24 October 2011

Class War at The New York Times

The New York Times continues to pursue their war against American kids. Oh not all kids, of course. The Times wouldn't put the children of their editorial staff or of their big advertisers at risk, just the poor kids, the kind of kids they so happily sent to Iraq in 2003 with their phony reporting of Dick Cheney's propaganda, the kind of kids who attend all the schools in New York City that Times reporters would never consider entering.

Real kids. Our kids.

This month The Times is in the middle of one more of their dreary series of attacks on contemporary technology in education. This group by a guy named Matt Richtel who is famous for proving the provably untrue in a series of Times pieces about multitasking.1 I always wonder if their need to do this somehow coincides with their inability to make money from their website, but, that's for their Mexican creditors to determine, not me.

Sunday's piece, A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute, set a new standard for this Times meme, and indicated the depth of the newspaper's commitment to class war.

Rich kids. If they are up-to-date, just the two encyclopedias on the shelves in the
foreground cost more than a set of 20 tablets or netbooks, plus wireless access
points, would have cost. (
New York Times photo by Jim Wilson)
Jonathan Martin, a Waldorf School parent, already wrote a fabulous response to The Times, and I won't go over all the he covers, but I do have a few things to say...

As Martin indicates, "this is not journalism that belongs on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. I think it is a very disappointing bit of snarky journalism that informs readers, a little bit, about Waldorf practices, condescendingly, but has as its primary purpose a not-so covert agenda to advance the paper’s ongoing attack on the use of computers in learning." Furthermore, he points out the absurdity of the piece which describes a school used by a handful of uber-rich technology execs (just outside the single most expensive college town in America) - "an anecdotal and almost entirely meaningless report: after all, every industry has among its many employees a wide diversity of educational philosophy" - as representing anything of significance, about Waldorf education (and its controversies), or anything else."When Richtel and his Grading the Digital School series discusses schools with technology that don’t raise performance on standardized tests, standardized testing is treated as a near absolute be-all, end-all of educational success," Martin continues, "but when celebrating a school approach without technology (serving then the anti-tech agenda), the importance of standardized testing success is happily set aside.  This is not journalism, this is hatchet work."

I think those are $50.00+ pencil sets, all looking brand new.
But this is not an article, or a series, about education. It is part of a class war on those not wealthy enough to be part of 'The World of The New York Times.' The Times, after all, is hardly against technology in education. Times folks send their kids to some of the most wired schools in the nation, from Scarsdale, New York public schools to Green Farms, from St. Bernard's to Stuyvesant High at Battery Park City, or from elementary schools in Larchmont or Greenwich Village. What The New York Times is against is for anyone to think that spending public money on "technology" for "our" kids makes any sense.

Why would they be against that? Simply because they want nothing in place which might even begin to tilt that infamous educational playing field toward anything close to level. If "our" kids... not the 99% of Occupy Wall Street, but the 95% of those outside the social circles of New York Times editors and executives, get anything close to an equal opportunity, they might challenge the children and the grandchildren of Times executives and friends for both places in elite universities, and then, maybe even, for jobs. So, The New York Times, the standard-bearer for American wealth, cannot allow that to happen.

And thus, they send a reporter with a Pulitzer Prize in suspect use of data out to find the kind of "proof" that school boards and state legislators can embrace. "If Google execs (well, at least one of them) send their kids to a school without computers, we surely shouldn't be buying them for poor kids."

And so tech for the poor gets cut, which means they lose all access to global information, to accessibility, to open communication. All the kids at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula go home to houses filled with technology and families that travel with them and buy them whatever supports they need. Waldorf schools traditionally "pass" on kids with disabilities and tuition usually keeps the poor away, so, the biggest issue, according to Richtel, is parental disinterest. "The students say they can become frustrated when their parents and relatives get so wrapped up in phones and other devices." But in schools which cannot buy new Britannicas every other year at $2,700.00, which cannot afford hundreds of hundred dollar skeins of yarn for each student or $54.96 boxes of pencils, issues of connectivity and knowledge base may indeed come up. So might issues of differing capabilities, issues of home resources, issues of up-to-date texts, etc.

