When people talk about student voice, they’re talking about feedback sessions and letting students be part of hiring committees. When they say, “Let’s give students a voice,” they mean, “let’s give them a seat at school board meetings.”
That’s not what they need. They need a lot more. We need to give them a pen and a microphone and a hammer and a shovel and a chalkboard. We need to give them a classroom and an audience and blank sheet that says “curriculum” at the top. We need to give them a budget and a building.
Kids are disengaged. They aren’t learning, and a lot of what they are learning is no longer relevant to the 21st Century. Fortunately that’s becoming more kosher to say. It’s no longer radical; people are starting to see the problems. But unfortunately, a lot of the proposed solutions aren’t radical enough. They’re superficial.
People talk about giving students a voice. A seat at the table. If we’re going to solve these problems, we’re going to need more than that. We want kids to be engaged in learning, to be excited to show up and happy about school? Give them real agency in their own education.
We want kids to be learning, to be passionate about their work? Let them learn things that have real meaning to them. Make them the authors of their curriculum.
Read the whole thing.
I’ve been arguing more and more of late that “curriculum” is a major if not the major problem in schools right now. And it’s not just that our current curriculum is in many ways outdated, irrelevant, and bloated. (I was talking to a teacher at an international IB school last week who described in depressed tones that much of his new curriculum could be summed up by one word: “more.”)
The institutional curriculum almost necessarily denies students agency over their own learning. And this is especially damaging when most kids now have the ability to create a personal curriculum around the things they truly care about learning out of the abundance of information, people, and tools they now have access to. Nothing especially new here, but worth saying again.
But creating (not giving) agency for students to build their own curriculum changes the whole game. It requires equity in tools and access. It requires trust. It requires a whole different narrative in terms of what exactly it is that we’re preparing students to be able to do. It requires being ok with not reading Shakespaere, or not speaking French, or not knowing (or caring) what a polynomial is.
And a lot more.
But why wouldn’t we work toward giving kids “a classroom and an audience and a blank sheet that says “curriculum” at the top?” What are we scared of?
We have to ask more questions about the collection and analysis of student data that is feeding algorithms that promise “personalization.” What do technology companies actually mean by “personalization”? We have to consider if we are reducing students from people to profile — and we must ask these questions, knowing full well that education institutions have never really done a good job recognizing students as people.
How might the marketing promise surrounding “personalization” steer us away from self-direction and into pre-determined, pre-ordained pathways? Can we have “personalization” if it’s built on top of standardized of content?
If, as I said at the beginning of this talk, this is a great time to be a self-directed learner, how might technology be used to dull rather than empower learner agency?
What are the repercussions of competency-based and mastery-based learning? What are the repercussions of choice? What are the repercussions of distance? What are the repercussions of scaling? Who gains? Who gains from “choice” — how do we reconcile the individual’s needs, how the individual benefits — from society’s?
There’s a very powerful strain of American individualism — and California exceptionalism — that permeates technology: personal responsibility, self-management, autonomy. All that sounds great when you frame this — as I have repeatedly in this talk — in terms of self-directed learning. But how do we reconcile that individualism with the social and political and community development that schools are also supposed to support? How do we address these strains of individualism and libertarianism — anti-institutional, anti-governmental, and pro-“free market”? What do we do about the ways in which these ideologies are embedded deeply within many aspects digital technology in society?
I’m sure these questions are being considered in admin team meetings in schools across the country and the world.
Even if PISA had done everything properly and indeed children of factory workers in Shanghai scored better than children of lawyers in the U.K. and the U.S., it does not necessarily mean they are better educated or prepared for the modern society, considering the limitation of PISA test scores as I discussed in Part 3 of this series. It could mean something entirely different: while PISA scores can be achieved with little resources and intense repetition of narrowly defined, uniformly prescribed content and skills, what truly matters—talent diversity, creativity, and entrepreneurialism—cannot. The multiplication table can be learned with a piece of paper, but it would be difficult to force anyone to play the piano without a piano. Everyone can be forced to memorize the Hamlet, but it is unlikely to force anyone to invent the iPhone.
