Ptolemaic Schools – Why Reform Won’t Work

August 3, 2011 · Posted in culture · 2 Comments 

Until the 1500s in Europe, the Earth was believed to be fixed at the center of the universe. Planets, moons, and other celestial objects were thought to rotate around the Earth and each other in perfect spherical orbits. This terracentric world view–derived essentially from Claudius Ptolemy’s theories and calculations in the 2nd century A.D.– worked well enough to predict with reasonable accuracy the paths of the known planets and constellations across the observable skies.

But it wasn’t perfect. Ptolemy himself postulated a series of smaller epicycles–cycles within cycles– to explain orbits that weren’t behaving quite according to his model. Over time, increased understanding of mathematics and the development of accurate telescopes presented additional observable challenges to the Ptolemaic universe. These required additional sets of intricately-nested epicycles to explain how celestial objects ended up where they did. The universe was getting uncomfortably complex, requiring more and more tweaking to fit the theoretical model.

Enter Nicolaus Copernicus, who changed everything by postulating that the terracentric world view itself was the problem. The Sun, not the Earth, was he center of the universe. No more tweaks–things worked as predicted, and essentially work that way to this day, quantum mechanics notwithstanding. The Earth and the other celestial bodies hadn’t changed–it just took a re-imagining of the system in which they interacted.

We have a Ptolemaic school system. It worked for a while. There wasn’t much to know and there weren’t many ways to disseminate what we did know. Social and technological change was gradual. We had (we assumed) a homogeneous national culture. It didn’t take much tweaking to make things work they way they should. But the social context for schools changed rapidly in the 20th century and continues its rapid acceleration toward a black hole of uncertainty, to continue the astronomical metaphor.

That’s why I believe that reforming our current school system won’t work. We need to start over with a re-imagining of the entire context for schools.

The current dialog about school reform is based on the perception that our schools are not performing well, either relative to other industrialized nations or to our own historical standards. This criticism comes from both conservative and liberal factions, and the arguments from both sides are compelling. I am not one to disagree with the need for drastic school reform. We’re not producing a general populace that is either educated in the classical sense of the term or prepared for the 21st century as many current reformers claim.

But I’m afraid I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that school reform is not possible, at least in the sense that we can make any more adjustments to the system that currently exists. Jay P. Greene makes a similar point in his blog post Build New, Don’t Reform Old–”build new institutions and stop trying to fix the old ones.” Our educational system–like Ptolemy’s universe–is just too complex, with too many stakeholders having an interest in its continuation as is, for any tweaks to be effective. Since the inertial jolts of Sputnik and SCANS hit, many epicyclic tweaks have been proposed, including:

Charter schools, cyber schools, technology implementation, increased standardized testing, decreased testing, Common Core standards, local standards, raise teacher pay, merit pay, cut teacher pay and benefits, privatized education, state-sponsored prayer in schools, students segregated by gender, students bused to achieve ethnic or racial balance, increased availability of STEM and AP courses, standardized curricula and lessons, increased teacher autonomy, education vouchers, parental involvement, in loco parentis; alternative certification processes for teachers, greater state or federal control, increased local control, increased emphasis on vocational and industrial arts, standards vs grades…

Virtually every element listed above has been promoted as “the” fix for schools and all have been implemented at one level or another. And yet, nothing has provided the inertial force that will alter the velocity of our massive education system. (At least we’re providing a good demonstration of Netwon’s first law.) As Greene suggests, there are just too many people and institutions invested in our current course for meaningful change to occur. I’d add that most reform efforts come not from educators but from various political factions that are not as concerned with school reform as they are with political advantage and conflicting ideologies, further complicating an already overly-complex system.

I don’t mean to say that there aren’t pockets of effective reform out there. There are; but I suspect that most will wither and die as soon as the movers and shakers that propelled them retire or give up, or the grants that funded them run out. We always revert to the way that schools have always been, and–I have concluded–will always be.

