Archive for January, 2009

A New Day

Jan 20 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,literacy,politics

Being one time zone west of the Pacific Coast, Obama’s swearing in took place here just as school started today. We had TV’s on all over the building. I had sound and picture coming through the projection system in the classroom – big screen, room lights half off while it was still dark outside, and as the kids came in they hung up their coats and sat down to watch.

We caught the tail end of Obama’s speech, the benediction, the poem, the national anthem, and Bush’s helicopter departure. There was a lot of interest in that helicopter. They were all real attentive. I asked how many had been watching at home before they left for school, and most raised their hands. They all wanted to keep watching, and I let it run for about 30 minutes.

The news announcers estimated the crowd to be over a million. One of the kids commented, That’s twice as many people as we have in our whole state! Humbling.

Washington has always seemed remote and alien from Alaska. But I’ve never felt closer than I did today. The ground did shift. We felt it.

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What We Measure

Jan 09 2009 Published by under borderland,education,politics,technology

I had a pleasant chat with my principal yesterday afternoon about the hopeful prospect of a national discussion on educating the whole child, an idea that bridges discussions about 21st century schools with advocacy for the physical and emotional well being of children. Claus von Zastrow points out that curriculum reform isn’t an either-or proposition, as he unpacks Andrew Rotherham’s concern that 21st century skills could be a fad.

There have been numerous discussions about 21st century skills around the internet, lately. And I am very glad that people are talking now about curriculum reform, because the standardized test-driven accountability discussion will never advance the interests of poor or special needs kids, or anyone else, for that matter. When we begin talking about the purposes we expect public education to realistically serve, we may start seeing some daylight.

Incredibly, Rotherham even illustrates for us why his reform package isn’t going to work as he argues both for and against progressive education. He starts off sensibly enough:

What’s new today is the degree to which economic competitiveness and educational equity mean these skills can no longer be the province of the few. This distinction is not a mere debating point. It has important implications for how schools approach teaching, curriculum, and content.

He correctly points out that it is not a new idea, and he seems to be on board with the P21 policy resource thing (which has an economic focus that is mostly a crock – better going with the NCTE plain brown wrapper version). But then, after explaining that process skills should not replace content, an unimaginable proposition, Rotherham says,

There are also real technical and logistical challenges the movement must overcome. Outside of intensive writing assignments, measuring many of these skills in a large scale or standardized way is difficult. As my colleague Elena Silva described in a recent analysis it is possible to design assessments that test both content and skills like critical thinking or problem solving. But unless these measurements are carefully designed, students can fake knowledge on many exercises intended to measure skills, again shortchanging content. In any case, most states are ill-equipped to implement such assessments today and too many teachers are not prepared to use them or teach this way today.

In other words, we should not teach what we can not easily measure. To argue that we should not teach higher level thinking because our tests are inadequate and teachers lack preparation is advocacy for the status quo – a declining spiral of testable mediocrity and irrelevance.

Well, here’s some news: We already measure many sad truths kids are learning, We count high school dropouts, teen pregnancies, drug arrests, incarceration rates, mean family incomes, child welfare statistics, and a host of other social dissonance indicators. And all of them indicate there is a problem outside the schoolhouse. And there is NO evidence that a steady diet of testable basic skills, disconnected from any reality in the known universe outside the sterile confines of an education policy think tank, will have any impact on THOSE statistics.

What we choose to measure, and the inferences we make based on those measures tells us at least as much about who we are and what we value as the things we’ve measured. Consider this quote from a speech by Robert F. Kennedy:

And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

It’s time to refocus.

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Paying Attention

Jan 02 2009 Published by under borderland,education,science

The internet is full of important and interesting things to know about, and it’s hard to manage the volume. Abundance easily becomes overload. I’ve been reading about the economy, Obama, Gaza, Arne Duncan, reading theory, Obama, poverty, and the economy. Oh, and every now and then, cats. I have no interest at all in cats.

Maybe this is normal. This is the age of multi-tasking, after all. But is multi-tasking the best way to get things done? The answer may come from brain research, rather than behavior management. Rather than going on an information diet or simply trying to do more things, more efficiently, Torkel Klingberg, author of The Overflowing Brain, named the Most Important Book of 2008 by SharpBrains, suggests that we learn to exercise our memory. The problem as he sees it is that many of us suffer from an attention deficit trait due to the normal limits of working memory, which brain science now tells us can be enhanced through training exercises.

Klingberg says:

The information age has provided us with high technology which fills our days with an ever increasing amount of information and distraction. We are constantly flooded with on-the-go emails, phone calls, advertisements and text-messages and we try to cope with the increasing pace by multi tasking. A survey of workplaces in the United States found that the personnel were interrupted and distracted roughly every three minutes and that people working on a computer had on average eight windows open at the same time. There is no tendency for this to slow down; the amount and complexity of information continually increases.

He attributes frequent distractions and the need to multi-task as the two major contributors to information overload. And he doesn’t even mention teaching elementary school. If he did, I’m sure he’d have added classroom management to his list.

Working memory, he explains, is a scarce resource. His research shows that working memory can be improved through training exercises, and that the improvement generalizes to enhance our ability to focus on everyday tasks beyond those used in the training environment. He also says that fluid intelligence, related to working memory, can also be increased.

This is hugely interesting, since one of the major problems in teaching is the difficulty so many students have remembering what teachers feel they should know after going over and over the same material. “Training our brains might thus be a way to keep up with the increasing demands of the information age,” Klingberg writes.

It might also be a way to get through the semester.

Other links for this topic:

Attention Must Be Paid – a review of Klingberg’s book at Inside Higher Ed.

Try Thinking and Learning Without Working Memory – general background information on working memory.

Articles by Klingberg – especially noted: “Training of Working Memory in Children with ADHD,” (2002) for the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, which has good background info on ADHD.

More about Promising Cognitive Training Studies for ADHD.

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