other states, to be an adult because he is alleged to have acted badly. My first question is, how good must an 11-year-old be to be considered an adult?

But my real question is, at what age does a child become an adult? The United States allows all those under age 25 to be discriminated against by insurance companies and car rental companies. The presumption is that people under 25 lack the requisite maturity, the brain formation, to make adult decisions. Fine, actual brain science sort of backs this up. But if so, how can a 24-year-old, much less an 11-year-old, be considered an adult in one court of law but not another?

Central Dauphin Middle School in Pennsylvania's
capitol city. Can students vote and drink?
On the flip side, if Jordan Brown is an adult in Pennsylvania, your Pennsylvania middle schools are now filled with adults, who, for example, should have the right to come to school or not, to allow parental involvement or not, who can eat and drink what they want, right? And, yes, no reason they cannot vote, drink alcohol, etc.

Might change the environment just a bit in the average Middle School. But the law is the law, right?

If you're confused by this, imagine now that you are between age 10 and age 25. If you are you are in a bizarre never-never land where your age will always be used against you, but rarely get you anything. Kids in this group can get nailed for simply having alcohol in their systems - for "walking while intoxicated" (that campus cop favorite, "minor in possession"). Kids in this group get asked to pay full price in the movies, on airlines, at restaurants. Kids in this group are constantly told that they must be "responsible for their actions" - yet - as we know, the only way to be seen as an adult be society is to commit a crime. Your kid can serve three tours in Afghanistan and yet get arrested as "minor in possession" and refused the chance to rent a car for another four plus years. In school your kids get "adult" schedules, "adult" homework, "adult" grades - but - none of the choices which seem to accompany that faux adulthood. In fact, most middle and high schools are far more controlled and controlling than their primary school counterparts.

Yes, there is an argument for graduated adulthood, but all of that founders on the rocks of logic if juvenile justice ends before that process is complete. An acquaintance, a county sheriff who works around Grand Valley State University, has argued for this for years. "There's nothing on campus," he argues, "which can't be handled in juvenile court," adding, "our juvenile justice system sucks but it is way better, and way more effective than our adult system." Of course he doesn't make his department's policy, the "narcotics cop" - who shot a student for selling marijuana - are still on the job. The student who was shot was, of course, tried as an adult.

Kids are pretty good bullshit detectors, until school teaches them that there's some magic group of adults who tells them the right answers. So kids know when they're being buffaloed.

Let's start by correcting our juvenile justice laws. And while we're doing that, let's make sure that we are moving kids toward freedom, that Middle School looks more open, more chaotic, than elementary school. That High School looks, and is, more open still. That, like adults, kids aren't badgered for being five minutes late, or for forgetting something. That, like adults, kids have the freedom to sit, or stand, or walk around - the freedom to use the toilet, the freedom to eat and drink in most places. That, like adults, kids have the freedom to control their own learning.

If we are training our kids to be adults, lets first not make them adults for the wrong reasons. And then, lets show them what it actually means.

- Ira Socol

04 April 2011

Testing cannot be anything but political - and abusive

Last week Anthony Cody, teacher and blogger, did something The New York Times couldn't be bothered to do... he reported intelligently on a fascinating moment in education in America.

Asked an actual education question by a student for the very first time President Obama blasted his own education policies, clearly, and without equivocation. (In the President's previous visits to schools questions had been limited to "Do you like living in the White House?" and other celebrity nonsense.)
"... we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there's nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at.

"Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn't a high-stakes test. It wasn't a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn't even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn't study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

"Too often what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let's apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let's figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well.

"Because there are other criteria: What's the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not."

Then he blasted the results of everything US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done in his 'educational career'...
"So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you're not learning about the world; you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that's not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they're interested in. They're not going to do as well if it's boring."
Cody asked the US Department of Education to explain. These days we get to do that, and Twitter's @EDPressSec, who is really a guy named Justin Hamilton, was forced into dialogue.