But testing for “narrowly defined, uniformly prescribed content and skills” is just a whole heck of a lot easier.
I can always tell when testing season arrives here in New Jersey as I start getting e-mails from parents wanting to know more about my experiences in opting my son Tucker out of the test. It’s not a deluge, mind you, but one or two a week that I try to reply to with more info and links.
Some are more than about testing, however. Some, like the one I’ve gotten permission to reprint below, get to the heart of the larger tension between schools as they’re currently constructed and learning. I’m not saying this is every person’s experience, but when I read e-mails like this, it gives me pause. I think it should give us all pause.
I know this mom would love to hear your response in the comments.
I’m sorry if this email turns out rambling… but I am at my wits end. I came across your website for the first time tonight, and have not had a chance to read your book yet… but let me give you some background on why I’m writing you…
Tonight, I yelled at my 7 year old child because she misspelled one of her spelling words… the word ‘rainbows’. Yes you read that correctly. I yelled at her. She sobbed uncontrollably as I refused to let her erase the mistake. This I know is ludicrous. Why the hell would I do that? Mistakes happen. That’s why pencils have erasers, right? Well its because of what public school is doing to my child and I cannot stand to watch it anymore. Tonight it turned me into a monster. Its been over 6 hours since this incident and I’m still overwhelmingly disgusted with myself as if it had just happened.
My daughter is a wonderful, bright, funny, delightful little 2nd grader. Most adults that meet her marvel at the obvious level of intelligence she has. This is not me trying to brag or call my child a genius - but what it is… is me standing up for her where she is being made to feel insecure and unintelligent.
For too many nights to count, I have watched my child come apart at the seams trying to make sense of homework that I deem to be complete and utter bullshit and a complete waste of time. I watch her write letters, words and numbers…. only to erase and write again, erase and write again…. because it’s not perfect, it’s not what the teacher said to do, it’s not what will get her perfect scores and make everyone happy. I watch her trying to think of multiple ways to write out a math sentence such as ‘5+4=9’. I mean, how many ways does a 7 year old need to write it? She even gets math equations that look like this: ‘16+12=__’. Ask her what the ones and tens places are and she couldn’t tell you. (I have explained them to her… and she is beginning to understand, but isn’t allowed to use that method at school(WTF?). The math that is being taught isn’t math at all. Its all comprehension. Why is she getting comprehension shoved down her throat before she even has the basic building blocks in the fundamentals of addition and subtract? I know the answer - NJ ASK. I’m sick of erasing, and the tears and wasted nights. I sick of watching this beautiful creature being snuffed out by school work that really isn’t teaching anything.
Every night we do 2 hours of homework. I dread homework. I’m not anti-homework. What I’m against is homework hijacking my night 5 days a week. A typical day she gets home at 4pm. I let her have a snack and unwind for an hour. Then we begin this awful homework regime. She is tired. Why is she doing school work from 9am to 7pm( if I’m lucky)? She isn’t learning at this rate… she is just going through the motions to get it done.
Tonight as my child sobbed, curled up in my arms, with her little body trembling, she tells me what a bad reader she is and that’s why she tries to read more than what’s required; so she can get better. She’s a bad speller too. She’s afraid she won’t get to go to 3rd grade. Everything feels hard for her. These are the words coming from her mouth.
In my mind, I could not even begin to fully process what she was saying to me at the time. I read with her every night. She reads well. She stumbles on words sometimes, but she is only 7 and I thought that was to be expected. So where are these feelings of inadequacy coming from? I give her only praise at home, so I must believe it stems from something happening at school. I find it disgusting that my child is made to feel that way in an environment that is supposed to be building her up, cheering her on and not making her feel like the class dunce.
At the same time, I have loved every teacher she has had. I believe the school and the people in it are honestly doing their best to help my child succeed. So I just don’t understand what is happening or where the breakdown is.
I’m confused about my feelings for Common Core… It’s political, it’s a dirty word, it has ‘good intentions’ but its implementation sucks….
My quest isn’t political. I have no hidden agenda. My only goal is for my child to be afforded an education that nurtures real critical thinking, teaches her grammar and arithmetic, teaches her to love learning, to question, explore and so much more.