But The Times is making a sale here, which you can see reflected in comments made just outside New York City, where the City School District of New Rochelle is trying to equip its most disconnected, impoverished students with 4G laptops for school and home. "None of them has Internet access at home," the article points out. "Pierre [one student] leaned over from a neighboring seat to add, "I'm going to take good care of it. I'm going to play math games and use it for reading and writing."' But the commenters, mostly from New Rochelle's New York Times-reading wealthier "North End" (think Dick Van Dyke or Ragtime), see it The Times' way: "games and circuses. Put a monitor on 99% of these "free" computers, and you'll find that 99% of the usage will be entertainment and game-related." "Let's see how many of these computers will be usable after one school year, or come back at all. many will "disappear."'

Jefferson Elementary School (New Rochelle, NY) students being branded by Verizon,
but also getting access to information and communication
in school and at home. (
Journal-News photo by Carucha L. Meuse)
I, having been one of those "wrong end of town" kids long ago in that city, tried to fight back, even including William Alcott's 1842 quote about the "new technology" which Richtel's Waldorf School does embrace, "Slates are as necessary as black boards, and even more so. But they are so liable to be broken, it will be said, as to render it expensive to parents to keep their children supplied with them." But The Times is having its effect, the idea that, "I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” Richtel quotes one of Eric Schmidt's speechwriters as saying. And Richtel finds Dr. Paul Thomas of Furman University (a long reach from Silicon Valley but you've got to hunt the supporting quotes down), who says, "Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”

So, projects like what New Rochelle is trying to do in their poorer elementary schools, will remain rare, and the children of The New York Times family will continue blissfully without real competition.

In creating this vision - denying to the poor what the rich already have - The Times depends on the essential cluelessness of the population, and unfortunately also way too much of the educational community, about what "technology" is.

"Technology," to quote (nervously, because he was pretty much a Nazi) Heidegger, is the "art of manipulating the world." A "physical book" is one way of manipulating information and getting it into your head. A print newspaper is another. So is a telegraph key, or a black-board. For me, none of those work well. OK, I was good at Morse Code at one point, but I've never done well with the others, because I'm just not good at reading alphabetic text. Sorry, call me illiterate or stupid or brain-damaged, as people have, but its the way God (or genetics) made me. So, I need different tools to manipulate that information world: Film, for example - I like to share how NWP's Paul Oh and I both seem to have learned the art of writing dialogue by watching Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie back in New York. Or audio, whether LP, or cassette, or TTS.

When Alcott wrote his book, he found that the key to kids manipulating the world for writing lay in the slate. With the slate erasing was easy so making mistakes was easy (same argument made regarding computers by Englert, Manalo, and Zhao (2004)) and so kids did better with spelling, grammar, and composition. For some kids telling a video story is the way (this is easier now than in the days of Super 8 film - cheaper, faster, way better for editing, although, yeah, I did Super 8 stuff). For others, yup, a pencil and a blank book is what its all about.

But it is important for Messers Richtel, Eagle (of Google), and Thomas to know is that, despite their claims, the old technology is neither superior nor more natural than anything which has come after. For years now I've had to point out that every time new ways of "manipulating the world" appear, those who hold power tend to oppose them. Socrates opposed both writing and literacy. The Catholic Church opposed Gutenberg's printing press. Alcott had to beg those funding Common Schools to install black-boards and give kids slates, even though the private schools of the wealthy and places like West Point had had them for years.

When different tools for manipulating the world appear, different people are given the chance to succeed, and when different people are given the chance to succeed, those in power are always threatened.

And none are threatened more than a group which has derived its status from being able to perform certain tasks which others cannot. So teachers and education profs and newspaper editors - the "always gotten As" kids who thrived on reading and writing faster than the rest of us, who thrived on memorization and correct spelling and understanding the Dewey Decimal System - they fear for their status if I can listen to a book, or dictate a letter, or use spellcheck, or use Google.

In a Waldorf School like the one Mr. Richtel and The New York Times celebrates, I was no threat, nor are millions of other kids. But if they let us have the technology, we might get to college, we might write books, hell, we might get elected Governor.