And things began to go badly from there. First, it took the young Mr. Hamilton almost 36 hours to come up with why the President agreed with his Secretary of Education. Then, the answers, well, they were worthy of the Nixon White House.

"Switching to measuring student growth--as opposed to using tests just to measure absolute levels of proficiency--may result in an increase in the frequency of tests. But that does not mean that students will face more high-stakes standardized tests."

No, of course not, no one will think that federally-mandated tests, on which school administrator and teachers jobs and income depend, will be considered high stakes Justin.

As Cody asks, in a question Mr. Hamilton has not yet been able to answer, "Many of the core elements of Race to the Top and the Blueprint are related to test scores. Department of Ed policy calls for the linking of teacher evaluations and pay to student test scores. The Blueprint calls for tracking of student test scores of teachers according to the place they were prepared. We still have the threat of reconstitution hanging over the bottom tier of schools, attended exclusively by children in poverty. All based on test scores. The President described the tests that Sasha and Malia took as "low stakes." All these changes RAISE the stakes on the tests, for teachers and schools. How does this move us towards the "less pressure-packed environment" the President is advocating"

The perils of choosing your cabinet from your basketball buddies
But really, this reveals a lot more about Duncan and Obama than just the fact that they've never actually discussed education policy. As in the legendary US Army quote about Vietnam, "We had to destroy the village to save it," the Obama/Duncan argument regarding "low-stakes tests which determine teachers' lives" suggests a fundamental disregard for the humanness of American teachers and students.

The US thought of Vietnam as a place to stop communism, not a place where real people lived. Thus bombings and the burnings of villages were OK. Obama (by default, because he has outsourced education policy to his buddy) and Duncan (by design) think of education as a place to score political points with Republicans and rich hedge fund donors, not as a place where real people live and work. Thus tests and humiliations and firings and ruining children's lives are all OK.

The strategies are equally flawed. US policy in Vietnam actually strengthened the appeal of communism throughout Asia, Africa, South America - even Europe and North America - in the 1960s and 1970s. And we know exactly what Republicans and the Democrats for Education Reform did for Obama in the 2010 elections. Perhaps if he had gotten the NEA and AFT thinking positively about his administration and had gotten them out to vote... Ah well, the White House has often been a place where intelligence goes to die. The isolation created by American paranoia really eliminates the possibility of good governance.

Allow me to try to explain testing to our President, to our Secretary of Education, even to Mr. Hamilton. Perhaps, if their educations had been a bit more robust, been a bit more connected to 'most people,' they'd understand why they sound ridiculous.

I am not against assessment. We assess ourselves, and those around us, constantly. I think of my days coaching football (soccer). I watched every player, I knew what worked for them, I knew what didn't. I knew what natural gifts they possessed, I knew what learned skills they had, and because I knew my athletes, I knew where each wanted to go. Still, no player ever got a grade from me. Every player played in every game unless hurt or sitting out for game discipline reasons. What my assessment did was help the player and I develop a map of where the player was is various facets of the game, and of where they wanted to be. Then my job as coach was to help them find paths between those starting and finishing points.

That's assessment. Teachers, those much maligned, overpaid, underworked teachers of your speeches, do that every day. But let us remember, that is not comparative assessment. It does not tell you that player (a) is "better" than player (b), and it can not help you compare team (a) to team (b) or coach (a) to coach (b). It is simply a way of helping people reach their potential.

Something happens though when you introduce the fiction of "standards" into this assessment process.
"When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement.

