The Right Dog for the Job

This article was published in Education Week in January, 2009. I think it’s terrific. The author is Marion Brady, “a retired high school teacher, college professor, and textbook author who writes frequently on education. He lives in Cocoa, Fla.”

220px-Bordercollie-ankc-agilityDriving the rural roads of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, I’ve occasionally been fortunate enough to be blocked by sheep being moved from one pasture to another.

I say “fortunate” because I’ve gotten to watch an impressive performance by a dog—a border collie.

And what a performance! A single, midsize dog herding two or three hundred sheep, keeping them moving in the right direction, rounding up strays, knowing how to intimidate but not cause panic, funneling them all through a gate, and obviously enjoying the challenge.

Why a border collie? Why not an Airedale or Zuchon, or another of about 400 breeds listed on the Internet?

Because, among those for whom herding sheep is serious business, there’s general agreement that border collies are better than any other dog at doing what needs to be done. They have “the knack.” That knack is so important, those who care most about border collies even oppose their being entered in dog shows. They’re certain that would lead to border collies being bred to look good, and looking good isn’t the point. What counts is talent, interest, innate ability, performance.

Other breeds are no less impressive in other ways. If you’re lost in a snowstorm in the Alps, you don’t need a border collie. You need a big, strong dog with a good nose, lots of fur, wide feet, and a great sense of direction for returning with help. You need a Saint Bernard.

If varmints are sneaking into your henhouse, killing your chickens, and escaping down a little hole in a nearby field, you don’t need a border collie or a Saint Bernard. You need a fox terrier.

Want to sniff luggage for bombs? Chase felons? Stand guard duty? Retrieve downed game birds? Guide the blind? Detect certain diseases? Locate earthquake survivors? Entertain audiences? Play nice with little kids? Go for help if Little Nell falls down a well? With training, dogs can do those jobs well.

So, let’s set performance standards and train all dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. Leave no dog behind. Two-hundred-pound mastiffs may have a little trouble with the chase-the-fox-into-the-little-hole standard, and Chihuahuas will probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard. But, hey, standards are standards! No excuses! No giving in to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Hold dogs accountable.

220px-Mastif_angielski_pregowany_768Here’s a question: Why are one-size-fits-all performance standards inappropriate to the point of silliness when applied to dogs, but accepted without question when applied to kids? If someone tried to set up a national program to teach every dog to do everything that various breeds are able to do, the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would have them in court in a New York minute. But when authorities mandate one-size-fits-all performance standards for kids, and the standards aren’t met, it’s the kids and teachers, not the standards, that get blamed.

Consider, for example, what’s happening in math “reform.” School systems across the country are upping both the number of required courses and their level of difficulty. Why? Is it because math teaches transferable thinking skills? There’s no research supporting that contention. Is it because advanced math is required for college work? Where’s the evidence that colleges have a clear grasp of America’s educational challenge and therefore should be leading the education parade? Is it because most adults make routine use of higher math? No. Is it because American industry is begging for more mathematicians? Not according to statistics on available job opportunities. Is it because math has played an important role in America’s technological achievements, and if we’re to continue to be pre-eminent, a full range of math courses needs to be taught?

Bingo! And true. But how much sense does it make to run every kid in America through the same math regimen, when only a small percentage has enough mathematical ability to make productive use of it? How much sense does it make to put a math whiz in an Algebra 2 classroom with 25 or 30 aspiring lawyers, dancers, automatic-transmission specialists, social workers, surgeons, artists, hairdressers, language teachers? How much sense does it make to put hundreds of thousands of kids on the street because they can’t jump through a particular math hoop?

Some suggestions:

One: Stop fixating on the American economy. Trying to shape kids to fit the needs of business and industry rather than the other way around is immoral.

Two: Stop massive, standardized testing. For a fraction of the cost of high-stakes subject-matter tests, every kid’s strengths and weaknesses can be identified using inexpensive inventories of interests, abilities, and learning styles.

Three: Eliminate grade levels. Start with where kids are, help them go as far as they can go as fast as they can go, then give them a paper describing what they can do, or a Web site where they can do it for themselves.

Four: When kids are ready for work, push responsibility for teaching specialized skills and knowledge onto users of those skills and knowledge—employers. Occupation-related instruction such as that now being offered in magnet schools will never keep up with the variety of skills needed or their rates of change. Apprenticeships and intern arrangements will go a long way toward smoothing the transition into responsible adulthood.

