Archive for September, 2007

Putting Something Back

Sep 29 2007 Published by under borderland,complexity,education,technology

This coming week I begin teaching an after-school Web Tools for Teachers course. I’ve never done any professional development work, except on my own behalf, and I’m thinking about blogging and altruism today.

The idea of “sharing” is central to my understanding of blogging. I suppose that out of zillions of bloggers, others are guided by other principles, but my internal blogging compass is set to find and share ideas. The impulse that drives this practice is rooted in an ethos that resembles Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Blogging, to me, is a way of caring for and contributing to a community of practice. Sometimes it means taking a position, sometimes it’s simply offering an observation, and other times it’s sharing a resource, or an alternative point of view.

When I hear edu-bloggers talk about change, as when Will Richardson observes “…there seems to be two natural camps evolving, those who say reform is next to impossible without totally blowing out the model, and those who feel that we already have some inroads to reform within the current structures…” I wonder about the utopian desire to fix and repair, as if we’ll somehow eventually arrive at a final solution to all our problems.

Wendell Johnson, in an excerpt from his classic book, People in Quandries, wrote that:

Another respect in which the ideals of the maladjusted are high is that they are highly valued….If not to succeed absolutely is to fail utterly, then to succeed absolutely becomes utterly important. It is simply that “success” becomes indispensable, as “failure” becomes catastrophic. “Success” becomes indispensable when it appears to be the only alternative to “failure” — and absolute success is, by definition, by virtue of a semantic trick, the only alternative to absolute failure.

The main problem most education activists have, it seems to me, starts with a general challenge to the sustainability of the current system. People who care deeply about it are impatient with the pace of change, and lots of folks want to bid for a say in how things will turn out when the revolution comes. Blogging about schools and education reform is driven by a certain idealism. And the tendency to get stuck in either-or thinking is very strong (for me, as much as anyone else). So Johnson’s suggestion that we think hard about what we’re hoping to accomplish seems like good advice for the blogging teacher. History and reason should tell us that an absolute answer – of either success or failure – isn’t going to happen. There may be many answers to the problems of achievement, engagement, and what schools should teach. Some will be better than others.

Back to Aldo Leopold, those of us who are sharing and caring online are contributing to a world-wide forum that is expressing self-organizing emergent properties, one of which is community. Leopold said, “When the logic of history hungers for bread and we hand out a stone, we are at pains to explain how much the stone resembles bread.” To me, this statement could as easily apply to education as to the land ethic that Leopold is advocating. He argues for a new ethos that is built on community consciousness, and it seems to me that much the same is desired by education bloggers and education activists. Leopold’s bread and stone metaphor, though, cautions against trivial solutions that fail to address real needs.

What is emerging, along with the edu-blogosphere, is a community consciousness among teachers which is contributing to a new ethos of schooling that resembles Leopold’s land ethic. The corporate capitalist challenges to the land ethic, and the tendency of individuals to to operate out of self-interest for short term gains are similar to the forces pushing for centralized control and measures of individual achievement in school. A new ethos of schooling, built on community, may be the “broader vision of systemic change” that Will mentioned.

And this is what I’m thinking about as I contemplate presenting these connectivity tools to my school colleagues. Blogging and teaching are both ways of “putting something back” for others to use as they see fit.

5 responses so far

Learning Theory

Sep 26 2007 Published by under borderland,education

Pete Reilly:

If you work in a school district, can you answer this question, off the top of your head, within the next 30 seconds:

What is the theory of how people learn that guides school and classroom practices in your district?

I say, it depends on the goals of the teacher. For memorizing facts, rote practice and memorization (behaviorist theory) is good. For concept development, we can go with projects and problem-based learning (constructivist theory). There is no single theory that guides, or should guide, classroom methods in all cases. It makes more sense to ask what we hope to accomplish, given a specific set of conditions.

Note: I know my time is up, but I’m not quite done.

A pragmatist is concerned with attaining useful ends, and considers a range of options for reaching them, which is partly what Pete was saying. But I don’t agree that a school community needs to reach consensus on a theory of learning. A set of common goals and core values would be the thing to work out. It’s important for us to differentiate ends and means or we end up going nowhere together in lockstep.

8 responses so far

Are You Smarter than a Billionaire?

Sep 25 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Clay Burell threw down a fun little quiz challenge yesterday, and I took it. My result said I’m smarter than 97.64% of the population (whoever that is) which, according to his preliminary results, puts me behind his 98.3% score, and Stephen Downes’ 98.98%. I left a comment asking, What does it mean to be smart? because I think that tests only show a certain kind of intelligence.

