Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale
And yet in 2005, the notion of a laptop for every student appears to be more controversial than ever. In fact, the proverbial laptop has hit the fan across the country. Shame on us!
The Cobb County, Georgia schools were well on their way to purchasing 63,000 iBooks for teachers and students when a cranky politician sued and got a judge to order an end to the initiative. The cause of the judicial intervention was an accusation of fraud. Voters approved a tax levy designed to “upgrade obsolete computer workstations,” yet the judge seems to think that purchasing laptops does not represent an upgrade. This is a distinction without difference.
My experience suggests that parents eagerly embrace sincere efforts to revolutionize education.
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and Marietta Daily Journal have featured hysterical reports on the laptop initiative for months. They smell blood and are going after district personnel for among other crimes, having been involved in the planning process and funding teacher professional development. The local press was outraged that Cobb County decided to purchase Apple iBooks instead of the Dell laptops that Henrico County, Virginia just bought for $50 less per unit.
If your educational goals consist of students making four slide PowerPoint slides about frogs to disinterested audiences or using the web to find five interesting facts about Spiro Agnew, then sure, go to Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest laptops. You might even ask kids to bring their PSPs to class and use those instead.
Fiscal prudence with the public purse is noble, but it is irresponsible to make computer purchases based solely on price. Not all computers are created equally. A public agency should be able to make the case that the bundled iLife creativity suite and operating system that Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal says, “leaves Windows XP in the dust,” is worth a few extra dollars per unit. A legitimate educational rationale should be able to be made for purchasing Macs if a district so chooses.
Henrico County, VA made a great contribution to educational computing five years ago when they found a way to purchase more than 20,000 iBooks without raising taxes. Since then their missteps and public pronouncements have made it more difficult for other schools to embrace 1:1 computing. As the Governor of Maine fought for his laptop legislation, Henrico was in the news for inappropriate web use and an overreaction to isolated student mischief. This led Maine and other jurisdictions to accept crippled operating systems that calm the public’s fears, but create unintended consequences down the road. Disabling iTunes means no Tupac, but it also means no Martin Luther King, no Garageband music composition, no podcasting and no videoconferences with NASA scientists.
Just as Cobb County’s laptop plans were hitting their stride, Henrico struck again. Their school board loudly “dumped” Apple and signed a contract with Dell for their next round of laptops. Henrico officials explained that iBooks don’t have Microsoft Office on them. That’s funny. Lots of other schools run Office on their iBooks? Why are school districts issuing press releases announcing their purchases? Why does anyone care? I have no idea which brand of school bus or tater-tots Henrico purchases, why are laptops different?
To complete the Apple exorcism, Henrico decided to sell the dreaded iBooks to the public for $50 each. This led to what is now known as the “iRiot” in which 17 people were trampled and four were hospitalized. CNN reported a woman soiled herself and a guy used a folding chair to beat off other shoppers. Rather than apologize, a district official suggested that the event had “entertainment value.”
Whatever it says on your business card, you’re in sales.
When the legislature opposed his laptop plan, Maine Governor King traveled the state leading creative laptop-based history lessons and generating popular support. He spoke of the democratization of knowledge and opportunity. When the Governor proposed that Maine become “the learning state” with a reenergized economy, he demanded that politicians support the initiative.
Whatever level of public support Cobb County’s plans enjoyed, it was insufficient to ward off the opposition. The public was offered incremental gains in teacher use of computers, a modest gain in students looking up stuff on the Internet at least once a day from 20-50% and a promise that 60% of students will occasionally use brainstorming software. Textbook content would be delivered via the laptop. Woo hoo! I’ve got goose bumps! Where do I send my check?
Worst of all, the district lacked the courage to say that every student would be expected to use the laptop. How can someone opt-out of using the principal instrument for intellectual work, knowledge acquisition and creative expression? Can a student opt-out of using books? Express a moral objection to lectures?
Amidst the unambitious benchmarks and narrow vision, the district’s FAQ just makes stuff up, such as in the case of literature instruction, “software and Internet access can provide access to nearly every published title.”
I’ve worked with many 1:1 schools over the past fifteen years and have found it remarkably easy to justify the investment to auditoriums full of parents. It’s an easy sale when you offer a vision of children learning in unprecedented ways. I share examples of at-risk students increasing attendance and engaging in sophisticated projects, sophisticated concepts being learned in ways impossible just a few years ago, enhanced creativity, more work-related social interactions and learning 24/7, not just between the bells. Images of children participating in the construction of modern knowledge as mathematicians, composers, artists, engineers, poets and scientists appeal to the hopes and dreams of parents.
We need to do a much better job of selling the dream of what computers can bring to the learning process, but first we need to create some compelling models for citizens to embrace. We’ll have plenty of time to do so while we clean up the public relations mess created by the recent ham-fisted laptop implementations.
An old friend and colleague got a new job at an education marketing/communication company where he believed they wanted actual content. He asked me to share some views on educational leadership. So, I took the time to formulate responses for his august publication. Sadly, it appears that the new publication seeks to be a low-rent version of EdSurge, focused on aggregating links and pro-vendor happy talk. Therefore, I humbly share the unpublished interview with my dozen of loyal social media readers.
Question: What do educators need to know today?
- Shameless self-promotion is the key to all good things in education.
Sixteen years of politics have successfully eroded the public’s confidence in public education. Every school needs a Minister of Propaganda to inform the community of the wonderful things happening in classrooms. If the adults feel incapable of performing this role, find a fifteen year-old student to deputize.
- We stand on the shoulders of giants.
I once heard President Clinton say, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Put down the Twitter machine, read some books, attend conferences, and learn from great educators.
- I want to live in a world where kids wake up at three AM clamoring to get back to school to work on a project they care about and where teachers ask themselves, “How do I make this the best seven hours of a kid’s life?”
- There is nothing to be gained from reading “get rich quick” books sold at airport gift shops.
Thomas Friedman, Frank Bruni, Steven Covey, Michael Horn, Clayton Christensen, and Dan Pink are no match for Herbert Kohl, John Dewey, Loris Malaguzzi, Seymour Papert, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, or Frank Smith. A suggested reading list may be found at http://cmkfutures.com/reading/
- The current fascination with “Big Data Analytics” and “AI” will result in classrooms none of you will send your kids to.
Rather than wait for a dystopian future, there are things we can do today to make schools better places for learning.
- We need to fight amnesia.
Since “No Child Left Behind,” mountains of wisdom and evidence have been erased from our professional practice. For example, the debate over approaches to literacy ranges all of the way from punitive phonics to painful phonics. Sound commonsense practices, such as whole language, are no longer even debated.
- Removing agency from teachers makes them less effective, not more.
- It is time for urgency.
As Jonathan Kozol says, “You are only 7 once.” Microcomputers have now been in schools for close to two generations. It is high time we stop debating the merits of modernity.
- We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.
We can afford a multimedia laptop and cello for every child.
- If every school had a strong instrumental music program, there might not be a President Trump.
- “Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.” – Deborah Meier
- Pearson is not your friend.
Question: When did a deep knowledge of teaching practices and education philosophy become a hindrance?
Around 1985, a couple of years after A Nation at Risk, legislatures around the world declared, “Teaching ain’t nothin’,” and replaced rich and varied teacher education curricula with Animal Control and Curriculum Delivery. The art of teaching and self-contained interdisciplinary elementary classrooms were replaced with departmentalized, mechanical efficiency schemes.
