Sunday, July 29, 2007

A tough week...

This has been a tough week...

Between the years 2001 and 2004, I taught psychology, economics, and history at Cheshire Academy. Those days now seem far away right given all the work and progress I've experienced at the Center for 21st Century Skills.

But Cheshire Academy was my most rewarding teaching experience, allowing me to really branch out and learn about learning at warp speed. The students, colleagues, and community at Cheshire Academy were really like a family for 3 full years - with all the exultations and tribulations that families bring.

That's why this week has been so tough. Over the past couple of years, tragedy has tinged the memories. Glenn Edwards tragically took his own life as the result of the pain and humiliation of a charge of sexual misconduct with a minor. Regardless of how one feels about an openly gay man living and teaching in a boarding school community, Glenn was immensely popular with, and caring towards the vast majority of students he interacted with.

What happened to Glenn could happen to anyone of any sexual orientation, whose urges are not rigorously self-controlled in an arena of close proximity and relationship with students far from home and family. This may sound like a no-brainer, but many of these students come to view their "local parents" with the same emotions and intimacy that occurs in any close knit family setting. And so the line of "appropriate behavior" is always being tested.

The news on Monday morning of this week was surreal. A gruesome triple homicide in the town of Cheshire... what was the family name? Oh my dear God! It can't be... Jenn Petit? Her 2 daughters? Her husband beaten to within an inch of his life? How could this be?

Jenn Petit was a stalwart of my Cheshire Academy family experience. Beautiful, intelligent, professional... all of this and so, so much more. She had the completely rare and uncanny ability to do what some can never do - approach that very fine and undefinable line between keeping a "professional" distance and getting so personal with the students under her care, that never once in my experience would a child ever have any reason to feel anything but completely safe in Jenn's care. Jenn was perfect in the roll of student health provider and teacher. Her death this week is a tragedy for the world. Her death, and its gruesome manner tests our faith - in goodness, in charity, in kindness, and in doing for others.

And so, it's hard to find any silver linings in this week of sorrow and broken hearts. One of Cheshire Academy's 2002 graduates, a Japanese student known to all as Masa, compiled a piece that I think reflects well on the Cheshire Academy family. I offer it here in tribute to Jenn Petit and her family. God bless them all.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Understanding the implications of "China rising"...

To fully understand and grasp the implications of the current "China phenomenon," I recommend reading the James Fallows article (actually, the first in a series) in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine.

If you're not a subscriber to the Atlantic Monthly, I've saved a copy of the article in PDF format here.

Also, there's an interesting multi-media version of the story. Click on the image.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Content vs. creativity as the goal of education...

In my mind, there is little doubt that we are at the initial stages of tremendous change to our educational structures. The way in which we interact with knowledge - co-creation, commenting, amateur peer-evaluation, openness, etc. - is strongly at odds with traditional education. Classrooms have been conceived as comprising a single prominent node (the teacher). Yet, our daily interactions are multi-nodal. Our experience with information is multi-perspective.

Forecasting the world in which our children will be working and living long after we are gone is an impossible task. We can not, with certainty and absolute confidence, even forecast what the world will look like in the next 10 years.

School systems all over the world, literally everywhere - in so-called developed and undeveloped places - are set up to make academic professors of us all. Middle and secondary schools are set up to physically and academically resemble colleges -- curriculum is built around fifty minute chunks; academic seat-time is measured in quarters or semesters; grades are used to mark mastery, content is delivered only to be absorbed and repeated, etc.

The trouble is, no matter how revolutionary secondary curriculum and participation is, if one stays on track a student will run smack into the walls of the ivory tower and will be transported back to a medieval system where the ultimate goal is to fill our brains -- slightly on one side, of course -- with content. How many of us were told as children not to dance because we won't grow up to be dancers; not to paint because we won't grow up to be painters; and so forth and so on. Sir Kenneth Robinson explains how schools kill creativity far more eloquently than I can.

The question that remains for me is whether education can evolve on it's own...or whether it will be transformed and revolutionized by outside forces.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Access to all the world's knowledge is a human right...

Here's a point of view I hold: Strictly in the context of the Internet age (and the promise of 21st century participatory cultures), our educational system is fatally flawed. (I'm really talking about the system that is in place from roughly the 4th grade through 12th grade.) Question: Can the "system" be fixed or is it doomed?

I believe our current K-12 system of education is doomed. I believe that, in the absence of the rise of a replacement system, the great "divides," starting with the digital and ending with the income, quality of life, and "creative" class, will be greatly exacerbated until society is heavily destabilized, risking the outcome of a ferocious 21st century version of fascism. The countervailing response to such an outcome requires an economic theory based on abundance (The Wealth of Networks), not scarcity.

As the internet has become widespread, growing numbers of people have seized the opportunity to increase their participation in education, entertainment, and volunteerism. The development of networked space brings society another step further away from the dark ages of Taylorism by increasing our faith that we can make something of our own volition that is valuable to society. (Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, Chapter 5)

I believe that all human knowledge is rapidly aggregating on the Internet. This makes access to "the world's knowledge" and the means of social production an educational right, indeed a fundamental human right - available to every culture and individual, regardless of socio-economic status. Weighing the risks and opportunities should demonstrate that whatever perceived "risks" to learners (again, I'm speaking primarily about learners in the 10-18 age bracket), opportunities for self-determined learning through unfettered access to the Internet are far greater and more essential to human health, economic, and social progress.