So, The Times front page Sunday wasn't about education, or "technology," or Waldorf Schools. It was about power. It was another shot in the class war being waged daily in America.

- Ira Socol

1 - I sure don't advocate texting while drive, but despite vehicle miles traveled increasing by over 20% since mobile phones became widely available, fatal auto accidents have dropped by over 17% in the 15 years between 1995 and 2009. These actual statistics directly contradict Richtel's claims about distracted driving. http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx

20 October 2011

Why I write...

I could tell you why I write about education, how that is one way I think I can contribute to helping people dream something better, but since the National Writing Project asked, "why I write?" I thought I'd aim this at students...

I started writing long ago, before I could really write at all. I drew pictures and let them change. Sometimes on pieces of paper, sometimes with chalk. I rarely shared them, but they were ways for me to slow down, to think things out, to talk about fears, at least to myself, to talk about hopes, to imagine possibilities...

And though I've moved to using words, words built out of letters (which have never been easy for me), and I use keyboards or I dictate to my computer or phone (because who cares how you get your stories down, just that you get your stories down), I still tell stories for all those reasons, and I've added another - I tell stories because I want others who dream, others who are afraid, others who imagine, to know that they are not alone.

So I write. I pay little attention to specific rules of grammar. I let the technology fix the spelling. I don't construct perfect sentences. And I don't stick to "appropriate" words.

And so I write to tell about fear and sadness...

Midnight Mass

The wind whips off the Sound but I've pulled myself down between the biggest rocks, stones broken free and rolled by those greatest of the earth's glaciers God knows how long ago. I light my tiny fire, trash and newspapers and driftwood and as it starts to warm me I look at those rocks, the sedimentary stripes going vertically, and because of how I know about these boulders, I start to cry.
Christmas Eve, no, Christmas Day now, it has to be after two. I went to Midnight Mass at St. Joseph's because no one would know me there. That kept me warm all that time. I kept my hand over the right side of my face as much as I could. I know it's all swollen and black and blue. I know the cut's bad. I got butterflies though at the Rite Aid in the Mall and got those on in the Macy's bathroom then held my face to the tile floor up at the top of the elevators in the garage. That was cold as shit and brought the swelling down some.

When I climbed in Kathy's window at ten she freaked out when she saw me. She even said she'd get her mom, but I told her "no way" and she cleaned it up and put new butterflies on. Then before anyone there got suspicious I went out again, and got to St. Joe's, with food Kathy grabbed for me plus orange juice and cupcakes I bought at the C-mart on the way to church all stuffed in a paper bag. And then, well fuck him. Fuck them all. I'm not going home. I might never go home...

...and I write to explain how I sometimes see the world in strange ways...


I thought the picture of them in the pool was our flooded basement. Does this represent a curious way of seeing? My mom, dad, brother, sister by a ladder in water. We didn't swim in pools, not til later. The ocean was at the end of the block. I mistook many things for many things. I still do. Even after I had spent years in pools, every single day, I thought that picture was taken underneath our kitchen while a hurricane washed across the island.

I was disappointed when I learned it was not.

...and I write to say that sometimes we all need to see beyond what is there...

Timing the Night

...I know my history. I come to this park to rehab the knee that I now feel swelling beneath the huge steel brace, but things that are gone fascinate me. I see dead people in my nightmares but even in the waking day I see long vanished buildings and places. And this park, well, long before it was a tomb for eleven thousand Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors killed in prisons by their British guards, it was a fort that Washington had tried to defend. And a hundred and fifty years before that losing battle I know that in the bay out there, in the bay beyond the fucking Farragut Houses, beyond the ancient brick Navy Yard wall, beyond all the old buildings and pierhouses and cranes where once a whole fleet of ships were launched to win the World War, beyond all that there were marshes thick with fish and oyster reefs and migrating ducks and pushing through a narrow channel a Dutch sailing ship arrived on a barely comprehended continent and dumped hired Flemish immigrants, Walloons they called them, to populate a new outpost in southern New Netherland.