In my comment on Clay’s results post, I elaborate the point:

The question of what is smart came up in the car driving home with my two middle schoolers today. My son said that he was given a set of questions to answer in school (kind of like this test, just for fun) with an item that asked, “Which of these is not a planet?” a)Mars; b)Earth; c)Pluto; d)the Moon. He said a lot of kids chose Pluto. He also said he noticed a 1997 copyright date on the bottom of the page, which explained the answer choices for him.

I told him that being smart on a test is it’s own kind of smart. It means figuring out what the test writer wants you to say, not what’s right, or what you really think. Looking for ambiguity and understanding what the test is designed to do helps. And that’s a whole different way of thinking about taking a test than simply trying to answer the questions correctly.

Compliance and a desire to please is often mistaken for intelligence. Many years ago I read Tom Sawyer to my class of second graders, and it inspired one of the bolder little boys to organize his friends out on the playground to act suspicious so the teacher on duty would “think they were doing something wrong.” He was a thinker, that kid.

On the subject of intelligence, Gerald Bracey asks, Yo! Bill Gates! If You’re So Rich, How Come You Ain’t Smart? (Again), and responds to Gates’ call for national standards:

Why is it incredible that we have no national standard? Remember “Only in America?” It used to be a statement of pride that we did things different from the rest of the world. National standards in and of themselves mean nothing. A study of the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995 found that in math, 8 of the 10 highest scoring nations had centralized curricula and national standards. But so did 8 of the 10 lowest scoring nations. In science 8 of the 10 highest scoring nations had national standards, but so did 9 of the 10 lowest scoring countries.

National standards aren’t smart if they’re only applied to curriculum and ignore the welfare of children. National standards aren’t smart if the results will only be measured by multiple choice test scores, without regard for other performance measures, like Homeland Insecurity: American Children at Risk by Michael R. Petit [link to pdf], where we are reminded that millions of US children are without health insurance. How about some standards that would make a difference to people, and not just raise test scores? According to the PDK/Gallup pole, people are getting tired of the test score drum beat. But Gates may not understand that.

Update: Mike Klonsky linked to the Parade Magazine article that Bracey cited, which is ironically titled Intelligence Report, and he observes:

Then, Bill, sounding like some right-wing yahoo, holds forth on some of his favorite topics, like standardized testing"”it"™s "œthe only objective measurement of our students," and reading instruction"”"œ "œwhen we gave up phonics, we destroyed the reading ability of those kids."

When exactly, did we "œgave up phonics," Bill? And what objectively is it that you are measuring with standardized tests?< .p>

I suspect that living in an 11,500 sq. ft. home, and all that comes with it, would affect your ability to see what’s going on in some parts of the world. Seems like income is another objective way to measure students. But would that be fair?

10 responses so far

Treeline Habitat

Sep 21 2007 Published by under borderland,literacy,science

We took a trip up to the top of the dome yesterday to study plants at treeline. But when you’re constructing meaning at a conceptual level, you need to establish a context. My group of town kids with little outdoors experience didn’t know what “treeline” was. So we started at the bottom and made a few stops along the way to the top. Our resident scientist took core samples from the spruce trees at the bottom, and then again at treeline.


I walked the kids toward the bottom of the valley on a trail I knew before we headed up the hill. The trail went down into a black spruce bog and we walked far enough down to where everyone got the idea that it was only going to get wetter. Then we stopped and looked around at what grew there. Not much tall stuff, stunted black spruce and a few sad birch trees, mostly. We stood on squishy muskeg that felt cold when we poked our fingers down into it.

Slightly higher and along the way back to the bus, we stopped in a mixed stand of birch and spruce growing on higher and drier ground, and we took a core sample from a healthy white spruce tree.


After climbing (in the bus) about 2500 feet, we reached treeline. We found some small black spruce, and we took a core sample from one of them. We can count the growth rings and compare their ages. The white spruce was about 30 feet tall.

The little black spruce up high wasn’t even half that tall. I’m curious to see what the age difference is. We’ll sand down the core sample to make it easier to count the rings.

We also took weather observations, looked around for animal sign, and made random notes, collecting things in baggies

There were berries, still, but only the cranberries were worth picking. If you like cranberries. We ate lunch at a huge rock outcrop near the top of the mountain in an alpine tundra meadow.

It was grand. Not rainy, and no snow yet.

The kids had a great time. They learned a lot about where we
live. And they figured out that life is tough for anything that wants to live that high on the hill. It was obvious to me that it was a hugely meaningful experience. One of the boys on the bus ride home said, “Mr. Noon, thanks for taking us on this trip.”

I’m glad we did it, too.

6 responses so far

Say what?

Sep 20 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

For those of us working to “raise the bar” in public schools, we need to keep an eye on the Hypocrite-in-Chief, who consistently lowers it whenever he wanders off script. Disgusting.