The "free market" system is not to be trusted as an intermediary in this area. Our "free market" intermediaries remain bounded by fear and the threat of the shift of large segments of the population away from being manipulated "consumers" toward independent "producers."

The work I've been doing with students raises the following hypothesis: Access to the Internet is a human right, on par with the rights bestowed by the great Civil Rights Act and the rejection by civilized individuals of apartheid practices everywhere. Access should not be filtered or qualified, indeed it cannot be filtered and qualified by gatekeepers of a failed educational system. Removing all barriers to accessing knowledge and the means of social production in our educational system is the signal challenge of the next 5 years.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Daniel Hand High School's Chinese Culture Day...

I had an opportunity to wrap up today's Celebration of Chinese Culture at Daniel Hand High School in Madison, by speaking to 150 juniors and seniors. I'd prepared a "multi-media show" for the students, hoping I could get them engaged at the end of an interesting day, but the last period of any school day is always a challenge on the "engagement" front. The title of my talk was "China Rising - What students need to know about cultural participation in the 21st century."

Alas, the technology failed me or more appropriately, I failed the technology. As I regularly make my rounds presenting topics on 21st century concepts to school district groups, I find incredible dis-similarities in technology topologies from district-to-district. There are no "universal standards;" only "local standards." This may work for curriculum design or teaching practices, but I don't think it's the model we need for railroads.

Imagine taking a train from New Haven to Stonington, and having to change wheels at each town border because there's a different track guage imposed as a "local standard." That's what being a traveling presenter is like in the world of education.

Oh well. It's not a complaint, mind you. After all, who'd have thought 10 years ago that the Internet and web technology might be as "pervasive" in public education as it has become? For me, it's always a risk to raise expectations about the power of new media to inform, by planning on using that very media as the basis of my school presentations. But risk is inextricably part of the message, said best in this short verse by an unknown author:
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your ideas, your dreams, before a crowd, is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing do nothing, have nothing, are nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live.
Chained by their attitudes, they are slaves; they have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

David Brin's vision for 3rd millenium problem solving...

David Brin frequently uses the medium of science fiction to describe the future. His webcast at Google is deep and heavy, but the good news about such a complex topic presented in webcast form is the ability to stop and start to let our minds wrap around the subject, even while allowing us to go elsewhere to gain better understanding and background on the subject. Brin talks at length about this ability of society to be both "anticipatory" and "resilient." Katrina is an example of the "professional protective cast" calling a stop to what Brin calls "citizen robustness, a resiliency to deal with the crisis."

The result of engaging the professional protective cast, in this case the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and a myriad of conflicting Federal and state bureaucracies? More chaos, more harm, and extended suffering. Brin points out that the attention economy isn't new. Our pre-civilization ancestors practiced the principles of the attention economy in furthering human evolution. Synchronous, face-to-face skills honed discourse and solved challenges. And just as we do today in the "new" attention economy, our ancestors practiced selective focus by:
Adjusting distance,
Turning to and away from others,
Heeding reputation,
Favoring what's interesting,
Remembering what's important,
Constructing rules of courtesy,
Keeping a train of thought,
And, staying alert for surprise!
His thesis of 21st century problem solving ultimately boils down to the components of :
and Discourse
We shouldn't lose site of these things as we create educational policies that, unintentionally or otherwise, separate us from citizen robustness and resiliency to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cong. Miller on "teaching to the test"...

Congressman George Miller (D-CA) took the helm of the Committee on Education and Labor, one of the most important positions on Capitol Hill. The "No Child Left Behind" Act is up for re-authorization this year. The editors of Edutopia Magazine recently sat down the Cong. Miller and asked him questions about his views on the Federal Government's role in education. I thought Cong. Miller's comments on NCLB, particularly points he made about "teaching to the test" were interesting, and have provided some excerpts here:
First of all, what I think we're starting to see emerge from NCLB is that those schools that are starting to be successful -- where more and more students are learning at grade level, are being proficient -- are those that are rejecting the idea of teaching to the test. The drill-and-kill is doing exactly that: It's killing the appetite for learning among the students. They're not doing any better on the drill-and-kill, and they're not doing any better on the test.

But, again, you come back to this idea of engaging students in the learning experience, in the learning opportunity. And we're starting to see where reading is incorporated throughout the entire curriculum, where mathematics is incorporated throughout much of the curriculum, that students are starting to be engaged in a different way, and it starts to appear that they're doing better on some of the exams.

Where there's cooperative learning, where students are learning from their peers, where teachers are sharing their teaching experiences, where they have time to plan programs, to align the programs to the proficiency of the children, there are a lot of successes out there that we have to focus on.

You can read the entire interview here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Listening to student voices...

There's a way of expressing what new media formats do to the learning paradigm. It goes like this:

I hear; and I forget.

I see; and I may remember.

I do; and I understand.

21st century learners can "do" in ways no previous generations of learners could do, unless we go all the way back to before the era of universal education, when "learners" were put to work in the fields, raised the crops, nurtured the land, and cared for the animals as part of the experience of coming of age.

I regularly ask my students to contribute to my performance. Here's a student, Samantha Velez, speaking for herself about her experience in the IT Leadership Academy program that the Center for 21st Century Skills at Education Connection runs for 400 students in 20 school districts.

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