Where It All Started

I am a big fan of the writing of Neil Postman. His 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co-authored with Charles Weingartner) was a major influence early in my teaching career and the concepts he discussed in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1988) only seem to get more real and frightening thirty years later.

In a recent post, Larry Cuban reprinted a talk Postman gave in 1998 titled Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change, based on his “thirty years of studying the history of technological change”. It’s full of sharp ideas and well worth your time to read. But this observation of American education seems especially prescient.

Who, we may ask, has had the greatest impact on American education in this century? If you are thinking of John Dewey or any other education philosopher, I must say you are quite wrong. The greatest impact has been made by quiet men in grey suits in a suburb of New York City called Princeton, New Jersey. There, they developed and promoted the technology known as the standardized test, such as IQ tests, the SATs and the GREs. Their tests redefined what we mean by learning, and have resulted in our reorganizing the curriculum to accommodate the tests. [emphasis mine]

Remember, this predates the glorification of standardized testing that was No Child Left Behind, although it was about the same period in which the Texas education “miracle” of George W. Bush and his first education secretary Rod Paige (then Houston superintendent), the godfather of NCLB, was taking shape.

Postman follows that accurate assessment of where our current educational system was born with this equally accurate assessment on the birthplace of 21st century American politics.

A second example concerns our politics. It is clear by now that the people who have had the most radical effect on American politics in our time are not political ideologues or student protesters with long hair and copies of Karl Marx under their arms. The radicals who have changed the nature of politics in America are entrepreneurs in dark suits and grey ties who manage the large television industry in America. They did not mean to turn political discourse into a form of entertainment. They did not mean to make it impossible for an overweight person to run for high political office. They did not mean to reduce political campaigning to a 30-second TV commercial. All they were trying to do is to make television into a vast and unsleeping money machine. That they destroyed substantive political discourse in the process does not concern them. [emphasis mine]

A one-paragraph explanation of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Learning to be Original

In an interesting New York Times piece, Adam Grant, author of a new book called “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World”, suggests that step one in raising a creative child is to back off. Encourage them to persue their passions, rather than those defined for them by someone else.

Grant begins by observing that child prodigies rarely grow up to do things that change the world. One example he offers is that very few of the gifted student stars of the top science competitions ever shine as adults. And he says the reason for that is that these kids never “learn to be original”.

The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own.

Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success – but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.

All of which should give us something to think about the next time someone says we need to “teach” kids to be creative. Instead of a curriculum that tries to prescribe everything about learning for them, maybe we should spend more school time helping children build on their native creativity.

School 2.0

As a kid I was never good at book reports in English class. I’d rather discuss the work with others who had read it than produce 500 words about it. Although my writing has improved over time, I’m still not much better at book reviews as an adult (certainly not with as much reach in this field as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg).

So I’m probably breaking a few rules of the genre by saying right up front in this post that anyone who calls themselves an educator should read the new book by Chris Lehmann and Zac Chase, “Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need“. Better yet, give a copy to your principal, superintendent, school board member, and especially to anyone who fancies themselves an education reform “expert”.

The book is laid out as a collection of 95 essays, mirroring the 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in 1517, setting off the Protestant reformation. I’m pretty sure Chris and Zac don’t view their work with quite the same historical heft as Luther’s, but the format makes reading it fun and very accessible.

I have become very poor at reading books or other text in the traditional linear design (probably due to the nature of working on the web) and School 2.0 isn’t laid out in that format. The authors allow, almost encourage, the reader to jump around hitting the “chapters” in the order of their choosing. Which is especially nice in the ebook with a hyperlinked table of contents.

Even better, however, is that the Chris and Zac didn’t intend for people to just read the book. Each of their essays includes a few leading questions and suggestions for extending the ideas through conversations with your colleagues, students, administrators, or parents. This book is more of a professional development tool than a solitary reading experience. A work intended to generate rich discussions around the questions of what school should be and how do we get there. Maybe even to affect change.

Anyway, go get a copy, open it to any page and begin exploring. No matter where you land you’ll find wonderful ideas for creating the kind of schools our kids deserve.

To finish this possibly lame attempt at a book review, here are a couple of my favorite thoughts on the topic of instructional technology.

Technology is and must be a transformative element in our schools. Fundamentally, it changes the equation of why we come to school. Whereas previously, we came to school because the teacher was there, now we come to school because we are all there together. Technology can allow us to embrace a more finely honed sense of community in our schools.

Anything short of a vision of educational technology use that allows students and teachers to inquire more deeply, research more broadly, connect more intensely, share more widely, and create more powerfully, sells short the power of these tools – and more importantly, sells short the promise of learning and of school for our students.

Many more great discussion starters where those came from.

Don’t Fool Yourself

Interesting post from a designer who has worked at some pretty high profile companies (currently at BuzzFeed), who observes that there’s no such thing as the perfect company.

What I finally realized (and what has helped me change my approach) is that every company, no matter the size or type or work or team, has issues. And, much of the time, those issues aren’t even unique to the company, just slightly different flavors.

And offers this advice.

Whatever you do, do not join a company that values something you don’t believe in. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can change it, or that you can adjust to it. It’s going to suck.

For educators, substitute “school” or “district” for “company” in both quotes. His observations certainly apply to all the educational organizations I’ve ever been associated with.

Teachers, principals, education specialists – whatever your title – need to find the right fit for what they do, a school that matches their values and philosophy, just as much as designers and others working in the “real” world.

And remember, the larger the bureaucracy, the harder it is to change. Or adjust to.

Urgent Doesn’t Mean Important

In a recent post on his daily blog, Seth Godin deconstructs urgent vs. important, and makes a great point about our current news media.

In fact, breaking news of any kind is rarely important.

Important means: long-term, foundational, coherent, in the interest of many, strategic, efficient, positive…

If you take care of important things, the urgent things don’t show up as often. The opposite is never true.

Let’s start with this: The purpose of CNN’s BREAKING NEWS posture (caps intentional) isn’t to create a better-informed citizenry. It’s to make money.

If understanding current events is important, skip the manufactured urgency of cable TV.