Somehow, we need to build something entirely new, based on a re-imagining of the entire social context for schooling–why we do it, how we should do it, and what we’re willing to pay to get it done. Place that next to the current system and wait a generation or so until the old model withers away in the face of a superior, flexible system that adapts to individual and social needs. We need Copernican reform, not Ptolemaic tweaks.

Is that asking too much?

Up is Down. Finally.

July 22, 2011 · Posted in culture · Comment 

Many years ago–not long after Macs were introduced–I was conducting a professional development workshop for K12 faculty and staff. The goal of the workshop was to explain the Mac’s mouse-and-windows interface. I suspect that many of you are too old to remember having to learn how to use a mouse as an adult, but if you do remember you’ll probably recall that it was not all that easy to master scrolling through a document window.

Two people in my group had particular problems using the mouse until one of them, in frustration, turned the mouse around so that the cable protruded from the bottom rather than the top, as designed. After that, each happily and productively used the mouse upside down.

I initially assumed it was some sort of perceptual problem, but the real cause was much simpler–each of the two folks having problems were pilots. (Alaska is full of them.) Pilots are used to navigating three-dimensional space with a stick. When you push the stick away from you (up, in the mouse metaphor), the aircraft dives. When you pull it towards you (down, to a mouse), the craft rises. They found it non-intuitive to push the mouse away to make something go up. Pushing away should make things go down, as happened in their world of flight.

It dawned on me then that the scrolling metaphor was somewhat backwards, at least logically. To move through a document from the top to the bottom, you had to pull down on the tab in the scroll bar or press the down arrow icon. (In-window scrolling and scroll wheels had not been introduced yet.) Pulling down made the document go up in the window. It was just the opposite of what you would do with a real document; if you wanted it to go up, you’d logically push it that way.

Now, with OSX 7 (Lion), Apple has finally corrected the metaphor. It started, of course, with the iPad. To scroll through a document in a touch environment, you push up to make it go up and down to make it go down. You interact with the document itself and not the window that the document is in. That’s the metaphor that Lion has adopted, and it makes perfect sense to me. Thinking document and not window, you push up to make it go up and down to make it go down.

I’l admit that it took me a while to get used to the new action. Years of habits are difficult to overcome. But the iPad–and now Lion–have forced us the re-imagine how to interact with an information appliance. Point-and-click is over, replaced with gestures that are much more intuitive if we can break our old habits. Up is finally down, and that’s the way it should be.

Lessons from Egypt

February 14, 2011 · Posted in culture, social networking · Comment 

The extraordinary events that have unfolded in Egypt over the past month have affected change throughout the mideast and have profound implications for the future of that region. We’re probably just beginning to become aware of what’s in store for the Egyptian people and for freedom and democracy in general in Egypt and the rest of the world. It has been an inspirational and awe-inspiring experience for me.

I watched Mubarak’s and Suleiman’s addresses, along with much of the Egyptian Revolution, in real time on my iPhone via a live feed from Al Jazeera–coverage currently not available to much of the US. As moved as I was by the events I was observing, I was also constantly aware of the role that social media was playing in the revolution–not just in the reporting of the events, but in the actual creation and facilitation of the protests. Given what I have read and observed, I’m not sure that the revolution could have occurred without Facebook and Twitter.

Even in a society in which the major media outlets are controlled by the government, Facebook and Twitter and other social media tools exposed Egyptian citizens to ideas and viewpoints other than those espoused by the Mubarak regime. Perhaps more importantly, these media tools allowed citizens to communicate with each other about these new perspectives and to coalesce around them informally and passionately, beyond the reach of government. The seeds of the Egyptian Revolution were sewn by free access to information. It became a leaderless revolution–not led by an individual or a group but by passionate adherence to the idea that the people could find their own voice and make that voice heard. It is significant that the Egyptian government shut off access to the Internet as a defense against the gathering uprising–a strategy that is happening in other regimes as well–and even more significant that people found ways around the lack of access by using modems and finding access in foreign countries to keep the information flowing. Ultimately, the Mubarak regime could no longer hide from free access to information and the exchange of ideas. The regime fell because it could no longer control the top-down message that was the government’s chief tool for controlling the people.

