Reform School

The memory is hazy, but the term is familiar from childhood. Kids who behaved badly were threatened with reform school. I just read up on the term. Sure enough, it was a teacher’s idle threat—reform schools were popular beginning just before the Civil War, and mostly fell apart nearly a hundred years ago. Reform school was a place to send incorrigible boys while keeping them out a adult prisons, where they were abused, transformed into criminals, and often, both.

“Reform school” is one of the few English phrases that might be a tesseract—a multidimensional geometric shape (square is to cube as cube is to tesseract). When the word “reform” is used as a verb, not an adjective, it leads the way to the school reform.

We can flip that term on its head, too. Like reform school, public schooling is an ingenious idea born of a far away period when families were in need of literacy, and citified behavior. Learn to read, write, speak and behave properly, and, odds were, you would find worthwhile, long term employment and economic success.

Looking at the term today, school reform feels anachronistic. Henry Ford’s comment about faster horses comes to mind (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”), even though he never said or wrote those words. We accept school as a permanent institution because we cannot imagine a better modern solution. What else would we do with 50-55 million kids every day? Our economic system is now based upon parents who, by and large, work every day to support increasingly expensive lives. So we think in terms of constantly improving, perhaps even reforming (that is, re-forming, or forming in a new way) our schools.

Perhaps the phrase, and the concept, or reformed schools are too limiting. Perhaps the generation of children and teenagers are as diverse in their interests as they are in their heritage. Perhaps their insistence upon trusting the video and social media on their cell phones is, in fact, a very powerful tool for customized learning.

Perhaps children and teenagers have already bypassed their concerned parents’ desire or need to reform school. Instead, many are already pursuing the divergent, often disruptive, path to learning on their own. Or, perhaps, reformation into classrooms with rows of permanent desks, all eyes on the teacher in the front of the room, really is the best way to train young minds.

Or should we be concerned, instead, with learning reform, or, more clearly, learning reorganized, recontextualized, re-formed, or just plain reformed? How might that look? Would we move from the well-intentioned IEP to a celebration of well-organized self-directed learning?

How does any of that marry the once all powerful needs of industry? Or is everything just moving too darned fast for those needs to matter in a world where digital changes everything much faster than contemporary educators can teach? Are students reforming the beliefs, knowledge and understanding in their minds with a reformulated version of a teacher? Perhaps the key is teacher reform?

Finally, there are the strange bedfellows, curiosity and education. The former is associated independent thinking—parents encourage children to “think for yourself.” The latter is concerned with consistent results for the good of society—teachers encourage children to “learn the curriculum” which allows limited opportunity and encouragement for individual thinking, self-expression, divergent paths, and imagination. We certainly need to regenerate the curiosity and creative thinking that becomes lost in so many students, so many children, as the education system helps them to mature. In short, we ought to re-form or reconstitute curiosity in every grade and in every way. So we might be attempting to reform curiosity, and maybe that’s wise because reforming education sounds like something that might be impossible to do because school boards, principals, teachers and other educators are not trained to think or behave as reformers in any sense of the term.

Reform school? Sure, but let’s not spend all of our intellectual capital on a movement that digital transformation will eradicate with or without our help. Reform learning? Sure, and if we don’t get to it soon, Google will take care of the problem for us, or a Facebook might. And, in any case, kids are already reforming learning, on a massive scale, without adult supervision. Reform the teachers? Their own political solidity may assure the demise of a once noble profession. Reform education? Read your Clayton Christensen—this is an industry ripe for a massive disruption because the incremental variety almost always leads to a forgotten enterprise. Re-form curiosity? You bet! Encourage students to pursue their own paths, albeit in an organized way! Sounds good. Also sounds like, well, like college on a very good day.

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Above, John Dewey, who was doing a lot of writing and thinking about these ideas long before I was born. He wasn’t the only one, of course, and there have been many since, but some of Dewey’s ideas continue to resonate. From PBS: “To Dewey, the central ethical imperative in education was democracy. Every school, as he wrote in The School and Society, must become “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.”

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To Many Teachers; Too Many Teachers

Basic arithmetic yields a surprising result, and some equally surprising insights. My working assumptions probably match those associated with the school years of about half of Americans; your results may vary.

After one year of pre-school (1 teacher), I attended grades K-6 (total: 7 teachers, plus an equal number of specialists in art, gym, etc.). Then, three years of junior high school (assume 6 different classes, so 6 teachers, plus specialists takes the total up to 9, then multiply by 3 years = 27 teachers). Similar math for three years of high school (assume 6 classes, 3 specialists, 3 years =27 teachers). Four years of college nearly completes my total (5 classes, 8 semesters = 40 teachers). Add a few post-graduate courses (5 teachers).