Unqualified is the new qualified. Appointing unqualified folks, like Joel Klein or Betsy DeVos, to leadership positions signals a corrosive message throughout the school system – educators can not be trusted to lead schools.
It is impossible to overstate the impact of the anti-intellectual assault on public education led by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family, and Teach for America. It is preposterous to argue against continuing education for educators. Why isn’t there Hedgefund Trader for America or Surgeon for America?
Question: What are the top three things Gary Stager University would teach prospective teachers and principals?
- Teaching and learning are not the same thing. Learning is a verb and not the direct result of having been taught. Learning is natural. Children do not need to be tricked or coerced into learning when engaged in meaningful pursuits. Whenever faced with a classroom decision, educators should rely on the mantra, “Less Us, More Them.” Students always profit when maximum agency is shifted to them.
- The “project” should be the smallest unit of concern to educators. Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Experiences are best supported through interesting learner-centerered projects.
- Classroom management is only necessary when you go into a classroom thinking you need to manage it. We need to lower the level of antagonism between adults and children in order to create productive contexts for learning. If your temperament and worldview are better suited to being a prison guard, you have made a serious vocational error.
This time of year, the “news” is full of heartwarming back-to-school tales of good citizens buying school supplies for needy classrooms. Pop-music footnotes, Katy Perry and Pharrell the Plagiarist have both engaged in selfless acts of
corporate shilling philanthropy shameless publicity to help students get school supplies. Donors Choose has created a social media platform where teachers can beg crowdfund for crayons and Kleenex. (Read my article about Donors Choose)
Ain’t it swell that school supply supplying is bigger and better than ever?
I will not help teachers commit suicide by supporting these feel good attempts to turn basic public school funding into an act of charity. Each time educators normalize deprivation and substitute charity as social justice withheld, they will find themselves with fewer classroom resources. Such actions also spurn greater public school privatization and devaluing of teachers.
Q: You know who should pay for school supplies?
A: Tax payers!
Perhaps corporations and pop stars could begin paying their fair share of taxes so that Katy Perry isn’t forced to enrich Bain Capital’s
Mitt Romney’s Staples.
But, but, but, but, but… teachers spend a fortune on classroom supplies that their students need. Right, I get it. I do too. I spent $1,000 the first month I taught 4th grade. That’s not the point.
First of all, teachers should be able to deduct those costs off their income taxes. Second, public schools should be adequately funded. Third, teachers should stop contributing to consumerism and ask what their kids really need.
Yes, I’m going there. Every time a teacher requires 4 of these, 3 of those… a specific brand of pen, or an official notebook they contribute to needless family strife and exacerbate inequality.
When you require a Trapper Keeper (the Volvo of notebooks) or ban the Trapper Keeper (the three-hole punched incubus), you do not “teach organizational skills” as much as you teach compliance, reinforce prehistoric educational practices, and place a needless financial strain on your students’ families. It’s a freakin’ notebook for God’s sake. If a teacher is concerned with enforcing whether a student writes on one of both sides of a paper, or cares about the brand or color of their notebook, they should seek professional help.
Parents should stop worrying about this nonsense and expect public schools to be adequately funded and stocked with necessary supples – as is required by law and practice.
We are the richest nation in the history of the world. We can afford a cello and laptop for every child. It is a sin to beg for pencils.
So, let’s review. I salute the folks who wish to contribute to public education. Volunteering, contributing to organizations like Access Books, bring a performance to school, or pay for things kids might love are a much better idea. Every time a school wastes a second fundraising for basic supplies, a billionaire replaces a teacher with a YouTube video
Last year, my friends at Intel invited me to participate in a breakfast summit at the Museum of Contemporary Art overlooking the Sydney Opera House. The other invited guests seated around the table represented captains of industry, distinguished academics, and leaders of assorted acronyms. We each had 2-3 minutes to solve the problems with school, 21st Century skills, S.T.E.M, S.T.E.A.M. girls and technology, economic development, Coding in the classroom, teacher education, and a host of other challenges that normally require 5-6 minutes of breathless rhetoric or clever slogans.
I had the luxury of speaking last. I began by saying, “The first thing we need to do is find a cure for amnesia.” Those armed with “solutions” or prescriptions for “reforming” education do not lack for chutzpah. A sense of perspective and awareness of history are their greatest deficits.
I once heard President Clinton tell the National School Boards Association, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere before.” We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants, but Silicon Valley smart-alecks and the politicians they employ behave as if “history begins with me.”
During the Intel breakfast I pointed out a few historic facts:
- 1:1 computing began at a girls school in Australia a quarter century ago for the express purpose of reinventing education by programming across the curriculum and that work led to perhaps a few hundred thousand Australian children and their teachers learning to program (“coding”). For those scoring at home. That one statement ticks the boxes for 1) personal computing in education; 2) programming across the curriculum; 3) girls and technology; 4) success in building teacher capacity; 5) evidence of successful (at least temporary) school reinvention; 5) appealing to hometown pride.
- None of the expressed goals were possible without abandoning the heavy-handed medieval practices of national curricula, terminal exams, ranking, sorting, and inequity that are cornerstones of Australian education. Progressive education is a basic condition for achieving any of the desires shared by my esteemed colleagues.
- There are many examples of people who have not only shared similar concerns throughout history, but who have overcome the seemingly insurmountable hurdles. We have even demonstrated the competence and curiosity of teachers. For example, my friend Dan Watt sold more than 100,000 copies of a book titled, “Learning with Logo,” circa 1986. Let’s say that 10% of the teachers who bought such a book taught kids to program, that’s still a much bigger impact than “Hour of Code.” (Of course there were dozens of other books about how to teach children to program thirty years ago.)
- Perhaps the reason why so few students are taking “advanced” high school math courses is because the courses are awful, irrelevant, and toxic.
- If it is truly a matter of national security that more children enroll in “advanced” science and math courses, it seems curious that such courses are optional. Perhaps that is because we are quite comfortable with a system that creates winners and losers.
- I have been teaching computer science to children for thirty-four years professionally and forty years if you count my years as a kid teaching my peers to program.
The other day, President Obama announced $4 billion dollars available to teach computer science/coding and mathematics (now that’s a novel idea) for the vulgar purpose of creating “job-ready” students. Never mind the fact that there remains no consensus on what computer science is or how such lofty goals will be achieved, especially by a lame duck President. If history is any guide and if the promised funds are ever appropriated, this seemingly large investment will disappear into the pockets of charlatans, hucksters, and a proliferation of “non-profits” each suckling on the government teat. (See eRate)
To make matters worse, one of our nation’s leading experts on computer science education reports that the national effort to design a K-12 Computer Science Framework has is focused on consensus.
“The goal is to create a framework that most people can agree on. “Coherence” (i.e., “community buy-in”) was the top quality of a framework in Michael Lach’s advice to the CS Ed community (that I described here). As Cameron Wilson put it in his Facebook post about the effort, “the K-12 CS Framework is an effort to unite the community in describing what computer science every K-12 student should learn.” It’s about uniting the community. That’s the whole reason this process is happening. The states want to know that they’re teaching things that are worthwhile. Teacher certificates will get defined only what the definers know what the teachers have to teach. The curriculum developers want to know what they should be developing for. A common framework means that you get economies of scale (e.g., a curriculum that matches the framework can be used in lots of places).
