14 September 2011

If school isn't for collaborating, why does anyone come?

If your school, and your school day, is not about students collaborating, connecting, and building knowledge and understandings together, why would anyone come?

The American Office as represented in the 1960 Jack Lemmon-Shirley MacLain film, The Apartment
Serious question. If students want to learn in isolation; if they want to sit at a desk and work on their own stuff, occasionally checking in with an "expert," they have no reason to come to school. They can do a lot better at home, or at their local coffee shop or even the public library, where both the coffee and the WiFi connection will be better.

Haworth Office Systems headquarters, Holland,
Michigan. Transparent Collaboration
Actually, this isn't new for most students. For years we've talked about (or we may have even been) kids who've only come to school because of team sports, or music groups, or theatre, or even hanging out at lunch. But the technologies of our time have made the situation almost universal. If school isn't about doing things together, just about everyone has better places to spend their day.

But today, far more classrooms, far more school schedules, far more assessment systems, and far, far more assignments, mimic the office in the picture above. It is 1960 and everyone is reduced to doing duplicative tasks because individual work cells and career competition prevent any reasonable sharing or building of community cognition.

The world of work has moved on, but the educational structure, despite the efforts of many individual teachers and administrators, crawls along, hoping the big Nixon-Kennedy TV debate will help them decide on who should be the next president.

Google's London Offices - the striped "beach shacks"
in the rear are small conference rooms.
It really doesn't matter what a company makes or does any more. Could be the world's biggest information provider, or a mortgage bank, or a manufacturer, the workplaces are now open, transparent, and places of continuous collaboration. They are also "wall-less" by nature, with employees and consultants communicating from wherever on the planet they might be at the moment in question. And, naturally, collaborating with customers and clients synchronously and asynchronously across 24+ time zones in many, many different languages and dialects.

Somehow though, a vast assortment of educators, from that crusty old mathematics teacher proud that she has been "teaching the same way for thirty years," to Bill Gates favorite boy Salman Khan, believe that kids sitting alone, working by themselves, with canned, inflexible data in front of them, is the best preparation for life in the present and future.

Somehow, these educators think the information of the world still moves via paper and pencil, that there are "correct answers" to everything, and that there is a structured cultural norm of learning behavior, best exemplified by the silent child bent over a wooden desk with a thick physical book, which must be duplicated if a student is to succeed in their learning spaces.

Sagasaki Monitor Group of Mitsubishi
No wonder nobody wants to come.

So here is what your classroom, and your school, needs to offer kids:

1. A learning environment in which students make most decisions. Where will I work? What devices will I use? How will I use my time? How will I get help? How will I work with others? How will I be comfortable? This doesn't mean a situation without guidance or mentoring, but it does mean that if your students are not continually moving your students toward self-determination and control, the school and the teachers are failing. (Key: No higher grade classroom should ever look more structured than the kindergarten rooms in your school, district, division, LEA...)

2. A time environment in which students learn and work along a schedule which makes sense to them. Every time a bell rings, or classes "change" according to your pre-set ideas, you are stopping students from learning, pursuing, accomplishing. "Sure you are interested in this bit of history, but its time to memorize equations now..." - could you possibly do more harm to the learning process? You have to create schools based in Project-Based Learning where students can work toward their goals in a "natural" human learning environment. (Key: Your school should look more like a studio than a factory...)

The American Office in this Century:
Workers find their own comfort, their own
collaborative environments, and learn to build
their own privacy and schedules.
3. A technological environment which supports collaboration across every barrier. Sorry, if you have purchased a single device for all of your students - you've made a major mistake. If you don't have open internet access in every room (OK, you can filter for true pornography if you must) - you are denying your students basic tools. If you prohibit student-owned devices or block social networking, you are failing your students in the most basic ways. Students need to learn how to function in this world, not the one your grandma grew up in. Every place they go, people will be using a flood of differing devices. Every place they work people will be Skyping, Twittering, Chatting, Texting, working together in Google Docs, translating, searching for information and data, and building social networks. If they are not learning the best ways to do all this, your school is a failure, because your students will lack essential knowledge and social skills. (Key: If you can walk into a classroom and see a bunch of kids doing the same thing in the same way on the same device, you still have a 19th Century school.)

4. A social environment where adults do not rank students according to their oppressive standards. Honor Rolls, adult-determined awards, published class ranks, treating one sport as more important than another, these acts all stratify the social environment, create bullying, and prevent students from recognizing talents among their peers - which is an essential skill. You and your fellow educators and your community must back off and let kids build their own social networks without your inherited prejudices. Every time you post an honor roll or 5,000 people attend a Friday night "American Football" game while 50 show up for a Wednesday night "Soccer" game, you are sending destructive messages. (Key: If students are not all known for what they are good at, there is a problem.)

