We Should Embrace Confusion

The video below, from Yes to the Mess author Frank Barrett, touches on the idea of disruption of routine as a catalyst to innovation, that wimpiest of buzzwords.

Still, if your goal is to get folks – let’s say teachers and students – thinking differently and creatively about their learning, it’s an interesting line of thinking. More important than Barrett’s point about disruption, though, is the point he (mostly indirectly) makes about the role of confusion in helping people think differently.

It connected nicely with a passage from John Holt’s How Children Learn, which I’d re-visited for class this past week:

Bill Hull once said to me, “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” I thought at first he was joking. By now I realize that it was a very important truth. Suppose we decided that we had to “teach” children to speak. How would we go about it? First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it down into a number of separate “speech skills.” We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of his language before he can be taught to speak the language itself. Doubtless we would list these sounds, easiest and commonest ones first, harder and rarer ones next. Then we would begin to teach infants these sounds, working our way down the list. Perhaps, in order not to “confuse” the child-“con- fuse” is an evil word to many educators-we would not let the child hear much ordinary speech, but would only expose him to the sounds we were trying to teach. (emphasis mine)

John Holt. How Children Learn (Classics in Child Development) (p. 84). Kindle Edition.

Perhaps we’re getting less and less out of teachers and students (and I’m not convinced that we are) because the systems in which they operate are working at top speed to make certain they avoid confusion at all levels. Teaching scripts, standardized test instructions, online learning platforms, google search – all are designed in ways that make it as difficult as possible to be confused.

If a teacher working from a pre-packaged lesson plan never has to wrestle with how to solve the problems of student engagement or differentiated instruction because the introductory set is included and the lesson’s been pre-leveled, there’s very little thinking to be done. If I’m not confused, I’m not likely be solving problems.

Similarly, if the directions to an assignment spend a few paragraphs explaining what information I should include in the heading, how many sentences constitute a paragraph, what I should include in each of said paragraphs, and the topics from which I’m allowed to choose, it’s unlikely I’ll risk the type of thinking that could perplex or confuse me as to what my exact position regarding my topic might be.

To be certain, obtuseness that renders teaching and learning inaccessible is not helpful. At the same time, clarity that renders the two unnecessary is harmful.

To Innovate, Disrupt Your Routine – Video – Harvard Business Review.

The IRL Fetish – The New Inquiry

Nathan Jurgensen:

Twitter lips and Instagram eyes: Social media is part of ourselves; the Facebook source code becomes our own code…

Many of us, indeed, have always been quite happy to occasionally log off and appreciate stretches of boredom or ponder printed books — even though books themselves were regarded as a deleterious distraction as they became more prevalent. But our immense self-satisfaction in disconnection is new. How proud of ourselves we are for fighting against the long reach of mobile and social technologies! One of our new hobbies is patting ourselves on the back by demonstrating how much we don’t go on Facebook. People boast about not having a profile. We have started to congratulate ourselves for keeping our phones in our pockets and fetishizing the offline as something more real to be nostalgic for. While the offline is said to be increasingly difficult to access, it is simultaneously easily obtained — if, of course, you are the “right” type of person.

via The IRL Fetish – The New Inquiry.

No need to raise your seat back: What happens when teachers lose sight of the destination

