We Still Need Subversive Teachers

Froggy Reader

Being in mostly quarantine over the past five months has provided a lot of opportunity to catch up on reading. And to pull a few older books off the shelves for a second pass.

One work that I just finished again, and have returned to every few years since I first read it in graduate school, is Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

A few pieces of the book are very dated, reflecting the late 60’s era in which it was written. However, large sections are still far too relevant fifty plus years later.

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Still Waiting on the Revolution

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While cleaning out some boxes recently, I ran across a book about educational technology that I first read almost twenty years ago, early in my time working with tech coaches to help teachers integrate computers in their classrooms.

In the book, “Oversold and Underused”, the author observed that teachers were not making effective use of all the new technology that was flooding into schools, and that most of the applications simply reproduced traditional practices. It certainly rang a bell with what I was seeing.

Flash forward to now, has anything changed?

Not really.

Schools have greatly increased spending on devices, software, and network connections in the past twenty years. But we still are not making meaningful use of all that stuff. And we seem to be trying harder than ever to wedge technology into a traditional classroom model.

Of course, the big difference from twenty years ago is that many, if not most, of our students are carrying powerful networking devices in their pockets. Devices they use to communicate, create, and learn. Acquiring knowledge and learning skills in which they are interested, but likely unrelated to the curriculum required in their formal schooling.

Beginning well before the beginning of this century, we were told that computers would revolutionize education. The technology is undoubtedly here, but we’re still waiting for the educational revolution.

Are Screens Really “Bad” For Kids?

Kids are spending too much time with digital screens.

At least they are according to some high profile studies, scary media stories about a tech backlash among “technologists” themselves, and many, many surveys of parents and teachers.

But what if they’re wrong?

In an interesting new book, “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World”, Jordan Shapiro, a professor of philosophy and senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, argues that kids interacting with screens is just all part of growing up in a new age.

Shapiro draws on his understanding of history and centuries of philosophical thought to say that kids who spend hours engaged with devices are simply learning about and adapting to the world around them. It seems different from parents came of age but really is not.

Grown-ups are disoriented because, at first glance, today’s screen media seem personal and private. When kids are watching YouTube videos or playing video games, it feels like the devices are pulling them away from the family and into a cocoon. But also, in a paradoxical twist, the screens function like portals that transport kids out of the house, beyond the perfect picket fence, and into a vast public dystopian virtual reality. Hence, parents are confused. They don’t know whether their kids are too detached or too exposed. All they know for sure is that traditional home life feels out of order; things aren’t neat and organized.

This anxiety is understandable. But remember that new technologies will always beget new routines. Your job as a parent is not to stop unfamiliar tools from disrupting your nostalgic image of the ideal childhood, nor to preserve the impeccable tidiness of the Victorian era’s home/work split. Instead, it’s to prepare your kids to live an ethical, meaningful, and fulfilled life in an ever – changing world.

Shapiro is not saying that parents (and teachers) should just hand devices to the kids and walk away. Instead he offers some historical context of family life when dealing with other technologies and makes the case that parents can still guide their children without heavy-handed restrictions.

He simply wants parents to take a closer look at what is going on when kids are interacting with those screens and guide them in their use of devices, video games, social media, and the rest of the digital world. “Just say no” doesn’t work here either.

This is just a small part of what Shapiro discusses in the book, and you may very well disagree with some of his conclusions. However, his thoughts on the matter are something every adult who interacts with children should read and consider.

My Head Hurts

Today I received an ad for a new book titled “How to Teach So Students Remember”. I get lots of similar promotions but there was something about this one that caught my eye. And made my head hurt.

The first line of the description of the publications makes this declaration:

Ensuring that the knowledge teachers impart is appropriately stored in the brain and easily retrieved when necessary is a vital component of instruction.

The copy goes on to promise that the author will provided you with “a proven, research-based, easy-to-follow framework for doing just that”.

There is just so much wrong with everything in the space of one small email, it’s hard to know where to start.

How about the apparent core idea that the goal of good teaching is to have students “remember” all that we “impart” to them? Reflecting the traditional role of the teacher as someone who transfers information in carefully measured clumps from their tightly managed repository to the vessels sitting in the classroom.

And, in the same sentence, is the implication that success is derived from knowledge being “appropriately stored in the brain” and “easily retrieved when necessary”. I can only assume that the most important “necessary” time is the spring standardized tests.

Ok, all that snark is only based on a couple of paragraphs in an email. I haven’t read the actual book, although I did read through the first chapter posted on the web. And just that part certainly lives up to the promotion. Research-based pedagogy right out of a 50’s-era manual for running a traditional teacher-directed classroom.

I just couldn’t believe this is being peddled as a guide for modern teaching by one of the largest professional organizations for educators, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum (ASCD).


An image similar to the one at the top just stuck in my head from the minute I read the ad copy. The picture, taken in 1943, is of a classroom in a UK Catholic school and is used under license from the Wikimedia Commons

Beware the Algorithm

Cathy O’Neil is the author of a great book with the wonderfully provocative title, Weapons of Math Destruction. But it’s not hyperbole. In it she clearly and compellingly explains how algorithms, fueled by big data, are being used everyday to make decisions about important points in our lives. This includes whether or not we qualify for a loan, get a job, or go to prison.

Or create the “value add” rating a teacher receives, the one that mixes student test scores with data other points to determine if they keep their job.

The companies who sell those evaluation systems want us to believe that their mathematics is completely objective and a neutral judge of people. O’Neil, however, presents a variety of examples, starting with the teacher evaluation programs sold by Pearson and others, to explain why that’s just not true. She explains how the data used to build the algorithms usually comes with biases based on how and why it was collected. And additional bias is built into the systems by the people who ultimately decide what the resulting numbers mean.

While I highly recommend reading the book, you can get the TL;DR version of O’Neil’s warning in her TED talk from last spring, recently posted to their site and embedded below.