The result is that the framework is not about vision, not about what learners will need to know in the future. Instead, it’s about the subset of CS that most people can agree to. It’s not the best practice (because not everyone is going to agree on “best”), or the latest from research (because not everybody’s going to agree with research results). It’s going to be a safe list.
…That’s the nature of frameworks. It’s about consensus, not about vision. [emphasis mine] That’s not a bad thing, but we should know it for what it is. We can use frameworks to build momentum, infrastructure, and community. We can’t let frameworks limit our vision of what computing education should be. As soon as we’re done with one set of frameworks and standards, we should start on the next ones, in order to move the community to a new set of norms. Guzdial, M. (2016) Developing a Framework to Define K-12 CS Ed: It’s about consensus not vision.
That’s right, mountains of money and human capital will be expended to determine the status quo. Consultant will be enriched while school children are treated to “coding” curricula so good that you don’t even need a computer! Powerful ideas are viewed as distractions and vision may be addressed at indeterminate date in the future.
“The future must be dreamed, desired, loved, created. It must be plucked from the soul of the present generations with all the gold gathered in the past, with all the vehement yearning to create the great works of individuals and nations.” – Omar Dengo
From Melbourne to Massachusetts to the UK, large scale state and national edicts to teach “coding” or “computer science” K-12 has resulted in laundry lists of unrelated nonsense, full of “off-computer” programming activities, keyboarding instruction, file saving, posture lessons, digital citizenship, identification of algorithms, counting in binary, bit, byte, and vocabulary acquisition. In more than one jurisdiction, the computer science curricula is touted as “not even needing a computer!”
There is far too little discussion of programming a liberal art – a way of having agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. There is no discussion of Seymour Papert’s forty-eight year-old question, “Does the computer program the child or the child program the computer?”
There is no talk about changing schooling to accommodate powerful ideas or even add programming to the mathematics curriculum as my Wayne, NJ public schools did forty years ago. Instead, we’re renaming things and chanting slogans.
Frequent readers of my work might be surprised that I only include one mention of Seymour Papert in this article. Instead, I end with the words of another old friend of mine, Arthur Luehrmann. Arthur coined the term computer literacy. After three decades of his term being segregated to justify the most pedestrian of computer use (Google Apps, IWBs, online testing, looking up answers to questions you don’t care about, etc…), it is worth remembering what he meant when he invented the term, computer literacy. The following is from a 1984 book chapter, Computer Literacy: The What, Why, and How.
“A few years ago there was a lot of confusion about what computer literacy meant. Some people were arguing that a person could become computer literate merely by reading books or watching movies or hear- ing lectures about computers. That viewpoint probably came out of a time when computer equipment was expensive and, therefore, not often found in classrooms. Teachers had to teach something, so they taught “facts” about computers: their history, social impact, effect on jobs, and so forth. But such topics are more properly called “computer awareness,” I believe.
Even the fact that a school or district possesses one or more com- puters must not be taken as evidence that education in computer literacy is taking place. Many schools use computers for attendance and grade reporting, for example. These administrative uses may improve the cost- effectiveness of school operations, but they teach children nothing at all about computers.
Other schools may be using computers solely to run programs that drill their students on math facts, spelling, or grammar. In this kind of use, often called Computer-Assisted Instruction, or CAI, the computer prints questions on the display screen, and the student responds by typing answers on the keyboard. Except for rudimentary typing skills and when to press the RETURN key, the student doesn’t learn how to do anything with the computer, though. Here again, a mere count of computers doesn’t tell anything about what students may be learning.
A third kind of use comes closer to providing computer literacy, but it too falls short. In this mode, the computer, together with one or more programs, is used to provide some kind of illumination of material in a regular, noncomputer course. A social studies teacher, for example, might use The Oregon Trail simulation program to illustrate the difficul- ties pioneers encountered in trekking across the American West. Such an application not only teaches American history, it also shows students that computers can be made to simulate things and events—a powerful notion. Yet neither in this, nor in any of the other educational uses of the computer I have mentioned so far, does a student actually learn to take control of the computer.
Literacy in English or any language means the ability to read and write: that is, to do something with the language. It is not enough to know that any language is composed of words, or to know about the pervasive role of language in society. Language awareness is not enough. Similarly, “literacy” in mathematics suggests the ability to add numbers, to solve equations, and so on: that is, to do something with mathematics. It is not enough to know that numbers are written as sets of digits, or to know that there are vocational and career advantages for people who can do things with mathematics.
Computer literacy must mean the ability to do something constructive with a computer, and not merely a general awareness offacts one is told about computers. A computer literate person can read and write a computer program, can select and operate software written by others, and knows from personal experience the possibilities and limitations of the computer.”
At least educational policy is consistent, we continuously invent that which already exists, each time with diminished expectations.
Thirty two years after Luhrmann published the words above – longer than the lifespan of many current teachers and our national goal is to create job-ready coders? Off! We should be ashamed.
Luhrmann, A. (1984). Computer Literacy: The What, Why, and How. In D. Peterson (Ed.), Intelligent Schoolhouse: Readings on Computers and Learning. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Company.
I certainly sized the opportunity to pull no punches. I left no myth behind. Perhaps a few school business administrators will think differently about some of their decisions in the future.
A PDF of the article is linked below. I hope you enjoy the interview and share it widely!
I often remind teachers that as educators, their role is to educate everyone – children, parents, administrators, colleagues and the guy sitting next to you at the counter in a diner. Educating, like learning, must be 24/7
Every school, teacher, administrator, graduate student or kid I teach gains from the expertise I developed working with every other school, teacher, administrator or kid over the past thirty years. My experiences and the insights gained from those experiences are my most valuable commodity, one I am happy to share.
Much of my work as an educator is spent helping fellow citizens and educators recognize that even in these dark days, things need not be as they seem. This is accomplished through the sharing of anecdotes, examples of work, case studies, photographs and video of children learning in productive contexts for learning that may seem alien or impossible when compared with a school setting. This willing suspension of disbelief is dependent on compelling the case I can make. People may only choose from alternatives they have experienced or seen. A large part of my work is spent collecting the evidence necessary to change minds or creating compelling models of what is possible in a teacher’s own classroom. If one can change minds, it may be possible to change professional practice.
Recently, I led a short professional development session at a school where I showed two videos from Reggio Emilia, Italy; Utopi Quoti (Everyday Utopias) and I Tiempi Del Tempo (The Times of Time) http://www.learningmaterialswork.com/store/reggio_children_multimedia.html
Teachers at the school were able to watch day-in-the-life videos of the extraordinary inquiry-based learner centered environments of Reggio Emilia’s municipal preschools, ask questions and discuss how what they observed might inform or transform their practice in a K-8 setting half a world away. The generosity of the educators, students and parents of Reggio Emilia make such conversations possible, since their videos share models of teaching and learning that may be foreign to us or invisible otherwise.
I have enjoyed some incredibly exciting experiences as an educator this year that remind me of why I teach and of the power computers can play in the construction of knowledge. This feeling of success is confronted by the sense that members of the edtech/ICT community have no idea what I do. I have low expectations for policy-makers and the media, but the edtech/ICT community should know better, right? They should join me in advocating powerful ideas and classroom revolution. Instead, too many seem more concerned with shopping, composing clever platitudes and congratulating each other via social media. It seems that the longer computers are in schools the fewer ideas there are for using them. When my colleagues whine and complain that change isn’t possible, I know in my soul they are wrong.They too could be classroom badasses, if only I could explain what I do and they believed what kids do with me. This inability to have a wider impact makes me feel like such a failure.
