Speaking in Clichés

People involved in business and other institutions often communicate in clichés. Insider words and phrases commonly used but vaguely understood, even less so by those on the outside.

Education certainly has it’s share, with many of them borrowed from other organizations. Like many of those in a post titled 17 Development Clichés I’ll Be Avoiding in 2017.

Empowerment – We want to empower teachers, students, girls, parents, principals, and who? But empowered to do what? However you define it, “empowerment isn’t like a light switch; it’s a long and messy process, and it certainly won’t be completed in a workshop”.

Capacity building – The World Health Organization says this is “the development and strengthening of human and institutional resources”, whatever that is. Ask the next person using the phrase if this is what they mean.

Global citizen – In their “Portrait of a Graduate” document, our local school board says every student needs to be one of these. They aren’t very clear on what it means to be a global citizen, or how their emphasis on a testing culture will make it happen.

Do good and do well – I had a principal who frequently used this phrase, and it, or variations, seem to pop up regularly in talks and writings on educational reform. Still don’t know why.

Liaising with key local stakeholders – And various other phrases incorporating the word “stakeholders”. Although, as much as the term is used in education, we rarely seem to include the most important “stakeholders” in the process – students.

Silver bullet – There’s no such thing, and no one should ever ask if whatever it is we’re talking about is a “silver bullet”. The answer is always no.

The writer also includes the phrase “on the ground”. Educational speakers seem to love something similar – in the trenches. Like the classroom is a battlefield and teaching an act of war. Definitely a cliché to be avoided.

So, how many of these clichés are commonly used in your school and district? How many have any real meaning? Is it possible to drop most of all of them from our conversation, in favor of words that have more meaning?

Who Is This Reform For?

Ask school “reform” advocates why, and they will eventually arrive at something like “we’re doing this for the kids”. It may come after the economic and geo-political reasoning but “the children” will be there somewhere.

However, I wonder if most school reform proposals are more about adults than the kids.

Too many adults view learning, at least at the K12 level, in very narrow terms. They have a vision of school that is firmly rooted in the classrooms they sat in twenty, thirty, forty years ago and they expect to see largely the same when they enter one today. Maybe a few computers or other technology, but the same curriculum and pedagogy that was good enough for them.

Charter schools, for example, rarely deviate far from the standard teacher-directed model of our memories. Some will add more of it in terms of an extended school day or Saturdays. But more is better, right? Plenty of practice is all that is needed to learn something. Just ignore the graft and corruption of public monies going on in the business office.

We certainly don’t want to change the century-old standard curriculum. Small shifts in the topics studied are ok but few reform proposals address whether the traditional subject silos – English, math, science, social studies, maybe “foreign” languages, art, PE – need to be modified. Or whether the walls between them need to be completely torn away and drastically re-thought for this “information” age.

Programmed/individualized learning? Standardized testing? We automate the production line and run regular quality control assessments to provide a more consistent product. Similar technology should work with school. Just ignore the fact that the “product” here are kids, and learning is a very personal, inconsistent, and messy process.

Merit pay, vouchers, value-add evaluation. Competition is good for business, many reformers know business very well, schools should be run like businesses, therefore all of these reforms that encourage “competition” must be good.

Don’t bother asking anyone with current teaching experience about all this. We need to standardize teachers as much as we do their instruction.

In addition to professional educators, there’s another important voice – the most important voice – completely missing from the school reform discussion: students. Current students, recent graduates, and especially kids for whom the formal school system didn’t work for one reason or another. We never ask them about how the experience could be change and then actually listen to them (as Will did recently).

As a result, changes to our education system are driven by adults, often ones in positions of privilege with little to no education experience beyond sitting in classrooms for decades, who know that learning in the real world is nothing like the structures and content they are proposing.

But they start with an assumption that the traditional school format through which they passed must be the correct one for kids twenty, thirty, forty years later. The familiar learning process from their childhood must the correct one for them as well.

So, tell me again, who is this reform for?

Football Fantasy

What place should football have in high school?

According to a column in District Administrator, those programs could be a great source of income for districts. From ticket sales to advertising and sponsorships, there’s a lot of money to be made. Oh yeah, and… “they are a source of pride and promotional value for a region, and an important resource that can be used for school and community activities”. But mostly the money.

The writer of this post continues to explain that profits will come only if districts are willing to make some big investments in infrastructure. Like the $60 million stadium, complete with “state-of-the art video scoreboard”, built for one Texas high school. Or the 12,000 seat stadium to be shared by three high schools in a nearby Texas district. Or a “$62 million facility with 12,000 seats that will be used by seven high schools”. Also Texas. See a pattern here?

By the way, the fact that the primary examples in the article promoting high school stadiums are in Texas simply exemplifies that state’s traditional obsession with high school football. If you’d like a better understanding of that infatuation, I highly recommend the book “Friday Night Lights”, which forms the foundation for the movie and TV series of the same name but, in my opinion, is better than either.

