Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Schools are really like...

In the spirit of the schools are like factories analogy, which seems to revolve around that both use bells, here's my analogy to replace it.  Feel free to ad more in comments. 

Schools are like boxing matches because:

...they open end close with bells.
...at the end of each segment, you are judged on your performance
...not everybody finishes
...there's a lot of cheating that goes on
...you have to do a lot of specific training to succeed
...many people believe that members of the opposite sex are an impediment to success in the endeavor or at the very least cause distractions that give you less chance at success.
...the person who isn't allowed to throw punches is outnumbered by the people who can
...somebody's always complaining about not being scored fairly
...state regulations regarding it vary widely
...the people engaged in the act of doing it are rarely the ones who make the real money involved
...it looks better in movies than in real life

Monday, July 29, 2013

Schools Aren't Factories.... Yet

A couple of weeks back, I got into a twitter spat over the concept of schools as factories.  It's a fairly pervasive trope out there.  You can see it on full display in this Joel Rose article in The Atlantic from last year.  An even worse version is in this excerpt from the book Knowmad Society.  (I think I just threw up a little in my mouth after typing that.  Knowmad Society?  That's a bad Grateful Dead cover band name.  Do futurists really have that little imagination, sigh).  The Rose article at least has some subtlety to it.  The futurist/stoners  somehow draw a straight line from Prussia 1763 to today. This despite the fact that there was nothing that we could recognize as a factory in Prussia in 1763. 

The central problem here has to do with what goes on in a factory.  In a factory, machines do the work that used to be done by people.  Putting a whole bunch of people in a room making linen shirts out of linen cloth isn't a factory (although in the 1760s someone might have called that a factory, then again factory was also used as a term for a place where fur traders collected hides before shipping them east).  If however, you introduce sewing machines into the equation, you now have what we call a sweat shop, and the place where the cloth is made, if it's done on a machine, that's a factory.  Steel is made in a factory.  Automobiles are made in factories.  i-phones are made in factories.  In all of these places, machines do a lot of the work that used to be done by hand.  Factory work has some advantages: it standardizes output; it can mass produce things, dropping their price; and it requires less skill to make things.  It also comes with some costs.  If you've ever owned a pair of handcrafted shoes -or talked to someone who owns them - you know that handcrafted can mean high quality, customized goods.  Likewise, the boom of artisanal wines and beers emphasizes handcrafted products over those that were made in the factory. 

Currently, the educational model biases towards artisanal.     Teachers using knowledge and skills gained over a career try to teach students in fairly small groups pretty much defines education in the United States.  A lot of folks think this is old fashioned and they want to achieve economies of scale using technology.  In other words, they want to replace teachers with machines.  In other words, thew want to turn schools into knowledge factories.

So my first reaction to that is this:

Except of course, it isn't 1964, and educators have lost a lot of those battles over the years.  Ronald Reagan made attacking the UC system the cornerstone of his gubernatorial run in 1966. By the 1980s, the types of arguments about public education being a public good that should be paid for by the public were dying.  By the 2000s, lots of Democrats had gotten on the teacher bashing  band wagon that is the cornerstone of most current reform efforts.  And now Bill Gates et. al. want you to believe that schools are factories in a world where factories aren't relevant.  But herein lies the lie that's at the center of the pseudo-reform movement.  Schools aren't factories, they are centers of what Tim Burke calls handcrafted or artisanal education. 

So the question is really:  are you willing to pay more for high quality handcrafted shoe or do you want that cheap Bangledeshi knock-off?  And remember, education isn't just for next fashion season, it's for the rest of your life.  If Bill Gates et. al. get their way, schools will be factories. 

Pick of the week
Diane Ravitch:  http://dianeravitch.net/
Because as much as she would hate the comparison, she's the closest thing we've got to Mario Savio right now.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

The box of rocks problem. An excerpt from the ISTE talk I've never given.

It's ISTE time.  Audrey Watters already did her ISTE takedown here, wherein she discusses the bad corporate taste ISTE leaves in your mouth.  I joined in the fun on twitter (@DavidSalmanson).  I have my own ISTE stories to tell.  When I first started getting into ed tech in a big way, I applied to present at ISTE a couple of times.  My proposals were for papers that were pretty much like the over one dozen papers I've given at professional conferences elsewhere.  They identified problems and offered solutions.  They were academic in tone and interdisciplinary in outlook, but modified somewhat to reach an audience that might not be as steeped in theory as I am.  Most of all, these papers were critical.  In academia, being critical (or giving criticism) is a good thing.  You identify the strengths and weaknesses of an argument with the goal of making it better.  Collectively, scholars work to replace weak ideas with stronger ones, improve old theories, and create new ones.  We develop new analytic techniques or apply old ones in new ways.  This is what I thought I was supposed to be doing.  But after years of failed proposals, and after finally attending ISTE when it was here in Philadelphia, I finally realized what I was doing wrong.  ISTE isn't about criticism, it's about selling, specifically selling technology or at least a view point about technology.  Evgeny Morozov calls it "solutionism,"  I call it "technofuturism".  Whatever.  The point is, ISTE is not good at taking a critical stance towards tech ed.  They're boosters.   Since it's ISTE time, I'm posting a section of one of the talks I never got to give below.  It's what a critical take on tech ed looks like, an approach I like to call technoskepticism.