I dread NJ ASK when 3rd grade comes. But I don’t want to just ‘opt out’ of the test… because I don’t see how that solves the greater problem. I’ve tried to search for alternative educations solutions but I really don’t know where to even begin.
We live in *******, where the school district claims to be one of the best in the state. I often feel alone in my opinion of the education she is receiving. So many friends and family members have told me to not worry. That the school system is fine. Its not fine. I am not fine and she is not fine. Tonight was horrible. Its not the first night that we have had like this. But I vowed it will be the last.
Do you have any recommendations as a starting place for alternative school options that don’t teach using Common Core standards? I can’t afford a private school. I just really don’t know what to do anymore.
Here is my present idea of the corporation, give or take. The corporation is a thing of people, processes, places, and products (give or take). And these 4 Ps are relatively well-defined, organized, boundaried, and anchored (more or less).
But that’s a problem. This corporation is deeply at odds with the future. Because the future is never defined, organized, boundaried, or anchored. Really, it’s all just hints and whispers. Fragile melody, no refrain.
Hence, the great antagonism between corporations and time. A creature that defines itself out of definition, organization, boundary, and anchoring, must hate a future that is shapeless and unmoored. To the corporations, the future looks like the enemy, a risk that can’t be managed, an idea that can’t be thought.
The corporation puts a particular boundary between now and the future. And it guards this border ferociously. New ideas are scrutinized with tough mindedness and high indignation. If we can’t see the business model, we’re not interested. If we can’t see how to “monitize this sucker,” we’re not interested. When the future manifests itself merely as a murmur of possibility, we are not interested.
Too bad. There is really only one way to live in a world of speed, surprise, noise, and responsiveness, and that’s to visit the future frequently. And, if we have the intellectual capital, maybe get a pied-à-terre. Well, and if we’re really committed, we need someone to take up residence full time.
Most of all, we want a corporation that is porous in ways it was not before. We want it to cantilever out into the future. We want to make pieces of the future to happen inside the corporation. We want pieces of the corporation to happen out there in the future. In sum, we want the corporation and the future, once so completely separated from one another, to have a new reciprocity and transparency.
Now, go back and read that again, replacing the word “corporation” with “classroom.” It’s not a perfect fit, but you get the idea. There’s a lot here that compares.
Most places I go, the future (and to some extent, it’s a future that’s already here,) feels like the enemy. That’s why 98% of our technology use in schools conserves the past. That’s why the bar for innovation is set at “flipped classrooms.” We’re not thinking about “making pieces of the future happen in the [classroom.]” And while we may not always articulate it in the same way, we educators abhor a future that is “shapeless and unmoored.” There’s no curriculum in that.
The tension with “inventing the future” is that it doesn’t happen in isolation. While some may be busy with “invention” in schools, it falls against a larger backdrop of invention all over the place. The contexts for our work to invent the future is constantly changing, and if we’re not constantly relearning and embracing those contexts, we’re simply reinventing the past.
(H/T to Britt Wattwood for the link and for an equally thoughtful post.)
Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times:
All in all, the changes are intended to make SAT scores more accurately mirror the grades a student gets in school.
The thing is, though, there already is something that accurately mirrors the grades a student gets in school. Namely: the grades a student gets in school. A better way of revising the SAT, from what I can see, would be to do away with it once and for all.
The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture. The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate. The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.