So, take a look around at the learning environment your students enter. Is there any reason for them to be there?

- Ira Socol

10 September 2011

What education should have learned from the "9/11 decade"

Being "socially reproductive" in nature, education is often the very last set of institutions to comprehend and embrace changes in society. And this fact is not just a problem for society, which finds itself forever preparing students for the best jobs of thirty years ago, but for students on a daily basis - as they sit through hour after hour of irrelevant curriculum surrounded by irrelevant structure.

When the attacks of September 11, 2001 took place, it should have, as the 9/11 Commission said, taught many lessons, yet, as when anything is "taught," these lessons were not always learned.

That commission started their report by noting that, "[t]he 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise." The US had, of course, been attacked before by these terrorists, in fact the World Trade Center had been attacked just eight years earlier. We clearly knew the destructive power of "ordinary things" turned into weapons. And no one in the US could have been surprised by the ease with which terror organizations move money and capabilities around.

Yet, like US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with the flood of cheating scandals tied to his high stakes testing, US society was stunned and surprised because it was not paying attention to the world, or even its own experiences.

The 9/11 Commission also pointed out four essential areas of failure which led to the attacks being successful: Imagination, Policy, Capabilities, and Management. And today, ten years later, those failures haunt every level of American education, from the uncomprehending Mr. Duncan down to so many neighborhood primary schools.

Arne and Rahm (the white guys center and right) talk about how great they
made all of Chicago's schools.
Our education system fails to see - even the very obvious. Just last week Arne Duncan's flaks were happily tweeting about their Potemkin Village tour of US schools... A "see no problems, hear no problems, speak no problems" event designed to fluff up the Department of Education's image amidst a fast growing realization of its complete failure.

Our leadership refuses to see the destructiveness of high stakes testing, or the corrosive viciousness of funding disparities, or the inherent racism of much of the "Charter School Movement," KIPP, or TFA. They refuse to even see that the decisions they (see Arne, Barack, Rahm) make for their own children contradicts all of their policies.
At the school Barack Obama's kids attend faculty-
student ratio really matters. It just doesn't for your

Of course we still fail to see the world as changing around us. Work and workplaces have changed radically in the last decade. Space and time have become amazingly flexible. Collaboration has become the way all things are done. The technologies of our time have enabled new and vastly superior ways to work, communicate, and combine our talents. Not just in "high tech" industries, but everywhere.

I remember being in General Motors assembly plants around Lansing, Michigan in the 1970s. Back then, if the worker in front of you on the line failed to do something, nobody down the line cared. We were "individuals" back then, and if I was the tail-light installer it wasn't my problem if the bumper fell off. That kind of work ethic is inconceivable today - which is a good thing. Except it is fully conceivable in US national education policy where Messers Duncan and Obama want teachers and students competing, not collaborating.

The result is, like the World Trade Center, education for most American children continues to collapse. And we continue to be "stunned."

Yet, the failure of imagination is even worse. We consistently fail to imagine what we cannot already see. And we ridicule those who have this ability.

We even refuse to see it when it is directly in front of us. For example, we know how well constructivist open schools worked in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. But we deny this because it goes against our faith in the belief that children (well, Other People's Children) are dangerous and must be tightly controlled. We even spend huge amounts of time bashing the educational ideas of those decades despite that era having produced perhaps the most creative, inventive generations in American history. It was the students of the much maligned "new math" who created the Internet, built the Hubble Space Telescope, developed the personal computer. It was the equally maligned "whole language" students who led global revolutions in communications.

We refuse to imagine even when the imagination is "across the hall." If I show this brief collection of images to 100 school administrators...
...what percent will declare that these kinds of environments "won't work" without even investigating?

I often bring up our closest human "cousins" when I discuss imagination. The Bonobos are fabulous creatures who live an Edenic existence in the forests of Congo (Brazzaville). What separates humans from these guys is, sure, violence and competition, abuse of natural resources and destruction of other species... but to give it our positive spin, our imagination. The ancients who wrote the Bible called this split from the Edenic jungle past, "The Fall." Humans were not quite satisfied with the rules and "perfection" of their existence, and they imagined possibilities. They climbed down from the trees and walked beyond the horizon. They wondered what was "over there," then, "over there" again. They ended up wandering to tough places to live, from deserts to the frozen north, and imagined and invented tools to make each move possible.

