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Julie Torres | Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom | April 22, 2014

Hack Schooling


Grunge_sticker_hacking_is_not_a_crime-r84eaaffc882d4bd9ac48ce65d3e3d1ea_v9wxo_8byvr_324Why is being happy and healthy not part of public education?  This is the question asked by Logan Laplante.  This 13 year old takes the stage on Ted Talk and describes his hacker mindset and how he has applied this to his own education.  He actually has a name for it and calls it Hack Schooling.  He doesn’t attend a regular public school; instead he seeks out learning experiences throughout his community and on-line. Some of his courses have included manufacturing, survival skills and learning to perform.  As a teacher, I heard the richness of his authentic learning throughout his talk.  He almost describes his learning as a quest with no real end goal, learning for the sake of learning.

While listening to Logan speak I started to realize that maybe I had missed the boat, here is this kid teaching me how to make a life instead of how to make a living.  There is so much power in what he said, his message is very simple, yet so hard for many of us to grasp.  He is currently studying happiness and what makes people happy.  Consider for a moment the amount of research, analytical thinking and logical reasoning he is using in order to accomplish this task.  I’m not sure that is something we can actually provide in a school setting today.  His talk made me realize that we as educators are so focused on measurable success that we forget about the richness of learning or are not allowed to design these experiences for our students.

The high-pressure teaching environments of today may be dismantling what true learning might look or sound like in the future.  Logan describes a type of learning that supports his development well beyond the next quiz or test.  He is immersed in learning with the resources he needs, to find the information that he needs, to produce a meaningful output that demonstrates his learning. 

Critics might say that this student will have gaps in his education or he is special and needs this challenge.  I say that every student deserves the opportunity to experience this type of learning and  “everything is up for being hacked”.

Link to Ted Talk below:


Greg Broberg | April 20, 2014

The Illusion of "Easy"


There are some that would have us believe that teaching using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) can be “easy”.  In some ways this belief has been fostered by the plethora of curriculum packages, websites and publications that seek to propose “quick” insights or answers in terms of teaching the CCSS.  Unfortunately, this is an illusion.  David Ruenzel recently authored an article in Education Week entitled “Teachers and Critical Thinkers” (March 26, 2014) that spoke directly to this point:  the public often perceives teachers not as thinkers but as taskmasters who force-feed content to students.  It is common to see CCSS training and materials that focus on new and improved teaching methods, and it is always tempting to simply use these materials without thinking about how this instruction fits into our teaching style or needs of individual students.  If this is the way we continually teach then don’t we justify the public’s label of teachers as taskmaster?  As teacher leaders, we need to shift the way we critically think about the CCSS.  I offer three examples that have the potential to enrich our teaching practice and student learning. 

Passion, rather than Engagement

A buzz word that is typically tied to student learning is “engagement”.  Engagement is important, however, I often times hear teachers discuss this in terms of some type of game or activity.  One of the most significant aspects of the CCSS for students is its focus on developing important critical thinking, problem solving and analytical skills.  While engagement is a part of this focus, a more important factor is passion.  When a student has a passion for a particular subject the issue of engagement becomes intrinsic – a matter of introspection.   This leaves the job of the teacher as one to continually foster and build that passion through questioning or the modeling of strategies that foster critical thinking.   As Ruenzel points out, teachers cannot push students to delve more deeply into the standards unless they are willing to do it themselves.  A teacher’s passion for the work they do quickly becomes evident to students.      

Concepts, not just Themes

One of the anchor standards for the CCSS English Language Arts (R.1) is to teach students to “determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas”.  This skill is a critical connection to college-based instruction; however, it should be extended to include conceptual frameworks.  If you recall a philosophy or social science from your college days you probably remember having to connect your reading to a particular theory.  Many social science theories are connected to concepts at the individual (i.e. gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status) or societal (i.e. equality, citizenship, democracy) level.  These conceptual frameworks are critical for understanding research-based writing.  In many ways they intersect with themes, however, they are different in that they also connect to a particular research agenda.  Teaching students about the process of social science research and the ways in which concepts frame this work will assist them in college-level reading and writing. 

