Archive for August, 2007

Teaching to Inquire

Yesterday I talked to my students about the value of doing science – asking questions, predicting, observing, describing, measuring, classifying, generalizing, inferring, communicating – and I told them that I never did science in school. Science, for me, was reading the textbook and answering questions at the end of the chapter. We practiced none of the process skills, and we did not use a learning cycle model in our lessons.

Science was an alien discourse for me, something that was viewed through the keyhole of a textbook. I learned that science was knowledge that other people had which I should accept as given. When I got to high school I avoided science courses, and took only the required minimum because it seemed dull and alien. When I got to college, I wasn’t prepared for even basic level science courses. I suppose I could have applied myself if I’d wanted. But I didn’t.

This past weekend I spent several hours in mandatory orientation training for participants in a university/school district partnership for science education that places graduate students in the classroom to provide science expertise and to assist with gathering materials and resources for science lessons. This partnership looks very promising. For one thing, we have a budget that supports field trips. And the scientist we’ll be working with has a great rapport with my students.

My hope is that my students will get comfortable with scientific thinking. I want to see whether their familiarity with science process skills, and getting to know a working scientist, might have an impact on their curiosity about the world around them. I want to hear their questions, and to see them test their ideas against whatever truth the world can offer. I want them to become inquirers.

Scientific thinking need not be limited to questions that are empirically testable. It’s interesting that most of the science process skills are language-related, and not necessarily technical. Asking questions, predicting, describing, classifying, generalizing, inferring, and communicating can be taught in the context of any subject area. The most important part of science is in framing questions and forming conclusions, work that requires effective use of language. It could be applied to any domain that requires problem solving and analysis.

Teachers can use scientific thinking to make sense of classroom observations. Good teaching requires all of the science process skills. Effective teaching is fundamentally about learning to inquire into our own practice, and not the adoption of cookbook methods. We have to learn to observe closely and ask good questions. We should become conscious of the inferences we continually make about why students respond as they do to whatever challenges are presented. Journaling about our observations, questions, inferences, and generalizations is an excellent way to develop this kind of thinking.

I am skeptical of easy explanations and claims of scientific certainty about education. My growing interest in complexity theory springs from my dissatisfaction with recommended methods that rarely work. Alice Mercer recently did an interview with Dave Cormier on the limitations of scientifically based educational research. One specific issue they discussed was the problem of scalability based on randomized field trials. The longer I teach, the more I see that every class is different. The shared knowledge of every group morphs and transforms according to a logic of its own. What works one year might fail miserably the next. Education research has to begin accounting for the self-organizing nature of learning communities before it will be of much use for explaining or predicting what happens in the classroom. Education research, as it stands, is mostly a tool for making policy recommendations and political grandstanding.

From Cormier’s Notes on Scientific Research in Education

Any test, or any research, no matter how "˜randomized"™ is immediately "˜framed"™ by the person who has defined the research questions. The common response to this is that there are "˜rules"™ governing the framing of research questions that reduce the risk of this. I agree, some research questions are awful. Some less so. Some very interesting.

The underlying assumption that truth is sitting there, waiting to be discovered, however, informs this kind of research. It assumes that THERE IS A PERFECT education system out there to be discovered. That there will be a solution if we look hard enough. This is highly unlikely. The unified educational theory that will support all students is a windmill, nothing more. It is an artifice that looks like universal education, and is mostly normative. It is designed by those in power, designed to serve the skills that those people value.

Yes. We need to find what works in the context of its need. The perfect education system is the one that serves the specific needs of the people who use it. Inquiry should begin at home.

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School Staff Turns Down State Bonuses

Aug 24 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

I don’t begrudge any teachers a little extra recognition. But the idea that it “will inspire and empower Alaska"™s outstanding educators to use their expertise” is wrong. It won’t.

So I was very pleased this morning to see this in the paper:

Pearl Creek turns down state bonuses

By Robinson Duffy
[email protected]
Published August 24, 2007

The teachers and staff at Pearl Creek Elementary School are telling the state thanks, but no thanks as far as the school"™s recently awarded incentive bonuses are concerned.

The staff at the local school want the state to know they appreciate being recognized for the good work they do teaching kids, but that they don"™t want an extra monetary reward for doing what they"™ve already been paid to do.

