09 February 2012

...in which I may suggest that I oppose literacy

"Skill in reading is desirable. However, the importance of reading may be overemphasized in schools. Reading skills are determined relatively and not absolutely. Thus, relatively poor readers will persist. Schools cannot eradicate individual differences. Biological makeup and societal pressures are the important factors in determining reading skill. Present methods of reading remediation are of questionable efficacy and are traumatic to some children. Time with its associated normal development succeeds in remediating the majority of children with dyslexia. Most poor readers eventually attain reading levels that enable them to comprehend the types of printed materials commonly encountered. If a child finds reading difficult or distasteful, that child should be encouraged to read but should have the right not to be forced to read." - R.D. Snyder, 1979
I have been introduced, more than once, as, "this is Ira, he's against literacy."

It's a funny introduction. I think of myself, in some weird ways of course, as a "prophet" of literacy, bringing the love of stories, yes, of books, to many who have grown up without it, but when I run into your typical "literacy advocate" I often fly into a rage.

My rage now has been created by two things, first, this "What if everyone could read" campaign by Pam Allyn and her organization "LitWorld and LitLife," and a Guardian article somehow mixing Dickens 200th Birthday with government mandated phonics ("Please sir, may I have another Pseudoword?"), and the British government's desire for all students to visit the libraries the British government is closing as an austerity measure.

Allyn is perhaps less ironic, and more hateful, fully demonizing me and all others who struggle with decoding text - she actually extends this generationally, choosing to bash our children. "When a child cannot read or write at an appropriate level for her age, it affects her ability to understand other subjects. Struggling readers connect learning with embarrassment and frustration, which puts stumbling blocks in their way and prevents them from reaching their full potential. Later in life, struggling child readers become struggling adult readers who are far less likely to vote and secure jobs than their literate counterparts. In addition, literacy levels correlate with health outcomes, both for the individual him or herself as well as his or her children." Thank you dear, I feel all better. May I now psychoanalyze a person who chooses to make their living describing others in pathological terms?

I like to read sci-fi and mysteries as I fall asleep...
The Decoding Obsession

Who reads? Who reads well? What does "reading well" mean? "In the hypothetical “average school,” 50% of the students will read at or below grade level when grade level is defined as the class median. This statistical fact is generally not recognized. Educators and parents tend to view below average performance as unsatisfactory. A student performing below average in a classroom should not necessarily be considered an adverse reflection on either the parent or the teacher." - Snyder, 1979. Actually, "below" is the "norm." 67% of American fourth graders fail to read "proficiently" for their imagined "grade level," along with 66% of eighth graders, raising questions about that "grade level" concept. According to "KidsCount" from the "Annie E. Casey Foundation," in all of the United States, only Massachusetts has 50% of fourth graders reading "proficiently." This is no doubt due to the individual health insurance mandates, and required services provided by religious hospitals, of RomneyCare.

So, if so few are reading well... how the hell are people getting information or working?

