Sunday, January 31, 2010

Education Mainifestos...part 7, Horace Mann

I don't know how many people know about Horace Mann (1796-1859), that he is the father of tax-supported, secular public education in America so I decided to do a little cursory reading on the subject. The quotes that appear below all come from this site sponsored by the Macinac Center, an educational non-profit in Michigan, dedicated to providing educational resources to teachers and lay people.

Perspectives on Mann differ widely, shaped in no small part by how people feel about the importance of compulsory public education to the fabric of American culture and democracy.

For some like John Gatto, a former teacher of the year in New York who, after nearly thirty years in the classroom, became a self-styled iconoclast and fierce critic of America's public school system, Horace Mann imported from Prussia the ethos of bureaucratic authoritarianism to American schools in an explicit attempt to control and domesticate a burgeoning immigrant population (largely Catholic) that was threatening the status quo of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Gatto sees Mann's agenda as essentially antithetical to the American ethos, a Trojan horse for the captains of industry seeking a compliant work force, and a frontal assault on the authority of the family unit.

For others, Mann is the patron saint of the progressive institution charged with leveling the social playing field of America, strengthening democracy, and producing good citizens and good workers for America. Many of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson among them, espoused ideals similar to the ones that Mann would later succeed in implementing on a limited scale in Massachusetts.

What follows are some excerpts from the Macinac Center's summary of Mann's efforts:

During the three decades preceding the Civil War, two significant developments occurred in popular education in the United States. The first is that the foundations were laid for a government takeover of education, and the second is that the historic role of schools in transmitting religious traditions gave way to more secular goals.

Horace Mann and the education reformers' primary purpose was to bring local school districts under centralized town authority and to achieve some degree of uniformity among the towns through a state agency. They believed that popular schooling could be transformed into a powerful instrument for social unity.

The organizational model Mann and others adopted for use in Massachusetts and elsewhere was the Prussian educational system as described by French philosopher Victor Cousin in his 1833 book Report on the Condition of Public Instruction in Germany, and Particularly Prussia.22 The Prussian system of state-controlled education extended from the lower grades through the university levels. Schools were established, supported, and administered by a central authority: The state supervised the training of teachers, attendance was compulsory, parents were punished for withholding their children from school, and efforts were made to make curricula and instruction uniform.

As president of the State Senate, Mann was instrumental in establishing the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837 ...Mann combined an evangelical fervor for the common school with adroit political skills to accomplish three objectives: (1) state collection of education data; (2) state adoption of textbooks through the establishment of state-approved school libraries in each district; and (3) state control of teacher preparation through the establishment of "Normal Schools" (teacher colleges).

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mr. President

Watch President Obama taking questions from the GOP caucus in Baltimore yesterday. You can also view the speech he gave prior the Q & A here. If every American took the time to digest this hour long exchange I think we would all be better for the experience. Agree with him or not, the man in the Oval Office right now has the skills and the temperament to accomplish some good things for this country. I hope others will step up to the plate and accept his challenge.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Education manifestos... part 6, Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is most well known for his seminal work, Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences.. Initially Gardner did not insert himself and his theory into debates on educational reform. He focused instead on the effort to enumerate and define the intellignces he believed comprised the entirety of human cognitive apparatus. He claimed that there were seven discreet intelligences:
Linguistic intelligence involves sensitivity to spoken and written language, the ability to learn languages, and the capacity to use language to accomplish certain goals. This intelligence includes the ability to effectively use language to express oneself rhetorically or poetically; and language as a means to remember information. Writers, poets, lawyers and speakers are among those that Howard Gardner sees as having high linguistic intelligence.

Logical-mathematical intelligence consists of the capacity to analyze problems logically, carry out mathematical operations, and investigate issues scientifically. In Howard Gardner's words, it entails the ability to detect patterns, reason deductively and think logically. This intelligence is most often associated with scientific and mathematical thinking.

Musical intelligence involves skill in the performance, composition, and appreciation of musical patterns. It encompasses the capacity to recognize and compose musical pitches, tones, and rhythms. According to Howard Gardner musical intelligence runs in an almost structural parallel to linguistic intelligence.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence entails the potential of using one's whole body or parts of the body to solve problems. It is the ability to use mental abilities to coordinate bodily movements. Howard Gardner sees mental and physical activity as related.

Spatial intelligence involves the potential to recognize and use the patterns of wide space and more confined areas.