Pearl Creek was one of 42 schools across the state whose staff were recently awarded cash bonuses because of student improvement on standardized assessment tests.

All the teachers at Pearl Creek as well as the principal and other certified employees each received $2,500, while the school"™s other staff, including librarians, custodians, and secretaries, received $1,000 each.

Principal Mary Short said she and her staff were glad the state was taking notice of the good work going on at the school, but that as a group the staff felt the cash bonuses were inappropriate.

"œMost of the discussion was about how uncomfortable the incentive program made us feel," Short said, referring to a staff meeting she convened the week before school started where the staff decided to donate the bonus money from the state to nonprofit organizations or to districtwide education initiatives. "œMost felt that (the money) should go to other schools."

Short said her staff"™s reactions to the incentive program, which was designed to award school employees when the students"™ test scores as a whole at a school showed substantial increases from the year before, ranged from embarrassment that they would receive the money while other teachers at other schools would not, to anger that the state would assume a few thousand dollars would motivate the teachers to do a better job.

"œIt"™s not that the school staff are lacking motivation. We are motivated already," Short said. "œWe were quite offended that they (the state Department of Education and the Legislature) thought we needed motivation."

That was certainly not the intent behind the incentive program, Les Morse, the director of assessment for the state Department of Education, said.

The bonuses weren"™t meant to be a motivator, but rather a gesture of appreciation for a job well done.

"œI think it says, "˜You did a darn good job, thank you,"™" he said. "œAnd in Fairbanks, Pearl Creek did a darn good job. In 2007, half their kids that were not proficient became proficient.

"œThe school actually got the award for exactly what the state Legislature set up the program to reward," he said. "œHigh-performing kids staying high performing and kids who were not proficient crossing the line to proficiency."

Morse said he doesn"™t quite understand Pearl Creek staff"™s aversion to the bonuses, but respects their decision to use the money any way they wished.

"œThey don"™t have to accept the money," he said.

The staff at Pearl Creek aren"™t the only ones who don"™t like the new incentive program, which was put in place this year and has been authorized by the Legislature for the next two years.

Bill Bjork, the president of the Alaska chapter of the National Education Association, an educators"™ union, said in a statement that the incentive program was unfairly biased toward schools with small enrollment numbers.

To back up that assertion, Bjork pointed out that of the schools that made the most improvement under the program and hence earned the largest bonuses "” $5,500 per teacher "” 80 percent had student bodies with fewer than 20 students.

"œFor any kind of performance incentive pay program to make sense, it"™s got to be accessible to all the schools "” not just the very small, or schools that have favorable demographics," Bjork said.

Morse said Bjork"™s assessment of the program didn"™t make sense if you looked at the complete list of schools receiving awards this year.

Large schools in Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su Valley received the bonuses.

Fair or not, the staff at Pearl Creek plan to use the incentive bonuses for the good of the whole community, Short said.

Each staff member will make the decision of what organization to donate his or her bonus to.

Some have expressed interest in nonprofit agencies serving children, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, while others want to purchase art kits or other supplies to be available for teachers across the district.

Short said a group of her staff members will be writing letters to state officials and legislators discussing their displeasure with the incentive program and urging a different system.

"œThere"™s got to be a more equitable way to support schools," Short said.

Notice that the director of assessment for the State says that the reward wasn’t meant to be a motivator? I suppose he hasn’t seen their website, which tells us that “The goal of the program…is to serve as an incentive for all employees.” I love the part where he says he doesn’t understand.

Hats off to my colleagues at Pearl Creek! I hear you, and I agree, “We are motivated already.” Well done.

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Aug 24 2007 Published by under borderland,complexity,education,teacher research

After a week with my new group of sixth graders, I want to get a handle on the basics of what some theorists call emergence. Teachers call it classroom management, which deceptively implies foreseeable results. Like other complex systems, the classroom is self-organizing, marked by numerous connections and unplanned interactions. These things, it seems to me, are worth taking advantage of. This is my attempt at making sense of complexity theory in education.