Political considerations aside, there are profound lessons that we can learn from the role of social media in the emerging change sweeping the mideast. The first, and most important, is that information can no longer be controlled by a news agency or a government. As long as people can freely communicate, it will not be possible to surpress an idea supported by passion and conviction. Information will find a way to be heard as long as the message is shared between people and not filtered by an entity with an interest in controlling the message. Media outlets in the US–from Fox to CNBC–shape messages for their audiences. Al Jazerra, at least in my recent experience with the English broadcasts, is far less guilty of this than are our major networks.

The second lesson is that access to information is no longer in the hands of a select few. Over 73% of the people in the world–that’s more than 5 billion souls–have access to a mobile information device. (http://bit.ly/eneE4J) Had that not been the case, the Egyptian Revolution would never have happened. Tools like Twitter–critical to the uprising in the mideast–work over the simplest cell phones via text message. Smart phones make the process even more accessible. Controlling Internet access is one thing, but controlling cell phone access is something else entirely.

The third lesson is simple–the genie is out of the bottle. As much as governments and news agencies might try, they will not be able to manage the message in the face of a connected populace who can see through their efforts and who can communicate with each other.

Educators at every level need to be aware of the lessons from Egypt. We should examine our attitudes toward social media and to information dissemination in general. There are so many questions to be researched and answered. How will the breaking down of information barriers affect the use of propaganda to control political messages or advertising? What are the implications for media literacy? How can we use social media to involve our students in engaging pursuits? And what are you personally doing with social media? Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?

School Time

September 9, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · 6 Comments 

Longer ago than I care to think about, when I was teaching a very bright and motivated group of individuals that comprised my 5th grade class, I made an unintended remark that has stayed with me all these years. My class was busily working away at various projects and there was the usual healthy buzz of talk and activity in the room that assured me that my students were engaged in their pursuits. I was working on some task at my desk. I don’t remember what it was, but apparently it required a level of concentration that I was missing because I rather spontaneously said, “Hey, guys, I need about five minutes of school time.”

I’m not sure why I chose those words, but my students immediately went back to their desks, got very quiet, and stared at me.

I stared back at them for a few seconds as the weight of what I said sunk in. First, I was surprised that I had dredged that term up. I didn’t say, “Sit down and be quiet.” I didn’t say, “Return to your seats and listen to me.” I just asked them for some school time. The fact that my students knew exactly what I meant by it spoke volumes to me about how my students perceived school–and, by contrast, my classroom.

It frightened me. School, to my students, was sitting quietly at their desks waiting to be told what to do. They had to stop activities in which they were happily engaged so that I could have some School Time. Whatever task I was working on was quickly forgotten as we spent the next 30 minutes or so talking about why they reacted as they did. The consensus was clear–in school, you sit at your desk, keep your eyes forward, don’t talk, and wait for instructions.

I asked them if they thought that our classroom was different. This was a tough question for most of them. We were in a school, after all, and there were desks and books and all the other familiar trappings. And yet, they clearly perceived that this experience was different, as evidenced by their quick return to their desks after my remark. Mindy finally offered a suggestion: “This is school, but it’s fun.”

Ouch, again. Wasn’t school fun? Not really, apparently. School was a set of rules that often countermanded what students really wanted to do. But don’t we have rules in this class? Yes, but they make sense. Why do they make sense? Because they let us learn.

AHA! It finally made sense to me. School wasn’t fun, but learning was fun. Students who were happily engaged in learning followed classroom rules because those rules facilitated learning rather than restricting it. When a classroom is about rules, you get School Time. When it’s about learning, you get a group of engaged students.