Interpersonal intelligence is concerned with the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people. It allows people to work effectively with others. Educators, salespeople, religious and political leaders and counsellors all need a well-developed interpersonal intelligence.

Intrapersonal intelligence

Later however Gardner did join the conversation about education. Gardner's personal preferences represent a blend of classical liberal arts curriculum sifted through the prism of mulitiple intelligences. Here is a quote from his book, The Disciplined Mind.

"I want everyone to focus on the content of an education -- the meat and potatoes: on how that content should be presented, mastered, put to use, and passed along to others. Specifically, I believe that three very important concerns should animate education; these concerns have names and histories that extend far back into the past. There is the realm of truth -- and its underside, what is false or indeterminable. There is the realm of beauty -- and its absence in experiences or objects that are ugly or kitschy. And there is the realm of morality -- what we consider to be good, and what we consider to be evil."

-- from the first chapter of 'The Disciplined Mind'

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Education manifestos...part 5, Ivan Illich and John Holt

The late sixties and early seventies were marked by clarion calls from critics of public education. In 1971, an Austrian Catholic priest serving in the New York City diocese,Ivan Illich, published the radical book, Deschooling Society. He attacked the dehumanizing forces of western economies and the public institutions which served them. In an almost clairvoyant passage that seems to intuit a technological landscape that had the potential to reverse or mitigate these forces, he wrote:

Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries.

In 1969, John Holt published How Children Fail, an indictment of public education. Holt became the intellectual father of the home school movement. His 1981 book, Teach Your Ownn became a touchstone for the home school movement. What follows are some notable quotes from Holt which I cherry picked from Wikipedia:

"... the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don't need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it."[4]

"I want to make it clear that I don’t see homeschooling as some kind of answer to badness of schools. I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call learning or education. Home would be the best base no matter how good the schools were."[5]

“ Education... now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and 'fans,' driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve 'education' but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves. ”
“ The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners. ”
“ It's not that I feel that school is a good idea gone wrong, but a wrong idea from the word go. It's a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life. ”
“ No one is more truly helpless, more completely a victim, than he who can neither choose nor change nor escape his protectors. ”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Education manifestos...part 4, the Storyline Method

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget introduced theories of child development that became powerful shaping forces in educational reform in the sixties and on up to the present. In simplistic terms, Piaget asserted that children pass through four stages of development from sensory experience, to magical thinking, to concrete thinking to formal thinking. In addition he argued that children construct their own meaning out of their own experience. From his work sprang the educational concepts of developmental readiness and of child centered curriculum.

In the late sixties a group of Scottish educators set out to develop an thematic, interdisciplinary method of instruction for elementary students. What they came up with has come to be known as The Scottish Storyline Method. The Storyline Method was introduced to the US in the eighties by an American Fulbright teacher, . There are now Storyline schools in California and the Northwest, including Highland Magnet School in Bend and Creative Science School @ Clark in Portland.

Storyline is an innovative approach to curriculum integration. The essential elements of a Storyline are setting, characters and events or incidents. The unfolding of the story each day in the classroom provides a structure and logical connection to the curriculum. The difference between thematic teaching using a topic web and Storyline is the presentation of key questions which moves the story along. In a topic web the activities are random, whereas the investigations which take place during a Storyline are in a logical sequence which is dependent upon the preceding episode.
The critical elements of a storyline are:

* Setting the scene in a particular time and place--Students create a "frieze" or 3D representation of the setting in their classroom.
* People or animals or both--Each student creates a character which he or she then becomes throughout the "storyline." This provides students with a chance to be someone else of a different age, race, culture, personality, time period, etc.
* A way of life to investigate--Daily life is explored as well as rules and expectations of that particular day and age.
* Real problems to be solved--The teacher and students create incidents which could possibly come up in the given setting. Students then must work together or individually (in character) to solve these challenges.
* Celebration or Culminating Activity--Each storyline ends in a way which students are able to share their knowledge with others. Often this is through a presentation for parents, a field trip or community outreach.
* Reflection and Assessment--Students are always given opportunities to reflect and assess their learning in a variety of ways.

For example, with an Oregon Trail topic, the students become pioneers leaving home in the East to settle in the West. The journey requires students to investigate why people migrate, what supplies are needed, what rules they must follow along the trail, what are the possible hardships and challenges. Carefully planned episodes engage students in actual practice and application of basic skills within the context of the storyline. The story motivates students to extend those skills and refine them for "real life" challenges.