If I work on it, especially in the settling dusk, I can see the woods and the deep green prairie that stretches to the tide line. And if I wait and let consciousness slip, sparks will start to fly from mud chimneys in the tiny cluster that will begin Breuckelen. Somehow, I know it is still out there.
I get up and begin to limp around, and though the Trade Center illuminates the night over there and the off-duty gun presses against my side under the big loose shirt and I am circling a Monument not built until 1908 in a park created in the 1860s I can find the seventeenth century. I watch those first Europeans pushing along the old Lenni Lenapi trade routes and creating tiny villages, Boswyk, Midwout, Nieuw Amersfort, Nieuw Utrecht, and Gravesend. Stumpy square-rigged ships drift through the harbor mixing with giant dugout canoes. The moon rises over an empire of trees...

...and I write to re-think memories...

Subway Map

On that weekend when they both disappeared from home, she with a black eye and he with a huge welt on his back where it had struck the radiator when he'd flown across the room, they pooled what money they had and split it mostly between his sock and her shoe and took the Number Six train down to Grand Central then the Seven over to Sixth then the D all the way to the end at Stillwell Avenue on Coney Island where neither had ever been. To celebrate escape they ate hot dogs at Nathan's and bought cokes and walked along the beach which was pretty empty on this early afternoon in early May. He told her he loved her and that they'd stay away forever and find jobs and live in one of those little houses they'd seen from the train that sat on walks not even streets and that, in their house, no one would ever hurt anybody. And the day turned into night and they actually found a twenty dollar bill in the sand plus a bunch of change and felt rich and had knishes and cream soda for dinner, splitting a cherry-cheese one for dessert, then curled up against a giant concrete support under the boardwalk...

And so I want everyone to write... and by "write" I mean to tell your stories. Stories are the way humans learn about each other and about the world. None of them are ever really "true," no, not even those labelled "non-fiction" by your teachers or by your library, but none of them are truly "fake" either, not even the craziest science fiction, they have come from genuine places in the minds of real people.

And if you do not tell your stories in a way that others can reach them - even others who have no idea who you are - you cast less of a shadow on this world and on our lives than you should. Because, we need your voice too... We need your dreams, your memories, your imaginings, and even your fears.

Because we are all important. And our stories are all important. And that's why I write, and that's why I want you to too.

- Ira Socol 

16 October 2011

Ordinary People

"We realized that we needed a guitarist," Sir Paul McCartney was saying in a documentary on George Harrison I watched this morning, "I mean John and I had guitars and we played them but neither of us could play anything like a solo or that."

In Harrison's recollection, "John had this guitar but he only had four strings on it, so we had to show him what a guitar really was."
The most brilliant transformative musical geniuses of the second half of the 20th century, yes, but ordinary people, flawed people, people who clearly understood their limitations. I can pretty much sing every song John Lennon wrote, I know what he meant to me, to much of the world. But it is also true that he often seemed to barely be able to play a musical instrument, that he was pretty much a bastard to his son Julian, and that, I'm quite sure he was very ordinary at many many things.

America has a hero problem, and it is crippling this nation. Americans seem to need to believe in saintly, otherworldly perfection from those who impact them positively. They make all those perceived as "transformative" into, quite literally, larger than life Olympic gods, whether George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, or Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Elvis Presley.
The monument to Ireland's lead revolutionaries - the martyrs of 1916 - is much smaller
- perhaps more human-scaled - than those which celebrate America's revolutionary generation.
When I have stood, to demonstrate contrast, at what are possibly the most politically sacred places in Ireland, at the General Post Office on O'Connell Street where the Irish Republic was first proclaimed, or in the gravel at Kilmainham where the heroes of the Easter Rising were shot by the government of America's then best friend David Lloyd George, or at the Free Derry Corner with its 14 names carved into a tiny cenotaph, I have thought of how Americans memorialize such events, how monumentally, how superhumanly.

Dublin's GPO, Ireland's "Independence Hall," remains
an open Post Office, there are a few pictures of the
Easter Rising by the south door.
And there is the problem. Americans wait for superhumans to arrive and offer deliverance. Americans cannot, because of the way they construct heroes, imagine that they are capable of creating change themselves.