The Box of Rocks Problem

Back in the 1990s, I spent my summers working for an outstanding outdoor education organization based in New Mexico.  The organization, Cottonwood Gulch has been doing outdoor ed since 1926.  Over that time, they've collected for museums, run archeological digs, and hired a bunch of grad students in various fields who went on to national prominence.  The camp tries to get students from ages 10-18 to engage with the wilderness through the best scientific and humanistic practices.  Over the years, they've amassed huge collections of animals and plants, and most importantly for this story, rocks.  The camp museum had scores of samples of rocks collected over the years.  Igneous rocks and metamorphic rocks.  Minerals of every type that were found in the Southwest.  Each sample is identified with it's type and the location where it was collected.  Each year the collection was lovingly displayed before the camp season started and then carefully stored when it ended.  And then one summer, I showed up to staff training and walked into the museum and there were almost no rocks.  The museum curator, a crusty chain-smoking retired science teacher from Indiana, was wiping down the shelves where the rocks should be.  "Where are the rest of the rocks" I asked him.  "Well," he replied drawing deeply on his Parliament Light, "they're being used for erosion control up by the staff cabins."

I was baffled.  Surely this was heresy.  Decades worth of work had gone into making that collection.  "But why?" I asked.

"Because every fifteen years or so, we start over.  Kids have collected just about all the rocks they are going to find out here and it's frustrating for a new geologist to bring his find back to the museum to discover that we already have a sample.  This way, a camper can have the chance to make a new discovery."

And then I understood some important things.  First, that what drives self-directed learning is the joy of discovery, being under the illusion that you are the first person to think that thought, have that insight, add that rock to the collection.  Second, that this has to be age appropriate.  It's unrealistic for most kids to make a legitimate scientific discovery, but it's quite possible for kids to make discoveries for themselves (sometimes we call this inquiry based learning).  Third, sometimes you have to take the discoveries other people have made and throw them out so that kids can discover something for themselves.  You need to take the curated collection, and make it a box of rocks. 

In the internet age, when "everything is available online" it's increasingly hard for students to get that joy of discovery.  If your class documents everything it does and puts it on the web, you are going to run out of interesting insights pretty darn quickly.  There's only so many ways a fourth grader can look at the Civil War before you run out of things they can wrap their heads around.

So how do you know what you should and should not put on the web permanently?  Here are some guidelines:

Is it easily extendable?   Posting a project that has lots of new data coming in all the time is a good
use of the web.  For example, collecting pollution data from a stream year after year allows you to create a database that enables you to do more with the data each student collects by comparing it to previous weeks, months, and years.

Can others use this productively?  Oral histories are a nice example of this (and one I'll be using in my upcoming talk this fall on wikis for the New England History Teachers Association).  Oral histories are valuable documents that researchers can use.  Putting them into archive.org and other searchable databases enables people beyond your classroom to use the materials.

Are there finite answers to this?  If the answer is yes, it doesn't belong on the web permanently.  Most math proofs and essays don't belong on the web permanently (although a class Haiku site might be okay).  There's nothing worse than feeling like you've solved a very difficult problem and that you are the first one to do it that way and then realize lots of other people have done it the exact same way.

I'm going to leave you with one final anecdote.  A few years later, I worked with a camper who was a teenage geologist.  Note how I wrote that. Not a teenager interested in geology.  A teenage geologist.  The kid presented at academic conferences and corresponded with professors in the field. He had the equivalent of a BA in geology or maybe an MA.  He found stuff that other people missed.  We arranged special trips for him to collect samples of carnotite and uraninite on private land for his personal collection.  He desperately wanted some pitchblende.  Those are all radioactive minerals, by the way, so this kid was hardcore.  He didn't need the museum to be turned into a box of rocks.   The world was his collection and he was going to label each and every inch of it.  And that's a great project.  But it's his project.  If we inspires a few other people to help him out, great.  Our goal as educators isn't to create those projects.  Our goal is to help each student find a project that is theirs.  And sometimes that means taking our carefully curated collections of knowledge, and turning them into a box of rocks.