Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"It's Scary."

I just went to a workshop where the discussion turned to the ever-increasing presence of technology in how we learn.  Conversation moved quickly from Facebook to Twitter to SCVNGR to foursquare, then extrapolated into the future.  Finally feeling overwhelmed, one of the participants said, “It’s scary.”  Curious, I asked why she was afraid (not that she shouldn’t be).  Her response had to do with how much there was to learn.  There was a sense of apprehension that she might not be able to do it.   

The fact is that we live in a rapidly changing world, which requires us to learn and adapt on an ongoing basis.  Having been nudged, dragged, prompted and coached on my own path from Luddite to a tech competent and tech curious Baby Boomer, I’ve spent some time thinking about what it is that scares us and inhibits us about mastering the various new technologies we encounter. 

I have a hunch that we drag old school wounds and scars along with us in ways that unnecessarily complicate our current learning.  Or worse, block us from even trying to learn.  Our attitude toward learning is as outdated as the classrooms we were taught in and the information we learned.  Kirsten Olson discusses this problem in her book, Wounded by School – Recapturing the Joy In learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture.  Even in something as mundane as learning how to program a DVD, we get anxious, out of sorts, and frustrated.  Then ask our kids to show us how to do it.  We adults assume we’ve got to learn it right away, worry about looking bad while we do it, and agonize as if we were going to fail some imaginary test on DVD recording.  We act as if we’re going to get graded, sorted, judged and valued by how we learn.  As if a failure in DVD manipulation might be recorded on our permanent transcript. 

My twenty-one-year-old son and I recently got new cell phones together. They are exactly the same model.  I went immediately to the instruction manual to figure out how to operate my phone.  My son flipped his phone open and started playing around with it.  That’s been his way of learning about such things ever since he was a little boy messing around with computers and playing computer games.  Essentially it’s a push all the buttons and see what happens style of learning.  Playing with the device.  Play being a key word.  My son and I continue to compare notes on how to operate our new phones.  There remains something to be said for consulting the directions.  There is plenty to be said for exploring confidently, not being afraid to make mistakes, adopting a “game mentality” of incremental mastery that is dependent on no one’s timetable but one’s own.  And plenty to be said for collaborating, so that we can learn from each other. 

My son and I will never have a cell phone final exam.  We’ll never sit in a room with a proctor looming to make sure our work is our own.  But too often, I think, we older learners handle the future by going backwards.  We consign ourselves to the anxiety of some exam room from the past whenever we’re confronted with something new to learn, or at least something we feel we have to learn.  An “assignment”, to dredge up another old school term.  We create a present fiction based on past wounds in order to cope with the future.

For older learners our fear of failure is sometimes so acute, we don’t allow ourselves to fail during any step of the process.  At least when it comes to technology, younger learners seem to have an ease about failing early and often on their path to mastery.  It would probably serve us older folks well to remember the following:
We don’t have to learn it all at once.
We can learn it at our own pace. It’s not a race.
We can learn something together with other people.
We can make as many mistakes as we need to until we master what we want to know.

Maybe we older folks could even relax enough not to force some of our old school values on today’s children.  Do we really need to use school to test and to grade and to sort and to rank quite so much?  Is learning a race?  How will our children ever win a race to the top if they learn to fear getting started?            

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Put The Summer In The School

With the school year well underway, and the leaves turning on the trees outside my window, it is easy to yearn again for summer.  That is exactly what my wife did as we took a late afternoon walk down to the garden to check on our pumpkins.  In that same wistful vein, I’m reminded of some summer reading I’ve been pondering for a while.  At the beginning of August Time Magazine ran a cover feature, “The Case Against Summer Vacation”, written by David Von Drehle.

 It began by noting what happens to kids, most especially children from low-income families, during our traditional extended summer break from school.  Von Drehle describes this summer break we’ve been comfortable with for so long “as a luxury we can no longer afford.”   

     “Dull summers take a steep toll, as researchers have been documenting for more than a century.  Deprived of healthy stimulation, millions of low-income kids lose a significant amount of what they learn during the school year.  Call it “summer learning loss,” as the academics do, or “the summer slide,” but by any name summer vacation is among the most pernicious – if least acknowledged – causes of achievement gaps in America’s schools.  Children with access to high-quality experiences keep exercising their minds and bodies at sleepaway camp, on family vacations, in museums and libraries and enrichment classes.  Meanwhile children without resources languish on street corners or in front of glowing screens.  By the time the bell rings on a new school year, the poorer kids have fallen weeks, if not months, behind.  And even well-off American students may be falling behind their peers around the world.”

Von Drehle goes on to describe antidotes to this problem, describing a number of summer enrichment programs especially for low-income kids, and some of the people who make the programs work.

      “As our modern-day reformers strive to civilize summer as an educational resource, the trick is to seize the opportunity without destroying what’s best about the season:  the possibility of fun and freedom and play.”