So, the American media wonders daily how the Occupy Wall Street movement can exist without defined leaders. Apple fan boys have nightmares about not being granted "the next Steve Jobs." And educators pay vast fees to hear speakers and scour YouTube's TED lectures hunting for the next John Dewey.

It occurs to no one, as they "wait for superman," that "superman" is "us." And perhaps that waiting explains why, in the US, the only "revolutionary" changes have been led by the elites. America's transformative revolutionaries aren't Michael Collins and Bobby Sands, ordinary people who rose to a moment and are remembered as complex humans, but rather a pantheon of birthright privilege and power, George Washington, Jefferson Davis, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. And you wonder why the US has changed - politically - so much less than most nations over the past two centuries.

So, it is time to stop waiting. It is time to understand that the real change begins, and ends, with ordinary people, not superhumans depicted in stone as giants. The real change comes from fed up pub patrons (Stonewall), from quiet engineers (Tim Berners-Lee), from anonymous guys working for a phone company (the transistor, the microprocessor), from a woman willing to get arrested for equal treatment on a bus (Rosa Parks), perhaps from a few hippie types who wanted to challenge Wall Street, or perhaps from you in your classroom.

Heroism is humans engaging their divinity, in my personal and perhaps skewed concept of God. And heroism is not superhuman but essentially human. It is part of who we are, part of who we are all born to be, it may be the very best of us, but it is not - in any way - limited to those with the best luck of birth.

Heroism is deciding that you will do the things you need to do
to make school better for kids @doosting
There aren't born leaders. So stop looking. True leaders rise from the ranks when we need them. Often, more often than not, they slip barely noticed, back into the ranks when that moment has passed. For they are the real heroes, the people without agendas beyond human progress, social justice, and the essential emotion of empathy for humanity.

When I visit schools, I usually tell people that I have a really easy job, I'm a "provocateur," which is great work when I can get it. It's the Thomas Paine role behind the American Revolution, the Padraic Pearse role in the Irish independence movement. I might pass along ideas, I might even frame ideas in new ways, I might bring new eyes to the scene, but the real work, the real heroism, lies in those teachers, principals, librarians, aides, et al who do the work - who take the risks to change things for kids.

And simply put, it is us, it is us, who will do this. Revolutions led by people in power can be "good" - see FDR's New Deal, but they will not be fundamentally transformative. That can only come when ordinary people realize that all of us have the capacity to do extraordinary things.

We need fewer monumental statues in the United States, and a lot more belief in our ability to change the world.

- Ira Socol

12 October 2011

Platform Agnostic

I'm nervous as I begin to write this, because it is truly not my goal to insult or upset anyone, especially people who are friends who I learn from every day, but... I think this is important...

My "messenger bag" weighs a lot. That's because it usually has multiple devices in it, which, is a pain, but, I consider myself an educator, and so, I can't just carry - when in work mode - the tools I like.

Sure, on my own, I'm a single device guy most of the time. For full disclosure I'll say that these days I usually carry an HTC Android phone. With it I can write (via MS Word or Google Docs), read (including via Kindle, Nook, Google Books), research, entertain myself (including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube). Its tiny, it fits in my pocket, I don't usually need a bigger screen, I have tons of apps - including the assistive technologies I need - every one free. But yes, if "dissertating" is part of my days work that is joined by an HP Touchsmart TabletPC, it is easier to edit via that real keyboard, and for dictating text nothing beats Windows7 Speech Recognition (though I am surely ready to check out Siri on the iPhone 4S), and the big screen lets me have both my advisor's comments and my document visible.

But, other times, other places. I have a Windows7 desktop I built (of course, @JamesSocol spec'd it for me) with multiple monitors for "big work." I have my MacBook Pro, which I really enjoy for some things - especially iMovie - if it only didn't get too damn hot to actually have in your lap (the MacBook Pro can boot to MacOS or Windows7). I have an iOS device, an Android Tablet, a Netbook... yes, it is absurd, but I have to be... actually I always have been "Platform Agnostic" in my work.

