Saturday, August 13, 2011

Seven Years is a Long Short Time

Seven years.  Time, as Einstein explains, is relative: "When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute -- then it's longer than any hour. That's relativity!"  There are days when the seven years since my brother died seems thick with time, forever ago.  On other days, like Wordsworth, when I'm "surprised by joy," the time is lost and I will think - I can't wait to tell Marc.  Feeling the weight of the years again is the hard part. 

Seven years.  It's surprising to think of all the things he'd never heard of that are an everyday part of my life now:  YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, iPhone.  Befunky.comAnd that's the short list.  And the events he missed.  A (very) short list:  Hurricane Katrina, the Boxing Day Tsunami, the election of President Obama, the Global recession, the earthquakes in China and Japan, the fall of Tiger Woods, the Vancouver Olympics, the Canucks big run (and the subsequent riots), his youngest son's graduation from high school, his oldest son's graduation from university, my daughter's wedding. 

What's important quickly reveals itself against our greatest losses.  I've been thinking about what's important to teach in school again.  I feel inarticulate always.  I keep wanting to say, let's teach each child as though he is the one who will save the world.  Because he will.  She will.  Who else is there?  Let's teach each child as if he were the brother we lost, the daughter we yearn for, the children we hold in our arms.  Doesn't it seem that what's important is easier to see?  But still, it's so very hard to move from an idea to action in schools.

Marc often sent me quotes.  Just before he died he sent this one:  The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.  (Thomas Paine)

When I think about how much the world has changed in seven years, I begin to feel braver:  surely we can change schools enough for Zachary - and for the extraordinary children like my brother was, like so many of our brothers are, who are lost in schools today.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What do students really need to learn?

Michael Wesch asks a question I, too, am always pondering:  What do students really need to learn?  He says he's not interested in figuring out what information or skill sets are needed; "skills and information alone do not help us lead happier, healthier, richer, more ethical and more meaningful lives."  He thinks we need "a vision for who we are and our students need to be - not just what we should know."  In other words, he's seeking a metaphysical answer.  TS Eliot, writing in 1932, would say he's on the right track:  "Education which fails to clarify our central convictions is mere training or indulgence.  For it is our central convictions that are in disorder, and, as long as the present anti-metaphysical temper persists, the disorder will grow worse.  Education, far from ranking as man’s greatest resource, will then be an agent of destruction."

So who are we and what do our students need be?  Wesch looks back to 1991, before the Internet, to figure out, he says, who we were. His references to Charles Taylor sent me to reread Malaise of Modernity.  (I had to move away from my computer, shut down my twitter stream, RSS feed, email and text notifications.  Reading philosophy is a little like deciding to cook a meal from scratch - fast food and packaged shortcuts are just so easy and still fill you up.  But what a different "filling up" it is!)  Taylor reminds us, as Wesch says, that what we consider the "effects of the web" are not new at all, and in fact are, as Taylor says, the effects, rather, of modernity.  (TS Eliot, too, was concerned about the effects of modern life.)  Taylor identifies three "malaises":  the first, loss of meaning.  The individualism that defines modern life is a result of the dismantling of the old orders, which, while restricting freedom, nonetheless gave meaning to life.  (In education, our continued desire to "personalize" learning is driven by this value.)  The second malaise, the eclipse of ends, occurred as a result of the vacuum left behind after the old orders were swept away.  Instrumental reason became the yardstick to measure happiness: everything is calculated in terms of maximum efficiency and profit.  (We feel this deeply in education; we determine our success on graphs and data points. We decide what we teach by economic measure - how important those skills and that information are in the job market.)  Finally, a consequence of individualism and instrumental reason is the third malaise:  loss of freedom.  Political liberty is at risk, for the “institutions and structures of industrial-technological society severely restrict our choices”.  In a society in which people prefer to stay home and be private, “few will want to participate actively in self-government."  This “atomism of the self-absorbed individual” creates a sort of “soft” despotism: government runs things in a paternalistic way, which, without vigorous political culture, leaves people with little control.  The result is a kind of powerlessness of the citizen against the vast bureaucracy of state.  (In education, we feel this as well: we shrug our shoulders and "do our own thing" in classrooms, rather than "participate" in bureaucratic hoop-jumping.)

Where to from here?  The Internet has provided a vehicle for changing the last - the loss of freedom.  We now have the capacity to participate in ways we never had before.  We can connect with our community - become writers, newsmakers, change agents.  As Clay Shirky writes, in Cognitive Surplus, even 14 year old girls in Korea can change government policy (their protests led to a ban on imports of American beef). 

But just participating, surely isn't enough.  Just being passionate about something isn't sufficient.  The young men in Vancouver and in London are passionate, too, and participated in droves to loot and riot in the streets.  And it isn't enough to dismiss the rioters as mere thugs.  It isn't enough to argue that an economic fix (jobs) would solve the violence.  Or better parenting.  Or less TV, Internet, pornography, video-games - name your poison.   I'm afraid is connected to who we are.  I'm wondering if it is the effect of the first two "malaises": a lack of meaning in their lives, something to live for and love beyond their own self and a lack of a way to measure their worth and actions beyond a pay cheque.  Because then, of course, one is nothing without a job.    

So what do students need to be to participate meaningfully in their community to enrich their own lives and that of others? 

Friday, August 5, 2011

How We Think Depends on What We Think With

What does it matter what you teach, said one superintendent to me recently, as long as you teach how to think?  The danger, I would have argued if I hadn't been dumbstruck, is that it leaves students without ideas to think with.  Or rather, it leaves them with those ideas they are awash in every day.  For all children, that is a barrage of images from media that sell a message that cannot build a conceptual framework for a meaningful life; for those children who need education most, there is often, in addition, a daily onslaught of destructive ideas that negate self-worth, persistence, effort and resilience.  As E.F. Schumacher says, "The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds.  If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty and chaotic."  What education ought to do, he says, is provide the mind with a toolbox of powerful ideas. 

We continually ponder, in recent years, how to best teach the best process tools - creativity, critical thinking, inference, synthesis - but when we leave the "what" up to children to choose what's "relevant" to them as they "follow their passion"  (I argue students should not follow their passion), we deprive them of vital ideas with which to make sense. After all, we cannot think critically without a set of coherent ideas against which to make judgements.  We can't make inferences without a broad and rich array of ideas out of which to reason and draw conclusions.  We can't innovate and create either.  As Steven Johnson says, in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, "Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are build out of a collection of existing parts." Good "parts," surely, like fine ingredients in a meal, make better good ideas. 

The superintendent went on to say that facts and ideas, the "what" of learning, belong to the old world.  What do they matter, he said, to the future?  Had I not simply sputtered incoherently, I would have said that a profoundly changing world does not necessarily mean that everything old will become obsolete; it does demands that we clarify what's most important, what good ideas we want our children to take into the future.  After all, while facts and fads change, there are deep human ideas (truths I want to say) that are worth knowing, and new things are only learned upon a foundation of what we already know.  Children who come to school with a vast stock of ideas from rich experiences at home will flourish in an environment that focuses on helping them use those ideas creatively, critically, comprehensively.  For children who come to school for an education, to gather up the ideas that will allow them to make a life, what will they come away with?