Strategies, not just Choices

One of the methods that I was taught as a beginning elementary school teacher was to offer student choices in their reading.  I still value this today, but with the CCSS it is important that teachers consider possibly shifting their thinking.  Many of the CCSS advocate the use of particular strategies that must be modeled by teachers.  In this case, teachers must be purposeful in selecting the text that students will access.  I think about this as the Goldilocks theory: can’t be too easy or to hard – it has to be just right.  In some cases this will lead to frustration for students who are use to choosing easier text.  Students have to be shown that they can maneuver complicated text using a variety of strategies (I often refer to this as a toolbox).  Teachers have to accept the task of modeling and consistently utilize these strategies throughout the instructional process.  Certainly there is still time for pleasure reading – a time where choice moves to the forefront. 

The CCSS offers us the challenge to create a new vision of teacher and learning (well, maybe not a completely new vision).  To accomplish this we need to constantly reflect on what we do in the classroom.  In planning our work we need to ensure that the tasks we ask of students involves more thinking than doing.  The outcome of this action will translate to rich stories of the “real” work we do for students, and not simply the role of a taskmaster. 

Manuel M. Chavez | April 15, 2014

Caution: Bridge Ahead


During the past week, my students were busy studying for the upcoming AIMS test.  In the morning we review reading and math skills and in the afternoon students use Writing Roadmap, which is an online writing program that gives students immediate feedback on their writing skills.

One morning my students were reviewing functional and informational text and were getting ready to take the unit assessment when one of my students asked, “Mr. Chavez, can we use the dictionary or any other reference book during AIMS testing?”  I answered, “No, you can only use the dictionary or thesaurus for the writing section of AIMS and you can use a math reference sheet that is located at the end of the test booklet.”  The student looked at me disappointedly and said, “Why do the Standards state that we have learn to use the dictionary and reference books, but we are not allowed to use them to show what we have learned.”  After assuring the student and the class that they would do well on the test, they quietly began working on the unit assessment.  While the class was completing the unit assessment, I kept thinking about the statement the student made about not being able to use reference books or notes on an assessment.  After pondering the question for several minutes, while multi-tasking, I thought to myself, “What would be the outcome if students were allowed to use notes, technology or reference materials on benchmark testing or on the AIMS test.

It has been my experience that if students know ahead of time that they can use notes on formative assessments they tend to focus on the lessons and their note taking skills improves.  In addition, all of my students have a flash drive that contains examples of different types of writing assignments.  Before my students begin a writing assignment, they must first review their writing folder on their flash drive, which results in better student writing.  Some may argue that using notes, technology or reference materials on assessments do not allow a true measure of student learning.  However, I believe that if student were allowed to use notes, technology or reference books they would achieve higher test scores or produce learning portfolios by utilizing learning tools that are available to the current workforce.  Furthermore, during my past real world experiences as a heavy equipment mechanic, I constantly had to refer to notes and service manuals to perform my tasks successfully.

In wanting my students to have the upper hand when they become employable, I keep in contact with a Human Resources Consultant who also worked for my previous employer, but now is employed by county government, and she informed me that employers are looking to hire someone who knows how to use reference materials than someone who uses memorization to perform their tasks.  In years past, rote learning could lead to academic success.  However, today’s students are faced with learning so much more and they are expected to learn in the same way as students from 100 years ago.  If students are to be college and career ready, then they should be assessed using 21st century career skills.

Show me a bridge that was built by an engineer who never referenced his structural steel code books and I will drive an extra 100 miles to avoid crossing that bridge.  How about you?  Who do you want constructing the bridges you cross?

Cheryl Redfield | Books, Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Literacy, Mathematics, National Board Certification, Parent Involvment, Professional Development, Science, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | April 9, 2014

Five Reasons Why Teachers Are Divergent


DivergentFans of Valerie Roth’s dystopian narrative Divergent may appreciate and perhaps forgive the focus of this article—especially if they also happen to be educators.

Recently, while captivated by the novel and then again the movie version of the story, I found myself connecting with the lead characters, Tris and Tobias, who voiced my life goals very simply, “I want to be selfless, smart, and strong.” This tri-fecta, as defined in the novel, is divergence; and those who exhibit these traits pose a threat to the status quo.