How many teachers were paid to educate just one person?

1 pre-K

7 K-6

27 JHS (7, 8, 9)

27 HS (10, 11, 12)

40 College (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior)

5 Post-Graduate (after that)

TOTAL: 107

Let’s round the number of teachers to 100 because there were probably a few teachers who taught more than one course.

How much time did I spend with each teacher?

  • Pre-K: probably 20 hours per week for about 40 weeks (summer off) = 800 hours = the equivalent of 100 8-hour days
  • Each of the K-6 teachers: 6 hours each day x about 180 days = about 1,200 hours = the equivalent of 150 8-hour days
  • Each junior high and high school teacher: 3/4 of an hour each day x about 180 days = about 135 hours = a bit more than 3 weeks
  • Each college professor/instructor (per class section): 3 hours per week x 12 weeks = 36 hours = just under 1 working week
Teacher

Being a teacher remains one of the best jobs in the world. The best teachers make direct connections with students. Elementary school students spend lots of time with students, so these connections occur more naturally and more often. High school teachers spend far less time with individual students. To learn more about why you, or someone you know, ought to become a teacher, watch the video by clicking on the image. The video comes from a wonderful site called Teach.com.

I remember the names of every elementary school teacher, but few of my college teachers. Now I understand why: I spent the equivalent of about 30 weeks with the former and the equivalent of about a week with the latter.

That got me to thinking. What’s life like on the other side? A high school teacher is seeing perhaps 150 students per year. Divide that by a 40-hour work week, and if each student’s needs were addressed individually, each of us would receive an average of 15 minutes of instruction per week.

Efficiency

Of course, we don’t distribute resources that way. Instead, we mass produce junior high / middle school and high school education. One teacher, 150 students per 9-month session, managed as 5 groups of about 30 students. The most efficient way to manage this process would seem to be standardization and extensive testing to assure an acceptable degree of effectiveness. In college, this system stretches the extremes: more than 100 people in lecture halls during the early years, and perhaps fewer than ten people in a senior seminar. The underlying premise: people who teach in college ought to be specialists, allowing undergraduate students to learn about Shakespeare from one teacher and Chaucer or John Steinbeck from another. Certainly, no reasonable college educator in an institution with sufficient resources would consider the possibility of one professor teaching both Introduction to Psychology and Environmental Geology.

And yet, that’s precisely what we require of our K-6 teachers. Most elementary school teachers are able to cope with more than half a dozen school subjects, and probably closer to a dozen of them. They manage the same students for the better part of a working year. As teachers, they spend enough time with the students to develop one-to-one relationships, and to craft lessons so that they are effective for thirty individual, naive, developing minds. One teacher spending a lot of time on a lot of topics with a few dozen students makes intuitive sense. It seems as though that would be a good way for a teacher to operate, and it seems as though it would be a good way for students to learn.

The Switch

So why do we change modes in junior high school? Why do we replace one teacher with nine people? Do we believe that students in sixth grade require no specialized instructors, and that students in the seventh grade require each teacher to be an expert in his or her field? Certainly, middle schoolers are coping with all sorts of challenging changes in their lives. Why not offer the stability of a single teacher for the entire day, one who is reasonably well-versed in a half-dozen school subjects?

Let’s take the argument into high school. Our high school model encourages students to interact with many adults who teach, but the amount of time that each student spends with each teacher is so modest, the argument is easily dismissed. Maybe the answer is not 9 high school teachers in 45 minute sessions, but 3 high school teachers in 2 hour sessions. Parse the subjects any way that makes sense—our current system of math, science, social studies, English, etc. is no more or less of an arbitrary way to organize the world’s knowledge as it applies to a tenth grader. Fewer teachers, more time with each teacher, more time for each student-teacher relationship.

What about college?

As an English major who was required to read every one of Shakespeare’s plays and other works in two semesters [24 weeks] (I recall some of the names of his works, but not much more), I’m thinking there are probably too many courses, and not enough time spent on any one of them. Perhaps it would be better to provide freshmen with a breezy introduction to many topics in preparation of in-depth explorations in subsequent years. I want to be a freshman experiencing a parade, a dozen topics that may interest me: Shakespeare for the first two weeks, geology for the next, Gender Studies for the third, then comparative religions, law for the fifth, and robotics for the fourth, fifth and sixth. Let me spend fifty or sixty concentrated hours on each of these topics—without the silly distraction of four other classes that have little to do with one another—and I’ll feel as though I’m learning something. By the end of my freshman year, I may be able to participate in an informed conversation about infrastructure, fractals, the future water needs in Sub-Saharan Africa, the economics of Brazil, and Joseph Campbell’s ideas on primitive mythology. (Sounds like TED on steroids.)