Anyway, outside of Texas, he finds a few more, slighly less lavish examples of schools building new facilities for their teams and collecting large fees for naming rights, plus selling advertising and “promotional opportunities” to local businesses. Even income from television rights for high school games he says is a “revenue option”.

And that’s enough of this incredibly stupid idea: that high schools should be putting large amounts of money into, not to mention even more emphasis, on their sports programs. As a professor of sports management who literally wrote a book on the subject notes in the article, “Only a very few, highly successful football programs with large seating capacities and proactive corporate partnership arrangements could even come close to paying for themselves.”

Which mirrors college athletics in which more than half the programs in the “power five” conferences lost money in 2014, despite a decade of increasing “investment” at those schools. But that’s just the most visible part of the issue.

For the vast majority of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in America, athletic departments should lose money. Their football and basketball teams don’t appear on national television, apparel companies don’t pay them millions for endorsement deals and they don’t have stadiums and arenas generating millions in ticket revenue.

So, district administrators should take a lousy business model, one that largely serves as no-cost-to-them farm teams for professional athletics and benefits relatively few students, and push it down into high school.

Where budgets are already lacking for actual academic programs. And where, for many schools, football already sucks up excessive time and resources, while also benefitting very few students and producing major distractions for the rest.

Coding for Everyone (Who Wants It)

Just one last ISTE conference-related post for this season. Promise.

So, coding was also a big topic again this year. After proclamations from the president and corporporate leaders that all students should take computer programming classes, and lots of edtech vendors jumping on the bandwagon, how could it not be?

But the most rational statement on the matter came from Hadi Partovi, co-founder of Hour of Code, the program responsible for jump starting the everybody-must-code movement. At the pre-show for the Tuesday morning keynote he disagreed with that idea, telling the audience flat out that no, every students does not need to learn to code. But every school should offer computer science.

Partovi didn’t have much time to elaborate (in typical talk show format, the next guest was waiting in the wings) and his point was quickly overshadowed a minute or so later by the R2D2 robot he rolled on stage, accompanied by an announcement it would be available for selfies. Shiny objects.

However, that difference between requirement and opportunity needs more emphasis.

Kids certainly need to understand the concepts of programming, the logic behind the computing devices, visible and not, they use everyday. That needs to be a fundamental part of the basic course of study, replacing the rote processing and endless repetition in the K12 curriculum we call “math”.

The computer science classes need to be available for those kids who want to go further. Not to prepare them for one of the umpteen thousands of jobs the industry claims will go unfilled, but because the student chooses to explore an area of study that interests them.

Once again, coding should be one part of every child’s total school experience. An experience that offers them the broadest possible spectrum of what’s available in the world, and helps them make informed choices.

Wasted Spaces

When I go to ISTE, I’m mostly looking for interesting and new-to-me ideas for using technology to enhance learning. For adults as well as kids. While you can do much of that inquiry online, there is something about being immersed live in the community that cannot be duplicated digitally.

At the same time I also make it a point to attend sessions by a small group of the same presenters, even if I pretty much know what they’re going to say. Because I also know they are people who will inspire me and jumpstart my thinking in unique ways. One of those people is Will Richardson.

During his ISTE talk, Will compared the very trendy concept of makers spaces with computer labs, saying that schools need a maker culture, not spaces. It was almost a throwaway line, a relatively small point in his talk but also one that got stuck in my warped little mind.

Wiil’s view of maker spaces as the new computer lab1 perfectly encapsulates the uneasy, slightly negative feelings I’ve had towards the maker space concept, as the chatter and activity around it has has grown over the past four or five years.

It’s not that I disapprove of the idea of kids as makers. I love it. That’s exactly what school should be. But that’s not how the concept is applied in most schools.

As happened with computing devices, someone’s idea of a “maker space” is set up in a corner of the library, stored in a vacant room, or assembled in a cart rolled between classrooms. With students performing pre-planned activities for a fixed period of time, before returning to their “real” work.

In most schools I’ve observed, maker space is a pull out program for students that we know will pass the spring tests. A reward for completing that real work. An option for kids before or after school, or during lunch. An elective for students with space in their schedule.

Maker space is usually whatever the local advocate says it is. I’m interested in robots, so we buy robot kits. The dollar store had a sale on Popsicle sticks, so we construct towers. The principal bought a 3D printer, so we better use it. (Until the filament runs out and we can’t afford to buy more.)

I’ve seen all of this in schools and more.

A school with a maker culture, however, is one in which students are encouraged to explore all aspects of “maker” that interest them. Music, writing, science, video, coding, drawing, cooking, and many, many more topics that may not even occur to adults who think of “school” in very traditional ways. Auto shop, wood shop, metal shop were maker spaces when I was a kid, all of which have largely been removed from schools in this area.

Once upon a time, all of this was part of a liberal education. Providing kids the opportunity to explore a wide variety of subjects during their K12 years. Making them aware of their options. Preparing them for life, not just for college. I know, it’s an ideal view of school. One that in the real world America of my youth was never perfectly implemented.

That’s exactly what a school built around a maker culture would be. Rather than being a reconfigured computer lab.