The Messages We Send

This past weekend I attended and presented at a conference, hosted in a high school. Entering through the front door of the school, this large banner was one of the first things anyone would see.

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I certainly understand why a school staff would be happy, even proud, about receiving their state accreditation, especially if they had failed multiple times in the past.1 And this is not intended to be a slam on them.

However, is that the message they want to communicate to the school community? Is that really the most important characteristic of this school? A distinction for which the school administration felt compelled to purchase a large banner and display it in a prominent place for all to see?

I wonder what would have been on that banner if it was created by the staff instead. More importantly, what would it say if you asked students to design a banner communicating the most important attribute of the school?

Navigating the largely administrative, and somewhat political, processes behind the accreditation process is very important to school and district administrators.

I doubt many other members of the community understands that process, or would ever list it as one of the top aspects of a successful school.

The Usefulness of Math

Catching up on items in my Instapaper queue we find a writer who says we should stop trying to sell math for it’s usefulness.2

One of the fall outs of children not understanding mathematics and the associated failure which often follows at some point in their 500 hour tour of the salt mines of mathematics?—?aka math education?—?is that teachers, through no fault of their own, start to sell/hawk mathematics like its some discontinued K-Tel kitchen product at a Saturday Flea Market.

Kids struggle with the number and symbolic manipulation we present as math for a variety of reasons, but the lack of context that necessitates that selling process is probably right up there. They are not dumb. Students understand that adults sometimes do use some math in their lives. But they also realize that there is likely an app for that.

Dozens of calculators to do the basic work, laser pointers that measure more accurately than a simple ruler, even software to produce each step of a process just as the teacher asked for. There may be a lot of trig involved with kite flying but learning from the mistakes of throwing it into the wind is more fun.

However, marketing math based on “its sometimes messy and intricate fun” and the intrinsic mystery of “symmetrical curvature” is also a dead end. And it won’t be especially beneficial to students in the long run.

Certainly playing with math can be both entertaining and lead to interesting discoveries. But even traveling that path, we will still arrive at the inevitable question: “when are we ever going use this?”, not to mention “is this going to be on the test?”.

I think there’s a middle ground between trying to sell kids on the need for our current formal mathematics program, most of which they will never use, and encouraging students to embrace the beauty and poetry of math.

How about using math to solve actual problems, other than those in books with mathematical titles? Like validating a survey in social studies. Gathering and analyzing data in science. Applying Geometric patterns to make art.

Maybe it’s time to eliminate the subject area silo called “mathematics” altogether in K12 (except for those few students in high school interested in that field), and instead incorporate those tools into the overall problem solving process. It would be a wonderful first step to tearing down all the artificial walls between subject areas.

I’m pretty sure someone can tell me why this is idea is impractical, unrealistic, or just plain looney. But there’s got to be something between “useful” math that really isn’t and “beautiful” math that few can appreciate (or even want to).

CS Is Not The Solution

Despite being “someone who’s been making software and Internet technologies for 20 years”, tech pioneer Anil Dash is “skeptical about ‘teach the kids to code!’ as a panacea for all of society’s ills”. Me too, and he does a great job of making the point.

To start with the obvious elephant in the room, many of the people advocating for these programs aren’t particularly knowledgeable about technology, or the economics of today’s tech startups, in the first place. (Most people making policy haven’t yet realized that there is no “technology industry”.) And most of the technologists advocating for these programs aren’t particularly literate in how today’s educational systems work, or what constraints they face.

Most of those policy makers also don’t have a clear idea of what students need to learn and be able to do before they move into the real world. Their concept of “school” is usually firmly rooted in the 1950’s, with their favorite “solution” – charter schools, STEM, standardized testing, coding, and more – grafted onto the standard framework.

Anyway, in the case of coding for all, advocates often make an economic claim, one that says American companies will be desperate for new workers to write software, with the numbers often in the hundreds of thousands. But even if all those vacancies come to pass, Dash says turning schools over to code training is not in the best interest of society.

If the effort to educate many more programmers succeeds, simple math tells us that a massive increase in the number of people qualified to work on technology would only drive down today’s high wages and outrageously generous benefits. (Say goodbye to the free massages!)

And at a more philosophical level, a proper public education, paid for by taxpayers, shouldn’t be oriented toward simply providing workers for a group of some of the wealthiest, most powerful companies to have ever existed.

However, Dash does believe that every students does need a basic understanding of technology literacy and computer science, saying that these concept, woven throughout the curriculum could be “a powerful way to empower the most marginalized, most needy people in society”.

Rather than turning every school into coding academies, he wants us to commit to some broad principles about how we teach computer science, including teaching computational thinking which includes an understanding of how “human concerns are translated into problems that computers can help solve”.

As we commit to broadly teaching technology, we must do a better job of addressing all of the personal, social, cultural, and civic concerns that arise with technology’s transformation of our society. Teaching CS as simply a way of filling a pipeline of employees for giant high-tech companies is not enough. Indeed, if that’s all we succeed in doing, we’ll have failed. But if we can show a whole generation of young people that technology and computer science can be one of the tools they use to pursue their passions, and amplify their impact on the world, we’ll have made a worthy addition to the canon of material that students use as a basis for their life’s work.

As someone who has studied computer science and taught programming classes, Dash’s ideas sounds a whole lot better than what is in most of the “computer science for all” proposals I’ve read.

Failure is Not a Good Thing

You would think that most educators would understand that simple idea.

But how often in the past few years have we heard someone discuss failure and students? We must teach students how to fail they tell us. Failure is essential to learning. Some even adapt a philosophy for success from Silicon Valley: fail fast, fail often.

Beyond the fact that schools are almost the last places where failure is accepted or even encouraged, I’ve always been bothered by the whole idea. And this short post (directed at those Silicon Valley types, not educators) is a great expression of why.

This advice has been taken too far and confused the word ‘mistake’ with ‘failure’. A mistake is touching the hot stove and burning your hand. A failure is setting yourself on fire and dying when you touched the stove. One of those two you learn from, the other kills you.

The advice feels like it came from a good place, but it’s been horribly twisted since. You should be confident in what you do, but know that failure can still happen — and failure is not good. That’s how you avoid failure itself — by seeing it as possible, and correcting mistakes which can lead to failure along the way, not the next time around.

Students don’t need to learn “how to fail”. They need to understand how to make lots of mid-course corrections to avoid failing in the first place.

What School Should Be

In a great TEDx talk, Will Richardson gets at the heart of what school is and what it should be. Take 16 minutes to watch the whole thing2, but if you don’t have time (or YouTube is blocked in your school), this slide is a pretty good summary of the differences.

Those terms on the left side, or variations on those themes, have been included in speeches, reports and white papers from any number of education “reformers” since at least the turn of the century.

For the most part the list on the right side represents classrooms from the turn of the previous century. And is still what you’ll observe in almost every American school – public, private, charter – here in the 21st century.