After an invigorating freshman year, college students choose what they want to learn. Maybe they spend half of their time in a deep concentration of their own choosing, a quarter of their time learning what others insist they must know in order to graduate, and a quarter exploring topics unrelated to their major. If they want to enter a profession with specific requirements—engineering, medicine, law, etc., maybe that specialization follows a solid general education.

Reducing the Total

How does that affect the number of teachers involved in a students’ life? Reduce the 60+ teachers in K-12 to 2o. Students spend more time with each teacher, and teachers spend more time with each student.

Not a perfect solution. Just musings on the one-hundred people who educated me. To those teachers, thank yo! To the many, perhaps too many, we ought to work together, as communities, to determine whether there might be a better way.

 

 

 

Hard at Work in 2025

What does 2025 look like?

Lots of grey hairs, that seems likely. Americans are living longer, and working longer, too. If we plan to live to 90, then 30 years is a mighty long time to live without the intellectual stimulation, social interaction, sense of accomplishment and financial security that a good job provides. This is a very demanding population, many well aware of the importance of good food, fitness, mental health, recreation. By 2025 (about ten years from today), the 60-plus population in the US will increase by 70 percent.

That’s only part of the story. Forget about work as a series of repetitive tasks. These will be done by machines, or they will be outsourced. This type of work simply won’t be done by humans. And that raises the question, “what kinds of work are best done by humans, and not by smart machines?”And don’t think in terms of what machines, or computers, or devices can do today. Instead, think in terms of a decade ago (no YouTube, few phones with cameras, no tablets), and assume that the technology will advance at two or three times the current rate. Machines will be much, much smarter than they are today. And they will communicate with one another, often without human involvement. Much as I love reading, it’s clear that video and animation are going to occupy an ever-increasing share of everyone’s media diet. Cultural norms are changing. If you want to learn to fix a toilet, you no longer read about it—you watch a video. We are connecting data with an intensity and velocity never before imagined. This, plus a globally connected world, will make 2014 seem real old, real fast.

Add these trends to the longevity trend and the contours of 2025 begin to take shape.

CirclesSo what are we supposed to do about this? How are we supposed to think about 2025? Some of the answers are in a report prepared by the Institute for the Future for the (yes, I was dubious, too) University of Phoenix Research Institute. It’s good work. And it goes on to look carefully at ten skills for the future workforce that are worth browsing here and worth reading about, in greater detail, here. More or less (with some of my own interpretation added), they are:

  1. Sense-making: the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed. These are higher-level thinking skills related to creative and critical thinking, decision sciences, environmental scanning, extensive knowledge of environmental factors, and much more.
  2. Social Intelligence: the ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense reactions and quickly assess emotional impact, and then, rapidly adapt or lead to achieve the optimum result.
  3. Novel and Adaptive Thinking: This set of skills expands upon the two above, “the ability to respond to unique unexpected circumstances of the moment.” Routine solutions are useful, but those who can combine the routine with the new, those who are naturally resourceful, are most likely to succeed.
  4. Cross-cultural Competency: This goes far beyond tolerance and equality. It requires an ease in working across generations, across what was once called an organizational chart, gaining and contributing insights to an extraordinarily wide range of stakeholders, coworkers, clients, competitors, vendors, customers, participants and much more.
  5. Computational Thinking: What’s the point of all of that computing power if you don’t know what the machines can do, should do, and might someday do? This is akin to buying a fabulous car—you’re paying for the most extraordinary performance, but it’s yours only if you demand it. In other words, to succeed, you’ll need to understand how and why it all works (and not from a technical point of view, but from a high-level perspective instead).
  6. New Media Literacy: Critical assessment of videos, understanding of the techniques used to shape and deliver messages, how to write and speak and produce. Forget about PowerPoints—they were the 1990s. We’re entering the era of widespread transmedia, where text, graphics, photos, interactivity, connectivity, video and games are only the beginning.
  7. (I love this made-up word!) Transdisciplinarity: Not sure that this needs any commentary.
  8. Design Mindset: Or, more commonly, a skill in design thinking. What’s that? Planning based upon community, customer or participant needs—these come first, and old ways of thinking, such as profitability, flow from these decisions. There is a lot of information about design thinking on the web, including a good Wikipedia introduction, and a blog by Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo, and the author of “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation.”
  9. Cognitive Load Management: Yeah, I like this phrase, too. More or less, it’s thinking about ways to avoid a “overload” light from blinking inside your brain. Learn to say “no” to the junk that attempts to fill the media diet; learn to discriminate, to dig deep, to contextualize, to become a “sufficient expert” (I just made that up;  the phrase makes sense to me).
  10. Virtual Collaboration: To work productively on you own (never give your boss or client a reason to worry about time spent away from the office), and to do so with lots of other people to generate and maintain high levels of productivity. Use Skype, use other forms of technology to do great things (and some routine things) with people who you have never met, and never will meet in person.