Meanwhile, the Bonobos stayed in their Eden. And while it has worked for them for millions of years, they are different animals because of those choices. And if their Eden changes, they have no response.

The list goes on. Our policies are constantly rooted in response to the last problem. We have principals and even states who ban mobile phones or facebook because of problems they've encountered or heard about. As one teacher twittered me after we built a "reasonable" mobile phone policy for his class, "rolled out your cell phone policy this week. Teachers think I'm nuts insisting on phones out. Kids think I'm normal."

We often insist, despite all evidence, on secondary students beginning school before primary students. We insist on age-based grades while debating "social promotion." We refuse to shift resources to the students who need them most. We test things we know are irrelevant because we say it is "too hard" to evaluate what matters. We insist on "well-qualified" teachers, blocking the kind of cross-curricular instruction we know works best. From the nation down to the classroom we install rules which stand in the way of children learning, and of children developing necessary life skills.

These policies, and lack of imagine, freeze our capabilities in an antiquated state.

We have steadfastly refused to take advantage of the tools of our world. Even when we adopt a tool, we adopt it exactly as we adopted tools in the past, we buy iPads for everyone and every task as if they key to this century has not been the incredible range of technology choices for the incredible range of humanity. Even among our self-styled "visionaries" we hear about "textbooks on tablets" rather than moving far beyond textbooks, and one can hardly visit Twitter or Google+ without seeing someone proclaim the iPad, or the IWB, or this or that tool as "the future," when quite obviously, these tools are, at best, the present.

The future of the moving picture
This trap of celebrating the last invention as "the future" has snared better minds than ours over the years - including Edison and both DC current and the Kinetoscope. And, well, even the 19th Century's rail barons - those whose management systems we still copy, knew that every railroading task required a different tool.

But that's the "visionaries." Way too many schools are trapped much further back than that. Few fully accept what William Alcott noted in 1842, that insisting that kids write on paper - rather than easier to fix, re-do, etc slate - made life harder for students and slowed learning. Few even understand Alcott's 1832 insistent that student comfort matters a great deal, and that no student should ever be expected to stay in a classroom for more than 20 minutes at a time.

We still build our school buildings like industrial assembly lines, as Henry Barnard suggested in the 1850s as he prepped children to work in his friend's New England mills. We still time our school days as if learning can only happen in discrete cells of time. "Sorry kid, I know you're excited about this physics concept, but its time to stop your learning now so you can discuss the narrative choices in Ethan Frome."

In other words, we are failing to provide the capabilities our students need, and will need.

All of these failures are tied together by a fundamental failure to reimagine management. We persist in our Scientific Management beliefs, persist in our faith in numbers and statistics above all, persist in our need to measure via linear scales. These are not beliefs based in logic or any kind of truth. Rather, they are a faith-based system built of equal parts Protestantism, Industrialism, and Capitalism.

George W. Bush believed he could code threats in color. The Pentagon in five "DefCon" numbers. And our educational system is structured around the belief that we can create an average individual by adding up random people and dividing. And the system evaluates itself by pretending that checklists are somehow neutral things. The key book on how destructive this all is was written in 1962 by Raymond Callahan, but the issue remains off the radar for most.

Invictus- Leadership is not about counting, it is about seeing beyond what exists.

Scientific Management doesn't just limit what we see - if its not on the form it can't exist - it locks us into past practice by insisting that we constantly compare ourselves to the unexamined "always been."

"Natural" Leadership vs. Scientific Management

Management has to be human in order to work effectively with humans. Management has to be based in real human multi-tasking, deep mapping, "ADHD" type observation. Scientific managers would never have let Lincoln become a lawyer, much less a President. They would have dumped Teddy Roosevelt and George VIinto "Resource Rooms." A little known Michael Collins would have been declared too young and inexperienced to lead an Irish army. Dr. Seuss would have no track record indicating that he could sell books.

Just as the United States military fired "risky" gay Arabic speakers, and blocked Arab-Americans from sensitive positions ("past experiences predict problems"), and Rudy Giuliani's and Bill Bratton's stat-based "One City" policing strategy so alienated New York City's minority communities that essential intelligence dried up.

Just as Arne Duncan and friends want to fire teachers and principals they know absolutely nothing about. Just as Republican governors across the US insist that "class size doesn't matter."

September 11, 2001 was a tragic day built on multiple failures. The decade since, globally, has compounded many of those failures.  The decade since, in education - certainly in the United States and England - has been a nightmare of lessons unlearned. Of changes not made.

