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.


16 Proposals for Radically Changing Schools (for the better)

I was finally able to finish Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity yesterday. (What else was I supposed to do the day after graduating?) That I’d made it so long without encountering this text baffled me, but I’m willing to chalk it up to the right books coming into our lives at the right time.

Toward the end of the book, Postman and Weingartner list a group of proposals “that attempt to change radically the existing school system.”

I should like to learn and teach in a school that honors these proposals. In the case of a few of them, I’ve already done just that.

  1. Declare a five-year moratorium on the use of all textbooks.
  2. Have “English” teachers “teach” Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers Science, Science teachers Art, and so on.
  3. Transfer all the elementary-school teachers to high school and vice versa.
  4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” to write a book on it.
  5. Dissolve all “subjects,” “courses,” and especially “course requirements.”
  6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogative.
  7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answers to.
  8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.
  9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psycho-therapy as part of their in-service training.
  10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.
  11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know.
  12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher’s monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month’s classes.
  13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some “field” other than education.
  14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one human being.
  15. Require that all the graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.
  16. There should be a general prohibition against the use of the following words and phrases: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, text, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhanced, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.
I’ve not stopped thinking about how much the teachers in schools adopting this list of proposals would learn and how much more effectively they would begin to teach.
What else deserves to be on this list?
Citation: Postman, Neil, and Charles Weingartner. Teaching As a Subversive Activity. Delta, 1971.

Some Useful Words from Ted Sizer on a Common Curriculum

From Horace’s Compromise:

Some today, with earnest good intentions, urge that a common core of subjects be legislated for high school students. Depending on one’s point of view, much of this certainly is nice. Laudable or not in the abstract, however, if it is mandatory, it is an abuse of state power, an excessive reach of political authority. Again, the state is fully justified in providing it at public expense, if it wishes, and prescribing it for certain certificates and diplomas that citizens may voluntarily choose to earn.

Some others say that an adolescent should have a “high school experience,” something that is inherently a Good Thing, an experience that teaches young people to “get along with others.” Proponents of this view offer no evidence for support of their argument for mandatory “residence” at school. This is prudent on their part: there isn’t any. Most real reasons for enforced attendance actually turn on the need to preserve adults’ jobs. Compulsory attendance in an educational institution should cease when a young citizen demonstrates mastery of the minima, and most young citizens should master those minima before senior high school. As a result, schooling for most adolescents would be voluntary. Few would be compelled to attend high school, though a prudent state would vigorously encourage it. High school would be an opportunity, not an obligation.

Things I Know 40 of 365: I have an idea for a school

Coffeehouses have provided places to plan revolutions, write poetry, do business, and meet friends.

– Mark Pendergast, Uncommon Grounds

A blended online and face-to-face school.

The school is a coffee shop. It’s not like a coffee shop or based on a coffee shop. The school is a coffee shop.

Initially a 6-8 school, as the first class matriculates, it becomes 6-12.

In addition to their online learning, students are required to attend regular class meetings at the coffee shop.

Depending on need and what’s being investigated, these meetings are either hetero- or homogenous along the lines of age and subjects. As student needs shift, some courses are hosted by completely virtual schools and augmented by enrichment inquiry-based programming within the school.

Younger students are required to accumulate a set number of community service hours working within the elementary schools most convenient to their transportation abilities.

As they grow older, students must clock a certain number of hours helping to run the shop and can work outright in the shop after those hours have accumulated. Even once the shop is fully staffed, students have marketable, transferrable skills as well as well-developed resumes and favorable employer recommendations.

Taking a page from 826 Valencia, local writers, artists and thinkers are invited to join the school as tutors and guest teachers with the added bonus of shop discounts. Student artwork and music is showcased alongside local community artists on the shop’s walls and during various open mic events.

Once the upper school component is implemented, the school designs an internship program similar to SLA’s Individualized Learning Plan program connecting the shop with local organizations, farms, and businesses. Utilizing the space’s inherent plasticity, internship interviews are hosted at the shop.

As these connections are fostered, the shop serves a point of contact for the various community service organizations at which the students complete their internships and those people the organizations work to serve.

As an example, the shop serves as a drop-off/pick-up point for community supported agriculture programs to which students’ families can opt in at a reduced price.

The open, blended schedule allows older students to participate in a wide range of dual-enrollment courses with few time restrictions.

For physical fitness, students join local club teams and other community sporting groups.

Any profits from the shop are distributed among student activity funds as well as scholarships for the school’s graduates.

Graduates who attend universities near the shop frequently return as customers seeking a place to study, thereby providing a tangible model of success for younger students.

Teacher hours are malleable and shaped around programming needs.

As part of its professional development, the school hosts informal themed teach-ups for any interested local teachers.

Once enrollment hits the set maximum, the school is prepared for replication.

Who’s in?

Classy: What we mean when we talk about creativity and collaboration (get in on this)

I didn’t plan any of the below. All I was doing was looking for some creativity-inspiring journal prompts. What resulted has no lesson or unit plans. I’m not sure where it’s going or what it will become. I am certain, however, that something beautiful started in my classroom Wednesday.

January 31: Jabiz Raisdana posts the results of his first month participating in The Daily Shoot.

February 2: I see the post and comment on how impressed I am with the act of creation Jabiz is embarking on each day. I ask if it’s ok to use some of the photos as journal prompts in my class. Later, he comments back welcoming the use of the photos as inspiration. I create an assignment on moodle that says:

The students file in and log in.

The result of a 2-hour delay due to weather, our abbreviated class is spent mostly trawling the photos and creating.

I enjoy answering the question of “What are we supposed to write?” with “Whatever you want.”