If you listen to this, you simply will not know anything of
Dylan Thomas's
A Child's Christmas in Wales
The argument made is that our failures, whether "our" means the United States or the United Kingdom, lie in the failure of schools to beat more children into submission via phonics. If only our kids were better at decoding alphabetical text into tiny fragments of words which are tiny fragments of ideas, we'd beat those damn Chinese, Germans, Brasilians, Singaporians... whoever. Then the argument accelerates, abetted by educators who talk to human resources mismanagers. You can't do any job anymore unless you can decode alphabetical text and prove that by answering multiple choice questions on trivia included in the text.
"Although this is a common argument today, it ignores the fact that modern science and technology create many jobs in which literacy demands go down, not up, thanks to human skills being replaced by computers and other sorts of technological devices (Aronowitz & DiFazio,i994; Carnoy, Castells, Cohen, & Cardoso, 1993; Mishel & Teixeira, 1991). This is true not just for service-sector jobs, but also for many higher status jobs in areas like engineering and bioscience. Indeed, there is much controversy today as to which category is larger: jobs where science and technology have increased literacy demands or those where they have decreased them." - James Gee, 1999.
Of course Gee, here criticizing the general "Educational Industrial Complex" belief system, is talking about the narrow definition of "literacy" adopted by way too many, rather than the broad definition of "reading," "Reading is defined as getting information from a recorded source into your head, Writing is defined as getting information from your head into a form which others can access," which I, and Gee, advocate. People like Pam Allyn of LitWorld, and the current British and American governments, believe in an untruth: "Is it intrinsically incorrect to learn from audiovisuals or even from actual experience?" Gee asks. "Why should a student be forced to take written notes or written examinations when a recorder or a direct personal dialog might be used equally well? For many students with severe reading deficits, the oral-aural route is the major alternative route for education." And I will add that, since Gee wrote this, the ability to convert text to speech and speech to text has become not just absurdly inexpensive, but completely ubiquitous everywhere except in schools. Gee goes on to make the key point...
"Remedial reading programs may be emotionally damaging to a child. These programs focus not on the child’s strengths and accomplishments but on his failure. With our present methods of remediation, a child with dyslexia can very rapidly become a child receiving special attention to reading during school, remedial instruction after school, and special tutoring from his parents at night. A large percentage of the child’s waking day can be occupied by the very thing he cannot do and often finds distasteful. Childhood can thus be marred by systematic humiliation. Any interest the child may have in the reading process can be abolished."
Obviously, its not just literature which can be transmitted - and learned - without "decoding literacy"
The instruction manuals of this century...or earlier
So, every day "we," led by politicians of dubious education and intentions, and by self-enriching dogooders like Pam Allyn, label children as pathologically diseased because their brains don't work exactly like "our" brains. And then, we administer daily doses of humiliation because we somehow forget that someone like Socrates managed to know a whole hell of a lot without being "literate" at all - and, in fact - opposing literacy in every form. We forget that almost nothing comes with instruction manuals anymore - unless its from Ikea - because when "we" need to learn to do something, we go to YouTube, or we ask for help - in person or perhaps via Twitter. We forget that storytelling - that critical transmission of culture - occurred long before alphabets were created and continue to occur in this Post-Gutenberg age.

We also forget that the tools to switch media, as I said above, are everywhere. Right from the post below: "Read the book on paper. Listen to it via WYNN (the tool which changed my life), via Balabolka (Free), via WordTalk (Free), via FoxVox (Free), or via an audiobook,or watch the video, or talk with someone, it makes no difference cognitively."

As I said, I love books, I've written books. I've "read" tons of books. I want to share this with kids. And I want to tell all those who will unwittingly support Allyn's "Forced Reading Day," or other sad initiatives, that I'd much rather you help kids learn how to use Kindle for PC and Balabolka (or some other combination) to let them access the books they want than do any or all of your "reading interventions."

What we need to get better at is accessing information and expressing ourselves. And if that is what we want to do, and decoding - or handwriting - is likely effective for us, the evidence suggests that we will learn it. And that evidence is a hell of a lot stronger than any evidence you can present for your "teach me to read" programs.

- Ira Socol

06 February 2012

Technology and our misunderstandings

The Los Angeles Times trumpeted a bizarre column on Super Bowl Sunday from Michael Hiltzik titled "Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms?" It was an attack on Arne Duncan's Digital Learning Day pronouncement that his goal for Obama's second term was the enrichment of Apple, which I've already attacked on much firmer pedagogical grounds. But what was really ironic in the column was the contribution of University of Southern California professor Richard E. Clark.

"The media you use make no difference at all to learning," Clark, director of the Center for Cognitive Technology at USC, is quoted as saying. "Not one dang bit. And the evidence has been around for more than 50 years." Which is all quite true, and I do not know here if Clark's statement is being used completely out of context here or not by Hiltzik, because Clark is not heard from again.

