Calculating the Why

This isn’t an anti-math post.

It also isn’t meant to be anything more than an honest question that I’m trying to find an answer to. I’ve long considered not even writing it for fear that people will misunderstand or misconstrue the question.

But, my inability to find a satisfactory answer in the discussions I have with myself is finally leading me to ask.

As a working, adult professional, I use less than 10% of the math I was exposed to in high school. What does that mean?

I’m sure a similar statement can be made about other content areas, perhaps with a variation of the actual percentage, but still. We spent four years learning content in high school that most of us can no longer remember and don’t use as a part of our profession and hasn’t proved necessary for our success.

It makes me think of two pieces by Alfie Kohn. One, where he states ten truths we shouldn’t be ignoring.

In the second, he details a very interesting observation about the result of a standardized assessment question for a Massachusetts high school math exam.

His quote from Deborah Meier is compelling. “No student should be expected to meet an academic requirement that a cross section of successful adults in the community cannot.”

So, what’s the role of content as it’s presented in today’s education?

Why did I spend four years in high school, and then several more in college learning math that I’ve long since forgotten?

Think back on your high school and college courses. If you were to take the final exam today, how would you do? What does that tell us?

What should it tell us?

Proud to Tell our Stories

I get to tell stories as part of my job. Hopefully, you do, too.

I think, sometimes, people forget the power of human story. Or, at least, we forget the power of telling our stories. Especially in education.

There are so many incredible events happening each and every day in and around our classrooms, and as pressed as we all are for time in the present landscape of learning, I hope we can find more time to tell the stories of what we’re getting to be part of. The successes we see in our students. The celebrations we share with our school families. The connections we’re making with our communities.

The video above is an example of that. It’s something I’m proud of.

And, I think it’s just fine that we admit that. When we’re proud of what we’ve done. We can celebrate that. We can share that. It’s not bragging or flaunting or self-aggrandizing.

We are facing too many competing storytellers who are working to take charge of the message of education and tell a narrative very different and very much in contrast to the great experiences happening in our classrooms each day for us not to find a way to share the good we’re seeing around us.

Committing ourselves to sharing the good also compels us to create the good. It helps encourage us to keep providing those opportunities that we know our students need in order to understand they are part of something important. That they are doing something important. That they are someone important. And that we’re creating opportunities that are good enough to be worth sharing.

I hope you make the time in whatever job you find yourself working to share your stories. We all need the chance to hear them.

We need to think very, very seriously about this

This story is incredible, and admittedly, unfinished. There’s much more we need to learn that hasn’t been told yet, but what we do know c(sh)ould change things. Maybe even a whole lot of things.

Recently, the OLPC organization took boxes of tablets, carefully and tightly taped up, and dropped them in two remote villages of Ethiopia. There were no instructions. No teachers. Nothing but a group of first grade-aged students for whom the tablets were intended. Students who couldn’t read, couldn’t identify the single form of a letter, had never before seen any kind of technology.

What happened is simply astounding.

Six and seven year old kids who had never before encountered any form of written language were demonstrating obvious emerging literacy skills within weeks. Without the interference help of adults.

“I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

As stated, there’s a lot more we need to learn about this story. But there’s also a lot we need to learn from it.

Because it raises some serious questions. Questions I think we need to take some time to answer.

  1. Why don’t we give kids more credit for their natural capacity to learn?
  2. What if we’re the ones getting in the way?
  3. Can we finally put to rest the silly digital immigrant/digital native nonsense?
  4. Why does there remain such a fascination with teaching kids very specific technology skills in our schools today?

It’s intriguing to compare the new approach OLPC is taking with the tablets to the approach they took in Peru. Reading through the reflections on the failure* in Peru brings to the surface two immediate observations. The hardware/software wasn’t ready for the task. And the adults continued getting in the way. The second point, to me, is the most salient. Read through each section of Patzer’s observations, and you see how often the breakdown happens in the way the adults try to move the students through a pre-determined way to learn with the device.

I believe the second experiment is working because nobody is there trying hard to figure out how the new technology should fit into the old model of teaching and learning.

And nobody is trying to frame the learning experience through superficial content that the kids just don’t care about.

Because learning isn’t putting content in little boxes to be handed to kids one after another only to have the boxes thrown away quickly after the handling. To be forgotten in an effort to remember the next in the long line to which they can’t see the end.

It’s letting the kids discover what’s in the boxes. And how to get it out of the boxes. And why the boxes even matter in the first place.

It’s setting a goal, establishing an environment to realize the goal, and trusting in the capacity of human potential. Student potential.

And sometimes, it’s just getting out of their way.


*I encourage you to read Gary Stager’s comment below providing more details and his perspective on the Peru “failing.” I think it’s an excellent perspective and merits further thought before we accept that program actually failed.

How can we help?

Please help me help a friend of mine.

I received an email this week from a good friend asking for help that extends beyond my capacity, and I’m hoping that there are some people somewhere who can step in and provide some guidance and assistance. Because it could mean the world to some students.

The situation:

My friend started teaching three sections of a senior English class this year for students who have recently exited the ESL program but aren’t yet ready for a remedial-level general education classroom.

There is no curriculum for the course, and the only real feedback and guidance my friend is getting from within his department is, “you’ve got to give them blowoff movie days once every couple of weeks to keep them motivated.”

Many students in the class live with extremely challenging life circumstances that do not leave them motivated to engage in the class or the process of learning to be literate. Some of them very much resent that they are in school at all.

After two months of trying to find answers and working to create meaningful learning experiences, my friend is growing exasperated. Because it isn’t working.

So, the question. Does anyone have any resources, contacts, insights, ideas, or any other way to help my friend? I give him great credit for admitting he needs help.

I hope we can get that for him.

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