Categorizing People

A quick note about the video I posted yesterday, watch it with critical eye. I posted it for the discussion on education, but I should have warned that it does get political.

When I watch videos like this, for example for the education content, I tend to ignore and look past all of the talk about this group and that group. I generally try to avoid discussions where people refer to “the right” or “the left” (or whatever name they use for either) because more often it seems they’re cherry-picking examples from within that group to bat imaginary heads with a caricature representation of their own design. They’re not grappling with ideas.

What often happens in discussion where talking heads use these categorizations of people is that they’ll look at the “other” side with this glossed over categorizations, then claim that the other side never gives their side the individual examination and respect that it deserves. That’s what does in fact happen in this discussion. If you’re looking for the education stuff, it’s more prominent in the first half of the video.

I really don’t know anything about the guest speaker here, but my impressions is that she approaches the issues with a more exploration attitude than the host, who naturally seems to be speaking up his audience and reinforcing his identity.

Education is for Knowledge not Values

I listened this interview about education on the way into work today, and there’s a lot to latch onto in here. The discussion provides many useful debate starters, and I found myself on either end of the spectrum for most of the opinions expressed, agreeing with a majority.

Honestly, many of the points made (especially by the host) are supported by a flimsy “things are different from when I was growing up”, and then an implied “…therefore it’s bad.” More often however, I found myself agreeing with the guest speaker. Here are a few points she touches on:

  • Kids/students/people should learn knowledge, not values from an educational system
  • Elementary schools shouldn’t teach things like good eating and sex ed
  • Grades and credentials vs learning
  • Parents need to teach kids values, and shouldn’t be stuck with teaching things like math and science to their kids
  • Kids need to be allowed to do things, challenged and given responsibility

I struggle with this last one – I want to keep my own kids little forever. But, I know I can’t.

I sometimes write on here about the school system that my daughter and son attend, I hold back a lot of my opinions though because, well it’s just not worth it to complain so much. Paraphrasing Joanna Williams in the video: in these schools parents are commonly put in the position that if they complain about (or, even, don’t comply with) value based initiatives they run the risk of making their kids stand-out on behalf of their own opinions. Unfortunately, this makes ‘voicing opinions’ not a worthwhile mindset for a parent to be in much of the time.

One thing I’ve learned, is that despite how much they insist they want to hear from parents, schools and boards of education don’t want to hear from them unless it’s on their terms.

Anyway, the other thing I did want to say about this video is that all of the comments Joanna makes about “eating right” hit so close to home. Schools are terrible at teaching kids good eating habits. Yet, for some reason, they seem so dead set on taking up this cause. It’s simply not needed. Their “healthy hunger” lunch program that features Little Caesars Pizza, Opa, Subway, and all other sorts of fast food places, isn’t needed. Their gym classes that ban running, isn’t needed. And they’re constant fundraising that try to sell us discounted pizza, isn’t needed.

It’s difficult not to undermine the authority of our kids’ schools when they constantly take up the teaching of values at the expense of knowledge, and then turn around and sell those values off to local businesses in the name of education.

The edtech “Ban/Not Ban” Discussion is Misleading

The underlying origin of any edtech “ban/not-ban devices” question out there is the gap between what is taught in elementary and middle school, and what is expected that secondary and post secondary learners ought to know. The gap being the digital literacy skills that many people feel should be taught at a young age, similar to reading skills, study skills, and even cultural norms like “how to behave in a classroom” and the ever-vague “socialization”.

If one believes this, that elementary kids need to learn digital literacy skills, then this is a question of what needs to be included in education goals and curriculum. There is not much worth in bringing it into the ban/not-ban question, which is a useless question to ask or answer.

A flat ban on devices ignores technology’s impact (let alone many learners’ access to content and preferred literacy), and conversely a mandate that teachers must use devices because it is “best” is technology infatuation that prioritizes digital literacy as a class goal over whatever the subject matter is. Both are wrongheaded, and both fail to consider the situation.

An educator designing their course needs to look at each activity/lesson and decide whether to include modern technology or not. It may be that one day devices are useful for that activity, the next they are a distraction. Devices are often superfluous, when technologies like pen, paper, desks, and spoken word are more suitable. If educators want to teach learners “self-regulation” then they should practice and model it in their class design.

(Furthermore, and I say this because I don’t see it enough, the first question to ask when deciding about technology/device use is “What is the content?”)

The Little Girl at the Window

Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear, said the headmaster.

Totto-chan was a grade school girl that didn’t fit into the basic school system – she couldn’t pay attention, she couldn’t sit still, she asked so many questions, she tired-out her teachers. She was always getting into things. After she was expelled from first grade her parents enrolled her in a school for outcasts run by a remarkable headmaster with such a passion for educating children that he built his own school out of used trains. His school welcomed the curiosity of children, allowing them to explore their own pursuits before offering support and structure that would help fan the flames of an ignited heart.