I'm not "Platform Agnostic" because I'm a crazed techie, I'm "Platform Agnostic" because I work in education, and education is about helping students prepare for any possible future, not my particular vision of a future. And I'm "Platform Agnostic" because I believe that we only prepare students for their possible futures by helping them learn to make intelligent choices, to think critically, and to build toolbelts of device choices and learning strategies which will support them across their lifespans.

Am I loyal to some products in my personal life? Sort of. I have many good reasons to prefer Firefox as a web browser, and I use it a lot with schools. Yet despite that I remain fully aware of what Chrome, Chromium, Opera, Safari, yes, even what Internet Explorer do. Have I come to like Android? Indeed I have, except, that I know that I desperately miss what Blackberry does with mail and messaging, and yeah, you know, if Apple were more open I know there are things in iOS that I really like. Do I love the TabletPC? Yes, mostly I do, but that doesn't really commit me to any brand the next time I want a carryable computer. And sure, I really do like Microsoft Word, for many reasons - especially because of WordTalk - but I use Google Docs more, and I use Open Office Writer a lot.

So when I work with kids, I'm not trying to fit them to a device or a software package, I'm instead trying to find the tools which they need - which they will be most comfortable with - to complete their task or tasks. This is the "Tool Crib" I talk about. This is what schools and classrooms need, a place filled with tools kids pick up as they need. If they don't have these kinds of choices in school they will never learn how to make effective choices when they leave school.

I'm not promoting anything, I'm not suggesting anything is "better" than anything else, I'm letting students learn to build their own toolbelts. I've always agreed with Neil Postman and Charlie Weingartner when they proposed to "prohibit teachers from asking any question they already know the answer to" (Teaching As a Subversive Activity, 1969), because I feel strongly that we can never really help kids become critical thinkers if "we" (the teachers) hold onto "the right answers" and "the right methods." Similarly, I do not think we can ever hope to raise kids who are critical tool users, choosers, and adapters if we control the idea of what "the right tool" is.

OK, I've pretty much said enough. See, I don't really care if you love Apple products or you love Google. Both are fine. And I'm pleased that you've taken the time to become an "Apple Distinguished Educator" or to have attended the Google Teacher Academy. It's even fine if you love your Microsoft shirt. But I don't think any of those labels or preferences should be obvious to your students. I don't think schools, classrooms, or educators should be "branded." I think we do ourselves a huge disservice when we tie ourselves - and thus our students' perceptions - to one kind of thing, when they will enter a world of technology we have no ability to predict.

- Ira Socol

01 October 2011

Schools that matter

People who've heard me talk about middle schools have probably heard me say something like, "this age group has a million legitimate things to worry about every day, and none of them are in our curriculum."

I say this repeatedly because (a) I believe it to be true - that the evolutionary purpose of adolescence is unrelated to our program of schooling - and that (b) those who misunderstand this drive kids between, say, 12 and 25 crazy - and not in good ways - with special damage happening to the 12-16-year-old group, many of whom lose complete interest in what we call "education" and never really return.

I sometimes put this in microeconomic terms. Attending school, just "paying attention" in school, has an opportunity cost for kids. If what we offer is not perceived as having sufficient value to them, they will either not show up - if their community culture tolerates that - or they will mentally 'check out' and drift through the school day - investing in other thoughts - until they can leave.

What do adolescents need to work on? Primarily understanding themselves and their place in their future society. Understanding their bodies and brains, and how those will work for them or limit them in that future. Understanding the social webs which will define them. Discovering their passions through trial and error. And sucking in information in ways the typical educated adult can no longer remember.

Adolescence is not a problem, it is a human necessity. (Photos by Kitra Cahana for National Geographic)
This month's National Geographic Magazine - which is one of those things everyone should support, by the way - offers a must read for adolescent educators. The New Science of the Teenage Brain debunks most of what has been said about adolescents in the past fifty years, and offers those of us in education a new way to begin comprehending our work.
"[The "unfinished brain" studies of the past two decades] help explain why teens behave with such vexing inconsistency: beguiling at breakfast, disgusting at dinner; masterful on Monday, sleepwalking on Saturday. Along with lacking experience generally, they're still learning to use their brain's new networks. Stress, fatigue, or challenges can cause a misfire. Abigail Baird, a Vassar psychologist who studies teens, calls this neural gawkiness—an equivalent to the physical awkwardness teens sometimes display while mastering their growing bodies.