While it would be nice if I could figure out who “John” is who posted the following to the “Art of Learning” Facebook group, I agree with the sentiment nonetheless:
The Common Core will not prepare our students for the challenges of 21st century careers because it focuses primarily on text-based literacy skills that are more appropriate and suited for the 19th and early 20th century classroom and workplace. David Coleman, supports a “close reading” approach to literacy that was first introduced in the mid 1900’s. “He embraces what in the 1940′s and 1950′s was called New Criticism, a movement in U.S. universities that emphasized sticking tenaciously to the text of whatever one is reading…New Criticism cautions the reader not to go beyond the text to consider, for example, the biography of the author, the social or historical period in which he/she was writing, or, for that matter, even one’s own personal feelings, attitudes, and experiences in relation to the text.“
While supporters of the Common Core are quick to point out that there are also CCSS anchor standards for media literacy and 21st century skills, Appendix A clearly states that media other than text is inferior and not a priority when it comes to classroom activities and instruction. “These sources [video, podcasts…], while not without value, cannot capture the nuance, subtlety, depth, or breadth of ideas developed through complex text. As Adams (2009) puts it, “There may one day be modes and methods of information delivery that are as efficient and powerful as text, but for now there is no contest…”
While being able to use and understand words in text are no doubt still a basic part of communication and a fundamental literacy, we’re now coummicating and creating meaning in the world in interesting new ways that are profound and important and, as the author suggests, basically missing from the CCSS. And while reading and writing in traditional ways need to be mastered, using video and and audio and photos and other forms of multimedia to communicate ideas are now a requirement as well, a “common” requirement if you will. Note (again) the NCTE literacies, i.e. “Active, successful participants in this global society must be able to…create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts” among other things.
But since it’s not explicit in the standards, we’ll most likely leave that up to kids to figure out for themselves.
From the “I Really Don’t Mean to Be Debbie Downer Department” comes this analysis from a fascinating and scary newish blog from John Robb:
Technological change is rapidly killing entire industries and job categories without replacing them. Across the board, incremental productivity improvements are making it possible for employers to get by without hiring new people (even the head of the biggest employer in the World has plans to replace most of his workers with robots). However, that won’t be where we see the greatest losses. Those losses will occur in the industries that are completely gutted from the arrival of products and services that make them obsolete.
As this trend strengthens, we may see results similar to what we saw with the agrarian economy. If that occurs, the extreme endpoint of this decline may be a world where most of the commercial activity in goods and services we see today — from education to health care to manufacturing to transportation to retail to legal services — is accomplished by less than 1% of the people it used to require.
That means only 1 of the hundred jobs being done currently will be left. More strikingly, it’s very likely this won’t take the 200 years it took agriculture to go from 95% of the population to less than 1%. It’s going to be much, much faster this time due to the speed at which improvements can be distributed (software/data). Given this catalyst, we may find ourselves more than half of the way there within twenty years.
Not quite the world we’re educating our kids for, huh?
From a New York Times piece today:
Recently, at Public School 253 in Brooklyn, Myra Wenger applied her new curriculum in a lesson on ancient Athens, asking her second graders why the city adopted Athena, not Poseidon, in naming itself. A pupil, Daniel Gornak, 8, answered, “Because Athena gave more uses than Poseidon did, and more healthy things for Athenians,” and Ms. Wenger lauded his methods in consulting his marble notebook for the facts.
“They love it,” Ms. Wenger said of her lesson plans. “They’re very engaged, more than last year.”
In another room, a group of first graders sat on a mat, eagerly raising their hands to explain similarities between farming in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.
“They needed water,” one student, Rabiha Islam, 6, said.
“And, and, and,” she continued, searching for another answer, “they didn’t have, so they made canals.”
The school chose one of the country’s most popular Common Core curriculums, called Core Knowledge. It is based on the ideas of E. D. Hirsch Jr., whose 1987 book, “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” argued that mastery of a common set of facts was critical to learning.
Beyond the testing difficulties, one of the criticisms of the Common Core, in New York and elsewhere, is that it can be too demanding for young grades. Diane Ravitch, an educational historian, has said that very little of what is taught to first graders about ancient civilizations will stick with them; Mr. Hirsch and other defenders of the Common Core say children in early grades need lessons in history, civics, science and literature to build vocabularies and thrive.
This captures the question that I get asked more often than any other during discussion around change: Where is the balance when it comes to what every child needs to know now and making sure kids become deep learners in the context of having access to abundant information, knowledge, tools, and teachers? And are we really saying that “what every American needs to know” has to be learned in school? At the same time as everyone else? If you asked a random selection of 100 adults who Poseidon and Athena were, how many could answer? 10? 20? And are those who can’t failures? And by the way, who decides what facts are worthy of “learning?”
