Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Argument Itself is Dated

Almost 11 months in to raising our first child, I am finally getting back to doing some blogging.

...and regretting not doing better spell checking...

I am child-myopic these days, and the influence on my thought, actions, and writing will undoubtedly focus on how he, to borrow from Gert. J. J. Biesta, comes into the world as a unique singular being despite the forces that would shape and construct him otherwise.

As this is a policy blog, and an educational policy blog in particular, I will do my best to relate our son’s unfolding to schools, schooling, policy, and policy implementation. If I drift too much into “raising baby,” I trust my colleagues will reel me in.

I woke up this morning thinking about schools as a type of technology, one created to serve a specific function: to educate.

What that means is obviously debatable.

If it’s a public school and you’re asking the current, or previous administration for a definition, to educate is to ram facts into a child’s head and then test the child to see how much fact has stuck.

School is a hammer; knowledge the nail; the teacher is a carpenter and a child the entity under construction. Said differently, school is a needle; the teacher a nurse; history, English, math, beauty, and Truth are the medicines administered in various doses according to the doctor making the rounds.

This is a simplistic way to “educate” as we live in a world where appropriation of fact is a quickly satisfied task for anyone with access to a laptop (or a phone, but not MY phone) can find and appropriate almost any fact desired without having someone nail or inject it into one’s psyche.

Applying that fact is an entirely different matter, as is bringing new facts to bear (sp?) on those committed to memory, evaluating both sets of facts (old and new) and then acting to make a change in one’s life, family, or community in light of reflection on what’s been tried, what’s worked, and what has not.

As a space for achieving all of the above (imagining, testing, critiquing, reflecting, resisting, creating, and attempting) I believe schools as we know them now, the schools I’ll be sending my child to perhaps, are ill suited technologies for encouraging the higher order thinking and intelligent behavior that I want my son, and indeed all children, to engage in.

This brings me back to my phone...which also happens to be our son’s favorite new “toy.” My phone is 4 years old, a veritable dinosaur in a world of eagles. Texting is impractical, as I have to hit the same button several times to scroll through choices before finding the letter or symbol I desire. I cannot access the net from my phone, and if I could, I imagine surfing it would be akin to realtime-surfing on crutches.

I am limited by my 4 year old phone as to how I can interact, learn from, and change my world. Imagine if it was 40 years old. Imagine carrying a 40 year old cell phone around in your pocket.

How about a computer?

This laptop is 5 years old and cannot keep up with my wife’s new machine, which cost us half the old one and has quadruple the power (but it’s a Window’s device and I make myself feel better by noting I have a much cooler marketing apparatus behind my aging iBook™).

Imagine using a 50 year old’d need a much bigger lap, one the size of a bedroom. Now imagine using a 100 year old computer. Harder to do because they weren’t around. 100 years ago few people could imagine the processing power we’d eventually have quite literally at our fingertips.

To finally make my school-related point...A 4 year old phone and a 5 year old machine help me function in the world and make life livable and workable, but they have their limits. I’d buy a new phone and new computer if I wasn’t thinking more about my child’s education.

In 5 years there’s a good chance I’ll be sending my son into schools still wedded to designs over 100 years old, technologies that use the basic hardware and operating systems from the 19th Century. Yes they help people get by, and yes they can train children to function in particular ways, but the walls, the bells, the goals, the end of the day desires held by most of the people constructing "schools" will not work in an era that demands more advanced operating systems.

So I’m sitting here thinking to myself:
"Self, are you going to leave your child’s education up to people employing dated technologies, and if so are you prepared to reap the cosmic consequences of reducing Asher’s opportunities for robust exploration and growth as part of an organic-democratic-whole in the name of standards and accountability, themselves dated artifacts?"
I have to answer NO.

Advanced operating systems to be discussed below or outlined next week...



Nick Jones said...

I find myself a little bit confused by this post. This, for two reasons.