I think that’s a great list. And with it, two (REALLY IMPORTANT) suggestions:

First, score yourself. On each of the ten items above, score yourself 1 (the worst) through 10 (the best). If your score is 85, 90 or better, you will be welcome in 2025. If your score is a lot lower, you’ve got some honest work to do.

Second, reconsider school. If school isn’t nourishing you on these ten points, you should begin to ask some very serious questions about your investment of time and money, and you should immediately focus your school’s administration, faculty and curriculum advisors that the world will change sooner than they believe possible. Work with them. Or, learn without them. But get moving!

What’s a MOOC Good For, Anyway?

This week, I’ve spent several hours with a friend whose intellect is recognized by a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university. We’re both deeply engaged at the intersection of media and learning, most often for some form of public good. Yesterday, we talked about why people go to school.  To be more specific, why people go to school beyond the point where law requires them (us) to do so.

Harvard-MOOCWhen I read this readwrite article, an interview with Harvard’s new vice provost of advances in learning (excellent job title!), I started thinking about why anybody bothers with, say, TED Talks, or for that matter, why we read non-fiction books.

Just as we’ve managed to bottle up massive quantities of spirituality into the structures we call religions, we’ve managed to do the same with massive quantities of learning into the notion of school and organized education. MOOCs shake up that formula. A MOOC–a massively open online course–carries no price tag, and, although it may be offered by the likes of Harvard or Stanford or UPenn, it carries no credit, either. You take the course because, well, because you want to learn.

The distinction is a simple one, or so one might argue. There is learning, and there is education, and if they sometimes overlap (as they are intended to do), they might serve different purposes. Learning is all about personal development, and refinement of understanding. Education’s purpose is a degree, a formal recognition, typically for a price, that serves as an admission ticket into parts of the job marketplace that are otherwise inaccessible.

So what’s a MOOC good for? Same thing as a book, I think. It’s for learning. Turns out, millions of people simply want to learn, on line, for their own development and understanding.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. Do read the readwrite article (interesting phrase, that), and you’ll find that a bit more of the picture comes into focus.

College Through the Looking Glass

About a hundred years ago, Oxford professor John Alexander Smith addressed the first session of his moral philosophy class as follows: “Gentlemen, nothing that you will learn in the course of yours studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life [that is, after college, not after death–HB], save only this: that is you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to deter when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”

j9651Inevitably, author Andrew Delbanco continues: “Americans tend to prefer a two-syllable synonym…for the Angicism, rot–and so we might say that the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning…” Okay, you get the idea. (Odd that I am  reluctant to spell out B.S. given that the quote comes from a book published by Princeton University. Anyway…)

The book is called College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, and it’s actually fun to read, not stuffy at all, rather like a good lecture about the dubious history, dubious purpose, and dubious results of a college education, or, if you prefer, as I do and the author does, to consider the dubious and to celebrate the remarkable. Both are present, and have been since the very start. Early in the book, Abigail Adams can be found complaining about the current state of students, professors and education in general–that’s in 1776, but the complaints and criticisms date back to Greek and Roman times, long before our current institutions were a thought in anybody’s mind.


Today, there are about four thousand colleges in the United States. The author has visited about 100 of them, so I respect what he has to say, particularly as he discusses the liberal arts education that would provide, at least in part, the mechanism for the bullshit detector (there, I wrote it!) that is, in part, the reason for going to college in the first place. For a very long while, well, this is best said by Ohio State economics professor Richard Vedder:

with the possible exception of prostitution, teaching is the only profession that has had absolutely no productivity advance in the 2400 years since Socrates.”

A quote from former Johns Hopkins president William Brody is a nice addition:

if you went to a [college] class circa 1900 and you went today, it would look exactly the same, while you went to an automobile plant in 1900 and today, you wouldn’t recognize the place.”

The author is a college professor, and although he’s critical of the industry he clearly adores, he is quite clear on the statistics, and the reasons why college makes sense, worts and all.

Although not completely consistent with importance of a liberal arts education, or a college education generally, a college degree, even a Bachelor’s Degree, is a very good investment: those with a B.A. earn about 60 percent more than those whose resume lacks the degree. This fact leads to another one, and here, we begin to get at the real story of college in America:

if you are a child of a family making more than $90,000 per year, your odds of getting a B.A. by age twenty-four are roughly one in two; if your family’s income is between $60,000 and $90,000, your odds are roughly one in four; if your parents make less than $35,000, your odds are one in seventeen.”

