No Contest

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I generally find myself reading books that have been published recently since so many are published daily, but over the summer I went back to read a 1986 classic by Alfie Kohn called No Contest: The Case Against Competition. While the second edition was published in 1992, there has been very little discussion of the book recently. That is surprising because Kohn presents an argument that is very provocative and controversial, and would have a profound impact on K-12 education.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Briefly, Kohn’s thesis is that our entire culture of competition is destructive to child development, and stunts the growth of intrinsic motivation. He cites numerous studies in which students that were given a carrot for completing a project produced inferior work in comparison with those students having no external incentives. Kohn is well aware of the role of sports in the lives of our students, and makes the arguable point that competitive sports is only advantageous for the best athletes while the rest of the competitors are hurt by competition. He does say that the focus of sports should be on personal excellence rather than winning.

After completing the book, I found myself torn. Kohn’s arguments are very convincing and well-presented (some critics argue his conclusions go beyond the data), but they fall short in the litmus test of reality. What would it take to alter the values of an entire society? Even if we agreed that eliminating a culture of competition would improve the human condition, how would we get there? One major premise of our schools is that individuals should strive to do better than other students because getting ahead leads to success. How do we alter our beliefs and commit to personal excellence of the kind that Malcolm Gladwell describes?

More importantly, why did Kohn’s book fade into oblivion when he had identified a fundamental cultural bias that, according to him, is destructive to child development and adult happiness? Why did innovative educators not embrace Kohn’s proposal and test it on a somewhat limited scale. From my brief research, it appears that there were very few initiatives in schools that produced any significant results, and a few initiatives died due to parental pressure to maintain a competitive environment. I hope some of you will read the book, and think carefully about he implications of Kohn’s proposals.

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Summertime… à la “Porgy and Bess”

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“Summertime — and the living is easy….” Oh, the life of a teacher/instructional technologist when school is not in session! Or is it? As we move into the last month of the traditional summer break, I can reflect on whether my summer has been easy. So far, I have prepared and taught two week-long workshops, attended and presented at a technology conference, helped pack and move two children from one state to another, and begun to prepare for the fall. When does the fall begin? August 20, when our school launches a large professional development program called Choate iPadU. On that day, we begin two weeks of workshops designed to prepare faculty for the iPad program that begins when our students return to school. So, I am working diligently on the curriculum, and trying to incorporate it into iTunesU, a platform with which I was relatively unfamiliar until a week ago. In addition I am reviewing and enhancing a new World History curriculum developed by a few of my colleagues, preparing for an evaluation of Learning Management Systems, developing an ongoing professional development and support plan for the iPad program, retooling the courses I will teach this fall, and getting a head start on college recommendations for my students, Other than teaching classes, grading student work, and attending meetings, a good number of days are not that different than a typical day during the school year. 

That’s really the point regarding most teachers I know (public and private schools). Summers are not quite the two month vacation the general public and the traditional media might imagine. The craft of teaching (it is a craft, not a science) is far more challenging than many outsiders think. During the school year, days are long and exhausting. They extend well beyond the class day. In the summer, the days are different, but many are equally busy in different ways. Summer is the time for rejuvenation, retooling, learning new ways to improve teaching and learning, and to enable some downtime. Rest means less stress, and that means better thinking and ideas. So the living may not always be easy in the summertime, but it does provide a pace that is conducive to the kind of work that helps teachers to hone their craft. Some easy living is in order for all fo us, but most of the summertime is preparation for another challenging and fulfilling year.

That was my idea, wasn’t it?

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There has been some discussion in our schools about students using online “citation tools” to format footnotes and bibliographies. While that discussion is important in the sense that it begs for some consensus, in many ways it obfuscates the real issue. How our students take responsibility for attribution in a cyber world where everybody’s ideas and positions are revealed is the challenge. Very simply, is there much that our students could propose that has not been set forth by somebody else? If the answer is no, then should students be citing everything they write? Furthermore, when students recount information in their work, where do we draw the line regarding what is common knowledge (cataloged in an encyclopedia?) and what is not? As teachers, is it necessary for us to teach kids information they could easily obtain elsewhere or should we focus our talents on higher order learning skills? The problem with this inquiry is that the more you think about the topic, the more questions are raised. As we begin to recognize the complexity of these questions, think about the stress these questions might cause our students as they deliver papers, projects, and tests to us.

Image representing Creative Commons as depicte...

Image via CrunchBase

The problem today is that the sphere of common knowledge has expanded if we define it as anything that can be found on the web in ten seconds or less. So when a student writes that “John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, TX,” and cites Wikipedia as the source, I tell that student “no citation necessary – common knowledge.” Does that mean everybody knows the answer, sort of like the sky is blue, or does it mean that the answer can be obtained online in less than ten seconds? Alternatively, if the student says “the British Empire declined, in part, due to its lack of tolerance for those living in the British colonies,” and cites Amy Chua‘s recent book, Day of Empire, am I satisfied with the reference? Does it matter that Chua’s idea is not original, and the student should have picked up the footnote in Chua that gives prior attribution to Niall Ferguson? And did Ferguson steal the idea from Edward Gibbon?  This is a slippery slope, you say. Perhaps we should just leave it alone and be thankful our kids are citing sources at all. Food for thought. I would suggest, however, that there is considerable scaffolding necessary before we can begin to develop some 21st century guidelines for attribution. When we are finished developing a framework, we will have completely undressed the idea of intellectual property in the digital world, and some of us will be very unhappy with the result. Imagine donating all of your original work and ideas to the “Creative Commons.” Is this a conversation we should begin or should we sit back and let higher education do the heavy lifting?