Davis and Sumara point out that from Day 1, teachers can see that classroom norms and social positionings are negotiated by everyone involved, and that a collective identity is inscribed on a group. This happens with or without the teacher’s consent, and it contributes to teacher obsessions with control and management. What tends to happen is that the knowledge-producing system is subjected to centralized control, and the knowledge produced is also then centralized, controlled, and managed. They say

The issue…is not whether the condition of decentralized control is present in a social collective – it is always there. Rather, the question is whether or not that condition can be meaningfully brought to bear on the development of concepts and interpretive possibilities (Davis and Sumara, 2006, p. 146).

Lena River Delta

It’s been a while since I last worked with 12 year-olds, and I’m remembering the constant give and take that goes with the territory. Trends develop as the kids and I figure out what will fly, and what won’t. I have to cut some things off, rechannel energy, fill in low areas, check the flow here and there.

In the beginning of the year the job is fairly simple, but it requires constant vigilance and creativity: I help students focus on whatever they need to do. The kids, being veterans of the game, know the rules but they must also explore the limits. That’s what they do. And even as I am testing them, they are testing me. Getting through this part of the year gracefully is at the top of my to-do list.

Lately I’ve been using the image of a river delta as a metaphor to help me understand the process of collective knowledge construction. It builds on itself indeterminantly and interminably. Yet it’s bounded and in constant flux. It’s a system that grows and changes in response to instability and opportunity. It creates new terrain even as it relentlessly carves new channels. A river delta, like the classroom, is a complex system with a form that can’t be accurately described or predicted with simple cause and effect metrics. Each river delta is uniquely different from every other. Yet they’re similarly configured, as are classrooms. They are dynamic forms that expand the limits of possibility.

Teachers, being the pragmatists they are, may want to pay attention to complexity theory since it seems to provide some guidelines for practice. Davis and Sumara offer a list of dynamic conditions that influence emergence.

Diversity and redundancy
There is a need for us to foster common knowledge (redundancy), and at the same time, to encourage creative self-interested activity (diversity). Among other things, redundancies include common language and shared responsibilities. Redundancy in a system is what makes interaction possible. It is the basis for joint activity. It also minimizes the effect of weaknesses or failures among some members. Redundancy contributes to stability in a system.

Redundancy, as in “same page,” might become repressive uniformity unless it’s balanced by the creativity that comes from diversity in a system. Diversity expands the range of responses that are available for a group. It enables novel actions. It is encouraged by making allowances for self-interested activity that may serve the needs of other members.

In the classroom, I think of diversity as the creative wiggle room that people need in order to find new solutions to problems. There has to be sufficient structure for everyone to find a point of entry and to mark progress through whatever activity we’re engaged in. But there should also be opportunity to make new and surprising discoveries.

Decentralized control and neighbor interactions
There is a difference between knowledge-producing systems and the knowledge they produce. Davis and Sumara say that, “The ideational network rides atop the social network.” The social system should be managed for idea exchange, which is not to recommend any particular social arrangement. Conversation may be as effective as presentations, multimedia, or written texts. Structure should permit a variety of interpretive possibilities, regardless of the organizational form.

Decentralized knowledge control resembles cultural knowledge, it seems to me, in that there is no single authority in charge of correct interpretations. However, the self-regulating aspect of emergence is extremely problematic for classroom management. To effectively shift control away from the teacher, a shared commitment to a common goal has to be established and maintained by the group. This kind of solidarity, in my experience, is highly unlikely in a public school classroom. Even in a relatively like-minded group, the development a common set of values for a class requires an especially skilled leader. As Davis and Sumara asked, can the decentralized control that is already operating be meaningfully brought to bear on a group of students? I wonder.

Randomness and Coherence
In We Make the Road By Walking, Friere said that freedom can only exist in conditions that are subject to authority. The student, he said, “experiences freedom in relation to the teacher’s authority.” He emphasized, though, that authority must not become authoritarianism. This is what Davis and Sumara call enabling constraints. “Complex systems are rule-bound,” they say. Rules in a complex system delineate limitations rather than setting forth a list of specifications. Rules, given the condition of decentralized control, should emerge gradually, as needed, so they’re more likely to be generally supported.

A river is defined by its banks, and similarly, the limitations of rules and boundaries provide coherence for a system. If the rules are not narrowly prescriptive, the system remains open to randomness. Rules don’t necessarily impose uniformity, and freedom isn’t always license. What is wanted is the establishment of a consensual domain which forms within a set of defining conditions, as we find in a group project. A certain amount of randomness within a system is good because it opens new possibilities that stimulate creative activity.