"The slow and uneven developmental arc revealed by these imaging studies offers an alluringly pithy explanation for why teens may do stupid things like drive at 113 miles an hour, aggrieve their ancientry, and get people (or get gotten) with child: They act that way because their brains aren't done! You can see it right there in the scans! [this also provides an easy excuse for both a legal system and school discipline codes which deny adolescents rights and privileges but holds them responsible for their actions - is]

"This view, as titles from the explosion of scientific papers and popular articles about the "teen brain" put it, presents adolescents as "works in progress" whose "immature brains" lead some to question whether they are in a state "akin to mental retardation."

"The story you're reading right now, however, tells a different scientific tale about the teen brain. Over the past five years or so, even as the work-in-progress story spread into our culture, the discipline of adolescent brain studies learned to do some more-complex thinking of its own. A few researchers began to view recent brain and genetic findings in a brighter, more flattering light, one distinctly colored by evolutionary theory. The resulting account of the adolescent brain—call it the adaptive-adolescent story—casts the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside."
As I worked my way through this article - celebrating the kind of "confirmation bias" we all love - I thought about another bit of research I recently read. Neuroscientist Alison Gopnik writes that, "there are more synaptic connections in baby brains than in adult brains," and shows that as our ability to "focus" in what we see as "traditional ways" (the ways of the Industrial Age) strengthens, our ability to perceive all the rest of our environment, truly our ability to learn, diminishes. "As we know more," she says, "we see less."

This is essential stuff. Basically, Gopnik reports from fMRI work, that the rationalist modern educational structure is all about taking humans who see "everything" and turning them into focused or hyper-focused workers capable of doing just a few things very well.
"...in the psychological case even more than the physical one, what counts as a problem depends on the context. When nobody read, dyslexia wasn't a problem. When most people had to hunt, a minor genetic variation in your ability to focus attention was hardly a problem, and may even have been an advantage. When most people have to make it through high school, the same variation can become a genuinely life-altering disease. To say this doesn't imply, as [author and New York Times blogger Judith] Warner seems to think, that these are made-up problems, rather than real neurological ones. But it does suggest that changing the social context in which children grow up can be as important as directly changing their brain chemistry." (Gopnik, 2010)
"As we know more, we see less."
For me, this suggests why adults working in schools, all schools, often fail to perceive either the physical or the human environment surrounding them in real ways. The adults have been trained relentlessly in what "school" means. They come for a purpose - no, it is not usually a paycheck Mr. Gates and Mr. Duncan - to "educate" children, and they have also been trained relentlessly in what "educate" means. The adults see the task in front of them, and they see the impediments to that task, but they do not see the rest.

If your focus is on delivering content,
you will see nothing else
This is why school adults "see" much less bullying than kids see, in study after study. And why adults think they intervene to stop bullying far more than their students see them doing that. It is why adults stop seeing how depressing most school entries and corridors are, or how distracting fluorescent lighting can be, or how uncomfortable kids are in school chairs. It is why adults have no idea what is happening in classrooms below the desk level, or why I have been in middle school and high school classrooms where the only students awake and asking questions were called "ADHD" by teachers. Those teachers - you know the ones - who view themselves as UPS drivers delivering content - are focused on only that, and even questions seem impediments to what they believe their job focus is.

These two sets of brain studies come together in a critical way in how we educate children. Especially in our "secondary schools."

Why would you move here..
There was a reason the world of the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution wanted single-focus individuals. As Max Weber suggested long ago, one of the missions of nascent Protestantism/Capitalism was to break the complex ties between a person and their community and their environment. Labor could not "move freely" to where it needed to be concentrated if people were deeply committed to their families, communities, and the natural world they had been born into.