And Hiltzik leaps to a different academic, and a different argument immediately. "Almost every generation has been subjected in its formative years to some "groundbreaking" pedagogical technology. In the '60s and '70s," he writes before another quote, '"instructional TV was going to revolutionize everything," recalls
Thomas C. Reeves, an instructional technology expert at the University of Georgia. "But the notion that a good teacher would be just as effective on videotape is not the case."'

Then Hiltzik rushes back 16 years, back to when I was integrating technology - I believe very successfully - into both high school and university classrooms (full, up-to-date research tools in every room, simulations in science classrooms, interaction in learning second languages), and writes, "Many would-be educational innovators treat technology as an end-all and be-all, making no effort to figure out how to integrate it into the classroom. "Computers, in and of themselves, do
very little to aid learning," Gavriel Salomon of the University of Haifa and David Perkins of Harvard observed in 1996. Placing them in the classroom "does not automatically inspire teachers to rethink their teaching or students to adopt new modes of learning."'

Typewriters can be beautiful, they can be nostalgic, but what exactly does one do
with text typed on a typewriter? How do you share it? publish it? have it edited?

There are a ton of media choices,
the point is not to choose just one.
Yes, this might be one more attempt by the elites of the publishing world to maintain the socioeconomic status quo. The column seemed designed to confuse and frustrate parents, teachers, and students. But... hang on... let's go back to the top... to what Dr. Clark said: "The media you use make no difference at all to learning. Not one dang bit. And the evidence has been around for more than 50 years."

"The media you use make no difference at all to learning. Not one dang bit." In other words, those who have tried, and keep trying - albeit without any evidence - to convince us all that decoded alphabetical text is somehow cognitively superior to any other way of bringing information into your brain, might be completely wrong.

Read the book on paper. Listen to it via WYNN (the tool which changed my life), via Balabolka (Free), via WordTalk (Free), via FoxVox (Free), or via an audiobook,or watch the video, or talk with someone, it makes no difference cognitively. The brain processes the information into memory, and that's the story.

Many of us have been arguing about this for years. People have routinely told me that, for example, listening to a book isn't hard enough (?!), or that the blind don't actually ever read, unless (maybe) they read Braille, then its OK, or that, as I was told on Twitter today, "
I think allowing kids to grow up text-illiterate is a real disservice to them." I responded to that Tweet, which I listened to via Vlingo, by speaking into my phone as I sat in a parking lot.

Well, if there is no real evidence that print is superior, if we now have the tools to let all choose the information gathering tools and communication tools most effective for them at the moment, what's the issue with "technology" in schools?

For me, I have two responses: Short answer - we need tools in schools which allow students to learn to make those choices. This is what "Toolbelt Theory" is all about. Printed books cannot do this, but "Bring Your Own Device" plus a "Tool Crib" will offer every student the access path they need.

For the long answer... below is an updated version of a blog post from Change.org in 2009...

Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
"A black board, in every school house, is as indispensably necessary as a stove or fireplace; and in large schools several of them might be useful."
"Slates are as necessary as black boards, and even more so. But they are liable to be broken, it will be said, as to render it expensive to parents to keep their children supplied with them."

"But are not books necessary at all, when the pupils are furnished with slates? I may be asked. Not for a large proportion of the children who attend our summer schools, nor for some of them who attend in the winter. To such I believe books are not only useless, but on the whole, worse than useless. As they advance in years, however, they may be indulged with a book, now and then, as a favor. Such favor will not be esteemed a light thing; and will come in time, to be sought more frequently, and with more and more earnestness."