Seems easy enough to test this hypothesis. Why don’t we do a large scale assessment on 30-year olds to see how many of them are Common Core or culturally literate and them correlate that to their “success” in life. (Defining success is a long conversation in an of itself.) My guess would be that “success” is much more based on dispositions than it is on content knowledge and the ability to have a conversation about Mesopotamia.
Maker faires, where adults and children are gathering in ever-growing numbers, celebrate the inventor in all of us, but they also seem to be brewing an anti-school streak among some parents and children. “School is boring” has given way to “School is destroying my child. Look at what they are capable of doing! School is oblivious to my child’s interests, talents, and expertise.” I am not willing to give up on school, simply because that is where the kids are. We can and should make classrooms more like Maker Faires.
Often parents are torn between their respect for the institution of school and their intuition that something is not working for their child. Be clear while making your case that although your plans may not look exactly like traditional school, you are not abandoning high standards or a quest for learning. The argument for making, tinkering, and engineering should not be as an “alternative” way to learn, but what modern learning really looks like.
Seymour Papert in The Children’s Machine (excerpted here.):
It is simply double talk to ask children to take charge of their own learning and at the same time order them to “discover” something that can have no role in helping them understand anything they care about or are interested in or are curious about.
This isn’t rocket science. Each one of us lives this. We learn what we have an interest in learning. The deeper our interest, the less we will let stand in our way. I’m struck by stories like that of Jack Andraka, 15 years-old, who wouldn’t let school stand in the way. (Listen carefully from 1:19 - 2:05.)
It’s easy for a lot of people now to say “we’re moving.” Every kid has an iPad. We’re doing project-based learning. We’re flipping the classroom to make more time for problem-solving. And on.
I can’t speak for him, but I doubt Papert is impressed. Our hubris in education is still that we think we know what, when, and how every child needs to learn. While our rhetoric changes, we remain teacher / curriculum centered despite announcements that our “better” assessments, our “better” curriclum, our “better” uses of technology are transferring ownership of learning to children.
They’re not. We’re not.
danah boyd, in her great new book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens:
Many adults I meet assume that their own childhoods were better and richer, simpler and safer, than the digitally mediated ones contemporary youth experience. They associate the rise of digital technology with decline—social, intellectual, and moral. The research I present here suggests that the opposite is often true. For adults to hear the voices of youth, they must let go of their nostalgia and suspend their fears. This is not easy.
Oxford University Press:
One of the most convincing arguments for using tablets in the classroom is the possibility for students to then take that learning outside of the classroom – they can use the digital materials they are familiar with from class on their own devices at home.
Like most endless runners, Flappy Bird is a game with no conclusion that subsists solely on your hunger for a higher score and your dumb, completely illogical belief that you will in fact get any value out of playing, let alone feel like you’re getting better at the task at all…
…Therein lies the worst part: We know the game is preying on us, and we let it. There is little else as substantive and convincing as Flappy Bird that the smartphone era has driven us to the cliff of insanity when it comes to compulsive behavior, contracting attention spans, and a desire to succeed at something arbitrary and meaningless.
Because ultimately there is absolutely nothing admirable about dusting yourself off from a Game Over and trying again when there’s literally no goal in sight but a higher number and a larger expenditure of your time.
The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.
Those of us in the traditional academy could have a hand in shaping that future, but doing so will require us to relax our obsessive focus on elite students, institutions, and faculty. It will require us to stop regarding ourselves as irreplaceable occupiers of sacred roles, and start regarding ourselves as people who do several jobs society needs done, only one of which is creating new knowledge.
It will also require us to abandon any hope of restoring the Golden Age. It was a nice time, but it wasn’t stable, and it didn’t last, and it’s not coming back. It’s been gone ten years more than it lasted, in fact, and in the time since it ended, we’ve done more damage to our institutions, and our students, and our junior colleagues, by trying to preserve it than we would have by trying to adapt. Arguing that we need to keep the current system going just long enough to get the subsidy the world owes us is really just a way of preserving an arrangement that works well for elites—tenured professors, rich students, endowed institutions—but increasingly badly for everyone else.
Read the whole thing.
There are similar pressures on the K-12 level that make supporting the current system difficult. To date, however, we’ve been stuck almost wholly in preservation mode.