The development of the storyline is guided by the following features:

* The story is progressive and sequential.
* The teacher sets out key questions within each episode that the students must address.
* Each episode has limitless potential as every student investigates and contributes depending on their personal experiences and innovation.
* Each student will reach different levels within each key question and will return to the storyline for the next question.

In 1997 Jeff Creswell published Creating Worlds, Creating Meaning: The Scottish Storyline Method. You can read a review of it here.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Education manifestos...part 3, Neil Postman

In 1969 Neil Postman, along with Charles Weingartner, published the book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. I remember reading that book while going through teacher training in the late seventies. The book snapped me out of the doldrums; it challenged me to think about teaching in a way that was both romantic and rigorous. I've never really gotten over that book.

"The children know that none of these questions has anything to do with them, and the game that is being played does not require that the questions do. The game is called ‘Let’s Pretend,’ and if its name were chiseled into the front of every school building in America, we would at least have an honest announcement of what takes place there. The game is based on a series of pretenses which include: Let’s pretend that you are not what you are and that this sort of work makes a difference to your lives; let’s pretend that what bores you is important, and that the more you are bored, the more important it is; let’s pretend that there are certain things everyone must know, and that both the questions and answers about them have been fixed for all time; let’s pretend that your intellectual competence can be judged on the basis of how well you can play Let’s Pretend. (p. 49)

As soon as students realize that their lessons are about their meanings, then the entire psychological context of schools is different. Learning is no longer a contest between them and something outside of them, whether the problem be a poem, a historical conclusion, a scientific theory, or anything else. There is, then, no need for the kinds of "motivation" found in the conventional Trivia content. There are few occasions for feelings of inadequacy, few threats to their sense of dignity, less reason to resist changing perspectives. In short, the meaning-maker metaphor puts the student at the center of the learning process. It makes both possible and acceptable a plurality of meanings, for the environment does not exist only to impose standardized meanings but rather to help students improve their unique meaning-making capabilities. And this is the basis of the process of learning how to learn, how to deal with the otherwise ‘meaningless,’ how to cope with change that requires new meanings to be made. (p. 97)

One of Postmans most subversive assertions is that teachers out to be primarily concerned with outfitting their students with fully functioning and highly sensitive "crap-detectors". In a famous essay,
Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection
, Postman enumerated several varieties of bullshit that people should become practiced at identifying and avoiding at all costs. They include:

Postman was a serious thinker but he was also a committed ironist. Here he cites Postman's third and fourth laws.
Postman's Third Law:

"At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself."

The reason for this is explained in Postman's Fourth Law, which is;

"Almost nothing is about what you think it is about--including you."

His preoccupation with bullshit was, and is, for me a tonic. It reminded me that the worst trap a teacher can fall into is the trap of taking oneself too seriously. I have waged a lifelong and unequal battle with myself over this one. Here's Postman again:
An idealist usually cannot acknowledge his own bullshit, because it is in the nature of his "ism" that he must pretend it does not exist. In fact, I should say that anyone who is devoted to an "ism"--Fascism, Communism, Capital-ism--probably has a seriously defective crap-detector. This is especially true of those devoted to "patriotism."

Postman later wrote another provocative book entitled The Disappearance of Childhood. In it he argued that today's media environment threatens the very concept and viability of that idea and stage of life we call "childhood."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Education manifestos... part 2, Theodore Sizer

Ted Sizer, author of Horace's Compromise and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools made these remarks in a speech in Washington D.C. in 2002. Notice how he uses the claim that the mainstream educational voices have labeled him and the Coalition as "radical" is similar to the claim made by E.D. Hirsch, who also describes himself and his followers as distinctly out of step with accepted educational doctrine. It's hardly surprising if you think about it....after all who needs a manifesto if everything is as it should be?
Neither you nor I should be surprised that some of our shared ideas and the practices that flow from them mesh poorly with some current educational policies and political opinions. So be it. We cannot pretend and should not pretend otherwise, even as some dismiss us as unwisely "radical" in our beliefs, "radical" in the pejorative, the opposite is the truth.

It is a radical idea that all children grow at the same rate and in the same way and thus can thereby be accurately classified and "graded" in narrow, standardized ways.

It is a radical idea that the power of a child's mind can be plumbed by a single test and reduced to a small clutch of numbers.

It is a radical idea that people of any age can learn well in crowded, noisy, and ill-equipped places.