"At first, it will be well for the small portion of each day in which very young pupils are allowed to have slates, to let them use them much in the way they please. Some will make one thing, some another. What they make is of comparatively little consequence, provided they attend, each to his own business, and do not interfere with that of others."
In 1842 William A. Alcott, a now forgotten member of that legendary American family of letters, wrote a series of articles for the Connecticut Common School Journal, asking teachers across America to make use of the newest educational technology - the black board and the student slate. Well, it wasn't really new. West Point had been using these for instruction since at least 1820, but then, as now, schools were slow to adopt new ideas.

But in the 1840s everything in communication was changing. Wood pulp based paper and the rotary printing press had created the penny newspaper, an entirely new way of spreading news - and often gossip. The telegraph had arrived creating the revolutionary concept of instantaneous communication across great distances. And the world itself was shrinking as steamboats and railroads rushed humans from place to place at unheard of speeds.
Len Ebert, illustrator The Old Schoolhouse
William Alcott's ideas, handheld - "1:1" slates, the chalkboard, individual seats (allowing children to leave
without disturbing others), kids moving around, good heating, big windows...
These new technologies spawned new forms of writing. Authors such as Charles Dickens began serializing fiction for the masses - one no longer needed to buy expensive books and sit in that big leather chair. Writers even created the first blogs - think of American Notes. Others, people like Horace Greeley, were redefining journalism.

The world was changing, and certain people, led by Alcott, were desperately trying to drag the schoolhouse into the present.

The Question

Then, as now, there was furious opposition. Alcott admitted that he was seen as being "against books." He was perceived as disruptive. He was already forcing schools to buy costly new furnishings (individual student desks and chairs, to replace tables and benches), and now he was advocating a radical change in how teaching took place.

Then, as now, the wrong question was being asked. In 1842 the doubters wondered what these new technologies could do for schools as they existed. Today, educators and policy makers constantly wonder what computers, mobile phones, and social networking will do for a curriculum largely unchanged since 1910.

That was the wrong question then, and it is the wrong question now. The right question is, what can schools, what can education, contribute to these new technologies?

Just as in 1842, just as in Socrates' time when literacy appeared, the technologies of information and communication have changed radically this decade - the ways in which humans learn about their world have changed radically, and schools will either help their students learn to navigate that new world, or they will become completely irrelevant.

How you learned doesn't matter at all

If you are a teacher, a parent, an administrator, or the President of the United States, I do not care how or what you learned in school. Or, let me put it this way, your experience in school, or in sitting with your mom studying books in the wee hours of the morning, is completely irrelevant to any discussion of the education of today's students.

Maybe worse than irrelevant. Maybe dangerous. The belief that "your" experience is relevant leads to a nightmare loop. Students who behave, and learn, most like their teachers do the best in classrooms. Teachers see this reflection as proof of their own competence - "The best students are just like me."

And thus all who are "different" in any way - race, class, ability, temperament, preferences - are left out of the success story.

Choosing everything: A student listens to text while creating
his own seating and desk... (Michael Thornton)
The majority of our students do "poorly" in school, do not achieve their potential in school, do not enjoy education. Doing it "the old way," utilizing the old tools, ensures that they never will.
Mobile phones, computers everywhere, hypertext, social networking, collaborative cognition (from Wikipedia on up), Google, text-messaging, Twitter, audiobooks, digital texts, text-to-speech, speech recognition, flexible formatting - these are not "add ons" to the world of education, they are the world of education. This is how humans in this century talk, read, communicate, learn. And learning to use these technologies effectively, efficiently, and intelligently must be at the heart of our educational strategies. These technologies do something else - by creating a flexibility and set of choices unprecedented in human communication - they "enable" a vast part of the population which earlier media forms disabled.

Back in Socrates' time it was all about the information you could remember. With this system very, very few could become "educated." In the ‘Gutenberg era' it was all about how many books you could read and how fast you could decode alphabetical text; this let a few more reach that ‘educated' status - about 35% if you trust all those standardized tests to measure "proficiency."