"But never at any time has a code of practice been laid down for the awarding of points. No offense intended to anyone. Never at any time in the history of the world has anyone-for anything ever so slightly more complicated than the straightforward play of a ball or a 400-meter race-been able to come up with a code of practice that could be learned and followed by several different people, in such a way that they would all arrive at the same mark. Never at any time have they been able to agree on a method for determining when one drawing, one meal, one sentence, one insult, the picking of one lock, one blow, one patriotic song, one Danish essay, one playground, one frog, or one interview is good or bad or better or worse than another."
- Peter Høeg Borderliners
 That "something" is the linear scale of "standards." Standards:

  1. A level of quality or attainment.
  2. Something used as a measure for comparative evaluations.
  3. An object supported in an upright position.
  4. A musical work of established popularity.
  5. The flag or ensign carried by a cavalry unit.
  6. A rule or set of rules or requirements which are widely agreed upon or imposed by government.
  7. A bottle of wine containing 0.750 liters of fluid.
  8. One of the upright members that supports the horizontal axis of a transit or theodolite.
  9. A manual transmission vehicle.
"Standards" - as applied in educational evaluations - are all of numbers 1, 3, and 6. They are a subjective measure of quality. Their purpose is comparative. They are usually "agreed upon" by those dominating a culture and/or imposed by a ruling elite (is that different?).

I often meet with young people from 'non-Anglo" cultures who are in transition from secondary education to universities. Almost all of them are nailed on the language testing for freshman. They are told that their way of explaining things, of telling stories, is "circular," is not "straightforward." They are told that the organization of their writing is "wrong." And they are, laughingly, told this by college English departments which place Irish fiction in "Brit Lit" courses - meaning - that the people evaluating these students completely ignore culture's role in literature.

"Standards" can not possibly be anything but political. You don't have to worship at the shrine of great colonialists as E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Robert Pondiscio do to still - by applying standards - be imposing your belief system, your culture, and your religion on those being measured.

I'll go back to Borderliners, because in this passage, in which Høeg's character is describing a question on an IQ test, best illustrates this...
"A letter came from her. It was not in her own words, it was a quote straight out of Binet-Simon. She must have learned it by heart, just by reading it. "There was once a grasshopper, who had sung merrily all summer long. Now it was winter and he was starving. So he went to see some ants who lived nearby and asked them to lend him some of the stores they had laid up for the winter. `What have you been doing all summer?' they asked. `I have sung day and night,' replied the grasshopper. 'Ah, so you have sung,' said the ants. `Well, now you can dance.'

"Beneath this she had written: "What is the moral?"

"It was so deep. It showed how she had figured out that this was a problem from the "fourteen years" level and that I must have had it. She had, therefore, used what I had written to her and discovered the system behind Binet-Simon.

"At the time when I had been given this story, I had come close to answering that the moral was ants were not helpful. But this would not have fitted in very well with the other problems. Instead I had sensed Hessen, and then I had said the moral was that one must seize the moment."
Of course, if one were raised as a Catholic, or a socialist, the answer is indeed, "ants were not helpful." In cultures non-Anglo, non-capitalist, you have a human moral responsibility to help. So this IQ test question is not at all about "intelligence" but about conformity to Calvinist Capitalistthought.

Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument in
Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn -
Over 11,000 murdered
, and forgotten
But it isn't just that, everything which gets standardized, from what you know about the American Revolution to how you form a sentence is a both a cultural construct and a method of limiting future change. There is a reason why US schools teach Hemingway but not Dos Passos. Dos Passos not only questions why the US was in World War I, he questions everything from sentence structure to spelling, and neither E.D. Hirsch nor Arne Duncan wants him in your schools. There is a reason why US schools teach about Ticonderoga but not the 11,000+ prisoners of war murdered by the British in Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn (a murder four times the size of 9/11). Learning about the latter might endanger US love of the British. (Evacuation Day was celebrated with the burning of British flags in New York every year through 1916, before being squelched by the Wilson government.)

There is a reason American children are taught that reading is an individual thing (see how Protestants worship), that arithmetic is taught before math concepts (the goal was to fail most children), why it is considered important to be on time for class (your children are being prepped for shift work in factories). There is a reason spelling is considered important when it was not previously (Theodore Roosevelt asserted that enforcing traditional spelling was certain to deprive most children of literacy). There is a reason the five-paragraph essay is taught in schools (it enforces a specific form of thinking).

