I’m always on the lookout for educational trends. Over the past couple of months the usual suspects who speak at education conferences have been toting around copies of Thomas Friedman’s new book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. These knuckleheads and the administrators who love them can’t resist the temptation to quote Friedman in reverential terms. One popular speaker uses Friedman to support his new mantra, “American students need to develop a global work ethic.” What the heck does that mean? Should U.S. high school students produce SpongeBob shirts for Wal-Mart?

I admired Tom Friedman. I found his insights into Middle Eastern politics interesting. I paid $65 to see him speak, but he read from the aforementioned book, virtually page-by-page. The naive yarn he spun stunned me.

For those of you who have not surrendered $27.50 to Mr. Friedman, allow me summarize The World is Flat. The Indians are going to eat your children. If any remain, the Chinese will kill the rest a few years later.

This book is a hysterical screed about how the Internet has made it possible for developing countries to threaten the American Way. Of course, our schools are maligned with test scores and insults about our lazy students.

No matter how complex the issue–education, economics, international affairs or technology–an expert is anyone willing to speak with Friedman. An e-mail from a gentleman Friedman met while waiting in an airport is included as a prescription for improving our schools and global competitiveness. The history of personal computing, as told by the Microsoft Corp., is littered with misinformation, glaring omissions and Ron Popeil-like amazement. Imagine if your grandmother explained Internet protocols and you begin to get the idea. Southwest lets you print your own boarding passes. Copying machines can fax… yada yada yada.

The book is littered with self-evident news of the information age. Think of it as The Weekly Reader Guide to Globalization or Current Events for Dummies. If you have not used the Web, read a newspaper, watched TV or left the house since 1980, this book is for you.

Wisdom is not always found in sound bites or factoids. Comparisons regarding the number of engineering graduates in China, India and the U.S. are meaningless. The only way we can “catch-up” is if Mr. and Mrs. Friedman do their part and birth a billion American children.

Friedman breathlessly tells the tale of Rajesh, an Indian programmer who owns a computer gaming company. Rajesh’s employees are, of course, smarter and much harder working than Americans and the ‘Net allows them to compete in the global marketplace. The most shocking revelation is that Rajesh’s company recently bought the rights to use Charlie Chaplin’s image for computer games. “That’s right–a start-up Indian game company owns the Chaplin image for use in mobile computer games.”

Say it ain’t so!

How many 14- to 25-year-old boys want to play a Charlie Chaplin computer game? There is a reason why American companies don’t invest millions in Charlie Chaplin-themed games. Nobody will buy them. If this is the best evidence Friedman can offer of global high-tech entrepreneurial threats, our test scores can safely slide for a few more decades.

Even if you are fascinated by what Friedman reports, his writing gave me a toothache. Every idea is named, 1.0, 2.0, etc… to demonstrate Tom’s high-tech hipness. Cutesiness abounds. In discussing the end of Communism, Friedman writes, “Someone else was raising a glass–not of champagne but of thick Turkish coffee. His name was Osama Bin Laden and he had a different narrative.” The book is peppered with spew-inducing passages like, “When the Berlin Wall becomes the Berlin Mall…” I suspect Nipsey Russell was the ghostwriter.

Maybe I’m wrong and the book is fabulous. It’s still alarming that so many school leaders feel compelled to seek advice from people who know nothing about education. Such pop business books create great PowerPoint bullets, but do little to transform classroom practice. You may curry favor with the Business Roundtable, but will do little to benefit children. Seeking wisdom from a variety of sources is laudable, but books sold in airport gift shops should not set education policy.

This article was originally published in the January 2006 issue of District Administration Magazine.

Your school could benefit from a bit of holiday retail therapy

I often tell education audiences that there was a week, maybe ten days, in 1987 when your school had better technology than kids have in their bedrooms or backpacks. That was a historical accident that will never happen again. Wise educators not only leverage the talent, knowledge and expertise of their students, but their stuff too. It is incumbent upon us to not only build upon what kids know and expect when they come to school, but kids also own technology that they may enhance the learning process.