Colleagues and friends like to learn about the work I do in classrooms around the world. Sometimes, I even blog about my experiences. Occasionally, I share materials I created for classroom use. Such sharing requires extra work and rarely captures the enthusiasm, joy, social interactions, interventions, epiphanies, powerful ideas or tacit gestures so critical to powerful learning experiences. Perhaps it is so difficult for others to imagine young children programming computers, learning without coercion or being _____ (mathematicians, scientists, engineers, authors, filmmakers, artists, composers…) because they have never seen it with their own eyes.
If a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words, video may be worth a bazillion.
Oh, how I wish you could have seen the 3rd grade class I taught late last week. The kids were programming in Turtle Art, a vision of Logo focused on creating beautiful images resulting from formal mathematical processes. I drew three challenges on the board and then groups of kids, who had used the software a few times before, set off to work collaboratively in figuring out mathematical ways to “teach the turtle” to reproduce the images I shared. I could tell you how the kids demonstrated an understanding of linear measurement, angle, integers, iteration, randomness, optical illusions, naming, procedurality and debugging strategies. However, if video had captured the session, you might have seen the kid who spends half the day getting a drink of water demonstrating impressive mathematical reasoning. You might have seen kids shrieking with joy during a “math” lesson, others high-fiving one another as they conquered each challenge and kids setting more complex challenges for themselves based on their success. You may have also noticed how the classroom teacher joined his students in problem solving – perhaps for the first time, but discovering the role the computer can play in education. Video might have captured how I choreographed the activity with less than a minute of instruction followed by 45 minutes of learner construction.
Alas, there is no such video to share.
I wish you could have seen what happened when I challenged a class of 5th graders to write a computer program in MicroWorlds that would allow the user to enter a fraction and have the computer draw that fraction as slices of a circle. The problem was so challenging that I offered to buy lunch for the first kid or group of kids to write a successful program. The kids worked for days on the one problem.
If I had video, you would have seen students confront variables for the first time by using them. They also employed algebraic reasoning, turtle geometry, angle, radius and speaking mathematically to their collaborators. I wish I could share how I asked the right question at the precise moment required to help a kid understand the problem at hand, how I refused to answer some questions or give too much information and deprive kids of constructing knowledge.
I wish you could have seen how excited the three little girls were when their program performed reliably. I wish you could have seen the non-winners who continued working on their programs regardless of the contest being over. I wish you could have seen the girls showing their program to their teacher and improving it based on aesthetic suggestions. I sure wish I could share a photograph of the 11 year-old female mathematicians arm-in-arm with #1 written on each of their arms held high.
Why should you trust me without evidence? I could post the program they wrote, but it might make as much sense as Swahili to some of you, while others will ask if the students were “gifted.”
My fourth graders are using Pico Crickets as their robotics construction kit. They are currently figuring out ways to bring stuffed animals to life with locomotion, sound, lights and senses. If you could see the class you would immediately appreciate the wide range of expertise and learning styles represented. Some kids have never built anything or played with LEGO while others have lots of experience. There are children very close to programming and reanimating their animal while others are busy building the tallest LEGO tower, giving a stuffed monkey a Mohawk haircut or shaving a teddy bear. Each student is working at their own level in their own way
I wish you could have seen the workshop I whipped together with little notice for seventy high school teachers in an economically challenged region. I wish you could have shared their joy and laughter while engaged in recreating old-time radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 40s. Along the way, they learned to record, edit and enhance digital audio without a bit of instruction. They fanned out in teams across their campus in order to find quiet places to record and discovered a powerful literacy activity they could use with students the next day. They also learned that tech skills could be learned casually in the context of a rich project.
Many schools have an uneasy relationship with photography, video and student identity. Some schools allow photography without the use of student names or the school identified. Others use initials or pseudonyms to indicate student identities. Some schools have prohibitions on publication of photos online. Some schools have no prohibitions whatsoever. Occasionally, I encounter schools that do not allow photography of any sort.
None of this is new to me. The tension over photography often mirrors fears of the Internet My doctoral research was with incarcerated teenagers and required me to take photographs without student faces being visible. I got pretty good at that, but such carefully designed “shots” makes it impossible to show the life of the classroom.
If schools, parents and teachers would embrace photography and video, school would be better for children. I truly believe that.
Here are but a few arguments for classroom photography.
Documents and tells learning stories
Photography and videography may be used to capture learning stories that make thinking visible to teachers, invite other learners to contribute to another student’s thinking, inspire peers to build upon the knowledge or accomplishments of classmates and preserves the intellectual life of the school.
Communicates with parents
Photography and videography provide an authentic way to demonstrate what students know and do for parents.
Honors student work and accomplishments
The publication or even casual sharing of student project-work via media honors their accomplishments without badges, grades or other coercive gimmicks. Citizens are most likely to support schools that provide evidence of innovation.
Beautifies the school
Photos and video displays of students actively learning sets a tone for a school and reminds inhabitants of what matters.
Shares exemplary practices with fellow educators
Colleagues may learn what’s possible and new pedagogical practices if they are able to visit other classrooms vicariously. A fancy formal term for this is called “lesson study.”
Parents should be educated that putting a student’s photo or poem on the Web will not result in alien abduction. They should also be reminded that advocating for a newspaper photo of their kid kicking a goal is of less value than sharing classroom practice as a means to inspire and improve education in their school and beyond.
Photos are useful
In addition to their educational function as documentation that makes thinking visible for teachers planning learner-centered interventions, photos may be used for public relations and school publications.
It’s nice to share
Four collections of recommended books
- The Constructivist Consortium has compiled an extensive online book store for creative educators. Be sure to peruse these recommendations!
- Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better Do Your Homework! Required reading for school leaders, administrators and policy makers.
- Tinkering resources for educators
- Overlooked gems, books kids (especially boys) will love
The two best education books of 2011
Tricia Tunstall’s beautiful new book, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, tells the story of El Sistema, perhaps the world’s most exciting large-scale (systemic) education project. At a time when presidential candidates call for children to clean toilets as a way of “learning the dignity of work,”, El Sistema, teaches hundreds of thousands of children to achieve their potential as productive citizens by learning to play classical music at a level previously unimagined.
This book is a must-read. It’s incredibly well-written and reminds us of how arts education can change lives. The lessons for all educators, politicians and parents are multitudinous. I sincerely hopes this book reaches a wide audience, it asks much of each of us, but the rewards are extraordinary. It reminds us what it means to be human. You should also get the fantastic DVDs, El Sistema: Music to Change Lives and The Promise of Music to bring music and motion to the ideas in Tunstall’s fantastic new book.
Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools by Roger Schank
Dr. Schank is one of the leading experts on artificial intelligence, storytelling, simulation, entrepreneurship and learning. His new book is another fearless volume about what is wrong with education and how it may be “fixed.” Schank is hilarious, provocative and not a person you want to argue with. This important book may help cleanse school leaders of the nonsense spread by Pink, Willingham and Marzano.
From Schank’s web site: “Unfortunately education and teaching rarely means either of these things in today’s world. The premise of my new book is simple. We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. But how else might school be organized? There is an easy answer to this: organize school around thought processes.”
Honorable Mention Book of 2011
While I profoundly disagree with some of his conclusions and views on educational technology, veteran academic and founder of Education Week, Ron Wolk does an exceptional job of describing the current educational landscape. The data within the book is invaluable.