I did have a set of classroom rules posted on my wall. I did so because we were required to have them. They were:

  1. Be nice.
  2. Study hard.
  3. Use your brain.
  4. Don’t ask the Forbidden Questions.

They seemed to work in just about every circumstance.

For the rest of that year, whenever I needed some quiet in the room, I asked for School Time. In some ways, I regret that, as it tended to reinforce the notion that school was about rules. But it worked.

Oh. The forbidden questions were “How long does it have to be” and “Do I have to?” Tough habits to break.


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Why I Love/Hate Standards

August 1, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

Some years ago (2001), in my book “Technology Standards: A Leader’s Manual” (you must remember it–it sold literally dozens of copies) I made this point about academic standards:

But standards are not merely goals and objectives. In fact, real implementation of standards in a school system should turn instructional practice on its end…’Traditional instructional practice  fixes the time that a student has to learn and allows the learning outcome to vary. You take Algebra II for nine months. At the end of that time, the result might be that you get an A, an F, or something in between. Standards-based instruction, on the other hand, fixes the learning outcome and allows the time to vary. Every student will show mastery of the performance standards, but some of them will show mastery earlier or later than others will.’

Read that again. It is a fundamental change in instructional practice that should shake public education to its foundations. In a standards-based system, giving a grade in reading, math, or written language would be almost impossible because what we should be measuring is progress toward mastery of a standard, not performance relative to a fixed time line. Our job as educators is not to grade students on what they remember over time but to make sure that they attain the standards set by the school system or the state, no matter how long it takes.

I still stand by my statement, but I’m increasingly aware that the standards movement of the H.W. Bush era backfired on us. The move toward academic standards should have driven a shakeup in the way we educate K-12 students. Instead, it gave us high-stress, high-stakes testing and new restrictions on creative instruction. I think it’s more than coincidental that our schools have become progressively less engaging for students as a result of the standards movement, when just the opposite should have happened.

That’s why the Common Core Standards movement concerns me. Don’t misunderstand me–I support the concept of clearly defined academic standards and I don’t have any specific quibbles with the content of the Common Core standards. However, I think the focus on standards–e.g., curriculum–detracts from the real issue of what’s wrong with our schools: instruction.

We need to face the fact that, in spite of considerable effort over the past 30 years to establish state and federal academic standards, students in many K-12 classrooms are simply disengaged from the process of learning as a result of instructional methodologies that focus on memorization and test-taking in lieu of problem solving and creative pursuits. If it’s not on the test, it’s not covered. Schools have typically been slow to adopt new technologies, and when they are adopted they are often used to extend traditional instructional models instead of creating new ones.

I would argue that what students learn–call it content, curriculum, standards–is ultimately less important than how and why they learn. Passionate involvement in a topic–any topic–will produce a better-educated student and one that is more prepared for current and emerging careers than will a focus on high-stakes test content.

I applaud the notion behind the Common Core Standards. But I fear that national adoption will create a “feel good” sense of accomplishment that will deflect focus from the real reason that our schools are failing our students. Focusing on standards did not work in the 80s-90s and I have a hunch that, in the absence of a fundamental transformation in the way we instruct K-12 students, it won’t work this time either.

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Plus ça change…

June 5, 2010 · Posted in social networking · Comment 

I probably shouldn’t have decided to read a few of my older blog posts. In a December 2008 post, I wrote this:

A little background information is in order here. I’m not a phone person. I prefer to communicate by e-mail or messaging. I don’t feel a need to always be in contact. In fact, I like having times during my day when no one can find me. I tried Twitter for a few months and came away thinking “so what?” I have a Facebook page, but I mainly use it to do something called “poking” which I really don’t fully understand.

Well, I’m still not a phone person, but the rest of that paragraph sounds like it’s describing someone else–a curmudgeonly Luddite not open to new ideas. The truth is that I did try Twitter when it first appeared and found it a fairly useless time-suck. I abandoned it before I understood its true potential as a professional development and communication tool. Since that time, I’ve become convinced that it’s the most important professional development tool that we have available to us. Much the same might be said of Facebook as a way to grow and explore professional communities (although poking still eludes me). These tools, along with LinkedIn, Diigo, Google Reader, and a few others have formed the nucleus of my PLN, and it’s difficult to imagine a professional life without them.