Davis and Sumara point out, interestingly, in light of political trends, that “Complexity can not be managed or scripted into existence. But it can sometimes be occasioned.” A big part of teaching is in arranging conditions that might trigger learning.

Source material
Davis, B. & Sumara, D. Complexity and education: inquiries into learning, teaching, and research. Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum and Associates, 2006

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Redrawing the Shape of Learning

…the universe has come to be seen as “relentlessly nonlinear.”
-Davis and Sumara

Termite Cathedral

Will Richardson’s recent posts about the future of schools and teachers leaves me an opening for a new “big idea” that I’ve been working on lately. I finished reading Complexity and Education, by Davis and Sumara, which has me thinking about complex systems and the classroom. Complexity theory is relatively new to me, although it’s been around for several years. I’ve read about it, but never anything that was connected directly to the classroom. It’s hard to write about something that I know so little about, but in the spirit of trying to make sense, I plunge into the muddle.

Will talked about how this is a time of “epochal change” in which analytic science has lost some of its predictive and explanatory purchase on the world due to the need for new theoretical models. He said that maybe we’re “between narratives” waiting for a new story “to meaningfully resonate and take hold.”

This reminds me of a speech made by Vaclav Havel, [here, as well] a poet and former president of the Czech Republic. The speech was delivered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1994. Havel commented on the inadequacy of analytic science to give us meaningful information about complex environments. He said, among other things, that “Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being.” And he mentioned two ideas that might help to resolve this alienation. One is the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, and the other was the Gaia Hypothesis. When I first read this, it seemed to me that these ideas were too “far out” and new-age (if that’s even a term anymore) to be of any use to teachers.

Fractal Broccoli

But now I’m learning about complexity theory from Davis and Sumara, who make a case for “complexity thinking” as an alternative to analytic science in education research. These ideas are converging for me to help me think about the classroom as a complex system. Complexity thinking is a stance toward inquiry in which the observer is implicated in the the observation, and it suggests new forms of organization and control. For example, they recommend that “mechanisms be in place to ensure that ideas will stumble across one another, not that there must be a particular sort of organizational structure in a social collective” (p. 143).

I wonder, how is “idea management” different from what is generally known as classroom management? The traditional model of education is one that represents a large body of information which schools have to “put into the heads” of students. It looks like this:

transmission model

(Davis and Sumara, 2006, p.27)

That simple graphic succinctly accounts for many of the prevailing myths of Education, elaborated by Artichoke, in which she lists various delusions embedded in education research, policy, and practice.

Complexity thinking puts the learner within a nested set of dynamic “frames,” in which meaning is negotiated on multiple levels:

transmission model

(Davis and Sumara, 2006, p.75)

These levels move from volatile, moment-by-moment, changes to relatively stable institutional and ecological forms at the outer edges. There are numerous, maybe countless, other levels depending on how you choose to look at things.

The authors point out that the contributions of complexity science to education research are not readily apparent. Therefore, the domain is itself an example of the emergent phenomena it describes. It offers several advantages over constructivist and constructionist discourses, since those theories tend to focus on either individual cognition or social/cultural conditions, whereas complexity theory presents an ecological model that accounts for change on multiple levels, simultaneously.

I don’t have time to go into this in more detail right now, but I want to pick up the idea again and look at Davis’ and Sumara’s chapter seven: Conditions of Emergence, because it has practical relevance to “idea management” in the classroom. Incidentally, they have an online journal, Complicity, that might be of interest.

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Clearing a Space to Think

Aug 11 2007 Published by under borderland

Before I became a homeowner I was a property owner. Beginning with a blank slate and building my own place has given me a large store of object lessons in starting from scratch. The first and most painful truth that I have to face any time I start something is the need to excavate – to clear a place to build. It seems so unfair to have to dig down before I can build up. But there it is. Structure requires planning if it’s going to be useful and durable. And now, going back to the classroom for the 25th time, it feels like the first time. Where do I begin? The perennial problem. Maybe that’s a good thing.