Soon-to-be-released Books I Can Hardly Wait to Read!
|The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformationby Edwards, Gandini and Foreman is the most comprehensive book on the phenomenal “Reggio Emilia approach” to education.The 3rd volume of this comprehensive anthology will be available any day now. It is a must read and re-read for many years to come.Lella Gandini has made a spectacular contribution to Constructing Modern Knowledge over the past few years.||One of the great honors of my life was being invited by legendary educator and author of 40 seminal education books, Herbert Kohl, to make a small contribution to this new book about the importance of the arts in education.Being included in a book with Deborah Meier, Bill T. Jones, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Ayers, Lisa Delpit, Rosie Perez, Phylicia Rashad, Diane Ravitch and Maxine Greene leaves me speechless.I cannot wait for The Muses Go to School:Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education to arrive!|
Deeply moving & often hilarious book
Regardless of your politics or how you feel about his films, Michael Moore’s new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, is a poignant, witty and exceptionally well written memoir of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. This book really captures one person’s realization of the American dream. I highly recommend this page-turner for idealistic teens and their parents.
|My Ten Favorite Jazz Recordings of 2011|
|Unsung Heroes by Brian Lynch||Songs of Mirth and Melancholy by Branford Marsalis and Joey Caldarazzo||In the Element by Emmet Cohen||Roy-alty by Roy Haynes||Road Shows volume 2 by Sonny Rollins|
|This extraordinary new album of modern jazz in tribute to unsung trumpet heroes is by my friend Brian Lynch and earned five stars from Downbeat Magazine.||I’ve known Branford for 30 years. This new album is a duet with his longtime pianist, Joey Caldarazzo. The result is quite beautiful.||I met young Emmet almost a year ago and we’ve hung out ever since. He recently placed 3rd in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition. His debut recording is quite good and he is going to be a monster in years to come.||I heard Roy Haynes for the first time when I was 14 and his music has brought me more joy than perhaps anything else in life. He not only represents the history of American music, but at 86 years old, Mr. Haynes swings harder than any drummer alive.||Sonny Rollins may be the world’s greatest living musician and he’s finally enjoying the respect he deserves. He was given a Presidential Arts Medal and Kennedy Center Honor in 2011. This recording includes recent live recordings, including a rare duet with Ornette Coleman.|
Forever by Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny Whtite
Pinnacle by Freddie Hubbard
LIVE in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 by Miles Davis
|The first CD in this 2-CD album is unbelievably exiting and hard swinging. The second disc? Not so much.||I saw Freddie Hubbard perform live dozens of times and each note he played was exhilerating. This live recording is available for the first time.||Unreleased “bootlegs” by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter & Tony Williams – what’s not to love?? Here’s my credit card!||This young vibraphonist has been called the “Mike Tyson” of the Vibes. Check out his terrific major label debut recording produced by mentor Christian McBride.||It’s been a busy year for the hardest working man in jazz. Christian McBride’s big band and all-star duet recording are must-haves.|
The weather outside may be frightful, but summer is right around the corner. You deserve to spend four days next July reigniting your creative flame, recharging your battery and learning with world-class educators, artists and inventors.
Join us to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Constructing Modern Knowledge, the world’s premiere project-based learning event in Manchester, New Hampshire – July 9-12, 2012!
Why not replace visions of sugarplums with the opportunity to learn storytelling with award-winning filmmaker Casey Neistat; tinkering with the Editor of Make Magazine, Mark Frauenfelder; project-based learning from one of its originators, Dr. Lilian Katz and explore the ultimate 21st Century toy factory, the MIT Media Laboratory, with Dr. Leah Buechley? Nine year-old faculty member, Super Awesome Sylvia, reminds us of the meaning of education.
Give yourself the learning experience of a lifetime and register today!
While some people are excited about using computers to teach traditional subjects, perhaps with greater comprehension or efficiency, my work is driven by the exciting realization that computers make it possible for young people to learn and do new things in new ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Over nearly thirty years of helping schools around the world use computers to create more productive contexts for learning, I have observed many myths that derail progress.
Scarcity is a major obstacle to use
Most children in non 1:1 schools use a computer less than an hour per week and we then have the audacity to question whether “computers work” in school. Teachers have little incentive to develop modern teaching techniques when computers are too scarce. Twenty-one years since I led PD in the world’s first laptop schools, the value of 1:1 computing has long been settled.
Technology is not neutral
All technology shapes behavior. Our tech investments tend to grant agency to the system, teachers or learners. I favor laptops because they put maximum power in the hands of the students we are employed to serve.
Computer science is a critical curricular topic
Although we should make computers transparent across the curriculum, too many schools behave as if computers have had zero impact on society and that children should have limited knowledge of how technology central to their lives works. Parents want their kids to make Bill Gates’ money without learning to program.
Computer science is a critically important discipline that all students should be exposed to and some children should study in depth. The problem solving skills developed serve almost any career. Fundamentally, access to computer science experiences allows children to program the computer, rather than the computer programming the child. (Seymour Papert)
90% of school is language arts
And 98% of educational computing is language arts. OK, I made up those statistics, but information access and communication are the low-hanging fruit representing only a tiny fraction of what it means to be educated. S.T.E.M. subjects and the arts can be made accessible and transformed by computing.
All “devices” are not created equal
Electricity alone doesn’t bestow sufficient educational value. What was the last time you walked into an Apple Store or electronics retailer and said, “I’d like to buy a device please?” We only use the term, “device,” when we’re cutting corners for students.
And the children shall lead
Schools should consider powerful models like Generation YES (genyes.com) that channel student technology expertise in service to their school or community through teacher professional development, technical support and peer mentoring.
The network is not the computer
There are a million and one fantastic things that students can make with a computer even without Internet access.
If you can make things with computers…
…then you can make more interesting things (Papert). Computers afford opportunities for a greater range of projects to be possible than ever before. Since knowledge is a consequence of experience, interdisciplinary personally meaningful projects create the learning opportunities and memories students need to succeed.
You might begin reconsidering your network personnel budgets
For how many years will you employ network personnel after every student and teacher has Internet access on the person in the form of cell phones or laptops with built-in Wi-Max? In many cases, overzealous network employees turn $1,000 computers into $100 sculpture by the time they finish restricting what may done with them.
Younger kids need better computers
Many schools make the mistake of sending hand-me-down computers to the primary grades when those children benefit most from new multimedia features and processing power. At the same time, the narrow range of assignments given to high school students often requires a whole lot less computational power.
Don’t waste your best teachers on administrative computing
It’s common sense to distinguish between instructional and administrative computing. Wasting talented teachers on attendance or payroll systems is foolhardy.
Computing can be a catalyst for school improvement
When I mentor teachers in classrooms, they not only realize the capabilities of their students through their screens and eyes, but have a context for manipulative use, literature integration, project-based learning, new forms of assessment, learner-centered pedagogical practices, problem solving, collaboration and other broader educational objectives that may have eluded your school.
Internationally renowned educator, speaker & consultant Gary Stager, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Constructivist Consortium and the Constructing Modern Knowledge Summer Institute. He may be reached at stager.org
I’m an optimist by nature. That’s why I awake each day thinking I can make the world a better place for children despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For years I believed that public education would hit bottom like an alcoholic and then rise from the ashes unencumbered by the shackles of past policies and practices. When that Phoenix rose, I would be ready. I had worked in the best and worst public and private schools in the world. I worked with homeschooling communities and even created productive contexts for learning within a prison for teenagers. I would be prepared to help reinvent public education as soon as the conditions were ripe for such transformation.