But now it is all about how you learn to find information, how you build your professional and personal networks, how you learn, how to learn - because learning must be continuous. None of this eliminates the need for a base of knowledge - the ability to search, to ask questions, requires a knowledge base, but it dramatically alters both how that knowledge base is developed, and what you need to do with it. This paradigm opens up the ranks of the "educated" in ways inconceivable previously.

Technology is NOT something invented after you were born

Technology is everything humans have created. Books are technology - a rather complex and expensive one actually, for holding and transmitting human knowledge. The schoolroom is technology - the desks, chairs, blackboards, schedule, calendar, paper, pens, and pencils. These are not "good" or "bad," but at this point, they are simply outdated.

Yes, we still have stone carvers. Yes, we still have calligraphers. But we no longer teach students to chase the duck, pluck the feather, and cut the quill. We no longer teach Morse Code. We no longer teach the creation of illuminated manuscripts.

Now we must give up teaching that ink-on-paper is the primary information source. It is not. We must give up insisting that students learn "cursive" writing. Instead, they must learn to text on their mobiles and dictate intelligibly to their computer. We must toss out our "keyboarding" classes and encourage students to discover their own best ways to input data. We must abandon much of Socrates' memorization and switch to engagement with where data is stored. We must abandon the one-way classroom communication system, be it the lecture or use of the "clicker," and teach with conversation and through modeling learning itself. We must lose the idea that "attention" means students staring at a teacher, or that "attendance" means being in the room, and understand all the differing ways humans learn best. We must stop separating subjects rigidly and adopt the contemporary notion of following knowledge where it leads us.

And we need to start by understanding that we are preparing students for the world that is their future, not the world that is our past.

- Ira Socol

02 February 2012

Textbooks and Encyclopedias and Lectures, Oh My

When I first met Dr. Rand Spiro, the man behind Cognitive Flexibility Theory, he launched an attack on Wikipedia. So, my initial reaction was,"not again." But as I listened, I realized that he was not against the crowdsourced authorship, or anonymous authority, and, in fact, he was a bit more positive after I introduced him to the "Talk" pages, what Rand was complaining about was the recreation of the Encyclopedia format.

Why, he wondered, would we reproduce this first century (AD) form in this age? Couldn't we envision anything better? Yes, Wikipedia is crowdsourced, and thus both more accurate, more diverse, and more updated, but it remains a work constructed on the oldest of classification systems.

The machine is us, Michael Wesch
Digital Learning Day 2012, and I found myself back in 1996. "WASHINGTON -- Hardbound textbooks could go the way of slide rules and typewriters in schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski on Wednesday challenged schools and companies to get digital textbooks in students' hands within five years. The Obama administration's push comes two weeks after Apple Inc. announced it would start to sell electronic versions of a few standard high-school books for use on its iPad tablet." In 1996 I was working with a high school librarian on developing ways to teach students about search strategies. This was, in historical perspective, at a point just before Larry Page and Sergei Brin would write:
"Some Rough Statistics (from August 29th, 1996)
Total indexable HTML urls: 75.2306 Million
Total content downloaded: 207.022 gigabytes
BackRub is written in Java and Python and runs on several Sun Ultras and Intel Pentiums running Linux. The primary database is kept on an Sun Ultra II with 28GB of disk. Scott Hassan and Alan Steremberg have provided a great deal of very talented implementation help. Sergey Brin has also been very involved and deserves many thanks.
-Larry Page page@cs.stanford.edu"

"You've got mail" The AOL home page
So, early in the process, when Page and Brin's Stanford predecessors were dominating 'web search' with Yahoo! which was, of course, a huge leap from what America On Line was offering. There were actual search engines back then, the dominant one being AltaVista, and we needed to explain to students the difference between a "web directory," Yahoo! and AOL, and a search engine such as AltaVista, Lycos, Excite and even a "metasearch engine" like dogpile. Directories were like physical libraries, we explained, curated collections organized into categories, while search engines represented something entirely new. We asked kids - high school freshmen - to find cars they could buy, finding prices, reliability reports, etc, and we asked them to try both routes.