And so, when we test any of this - any of our curriculum - we are making a political statement, enforcing a political code. Every application of comparative assessment compares a wide range of children to, maybe Barack Obama's daughters, or maybe E.D. Hirsch's grandchildren, with all the cultural baggage included. The less your child's life has been like either of those gold-plated cohorts, the higher the likelihood that you will fail and be consigned to capitalism's required underclass.

Obama, the privileged child of doctoral students doesn't understand this because he focused on other issues in his life. Arne Duncan, who I think does understand this, works for his friends and benefactors, whose children "win" when most others fail. Justin Hamilton, well, he's just doing public relations. He works for his boss.

But their ignorance or evil intent (whichever) does not hide the fact. Education is, by nature, political. Standardized education is overtly political. Comparative assessment is cruelly political. Testing is a form of cultural and psychological child abuse.

That's the truth.

- Ira Socol

01 April 2011

Why space matters

A very long time ago I was a young architecture student in Brooklyn. Pratt Institutes's School of Architecture was, at that time, a wild, ungraded, non-competitive place with no dominant style, and only, perhaps, a commitment to contextualism and social justice holding it together. One night they showed The Fountainheadand the the audience in Higgins Hall booed Howard Rourke/Gary Cooper intensely at the end. Ayn Rand's selfishness would find no footholds in the Fort Greene of the 1980s, but I digress...

In a design studio one semester we were greeted with a poster announcing a contest to design "The McDonald's of the Future." At first this seemed frivolous - we had been working on things like libraries, hospitals, the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial - and now? Fast food?

But encouraged to take it seriously I began an investigation which changed my sense of design forever.

I grabbed a sketchbook. And with that sketchbook I wandered through every fast food restaurant I could find. The urban storefront ones in downtown Brooklyn and the standardized suburban restaurants. I also plumbed my memory, thinking of that "first" McDonald's on US-1, and the trips there in the old Rambler. All of us eating in the car - there was no inside. And thinking of one winter night, stumbling off a frozen Interstate 96 in Brighton, Michigan - hitch-hiking between East Lansing and Ann Arbor - and finding the warm glow of a McDonald's on the horizon.

The original McDonald's design, success through subtraction
I realized that no building I had ever seen was more "purpose-built" than a McDonald's restaurant. Everything, absolutely everything, was design to (a) lure you in, (b) make you hungry, (c) get you out, and (d) make it easy to clean up after you. Other fast food buildings of the time, though often pretty good at expressing their differences (Wendy's were carpeted with those plastic Tiffany lamps - attempting to say "upscale," Burger Kings were "woodier" - more "adult"), didn't come close.

Example: All the Burger Kings of the time had their service window just inside the doors, on the left as you entered, with "dining" space on the right. All "new" McDonald's of the time (those 'post-Golden Arches') had the service counter in the back. If you drove, or walked, past a Burger King you saw people waiting in line, if you you rode, or walked, past a McDonald's you saw happy people eating.

Example: The McDonald's of the 1980s might be garish inside, but it glowed yellow - a warm glow of childhood memory - to all of my age who had discovered it as children. Burger Kings and Wendy's looked dim from outside. Fine if you were headed to a pub, but... And why did we have such great childhood memories? Not because of what McDonald's had added to the American Drive-In, but what was taken away. The restaurants which went global under Ray Kroc eliminated four 1950s/early 1960s mainstays which attracted crowds of rowdy teens - the car hops, the juke box, the public phone, the cigarette machine - and thus made "Micky D's" the place families went.

OK, this isn't really about McDonald's. It's about your school.

What is your school designed to do?