The problem with the rehab or resurrection myth was that I never anticipated the chance that American public policy regarding public education was that there IS NO BOTTOM to rise up from. It now appears that schooling and the way in which some Americans treat other people’s children has no bottom. Things can and will get worse, perhaps indefinitely. The public is on a collision course to defund education and other services intended for the common good. I have chronicled this trend for a decade, but hoped things would never get this bad.
I clung romantically to fantasies that Americans embraced democratic principles, the common good and loved children. Learning otherwise is a somber realization, especially on Easter Sunday.
It has been suggested that Ronald Reagan made it cool to distrust government and ethical obligations to help your neighbor when in 1988 he said the scariest words you can hear are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” A decade earlier, Proposition 13 in California taught “citizens” that no matter what your neighbor or community needs, you will never be asked to reach into your pocket again and pay for it. Selfishness had become cool. America replaced the ideals of the Founding Fathers with the adolescent fantasies of Ayn Rand.
The singular genius of George W. Bush was recognizing that while people might dislike “school,” they like their children’s teacher. If you wanted to destroy or privatize (a semantic difference without distinction) public education, you needed to find a way to erode public confidence in the each and every public school. But how to do that?
Create an Orwellian law like “No Child Left Behind.” Give corporations billions of dollars for the creation, implementation and frequent mis-scoring of deeply miseducative and misused standardized tests. Require 100% of all students to be above the norm on largely norm-reference tests by 2014 – a statistical impossibility – and when everyone is not “above average” quickly enough, blame teachers, takeover schools, make kids repeat grades and make already troubled schools even more joyless and irrelevant.
Along the way, tell parents constantly and with increasing volume that your child’s teacher is failing your child and the Voila! you will withdraw your support for the system.
Cue the charter schools, get tough reformers like Michelle Rhee and get Oprah to pimp a simplistic propaganda film. Mission accomplished! Heckuva job, Brownie! As the great patriot Glen Beck once sang, “We Shall Overcome!” When the three wisemen – Arne Duncan, Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich team-up as “school reformers,” one can expect things to get old testament bad for public education. As long as unqualified is the new qualified, things will get worse for our children and even worse for other people’s children.
Please! Please! Please! watch this video clip from the Rachel Maddow show, share it with friends and then try to restrain your violent impulses or find the strength to carry-on for another day. I’m sorry you have to watch a cheesy commercial first and that you may not like the messenger. The message is really important and stunning.
This is the tale of how two generations of severely at-risk young people are having their chances for a productive life and slice of the American dream sacrificed on the alter of capitalist greed, authoritarian impulses and callous disregard for the vulnerable.
Note to self: Next time I decide to arrest teen mothers demanding a quality education, be sure to run the police sirens to drown out their cries and screams.
Here are some additional links regarding this story:
- Mark Maynard’s blog report has a lot of local discussion going.
- The independent Voice of Detroit has terrific reporting from inside the sit-in at Catherine Ferguson, including accounts from people we showed last night.
- The website Defend Public Education has a petition going, as does Change.org.
- You can learn tons more about Catherine Ferguson Academy through the “Grown in Detroit” documentary.
I am beyond thrilled to share the stage with Dennis Littky at this weekend’s TEDxNYED.
For those of you unfamiliar with Dennis Littky and his amazing work as a true school reformer and briliant educator, an interview I conducted for District Administration Magazine in 2005 is below.
After you read Dennis Littky’s book, The Big Picture: Education is Everybody’s Businesss, you MUST read Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School. This recently republished book by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell may be the first education thriller ever published.
Dennis Littky drew on his 30 years of education innovation to create a new school model.
By Gary Stager – November 2005
Dennis Littky may be America’s most important educator. After three decades of leading major school innovation in New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, Littky, along with co-founder and co-director Elliot Washor, seems to have found the holy grail of school reform in Providence, R.I. Not only have they created a radical school design–Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a network of six small schools across three campuses that personalizes each student’s education and prepares all 700 students for collegiate and professional success–that has enough success to prove that it works, but they are successfully “scaling up” this model in communities across the United States. As of last school year, there were 26 MET schools in operation and Thayer High School in New Hampshire was the first school in the Coalition of Essential Schools while Littky was its principal.
If all of this were not enough, Littky recently wrote a book, The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business, (ASCD 2004). In the book, Littky, 60, reveals the MET model through the profound learning stories of the students it serves. The book is a passionate testament to learners, learning and human potential. The author’s breezy style makes the powerful ideas he shares easily accessible to education stakeholders.
“I think it’s a comment on the world we’re in that simply by being kind and knowing the kids and greeting them is something that stands out.”
Fast Company magazine recently named Littky its No. 4 Entrepreneur of the Year and the Gates Foundation has provided a nearly $10 million grant to help create 38 small, urban high schools in the next five years based on the Big Picture principles and pedagogy. Business leaders embrace Littky’s educational vision without requiring him to pander to their notions of schooling.
Editor-At-Large Gary Stager spoke with Littky recently, covering his philosophy, his future plans, how he operates in this day of NCLB and liability concerns, and whether his schools offer extra-curricular activities. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
How would you describe the MET in 30 seconds?
Littky: The MET is the school that truly takes one student at a time. An incredibly respectful place, meaning not just being nice to kids but [also] in the way it respects whatever they’re interested in.
The family is part of making decisions, whatever the kid is interested in, it starts from that kid. So in that sense I think it’s different than any other school and we do not believe that there is one curriculum that everyone has to know. A lot of people argue about that.
And then the structures are set up with a teacher following a kid in a small group for four years so you really get to know [the student] well. And we push that all the work be real, so it’s not [pretending] you’re interested in writing a paper on horses. It’s working with somebody around horses and finding something real that can be done. So I think it’s the deep respect allowing the kid in the family to build their own curriculum, follow their own interest and passions and to do it all in a real way so it’s not fake.
So how do you know they’re done–prepared for college, life or jobs?
Littky: That’s a great question because they’re never done, done with a project or done with school, ready to move on. You know in few of the ways we are pretty traditional, I mean there are kids who come to us that are very skilled, kids who come to us that could spend eight years with us. … Some kids do something very different their last year. … I was just with a kid yesterday who is doing a documentary as a senior project. I almost don’t consider our stuff school.
So it partly is the longer we can stay with kids, helping to support their learning and letting them grow is good. Kids ready to move on whenever they want to move on, they move on.
We don’t leave our kids after they graduate. One of the main things we do that we don’t even talk about that much is that I have a transition counselor. I involve the advisors after [graduation].
Last week we had an empty nest meeting with the parents of the kids who left because many of them are single parents, their best friend just left for school [college. They’ve] never had anybody in school. So your kid messes up. What do they say? “Come home honey.”
We’re with them forever, I have 10 kids now working back in our school in some capacity who graduated over the last four or five years.
So how do you convince colleges or employers that they’re ready?
Littky: Well, ready, of course, is relative, but because our kids are dealing with the adult world from freshman [year] on–having lots of adult mentors, making their phone calls, talking to customers, making presentations, they’re way more ready for the work world and getting stuff done.
