Saturday, March 19, 2011

Only In New York?

In a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times (, Susan Engel describes eight high school students who took responsibility for designing their own school within a school for a semester. With the advice of a guidance counselor they were able to determine what they wanted to learn, how they would go about learning it, and how they would evaluate what they had accomplished.  When studying math, for example, “They sought the help of full-time math teachers, consulted books and online sources and, whenever possible, taught one another.” I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of these students made use of Khan Academy, an excellent online resource for math.  (For more about Khan Academy go here: or here:

Engel notes, “The students in the Independent Project are remarkable but not because they are exceptionally motivated or unusually talented.  They are remarkable because they demonstrate the kinds of learning and personal growth that are possible when teenagers feel ownership of their high school experience, when they learn together.  In such a setting, school capitalizes on rather than thwarts the intensity and engagement that teenagers usually reserve for sports, protest or friendship.”

I was thinking about the Independent Project while working with some students in a New York City public high school recently.  I’d suggested students should take a look at Khan Academy.  It’s a quick and easy way to get help on any discrete math topic, factoring quadratic equations or the Quotient Rule in calculus, for example. We went to school computers, found the Khan Academy website and tried to open a lesson.  Oops.  Not in New York.  The Board of Education website blocks all those wonderful lessons.  So too, I discovered, with free courses, lessons and lectures from MIT, Stanford, and iTunes University.  If students want to use these resources and others like them, they have to do so from home, provided they have a computer with an Internet connection.  I have no idea how many other potential resources I'm not even aware of are blocked.

I understand that in a large city system there are risks involved with Internet usage.  As students already seem to know and quickly explained to me, essentially anything that involves a YouTube video will be blocked via the Board of Ed connection. However, I noticed kids engaged on other websites through the Board of Ed system.  I asked them to show me a few.  It is possible to view movie trailers on Yahoo without any problem.  I saw a girl who aspires to becoming a doctor spend quite a bit of time going from trailer to trailer.  A bright fellow who plans on a career in engineering spends lots of time following basketball on the NBA website.  If students want to download music to have something to listen to while they write an essay, easy.  They can just go to for their listening pleasure.  Finally, I asked a pair of girls if they knew of any way they could get on a social networking site via the Board of Ed connection.  In a flash they’d called up a Twitter account.

I am NOT suggesting that the Board of Ed cut off access to any of the sites I’ve just mentioned.  I do come back to Susan Engel’s statement that schools thwart the intensity and engagement teenagers are capable of.  I’m no tech guru.  Far from it.  But I have to believe there is a way for the Board of Ed to make it possible for students curious and eager to learn to have access to sites where they can learn.  Assuming, of course, that the Board believes in the value of having students take responsibility for their own learning.  Or, as Engel puts it, allowing students “to be the authors of their own education.”


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Let Kids Rule The School

Susan Engel  wrote this in the March 15 New York Times.  I'd be curious to know more about what the kids she describes did.  What books did they read?  Did any of them use Kahn Academy for math help?  We need a Part B to help spread the word, to give other kids the confidence to try to learn this way, to help educators overcome the apprehension about letting kids do something on their own.  Kudos to a school willing to empower young people.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sal Kahn & Kahn Academy

Many of my friends in education know about Sal Khan and Khan Academy.  Yet there are many more who don’t.  He’s quite an amazing guy.  I believe his work will change education in important ways, even more than it already has.  Here are links to two videos about him.  One is a recent TED talk.  The other is from a GEL conference. 

I tell kids I work with in New York City public schools about him.  His site is such an easy way to work on discrete topics at one’s own pace.  Of course, in my experience, the computers in the city schools can’t connect with his site. Kids try to connect from school but nothing happens.  They have to go home to reach his site.  We worry about test scores.  Then when something comes up that truly might help kids, can’t seem to find a way to make it available.  I don’t know if this is true citywide, but in my experience kids working through city school computers can’t utilize a terrific opportunity that provides them with autonomy and some control over their learning. Sadly, maybe that’s the point.  We’re afraid to give kids autonomy.      

But this site isn’t just for educators.  Everyone should know about this work. Help spread the word.  I would love to have this post be the most widespread of any I’ve ever put out there.  Move it along people.    

Here’s the TED piece:

Here’s the GEL piece:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Williams vs. Watson?

Watson, the supercomputer, just defeated two Jeopardy superstars. I know that Watson’s predecessors beat champion humans at chess and checkers.  What games are next?  As far as I’m concerned Watson is a one-trick-pony.  I challenge Watson at Blankety Blanks.  

Back in the mid-70’s I was a contestant on a new television game show called Blankety Blanks, hosted by Bill Cullen. I was paired with Anita Gillette against Soupy Sales and a female contestant.  Soupy and his partner won.  I left with a small Samsonite suitcase.  At its best, Watson would have done no better than I.  Even Watson can’t control chance.   The opportunity to answer a question was determined by the spin of a wheel.  The wheel never spun my way.   Soupy won for his partner.  Anita, my partner, got called on but couldn’t deliver the goods for our squad. She apologized to me as I, never having spoken a word, left the set. I resolved never to go on a show where chance played such a large part in one’s success.  Had I, or Watson for that matter, had the opportunity to play the game, we would have been trying to come up with punch lines to vaudeville style one liners.  “Where would Superman live if he lived in South Africa?”  Capetown.    “Why did the chess player keep his wife in the refrigerator?”  He didn’t want a stale mate.  “What would you call the Czech national trampoline champion?”  A bouncing check.   I have to think, if the show were still running, if chance were left out of the game, if Watson and I were to go mano a machino, that I’d win.  Maybe sometime in the future Watson will develop a fuller sense of irony, a sense of humor, a sense of play.  But for now, in these matters, Watson is, dare I say, elementary.  Alas, my tenure on Blankety Blanks was brief and Blankety Blanks’ tenure on the air wasn’t much longer, a mere ten weeks before they pulled the plug.  I doubt there is much pressure out there to deliver a Bill vs. Watson showdown on primetime anytime soon.  

Over the course of his career, Bill Cullen was the host of twenty-three different game shows.  Blankety Blanks, I’m sure, was not a highlight in that career.  How many of those shows would Watson do well on?  I concede, I can see Watson as a real champ on The Price Is Right.  And we know Watson is terrific at Jeopardy.  In what ways would some of those other shows test Watson’s flexibility and imagination?  To my mind, the real test won’t be when smarty-pants Watson learns to get all the answers right on all the shows.  That’s going to take a lot of work on Watson’s part, with some help from his handlers.  When Watson dreams up a new show, devises a new game that can even match Blankety Blanks’ ten-week run, when Watson creates something, then we can marvel.  Until then, Watson remains a Big Blue idiot savant in my book.  I’m ready to take him on.  You listening Watson?