The man sits asleep, mouth agape in his window seat as the flight attendant stops by and gingerly taps him on the shoulder.
“Sir,” says the flight attendant, “We’ll be landing soon, and I need you to put your seat up.”
“I can’t,” says the passenger, “Whenever I try, it just falls back down. I think it’s broken.”
“You need to press the button,” says the flight attendant.
“I did. It just keeps falling.” He demonstrates.
“Well, can you put up the seat beside you,” says the flight attendant as he walks away.
The passenger is suggesting someone might want to report the broken seat, but the flight attendant has already moved on.
The entire scene is reminiscent of many teachers’ approach to students and what they have decided are the correct behaviors.
Anyone who has ever traveled by air knows the vehemence with which flight attendants insist passengers put their seat backs and tray tables in the full upright position.
So too might anyone who observes an American classroom note the force with which many teachers insist students follow exacting classroom procedures and practices. Students must submit their homework at a given time, tests must be completed within a certain interval, essays must be formatted according to set parameters. In many cases, if any of these standards is not met, the work will not be accepted. The students will not be cleared for landing.
Teachers are tripping over procedures with little regard to their intended destinations.
Certainly, it is important for a student to learn the lesson of submitting work in a timely manner. At the same time the tardiness of work should not mean a student’s effort up to that point be disregarded.
Why, then, do many teachers impose such draconian measures in their classrooms? They do it for the same reasons many flight attendants insist on upright seats, not because it is imperative for the landing of the plane, but because it is one of the few things still within their control.
If teaching is entirely dependent on others listening and observing instruction and then internalizing it, there is little wonder teachers might savor any element of control they can find when faced with limp success rate of much traditional teaching.
One option, the option of which we are loud proponents, is to keep the intended destination in mind when responding to the idiosyncracies of student behaviors and accepting successes while working to improve upon failures. This is not easy.
Our flight attendant, too, struggled with keeping the destination in mind. If seat back position is important to the operation of the plane, he would have done well to listen to the passenger and report the defunct chair. Ignoring it now means he and subsequent flight attendants will wage constant battle with that seat when a few moments of focused attention could save mountains of frustration.
Teachers too could learn from this piece of the story. Punishing the student who has formatted his essay incorrectly without taking the time to help the student develop a plan for avoiding the error in the future only insures headaches down the road.
Failing to appreciate the work that’s been done while simultaneously punishing the annoyance without working toward a solution leads to something educators are particularly adept at – admiring the problem.

Inching closer to the light after Citizens United?

In writing for the majority on Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, Justice Kennedy hit several times on the idea of disclosure as a balancing factor to opening the ceiling on corporate elections donations.

If voters know who’s financing candidates and ballot initiatives, the logic goes, then the prejudicial effects of whatever they’re financing will be diminished. Modern technology, Justice Kennedy wrote, “makes disclosures rapid and informative.”

Somehow, following the ruling, Congress took little note of the window the Supreme Court opened in affirming disclosure requirements in campaign spending.

Luckily, the Internet, America’s shadow democracy, stepped in to model transparency and disclosure possibilities.

Here are a few of note for voters, teachers, and students heading into the final countdown of this election season.

The Sunlight Foundation has a host of tools and apps for investigating elections funding, the activity of Congress, and the movements of state legislatures.

One of my personal favorites is Checking Influence which “shows you how companies you do business with every day are wielding political influence.”

Voter’s Edge is designed to throw light on the funding of ballot initiatives. As of this posting, VE has information on initiatives in CO, CA, and FL. Clicking through, viewers are able to track who is funding efforts for and against the initiatives, the effects of the initiatives’ passage and contact information for major supporters or opponents of initiatives.

One of my first tools for investigating my options as a voter, Project Vote Smart has only improved over the years as it’s harnessed the power and possibility of the Internet. Billing itself as the “voter’s self-defense system,” Vote Smart includes candidates and initiatives at the state and federal level.

A quick search of my address revealed my state rep, her challengers and their records. For incumbents, this includes voting records, while all candidates’ recent public statements as well as campaign finance information can be reviewed through the site.

Finally, a direct connection to campaign finance is FollowTheMoney.org from The National Institute on Money in State Politics. Through this site, readers can track financial influence across state elections and more completely understand the flow of cash through candidates’ coffers. After the electorate-useful information, my favorite feature of FTM is its meta-disclosure, “Where do we get our money?

Bringing the Phone Tree out of the Moth Balls

Never having played sports in school (or ever, really), the phone tree, as I understood it being used by soccer moms, never really entered into my life. I got the concept, but never needed.

When talking to a music teacher a few weeks ago about how he was using technology to care for students, the phone tree became suddenly relevant.

After a marching band gig, the teacher had sent a mass text to all of his musicians thanking them for showing up and performing. A simple act this teacher hadn’t thought much about until I’d worked to underline the importance of the ethic of care in the classroom.

It was a simple act that, after the instruments had been packed away, reminded the students that what they did mattered to other people and that they were valued.

Nice.

It also got me thinking about a possiblity for phone trees in the classroom. Apps are great and I’m all for welcoming kids to bring tech into school spaces. Oftentimes, this transitions to a mandate or a platform requirement.

