Sunday, October 27, 2013

Digital Kids and "Real" Communication

Our students have lived their lives within a digital world; to posit what an internet-less world would be like would be akin to us wondering what a world without a television would have been like. Yet, some schools still ban technological tools, such as a smartphone, while others may be embracing all things techie-smart to excess and in doing so, exacerbating a by-product of immersion in all things digital: the tendency to interact with things instead of communicating well with people face-to-face.

Two writings this week examine this issue: one which extolls the integration of technology as a way to create "a learning environment more conducive to producing the types of questions that create lifelong learners rather than savvy test-takers" and another that bemoans a technological world that has "sacrificed conversation for mere connection." Michael Wech states in "Anti-teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance" that students can no longer find significance in a traditional text-based education. His university students don't read many of their assignments because they do not find them relevant to their lives. Wech's answer is to revise his notion of teaching to focus on student inquiry and investigation. To facilitate this, he creates a classroom space he manages as opposed to "teaching" via extending information. His classroom becomes a lab in which students use their own technology in order to complete their task: to figure out how the world works. They become experts of one part of the world and "work together to help design a two-hour simulation of the last 500 years of history." The end result is an edited recorded version of their findings, their final "test."

More and more teachers embrace inquiry-based learning with students using technology as a natural aid in our globally connected society. However, Sherry Turkle worries that technology is creating a society that is "alone together". In "The Flight From Conversation" she states what most witness daily - that people are losing their ability and even desire to converse with people face-to-face as they superficially connect to others via technology. She calls this the "Goldilocks effect" because technology is used as a crutch to keep people "not too close, not too far, just right." She says people need to learn how to converse face-to-face because we, as a society, are confusing conversation with connection and that "we think constant connection will make us feel less lonely." To embrace real connections with people she suggests people create "device-free zones".

Young people need to have a balance with technologically-aided learning and face-to-face conversations of merit and value. One doesn't have to refute the other. Ramsey Musallem, a chemistry teacher, expands curiosity via technology and multimedia and agrees with Wech that teachers need to cultivate curiosity and inquiry as opposed to being mere disseminators of knowledge. In this short presentation he says great teaching comes from three "rules": Curiosity Comes first, Embrace the Mess of Trial and Error, and Practice Reflection:

Musallem says sparking curiosity in students trumps all. Jordan Shapiro agrees in "We Need More EdTech, but Less Technology in the Classroom".  He blends technology and conversation in his university classroom by emailing technologically-based lessons to his students so that they learn via technology away from each other, but while in the classroom, lessons are focused on conversing via Socratic Seminars, discussion and debate.

Finally, there is the camp that believes learning without technology is best. Surprisingly, this can be found with parents who make their living via technology. In fact, the chief technology officer of Ebay, along with many other leaders and employees of Silicon Valley industries, send their children to technology-free schools so that they will develop their curiosities and creativity the old fashioned way: through hands-on tasks combined with human interaction. This is documented in "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute".  Interestingly, this private Waldorf school, which doesn't emphasize standardized testing, is educating tomorrow's creative thinkers as part of the affluent professional school caste related in Patrick J. Finn's Literacy with an Attitude. 

All these models have one thing in common: each emphasizes inquiry-based learning and the cultivation of curiosity with students. Technology, when used well, should be an aid in students' development of learning to ask questions and in finding potential answers. With that end in mind, teachers can do what we do best - create dynamic learning environments that encourages curiosity and meaningful conversations and debate made with each other, face-to-face.





Sunday, October 20, 2013

Literacy with an Attitude

Sadly, on many days at work I feel like this cartoon teacher. I truly do want my students to be independent learners, and innovative, creative, and critical thinkers, yet a host of issues makes it difficult to match my desire to how my classroom lessons role out. Patrick J. Finn has given me some answers to questions of school management and policy - and how an institutionalized cast system in education has been fostered in America in Literacy with an Attitude, Educating Working-Class Children in Their Own Self-Interest.

Finn says our schools educate working class and lower middle class students towards functional literacy that will prepare them for subservient jobs, while upper middle class and wealthy students are afforded an education that will empower them to be creative individuals and eventual leaders of society.  To combat this, teachers of working class students should engage in teaching that will empower students toward questioning the status quo and their place in society. 

According to Finn, who relates the research of Jean Anyon, working class students tend to be in heavily controlled classrooms with lessons focused on procedure, copying notes, reading from text books, and following rules without understanding them. The student's reaction is to resist. Anyon says these students are being primed for "mechanical and routine" labor. Middle class students receive an education similar to working class students; creativity is not a factor in either. However, middle class students have more exposure to "conceptual" ideas. These students are taught that hard work will benefit them. They are groomed for white collar low-level type jobs that do not call for creativity or critical analysis. Children of affluent professionals, upper middle-class students, attend schools that foster creativity via inquiry learning, independent learning and negotiation. These students are groomed to honor individualism and "humanitarianism" in their march towards gaining creative careers with "social power and high salaries." Finally, children of elite executives attend schools of academic rigor that gave them great freedom that is countered by an insistence on self-discipline. Students do not question the status quo because they are the beneficiaries of the system for which they are groomed: the eventual leaders of all aspects of society.