Years later in 1981 Totto-chan, now a famous television personality, wrote a book of stories about her old elementary school. The book, originally written in Japanese, has been translated into numerous languages and is available around the world. The copy that I read comes from my local library, and was recommended to me after some conversations about my own daughter’s elementary school journey.

There’s something wrong with the school system where my daughter goes to school. The best way I’ve come up with to describe it is that when I communicate with the school, or the school system, I have that same feeling that I do when I try to communicate with a government office, or a bank. Regardless of our words, we’re never talking about the same end point – for me it’s my individual daughter’s education; for them it’s their own internal organization. Their final goal is always about the paperwork and the process, even when they claim it isn’t.

Grade three started off with extensive standardized testing that frustrated my daughter more than she let on. In talking with her, she didn’t really understand what these tests were all about, except that they were all anyone talked about and that the computers they used for them didn’t work that great and she sometimes had to redo her work because they didn’t save. (she flailed her hands as she told me this) Last year her teacher (who has since left the school) told stories to the children, many of which my daughter breathlessly repeated to me, fascination in her eyes. She misses her last year teacher greatly – but my guess is that this year’s teacher is a kind of an all-star in the eyes of the board of education because she’s organized and no-nonsense and gets through the curriculum on time.

I would recommend Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window to anyone in education, chances are it’s in your local library system, wherever you are – I would recommend it because it’s full of stories, and stories are what we love and are how we learn best. It’s touching in a way that the quote at the top makes you realize that kids use their senses in amazing ways. I would even call this essential reading for those working in boards of education and for those teachers, principals, and office staff who tend to prioritized paperwork over pupils.

Distance as Center

I just finished a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It’s a book from the early 1980s that takes a television specific look at how technology and media influence North American society. The book may be a bit dated in that TV is no longer the apex of mass communication that it was 30 years ago, although from several other perspectives many of the ideas in the book transfer well to other technology and media contexts. I love these types of books – books on tech that are just a few decades old – because they present ideas about the effects of tech and media on a simpler backdrop.

The book ends (the last 2 chapters) with some strong ideas, one of which is that education curriculum is bending toward the particular affordances of television. A related point that Postman makes is that because television is so prevalent in everyday life (he states that teenagers watch 16,000 hrs of TV by High School graduation) schools have simply forgotten to question television’s character.
Looking back at this claim from 2015, we can easily see the limitations of mere television broadcasting. And we now know that it is much better to unquestioningly prepare our educational systems for a “21st century world” in which digital technology, asynchronous communication, and social learning are the real tech and media powerhouses that the next generation will inherit. Right?
No, not right.
Despite being written in 1985 and focusing specifically on television, the 2nd last paragraph of the book provides a timeless quote:
“…it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the center of education.”

Growers and Mere Harvesters

A garden is one of the most common metaphors in learning and education. It’s a good one, but there are many distinctions that often don’t get sorted out at the level of metaphor, or given enough consideration to. Are gardens meant to emphasize the growth of a plant under the right conditions? Or, are they meant to show intentional maintenance of organized learning, as compared to growth in the wild?

Educational metaphors using plants-things always seem to miss the mark with me, as they tend to romanticize the growth, while ignoring the importance of restrictions.

Earlier today while reading about the economic plight of East Timor, this line jumped out at me:

“People in East Timor are not growers; they are mere harvesters of coffee.”

The idea is that, in terms of their economy which relies on the coffee beans trade, the country’s farmers are nowhere near intentional enough in how they cultivate their crop. To a large degree, they simply pick from what grows in the wild.

Education runs this danger because learning growing in our lives as widespread as plants cover the Earth. Educational settings that rely on everyday learning as the backdrop and be all of design – highly and merely social, connective, and low guidance courses – set themselves up as harvesters, simply picking from interaction that happens to take place.

Static – When Method becomes Purpose

One of the features of having planners in charge of city plans, Jacobs alludes to, is that city workings end up so smooth that the city cannot breathe or live. The purpose of planners is to ensure that everything runs smoothly, their purpose isn’t to create a successful working city. And this, she says, became one of the underlying principles of all city planning for much of the 20th century.

I brought up this point, related to education, in a post about Dewey and Perplexity. And it is not an uncommon point in education these days. Misguided is the teacher who thinks his or her job is to create a classroom that runs smoothly. The opportunities for growth and development just won’t exist in such an environment. In these unfortunate situations, the means to create the outcome replaces the outcome itself. Method replaces intentional learning. Structure comes from above like a cage door that swings downward to close, and impound.

You could probably also make the connection here between learning and learning merely to pass the test. Its a process that involves a whole lotta nothing.

He conceived of good planning as a series of static acts. (p19)