The holiday season offers a chance for some educational stimulus if you’re a savvy shopper. Here’s how…

Let Santa bring the iPod
Some schools are building iPod Labs. iPod Labs! I have no problem with the iPod, I own at least eight of them and am on my fourth iPhone. However, I have serious problems with the notion of iPod labs. 1) Didn’t we litigate the issues of efficacy regarding computer labs twenty-five years ago? 2) iPod Labs? Really? Does this mean that kids lineup from shortest to tallest once a fortnight to go visit the school iPods because they would never see one otherwise?

Are they then taught how to use an iPod? Are there iPod tests? Do some kids get a “D” in iPod?

When did iPods become worthy of study?

If your school believes that iPods hold educational value, especially the those capable of shooting video and monitoring physical activity, quietly suggest to parents that they get their children one as a gift that will be welcomed by the curriculum. There is no reason for schools to fetishize the iPod or spend limited funds on what kids might already own. Besides, the iPod is the ultimate personal technology. Sharing one stinks.

Great 21st Century educators spend 30 minutes per month at Toys ‘R Us
This has two benefits. 1) You find great toys that may enhance learning; and 2) Educators gain a greater respect for the world in which their students live. Hit the toy store, read the weekend sale circulars and you may find all sorts of cool teaching aids available for a song. Past holiday seasons have led to sub-$50 digital microscopes like the Eyeclops, low-cost video projectors, programmable robots, inexpensive drawing tablet, Hot Wheels cars capable of measuring velocity and more.

Holiday sales are an opportunity to stock up on batteries and extra LEGO. Robotics brings S.T.E.M. to life, but who wants to build an elevator without a building around it? Stores often offer buckets of LEGO bricks as a loss-leader. Batteries are often discounted too. Stock up!

Hit the red tag table
Last year’s sales duds may be just the thing you need to bring your classroom to life. That slightly sad puppet or Teddy bear may be just the actor you need for video productions. That $14 Blue Man Group Percussion Tubes set can help score a podcast or be played by a robot your kids invent. Art supplies and creepy failed action figures may be just what you’ve been looking for and at “such a price!”

Become an Amazon.com Associate
Why should kids write book reports when they can review books on Amazon.com and have their reviews actually help others? Alternatively, ask students to write reviews of their favorite books, place those recommendations on your class web site, blog or Wiki and if you become an Amazon.com Associate, up to 6% of all purchases may be earned to purchase books for your classroom library. This may motivate student reading and provides an authentic audience for their writing.

Treat Yourself or a Colleague to a Book or Two
I have assembled a large collection of books that should interest creative educators and parents for The Constructivist Consortium. Peruse the virtual bookstore and Amazon will deliver the books to you in just a few days.

I also created a list of required reading for those interested in “school reform” for The Huffington Post. This article includes fifteen or so classics on school improvement.

Use your imagination and start shopping!

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Today, I received my copy of the brand new softcover edition of David Perkins’ terrific book, Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. I love this book and have given away countless copies, but the best thing about the new softcover edition is that I was asked by the publisher to provide a blurb for the back cover. My blurb now joins Howard Gardner and Linda Darling-Hammond – The Blurber Hall of Fame!

The final blurb was heavily edited to proper blurb length, but the following is what I originally wrote as an endorsement of Making Learning Whole.

An instant classic! Making Learning Whole will be used for decades by those interested in a framework for making classrooms better places for learning. The book performs a great service by reminding educators that each student comes first – complete with individual needs, talents, experience, curiosity and passion. The job of curriculum is to connect personal experience with powerful ideas, not deliver a bunch of facts in a mysterious incomprehensible sequence. Perkins takes such a common sense metaphor, playing the whole game, and uses it to transform the learning experience for each student.

For educators seeking a practical way to create productive contexts for learning, Making Learning Whole, is a superior approach to the top-down pedagogical tricks advanced by Understanding by Design.

You may purchase your own copy of Making Learning Whole by clicking any of the links or the book cover below.