I have a lot of experience to fall back on now which I didn’t have the first time ’round. But I also have a lot more junk. I mean that literally. Last year I had too many students for the classroom, and space was an issue. So at the end of the year I got rid of my file cabinet. It may be only a small step in making room, but it was a huge symbolic gesture. Getting rid of it means that I plan to rely on my own creativity and put the students to work creating their own materials as much as possible. I hardly used all the stuff in it, anyway. I put my lunch in it. I dumped things into the drawers, loose, and forgot about them. I rarely pulled things out to use. How could I? It was a mess.

Student files are the only things I maintain in any ordered way, and I have a large desk drawer for that. Because I had my hands full with administrative duties at the end of the school year, I did the natural thing and put all my files in boxes and then shoved those in a cabinet.

Now I’m facing my organizational crimes, and clearing the shelves. I’m teaching sixth grade, a grade I haven’t taught for a while, and my immediate task is to go through the piles of paper and toss out everything that seems unnecessary. I will be ruthless. Old workbooks, lesson plans, my classroom library, science materials… all must be given a brief but hard look before I decide if they are worth putting someplace besides the “pile” that is going out the door.

I am good at this purging. I do it every year. But this time is different. I’m burning bridges. Anything that’s really worth keeping is already in my head or on the hard drive of a computer. The problem with having too much stuff is that the physical world doesn’t have a “search” function, and I spend way too much time looking for things. I usually find things that I was looking for while I’m looking for something else.

I know why this happens. I’m an organizational rebel. I break all my own rules. People give me things that I can’t use, and I don’t know what to do with them. It’s time to break free of the past. I’m practicing non-attachment. I realize this approach isn’t for everyone. I admire people with tidy file drawers and neat desk tops. They have labels on folders that actually describe what’s in them. But it’s time for me to face reality. I will never be like that.

After 24 years, maybe I’ve learned something.

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Getting Past ‘Villains’ and ‘Fools’

Aug 09 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.
-Yogi Berra

Education historian, Sherman Dorn has a new book, Accountability Frankenstein, in which he explores the roots of test-based school accountability. Listen to the preface here (mp3). He compares the testing movement to Frankenstein’s monster, calling it “an obscene marriage of technocracy and democracy.” Despite shortcomings of the current US education accountability framework, Dorn says that he doesn’t see the standards or the goals of accountability as evil. I want to expand on that, and think about what’s worth salvaging in schools as the institution seems to be floundering.

We need Standards
Dorn said that in the current debate about education standards, each side has become entrenched in their position, seeing the other as either villains or fools. He believes that accountability is a legitimate expectation for teachers, but that the current method for gauging it is seriously out of order. Since I’ve been critical of what I call the “standards movement,” I want to clarify my point of view and step away from the ‘fool’ or ‘villian’ labels if I can. Like Sherman Dorn, I don’t see the standards as bad. We need standards.

Standards, whether they’re for education, residential housing, bridges, food, laws, attire, deportment, or anything else I can think of are an expression of values. Aesthetics, usefulness, durability, comfort, and any number of other criteria are considered when making a determination of quality. Standards, like everything else, are created by people, for a purpose. And they differ according to what and who they’re for.

A crew of steamfitters I worked with one summer used to stand back and look at their work, eyeing the flaws, and say, “We ain’t buildin’ Swiss watches. It’s good enough for who it’s for.” I learned a lot from those guys. But that kind of talk doesn’t fly in the front office.

In education, content standards are used as design principles for curriculum development. Performance standards are for lesson planning and evaluation. Education standards aren’t handed down on stone tablets. In my state they’re the result of long and sometimes contentious negotiations, mostly among teachers who met repeatedly over the course many months to decide what skills and knowledge students should have when they graduate. To my knowledge, each US state followed a similar procedure.

There’s talk of unevenness among the states’ standards, and suggestions are being made for national standards. This would be a case of standardizing the standards. And standardization is a problem for anyone with special needs.

The problem with the US standards movement is that quality control mechanisms have run amok, resulting in a reductive effort to quantify quality. This is a consequence of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law that requires annual standardized testing, and an escalating series of sanctions for schools that don’t meet benchmark guidelines aimed at 100% proficiency by the year 2014. I’m not going to recount the abuses. Instead, I want to address the contradiction that standardization of tests and outcomes has introduced to the goal of quality assurance.