How could you get folks to move from places where everything they see is important to them - their extended families, their neighbors, the way their church bells sound, the way the sun rises over the eastern rim, the way the salt smells in the air - and get them to move to London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne or Hamburg and Berlin or to the mines of Silesia and Pennsylvania - unless you dramatically narrow their focus to (a) money, and (b) a single task which allows them to work all day doing one thing?

...from here, unless single-focus became important?
The secondary education system we live with today is designed to still do exactly this. The reward isn't money, but it is the same reductionist kind of currency, grades. And the focus isn't quite yet single, rather it is "serial single focus" - we work on one thing at a time, blowing our factory whistles to indicate the changes.

And we continue this despite knowing that the world, and even the capitalist world of work, has changed beyond the comprehension of most in education, despite all those who fight back by trying to claim bizarre things like "multitasking is a myth."

Which creates two problems - first, we continue to prepare coal miners, tens of millions of coal miners - and second, this means that we fight every day against the natural evolutionary means for which adolescence was created in the human genome.

While we want to "focus" them through sensory deprivation, the brains of our kids want to learn focus through the processes of risk and experimentation.
"[This drive for the new learning experiences] explains why an openness to the new, though it can sometimes kill the cat, remains a highlight of adolescent development. A love of novelty leads directly to useful experience. More broadly, the hunt for sensation provides the inspiration needed to "get you out of the house" and into new terrain, as Jay Giedd, a pioneering researcher in teen brain development at NIH, puts it.

"Also peaking during adolescence (and perhaps aggrieving the ancientry the most) is risk-taking. We court risk more avidly as teens than at any other time. This shows reliably in the lab, where teens take more chances in controlled experiments involving everything from card games to simulated driving. And it shows in real life, where the period from roughly 15 to 25 brings peaks in all sorts of risky ventures and ugly outcomes. This age group dies of accidents of almost every sort (other than work accidents) at high rates. Most long-term drug or alcohol abuse starts during adolescence, and even people who later drink responsibly often drink too much as teens. Especially in cultures where teenage driving is common, this takes a gory toll: In the U.S., one in three teen deaths is from car crashes, many involving alcohol.

"Are these kids just being stupid? That's the conventional explanation: They're not thinking, or by the work-in-progress model, their puny developing brains fail them.

"Yet these explanations don't hold up. As Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescence at Temple University, points out, even 14- to 17-year-olds—the biggest risk takers—use the same basic cognitive strategies that adults do, and they usually reason their way through problems just as well as adults. Contrary to popular belief, they also fully recognize they're mortal. And, like adults, says Steinberg, "teens actually overestimate risk."

"So if teens think as well as adults do and recognize risk just as well, why do they take more chances? Here, as elsewhere, the problem lies less in what teens lack compared with adults than in what they have more of. Teens take more risks not because they don't understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do." (National Geographic)
"Cars and parties, first cigarettes and first dates, school demands and free time—teens encounter risks both large and small every day, and their choices can be puzzling at times. Think of it as an equation, says psychologist Laurence Steinberg, where consequences aren't given the weight they should be. And when teens are around friends, that throws off the equation even more."  Really? "should be"? If humans worried more about consequences than rewards, we'd still be living in the jungle with the bonobos.
This, of course, is both good and essential, as well as completely at odds with the "safety" we prize in our secondary schools and our middle class homes. We need big rewards to push us out of childhood, whether we are the Decorah, Iowa eagles (who hung around the family nest getting fed by their parents for a full season after learning to fly) or humans. And we probably need huge rewards if we are to give up the beauty and possibilities of "seeing everything" in exchange for any kind of focus.

The approval of our peers may be part of a "big enough" reward, but neither grades nor adult approval are going to touch that status for most kids. ("...teens gravitate toward peers for another, more powerful reason: to invest in the future rather than the past. We enter a world made by our parents. But we will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers," says David Dobbs in National Geographic)Which is why, whatever "we" say, most kids simply don't care - we are just not compelling enough in any way.

Now, on Monday, as you re-enter your secondary school, especially your middle school, try to bring your brain back - try to see as if you are ADHD yourself - try to take in the whole scene and see it as your students do. Are you offering their evolutionary brains anything they crave?

- Ira Socol