In real life, I believe this is also true about teachers.

While my purpose here is not to provide a summary of the story, I believe some information may prove helpful at this point.

In the novel, a fictitious community is made up of five factions or sub-groups, each represents a dominant character trait: Abnegation (selflessness, humility); Amity (peace-loving, inclusive); Candor (honest, outspoken); Dauntless (courageous, strong); and Erudite (intelligent, innovative).  The trait that defines each faction and its members also serves as the focus of their contribution to the whole, broader community.

The nature of teaching, the significance of what we do, as well as the very heart of why we do what we do—our students—makes us selfless, smart, and strong, or a combination of all the traits above. 

Therefore, teachers are divergent.

 Permit me to explain as well as prove my point with five reasons why I believe teachers are divergent.

 Teachers are divergent because, they are:

1.  Selfless. “Thinking of what our students need is the first thing on our minds”, says colleague Shirley Brohner who provides guidance and positive behavior support to junior high students and their families on three campuses. Shirley, like many other teachers is not only selfless, but also smart and strong as evidenced in her analysis of young adolescent behavior and keen observation of the motivation behind their choices. 

First and foremost the purpose for all we do as teachers,  is just as Shirley says, for the benefit of our students and what serves their learning needs best.

2.  Erudite. Most educators I know work nearly year-round, and without additional compensation outside of their contract. It is a common misperception that educators have the summer off. Well, what is a more accurate statement is that many educators do not work directly with students for 6-8 weeks of the summer because they are in pursuit of another certification, another degree, or a learning experience that will provide a deeper understanding of content or the context in which they practice.

Often in the pursuit of knowledge, as Sabrina Davitt describes it, teachers become “a jack-of-all-trades…we do it all” which stems from a selfless desire to create cognitively rich learning experiences for students, so that they can learn, grow, and achieve. She goes on to say that “teachers don’t fit a mold;” we are each uniquely gifted.

3.  Dauntless. The day in the life of a teacher brings fresh opportunities.  It takes a very special kind of professional to bravely face the unknown with a keen sense of expectation because teachers know that, “we teach the divergent and can not use just one method…we have to reach out to all the basic learning styles as well as those who do not fit into any mold,” says math colleague, NBCT Crystal Francom.

Teachers like Crystal also understand that along with learning styles, language acquisition, multiple intelligences, student engagement and digital literacies also impact student learning and growth.  This is why so many teachers today are exploring and finding ways to implement technology as a lever for student engagement, to overcome language barriers, and adapt to student styles and intelligences.

4.  Honest and Inclusive.  For most teachers that I know—like Shirley, Sabrina, Crystal, and other colleagues at Highland Junior High in Gilbert, AZ—teaching is more than just a profession. It is a calling. We are called to advocate for our students and motivate them to reach their highest potential. Because of this, the voice of the teacher, if listened to, can be trusted to bring clarity and focus back to the communities where polarization due to political allegiances or competing socio-economic values has become the dominant themes.

Honesty, strength of character and bridge-building are hallmarks of effective teachers.

5.  A threat. It goes without saying that if teachers represent 1through 4 above, then we pose a threat to the status quo, just like the divergents in the Roth’s novel, and for the same reasons. People, who are divergent, think for themselves, and cannot be controlled by mass suggestion. They are willing to resist what they know is not right, no matter who supports it, even against the establishment.

Teachers are selflessly compelled to use their expertise, their knowledge and experience to advocate for the best interest of others. Even when it may cost them their livelihood.

 Selfless, smart and strong.  Honest, bridge-builder.  A threat. 

 Teachers are more powerful than we realize. We are fueled by our divergence.  Yet, we are like a slumbering giant who needs to be awakened. I live for the day that we awaken to our possibilities and embrace our destiny and create student-centered systemic and sustainable change that transforms teaching and learning in our country.

 I not only live for it, I am divergent about it!

John Spencer | Education | April 8, 2014

Character Education


I sat in a room filled with private school teachers meeting to talk about character education. Some talked about giving badges and rewards for students that are caught showing great character. Others described the need for teachers to model great characters and engage students in conversations about their actions. 