Von Drehle describes an all-day program in Indianapolis where elementary school kids are “exploring foods and landmarks and cultural traditions…unwittingly doing math as they measure ingredients and learning science as they raise vegetable gardens with plants native to each land.  Fridays are for field trips; to study Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the kids rode buses to the aquarium in Chicago.”  He writes about programs in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, and a very successful program in the Appalachian town of Corbin, Kentucky, led by Karen West. 

     “The entire community of Corbin pitches in.  Restaurants serve hot meals at which students can practice etiquette.  The swimming pool invites kids each Wednesday.  Baptist Regional Medical Center organizes the Long Day of Play to promote health and fitness.  The department of fish and wildlife leads a session on conservation – then takes all the students fishing.  As the kids weigh and measure their catch, they think they’re just trying to win first prize, but West notes that they are also doing a day’s worth of math.  Summer educators like to call this sort of thing “stealth learning.”

     “We have over 30 partners,” West says, and their in-kind contributions nearly match her annual budget of $60,000. “When everyone gives a little, we can do miracles.”  The proof:  students in the Corbin program not only don’t fall behind through the summer; they move ahead.  More than half of the participants improve by a full letter grade or more in both reading and math.”

It seems to me the “trick” in all this is to give up trying to distinguish between the “fun stuff” and the “educational”.  Maybe we should realize that all the physical activity kids get in a summer program is a good thing, that less focus on a rigid curriculum is a good thing, that “fun and freedom and play” needn’t be segregated from learning, but rather incorporated into learning all year round, school or no school.  We compartmentalize learning in so many ways, not the least of which is that somehow “summer learning” must be different from “school-year learning.”   The issue isn’t what kids learn in summer programs that can help them in schools, it is what schools can learn from summer programs to help teach more effectively and efficiently.  Toward the end of his article Von Drehle writes:

“In the best summer-only programs, bureaucracy is lean and change is easy.  There’s an informality to the summer culture – maybe it’s those bare feet and damp swimsuits and homemade lanyards – that fosters easy innovation and rapid improvement.  As Terry Ogle, a former middle-school principal who runs the Indianapolis Algebra Project, told me, things happen more quickly outside school systems:  “A few years ago, we were teaching kids at two summer sites.  Now we’re in 29.”

Von Drehle then describes a very successful summer program called Summer Advantage.  “The curriculum ranges from math, reading and writing to cooking, dance and music – but the consistent element is strong teachers working in small groups with excited students.”   Reading and math scores improve after just the summer.   Then comes the key question.

     “…if summer enrichment is the innovative, cost-effective answer to one of the nation’s thorniest problems – the failure to educate many of our neediest kids – how do we address so large a problem without creating another stultifying version of the failed status quo?  How do we increase participation and raise standards without crushing creativity and imposing bureaucracy?  Can we really entrust something so important to a haphazard network of camp counselors, volunteers and entrepreneurs?”

Can we trust school bureaucracies, teachers unions, politicians, and business people turned educators to do any better?   Are we racing to the top or chasing our tail?  A hard look at what makes these summer programs succeed might be useful.  Some seem to be having success during the summer that schools have trouble replicating during the school year.  Maybe we won’t work quite so hard trying to turn learning into schooling.  I wonder how many kids are sitting in school now wishing their school day could be more like their summer.    

Watch a video showing how much of the achievement gap can be attributed to lack of stimulation during the summer, Two Steps Forward.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sam Chaltain and the Beautiful Game

Soccer has always been an important, joyful part of my life. On my personal calendar, the arrival of fall means soccer.  Since 1960 I have enjoyed a portion of each fall either as a player, a coach, or a referee. I currently referee high school games. 

In the summer of 1966 I worked for a mining company in the Harz Mountains in Germany.  I followed the World Cup that summer from black and white television sets in the bars and restaurants of the small town where I lived and worked. I celebrated Germany’s last minute comeback in the final against England to take the game to overtime, and agonized with everyone in the dining room of the small family restaurant where I watched the final, as an “Englisher Tor” became the goal that sent Germany to defeat.  I remember the negativity and brutal fouls in that tournament that put Pele on the sideline, and the individual brilliance of Portugal’s Eusebio.  Every four years since I’ve faithfully kept my appointment with the Cup, following it from the cramped radio room of a ship on the Mediterranean to a big screen in Madison Square Garden, to best of all, in person in 1994 and 1998.