It’s wrong to think about these patterns in isolation. Upscale students attend more selective colleges whose prestigious graduates are funneled into leadership roles in business, law and government. It’s a self-perpetuating system, the engine of social mobility in the United States even in the 21st century.

So that’s one argument in favor of college: economic success. The other argument demands a well-educated citizenry, what Professor Delbanco calls “the incubation of citizenship” as he defends the small group discussion in the above video. Strangely, this is not the argument that legislators focus upon–instead, they tend toward the more practical, and, in the long run, perhaps less significant, concern about the need for a population that understands ideas and makes wise decisions. College has always struggled with that role; those in law school and the like receive these messages and tend to think about these issues, but as for the rest of college students (and the rest of us, including those who have been through a more generalized college experience), not so much.

So here we are with a realist, a professor who seems to understand the arguments from multiple perspectives, stressing “a community of learning” on the one hand and recognizing, when considering a New York Times article, “for every one of those college-bound cars, there are scores of families whose children will be staying home to attend a commuter school without anything resembling traditional college life. Moreover, millions of college-age Americans never get to college in the first place.”

By the time they reach age twenty-six, “fewer than two-thirds of white high school graduates have enrolled in college.” The number is half for blacks, and slightly less for Hispanics. Among students who do enroll, more than a third never finish their degree.

There are so many issues, and often, it’s difficult for the average person to gain traction with many of them. This is precisely the place where a good college professor can make all the difference. And if you can’t afford or can’t quite make it to Princeton this month or this year, well, you (and I) now more fully understand the reason why many universities publish their professors’ best work in book form. Turns out, the book, which is also undergoing attack from every possible direction, remains a darned good idea for a hot sunny afternoon. I now know some things I didn’t know this morning, and I’m thinking about them hours later. Not quite the same as being in the presence of the man, but spending three hours reading about 200 pages of his well-written, well-edited ideas for just $17.95 (less if you buy online) is, simply, a good old-fashioned idea.

Encouraging Schools to Join the 21st Century

Darryl WestConventional public schools are “arranged to make things easy for the teacher who wishes quick and tangible results.” Furthermore, “the ordinary school impress[es] the little one into a narrow area, into a melancholy silence, into a forced attitude of mind and body.” No doubt, you’ve had a thought similar to this one: “if we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

There’s a reason for the old school language. The words were published in 1915 by educator John Dewey. A century later, the situation has begun to change, mostly, according to Brookings Institute vice president Darryl M. West, as a result of the digital revolution. Mr. West advances this theory by offering an ample range of examples in his new book, Digital Schools.

Quite reasonably, he begins by considering various attempts at school reform, education reform, open learning, shared learning, and so on. Forward-thinking educators fill their office shelves with books praising the merits of each new wave of reform, and praise the likes of Institute for Play, but few initiatives taken hold with the broad and deep impact that is beginning to define a digital education.

digital schoolsBlogs, wikis, social media, and other popular formats are obvious, if difficult to manage, innovations more familiar in student homes than in most classrooms, but the ways in which they democratize information–removing control from the curriculum-bound classroom and teacher and allowing students to freely explore–presents a gigantic shift in control.

Similarly, videogames and augmented reality, whether in an intentionally educational context or simply as a different experience requiring critical thinking skills in imaginary domains, are commonplace at home, less so in class, and, increasingly, the stuff of military education, MIT and other advanced academic explorations, and, here and there, the charge of a grant-funded program at a special high school. More is on the way.

Evaluation, assessment, measurement–all baked into the traditional way we think about school–are far more efficient and offer so many additional capabilities. No doubt, traditional thinkers will advance incremental innovation by mapping these new tools onto existing curriculum, perhaps a step in the right direction, however limited and short-sighted those steps may be. The big step–too large for most contemporary U.S. classrooms–is toward personalized learning and personalized assessment, but that would shift the role of the teacher in ways that some union leaders find uncomfortable.

The power behind West’s view is, of course, the velocity of change in the long-promising arena of distance learning. During the past ten years , the percentage of college students who have taken at least one distance learning course has tripled, and  passed 30 percent in 2011. Numbers are not available, but I suspect we’ve now passed the 50 percent mark. The book does not address the stunning growth of, for example, Coursera. Kevin Werbach, a Wharton faculty member, taught over 85,000 students in his first Coursera course (on gamification)–students from all of the world. Indeed, the current run rate is 1.4 million new Coursera sign-ups per month.

Mimi Ito is one of the more influential thinkers about modern education and its future. Click to read her bio.