I left the conversation overwhelmed by the questions. These teachers asked great questions and offered perspectives that I hadn't even considered. Aside from the occasional programs and posters, I don't often hear conversations about developing character in the context of the public school system. Most of our conversations involve raising test scores. 

My first thought is that I'm not sure character can be taught so much as developed. I don't have the answers on how we develop it, either. I know that some kids respond well to praise, but that extrinsic rewards can get in the way of ethical thinking. I know that sometimes the natural consequences build up character, but sometimes it also teaches kids to lie and to hide. I know that struggling with a subject can build up resistence, perserverance and character. However, I also know that some kids give up way too quickly. 

My second thought is that I've grown the most as a person in the spaces where I had the biggest permission for failure. I'm not sure what this means for schools, but I'm thinking that the policies we have typically don't allow for kids to be vulnerable. Our grading systems often punish kids for having the wrong answer. Our Zero Tolerance policies often tell kids that it's all about punishments and not about being restored. Our lists of rules often place compliance and rule-following about learning how to think ethically. 

My final thought is that maybe what kids need the most is an honest, open recognition that we're all flawed. This includes every child and every adult on campus. The human condition is often the lingering, unspoken reality that gets in the way of our best crafted character education programs. 

Sandy Merz | Books, Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Mathematics, Teacher Leadership | April 6, 2014

Ed Solutions Are A Breath Away!

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It's natural to think that the answers to today's education questions lie somewhere on a continuum between two extremes: How much autonomy should students have - all or none? Hmmmm.... probably somewhere in the middle. Where should curriculum decisions be made - in my classroom or Washington, D.C.?  Hmmmm... probably somewhere in the middle. 
But finding the perfect compromise between two extremes can be fruitless and frustrating. Sometimes we need to stop and take a breath.
Let's do it together.
Take a deep breath. Exhale. Again. Feels good, doesn't it? Now take a deep breath and hold it. Don't pass out! But hold it until it gets uncomfortable, then a little more, then exhale slowly. Feel the relief? Let it all out. All of it. Give it one last push. When your lungs are completely empty hold that state until it's uncomfortable, then inhale and breathe normally.
Now, search for that perfect spot somewhere between breathing in and breathing out - The spot where you can just stop breathing forever. 
Obviously, it doesn't exist. 

That's because breathing isn't a continuum, it's a polarity. And readers of Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, by Barry Johnson, will recognize the breathing illustration.
In a polarity, Johnson writes, there is no perfect midpoint. Both end members must be attended or the system collapses. If at any point in the process you stop breathing, you collapse!
Compare that to a continuum. I like blue but I'm not fond of yellow. Yet somewhere between blue and yellow, is green - my favorite color.
The breathing example demonstrates the salient features of a polarity: There is no sustainable mid-point, and you must spend time at each extreme. That's not true of a continuum. Who really needs to spend time with yellow?
You solve a continuum issue but you manage a polarity, according to Johnson. 
Here's a classroom example of a continuum. An eighth grade team plans an incentive field trip. The team needs to decide how many unexcused tardies make a student ineligible. One teacher says a single unexcused tardy should disqualify a student. Another says they shouldn't count tardies at all. Everyone else falls in between. The team agrees to vote on 0, 1, 2, 3... tardies and stand by the result. Issue resolved.
Now a polarity. How much should I review in Algebra? We need to move fast, and kids who need more time can go to tutoring, so maybe we shouldn't review at all. Or, we could spend most of every class reviewing and add just a little new content at the end.
But locking into either is too rigid.
Here's a better approach. In algebra new content builds on old and has review built in. So a class can go several days with little or no explicit review. But kids will eventually show signs of concept fatigue. When that happens it's time for a couple of days of pure review.
Good polarity managers, according to Johnson, can state the advantages and disadvantages of each end member. They also know what state the system is currently in, and what direction it's moving. The aim is to keep the system in its current state as long as the advantages of that state outweigh its disadvantages. Then when the disadvantages begin to mount the task is to push the system to the other state. The drawing above, inspired by Johnson, illustrates this movement.
Pay attention to your breath for a few moments. Good polarity management is a marvel to behold.
We seem always to assume that hot button issues like teacher evaluation, Common Core, charter schools, vouchers, unions, and math instruction are continua. The result, therefore, is either winner take all or compromise. That's fine if an issue is a continuum and the compromise is healthy or the winner correct. But if the issue is a polarity the system is doomed.  (And if the system is a continuum but the compromise is unhealthy or the winner wrong, the system is also doomed.)
I'd ask advocates in any education issue to question whether the issue might be a polarity. If so, could they not indentify conditions when each end member is more suitable? Then could they not develop protocols for deciding which end member to move toward as conditions change?

