It’s Closing Time

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This sign is in front of a local elementary school. The end of the academic year is June 15.

Which means the library is basically closed for the last two weeks of school.

Unless things have changed drastically in the two or so years since I left the overly-large school district, almost every student computer in the school has been used for testing this month. And the IT tech support people will likely begin collecting them for summer storage around the same time the library wants it’s books back.

Which means technology will largely also unavailable for instruction during the final six weeks of school.

Of course, there are plenty of other activities that don’t require computers or library books going on during the final two weeks of the school year.

But I wonder how much more learning would be possible if we didn’t “open” and “close” schools each year. If we treated learning as a continuous, open-ended process, rather than something with a fixed start and end.

Just a thought.

I’ve ranted about the waste, intellectual and monetary, inherent in the traditional academic calendar many times in this space. Feel free to let me know just how wrong I am.

Misdirected Metaphor

Explorer

Lots of tech startups like to explain in their pitch deck how they would be the “Netflix of x”, the “Amazon of y”, or the “Uber of z”.1 Edtech startups are no different.

However, when it comes to edtech, Michael B. Horn, a futurist who a few months ago was declaring that voice-activated devices like Alexa would be “the next technology that could disrupt the classroom”, spotlights a company that is using a more unexpected metaphor. 

The founder of Gooru “makes the argument that what education needs is really a Google Maps for education”. Of course, it’s all about “personalized” learning.

What he means by that is services that starts by “locating the learner,” or understanding the position of a learner relative to her learning goal before suggesting the best pathway to help that learner achieve that goal. Such tools must also accommodate a variety of other pathways depending on the actions and needs of the learner—just as Google Maps can accommodate a variety of routes to a destination once it knows where you are and dynamically change the route based on what you actually do.

Which is all very nice. Except that the Maps analogy assumes a fixed destination. One that is most likely established by someone other than the student. Based on a fixed curriculum, much of which they probably find uninteresting and irrelevant.

If you really want to relate learning to maps, maybe a better metaphor would be the classic road trip.

Layout a basic plan on the map but allow for diversions at each stop based on information from the locals, curiosity, and unexpected discoveries. Real learning can occur with a tightly designed plan. But, like a good road trip, it more often comes when you take a path that looks interesting and wasn’t on the original map.

Ok, that’s a pretty half-baked idea that likely will go nowhere. But it certainly makes more sense than the tortured Google Maps metaphor in Horn’s post.


Image: Explorer by Sakeeb Sabakka, posted to Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Well, not so much Uber anymore since they’ve acquired a rather sketchy reputation in a variety of areas.

The Wrong Question

You may remember back in March that Apple held one of their events. It was a little different from their usual shows since the focus was on K12 education, featuring new, cheaper iPads, their expensive pencil, and some software.

The usual tech and edtech channels showed up for the presentation, of course, but there were also reports on the regular news channels and even your local stations. Why? Well, because it’s Apple.1

Anyway, the announcements generated lots of chatter among educators I follow on social media. Discussions (arguments?) that largely swirled around the age-old question, what is the best device for education? iPads? Chromebooks? Mac? Windows? Chart paper and crayons (my personal favorite)?

However, that “best” question is totally wrong. It was wrong twenty years ago during the classic Mac vs. PC wars2. It’s wrong today when the selection of devices and software is far greater.

Take a careful look at the products being promoting at the Apple March event. Line them up with competing offerings from Google, Microsoft, and others. Zoom in really close. Notice, that there really isn’t much difference between any of them.

For one thing, most of that technology being sold as “educational” today is far more more about teaching than learning. About controlling devices and access (we can’t have students doing the “wrong” things). And mostly designed to replicate the traditional analog teacher-directed classroom on an electronic device.

Take for example, the Chromebook. It’s fans3 heap praise on the device because it’s cheap, easy to manage, light, great battery life. Did I mention it’s cheap?

All of that is true but above all teachers and IT departments love the Chromebook because it’s a hardware and software system specifically designed to lock down the machine so that students have few options other than following the path laid out by adults. Apple’s Classroom software, a centerpiece of their education event, offers to do the same thing with iPads.

In the same way, Apple’s coming-soon Schoolwork software is little more than a iPad variation of Google Classroom. Classroom, as just about anyone even near a school knows, enables teachers to “easily assign anything from worksheets to activities in educational apps, follow students’ progress, and collaborate with students in real time”.

Except that quote is from Apple’s press release describing Schoolwork. But tell me it doesn’t apply perfectly to Google’s Classroom.

The bottom line is that Classroom, Schoolwork, and whatever Microsoft calls their variation on the theme are not learning tools. They are entirely addressed at classroom management. They exist to distribute lessons and activities and collect the finished products. Lessons and activities that vary little from the paper versions assigned ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty years ago.