Standards v. Standardization
My idea on this is attributable to an article by Paul Murphy on ZDnet, a technology/business site. I have no idea whether Paul Murphy is out to lunch on this matter because I know nothing about the technology business. But the point he made about the difference between standards and standardization got me thinking about how it might apply to US school reform. Murphy’s thesis is that standards offer advantages to consumers, while standardization advantages sellers.

Recognizing that I’m applying a business metaphor, and it may have some holes, I figure that “consumers,” clearly, are families and students who look to the school to provide a service. But then, who would the “sellers” be? School-level personnel don’t qualify because teachers aren’t advantaged by standardized tests unless you believe that they’re useful to them somehow. And nobody I know inside the school system thinks they are. Maybe a few, somewhere, do believe that. But I haven’t met them. Teachers don’t develop standardized tests. We don’t know what’s on them. We aren’t even allowed to look at them. And all we get from them is a number score for each of several subtests. We wait until the end of the year to find out how everyone did. We’re flying blind, and then we climb out of the plane to see where we landed. No advantage to teachers that I can see.

The advantage, clearly, is gained by upper level administration. At the state level, they get to design, administer, and score the tests all in one easy motion. The local districts get easy-to-process numbers fed back to them, making policy decisions simple and matter of fact. Sanctions are spelled out, and all that’s left to do is manage a few contracts and some federal grant money. Contractors and bureaucrats win. Politicians look good because they did something. No need to be concerned with the messy details of what kids are actually doing. They either succeed or fail, and that’s all anyone outside the classroom cares to know. The school is the product. Standardization requires a trade-off between adaptability, and cost and efficiency. That’s a mistake, because adaptability is an essential attribute for anything to remain viable in a complex system such as a classroom.

A better way to ensure accountability is described in this audio recording of a panel discussion last week featuring Sherman Dorn and Doug Christensen, Nebraska’s Commissioner of Education. This is a worthwhile link to save! I’m sending it to my state legislators.

Nebraska developed a performance-based, standards-based, teacher-developed formative evaluation system that both guides and accounts for instructional outcomes. I’d heard of it, but never had any of the details on how it works. Christensen argued that with formative performance-based assessements, reviewed by an outside agency (because you don’t get to judge yourself) a standardized end-of-year summative assessment is redundant. He says they’ve benchmarked their assessments, and Nebraska’s schools compare favorably with those elsewhere.

It sounds like a workable alternative to the top-down model that burdens schools now. At the very least it could serve as a model for others who want to develop something similar. While it might be more challenging to operate, it would also encourage the conscientious attention of teachers to their students’ performance relative to the standards, throughout the year and not at the end, after it’s too late.

I agree that accountability is a legitimate and necessary expectation for teachers. Standardization of the accountablity mechanism, though, serves only the needs of the bureaucracy. Standards give us a goal to head for. A good assessment system would let us know if we’re getting there, and what to do if we need to make an adjustment.

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Like Cranky Talk Show Hosts

Aug 05 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Responding to Chris Lehman’s post, All Children Can Learn, I share his questions. Chis asks,

…what is important for all students to know? What is more important — demonstrating recall or demonstrating problem-solving skills? Immediate ability or the ability to produce over time?

What are the schools we want? What are the schools we need? And how can we enact policy that might actually get us there?

There is, of course, another question as well… what does a well-educated person have to deeply understand?

With respect to problem solving and creativity, which Chis mentioned, David Thornburg posted an article about Anti-Intellectualism and Creative Flight in which he recognized the economic and political value of creativity, which falls outside the realm of mere skills instruction.

David Thornburg also criticized Marc Tucker, the architect of the Tough Choices blueprint “to remold the entire American system for human resources development,” which is a quote taken directly from his Dear Hilary Letter, dated (1992).

Consider who profits from education reform. The standards movement is not a national response to a grassroots outcry. It’s a corporate business-initiated movement that has been sold to a fearful middle class worried about economic and social insecurity. Gerald Bracey called it the “the dumbest, least democratic, least reality-based” scare tactic of them all. He pointed out that thriving economies are not necessarily linked to high test scores and that although the report emphasizes creativity and imagination, it also emphasizes tracking and testing ad nauseam, which will accomplish the very opposite. Capitalists can dictate political policy by threatening to move capital where conditions for profit-making are most favorable, and that’s where the push for school reform is coming from.