It is a radical idea that serious learning can best emerge from a student's exposure to short blasts of "delivered" content, each of less than an hour in length, and unified by no coherent set of common ideas.

It is a radical idea that a child can learn what is needed to live well in a complex society with schooling that encompasses barely half the days of a calendar year; and that ignores the opportunities —or lack of opportunities— available to each child.
In the following remarks Sizer made in a speech he gave in Providence in 2000 he articulates the fundamental premise of his movement.
Let me just mention three of the most familiar examples. "I cannot teach a child well, whom I do not know well. How can I teach that child well, if I do not know her enthusiasms or why she makes mistakes or what seems to be out of sorts for her at a given moment, or what is behind her at home. And no two of our children are alike. And so the question for all of us is: how many children can I get to know well enough to know them and their families and their situations well at once? And you and I struggle in high schools to get that number to no more than 80, knowing full well that in many schools it is routinely 120 to 150. And, by in large, the lower the income of the students, the larger the load you and I are asked to cover. I think most of us, if we were rewriting those principles again, at the high school level, would say 50 to 1. 50 kids and 50 for the whole year, not 50 who are rescheduled in the middle of the year. 50, you can really get to know 50 well. And in an elementary school, 20 on the outside, but it really should be 12-15.
He goes on to describe the hallmark instructional assessment tool of the CES - the student exhibition.
And finally we say that students should be able both to display their knowledge, and also to use it, ideally use it in an unfamiliar situation. The real test for a student is when she is presented with something which is unfamiliar and asked to use what she has learned and the habits of hard thinking to make sense of it. That is, to make the unfamiliar, familiar. And if we hold this as the standard-the ability to display the habit of using one's knowledge and one's mind to make sense of the unfamiliar, to give meaning to what may initially appear to be meaningless-you have to show it to us. And we have to ask you about it, and you have to show us again, and we have to see you do it. And that's serious learning, very serious learning. It's very easy, indeed criminally cheap, to reduce learning to any kind of one shot performance. Whether it's a standardized test or an essay, or one 10 minute prepared speech. Our function is ultimately about our students' habits. What we really care about, the ultimate assessment of your and my work, is what those young people do when we're not looking. And how you build that objective in a practical sense into the life of a school, with all its chaos and noisiness and peanut butter sandwiches, which drop in the middle of a hall and somebody steps on it, all of that. How you build that in, is very much a function of who you are and where you are. You can't mass-produce the ways and means of encouraging our young people to use their minds powerfully over ideas and things and artifacts and arts, which are worth spending time on.

The emphasis in bold is mine. I confess that reading Sizer always stirs me up and I particularly like his emphasis on using novel circumstances and problems to ascertain just what habits a student has in place. As we all know, however, good habits are hard to acquire and bad ones are even harder to lose.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Education manifestos... part 1, E.D. Hirsch

I could really go for a nice juicy manifesto. It would be nice to wake up and have a nice raison d'etre to go with your morning coffee...
from Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin

I'm lately disenchanted by my workplace, not my classroom but the wider workplace, the system if you too often has the feel of an episode in "The Office". Our school system and the people in it are for the most part amiable, good natured folk, but it seems to me like we're all adrift on some wide, slow my darker moments, I wonder if I don't hear the faint rumblings of a great waterfall somewhere downstream.

I'm not a utopian by nature; in fact, I don't trust utopians at all. But I do envy them. I envy the sense of mission, the direction which stem, I imagine, from their animating principles. And so I'm in the mood to sample claims made by educational reformers (utopians?) as to what those animating principles out to or ought not to be. This will be the first in a series of postings on educational manifestos. I'm not sure how often I'll post them or how many I'll find, but I aim for a wide sampling. I don't expect necessarily to find one to call my very own; perhaps this exercise will help me accept and appreciate anew my own non-utopian leanings.