Enter, phone ring.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. At a class’ opening, each student is linked to another. A to B, B to C, C to D, etc. until Z is linked back around to A in the end. (More of a phone ring, I’m realizing.)
  2. Working on anything – homework, projects, whatever – if C has a question she can’t quite figure out, she gets ahold of D via whatever means necessary. It can be text, IM, e-mail (gasp), phone call (double gasp). D and C work together find an answer.
  3. If they can’t, that’s cool. The ring continues. D says, “I think we need another brain,” and gets ahold of E. The ring continues.
  4. Knowing the system is in place, the teacher begins the next class asking if any questions or troubles made it around the ring since their last meeting. It’s a formative assessment gold mine.

Student are practicing social skills, it’s low-threat collaboration, it values the asking of questions. It’s low-cost and allows for the use of mobile technologies without requiring them or the installation of new functionalities.


P.S. In putting together the chain, I’d probably take personalities into consideration and try to build in as much student choice. The easiest way I’ve found is starting with a conversation of what it means to be connected to someone who supports your learning and then asking each student to write down the names of three students they know would support their learning if they were linked and one student who would probably derail their learning. After that, it’s up to teachers’ professional opinion to make matches that foster student growth.

Three things I wish I’d said to shift thinking about assignment deadlines

I’d asked for push back. Toward the end of my second keynote address in as many days at the Technology Integration & Instruction for the 21st Century Learner (TICL) conference in Storm Lake Iowa. I had the audience stand up, mix about, and share their thinking on what I’d just said.

The morning’s topic was “digital literacy” and I was highlighting projects I’ve designed as a teacher and completed as a student.

“What’s the ugly?” I’d asked, “What did you hear this morning that you don’t agree with.”

One of the participants raised his hand and said his partner understood the importance of choice, but wasn’t jiving with the portion of the writing project I’d described where students were allowed to set their own due dates.

He was a business teacher, you see, and in the business world you aren’t allowed to miss deadlines. Letting students set their own schedules would mean missed deadlines, and that wouldn’t do.

In the moment I agreed with the teacher. He was teaching a business class. If meeting deadlines was a skill firmly planted in his curriculum, then perhaps more freedom wasn’t the answer in that arena.

Since then, I’ve had some opportunity to think more on the matter, and my answer was wrong.

1. Most of the undesirable habits we say won’t fly in the business world probably will. I’ve heard enough stories from friends in the business sector of employees who don’t meet deadlines or need a bit of extra time on a project. Those employees, it turns out, don’t lose their jobs. “You won’t be able to get away with this in the workplace,” is teacher code for, “Because I said so.” While it would be easy to suggest that taking a more hands-off approach could lead to further reinforcement of bad business practice, you need only survey the current global business playing field to realize the strict hierarchical, authoritarian approach hasn’t led us anywhere good.

2. Make deadlines worth meeting. The auditorium wasn’t the place to have this conversation. If I’d been talking with this teacher in a breakout session or one-on-one it would have been an excellent opportunity for the difficult conversation around the goals of deadlines. In adults’ daily lives, if we’re playing the game correctly, we’re faced with requirements of our jobs that ask us to keep up with deadlines. We meet them because they are the terms of staying connected with something we’ve determined is important and valuable in our lives. Assignments and class deadlines often assume students are playing by the same rules and with the same intent. Often they aren’t. Assignment to a class or registration to fulfill a credit requirement isn’t the same as jumping administrative hoops as part of a job you’ve chosen and find intrinsically rewarding.

3. Learning is the goal. If students aren’t learning, the question shouldn’t be “How can I lock this class down so they have no choice but to complete the assignments?” It should be, “What’s going on in my instructional practice that’s turning kids off to learning?” It’s a more sensitive and ego-deflating question, but it runs a far greater risk of improving and increasing learning than racheting up the perceived punishments of coming to class.

Of course, all of this is contingent on whether or not the teacher in the audience was keen on a convervation or had decided this was the reason he was looking for to discount anything else that might shift his thinking.

I tend to assume the best in people, and I’m sorry I missed the chance for the conversation.