Five: Abandon the assumption that spending the day “covering the material” in a random mix of five or six subjects educates well. Only one course of study is absolutely essential. Societal cohesion and effective functioning require participation in a broad conversation about values, beliefs, and patterns of action, their origins, and their probable and possible future consequences. The young need to engage in that conversation, and a single, comprehensive, systemically integrated course of study could prepare them for it. It should be the only required course.

Six: Limiting required study to a single course would result in an explosion of educational options (and save a lot of money). We say we respect individual differences, say we value initiative, spontaneity, and creativity, say we admire the independent thinker, say every person should be helped to realize her or his full potential, say the young need to be introduced to the real world—then we spend a half-trillion dollars a year on a system of education at odds with our rhetoric. Aligning the institution with our core values would give it the legitimacy and generate the excitement it now lacks.

Alternatively, we can continue on our present course. For almost 20 years, “reform” has been driven by the assumption that “the system”—the math, science, language arts, and social studies curriculum in near-universal use in America’s schools and colleges since 1892—is sound, from which it follows that poor performance must be the fault of the teachers and kids. This, of course, calls for tough love—standards, accountability, raised bars, rigor, competitive challenges, public shaming, pay for performance, penalties for nonperformance.

Wrong diagnosis, so wrong cure. The problem isn’t the kids and the teachers; it’s the system. More than a century of failed attempts to drive square pegs into round holes suggests it’s past time to stop treating human variability as a problem rather than as an evolutionary triumph, and begin making the most of it.

Marion Brady is a retired high school teacher, college professor, and textbook author who writes frequently on education. He lives in Cocoa, Fla.

Education Week, 28 January 2009

Goodbye, Columbus

Juan Ponce de León discovered "America" but Columbus gets the credit!

Juan Ponce de León discovered “America” but Columbus gets the credit!

(Hello, Ponce de León. What a story you have to tell! Those who are impatient may scroll down about 2/3 to the part I’ve marked in red white (grey, really) and blue.

It’s an odd story, one that brings tomatoes to Italy,, and eventually celebrates a favorite son for something he didn’t do.

You know that the Vikings first showed up in what is now North America. That happened about a thousand years ago. Some Vikings stayed for awhile, started families, and settlements.  The first child of European descent born on these shores was probably named “Snoori,” a name I’ve always liked.

For several thousand years before the Vikings visited, there were natives in North America and South America. They probably arrived, well, by taking the l-o-n-g way around, on foot and on animal, working their way up from Africa, then through Asia, and across the land bridge into what is now Alaska. Perhaps they arrived in other ways, but that seems less likely because boats were small and unsophisticated, and oceans were large and dangerous to navigate.

During the 1400s, Europeans were becoming rich by trading goods found in Asia. Mostly, these goods traveled on the Silk Roads, a series of trade routes that were subject to piracy, tribal feuds, and every kind of evil deed. There were all sorts of theories about the best way to travel not by land, but by sea. Nobody was particularly frightened about falling off the earth; the idea that the world was round, and that circumnavigation was possible was accepted long before Columbus showed up. (It’s one of the earliest urban legends, utter nonsense promoted in fanciful children’s books for a time.)

Columbus was an entrepreneur in search of capital for his new enterprise–put together half the necessary funds, and found the rest by sweet-talking King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. They promised him a cut of the riches, and a ridiculous title, Emperor of the Ocean Seas. And they agreed to provide three ships. All for the glory of Spain, and the gold that everyone believed he would find. Make no mistake: it was all about the gold.

He took a wrong turn.

He was heading for what he believed was Japan, or, at least, Asia. Instead, he found an island in what is now the Caribbean Sea. (Certainly, Columbus Day should not be celebrated as a milestone in navigation history.)

Remember: Columbus was an entrepreneur. Perhaps it is that spirit that we should celebrate on Columbus Day. Certainly, there are very good reasons not to celebrate him at all, unless, of course, you share a very dark view of America and what it represents to the world.

Columbus kept a diary. Here, he writes about the native people, the Taino or Arawak people who greeted his crew with curiosity and apparent kindness.

They are very simple and honest and exceedingly liberal with all they have, none of them refusing anything he may possess if he is asked for it. They exhibit great love toward all others in preference to themselves.”