The first manifesto comes from E.D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy and more recently the founder of the Core Knowledge movement which has sponsored schools all over the country. He has published a series of books with titles like What Every First Grader Needs to Know in which he offers content prescriptions for grade levels K-8. He has positioned himself in opposition to the professional teacher training programs operating in most American universities. He describes himself as a political liberal and an educational conservative. Here's an excerpt from his book The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them.
We cannot afford any more decades dominated by ideas that promote natural, integrated project-learning over focused instruction leading to well-practiced operational skills in reading and mathematics, and well-stocked minds conversant with individual subject matters like history and biology. We need to reject the ill-founded notions that every child learns naturally at his or her own pace and that teaching the child is more important than teaching the subject (whatever that means, beyond failure to teach the subject). We must not accept the claim that knowing how to learn (which is an abstract skill that does not even exist) is more important than having a broad foundation of factual knowledge that really does enable further learning. We must reject the disparagement of verbal learning and the celebration of 'hands-on' learning, based on the false Romantic premise that mere words are inauthentic components of human understanding. We cannot afford still to accept the untrue belief that adequate schooling is natural and painless, and mainly a function of individual talent rather than hard work. We must reject the false claim that delaying learning until the child is 'ready' will speed up learning in the long run. We must cease listening to the siren call that learning should be motivated entirely by inward love of the subject and interest in it, without a significant admixture of external incentive. In short, we must cease attending to the Romantic ideas that the reformers of the 1990s, echoing the reformers of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s and all the decades in between, have been pronouncing in chorus. These ideas are emphatically not reforms. They are the long-dominant controlling ideas of our failed schools(p.216-217).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Zombie Dad cont.

The video company for which I played Zombie Dad just posted a Picasa Web album of our weekend photo shoot. You can go to it here. Then click on "Fun in the Morgue: Makeup Test". I think it may be my best work yet.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Zombie Dad

I got asked to play the role of Zombie Dad for a local film company that is putting together a promo trailer for its video business. They do a lot of weddings and the like so they decided to play with idea of a zombie family album, a zombie funeral and a zombie funeral.
I went in Saturday morning for makeup. The makeup artist brought in from Portland turned out to be a former student who graduated in 92. He took the better part of an hour to transform me into a state of being more "undead" than alive. When I saw my family after the shoot, the kids were intrigued. Colm asked me, "Does it hurt?" Later he asked me to tell him the story of zombies. I might need some help with that one. Beth was the most troubled by my look. She was adamant that I take it off my makeup as soon as possible.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The life of a kid

Our kids have been slipping into spy mode again. Every now and then, I catch glimpses of them darting, creeping, stalking furtively through doorways and under tables, peering around corners. They typically set up spy headquarters under a blanket draped over chairs where they can plan clandestine operations under the cloak of invisibility. They make use of a wide range of spy tools including paper and pencil and sun glasses. It's all very hush hush which makes for a rather quiet house though sometimes the tension is palpable and the smiles impossibly wide in anticipation of discovery.

Last week Beth was poking around in Tess' things when she came across these scribblings:
One day my mom sent me to my room for two minutes. Only I don't know why, because I was at the piano first. And whoever gets there first gets to play the piano. And I got there first! But she sent both of us to our rooms. And that's why I'm writing this thingie. But she's letting us out now.
from Tess C.C.
P.S. I'm going to eat breakfast now.

A moment later, Beth found this:
Things we need
1. a new hut - Biger
2. More glasses - Sunglasses
3. More disgises - Like prinsseses
4. More pencils - Sharp
5. New names - Misterious
6. More notebooks - With lined pages
7. A camera - Dietal
8. New distractions - Realistic
9. New Code - Something no one will figure out
10. New make believe voices - Like old
11. New activetis - Spy Like
12. Pizza! - half peparoni, half sosage
13. food - like apple
whirrrrrrr...the sound of these kids' minds ceaselessly turning.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Their world's a stage

I went to the high school auditorium over the break to do some prep work for an upcoming production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Tess and Colm came along. I gave them walkietalkies so that I could focus lights up in the attic while they played down below onstage. I darkened the auditorium and put a spot of light center stage about twelve feet in diameter. The kids played in the light. Every once in awhile I'd buzz them and request a light check, "Bring up number 20 to level 4."
"Roger." One of them would run over to the light board and set circuit 20 to level 4.
"OK, turn it off."
I love my little tech crew.
Afterwards, I came down and found them in that silly space they often inhabit together. It seemed like a chance to put it on video under somewhat controlled lighting. I told them I needed a sound check and suggested the song "Over the Rainbow."
"Oh, and give me some gestures to help highlight the words, okay?"
Here's what I got.

Okay, okay...they don't know the words and they drift around the melody...but they do love the light, and, as for me, I love my little hamsters.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Egging on the New Year...a poem

Trudged out across the snow to the chicken house and found these this New Year's morning, compliments of Telulah and Robin. A fine start for them, I think.
I'm inspired to lay my own...

Each night you drop down in straw
Glowing, greased with shit
Grown full, unhatched, yoked with promise.

Kevin Cahill