The search engine was radical in 1996. It opened up a new kind of library, a library without walls, without curation, without limitations. And it was uncomfortable for many, including those who built Yahoo! (and who have never quite recovered). But the search engine is not new now, and I think it is time to embrace what Michael Wesch at K-State has been talking about for years, that the end of the Gutenberg Era gives us dramatic opportunities to re-think.

"They put the shelf back" - Michael Wesch in Information R/evolution
The future is not what you think...

And not just the distant future, the near future. I'm always amazed that Sears shut down their catalogue operation the year before Jeff Bezos founded Amazon. One group of corporate whizzes saw home delivery as a thing of the past, and some guy out in Seattle thought it was the future. The F.W. Woolworth (the original "five and dime") chain shut down its US operations just as "Dollar Stores" were exploding. General Motors axed their high gas mileage small Corvair (with the encouragement of Ralph Nader) just before the Arab Oil Embargo made gas mileage the number one issue for car buyers. We needn't even include the legendary Time-Warner/AOL merger...

We probably cannot expect a better track record from education leaders or politicians than we've gotten from our highest paid capitalists, of course, but we do need to challenge the decisions which are made which seem targeted to the past. And right now in education we seem to still be investing in the past in huge ways... in textbooks, in lectures, and in the teaching wall. The only reason we're not investing in encyclopedias is that now, that's free, though we still have those who oppose even that tiny change.

it is time to re-think education and what we can do with technology
The idea that the best use the US government can imagine for a digital device is to reproduce a 15th century format with a couple of 3D animations is sad, though hardly surprising. Apple is just the latest organization to try to rip off schools embracing textbook delivery. "In the early 1900s, textbook purchasing at the local level was notoriously corrupt," many scholars have noted, discussing all who profiteered at the expense of that early 1:1 initiative. That the best way to spread "ideas worth spreading" is by lecture and PowerPoint, seems equally unfortunate. That the best way to re-imagine the classroom is with an incredibly expensive projector system which reinforces the "teaching wall," is, surely, horrifying. But if you don't have a teaching wall, where will all those "sages-on-the-stages" stand? (science of school room re-design?)
Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies - it happens when society adopts new behaviors. - Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, p. 160

I visit many schools that have 'new technologies,' but not enough of them also have 'new behaviors.' It's time for us educators to raise our game (leaders, I'm pointing to you first). - Scott McLeod.
There are better ways to do things like textbooks, free ways for teachers, or better, students, to assemble information. And these should be allowing us to fundamentally consider new ways to assemble information, rather than a pre-cooked, pre-arranged text.

Flat World Knowledge
California Open Source Textbooks
MIT OpenCourseware
Stanford on iTunes
Michael Thornton's Third Graders build their own Textbook in LiveBinder

And there are better, more interactive ways, to "spread ideas" than putting someone on a stage to talk, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes. And better ways to use projection technology than reinforcing the traditional classroom. When I spoke, two years ago, to Glenn Vos, a Christian school superintendent in Holland, Michigan, "he talked about rebuilding classrooms so there was no "front" anymore. He talked about wide hallways where students could gather. He talked about attendance policies which allowed students to sign into classes from elsewhere in the building if that made them more comfortable. He talked about multiple projection screens in every classroom to break "single focus learning." He talked about dropping text books for authentic materials and the acceptance of multiple - and student chosen - ways of demonstrating knowledge."

PowerPoint, circa 1958
If  we do not alter our expectations for how we expect new technologies to be used, they will be used like old technologies. PowerPoint becomes FilmStrips. Computers become typewriters. IWBs become chalkboards. And the tablet form becomes a way to enrich corporations.

We need to seize the moment, when moments like this come. We need to break the bounds enforced by old technologies, not reinforce them. So, let's forget "the textbook," they were probably wronganyway...

- Ira Socol