The typical American school follows the design parameters laid down by Henry Barnard in the 1840s. He took the school room as designed by William Alcott two decades earlier and assembled it into a factory for learning. "Double-loaded" corridors created an assembly line for the Prussian System of learning according to chronological age - further separated by room (secondary) or by the clock (primary) into discrete areas of study. "The Facher system, as it is termed in Germany where it is most popular, consists in employing separate teachers for separate studies, or as we should apply it here, for distinct departments of government, and of instruction. This is the principle on which instruction in our colleges and most of our higher seminaries is given, and is in reality the mixed method carried to its highest perfection. The vital error in our common schools, as they are now organized, is the practice of employing one teacher for the government and instruction of fifty or sixty children of every age, of both sexes, in a great variety of studies, and in different stages of proficiency in each study." (Barnard 1848 p.80)

Barnard is very specific: "The school-room should be a parallelogram, the length about twice the breadth." (p. 81) "The lower parts of the windows should be at least 6 feet from the floor, in order that the light may not be inconvenient, and the walls be at liberty for the reading lessons, etc., which are to be attached to it." (p.81) "The center of the platform is the place for the masters desk; and on each side there may be a small desk for the principal monitors." (p.81) "The entrance door should be on the side of the platform, in order that visitors on entering the school, may have a commanding view of all the children at once." (p.82) "Over the black-board, are the printed and written alphabet, arithmetical and geometrical figures, the pauses, &c., for copying or general exercise." (p.95)

Barnard describes everything, from desk heights to symmetry in entrance halls. He establishes the need to truly separate the classrooms from the play-grounds. He installs blinds on the windows. Thankfully, he sets ventilation requirements. And, in so many ways, the schools he describes are those we have today.

What are your schools designed to do?

The last time people really tried to re-imagine the American school building it produced the "open classroom schools" which are now all carved up. These schools were built around big open spaces designed for between 100 and 150 children, which can be brilliant, unless, as all these schools attempted, you try to run 4 or 6 traditional classes in each giant space. Teachers tried to do just that, and the "open classroom" - and school re-design - got a bad reputation because of a complete failure of school leadership to re-imagine learning.

But it is time. Today, from the first moment your kids arrive at school we divide them and organize them. We tell them that the absolute priority is to get where they've been told to go on time. Should that be our first message? Today we announce to children that learning happens in a specific place - their specific place. That learning happens now, but not then. That learning is something which starts and stops according to Pavlovian training. Are those the messages we intend to send? Today we continue to divide children up, not by interests or passions, not even by specific capabilities as William Shearer (1894) wanted, but first by age and then - typically - by chance - you got this teacher and you got that teacher.

And then we line our students and teachers up as eggs in a crate. Isolated. Disconnected. If kids here are learning this, kids there gain nothing from it.

But our schools could be different. Take a look at these Danish schools... one newly built (top), one renovated (bottom)...

These schools send different messages, require different pedagogies, and create an entirely different sense of what learning means. They are not the schools of 1848 or 1898 or 1948 or even 1988, but then, our students are going to emerge into the world of 2018 and 2038, and if we look at workplaces even today - say Google or Quicken Loans or YNNO or Haworth or wherever, you will find that today's work environments don't much look like your schools either. Your schools are designed to turn out employees who work in offices like those picture in Jack Lemmon's The Apartment, or who work in factories best portrayed in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Even the American universities we are supposedly preparing our children for long ago abandoned most of the nonsense... the rigid time schedules, the lack of recess, the required attendance, the assigned seating, the lack of choice which characterize huge parts of our school design. Can anyone besides our US President who has actually seen both a KIPP school and an Ivy League campus actual think that the former - in any way - preps students for success at the latter?

So take a walk around your school. Think, "spaces matter." Consider, even if you cannot reconstruct, how to re-imagine. Where can kids - of all ages - sit and collaborate in your hallways? Why do you have desks in your classrooms? Don't kids hate sitting there? Why do you have whiteboards mounted in one place? Wouldn't tablets or tabletPCs be better? Why do you have bells and discrete subjects? Shouldn't learning be integrated? Why do you have grades set by age? Aren't you eliminating both mentoring and the chance to rush ahead? Why would a teacher ever close their classroom door? Should learning be a secret?

Spaces matter because as human animals we all respond to our environments. And if your kids are all sitting at desks, if your classroom has a "teaching wall," you are back with Henry Barnard, you are creating children prepared for the world he wanted.

If that's not what you want, re-think, and re-design.

- Ira Socol