Saturday, August 21, 2010

Some Unlearning To Do

I follow Jack Uldrich on his blog, The Chief Unlearner  and on his website  Mr. Uldrich wears many hats:  scholar, author, speaker.  Primarily he is a futurist, using the tools of science to help predict the future.  As the title of his blog suggests, he believes strongly that much information we now believe as true and important will be outdated, useless, and even detrimental to us in the future.  Our ability to adapt and move forward depends upon our ability to question, test, and abandon ideas.

In schools, especially in what sometimes get called the “best” schools (simply because they turn out a lot of students who go to the “best” colleges – another essay for another time), students are invested in exhibiting what they know, on demand, not in asking questions.  With SSAT’s, PSAT’s, SAT’s, AP’s, ACT’s and the rest of the evaluative alphabet thrown at them, not to mention the quizzes, tests and exams that are part of their daily school life, the message is pretty clear.  You’ll get sorted and ranked and rated by what you can show you know.  On your mark, get set, know.  One can see students in tears after only getting a 90 on a Latin test, or absolutely distraught about their future following a C on a Physics test.  Such stress, such scenes, are unfortunately predictable.  It’s a wonder students have any intellectual curiosity left.  Who can blame them? 

Unfortunately this emphasis on being able to display what you know leads to another handicap, pretending you know, or hiding the fact that you don’t know.  Ignorance is a stigma.  Pretending you know and hoping you aren’t found out is a safe tactic, a chance to save face.  I’ve seen this over and over with new ninth graders.  I give them a passage to read. We read it out loud in class.  I ask “Any questions?”  Quick glances around and silence.  I know from experience that there are at least ten vocabulary words in the passage that  many of them are unfamiliar with.  I know that there are connections to their own lives that make the passage much more meaningful when they understand the vocabulary.  I know the writer’s point relates to our work ahead during the semester together.  Granted, they are fourteen, just starting high school and acutely self-conscious.  Time to play it safe.  Silence. 

I up the ante. I announce a quiz.  They dutifully produce paper and pens.  Ten vocabulary words from what we just read and a short answer on why I gave them the piece to read in the first place.  Afterward I tell them, the short answer question is worth 50 points.  Each vocabulary word is worth 5 points.  However, I deduct double the value of the question for each answer that is a guess or just plain BS.  I then offer them a chance to surrender.  All they have to do is draw a white flag on their quiz and they’ll get a 50.  Nearly all surrender.  After all the anxiety, all the 50’s, all the hooting and hollering at the BS answers, we work our way around to discovering what the words mean, the author’s intent in the passage, and how it relates to them.  And finally, we discuss why no one asked questions in the first place.  And yes, the quiz is bogus; I don’t give quizzes for a course in public speaking, and IT WON’T COUNT ON THEIR GRADE. 

Students are far too willing to wait a teacher out.  Rather than embarrass themselves in a show of ignorance, individually and collectively, they’ll “go dumb” in the hope that sooner or later the teacher will rise up and display the golden egg of an answer she’s been sitting on.  And often as teachers, we do.  We succumb to the silence, the dead air, the passivity in the room and surrender the answer to our own question. So, if you are a student, why ask questions when you can avoid looking stupid, being made fun of, and the teacher will tell you anyway?  If you are a teacher, why ask questions if you’re going to  answer them yourself anyway.  These are  habits worth unlearning!   


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 16th - Time and Space

I began my day as I usually do, reading The New York Times, checking e-mail, taking a look at my Twitter account.  The Times had a feature story by Matt Richtel smack dab on the front page about five neuroscientists who spent a week this past May camping and rafting on the San Juan River in a remote part of southern Utah. The goal of the trip:  “to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.”

Later in the day I came across a blog, “Mind Hacks”, written by Vaughan Bell. Mr. Bell criticizes the “science” in the trip described in the Times.  “Scientifically, the trip is next to useless, as even if the team was doing research in the wild it tells us nothing specific about technology.”  True, the scientists are the subjects of their own study and there are too many variables to sort out whether simply being outdoors alters our relationship with technology.

It does seem clear, however, that the trip provided these scientists, their guide and the reporter and photographer accompanying them, time and space away from the everyday.  Time to relax.  Time to think.  Time to share ideas.  Todd Braver, a psychology professor at Washington University participating in the trip noted, “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you”…He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys, “It’s why I got into science, to talk about ideas.”

Shortly after reading the Times piece, I discovered through Twitter a talk by John Cleese on creativity. In it, Mr. Cleese reminds us that being in a cluttered environment of lists, phone calls, multitasking, is not what creativity needs.  He recommends creating an oasis for creativity to flourish.  That means boundaries of space where there are no interruptions and a defined period of time dedicated solely to the creative task.

Finally, I came across a Wall Street Journal blog by John Edwards III, “Creativity Is On the Decline – And Why It Matters”. There has been a flood of articles on this subject recently, appropriately so in my opinion, as we battle antiquated curriculum and greater insistence on testing in our schools.  Mr. Edwards concludes his blog with these questions: “Readers, how important do you think creativity is to your children’s development and to your own workplace and career?  Is creativity encouraged in your workplace or your family’s school? Are there things you’ve done or plan to do to encourage greater creative thinking on both fronts?  Any fun creativity-boosters you recommend for kids or adults?”  

Having begun my day with my typical media bath, I nonetheless found some time and space away from family distractions, bill paying, job hunting, and all the other tasks that interfere with my own creativity to think on my own a bit.

It would be simple and easy if our schools could help reverse the decline in creativity.  Alas, not enough schools, not enough brave teachers, are able to pose problems to their students that require reflective solutions.  We aren’t asking enough, or even any, questions in school that prompt creative endeavor.  Creativity is problem solving, finding unrecognized connections.  Time and space to solve a problem need not be mandated as Mr. Cleese suggests, but clearly ample time and space are helpful.  Even based on the “unscientific” evidence provided by five vacationing scientists.  As wonderful as it might be, however, there is no way to send every classroom on a trip down the San Juan River.  Where in school, in the school day, do students have time and space to reflect, to dream, to relax enough to think creatively?  Can we ask the questions and make the space for solutions?  Why do we limit the possibilities for creativity to school and work?  What about at home?  Turn off a few devices and dream.  Play in the backyard.  As for me, I wrote this in the morning before anyone else in the family was awake.  Now for a shower, and perchance, some more time to dream.    

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Common Sense From The Trenches

Where have I been?  Why have I not heard of Marion Brady before?  Thanks to Google Reader I came across this piece in the Washington Post.  Someone commented that Mr. Brady should assume Arne Duncan's position.  Not a bad idea, though I suspect Mr. Brady is MUCH more effective in a classroom somewhere.  Here's the link to the Post piece.

And here's a link to a YouTube video on Mr. Brady's site:

Let me know what you think about what he has to say.  In the meantime, I'll put my thinking cap on and try to come up with more active lessons for learners.  Suggestions anybody?  Real change in education will come from teachers, the way we teach.  That means lessons that engage and promote an active response.  A problem worth finding solutions for.