Just part of the air we breathe, teacher

heart rhythmLast Saturday my wife, Danielle, and I sat with my cousin Jim in the intensive care unit as he neared the end of his life. Not only did we accept that his vital signs would be monitored by several machines in the room and displayed in vivid colors with large font displays, over the several hours of our vigil, those numbers, sounds and traces became part of our collective experience, together with our dying cousin. Through medical technology, he was including us in his transition, sharing the data that has become commonplace in today’s hospitals, something unknown to humans a couple generations ago. Before, families watching a quiet bedridden relative would look for signs of breathing, listen for hints that life remained or had passed, but it was only through the stethoscope of the doctor (who may or may not be present) that they would eventually know for certain. Today, we have real-time data. We know, and it informs our way of thinking and perceiving.

Sitting under our plastic gowns, we could see that Jim was nearing the end of his illness, and his life. The nurse stepped over to Jim’s bedside, approached the monitor, switched off the display, and returned to her electronic charting. Danielle and I turned to each other with a look of “Wha?!” I looked at Jim, and instantly felt a broken connection, the frustration of information denied rising inside me. I turned to the nurse and said as politely as I could muster, “I assume you turned off the monitor because of all the alarms that will be going off shortly?” She looked mildly surprised, and said, “Oh, you want them on? Some families do, some don’t.” She restarted the monitor, and for another half hour or so we followed our cousin to his last breath and final heartbeat. It was intimate and precious and utterly unmediated by a third-person stethoscope, all thanks to the telemetry. I would not have given that up for anything.

It is important to this post that I cop to taking all that medical technology completely for granted. It felt familiar and necessary, and it is a comfortable part of my 21st Century experience. If I had walked into his hospital and had not seen evidence of data collection and display, not only would I have been disappointed, I would have demanded my cousin be moved to a decent hospital.

This is precisely the experience of our students when we, by force of law, pull them from their data-infused world and into school that often does not meaningfully follow their common access to data. We persist in demanding they break their connections, and most teachers want to be the stethoscope in the room to tell their students whether the heart of the world is still beating, or if it has a heart at all. And like our nurse, we are surprised when students are confused that we want them to disconnect from their data stream. They know their life is richer because of it. Can’t we see that?

Yes, instructional change is tough, but it begins with an awareness that humans’ relationship to technology has changed the culture of living and learning, in school and out. When students turn to us with a look of “Wha?!” in their eyes, it is simply incomprehension as they power-down, not insolence. Find what you can do to make your teaching and their learning as vital and meaningful, as intimate and precious as they know it can be.

Fighting the Common Core

My educator hackles have been up these past few months as I hear increasingly vocal and frankly hysteric opposition to the Common Core State Standards, so masochist that I am, I decided to immerse myself in the rhetoric to try to understand what’s at its root.

The purpose of this post is to share with my readers an outstanding article by Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times in which she makes some very astute observations about our nation and the folks who live here. Here’s a sample:

“We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children,” said Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, presumably because doing so would result in children in the Palmetto State riding longboards and listening to the Grateful Dead.

Please give a read to Ms. Boylan’s A Common Core for All of Us.

Gaming to save the world. Not kidding.

Last September brought us the news that the online game Foldit had produced actual real-world solutions to a biochemical puzzle, leading to advances in medical research, specifically in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. The news of the discovery was good, but the fact that it was brought to us courtesy of the gaming culture those of my generation have long feared and disparaged was the real earth-shaker here.

Jane McGonagal, Ph.D., takes this news to the next level, and we need to pay attention.  For my entire professional career I’ve begged my students to become participants in the salvation of their deeply at-risk world.  With a number of stunning exceptions to the rule, for the most part the response has been, “Uh huh, let me get back to my X-box if you don’t mind, Mr. Storm.” For me, and most of us, this channeling of our brightest minds into (what we perceived as) mindless gaming was ample cause for despair, portending no less the end of civilization and perhaps the species.

In this TED talk linked below and in her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Dr. McGonagal sees not only hope, but cause for actual excitement arising from this enormous body of talent and passion growing from the gaming culture.  Have a listen, and see if you don’t find yourself allowing for the possibility she just may be onto something.

“A video’s worth how many words?”

My recent conversation with Thomson Reuter’s Science & Environment reporter Ben Gruber regarding the California Roadkill Observation System for which I am a “citizen observer” evolved, naturally enough, into a discussion regarding ed tech.  Any reader of this blog might expect my side of the conversation to devolve into my usual rant regarding the American preoccupation with traditional instruction and the consequent loss of our national competitive edge in science and technology to those countries willing to make the necessary investment in their children.

In the spirit of “You’re going to hate this…,” Ben mentioned a story he recently completed regarding the aggressive South Korean national investment in education technology, understanding the inherent service to their national self-interest as they look to the future of their country.

Ben’s resulting Reuters video story is far more powerful than any further words I can offer.  Please invest 2:26 of your time and think hard about the cultural back story:

Living as we do in a nation that popularly refuses to acknowledge the link between education and technology presumably because it requires we spend money on children instead of warfare and pleasure seeking (we can afford chalk and pencils for them, can’t we?), it is comforting that someone in the world sees fit to prepare their children for their troubled planet so they may address its problems with all the necessary tools they will need.  I remain sad that my own country is not counted in that number.  No one needs to “bomb us back into the stone age”** to win at the civilization game.  We need only stand still while the world passes us by.

♦♦♦♦♦

** This phrase, ironically enough, came into popular usage amidst the coverage of twentieth century American policy toward Asian countries.  See this article on the topic if you’re interested.