9 responses so far

Going the Distance

Sep 19 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics,science,technology

One of my students was having trouble with some math exercises (as in, 480 cm. = __m) and I asked him to show me about how long a centimeter is, and how long a meter is, but that was hard for him because he didn’t have an intuitive sense of the relationship between meters and centimeters.

I suspect that the metric system would be much easier for me to teach if it was used here in the US, like it is everywhere else. Instead, kids only see it in math problems, and they never use it for anything practical. Parents are confused by it, since it’s not used outside the academy. In 1975 the US began a gradual and voluntary conversion process that was never embraced by private industry. What we have now is a hodgepodge of metric applications.

To date, there are only 3 countries in the world that have not adopted the metric system – Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States. Resistance in the US, these days, seems to be both nationalistic (“I’m not one for change. I like everything American. If it’s here, it should be American.”) and cultural (“Peter Piper would have had to pick 7570.8 cubic centimeters of pickled peppers.”).

I got curious about the history of the metric system, and the Australian conversion process stands out as an example of systemic change that anticipated and responded to public reactions. The key points I see in the account of Australia’s experience (paraphrased):

  • No industry or group was asked to involuntarily implement a program.
  • The Act contained no penal clauses.
  • Public education by involvement in day-to-day transactions was the focus, rather than instruction by more formal methods.
  • Conversion took place in all directions simultaneously.
  • People didn’t care about the “logical nature of the metric system or the unsystematic nature of the imperial system,” so the government focused on providing a new set of metric benchmarks and avoided irrelevant references to the elegance of the metric system.

This sounds like an embrace of constructivist epistemology, which strikes me as unusual for official State policy, here in the US, anyway. Execution of the conversion process recognized the need for people to gain an intuitive sense of the new system through experience, not didactically. It happened simultaneously in retail, industry, construction, government, weather reporting, and sports.

Personally, when I write on the Internet, I’m self-conscious about making references to units of length, weight, temperature, and so forth. It’s awkward. Not only that, but as the economy becomes increasingly globalized, it seems reasonable that we’d want to “go the distance” and use common references as much as possible. There are rich discussions about metrication (a new word for me) here and here.

I wonder what anyone else might have to say about whether “going metric” might simplify math education, and what observations people outside the US have of our anachronistic units of measurement.

11 responses so far

Differences and Inferences

Sep 17 2007 Published by under borderland,education,science

We started germinating seeds in the classroom a few days ago. Since the growing season outdoors is closing down, we’ll grow some on the window ledge. The science objective is to have students observe differences between monocotyledons and dicotyledons, and so they’re germinating beans and corn in wet paper towels. But I have another, more general, objective for them to learn what it means to inquire. And for that, they are learning the language of science.

The kids watered the paper towels with the beans and corn folded into them for a few days, and then Friday they looked at the seeds. They noticed that many of the beans were opening, and that little spouts were coming out. They also noticed that the germinating seeds were larger than they’d been in the beginning. The kids concluded that the seeds were soaking up water.

One student asked whether they’d grow if they weren’t put in soil.

Ahh, you’ve asked a “what if” question. Very good, I said. This is exactly how scientists think. They notice differences when things change, and they ask themselves why. That’s what we’ve done here. The seeds are bigger, and you think that’s because they soaked up water. You made an inference, a conclusion based on evidence. You didn’t see them soak up water, but you think that might be why they’re bigger. You could test this idea.

And you have another testable question. Does anyone have an idea of how we could do an experiment to find out if plants need dirt to grow?

We could try planting one in dirt and leave one in the paper towel, and see what happens.

Yes. Excellent idea for an experiment.

Can we do that?

Well, yes, I think that would be a good idea. What do you think will happen?

Some possibilities were suggested, and we discussed how we’d do this little experiment. They didn’t know that we were going to do it anyway, but now that they’ve asked the question, we’re doing an experiment.

While the kids are busy learning about seeds and plants, and plant classification, they’re also learning about the scientific process.

My larger goal is for students to become aware of their own thinking, and learn to inquire about all sorts of things, not just plants. I wrote the words, ‘differences’ and ‘inferences’ on the board, and I explained that when we observe something changing, and attempt to explain it – even to ourselves – we’re doing science, thinking scientifically. One reason for sharing the language of science with them, explicitly, is so that they can learn to talk about how they know things, and to bring “knowing” to a conscious level.

Neil Postman, in Language Education in A Knowledge Context makes a case for teaching language in the context of its use, which is an axiom of whole language philosophy, but he doesn’t use that term. He argues that

…the improvement of reading scores is not, in any sense, a legitimate educational goal, and in my opinion it is shocking that so many people accept it as such. Reading abilities (it is plural, not singular) are not and cannot be measured by the techniques presently used to produce a reading score. The sort of technicalization represented by such procedures demeans our concepts of learning, intelligence, and language, not to mention reading itself.