You’ll recall the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria–the three ships provided by Spain for the first voyage. The Pinta’s captain defied Columbus’ orders, and abandoned the fleet. The Santa Maria was destroyed on a reef. Columbus high-tailed it back to Spain on the Nina, grabbing a bit of gold, kidnapping some natives. A second voyage was authorized, this time with the specific intention of becoming rich with gold. The Taino people were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to FIND THE GOLD.

Dressed in Taino garb and makeup, two contemporary Dominican girls demonstrate that these were real people with families and traditions. Each year, we celebrate an American hero who killed most of the Taino people.

Dressed in Taino garb and makeup, two contemporary Dominican girls demonstrate that these were real people with families and traditions. Each year, we celebrate an American hero who killed most of the Taino people.

Gold was not to be found. Columbus treated the Taino severely. He cut off their hands (Happy Columbus Day!)

Third Voyage. This time, a Priest named Bartolomé de las Casas joined, and kept a diary. It’s filled with documentation, generally considered reliable, about Columbus’ treatment of the natives: forced labor, brutality, horrific violence against children, babies being murdered by swinging them against trees or feeding them to dogs. From the Priest’s diary:

The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades”, wrote Las Casas. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write”

We celebrate Columbus Day because it was the beginning of the new world. In a twisted way, this is apt: the United States is the nation that was settled, mostly, by killing the natives who lived in this land. Those who believe that there is a greater reason for the celebration, an uplifting of humankind, the initiation of an era of discovery should probably consider where Mr. Columbus went, and did not go. No account brings Columbus into what is now the U.S.A. He traveled to several Caribbean Islands, notably Hispaniola (now, Haiti and the Dominican Republic,

Who discovered “America?” That’s a very challenging question. Let’s rephrase it: “Who discovered the United States of America” would trap out Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.

The earliest answer would seem to be the people who crossed Bernicia, the land bridge into Alaska around 16,000 BCE (before current era). Focusing only on the lower 48, there’s evidence dating back to about 13,000 BCE, known as the Clovis Sites.

The Vikings showed up, but probably not in what becomes the U.S.A. Sadly, our early attempts to invade, annex, or build a new country with friends nearby all failed, so Canada become a separate nation. After that, several hundred years (the Dark Ages) go by without much interest in or capability to explore, pretty much until Columbus and his kind.

Juan Ponce de León traveled with Columbus on his second voyage. He was a volunteer, a gentleman from a noble family. There were 200 such gentlemen.

For your reference, here's a map showing Hispaniola (currently occupied by Haiti and Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and nearby Florida.

For your reference, here’s a map showing Hispaniola (currently occupied by Haiti and Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and nearby Florida.

Columbus and his entourage apparently visited Borinquen, which we now call Puerto Rico. (In fact, when Puerto Rico finally becomes a U.S. state, the Columbus legend will come true: in that case, he would have been the explorer who discovered what become the United States of America. [For those who wish to make a case that Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S., so technically this is true today, I ask why, if Puerto Rico plays such an important role in American History, it has not been invited to join the club.)

In any case, as a result of his military leadership (de León was involved in a notable native massacre), he become Governor of the Spanish territory. Natives told him of a land to the northwest, a land that could be reached by “crossing many rivers’. He told the King, but remained as Governor until he lost out in a tussle with–who else–the son of Christopher Columbus, who was legally enforcing his father’s rights. Eventually, the King stopped the political nastiness, and after de León returned to Spain, he outfitted three ships and headed for some unexplored lands. He found what is now Florida on April 2, 1513.

Every year, we celebrate Columbus Day in the USA. Many of our Spanish-speaking neighbors in the western hemisphere celebrate Día de la Raza instead; it is, in many places, a celebration of the race, not Columbus the explorer.

Somehow, on April 2, 2013 — exactly 500 years after the first European explorer set foot on what is now a U.S. state, the first moment when Europeans visited the  part of the New World that became our nation–we did nothing.

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.

Maine School District to Buy Kindergarteners iPads

Here it comes. The first kindergarten class gets iPads. Watch how quickly the others come online–and how quickly school gets the same treatment as, say, photographic film or CDs or any of the other stuff that’s been digitized. Story in video form below, or, if you prefer, actual words written on the screen by PCMag.

http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2383362,00.asp

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