As I have been finishing this post, a few of us have been talking on Twitter about fear and anxiety among American students. Is the visible increase a result of the events of that day ten years ago? Or is it a result of a society which has refused to change, to adapt, to reimagine, to breach barriers, to be different than the nation which slumbered into that day with the brilliantly blue sky?

There are many lessons on this sad anniversary, but the biggest one is truly that we must learn to see, to manage, to function in ways different from the way we saw, managed, and functioned before.

Peace on this day - Ira Socol

08 September 2011

The Stories of 11 September 2001

In the posts below I, really we, suggest ways in which you can get your students thinking and writing about September 11th, and history, in ways which help them understand how their world is constructed.
9/11 in photographs, a Guardian multimedia piece
There are so many stories, and so many sources. Two newspapers stand out in collections your students can use. The Guardian's 9/11 Decade Archive is remarkable in its global and emotional breadth. The New York Times Learning Network has assembled many fabulous resources and ideas. Of particular interest for older students is the Guardian's short fiction project.

I believe in storytelling. I believe in helping students to become storytellers and story hearers. I believe in helping students understand why people tell stories, and how people tell stories. Because I believe that there are two things which truly make us human, our use of tools, and our ability to tell, understand, and appreciate stories.

So, with that in mind, here are links to the stories I have written about 9/11 and the World Trade Center. They are stories which struggle to say what I want say - and that struggle to find your words through multiple attempts is something I would hope you will let your students experience with their writing, their storytelling.

Morning Arrivals
(a World Trade Center very new and still quite empty, with artists lofts filling some of the space)
The Beach (in adolescence we experience spaces differently, and that is a good thing)
A River Runs Through It (trying to map lost places)
March Seventeenth (terrorism comes to New York, but life is a personal thing)
September 11, 2001: In Moments (trying to capture chaos in words)
Finding Ends (11/19/2001) (what is left after everything has happened)

But there is one more story. I had a friend. When we met I was a New York City cop and he was a busboy at Windows on the World on the 107th floor of One World Trade Center. He was a quiet guy who loved New York in every way. We were just about the same age, and yet, our histories were so incredibly different. And sometimes, late, late at night, we'd climb the stairs from that restaurant's kitchen up to the roof. Two World Trade Center had the observation deck, but this was just a roof anchoring a massive broadcast antenna which still made this the World's Tallest Building. And we'd lie there on the roof, suspended between the city and the stars, and we'd tell stories.

Later, I moved away but he stayed. Became a waiter. And was at work that morning.

- Ira Socol

07 September 2011

September 11, 2001: History Remembered, History Forgotten

Teaching "9/11": Why? How? (The New York Times Learning Network)   
Remembering September 11, 2001
      Iconic Absence       Knowing History
Lessons developed with Dr. Pamela Moran - Albemarle County Public Schools
with thanks to
The New York Times Learning Network - Holly Epstein Ojalvo and Katherine Schulten

One way of looking at the history of September 11, 2001 is to look at how history is constructed. Some events which seemed huge in their time become forgotten. "VJ Day," the day that Japan surrendered to end World War II was a massive holiday when it happened, but now very few in the United States or Great Britain could name the date.
On the other hand, sometimes an event which goes un-noticed at the time it occurs becomes mythic. Birthdays of famous people are one example. So history is a question of storytelling. And to explore this, here are six historic events groups of students might explore.

Exploring the creation of history...

The stories of September 11, 2001 are very recent in the minds of most Americans, and they are still being formed in political and cultural debate, but other attacks and catastrophes from times past might give us clues to how history is created through storytelling.

How do we understand a previous event or why is an event no longer recalled? Might the event have impacted your community in some way, or the families of other students? How did things change or not as a result of the event? If we were writing history, how would we decide whether to include the event? If not, why not?

In our groups we will consider and investigate how the stories of these other events were “constructed” and how those stories have changed - in the telling and importance - over time. Do different groups within the United States remember those events differently, and how do those differences affect the way we think and what we do? As individuals and as a community or a nation?
The design of the National 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center.
The memorial is currently under construction. Pools with waterfalls
mark the centers of the location of One and Two World Trade Center
What kinds of questions can we ask about these events? How will we research how such events might have touched their own families and community? How will we tell the stories we learn to all the other students, from different places, in our groups?

We will start to explore the past as historians do. We will begin by looking for stories and images from the time of the event, and then we will look for stories told afterwards. You and your groups will begin to decide whether what you find is reliable and confirmable (verifiable) information, not just an opinion. You will try to find out about the authors of the stories. Why did they tell or write these stories?