On my Digressive Discourse Blog at The Center for Teaching Quality, please read in Common Core Math Instruction: Managing a Tri-polar System how I take a stab at how we might better manage teaching math facts, comprehension, and application - a hot button issue related to the Common Core.
Jen Robinson | Assessment, Education, Professional Development | April 5, 2014

In the Midst of Testing...


6a00d83452d45869e20133eee60f0c970b-piIt’s hard this time of the year not to get overwhelmed and consumed preparing for the state assessments. Our emails and meeting agendas are flooded with updates and reports about when the test pallets will arrive at district and when we can expect the boxes at our schools. This year we had an added component; pilot tests with common core content to be administered the week before our regularly scheduled tests. Honestly, the timing was horrible. Ethically I struggled with asking teachers and students to take three additional tests. Some schools took the test paper and pencil, while some took it electronically. Each version presented different challenges and obstacles.

In the midst of this testing frenzy, I scheduled appointments with teachers to review their portfolios. In hindsight, this may not have been the best week, but it created a space for teachers to step away from test prep and covering their walls to talk about how they reflect on teaching, maintain accurate records, participate in a professional community, grow and develop professionally, and show professionalism. I invited teachers to review the rubric and bring evidence of their accomplishments.

As I began to meet with teachers, it became clear this was the perfect time to stop and listen, to reflect on our year. I am so proud of our teachers, their dedication, and desire to be the best for our students. Meeting after meeting rejuvenated me and made me recognize why we get up and come to work each day. I realized the commitment our teachers have to our school, our parents and our students. Teachers were mindful and deliberate with documentation. They shared how they set goals this year to increase and positively impact parent communication and nurture those relationships. They articulated how they analyzed data using it to better inform their instruction and tailor activities to students’ needs. They communicated how their students used data and classroom work to set personal goals, how they monitored their growth and communicated with their parents. They shared their staff meeting notes and lesson plan reflections, how they were using wait time in their classroom to create space for students to think and process and how they were mindful in asking higher-level questions to push students’ thinking.

As the week winded down and we continued to gear up for state assessments, I was humbled by the dedication and commitment of our teachers and staff. This week was a good reminder to slow down and remember why we get up each day and come to school.

As you reflect on this year, what do you want to stay mindful of?

Cheryl Redfield | Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification, Professional Development, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | March 30, 2014

Dream a Little Dream


  LeadershipFriends, Secretary Duncan's plenary message, during the NBPTS “Teaching & Learning” convening, reflected his deep commitment and advocacy of teacher leadership to articulate policy that supports what should be happening in schools. He challenged teachers to seek, create, and advocate for hybrid roles- roles embedded in policy, association as well as instructional leadership for the purpose of strengthening our children's achievement.

These roles capitalize on the strengths of accomplished teachers to lead, inspire, and transform schools without having to leave the classroom.

Furthermore, Duncan announced for the first time, "Teach to Lead" a national program designed to galvanize the development of these hybrid roles at the district and site level.

The possibilities and outcomes of such a program are limitless. At this writing details that support the implementation of "Teach to Lead" are forthcoming. But what I can tell you here and now, is that the future of our profession will be greatly influenced by how you and I respond to this invitation.

As Secretary Duncan said, “Teachers must shape what teaching must become.”

So, what are we waiting for? There is no ceiling, no fence, nor external barrier to limit our ability as experts to usher in a new culture of education policy. Our only hurdle is our comfort level- our willingness to extend our classroom practice and translate our expertise into advocacy!