February 3: Jabiz posts a letter to my students, explaining the process up to this point and what their comments mean to him. He poses some important questions about collaboration, creation and connection. Most importantly, he challenges them:

So what of it now? What happens next? Well that is up to you. I hope that this introduction can be a way that we continue to explore the power of art and words and connections. I was a born teacher and student, I would love to continue to teach and learn from you. Are you up for it?

Before sharing the post, I pull up Google Earth to add perspective to the distance between Philadelphia, PA and Jakarta, Indonesia (half the world).

Additionally, Jabiz comments he’s culling their creations to create a song, and promises to share it soon.

I share the link to the post on moodle and invite the students to share their answers to Jabiz’s questions.

Students begin to comment.

February 4: Students continue to comment in answer to Jabiz’s creative challenge. The comments build off of the thinking of the other students. Later, Jabiz responds to each idea, asking questions and offering commentary. At the end, he posts the lyrics of the song composed of my students’ lines of poetry.

I start a google doc and share it with Jabiz, trying to give form to the students’ suggestions.

Jabiz posts an initial recording of the song to his blog, raising the ante:

Here you go SLA, my song to you. What will you do with it? Download it. Remix it. Add your voice to it. Set it to images. Create a video. Rap it. This version is only a draft and is not even close to being “done.” Tear it up!

SoundCloud is blocked within the school’s filter wall. All I’m able to do is show the students what Jabiz has written.

It is enough.

We begin a new brainstorming session in both sections of the participating classes as to where we can take this from here. The students build off of their original ideas. My writers want to write more, my documentarians want to document the creative, collaborative process, my musicians want to rework the song or create something new. My linguists want to ask Jabiz’s ESL students to post comments to photos we take in their first languages so that my students can learn these other languages. The ideas are bubbling over.

Later, Canadian teacher Bryan Jackson records his own version of the song, which Jabiz posts to his blog.

By the end of class, one of my students, Luna, has taken it upon herself to copy the lyrics of the song and create a wordle. She then visits each picture and copies all of the students’ comments to create a collective wordle of the initial words Jabiz’s photos inspired.

Today: You jump in and create something.

Time I was Wrong #3,596,897

The Gist:

  • The CtW Project is something different this year.
  • My students are grappling with the issues and their possible solutions in more authentic ways.
  • I’m teaching ways of reading that won’t be tested.

The Whole Story:

The project description around Phase 2 originally stood as:

Phase 2: Research work being done to solve problem. Create campaign to get donations for that work.

Draft an action plan around a realistic solution to the problem you’ve selected.

Meet with an identified change agent and present your pitch and action plan.

We’ve moved away from that.

Last year’s iteration of the project wrapped itself around an Ignite-style presentation uploaded to slideshare and then posted to the students’ drupal blogs. There they have languished for almost a year. I’ve called them up for conference presentations, but they haven’t been affecting much change other than that of classroom practice, perhaps. It’s striking me as ironic that I used one group’s product from last year as an example during my “Doing Real Stuff in the Classroom” session at CoLearning. If it had been “Doing Almost Real Stuff in the Classroom,” well, then that would have been something.

From the original description of Phase 2, we’ve scrapped the donation campaign, the action plan and the pitch to a change agent. Everything.

As I wrote earlier, I’ve move kids who have been researching similarly themed projects into Solution Groups. Armed only with a fact sheet built off of their 6 weeks of research and a Solution Organizer that helped them to put their thoughts in order, the groups met to share their work and discuss their individual goals for changing the issue each had been researching.

Once the groups had decided whether or not my initial groupings would work / made sense, they set to work making connections across their problems to identify a singular action that could catalyze change in each issue.

It was fascinating to watch.

After two classes, I sat with each group and had them pitch their proposals. What they came up with was better than any donation campaign my brain had envisioned.

One class has a group organizing around the issue of abuse in its many forms. They’re planning to create a resource for SLA students dealing with abuse, contacting counselors to help them and organizing a fundraising walk to help a local non-profit working with people living in abuse.

Again, more than a video dying on drupal.

As I moved from group to group, I realized no one had talked to these guys about leveraging and social media. We talked about the fact that the room probably had around 5,000 Facebook connections they could push. Then I showed them Southwest’s twitter page and we discussed why 1 million+ people would even think about following an airline.

We watched this video I’d seen the night before thanks to Ewan:

And that led to a discussion of non-verbal communication and how a video with only 6 significant words could lead to change.

Anthony commented, “That video changed my life.”

We’ll see.

From there, we visited Chris Craft’s kids’ TeachJeffSpanish.com and I walked my students through the idea that a class of sixth graders had built a site with the potential to create real sticky change.

Finally, we ended w/ a google search for “Joe’s Non-Netbook” and then “Joe’s Non-Notebook” as some re-posters have called it. I told the kids how I shot and posted the video on a whim almost a year ago.

The real fun was looking at the stickiness of the video. My original posting has 2451 views. This posting has 9673. This one has 730. There might be more, but I didn’t care.

We stopped looking at re-postings and started checking out where people had written about the video.

They started to get the idea that this video recorded as a gag had made an impact.

“You’re the first generation to be advertised to since birth,” I told them, “You’re going to need to be the savviest thinkers about this stuff so far.”

Having made it through my filter with their first pitches, the groups will begin drafting sales pitches Monday that will have to meet with unanimous class approval to move forward. It’s our own little ad hoc shareholders meeting.

So, yeah. That’s happening.

Meanwhile, the PSSA looms on the horizon and I can’t help thinking I’m going to have to move their brains into a mold where they see questions as having one answer and answers as being un-refineable. You know, like in the real world.

The ideas they’re working with now are big ones. The solutions they’re striving toward are impassioned and thoughtful. Come April, they’ll have four weeks of testing that doesn’t fit any of those descriptors.

Oh well.