Mimi Ito is one of the more influential thinkers about modern education and its future. Click to read her bio.

The author quotes education researcher Mimi Ito:

There is increasingly a culture gap between the modes of delivery… between how people learn and what is taught. [In addition to] the perception that classrooms are boring… students [now] ask, ‘Why should I memorize everything if I can just go online? … Students aren’t preparing kids for life.”

Is this a ground-breaking book. No, but it is useful compendium of the digital changes that are beginning to take root in classrooms across America. Yes, we’re behind the times. In many ways, students are far ahead of the institutions funded to teach them. The book serves notice: no longer are digital means experimental. Computer labs are being replaced by mobile devices. Students are taking courses from the best available teachers online, and not only in college. Many students are enrolled nowhere; they are simply taking courses because they want to learn or need to learn for professional reasons. Without formal enrollment, institutions begin to lose their way. The structure is beginning to erode. Just beginning. And it can be fixed, changed, transformed, amended, and otherwise modernized. And so, the helpful author provides an extensive list of printed links for interesting parties to follow.

Just out of curiosity, I called up Darrell M. West’s web page–it’s part of the Brookings Institution’s site–and, as I expected, he is a man of consider intellect and accomplishment.  And so, I hoped I would find the above-cited links as a web resource. I looked for Education under his extensive list of topics of interest but it wasn’t there. (Uh-oh?) I did find a section on his page called “Resources,” but the only available resource on that page was a 10MB photograph of Mr. West. I couldn’t find the links anywhere. Perhaps this can be changed so that all readers, educators and interested parties can make good use of his forward-thinking work.

Sorry–one more item–I just found a recent paper by Dr. West, and I thought you might find both the accompanying article and the link useful.

Here's a look at 42-year-old John Dewey in 1902. To learn more about him, click on the picture and read the Wikipedia article.

Here’s a look at 42-year-old John Dewey in 1902. To learn more about him, click on the picture and read the Wikipedia article.

A Teacher Who Paints Ideas

When a student faces a new subject, there is a certain comfort in structure, process, facts, and the rigorous routine that defines most teaching situations. Teachers find comfort in that structure: first, the basics, then, perhaps, the materials, then, the history followed by waves of increasingly specific information. In theory, it all makes sense. In practice, when faced with the sloppiness of real life, the structure may be exactly what’s not needed because it interferes with the real learning that occurs as a result of experimentation and making glorious mistakes.

I guess that’s why I had so much trouble understanding what Tom Hoffman was doing. Instead of writing a book that began with materials (in this case, watercolor paints, brushes, papers, and accessories), he begins by admitting that watercolor painting is not easy to do, that it is sloppy, messy, difficult to master, wasteful of expensive paper, and then eschews anything resembling a traditional learning process. Instead, he focuses on the most dangerous of all educational concepts: ideas.

Allow me to begin where he first captured my imagination, with a watercolor painting by an extraordinarily talented artist named Lars Lerin.

operaQuoting Hoffman:

The palette is limited to three colors, and almost all of the edges of the shapes are hard. In the realm of value, however, the artist pulls out all the stops. Never merely black, his deepest darks remain full of color. He limits the lightest lights to just a few stops, making everything else seem to be lit by the low gleam of a lantern in a gilded pattern.

With this glorious visual introduction, he begins where most instruction books ought to begin: by encouraging direct observation, followed by critical thinking (would this make a good painting? what appeals to me, and might also appeal to the person looking at my finished work?) and creative thinking (how can I bring the visual ideas to life in the best possible way?) Hoffman does not begin by focusing on materials. He begins by focusing on the process that every artist shares. This leads to two very helpful essays, one entitled “Knowing Where to Begin” and the other, quite reasonably, “Knowing When to Stop.” In between, he explains the process by examining a very common part of the painting process: thinking through the best way to visualize the shapes and forms and values with just enough detail to pull it all together.

Hoffman Skaftafell

Simplicity in pattern and form, a very effective work by Tom Hoffman.

Step back for a moment. Imagine learning history that way. It’s never about the details. It’s always about the whole form. (But in school curriculum, it’s always about the details. Which we always forget.)

A very colorful Juarez Market in Oaxaca is filled with detail. It’s the centerpiece of a chapter entitled “Knowing What Not to Paint.” This leads to thoughts and illustrations about shape and form, and a key concept: simplicity.

A lovely streetscape by the esteemed watercolorist Alvaro Castagnet show how color and light can be handled in the simplest possible way, and yet, with skill, they can result in a painting that appears to be quite complex. The secret, Hoffman explains, is thinking in layers.