The only way they’re ready for college is that the hope that most of them have this love for learning and want to continue. People ask me how do our kids function once they get in regular classes? The kids take college classes all through, they know some are [lousy], they know some are good. They’re pretty independent in their thinking and working so they don’t need to be guided. So, the good part and the bad part is there’s less tolerance of [lousy classes].
You know, we grew up to accept bad teachers. On one end you hope they put up with it and don’t drop out of school, on the other hand you want them to acknowledge that they’re being mistreated and disrespected.
You make the point in the book that the MET is not vocational. So with all the emphasis on internship and real-world things how does it remain non-vocational? How do you resist that temptation?
Littky: I believe that everything is hands and eyes, I’m not sure there is anything vocational anymore, things are changing too fast. And the reason we use the internship is not to prepare the kids to be an architect or a car mechanic. It is to find something they love that can engage them and get them to think and to explore new bigger things.
I have a quote in [the book] saying–and I love the quote–“The way to really teach people to be good thinkers is to let them learn anything in an in-depth kind of way. And if they do that then you change,” so that’s why it’s not vocational.
I don’t care what the kid’s going to do, but whatever they love, now that’s what I care about.
So what does a day or week look like at the MET?
Littky: Tuesday and Thursday the kids don’t come to school, they go right to their internship and for the advisors it’s not a time where they are in meetings or doing other things. The teachers are on the road during that time also. They’re visiting that kid at the architect’s office. They’re visiting that kid at the zoo. They’re trying to find the work that’s real work. They’re trying to make sure that every kid has their own learning plan. They’re trying to make sure that the goals they set are being met by the environment.
So in those days if you came to school and we took you to the hospital you would see kids doing blood tests, or see kids following around a doctor. At a computer place, they’re developing some programs for one of their customers. So really in the best-case scenario, they’re real workers in places where they’re not just filing.
How do you convince the partners, the mentors of that?
Littky: It’s been way, way, way easier than people expect! One, adults love to have some teenager that loves what they love and they don’t they have to take home at night. And their own kids don’t give a [darn] about what they do, so they become very attached to our kids. Mentors who have been there for four years are given an honorary teaching degree at graduation. They’ve really been there [for the students] so that has not been the problem really.
Then Monday, Wednesday and Friday kids come to school in the morning and we all start the day with what we call a “pick-me-up.” Our schools are only 120 kids each and the whole school is together and you may have someone reading poetry, you may have a kid talking about their trip, you may have someone showing a video they made. There’s something to broaden the kids and start the day in an up way. Then they go to an advisory, every kid belongs to one to 15 in our case, one to 17 in California, a group that meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for four years.
And that advisor/teacher is really in charge of their whole program. So on that day they could be reading a paper about what does it mean that Arafat died, what does that mean for us? They’ll be talking about the election … The main textbook is each kid has a calendar book, they’ll be walking around, “What’s your schedule for the week? Who are you meeting with? When are you working?’ So that advisory period goes on about a half hour. Then the kids are kind of on their own, small groups, individuals having their meetings, teachers moving around helping them saying, “C’mon I want to edit that paper with you. Jimmy go work with Sam on this.”
And the paper is related to the internship?
Littky: That’s right, the projects are all related to a Hispanic kid, his writing, doing a brochure in Spanish for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. There are a lot of Spanish people in Providence. Somebody else is doing a presentation at CVS Drug Stores, they’re doing PowerPoint. Somebody else is researching a project for an architect. So, in the best-case scenario, I describe it like looking like a newsroom. People moving around and working.
To me that’s what’s so exciting. When I bring people to school I say, “Look, you don’t see teacher out here,” the kids are on the computer, they’re moving around, kids are asking for help because they have something real that’s got to get done. Then they have lunch together in a regular way and then again they’re out doing their individual small group work with a teacher moving around and then they come back together at the end of the day for a half hour, kind of summing up what they’re doing, making sure they know what they’re thinking about doing at night.
The teacher doesn’t assign homework, it’s on the individual, “Hey I got to present this manual to the guy at the hospital tomorrow, how do I do this?” So that’s kind of the week and the exciting part, which keeps our attendance the highest in the state in all our schools is it’s different every day. You know there’s something new all the time.
And the kids collaborate?
Littky: The kids collaborate so they have other teachers work with them, like they say, “I don’t know much about this area.” “Go see Rachel over there so.”
The expertise is distributed.
Littky: It truly is a learning community. It’s about using lots of adults. We have six schools there. Yesterday I was at the Oakland school and there’s this group pushing kids to get a voice through reading and they were all running book groups, so the teachers didn’t have to do that. They were working on something else.
So it’s looking at what a kid needs, looking around and saying, “How do we get them there?” A lot of our kids take college courses; you find an interest.
So how do you deal with the more mundane things like liability, ADA, certifying that they’re ready to graduate; all the sort of legal stuff that everyone gets hysterical about?
Littky: Well the world has become a tougher place to do our work since No Child Left Behind. You do whatever you need to do. We don’t have grades. Students do an hour-long exhibition every quarter, ninth grade on. Teachers write a page or two narrative on it, kids write notes and self-evaluations. But then when it’s time to go to college we translate that into a transcript. So we’re not stupid, we know colleges aren’t going to look at 16 narratives.
And our transcript has our four English classes. They’re just done in a different way, so as long as you can translate it. … You force your state to be a little more performance-based within as much structure as you need. If you’ve got to call the morning advisory something else, you call it something else. You’re covered by child labor laws and our kids are working regular internships in places It’s not so difficult.
So do you think there are lessons in MET for elementary schools?
Littky: Yeah, absolutely.
The thinking is always that the high school has so much to learn from the elementary schools.
Littky: Yeah. The best kindergarten class is built around kids’ needs. Find out what that kid needs, getting along with others, learning how to do blocks, learning how to read and then we seem to forget and everybody is the same in third grade. I think elementary schools need to look at [what they do] too.
But again, how do you make it real? We have a few elementary schools and we started a charter school in Providence. How do you make it real for a third grader? It’s like a visit to a fish place, it’s like going to a museum, how real is your community? But again, you know those young kids have creative, great ideas for inventions that do stuff; they just get it knocked down. And if you do it right, I mean and in the younger grades this is even more important. Kids got to learn to read and so you’ve gotta just keep pushing that, but if you find stuff kids are interested in then that’s how you teach them to read. I think our ideas are applicable all over the place.
Where do you get teachers from?
Littky: Well, that’s a hard one because our teacher training institutions are obviously not training teachers to work in Big Picture schools.
What are they training for?
Littky: They are training them to stand up in front of a room and lecture for high schools. And they’re spending time on how do you discipline kids? How do you control the class? Making sure you know all this content. … So most of our people who’ve gone through teacher training programs are not very well trained for, “Stop a second. Listen to the kid. Look at the kid. What connects? What kind of project?” So one, we do a tremendous amount of training ourselves. Every summer we have something we call working camp where we bring the freshman in.
You’re working them two, three hours and then you’re understanding what does it really mean to follow your passion, what does it really mean to get an internship? When we bring the whole staff together for another two weeks, we have every month a day where we step back and really look with a couple meetings during the week. So it just becomes this ongoing teacher-training piece and sometimes some of your good people didn’t even come from teaching. They come from other places that think about kids and have that respect for kids.
Our teachers need to be people who have a lifelong learning within themselves, an excitement about learning because they’ve got to be excited about helping you go further. They’ve got to be smart enough in the broadest way. So it’s mostly trying to find the kind of people that feel this in their heart and then we have to train them through the years.
