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. ( 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?

There is no “now” now.

October 29, 2009 · Posted in citizenship, culture, social networking · 8 Comments 

A few days ago I had a conversation with a colleague that went something like this:

C: I just want to do what I do now with technology. I don’t want to know about social networking. It’s too hard to keep track of everything.
Me: I…ummm…it’s…did you get the time for the next faculty meeting?

What I wanted to say, and what I’ve been thinking about for some time, is that there is no such thing as catching up. There’s no “now” with technology. If you’re not constantly moving forward, then by default you’re moving backward. Particularly with technology, moving backward is an express ticket to irrelevancy. I liken it to being the best typewriter repairperson in the world–you may be very good at your craft, but who cares?

Two years ago, we weren’t talking about Twitter, and not much about Facebook. In a bit less than four years, YouTube has gone from a cautious startup to serving over one billion videos a day. Fifteen years ago we were just starting to talk about the World Wide Web. The processing power used for the first moon landing is roughly equivalent to the processing power of a Furby, a toy that was interesting 5 or 6 years ago. As quickly as things seem to change, we’re probably still on the early curve of an exponential explosion of technologies that will vastly change the way we do just about everything.

But we seem to be stuck on viewing technology as an object and not as a process. Much of the daily work I used to have to perform on my laptop (which replaced my desktop when it became much more important to be able to carry my work with me) can now be performed on my iPhone. The vessel is irrelevant to me as long as I can do what I need to do. Technology isn’t my laptop, or my iPhone. It’s a process for communicating, collaborating, creating, producing, and (somewhat recursively) for keeping up with technology. For an educator, it’s simply a tool of the trade. If you don’t understand how to use it professionally and instructionally, you’ll soon be looking for an office next to the typewriter repair shop.

The End of Schooling As We Know It?

February 26, 2009 · Posted in culture, Teaching 2.0 · 1 Comment 

Sometimes I think that post-secondary schools in the US are some of the best examples we have of Newton’s Laws of Motion. The first law is usually referred to as the Law of Inertia: “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.” Newton’s second law explains that the more mass that object has, the greater the external force that must be applied to it move it from its current trajectory.

Does this sound familiar? Universities are massive by any reckoning; they employ millions of people, consume billions of tax dollars, have huge collective carbon footprints, and have basically been doing business the same way for hundreds of years. They are so ingrained into our social structure that most people can’t imagine a society in which they didn’t exist in their current form. They’re on a trajectory that will take a truly massive application of external force to dislodge them from their course.

And that force may come sooner than we think, at least according to two items that grabbed my attention this past week.

The first was a television commercial for Kaplan University. I should explain that I don’t watch TV very much and this particular commercial may have been around for some time, but last week when I first saw it it hit me like a ton of bricks. Here it is:

I first thought it was a commercial for Apple, Inc., and was surprised to find at the end of the commercial that it was for an online university–essentially a competitor for my brick-and-mortar institution. My initial thought was that the “professor” in the ad got it right–that we need to be paying attention to learners who may not fit the traditional concept of a post-secondary student. They expect to be able to use their favorite media to learn when and where they can, on a schedule that suits their lifestyle, job, or personal preferences.

The second item was an article from eSchool News entitled AASA hears what’s about to disrupt schools.” In the article, Clayton Christensen from Harvard’s Business School predicts that within the next ten years half of all instruction will take place online and that schools risk losing enrollment to the online learning market if they do not adopt the model for their own students. The massive external force that may move schools off of their current path is something that Christensen calls “disruptive innovation”–innovation that is so powerful and so different that it completely changes the marketplace, dislodges old market leaders from their positions of leadership, and gives rise to new ways of doing business. It’s not at all difficult to see examples of disruptive innovation that have happened within most of our memories–VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet), the personal computer, the World Wide Web, the iPod, etc. Each of these innovations changed the way business was done before and allowed new players into the market, typically at the expense of the “old guard.” And it’s personal, too. This morning I spent several hours answering e-mail, editing some documents (including a spreadsheet), evaluating my students’ projects (PowerPoint lessons that they uploaded to Google Docs and embedded into their blogs) and recording their grades and my reflections on their work, and the only application I had open the entire morning was Firefox.

My job is to prepare post-secondary students to teach in K-12 school systems. It may take an even more massive application of external force to change their current vector. What should I be telling my pre-service teachers?

I immediately flashed back to the Kaplan commercial I had seen a few days before. Bob Dylan was right:

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

The Day the World Changed

October 28, 2008 · Posted in culture, iPhone · 5 Comments 

I did something the other day that I have never done before in my life.

I put my cell phone in my pocket.

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. I got my first cell phone when my oldest son started driving. I only turned it on when he was away from the house. Other times it was turned off and either buried in my pack or sitting at home on the kitchen table. Once or twice I ordered pizza with it.

Oh–and one more piece of important information. The cell phone I put in my pocket the other day was an iPhone 3G.

The world changed for me when I was sitting alone at a neighborhood Subway eating a tuna sub and reading the New York Times on my iPhone. I ran across an interesting article on behavioral economics–an interest of my other son’s–and I sent the article to him using my iPhone. It was later that I fully realized what I had done. I was reading the current issue of the Times in a little shop in Fairbanks, Alaska. I sent an e-mail to a student in Wyoming. I didn’t need to look for a network. I didn’t need to fuss with multiple applications on my phone. The icons and text were big enough for me to read and the buttons were big enough for me to touch. It just worked.

