Thursday, April 11, 2013

Our Great U.S. Cities Tour and Education

                A few years ago my wife and I developed a loose strategic plan for our family vacations. We decided that we would, in no particular order, show our children the great cities of the United States. They have been going to New York since they were little because of my family, and we plan to visit again this summer. We’ve visited Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco and, during the past spring break, Washington D.C.
                Recently thoughtful people have been having very serious, energizing conversations about the future of school. Without going into specifics and at the risk of oversimplifying, I’ll summarize some of the main points. Constant change, giant unknowns, increased complexity—in such a world, schools have a practical and ethical obligation to re-examine everything about education. We require new literacies to thrive in a changing, unpredictable world. Schools used to be the gateway, the access point to learning. Now learning about anything can occur anywhere, anytime. On-line delivery and MOOCs enable delivery efficiencies that call current models into question, particularly on the university level. However, I still believe that teachers and schools have a vital role to play in education, and those family trips have clarified for me a new way to think of that role.
                Before our first trip on this plan, my kids were skeptical. “Boston?” I remember them squawking. “Why would we want to go to Boston?” We did our best to explain, but they didn’t really get it. Once there, though, they fell in love with the city and the entire experience. On subsequent trips they have done quite a bit of the research up front, scoping out possible hotels and restaurants and helping to plan the itinerary. While there, they engaged fully in different activities and often did follow-up reading and research depending on what piqued their curiosity. When we told them at Christmas we would be going to D.C., they were thrilled. My son immediately began exploring places on-line, and my daughter pulled up our congressman’s website so we could plan tours through his office.
                Yes, we live in a time of amazing abundance, when we can learn all sorts of things through easy access. And not just information, but skills and concepts. It is really quite remarkable. At the same time, however, that learning can remain superficial and one-dimensional and rather directionless; both the consumption and the contributions can become rather narcissistic. Even in the best circumstances, young people need some guidance through the learning process.
                And it’s in providing such guidance that the new role can emerge. I believe one of the most influential ways we can promote the type of learning in this emerging world is to create the right sort of experiences. To immerse students in experiences that don’t tell them they have to learn something, but that make them want to learn something, to believe it’s vitally important they do so. That the learning matters to them.
                The richness of the Internet—like the tapestry of those great cities—can allow us to craft those sorts of experiences. (But we must be careful not to over-plan and thus defeat the point.) It’s why I’m so encouraged by the increase in project-based learning, various discovery models, question-centered curricula, and design-thinking. The best, most meaningful education comes when you explore and engage with the world.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Reaction to News a Computer Can Grade Essays

The science section of yesterday’s New York Times had the headline—or at least some variation thereof— I’ve been expecting to see for a while now:  New Test for Computers: Grading Essays at College Level. I still gagged a bit.
I’m not skeptical that a computer program with sophisticated enough AI software can grade basic essays. At this point, doing so is perhaps not even that great a challenge.
But why would we ever think this is a good thing? To me this development captures so many of the ills plaguing education, particularly an unrelenting push to standardize as much as possible.
Let’s consider the following example. I know it’s extreme, and it’s not the sort of work the computers would be grading. But bear with me to what I think will be a clear point. Students used to ask me frequently how long a paper had to be. Early in the year, I would bring in two of my favorite novels, Melville’s Moby-Dick and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and juxtapose them. They are, I would explain, in many ways the same essential story told in very different ways. The kids grasped the message. I wonder how a computer would deal with either classic work.
That notion leads quite naturally into the same concept expanded. Language is tied to the same neurological expansion that enabled us to develop tools. It encompasses the higher of human capabilities, that amazing cerebral flexibility to merge the abstract and the concrete, to capture thought and imagination in ways that seem almost tangible to us. Not only that, but language also allows us to express ourselves in infinitely, highly individualistic fashion while unifying us as a community.
And at a time when creativity and communication are keys to solving the gigantic issues we face as a society—perhaps as a species—why would we willingly reduce the assessment of a vital human skill to a series of algorithms?