Advocacy! Collaborative Practice! Shared Leadership! Hybrid Role! Terms not typically associated with teaching, will become our milestones, our benchmarks, as we work together to and embrace what NEA President, Dennis Van Roekel shared last summer,

 “It’s about making policy decisions, not merely carrying out someone else’s ideas. It’s about leveraging our work… “

Will you join me in thinking about the possibilities for our schools, for our districts if we could see our practice through the lens of these teacher leader? For a moment, perhaps just for this week, “dream a little dream” and then let’s…

 Proceed until apprehended!

L2Gura | Assessment, Education, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Mentoring, Parent Involvment, Professional Development, Science, Teacher Leadership | March 28, 2014

Growing Lifelong Learners


It’s Thursday evening in Casa Grande, Arizona, and I’m sitting in the local Chick-fil-A, decompressing from the freeway trek northward to Phoenix and reflecting on my day in Tucson.  I am sunburnt, wind-whipped, and pretty exhausted, but it was a good day.  I spent the day doing something I love—learning how to educate children in the outdoors. 

I was given the opportunity to go to the Tucson Village Farm to learn about school gardening and nutrition, organized and provided by the 21st Century Community Learning Center of Arizona.  The 21st Century Community Learning Center federally funds the creation of community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools.  My school has received a 21st Century grant for several years, and through the funding of this program and a grant from the Western Grower’s Foundation, I created a school garden in 2008 and have organized and facilitated the school’s Garden Club throughout the last six years. 

Back to my day-- about 40 educators met together at the Tucson Village Farm to learn about garden design, composting, amending soil, pollination, nutrition activities, cooking, etc.  Most of the workshops were spent in purposeful hands-on activities, either in the garden, around an outdoor kitchen, or under ramadas.  The time was spent laughing and learning while everyone was excited to be outdoors and get our hands in the soil.  No matter how long you have been gardening, it’s always exciting to pick vegetables from the earth, wash them off, and immediately enjoy! 

I had three reactions from this fun experience.  My first reaction- I was a little disappointed that as a classroom teacher, I was in the minority of participants.  Most participants were affiliated with the Cooperative Extensions of Arizona counties, 21st CCLC, the Arizona Department of Education, or school/community gardens.  I was thrilled to network with this rich variety of resourceful professionals, but I was wondering why more educators were not included.  This experience provided me with many interesting ideas to teach life science to my Garden Club students when I get back to school.  I know that a day of hands-on life science projects on a farm would restart any teacher’s scientific batteries and rekindle the students’ love of science.  Today’s focus on Common Core standards for math and literacy and Social Studies DBQs (Document Based Questions) has depleted many teachers’ energy to even start or finish a science unit in the classroom.  (I’m not blaming Common Core standards, just the time it is taking teachers to plan and execute lessons.)  Teachers need to get out, get their hands dirty, and remember the impact of hands-on science projects have on students!

My second reaction was a strong mixed bag- here’s an interesting label- bemused sardonic frustration.  At the end of this inspirational day of learning, a member of the Arizona Department of Education got up and announced an ah-ha that she had- the state has been placing too much emphasis on academics and not enough on “youth development.”  Yes, most of us who actually work with children have come to this conclusion about a decade ago.  This ADE representative announced that “it’s about time” that students become leaders of their own learning through hands-on, project-based outdoor activities that involve exercise and collaboration. She also shared that children are getting weighed down by the academics and not getting enough leadership development.  I hope that her sentiments influence future decisions made pertaining to Arizona’s educational system.

Excitement is the color of my third reaction to my day at Tucson Village Farm.  I was quite impressed with the amount of school and community gardens that are developed throughout Tucson.  There is an impressive amount of parent and community volunteers who are participating in these gardens, and students are learning not just the value of applying academics to gardening, but also teamwork with these prized community resources.  I also learned that several Native American reservations have structured community gardens in which they are applying native gardening techniques to bring organic produce into their communities.  It was inspiring to hear of their stories of how they create flour and other products, using native Arizona trees and plants.  As the cooperative extension gardeners shared how gardening has produced a therapeutic environment for troubled, hurting children as well as a leadership model to introverted students, I was excited to know exactly what they are talking about. 