First: whether my computer is outdated depends upon what I want it to do. If I want a basic, no frills word-processor, I can make due with my Apple IIe. If I want a word processor that prints, I have to make sure the right connector to a printer exists in the laptop and that the laptop can install a proper driver. But really, for the basic function of committing thoughts to paper, I just need a typewriter, white-out, scissors, paste, and an old-school purple-print "xerox" machine. To push your analogy with education: what is it that we want out of our students today that is specifically new to our society and we didn't want, say, 100 years ago? Ability to use a computer? OK. Ability to apply math to real-world problems? Not new. Reading comprehension? Not new. What did you have in mind? Aren't the basic needs of people's lives--getting along with others, communicating thoughts and resolving disagreements in civil ways, solving basic logistic problems, etc--nothing new but, instead, pretty invariant across our history? My impression is that most relevant differences between our society and our great-grandparents' (say) has to do with technological developments. can't they be taught in vocational schools or through vocational programs?

Second: This brings me to my second confusion. I'm not clear whether you think we need new "operating systems" because we changed the tried-and-true ones for a nail-hammer approach not suited to the job (in which case "new operating systems" would just be "old operating systems we had before the recent change"), or whether you think there never *were* "operating systems" adequate to the task of education about the cross-generational invariants. If the former, I guess the challenge would be adapting the old-school ways to the modern age of educating the masses rather than just the privileged few. If the latter, i wonder whether you're just not looking back in history far enough.

philip said...

Nick, thank you for the thoughtful response. I don't think I can address your concerns, but I will give it a go.

You ask: "what is it that we want out of our students today that is specifically new to our society and we didn't want, say, 100 years ago?"

It depends on the "we."

100 years ago, roughly, "efficiency" was what "we" wanted...we being wealthier white men.

Other "we's" (also generally wealthy and white) talked about democracy through education, education that requires "getting along with others, communicating thoughts and resolving disagreements in civil ways, solving basic logistic problems, etc."

If public schools as they are constituted now pursued those ends, I would support them.

I'm not sure they can.

To begin with school systems are dedicated to age, class, race, and gender to name a few. The elementary school, middle, then high then college.

What would schools look like if they were spaces where all of these age groups met?

The question is mute at the moment, and for many moments in the past because of the curricula (operating system) schools have employed.

Under OS EPB (essentialism/perennialism/behavorism), subjects are made discreet and children spend more time memorizing isolated facts than solving problems. This was the operating system in place when I was in public school. It was the same for my parents and grandparents.

The operating system is dated.

What would I replace it with? One that favored helping children work with others to become engaged problem solvers rather than passive consumers. Call it OS ENGAGE.

It might look a great deal like a progressive old operating system discarded for something more scientific.

When I try to imagine using OS ENGAGE in the schools we have now, I think the buildings themselves, and the systemic structures of schooling, would prevent it from functioning.

There are too many walls: between student, between subject, between the world...

You ask whether or not technological develops can't be taught through vocational schools. Yes, absolutely, but they can also be taught online, away from any school, as can every discreet subject when teaching and learning is simply a matter of downloading information.

Art said...

"If it’s a public school and you’re asking the current, or previous administration for a definition, to educate is to ram facts into a child’s head and then test the child to see how much fact has stuck. School is a hammer; knowledge the nail; the teacher is a carpenter and a child the entity under construction."


Absurd and dangerous.

We await enactment of the Obama administration's educational policy.

ESEA currently requires states to establish the same high learning standards for all children, test children to determine whether they are meeting the standards, and work to improve schools where children have fallen behind. All for the noble goal of improving educational outcomes for all children, but particularly for poor children, minority children, children with disabilities, and children learning English.

Americans should be outraged at shortcuts and dodges that subvert this noble purpose - states playing games with their tests and standards, districts and schools dumbing down curriculum or pushing children out or making superficial change to schools to start the accountability clock over.

All of America's civil rights laws would fall if we allowed the excuse that states and localities are doing ridiculous things instead of owning up to their responsibilities. How sad that anyone connected with public education would make that excuse.

philip said...