Devices from Apple and others didn’t change learning when we first started throwing them into school in the mid-80’s. They didn’t really change teaching either. Flash forward to 2018 and these shiny new products are also having little significant impact on teaching or learning.

And that’s because the basic structure of school hasn’t changed.

The curriculum – what students are expected to know and be able to do when they graduate – is largely the same as it was long before computers entered the picture. The pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching – has been stuck in the mode of teacher-directed information transfer even longer.

We have not re-thought the process known as “school” to take full advantage of the powerful technology teachers and students now have in their hands. Instead we bring in devices and software to “digitize” the familiar and comfortable.

All of which means we are asking the wrong question. Instead of debating the “best” device or class management system, we need to first look at the larger issues of what school should be. At how technology can help students gain an authentic understanding of both themselves and their world.

Next question.


The image is about eight years old but look around. It won’t be hard to find a classroom with lots of laptops (or Chromebooks) and kids working in Google Classroom. 

1. The company still retains some of that Reality Distortion Field, leftover as part of the Steve Jobs legacy. Regardless of the topic, Apple has always done an astounding job of turning their marketing announcements into national news.

2. Spoiler alert: the Mac “lost”. Of course, Apple then went on to become one of the most profitable companies that has ever existed. And the technology that “won” the wars completely failed to “revolutionize” schools. But the Mac likely wouldn’t have done that either.

3. I’ll probably get a lot of hate tweets for this, but in my experience, Chromebook fans are almost as fanatical as those accused of being Apple fan boys.

Photo Post – M.C. Escher Edition

A couple of weeks ago, I had a unique opportunity to view some of the works by artist and mathematician M.C. Escher at the National Gallery of Art. These pieces are currently not on display at the museum and our viewing was in a small group with no glass in the way.

It was a real geeky session for me and the other the math teachers in the group, even if we only got about 30 minutes. Below are a few photos of the pieces, with the rest (plus a couple of shots from elsewhere in the East building) in this gallery. 

Lineup 2

Part of the collection we were allowed to view up close and without glass. I’m sure the curators were a little nervous but no one in our group messed up anything.

Ascending and Descending

A close up of a section of one of M. C. Escher’s most recognizable works, an amazingly detailed lithograph called Ascending and Descending.

Devils and Angels

Later in his career, Escher also worked in three dimensions. In this piece, he duplicates on a sphere his original two-dimensional tessellation showing angels interspersed with devils.

Hand with Reflecting Sphere

One of several self-portraits by Escher, this one with the artist reflected in a mirrored ball.

You Don’t Need Math

Add maths

A math major who turned out to be not very good as a mathematician, looks back at his studies and nevertheless finds some lessons he learned that have “nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with life”. He offers some nuggets in this essay that will apply regardless of the subjects you studied.

1. I expect to not get the answer on the first try.

It might sound pessimistic, but I think it’s pragmatic. I was rarely discouraged, because I never expected a quick win. And if I was correct on the first stab, I was pleasantly surprised. I became well-rehearsed in failed attempts, and so much more patient as a result.

I learned that lesson very early in my mathematical studies and it was one I tried to convey to my students when I started teaching.

Accepting that things don’t always work right the first time leads directly to this.

2. I can tolerate ungodly amounts of frustration.

Writer’s block has nothing on a tough math problem, and I’ve suffered through both. Writer’s block usually boils down to you thinking you’re not good enough. With math, it feels like the universe is mocking your ineptitude.

Of course math concepts can be frustrating. But there are plenty of other fields, like writing, that have their own unique stumbling blocks. Plenty of other endeavors, academic and not, have mocked my ineptitude over my life.

But frustration is not fun for anyone. Which leads into his third lesson learned.

3. I attack problems from multiple angles

Studying math was like maintaining a toolbox. Each time I learned something new, into the big red box that newfound knowledge went. Who knew when it would be useful? Long-buried methods could be just the socket wrench I needed later on.

Again, any field of study has it’s own set of tools. And any problem worth solving requires looking at the issues from different points of view. People who are successful at anything have assembled their tools and have learned how to try different ones when confronted with a new problem.

Again, an approach we need to be teaching our students, regardless of the subject on the syllabus.

The former mathematician has a few other lessons and more to say if you care to read the whole essay. But this for me is the bottom line:

Six years into my career, I can say that being comfortable with numbers and data has been useful, but what has proved invaluable are the qualities that math imbued in me?—?patience, attention to detail, humility and persistence. That was the true reward.

So, should every student take a rigorous program of mathematics in order to gain these qualities? Of course not.

Learning to write, mastering the French horn, creating the sound design for a play, repairing an automobile, all have answers that elude solution on the first try, create frustration, and require multiple approaches to succeed.

With the right teachers, students can learn patience, attention to detail, humility, and patience by working on the skills necessary for whatever interests them.


The image Add math by Chee Meng Au Yong was posted to Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.