With respect to the economic threat that a globalized market presents, Arundhati Roy (my new favorite political commentator) said that :

There is a notion gaining credence that the Free Market breaks down national barriers, and that Corporate Globalization’s ultimate destination is a hippie paradise where the heart is the only passport and we all live happily together inside a John Lennon song. (“Imagine there’s no country…”) But this is a canard.

What the Free Market undermines is not national sovereignty, but democracy. As the disparity between the rich and poor grows, the hidden fist has its work cut out for it. Multinational corporations on the prowl for “sweetheart deals” that yield enormous profits cannot push through those deals and administer those projects in developing countries without the active connivance of State machinery – the police, the courts, sometimes even the army. Today Corporate Globalization needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, preferably authoritarian governments in poorer countries to push through unpopular reforms and quell the mutinies. It needs a press that pretends to be free. It needs courts that pretend to dispense justice. It needs nuclear bombs, standing armies, sterner immigration laws, and watchful coastal patrols to make sure that it’s only money, goods, patents, and services that are being globalized – not the free movement of people, not a respect for human rights, not international treaties on racial discrimination or chemical and nuclear weapons, or greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, or god forbid, justice. It’s as though even a gesture towards international accountability would wreck the whole enterprise.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that US policy is being guided by a desire for Empire should have a look at The Project for the New American Century, a neocon think tank with the stated mission of “military strength and moral clarity” to be accomplished by increased defense spending, challenging regimes hostile to our interests, and liberalized global markets.

Alfie Kohn, in his Case Against Tougher Standards notes that

People from parents to Presidents have begun to sound like cranky, ill-informed radio talk-show hosts, with the result that almost anything can be done to students and to schools, no matter how ill-considered, as long as it is done in the name of “raising standards” or “accountability.” One is reminded of how a number of politicians, faced with the perception of high crime rates, resort to a get-tough, lock-’em-up, law-and-order mentality. This response plays well with the public but is based on an exaggeration of the problem, a misanalysis of its causes, and a simplistic prescription that frequently ends up doing more harm than good.

He listed “5 Fatal Flaws of Tougher Standards” (which I’ll paraphrase) that might serve as talking points among teachers as they try to address these problems with people who may not fully realize what’s at stake.

  1. It gets motivation wrong. It’s hard for students to focus on both what and how they are doing without undermining the desire to learn.
  2. It gets pedagogy wrong. A back-to-basics approach treats kids as though they were empty vessels to be filled with information, which is a theory of learning that is contradicted by both cognitive science and historical practice.
  3. It gets evaluation wrong. Standardized tests provide only crude measures, and a system that relies on them for direction is seriously misguided.
  4. It gets school reform wrong. Mandating improvement through rigidly prescriptive practices and emphasizing “accountability” discourages innovation and responsiveness to individual student and community needs.
  5. It gets improvement wrong. Responding to the political drumbeat of “rigor” that emerged out of reports that schools were “dumbing down” curriculum results in only more of the same teaching that gave rise to the criticisms in the first place.

We need to continue to emphasize creative and critical thought, and to provide guidance that nurtures understanding. At the same time, teachers need to take their message to school boards, state and national congressional representatives, and to the parents of our students. We need to keep talking about this – even if we sound like crazy talk show hosts – because we all want kids to have choices that will afford them the opportunity to live as freely, creatively, and responsibly as possible. And we need to get it right.

6 responses so far

Metablognition: Bits & Pieces

Aug 05 2007 Published by under borderland,technology

I wrote a post last summer about blogging and identity construction with a similar title. This one is a little bit more about the blog in-use, it’s construction and maintenance. This post was prompted by some questions that Eric Hoefler asked. Eric is getting ready to change focus and hit the road, and he’s thinking about how to manage his blog. In some ways I think that the questions he asks are worthy for anyone who blogs to think about periodically. Life is a journey, of sorts, after all, and we’re always getting ready for something (known as upterrlainarluta in Yupik). This is my response, (also posted as a comment on Eric’s original).