Art, I go into schools, I am seeing the the operating system (high stakes, standardized tests) designed to make sure schools are achieving their "noble goal" (and i'm not sure what that is...) are ridiculous things themselves and not suited for creating spaces where children engage in ways that give them the skills, capacities, and understandings that make like in a democracy possible.

If we are going to keep the buildings, then at the very least the software has to change.

Art said...

I can make no sense of your software metaphor. Tests are one of several policy tools in federal education law and it seems to me that their merits and demerits are better discussed leaving operating systems out of the discussion.

States are supposed to use results of their reading and math tests to direct improvements in schools where large numbers of children are not achieving at the levels they should be. (The noble goal is bringing all children to proficiency). Proficiency in reading and math certainly does not exhaust the limits of what children should get out of school, and proficiency as demonstrated on reading and math tests does not exhaust all the reading and math skills that children should have. But how you get from there to blaming tests for failures of the schools is beyond me.

philip said...

Art, the testing operating system is in place to produce equality in schools. It's not working...can't work...there are too many outside factors influencing "education."

That does not mean we should give up on students whose lives are full of adversity (as many students, not just poor minority students certainly are), but it does mean that we need a different mechanism for helping them become critical and engaged doers rather than passive consumers.

I'm open to suggestions as to how to form spaces tasked with creating such individuals.

Art said...

It seems to me that you're faulting testing because it does not make changes in children's lives outside school. But how could it? Testing is one tool for improving schools and improved schools are a worthwhile end in themselves, even when, and maybe particularly when, children's lives outside school include much adversity.

I'm not sure what sort of testing would help students become the "critical and engaged doers" that you want them to be, but that seems to be a job more for teaching than for testing anyhow.
teaching problem rather than a testing problem

Unknown said...

Public Montessori schools meet your goals, Philip, one of those progressive 100 year old technologies. No need to re-invent the wheel. Go back to a progressive model of engagement for democracy. Probably any of the models--Montessori, Dewey, Waldorf, Piaget, Sudbury--would work for your purposes and for various children, but I have only seen Montessori as a public school, and that's the only way to instill the diversity and equality goals we aspire to.

Art: In Montessori, the guides test all the time. It's just that they test what the child just learned at that moment and allow the child to review and retest at any time--it's called evaluation. That way, the guide can adjust his lesson according to the needs of the child.

So it's not the amount of testing in traditional schools that's objectionable per se; it's the method of testing that's problematic: standardized content divorced from the child's individual interest and inclinations, paper and pencil, no results for months and when they do come out they are used to punish entire schools rather than to help individual children learn and grow.

I mean really--if a child learned how to add 2 digit numbers in third grade instead of second, but they could recite the Gettysburg address and tell you everything there was to know about dinosaurs, would that really be a bad outcome? The tests force us to answer yes, it would be terrible. I say no--that would be a fabulous outcome. We need schools that respond to the individual child's developmental path--not some distant set of standards.

Art said...

Tests that provide information that teachers can use to guide instruction for individual children on a daily basis are clearly desirable and important. Equally important, if not more important, are the tests that are required by federal education law because states are supposed to use the results of these tests to improve schools, with particular attention to schools that serve large numbers of poor children and minority children.

Standards and tests can be potent tools for educational equity and this is why two summers ago the civil rights establishment rose up against proposed legislation that would have weakened federal testing requirements. That strongly refutes propagandistic claims that state tests serve only to punish schools.

B1GM0UTH said...

I also really enjoyed and completely agreed with this post. With more and more focus being placed on tests and many times, teaching ability being based on student achievement on said test, critical thinking and actual citizenship skills are flying out the window. It becomes more important to teach to a test to save your job and stroke varying administrators' egos. I think performance based assessment, much like a thesis, along with several evaluations as mentioned in the Montessori comment, are the way to go. Tests with facts are great, but where's the application post-school? I agree, our education system needs an "upgrade".

Marcus Varner said...

I found this infographic that illustrates the state of the nation's gender gap. It's pretty intriguing:

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