The Big American Problem

The future is already here; it is just unevenly distributed.  – William Gibson

Disclaimer: I’m here at the NewTechNetwork 2011 Conference in Grand Rapids, MI, surrounded by educational brilliance and teachers deeply invested in best practices for 21st Century Learning, and the following is an irrepressible rant.  We can fix education, we can regain education preeminence in the world; it only requires we pay attention to what we know.

We have a Big American Problem… the achievement gap is just one symptom of a growing reality: traditional school has become more about schooling than it has about learning.  When we measure learning, what we see is the consequence of what children learn in spite of what we do to them more than what they learn as a result of our efforts.  When we bring children into our classrooms, we expect them to learn flawlessly regardless of the talents, issues, world views, and feelings they bring into that same space.  They can all learn, but the system we are sustaining for their benefit is not meeting their needs.  An exciting, scary world swirls around them 24/7 and they seek to interact with it in every way possible – that’s their irrepressible job one as kids – yet the place they go to prepare them to run this world, our schools, demands they “power-down” just to get through the day because the adults around them can’t see any compelling reason to keep school connected to the way the world really works.  “Adults” include all of us: those who decide how many dollars go into the system (the entire voter base), the teachers who protect their association memberships at all costs, and community groups who don’t care to understand the connection between instruction and technology.

Unlike industrial-age children, today’s highly mobile and wired kids each encounter life in an incredibly non-standard fashion.  Some children wake up to a broadband networked smart phone on their nightstands in their bedrooms, while many lack bedrooms due to parental mobility or homelessness.  School systems use the word “equity” in their programming efforts while the fundamental societal inequity, the exploding digital divide we see among our students, is the last item on the agenda because it requires real money to address.  The education technology investment failure along with our obsession with “fixing the education failure” by incrementally slashing funding is bearing its predictable fruit.

Children are essentially adaptable, and they astonish us with their ability to accommodate every lame idea adults have on their behalf.  We measure their “performance,” but what we really, truly are seeing is a picture of their ability to adapt to a set of behaviors we demand of them.  To the degree those expected behaviors are actually something useful for the culture into which they are maturing we hold the moral high ground for demanding they accommodate to it.  To the degree those behaviors are demanded for the sake of demonstrating compliance to memory tasks or ritualistic demonstrations of irrelevant rigor, we erode the foundation of any high ground we may otherwise claim.  Unfortunately, we long ago stopped asking the questions necessary to keep content relevant to what is real in the world, and the kids have found us out.  The king struts down the street with no clothes.

Whether or not we like to hear it, the kids continue to ask “Why are you teaching me this?”  If they find out you (in your role of teacher, parent, administrator, or Common Core Standards author) react negatively to this question, they will adapt to your wishes and shut up, but that doesn’t stop the question in their minds.  And because they are connected to each other (the average 13-18 year-old sends 3300 text messages per month), they are asking this question collectively. We sit here in the west and regard the sheiks, dictators and mullahs of Arab nations being brought down by their connected young people in the current Arab Spring uprisings, but our smugness belies our own national attachment to a formulation of education that is not authentic or even very useful.  It also belies our ignorance of the growing rumble among young people who are not getting what they know they need.

So why should we be surprised that children are voting with their feet as they increasingly seek out online education, and parents are voting with their dollars to find alternatives to good ole American comprehensive secondary education?  Because of our collective fixation on test numbers, class rankings and weighted GPAs, as a “system” we have utterly abandoned our mission of preparing students for their world and left it to them to figure it all out for themselves.  They are doing exactly that and we ignore their collective dissatisfaction at our peril.

To my educator readers: Start rattling your cage. Annoy your colleagues, and seek out those who agree that your students also live in your connected world (even more fully than you do).  Make your practice relevant.

To the public: Listen to the children.  Invest in them.  Acknowledge that they just might know more about what they need than you do.  Sure they need mentoring and guidance to know what’s smart and relevant, and that we can provide.  But controlling the digital air they breathe because we think we can?  Good luck with that.

Pedagogy… am I boring you?

bored baby

One of the Necessary Thinkers I attend to, Steve Taffee of the Blogg-Ed Indetermination blog , published a provocative post today entitled “School Bored: Is Boredom Bad?”  It’s a thoughtful piece that teased up the response growing in me since I entered the education field, and I copy my response to his post below.


In my experience, any educator’s demand that students accept boredom as part of their educational experience is a kind of self-absolution for mediocre pedagogy.

Sure, academically we can ask students to reflect on their own perceptions and attitudes toward learning (the sex ed scene from Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life” comes to mind), but whenever I hear the expectation of boredom-acceptance uttered in the classroom, it sets off alarms for me.

Students can memorize in an non-stimulating classroom context, but I think you’d get some hefty argument regarding whether this represents learning.

As our students increasingly come to us digitally fluent and highly networked, we need to stretch ourselves into different pedagogical shapes to accommodate this complex of perceptual/processing skills that are admittedly quite foreign to us.

In the early 80’s medical science was confronted by a new epidemic we now call AIDS, and the field had to scramble with everything they knew to wrap their minds around a very new challenge, and they remain in a process of discovery today.  Educators are faced with a very similar challenge: never before have children changed so much from their parents’ generation in so little time, and we need to pay attention to our own biases and expectations bound by our own experience as students. We are babies in this, and we’d better pay attention.

Citizen Science Projects for the New Year

science friday logoNo sooner did I post on Thursday about everyday folks (particularly the teachers among us and the instructional import) did Ira Flatow do a story on that very topic the next day.  My wife tells me it was a killer show, featuring roadkill…  http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201101072

However, click on Ira’s picture here for more resources, including The Milky Way Project, FoldIt (proteins), and several others.  Plus, the link to Friday’s show Podcast is there.  Awesome stuff.

A tip of the hat to you Ira, but remember who beat you to the scoop!