I thought quite a bit about most of the things Eric mentioned when I was in the process of setting up my blog and then, later, making adjustments in an effort to make it reader-friendly. I found Stephen Downes’ article How to be Heard very helpful.

At this point, I’m reluctant to mess with the format because I’m afraid of alienating people or screwing something up that readers might like, even if I don’t. It might be similar to the thinking that goes into a major change in personal appearance (wardrobe, hairstyle, etc), wondering how people will react. In the end I like the advice I got from Graham Wegner when I started looking for a new blog template. In so many words, he said that first you have to please yourself. So I shouln’t fret. There are a couple of things that I’d like to change on this blog, but I don’t know whether they’re important enough to deal with. I’ll try to tackle some of the questions Eric asked, applying my current thinking (as opposed to what I’m currently doing.)

The sidebar: I used to have a Recent Comments section, and a Top 10 hits list. I liked those things, and when I put the new template in, I disabled those plugins and never reactivated them. I want to turn those things back on, and need to hunt through the files for my old template to see where the code that does those things is located. The blogroll is something that I’m thinking of taking off the blog, and just including a link to. It’s already just a list on that displays on the blog. I wonder if it slows the page loads too much. There are other more political sites that I’ve started reading, and I’d like to share those links, too. But the blogroll is all (or mostly) education-related teacher sites. There are so many more teachers blogging now than there were when I began, and my reading habits have changed, how do we acknowledge that dynamic condition in a blogroll? It could require constant maintenance.

Post length: I work hard to keep my posts around 750 words, or less. I find that very hard to do. One of the problems is that when I want to contextualize a point I’m trying to make, I tend to quote from another source I’ve linked to. This feels excessive sometimes, and I wonder just where to draw the line on when, and how much to quote. The other thing I try to do is to stick to one main point, rather than throwing all my ideas about something into a post. Again, I’m not always as successful as I wish I was with this.

Frequency of posting: I’ve fallen down with this, lately, and I know why. For one thing, reading stuff on the internet – especially the political sites I’ve begun to read – has started me thinking about things that I don’t know a whole lot about. So I’ve been doing a lot more reading than writing. I’ve also learned to be a little bit more careful about what I say. This isn’t necessarily a good thing because I probably self-edit too much as I compose, and I fear I may lose some spontaneity in the process. Still, I don’t want to look back over stuff I’ve written and feel like I was an irresponsible idiot for saying something. So I post less frequently, and try to avoid feeling like I’m on a schedule. Two posts a week sounds about right. I’d like to post more often, but that’s hard to manage with a job and a family.

The feed: I publish everything in one feed. Having a separate blog for different subjects seems like a good idea. In any case, I don’t think that we should avoid including personal information because it might not be “interesting.” Point of view is necessary for making sense of the information we get from blogs. As I said in my comment on Doug Belshaw’s post, Personal stuff is OK, if the person is interesting. No matter what a blog is about, I think that bloggers need to develop a sense of boundary for what they write. Not only is it a matter of privacy, but also one of coherence for readers, and this is involves judgments that every blogger has to make on their own.

Disclaimers: I don’t think that personal blogs need disclaimers so much as they should have statements of purpose. It’s a assumed, I think, that blogs are personal statements. We don’t issue disclaimers all the time when we talk, after all. However, I do think that corporate blogs, or blogs that are commercially sponsored, or represent an organization of some kind, should say so up front. After reading Stephen Downes’ article, I put together an About page as a way of clarifying my purpose in blogging. It was as much for me as it was for visitors to the site, and it was a good exercise. A lot of people have come to the blog because of that page. I even re-read it recently, and it helped me to clarify my thinking about something. One thing that I do think a blogger should absolutely have on the front page of their blog is their name. Whether it’s their real name, or a nickname. It’s good for other people who want to leave comments or mention your blog to know what to call you.

Eric asked some good questions. And he reminded me of a few maintenance chores that have been on the back burner for a while.

14 responses so far

Fish on Board

Aug 02 2007 Published by under borderland

fish on board

Been kinda’ busy lately. The blog will get back in gear soon.

I still need to cut and stack several cords of firewood before school starts.

In case anyone cares to look at some historic photos, these help to show how I got the fish.

I’ve got about a week before I get my key and start organizing the classroom.

5 responses so far