Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reading--By Book or By Nook or By...?

The book is perhaps the quintessential symbol of learning. For that reason, I find it particularly fascinating how technology is changing the reading experience. Already there is evidence that the near-constant staring into screens is slowly flattening people’s retinas. The layout on a typical webpage forces a different flow than words on a page do. I haven’t yet purchased an e-reader, mainly because I like to mark up books in ways those devices don’t yet allow. I’m sure I’ll get one eventually. And the devices don’t seem that far removed from our traditional notion of a text.
But now IDEO, perhaps the world’s leading innovative design company, has been developing prototypes for the future of the book. This video will give you a sneak peek at three versions. I’m fascinated by the concepts and possibilities raised by these models. At the same time, just as the book symbolizes learning –and, by extension, school—I wonder how these new models grate against our long-standing paradigms of the educational process.
In these future books, the reading process no longer occurs per the simple left-to-right, down-the-page pattern. Instead, the reader has to become much more active and engaged to reap the full benefits of the experience. She will have to decide when she needs more information; he will have to determine which path of reasoning to follow. It becomes a cyber-version of the choose-your-own adventure books. We first saw movement in this direction with the advent of hyperfiction. But in both those forms, the author still retained ultimate control of the text. In these new models, the author potentially cedes nearly all control. What does this mean for the notions of authority, originality, copyright, and intellectual property? Does a book merely become a microcosm of the web?
It’s also a world far removed from the structures of education. While many schools are placing greater emphasis on critical thinking and habits of mind, they continue to organize themselves per the long-standing factory model. We have blocks of time—class periods, instructional days, units, grade levels, divisions—through which we move kids in linear fashion and thus measure their progress and, we hope, their learning. It’s just like reading an old-fashioned book.
But I’d argue that we need to embrace the new form of book as our symbol. That’s not because I like to be on the leading, bleeding edge. It’s because of that new book being more truly representative of how the brain functions and thus how people really learn.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Winning at What Cost?

By now most of you have probably seen the video of a trick play pulled off by the Driscoll Middle School (Corpus Christi) football team. The video went viral rather quickly, and a column about it by Frank Deford has appeared on both npr.com and cnn.com. This post will echo some of Deford’s points—although I think he goes a bit far in equating it to child abuse—and, I hope, put my own spin on this.
When you first watch the play, it can be easy to agree with the 92.1% of poll respondents who called the play “genius.” It is creative and totally effective, and it’s within the rules of game. But I’ve grown dismayed as I’ve read some of the comments on various sites about the play. Most people see absolutely nothing wrong with it.
Here’s what wrong with it. The players are kids. Not even high school kids. Middle school kids. They are at an age when they should be learning fundamentals and teamwork and sportsmanship. We should be teaching kids not just how to be good losers, but gracious and dignified winners. Instead, this sort of antic introduces the notion that only the result matters, not the manner in which it may be attained. Yes, the play is within the rules. But it’s very easy to make the leap from this to breaking the rules, and that it’s okay if the official misses it. That is, unless it’s being done to your team.  I’m reminded of how the rector at my church recently told of a conversation he’d overheard. A father had violated a traffic law. His son said, “Dad, isn’t that illegal?” The father responded, “It’s only illegal if you get caught.”
Speaking of the adult in charge, he may have shown a spark of genius in designing this play. But keep one thing in mind. He used kids to pull this off on a bunch of other kids. That doesn’t require genius. It requires narcissism. It necessitated his need for everyone to see just how clever he is. It reminds me of those teachers who are always teaching over the heads of their students, just to illustrate how brilliant they are. It feeds their egos, but not the kids’ growth.
Also, the play may not violate the literal rules of American football. It does, however, seem to violate the spirit of the game. That’s debatable. But part of the deception involves a coach yelling that his team has committed a penalty. He may not deserve a yellow flag, but he certainly breaks a pretty basic life rule: thou shall not lie.
If this had happened in a professional game, I would cut the coach a bit of slack. A tiny bit. At least there he would have been competing against athletes with a richer understanding of the sport who could react to such chicanery. Professional sports are rife with it. A long-time soccer player and fan, I’m particularly aware of the “gamesmanship” associated with my sport. I’ve heard more than enough jokes about players taking dives and faking injuries. It’s a sport that has “the professional foul.”  Growing up and moving higher in the ranks, I encountered more and more of it; sometimes I was even coached how to do it. But I had no patience for it as a player, and I hate it as a fan. I was fortunate that most of my coaches didn’t let us get away with such cynical play, and I’ve never allowed it from my own players. It’s about integrity.
I know from personal experience the powerful impact sports can have on individual development. I attribute most of what now serves me well to my soccer background. So I worry about what the kids on the Driscoll team are learning. I also wonder about something else. Suppose your child/player were on the opposing team. How would you turn this into a learning experience for them given the cultural reaction to the incident?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Quest for the Perfect Tweet