I bring this up because I still regularly encounter stiff faculty resistance to exploring social media solutions as professional and instructional tools, and for many of the same reasons I hinted at in 2008. Particular disdain seems to be focused on Twitter. How many times have you heard someone say “I don’t care what my friends had for breakfast” or “I don’t have time for meaningless chatter” in response to a question about Twitter? There is a deeper sense among many academics that Twitter will impact the ability of students to write essays, as if the fact that one engages in phone conversations somehow impacts one’s ability to give a speech.

Then there is the public nature of social media tools that causes so much unease among academics, particularly the notion that students might “friend” them or somehow discover that they have interests outside of the classroom. These are often cited as reasons that “I don’t do Facebook.”

Such resistance can be daunting for those of us involved in professional development or in instructional technology in general. Moving into social networking does involve some major restructuring of one’s thinking, but isn’t that the essence of teaching and learning–the flexible exchange of ideas in order to grow and develop? Why is it that educators are often the most dogmatically resistant to this kind of shift in thinking? More specifically, why is it that some educators offer such resistance, while others adapt and learn and incorporate new models into their practice? Are teacher preparation programs helping or hurting in this regard?

Lots of questions, but change is possible. I did.


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The Tyranny of the Vertical

April 16, 2010 · Posted in Teaching 2.0 · 12 Comments 

My university uses Blackboard. When I say we use it, I mean that we have it available. It’s actually used by a very small percentage of the faculty. In my estimation there are a number of reasons for this–resistance to change, lack of effective implementation models, no mandate, lack of training, too much work, the usual litany. I used to think that it looked bad that so few professors were using this tool and tried to encourage more widespread use. However, I have joined the ranks of those who don’t use it for instruction–and let me tell you, it feels great!

First, a little background. I’m an instructional technology teacher. I used BB extensively for all of my classes. All of my assignments and supplementary materials were posted there. I used extensive embedded media resources and tweaked the HTML to make things look and work just right. But it wasn’t long before BB’s limitations started to show. Students couldn’t submit multiple iterations of a single assignment. (Didn’t the BB authors ever hear of rough drafts?) Discussion boards were uselessly difficult to follow. The tiny editing window was frustrating to use. Assignments–the heart of Blackboard, to me–wouldn’t copy from one semester to another and had to be recreated each time. I couldn’t make ad hoc student groups for projects. Students couldn’t access their work after the semester ended. Social networking tools such as blogs and wikis, while present, were pale imitations of the real thing. The gradebook didn’t interface with our Sungard grade reporting system. And then there was the endless clicking on OK buttons…

I decided to move my content to Google Sites. There I had much more control over the format and functionality of my content. Media files were much easier to manage. My students set up real blogs and used real wikis for their work and we linked them to the class site. Instead of working in a vertically integrated management system, students were working with real tools and learning skills that would help them in their future careers. They were developing portfolios using Google Sites (some purchasing their own domains from Google) and creating online materials for use in their classes. They were in control, not Blackboard. It has been liberating for all of us.

I’ve concluded that Learning Management Systems place a much greater emphasis on management than on learning, and the learning that does occur is not always transferable to the world outside of Blackboard. Learning how to use Blackboard is a dead-end skill for students. How much better is it for them to learn to create portfolios with real world tools, to be able to access their work after the semester ends, and to gain an appreciation of personal learning networks and a potential audience for their thoughts through social networking tools?

My use of Blackboard now consists of a link to the “real” class site and a My Grades button so that students can check the progress of their assignments–as long as they just submit one iteration of it. Next semester, I’m going to drop that function as well.

It’s great to be free of the tyranny of the vertical.

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