He isn’t challenging the legitimacy of teaching reading, but questions the technical focus on test scores, and asks why, as a matter of policy, we remain indifferent toward “writing, speaking, listening, question-asking, and other manifestations of human intelligence.”

Following Postman’s recommendation and my own intuition, I am treating science this year as a language environment in which we will not only think about what we are learning but how we are learning. The kids are enjoying this. One of them even wrote a science poem.

4 responses so far

Protecting Child Genius

Sep 14 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education,literacy,politics

Dennis Kucinich:

The government has a major responsibility. After all, an educated populous is core, central to democracy. Charlie, as you walk up the stairs of the Capitol on your way into the House of Representatives, way over the top of that entrance to the House is a statue of a woman whose arm is outstretched, and she is protecting a child who is sitting blissfully next to a pile of books. The title of that sculpture, which is right at the center of our national experience as we walk into the House: Peace Protecting Genius. The goddess of peace protects the child genius. -(via Schools Matter)

I posted this a couple of hours ago, and after thinking about the idea of protecting children I realized that “protection” is frequently used to justify putting limits on people, controlling them or the influences they’re exposed to. So calls for protection, as a rule, make me wonder by who, and what for, and at what cost?

But in this case, I like that genius part.

2 responses so far

Tools for Teachers

Sep 13 2007 Published by under borderland,education,technology

On a positive note, some of the teachers I work with requested that I teach a 1 credit professional development course about web authoring tools. So the other night I wrote up a course proposal and presented it to the staff yesterday at the end of a meeting. I spent about 15 minutes explaining to them that I’d show them what I know, and help them develop web projects for whatever purposes they might have in mind. Mostly I tried to explain that the Internet was more interesting and useful when you see it as a participatory environment.

The course description:

Participants will gain a basic knowledge of free web services such as blogs, wikis, podcasting, social bookmarking, photo and video sharing, and electronic portfolios that have the potential to support a variety of professional and personal goals. Additionally, course participants will discuss Internet safety and identity management for web publishing, and copyright. Participants will develop a project that promotes reading, writing and publishing on the Internet.

Over a dozen people signed up for it, so it looks like it’s a Go. I’ll set it up online somewhere as soon as I can.

We’re going to have some fun.

17 responses so far

My NCLB Testimony

Sep 13 2007 Published by under borderland,complexity,education,politics

Since many people, including Linda Darling Hammond who offers (exceptionally) a comparative international perspective on education reform, are giving testimony in Washington this week at the ESEA reauthorization hearing…

“We’ve learned a lot, and we shouldn’t ignore that evidence,” said Miller, who is leading the overhaul of the law in the House, which starts this week. “What we’re trying to do in this reauthorization bill is to look for those changes to make this a smarter, fairer, better law.”

…I’ll give my testimony, here:

Congressman Miller, “Smarter, fairer, better” is not the same as smart, fair, or good, which is too much to expect from federalized management of our decentralized system which employs over 3 million teachers, who every day must address the consequences of decisions that are neither smart nor fair.

What’s missing from the media cheerleading for education reform is the mention of any responsibility that the business community may have for supporting fiscal policies that benefit poor people. We hear that “Corporate leaders have complained for years about job applicants who don"™t read, write or think well enough,” and that “American companies are increasingly looking abroad…for workers with the training and skills to compete in a globalized economy.” But when we hear this, we should note that this is not an appeal to economic equity and social justice for minorities, but an economic defense of the status quo. And how is it that schools alone should be expected to help the poor?

The core assumptions that link testing to teaching are that education is an individual psychological experience that can be reduced to observable inputs and quantifiable outputs. It can be, but learning is also an emergent property of human consciousness which is not reducible to its constituent parts, just as mind is an emergent property of our neurological functioning, and creativity is an exercise of the imagination.

Learning involves growth which isn’t always linear or obvious. And test scores don’t tell us who we are, what we’re worth, or what we can expect to be. The very fact that there is a debate about this demonstrates that learning to read, write, and do math does not ensure that we can also think clearly enough to recognize a simple truth. This entire proceeding is ridiculously utopian, which makes it all the more lamentable.

Sound old rulers, it is said,
Left people to themselves, instead
Of wanting to teach everything
And start the people arguing.
With mere instruction in command,
So that people understand
Less than they know, woe is the land;
But happy the land that is ordered so
That they understand more than they know.
Lao Tzu

We need to clean up the mess this law has made, and we need to address the larger social problems that nobody wants to talk about.

One response so far

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