So how many MET Schools are there now?
How do they get started?
Littky: One starts one by finding somebody with the power who says, “I want one of these.” We start them all different ways. So it could start from the superintendent in Oakland saying, “I want one of these,” or it could be somebody saying, “I’d like to start a charter school like this.”
Somebody said they want to do a charter and use our materials. If they get that charter and have a building, they can come to us. We’ve been going to a lot of districts that say they want us. And then we together select a principal. We feel that’s the key and then we train that person. We have what we call “TYBO,” The Year Before Opening, and we train those people on and off for a year. So it’s not like, “Okay, August, congratulations you’re on, let’s go.” A year beforehand we’re visiting the school, I’m working with some people.
Go observe a learning plan, then go out and do your own. Get ready to teach your own staff. How do you recruit back in your area? How do you get a building so we [can] work with people for a year getting them ready to go. Then we send coaches out, we’ve got materials online, we’re now starting video conferencing. But it can also start with women in Santa Monica just started following Elliot and I around. You know we kept putting them off, putting them off and then we’re talking about starting a school there.
So what is your goal?
Littky: Our goal is to have no more than 50 schools and to try to build a network so they can support each other and be here in 20 years and be a model for others. Not that someone has got to do the exact thing, but if you were designing a school you may say go there and look at how they do internships. We can’t do this, but let’s make our senior year [different]. So we’re looking to change the world in the way of having a model design that can help people as you say go further and further in their work.
What’s the involvement of the Gates Foundation?
Littky: Well, Gates has given out money to start schools so we’ve been very fortunate to use their money to hire coaches to develop our Big Picture Online and to train principals. They’ve made it possible to do it.
I am very grateful to Gates, I think we should all be very grateful to Gates because in these tough times they have been one of the lone few that have supported something very different than the mainstream in this country. So the fact that they’ve given out $600 million, or however much it is, to people to do small, personalized schools is real positive. My worry is always about quality and sustainability.
You know we’re in our ninth year at the MET and just getting to our full capacity, we just got our buildings a year and a half ago, so this stuff takes time. When people used to look at me and say, “Oh you’ve got such small schools, how are you going to attack the districts?” I felt like saying, “It’s taken a hundred years to screw up our education system, it’s not going to be cured overnight.” Now I can do this 100-year plan that says, “Of course none of us are that patient, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Funding the Big Picture is at odds with current educational practice.
So is that an accident or does the Gates Foundation have an actual dog in the fight?
Littky: No, I think two things that are rather interesting; I think Tom Vander Ark who was given the right even more so at the beginning to go find the movers and shakers to do this, had the right philosophy and found the right people regardless where the world was going.
He sought out people who were doing this kind of stuff, pressures of the world might be starting to change that, but I think it’s no accident that there are a lot of good groups that a lot of my friends, colleagues, got funded during this time. I don’t think it was an accident.
So how does your school deal with things like extracurricular activities and the other stuff that becomes synonymous with secondary education?
Littky: The baseball team is 0 and 30. No we don’t have it, and I get asked for one every day. And we do have proms, I guess everyone’s got their line you know. There are things that kids really connect to a high school in a way and really want and if you feel it will not take away from the main reason you’re there, then we go with it. The yearbook is something that’s very important to us. A prom was something very important to us.
Those are both things you see at the school all kind of run by the kids. Big-time sports, which were important to me personally, are hard to do when kids are working late, with internships etc. So we have managed to do intramurals. We have managed to have kids that want to play in a city league come at 6: 00 in the morning and practice. And if a kid wants to play big-time sports because that’s their passion, and we usually have one a year, they’re allowed to play at another school.
You know we talk about school going on all the time, so everything a kid does counts in a way. So we’re doing a thing this year, I’m struggling with it, but I’m keeping ninth graders till 5 p.m. So rather than going after school I just extended the day so there’s more of an option and time to do stuff.
Why are you doing it?
Littky: Well, 3 to 5 is the most dangerous time of the day. Ninth graders are usually pretty bored. So it’s just extended time to be able to either play with tutoring, to be able to give them a support environment, to do dance, to do those kinds of things. But I kind of look if they’re playing on a church team, that’s part of it. If they’re taking dance lessons someplace, go for it. We’re trying to get our kids to be active learners and engaged as much as possible.
You told a story in the book that resonated with me. I’ve seen variations on it a hundred times. You became nationally famous because you and your teachers greeted kids in the morning. Can you share some of your feelings about the reaction to such a gesture?
Littky: Well, I always say it’s pathetic–the standards we have out there. There was somebody, I think it was one of the Disney Teachers of the Year on one of the talk shows …
The 75 rules?
Littky: No, no, this one was somebody said, “I know every teacher’s name in high school.” “Oh my gosh that’s fantastic!” or “I know all my kid’s names!” “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, it should be the other. “Oh my gosh we’ve been talking about it.” And so it’s just I think a comment on the world we’re in that simply by being kind and knowing the kids and greeting them is something that stands out. You know it’s like school has gotten to be such an impersonal place, the people have no idea how learning is connected to understanding who the kid is. So it’s laughable actually.
How did we get to this place?
Littky: I’m not that old but I think, I don’t know. The first page of my book I define what is learning. And I was thinking about it in terms of that’s the difference? We don’t have a definition in this country on what is learning. There is the famous quote that Bush’s grammar was a little incorrect when he said, “He wished–no he used instead of he and she he used he and her, but it says he wants kids to learn to read so they can pass the literacy tests.
So that has become our goal, not to read well, not to use what you read, but to pass the literacy test. So, I think until the country either gets a little more together on what they think is important for human beings, how to help people be mindful, or to have enough choices so people can decide this is who I want my child to be so I want to send her there, we’re in trouble.
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.
- Each MET school consists of no more than 120 students in advisories of no more than 15 to 17.
- Each student works with the same advisor and peers for their entire secondary education.
- Two days each week, MET students do not go to school. They do community-based internships with mentor experts in the student’s area of interest. The curriculum for the remaining three days is based on whatever the student needs to learn in order to succeed in their internship.
- The Met’s math scores jumped from a three-year average of 38 to 68 in 2004, a 79% increase.
- The Met’s English/Language Arts scores rose from a three-year average of 64 to 79, a 23% increase.
- The Met exceeded the No Child Left Behind goals set for Rhode Island in 2007.
- On average, The Met had 18% more students profi cient in math and 14% more students proficient in English/Language Arts than the three largest Providence high schools. 94.2% graduation rate (one of the highest in the state) The state average is 81.3% and the Providence average is 57% for the city’s three largest high schools 93.3% attendance rate (one of the highest in the state) The state average is 89.5% and the Providence average is 77% for the city’s three largest high schools #1 in the state Parent Involvement1
- The Met: 88 State Average: 41 Measures how involved parents feel in the school and how comfortable they are with teachers and school environment #1 in the state School Climate
- The Met: 79 State Average: 68 Measures school safety, respect between teachers and students, student behavior in class #3 in the state Instruction
- The Met: 61 State Average: 38 Measures teachers’ skills and support from school #1 in the state Teacher Availability (academic)
- The Met: 76% High School State Average: 46% Percentage of students who feel they can talk to a teacher about academic issues #1 in the state Teacher Availability (personal)
- The Met: 63% High School State Average: 18% Percentage of students who feel they can talk to a teacher about personal or family problems 1 Data on parent involvement, school climate, and instruction (from 2004), highest score = 100