Finn suggests the only way to change this well ingrained educational cast system is to explicitly guide working class/middle class students to become advocates of change. This happens in classrooms focused on dialogue, realistic negotiations, investigations into power relations, and focusing on the relationship between real-world societal truths and the students' lives. One teacher, Robert Peterson, bases his classes on the work of Brazilian educator and social activist Paolo Friere. His classes "models social responsibility" where-in students learn not of "rugged individuals" but "groups of people who through collective efforts changed the system and became better off as a group."  Finn lays out a blueprint for change, which comes via seven steps: Curriculum and methods are grounded in the lives of students, Curriculum and methods are critical, they are designed to enable students to ask critical questions, Curriculum and methods are activist, Curriculum and methods are rigorous, Curriculum and methods are participatory and experiential, Curriculum and classroom procedures are hopeful, kind and visionary, and Powerful literacy and student discourse are taught explicitly.

Although Finn focuses on class struggle and not race, much of what he expounds upon mirrors previous authors read. In fact, he takes the foundations of Ira Shor's work, Empowering Education, which does not focus specifically on class, but that does note that "participatory education...can offer students a critical education of high quality, an experience of democratic learning, and positive feelings toward intellectual life" and expands these ideas by offering specific models of classrooms and teachers that focus on advocacy education. Also, Delpit says that in order for children of color to breach the culture of power fortification, children must be explicitly taught the skills and codes inherent in that milieu. This is true for white working class children as well.

This brings me to my current musings. The nation and Rhode Island in particular, have embraced the Common Core Standards and 21st Century Skills. But, is this only in theory, or more cynically, is our Commissioner of Education paying lip service to these brands? Both Common Core and 21st Century Skills-focused education are best achieved via Finn's seven steps, including inquiry-based learning, and activist-based, critical dialogue infused teaching and learning. The stated goals mirror the type of schools upper middle class and elite students now attend. Yet, our standardized-testing based curricula fits best with working class and lower middle class type schooling. There is a disconnect between the two.

Unfortunately, I, as a Providence-based teacher, have been forced into teaching a curriculum and format of the latter type of schools. Finn says that teachers cannot use the excuse of 'it's not in the curriculum' because he, with his wealth of experience, claims that "no principal or chair or supervisor ever asked me whether what I was teaching on a particular day was in the curriculum. Furthermore, curricula always have broad objectives such as 'learning to participate in a democracy." Clearly, he has not visited Providence, where we are obligated to follow a "Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum" and where administrative leaders often visit classes to ascertain if teachers are following the curriculum with fidelity.

Also, my school is controlled tightly - and for safety reasons it must be. It hasn't always been, but this year has seen a dramatic rise in students' involvement in unsafe and unlawful conduct. To combat this, students cannot leave the classrooms the first or last fifteen minutes of a class, and only bathrooms on one floor are open for their use. There are not enough available staff to monitor all bathrooms which have been used frequently as meeting places for drug deals and even for sex for hire acts. In fact, this year, the Providence police have been called to the school about ten times for gang related fights, thefts, and community-related infractions.

But, perhaps more importantly, my high school, which most closely resembles a working class model, is populated by immigrants or children of new immigrants who are not even working class students - most are welfare students who are not functionally literate in their first language or in English. They need to be taught basic skills explicitly, a la Delpit, before they can take the next steps: ownership of their own learning via lessons which might help them to develop implicit motivation.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Empowering Education

Seth Godin demands we Stop Stealing Dreams

Empowering Education, by Ira Shor, reviewed the foundation of my teacher education training many years ago. I revisited the philosophies of Piaget, Dewey, and Friere, amongst others, and was reminded of what most education students learn in their 101 classes: successful learning happens best in active, creative classrooms, that education and curriculum are political choices, education is a socialization process in which compliance has been emphasized, and that testing - especially standardized exams - are also political choices. What schools ought to be are places of empowerment for students, where student-centered classrooms create "change agents and social critics." To do so, "participatory pedagogy, designed from cooperative exercises, critical thought, student experience, and negotiating authority in class, can help students feel they are in sufficient command of the learning process to perform at their peak."

I started this blog with a TED talk by Seth Godin, an entrepreneur who restated much of this article via 21st century methods; he sums up what public schools were originally designed for - not to create scholars or even thinkers, but to educate compliant factory workers. He sets the tone for where schools ought to be today. Another forward thinking educator, curriculum specialist Heidi Hayes Jacobs, takes the well recognized ideas of Piaget, Dewey and Friere and asks us "What year are you preparing your students for?" She suggests most schools today are preparing students for 1982, not 2014 and this not only ties into Empowering Education but gives shape to how schools can actually put into action what Shor espouses. She reminds educators that our students need media, digital and global literacy skills and that schools should not be reformed, a term that relates to tweaking the status quo, but rather that we need new forms of schools that engage students with upgraded skills, dynamic curricula, and project-based assessments that are in step with an ever changing global society.

Heidi Hayes Jacobs' vision is not to reform schools but create new forms of schools

Unfortunately, many of our schools, while embracing 21st century skills in theory, discourage teachers from taking the lead in giving students what they need to excel in the world into which they will graduate. Our Rhode Island schools, helmed by Debra Gist, are driven by 20th century assessments via multiple choice standardized tests, curriculum choices that prepare students to perform well on these high-stakes tests, and a need for compliance by teachers to accept this mediocrity in order to earn the moniker of "highly effective."

What our students truly need - and what Shor argues - is an opportunity to be educated in creative ways. The type of classrooms that Shor, Godin and Hayes Jacobs envision are places where lessons are project based and inquiry driven wherein students ask questions and investigate answers via interdisciplinary research. These lessons have global connections, and are perhaps even connected to other globally-based classrooms wherein cooperative - not competitive learning - takes place. They are not classrooms driven by textbooks and teacher lectures, but rather by investigations designed to solve problems or to create something new.

Here is one such educator that shows how this can be accomplished, David Thormburg in his video The Evolving Classroom:

Let's hope our schools can catch up to 2014 - before it's too late.