Since then I haven’t been able to allow my iPhone to get very far away from me. It has very little to do with the fact that it’s a phone. It has more to do with the fact that I can locate my position using GPS, fly around the world with Google Earth, look up a word that I should really know (the last one was solipsism), check the political polls, read a bit of news, check and send e-mail, look at some photos, play a movie, find out what song is playing on the radio (Shazam!), play a game or two, and even phone my family. And I can do it easily.

The implications for education are enormous. Field trips take on a whole new meaning. Emergency contacts are a tap away. Content residing on my phone can be played on a TV. I think this is the device I have always been waiting for. It didn’t take long for it to change my world.

My iPhone now resides in my pocket, always turned on. Someone might call me…

Does Schooling Still Have Value?

August 16, 2008 · Posted in culture, Teaching 2.0 · 3 Comments 

“I’ve never let my school interfere with my education.” -Mark Twain

I’ve been aware of the concept of “disintermediation” since reading Donald Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital in the mid-90s. Essentially, disintermediation refers to the elimination of the proverbial middle man in a supply chain. As an example, consider what has happened to travel agencies since the advent of digital technologies. Airlines found that they could save considerable money by selling their tickets electronically directly to customers instead of paying travel agents to sell tickets for them. Travel agents became irrelevant to the process of buying tickets, forcing them into one of two choices: close up shop, or figure out what kind of value they could add to travel that customers would be willing to pay for. The mantra for disintermediation is this: “If you don’t add value to a process, then you’re only adding cost.” If you’re only adding cost, you’ll be quickly disintermediated.

Over the years, I’ve given much thought to the idea of disintermediation with regard to K-16 education. I think it makes sense to apply the disintermediation mantra to schools. We should constantly be asking ourselves which processes contribute to the value of K-16 education and which processes only add cost. True introspection might reveal some shocking answers. For example, elementary school teachers bristle at the suggestion that they are babysitters, but in truth one of the values that K-6 education holds for most working parents is child care. If you don’t believe me, try shortening the length of a school day one day per week to provide professional development to teachers. Parents will not allow it.

In education, we do many things because, frankly, it’s what we’ve always done. We make high school students start school at 7:00 am even though research clearly shows that older adolescents are not morning people–a fact that will come as no shock to most parents. We build schools with multiple closed classrooms and few large or flexible spaces because a class has 25 students and one teacher…right? Schools are probably one of the few institutions that look today much like they looked 50 years ago, despite the fact that very few of the social structures, methods of communication, or technology tools that exist today were around even 10 years ago.

My interest in disintermediation was again peaked by a recent article on (Higher Education – Dangerously Close to Becoming Irrelevant). While I do not necessarily agree with every point made in the article, I immediately welcomed another opportunity  to look critically at what I do and why I do it and, most importantly, whether or not it is relevant to the effective education of my post-secondary students.

A citation from Dr. David Wliey immediately caught my attention:

Consider Wiley’s description of the typical college classroom experience.

“Students are inside a classroom (tethered to a place), using textbooks and handouts (printed materials), they must pay tuition and register to attend (the experience is closed), talking during class or working with others outside of class is generally discouraged (each student is isolated though surrounded by peers), each student receives exactly the same instruction as each of her classmates (the information presented is generic), and students are students and do not participate in the teaching process (they are consumers).”

My first reaction was that this pretty well summarized my high school experience in the 60s and is largely accurate in that context today. My second reaction was “Haven’t we learned anything yet?” The reality is that digital information tools and ubiquitous access to information and to collaborative learning tools long ago smashed that monolithic model in most businesses and social institutions, but for many (most?) schools the older models of instruction still prevail.

Again quoting Wiley, the unnamed author provides a potentially more relevant contrast to the old instructional model:

“From her dorm room / the student center / a coffee shop / the bus a student connects to the Internet using her laptop (she is mobile), uses Google to find a relevant web page (a digital resource which is open for her to access). While carrying out her search, she chats with one friend on the phone and another using instant messaging to see if they can assist in her search (she is connected to other people), she follows links from one website to another exploring related information (the content is connected to other content), she quickly finds exactly the information she needs, ignoring irrelevant material (she gets what is important to her personally), and she shares her find with her friends by phone and IM (she participates in the teaching process).”

Sadly, this model happens entirely outside of the context of a classroom. What is the potential lesson for us as K-16 educators?

Basically, I think it is absolutely incumbent on educators at every to critically examine what it means to be a student in our classrooms. What is the value of being in my classroom? Are there ways that I could add greater value to the process of educating my students, particularly with regard to the time they spend with me in class? How much time do they really need to spend with me in class? Assume a class period of 60 minutes. If I have a 45 minute lecture and expect a 15 minute discussion, would it be better to podcast that lecture, assign it to students before class, and use the entire 60 minutes together for discussion and extension activities? Apply the disintermediation mantra–are you adding value, or are you only adding cost?

Let’s put ourselves in the place of the travel agents alluded to in the first paragraph. We may realize that our business model is toast and that changes need to be made, or we may hold on to that model until we become completely irrelevant to the process of travel. In the first case, we need to rethink every aspect of our business, figuring out which elements provide value to our customers and which elements are merely costing us money. We then need to develop a model that is relevant to our customers’ needs, and we need to continually reapply the disintermediation mantra to assure that we remain relevant over time.

Or, we can continue to do what we’re doing until the last few customers leave for a travel service that meets their needs.

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