It was a great day to remember who I am as a teacher, who I want to be as a teacher, and how I need to get back to why I became a teacher.  For me, it really boils down to the garden.  As a teacher, I need to use something I love to inspire the students’ interest and curiosity to become lifelong learners.  We as teachers need to grow our students as lifelong learners, so they can blossom and continue the cycle.    


Sandy Merz | Current Affairs, Education Policy | March 27, 2014

My Reply to Our Biggest Failure by Mike Lee


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In Our Biggest Failure, Mike Lee wrote in this space that all other problems in education:

Pale in comparison to our students' ultimate inability or unwillingness to think for themselves, to recognize learning and inquiry as enjoyable, identify their own biases and vulnerabilities, and to wake up every day wondering, "What don't I know?"

Paraphrasing Mike, we pre-load our students' software with no expectation that they will ever learn on their own how to upgrade their own operating system. 

Recently, nearly everything I read, do, or think seems like an appendix to Mike's piece.

In How to Create a Mind, Ray Kurzweil opens a chapter with a quote in which Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz imagines a thinking, feeling, and perceiving machine enlarged to a size that you could walk in and look around. Leibniz wrote that you would see, "Nothing but parts which push and move each other, and never anything that could explain perception."

Learning and recognition, according to Kurzweil, involve recognizing patterns and high understanding involves making connections between old patterns and new contexts. 

I just attended a Google Education event. Both days began with a speaker inspiring us to develop thinking skills in our students. On opening day, Jaime Casap, Google Global Education Evangelist said, "Don't tell kids what they’re going to learn, ask them what problem their going to solve."

The next day opened with Google trainer Monica Martinez encouraging us to create classrooms in which students learn to learn on their own. I loved that because as the words were coming out of her mouth, I received an email that Edweek had just then published my article on the dos and don'ts for generating student autonomy.

A slide posed the question, "Do we want to teach kids to find the dots or connect the dots?"

Regrettably, most the sessions I attended were precisely about finding the dots and moving them around quickly but manifestly about not connecting them. One facilitator, whose presentation had "Critical Thinking" in the title challenged participants to find why people say the Queen Mary is haunted. The only thing that mattered to her was how many hits we got and whether we got ads. We didn't know how to search if we got lots of hits and ads. She really said that.

That was on my mind when I read Victor Davis Hansons's recent National Review article Technology and Wisdom. He writes about the tendency of technology to insulate us from thinking. That's why we're stymied by how a modern jetliner could disappear. He reminds us of immensity of the oceans, the dark of night and the relative tininess of a 250 ton jet - as well as the existence of those who use technology to thwart technology. 

Hanson suggests that teaching Latin would be a more cost effective means of helping students to master thinking than handing out free IPads.  After all, "Speeding up their ignorance is not the same as imparting wisdom." Furthermore, "Smart machines are simply the pumps that deliver the water of knowledge — not knowledge itself." 

Have you read the hysterical story called "They're Made out of Meat" by Terry Bisson? A lead Extraterrestrial is questioning another who just returned from a reconnaissance to Earth. Please give it a look. Here's an excerpt:

"Meat. They're made out of meat."
"There's no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."
"That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"
"They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."
"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."
"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."

And now I just remembered the line in When I Was A Dinosaur by Trout Fishing in America: "When I was a dinosaur I had a little bitty brain. I never thought of anything  I didn't know before."

What angers me is the intential use of language to derail thinking in political debate. Kevin D.Williamson's recent National Review article, Antithought, explores this. He writes that:

Understanding politics and policy is work, because thought is work. Antithought, on the other hand, is easy, which is why such content-free phrases...and the like pass for insight, even wit.

So thinking about thinking and thinking about not thinking and thinking about what thinking is is on a lot of minds these days.

Pretty impressive for blobs of meat bumping parts to together in ways that no way explains thought itself.

But unless we keep at it and find a way to keep our students at it, we will suffer the fate of René Descartes.

He walked into a restaurant. The waiter asked if he'd like an appetizer. "I think not," said Descartes. And disappeared.