Thinking in layers is an additive technique–place one layer of color, then another–but it requires subtractive thinking to begin. That is, you must look at a scene, observe it carefully, determine which areas can be isolated and painted with a single color wash without interfering with other areas. For example, a red wall might be washed, but the blue roof should not be washed in the same layer–unless you’re seeking purple results.

A market in Puerto Rico, painted by Tom Hoffman, provides an illustration of wide dynamic range (note the darks at the top, the lights in the distance),  layering and simple design for optimum impact.

A market in Puerto Rico, painted by Tom Hoffman, provides an illustration of wide dynamic range (note the darks at the top, the lights in the distance), layering and simple design for optimum impact.

Hoffman also encourages the use of a wide dynamic range: the lightest lights and the darkest darks are what makes a painting come to life. Too often, he explains, the range is almost exclusively in the middle tones, and, as a result, the work lacks energy, contrast, and a compelling reason for anybody to pay much attention. Again, appreciate the metaphor because it applies to so many aspects of life: dark and light, silent and boisterous, and so on.

Final lesson: simplify to the point of abstraction. His most powerful work tends to be simple masses of color, artfully arranged.

The name of the book is Watercolor Painting: A Comprehensive Approach to Mastering the Medium.

Watercolor Hoffman

Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America

DONCover

Happy new year.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

That sentence, and the ideas below, are parts of a book entitled Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America. Here are some of those ideas:

Shift the rules for campaign financing so that most of the money comes from most of the people. Currently, one-third of one percent of the people provide 90% of campaign funds. This drives special interests, and encourages a system based upon lobbyists that was never a good idea. And, while we on this track, let’s reduce the ratio of lobbyists to legislators: the current ratio of 23:1 (lobbyist to legislator) is probably too high by half (or more).

Let’s take control of our Federal budget (and, in time, our state budgets, too). In Porto Allegro, Brazil, a “citizen participation” approach to budgeting resulted in a 400% percent increase in school funding, and a dramatic increase in funds for clean water and sewers. Budgeting by citizen participation is a new movement that we want to encourage.

If Americans cut bottled water consumption by 80%, then the number of bottles, laid end-to-end, would circle the equator just once a day. Right now, we can circle the equator with bottles every 5 hours.

If each of us thinks more clearly about what we spend, and where we spend it, then the people living in an average American city (say, 750,ooo population) can add over 3,000 new local jobs and shift about $300,000 more into the local economy. How? By spending just 20% more on local, not national, businesses. Go to the local hardware store, the farmer’s market; don’t go to Wal-Mart or Walgreens. In the end, you’ll be richer for it. We all will.

Recognize that the high school drop out crisis is costing the U.S. at least half a trillion dollars each year. Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of school in the U.S. Encourage your legislators to take the time to fully understand the problem and to work with states and school districts to end this problem. The problem is not just the schools: it’s the support systems that do not provide sufficient support for lower-income families. An astonishing one in four American children live in poverty. We know how to change this: we need to focus on what worked during the LBJ years and the Clinton years, and do more of it. And, along the way, we need to invest about $360 million to fix crumbling school buildings. This priority pays off in so many ways: GDP, elimination of crime, family stability, reduction in prison population, so much more. We should no longer accept the idea that 25% of earth’s prison population resides in a U.S. prison–an outsized number for a nation with just 8 percent of the world’s people. Similarly, we should no longer accept the high price of education and the middling results that we achieve with those dollars. Other countries do better because their systems are more reasonable. We need to change the way we think about all of this, and we need to make it clear to legislators that this will be their last term if they do not accomplish what we need done.

Let’s get started on two substantial changes in the ways we work with our money. First, let’s start thinking in terms of a V.A.T., as most Western nations do. If the book’s calculations are correct, this should increase our available funds by about 13%. And second, let’s eliminate the 17% (average) payroll tax, reducing hiring costs for employers, as this model is proving to be more effective than our current approach. For more about this, Get America Working! (not the easiest website for clear presentation of ideas; the book is better).

In Canada, they spend $22 per person on noncommercial educational media (we call it public TV, public radio). In England, they spend $80 per person per year. In the U.S., we spend $1.37 per person per year (less than a bottle of water). If we increase funding to a more reasonable level, of, say, $75 per person per year (one bottle of water per week), we get something as good as the BBC for ourselves and our children. Noncommercial matters.

There’s much longer discussion about carbon footprints, waste, overconsumption, and the need for cars that average 100mpg. And another about rethinking just about everything related to the outsized defense budget and its underlying strategies. We haven’t got the health care concept down yet, but moving it into the public goods shopping cart seems to be a step in an appropriate direction.

We should all become familiar with, and promote, the 8 Global Millennium Development Goals that aim to:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and women’s empowerment
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability and better access to water and sanitation
  • Create a global partnership for development

So that’s a start. It’s going to be a busy year. And, I hope, one of our best.