We will think about all of ways that events are recalled, and we can do this by accessing global news sources. Newspapers carry many kinds of stories around big events, including retrospectives. Comparing what seemed important on the day an event was first reported with coverage years later will help us build a sense of how history is written, and how that writing changes over time

Moment 1

General Slocum Fire. 1,021 died on June 15, 1904 when an East River (New York City) excursion steamboat, filled with church group family picnickers, caught fire. This fire caused people in the United States to think deeply about safety in public transportation.

Wikipedia Popular Culture General Slocum Articles 
(portrayals of event in books, films, etc)
On this Day
The New York Times Primary Source  

Manhattan Melodrama
(1934 film including fire on this ship)

Above: The General Slocum in New York City's East River
Above: The General Slocum after the fireBelow: the New York World

Moment 2

The Prison Ship Martyrs. Over 11,500 American soldiers and sailors who had been taken prisoner during the Revolutionary War died in what were early “death camps” aboard ships in Wallabout Bay on the East River in Brooklyn (what later became the Brooklyn Navy Yard). Anger in New York was so great that New Yorkers celebrated the day British troops left at the end of the Revolutionary War for more than 100 years (until the beginning of World War I). To celebrate they burned British flags.
(image: the Prison Ship New Jersey)

The New York Times on Prison Ship Martyr’s Bones (1908)
The New York Times on History of the Prison Ship Martyrs (1900)
The New York Times Remembering the Prison Ship Martyrs (2008)
The New York Times Student Connections

Video of Prison Ship Memorial (YouTube)

Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, NY

Above: Wallabout Bay showing the shore around the time of the American Revolution (can you find the current area on Google Maps or Google Earth?).  Below: The Brooklyn Navy Yard around 1850 (can you find pictures of "the yard" during World War II?)

Moment 3

RMS Lusitania
. 1,198 people, including 128 Americans were killed when a German submarine torpedoed the British ship Lusitania near Ireland on May 7, 1915. The ship had been travelling from New York to Southhampton, England. The sinking had a major impact on American opinion about the “Great War” going on in Europe, and indirectly led toward US involvement in World War I beginning in 1917.
The New York Times
front page from the day after the ship sank

American Memory from the Library of Congress


Video about Sinking of the Lusitania (silent short film, 1918)

Above: the Warning issued by the German Embassy in Washington, DC before the sailing.  Below: the Lusitania, the world's fastest ship (of the time) in a postcard
Below: A 1916 newspaper diagram of the sinking

Moment 4

Pearl Harbor
. 2,402 Americans, mostly military personnel, were killed in an attack by Japanese aircraft on Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Within 24 hours of this attack two other US Territorial Possessions were also attacked by the Japanese Navy, Guam and the Philippines. These attacks and Japanese attacks on British controlled territories in Asia linked the Japanese wars against Korea and China to the war raging in Europe since 1939 and created “World War II.”

The New York Times front page (December 8, 1941)
FDR Speech December 8, 1941 
Pearl Harbor Wikipedia Entry  

Pearl Harbor (YouTube movie, 2001 excerpt)

Above: USS Maryland (left) and USS Arizona (right) on December 7, 1941
Below: Ships at Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941

Below: New York World-Telegram December 8, 1941
Moment 5

. 168 Americans were killed on April 19, 1995 when two American citizens, men with extreme views about the government exploded a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

The New York Times front page
(April 20, 1995)
Presidents Speak to National Tragedies
: Johnson, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama (The New York Times video footage)
The New York Times Bill Clinton 15 years later
(April 18, 2010)

Above: heavy equipment brought to search through the rubble in Oklahoma City Below: the Baltimore Sun April 20, 1995

Below: Timothy McVeigh

Moment 6

The Attack on Blair House
. A White House Police Officer was killed when two terrorists attacked the temporary home of President Truman on November 1, 1950. This assault on the American Executive Mansion (the White House was being reconstructed at this time and could not be used) was conducted by people seeking full independence for the United States’ Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The New York Times
Attack on President Truman
(November 1, 1950)

Wikipedia Entry on Blair House Attack

Protest at the White House

The New York Times
Remembers Attackers of Blair House
(February 23, 1994)

Attack on President Truman at Blair House (newsreel, November 1, 1950)

Above: Blair House in 1951
Below: One of the attackers lies dead

How will September 11, 2001 be remembered in 50 years? in 100 years? in 200 years? In 2111 will people wonder about the memorial now being built?

- Ira Socol