Recently I challenged myself to boil down my educational philosophy to a single sentence or phrase. Actually, the restrictions were tighter. Pare it to a tweet. I came up with what actually amounts to less than half a tweet (at least per number of characters):
Inspiring a person to become a better version of him- or herself.
Then came part two of the challenge: identifying and articulating three primary ways in which a great school can strive to accomplish this.
·         Great schools reveal possibilities and opportunities. In seeing them, students glimpse what they in turn can become. They meet people—real and imagined, present day and historical—and determine whom they wish to emulate and whom they scorn. Students are exposed to new ideas and models and minds. By experimenting in numerous areas, students discover the mélange of strengths and weaknesses that constitute the unique presence they bring to the world. As all these experiences germinate inside a student, they begin to flower in a vision of the person her or she desires to become.
·         Great schools connect students to the infinitum. All civilization is, in essence, the ever-expanding evolution of all that which has come before the present. All the tradition, all the lore, all the claimed invention and discovery—it all builds on itself in ways that propel human culture forward. Students should engage in the ongoing conversation. More importantly, just as they see what they can become, students begin to conceptualize what and how they can create their own contribution to the future.
·         Great schools invite students to play joyfully in an infinite game. Per game theory, finite games have immutable rules and boundaries, with a clear end and definite winner. Think your typical board game or sport.  An infinite game, on the other hand, involves constant morphing so that the game keeps developing. The players must adapt to whatever emerges. In fact, players must respond nimbly to keep the game going and to thrive therein. Think real life.
Too idealistic? Perhaps. But endless hope fuels great education. And a great education helps a person discover his or her place and purpose.
What would be your tweet?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Not Reinvent the Wheel?

I’ve decided that I really don’t like the aphorism “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” Actually, what bothers me is what usually follows this statement—a rationale for not changing something. Well, imagine if we hadn’t been constantly reinventing the wheel. Would we still be driving in vehicles like Fred Flintstone's hot rod?

Actually, the earliest evidence of wheeled vehicles is from the mid-4th millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucus, and Central Europe. Their adoption spread rather rapidly through the next two millennia, particularly once the chariot was introduced around 2000 BCE. The first wheels were simple wooden disks with a hole for the axle. The earliest use of spokes, which provide greater stability and strength, appeared with the chariot. In the 1st millennium BCE Celtic warriors introduced the use of an iron rim around the wheel. This basic spoked wheel dominated without major modifications until the 1870s, when wire wheels and pneumatic tires were invented.

 Would you want one of these on your car?

Reinventing the wheel, or at least an innovated version thereof, has been at the heart of other key technological developments: the water wheel, the astrolabe, the cogwheel, and the spinning wheel. Key spinoffs include the propeller, jet engine, flywheel, and turbine. It’s no wonder the wheel is a symbol of basic human innovation.

Here’s the irony and the real lesson for education. Even when the concept of the wheel was first imagined and the crude prototype created, the wheel was dismissed. Wide adoption was delayed because too many roads weren’t smooth enough or had too many obstacles. For both merchants and travelers, carrying goods on human backs was preferred and more efficient.

Now that we have the information superhighway, don’t we need to reinvent some of the wheels of education?