Infographic: US Education Spending vs. Results

Doing some research, I came upon this colorful infographic that compares educational investment and results in a dozen different countries. No big surprises, but it’s easy to follow. It’s clear that Mexico spends a very small amount per student and achieves only modest results, and it makes sense to see France in the middle of per-capita spending and also in the middle of the results. Clearly, the US and the UK are out of whack–spending is high, but their results are middling. Why the mismatch? And why is the US’s purple circle so much larger than any other circle? Population accounts for only part of the reason why.

U.S. Education versus the World via Master of Arts in Teaching at USC
Via: MAT@USC | Master’s of Arts in Teaching

Brooke’s Illustrated Guide to Media Theory

On the Media host Brooke Gladstone, in cartoon form, illustrated by Josh Neufeld for The Influencing Machine, “a media manifesto.”

Brooke Gladstone is a brave woman. In the interest of explaining why media matters, she loses her head, plays the fool, embeds an Intel chip in her skull, becomes the robotic vitruvian woman, takes on the whole American political system (from its start in the 1700s), allows herself to be drawn in a hundred goofy ways by cartoonist Josh Neufeld, and…while on the high-wire, without a net…attempts to tell the truth about media and its influence on the ways that we think, believe, and act. In the early stages of this graphic non-novel’s development, it was “a media manifesto in comic book form.” Close enough. (If you’re interested, here’s how they did it.)

The Influencing Machine is now a paperback comic, the equivalent of a graphic novel, I guess, but it’s not easy reading. It’s a well-researched, deeply thoughtful examination of why media behaves as it does, how media interacts with law and government, and the interaction of history and philosophy. Pictures and the graphic novel style keep things light, and concise, but this is not a book to be read once, and it’s not a book to be read quickly. The starting point is news and public information, which may seem appropriate, but for most people, most media consumption is not news or information, it’s entertainment. And in that domain–which should include children’s programming, scripted comedy, scripted drama, and the variety shows that keep the masses satisfied (and have for centuries)–media’s influence is powerful, but rarely mentioned here.

She begins with a Victorian era story about machines that control people’s minds–or the fears that such a thing might someday exist.

Then, she explores the ideal of a perfect balance between effective governance and free flow of truthful information…only to find that such a balance is always outweighed by the government’s need for control.

Quoting German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860):

Journalists are like dogs–whenever anything moves, they begin to bark.”

Most profound–and most evident in today’s journalism–is “The Great Refusal.” Simply stated, by Gladstone, “Few reporters proclaim their own convictions. Fewer still act on them to serve what they believe to be the greater good.” With pressure from government to suppress potentially important information (for example, think: embedded journalists and the trade-offs they must make), and lacking the necessary resources to provide information based upon research and time to consider the story so that it can be presented in context, most journalists simply parrot press releases or official statements. Along the way, they must steer clear of various biases, and play within what most people perceived as reasonable boundaries. This behavior gets everybody into trouble because the whole point of journalism should be uncovering stories that ask the difficult questions…but the system is not set up to encourage, fund, or accept that kind of journalism. Instead, posits Gladstone, we live within a comfortable doughnut. What’s more, any journalist who strays finds himself or herself either (a) famous, at least for a while, or (b) difficult to employ. The risk of the latter is very real, and so, the status quo rules.

And so it goes, as Gladstone attempts (and is drawn to be) a bird of a feather, flocking together in homophily while watching global warming destroy habitat–she calls the phenomenon of groupthink “incestuous amplification” and illustrates it with references to global warming and weapons of mass destruction. She considers reasons to be okay and reasons to panic. She wonders about dumbing down and frets about the half  of Americans who never read literature. She briefly touches on intellectual property laws, and G.K. Chesterton’s statement about journalism:

Journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”

And she wraps up with notions of globalism, and the ways that news is now a 24/7 global enterprise whose stories may affect us all.

There are few answers here, and the questions, well, they’re often difficult to shape and impossible to answer. At least she’s asking the questions, and placing herself in the middle of a digital storm. Thank you, Brooke, for steering clear of the obvious text presentation (mea culpa here, I’ll admit, as I write another few hundred words of text). The visual presentation, and the illustrations by Josh Neufeld, bring important ideas to life. And if there’s any interest in continuing the adventure to explore the many unexamined territories in the media landscape, count me among your first readers.

We need to talk about all of this stuff because the forces that demand silence are both powerful and ubiquitous. Even if it’s complex, even though it’s difficult to form into digestible bites, even if most people wonder why we’re obsessed with the way that media works, ought to work, and, sometimes, doesn’t work at all.

Below, some sample pages:

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