This past summer I happened to come across a piece by the gifted and important education observer, Sam Chaltain, written a day after Landon Donovan’s thrilling game winning goal against Algeria.  Chaltain wrote about the changing environment in some successful American businesses and the lack of similar change in our schools.
“If you've been watching the action in South Africa, you see why soccer is known around the world as the "beautiful game." It's a game of improvisation, and real-time adjustments, and unquantifiable synchronization between individuals. Broadcasters reflect this in the language they use to describe the players, using such elusive terms as "pace," "rhythm," and "flow."
“These are unfamiliar words to the average American sports fan, but they're the proper words for a World Cup match because the action unfolding is both planned and unplanned -- it is the result of years of skill development, discipline, and preparation -- and the precise way it unfolds in the flow of the game cannot be linearly predicted, planned, and directed.
“Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos) gets this. He realizes the worst thing you can do, in an organizational context, is constrain people by micromanaging their activities. In the same way a soccer manager would look ridiculous by attempting to control the game from the sidelines -- his work is largely done by the time the game starts, and the rest is up to the players -- a business CEO must know what shared structures, and what individual freedoms, are essential.
“At Zappos, this structure comes from the company's core values -- all 10 of which guide and inform every aspect of the company, from hiring to evaluations to interactions with customers. Because of this clarity, employees are largely free to determine how their day unfolds -- and the company's call-center employees don't operate off scripts; they are trusted to represent the Zappos way in a fashion that also incorporates their own unique voice and method of self-expression.
“Why is such simple, powerful wisdom so absent from our current conversations about public education? Why are we so afraid to acknowledge that the learning process is, like a soccer match, more dependent on simple structures, improvisation, and freedom than it is on complex structures, standardization, and fear? And why do we think the best way to improve school cultures is by incentivizing behavior with financial rewards, when scores of leading voices in the business world know that such a strategy is fool's gold?
“I don't know if President Obama is watching the World Cup. But if he is I wish he would heed some simple advice: when it comes to improving our schools, abandon the command-and-control mentality of the past, invest in freedom, not fear - and just go with the flow.”

The “command-and-control mentality” Chaltain laments remains an overwhelming feature of our schools, public, private and charter.  I recently watched a video clip from a charter school’s website.  It is a proud demonstration of the school’s “culture”.  The teacher is shown at the front of the room training kids in how to pass out and pass back papers.  You can see adult observers sitting at the back of the room watching how smoothly this is all being accomplished.  It is a horror, unless you admire efficiency in paper passing, which will doubtless make these students efficient and compliant paper passers later in life.  If paper passing is so important, at the very least let the kids try to devise a system. This school may close the “achievement gap” as it intends, though I doubt it.  I fear it will only create or sustain an “initiative gap”, training them, not teaching them for work where such compliance is valued.  Where one gets a job as a paper passer I do not know.  

Back to soccer.  Critics of our national team ask where is the individual flair that characterizes a powerhouse like Brazil, for example. The answer may be that nearly all children in this country play the game in organized, structured leagues.  No kid ever organized those leagues.  From age five forward soccer moms drive kids to regular soccer practice so they can be ready for their adult managed game on the weekend.  You don’t find the pickup games, kids playing by themselves, little kids fighting their way to play with and against big kids, makeshift games with no adults around. Among other things, soccer involves endless experiments and calculations about time and space.  In this country there is far too little play at soccer to discover and learn from failure and repetition.  Though well meaning, there is too much adult directed practice, practice which shortcuts discovery and subtlety or not so subtlety leads toward player compliance.  Practice “tested” by games in leagues with scores, standings, and measurable results.  Kids don’t get to develop through hours and hours of pure play at soccer, taking delight in the trickery and skills they learn, building confidence in their ability and a desire to assert themselves individually in the course of a game. Even the “beautiful game” is not immune from the “command and control” virus.  Soccer in this country, like schools and businesses, has to find its way beyond compliance dictated by extrinsic forces and allow extrinsic commitment to come to the fore. 

This is not just a problem with soccer here in the United States.  Europeans are questioning how the over-managed development of youth players inhibits the individual style and imagination that contributes to the beauty of the game.  Nor is this a problem akin to just soccer in this country.  We can find Little League champions from around the world on network television in late August.  You have to look harder to find pickup baseball games in parks and sandlots, places where kids play for the sheer fun of it.  I recently heard radio announcers conjecture that the reason the NFL players have never been able to go on strike successfully is because they’ve spent their lives in a sport that is so hierarchical in nature, so dependent upon submitting to the will of authoritarian figures, that the players cannot muster the necessary independent collective will to negotiate successfully on their own behalf. They don’t know how to operate outside an imposed structure.  Our youth sports world suffers in the same way our schools do, from adults who don’t know how to step back, or refuse to step back.  Winning games now, today, becomes more important than player development.

True, commentators used “pace”, “rhythm” and “flow” to describe the games this summer.  At least in terms of the U.S. team, if one listened and read carefully, you could also discern the word “test”.  Could the U.S. pass the test of getting to or through the next round?  Talented teams would surely test our defense.  The development of the game in this country was being given a “litmus test” in the World Cup.  Unfortunately we “failed” our last test against Ghana.                

Chaltain’s questions remain paramount.  How do we go about creating school environments, business environments, play environments based upon freedom, not fear?  Why do adults fear creating such environments?  Does everything we do have to be tested?  Do we have to reform our schools with a race?  How about a process?  How about balance?  We don’t need to take over and teach the game to our children.  We need to let them play more on their own and discover for themselves the inherent beauty it offers.