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Why the debate about technology in education is over

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Sometimes one is asked an innocuous question that leads to a good deal of reflection. In this case, I was asked to recommend articles characterizing the debate regarding the effectiveness of technology in education. I quickly thought of positioning somebody like Nicholas Carr opposite Will Richardson, providing a clear debate forum. Then I realized that I would be doing the individual requesting the information a disservice. While there will always be naysayers who believe that both the pristine Socratic approach to learning should not be sacrificed and technology invites lack of focus and distraction, the resulting dichotomy created by Will Richardson, who argues that learning is necessarily collaborative, and effectiveness is the right network of connections, just feels contrived. The differences articulated in the traditional debate are polar extremes rather than a synthesis of how technology reinforces our best efforts at teaching and learning. And that is why the debate is no longer useful.

The Socratic Method

Image via Wikipedia

If we think about the changes in technology, education, and brain research that have occurred since the mid-90s, it is not surprising that a debate that had substance at one time no longer does. Recall the famous Apple promotional video made at the Dalton School during that timeframe. It led to countless visits by educators worldwide to see what Dalton was doing. We  overlooked the primary lesson learned then, and only today has it become more clear. In the video, Frank Moretti, then Assistant Head of School (currently at Columbia’s CCNMTL), likened the integration of technology in education to the use of a lever to move a boulder. Somehow we forgot that message, and became very focused on the tools themselves instead of how they were being used in the context of a teacher’s pedagogy. Even today, we read from reputable journalists that online learning will eliminate the need for teachers. It sounds like failing to move the boulder, and deciding to walk around it. We move forward, but the boulder is still there to potentially crush us.

Today, with the advent of Web 2.0 tools, the dominance of web media, and the incredible availability of information if you know where to look, we are in a position to move the boulder with a much more sophisticated lever than we had in 1995. Given the latest brain research, we can keep our students stimulated and learning by encouraging them to engage others, exercising higher order thinking skills, and embracing an interactive world that was previously available only in printed narrative or teacher lectures. And yes, our students will be distracted, and yes, boys will not embrace these new tools for learning as quickly as girls, but since we can anticipate these nuances, we can adjust to them.

At the end of the day, however, the effective integration of technology tools is all about excellent teaching. When we believed that technology alone could improve education, we stumbled again and again. Some of the tools excited teachers and students for a brief shining moment, but the Hawthorne Effect is neither real nor sustainable. It takes talented teachers who understand the current educational landscape and believe that our profession is all about kids learning, and teachers coaching those kids, to make the transition to 21st century learning. Much of public education today is a “Race to Nowhere,” packed with metrics that are based on the factory model fallacy that all kids learn the same way and have the same potential. We know these assumptions are biologically flawed, but are unwilling to confront those assumptions in this “land of opportunity.” In every school, public and private, there are great teachers, assisted by great technologies, that constitute the tipping point for effective teaching and learning, and they have done it with the tools that our kids are using; they have met our kids where they live and learn. The fundamental principles of the pristine Socratic method, the Agora of the classroom, have not changed. What has changed is how we implement the engagement and learning that the Classical Greeks made fundamental to their culture. Doing that successfully incorporates the best of the old and new, and consequently ends the debate.

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Now I have an iPad? What to do next?

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So you’ve received a shiny, new iPad, set up email and calendar, used the browser to check some basketball or hockey scores, watched a Netflix movie and installed Facebook. All of that functionality exists on your laptop, so why use the iPad? It seems like duplicated effort. Here are some reasons, and recommendations for getting started small so you are not overwhelmed by the 200,000 apps out there.

Reasons for using the iPad

  •  Mobility – You walk ten miles with your laptop; i’ll walk with my iPad. Let’s see who’s more tired at the end of the trip. Imagine an iPad eliminating the need for a backpack, or at minimum, reducing the weight by 50%.
  •  Spontaneity – “Okay, let’s go to the computers.” Ten minutes later, every student in the classroom is logged in (some forgot his/her password), and has found the web page you asked them to locate. Can you afford to sacrifice ten minutes of class time? With the iPad, this process occurs in 30 seconds. Would 30 seconds deter you from using an iPad in class?
  •  Size – Smaller than a breadbox, bigger than a smart phone; a great size for note-taking and reading.
  •  Multi-purpose – With a little creativity, you can satisfy most of your needs with the iPad (some apps are still in development – remember Woody Allen’s Sleeper).

Getting started

Very simple: Read, read, read with your iPad. Books, newspapers, magazines, web pages, journals. Start taking notes using the built-in Notes app or ask your friends for note-taking app recommendations if you want to use a stylus (purchase at Walmart for under $10). Begin with shopping lists, to do’s, and  meeting notes. Finally, start using Dropbox so you can share documents between your laptop and the iPad. These steps will help to unleash the passion — the commitment comes when you add a few other functions.

“Over the High-Tech Rainbow”

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The title of this post is borrowed from Sue Halpern‘s article in the November 24, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books (ironically, the article is behind a paid gateway). It is by far one of the most fascinating and concise articles I have read in some time because Ms. Halpern raises questions that are fundamental to our future. Beginning with a tribute to the genius of Steve Jobs for developing Siri in the iPhone 4S, Halpern reminds us of Jobs’ frequent tribute to hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going.”

In a society that has many broken institutions, Halpern is remarkably hopeful, describing efforts to improve “clean-tech” energy production, viewing the world’s most pressing problems as opportunities, and the kind of innovative biotech that Steve Jobs used to manage his cancer. He was unsuccessful, according to Halpern, because he was playing where the puck was going to be, not where it was.

A statue of Wayne Gretzky raising the Stanley ...

Image via Wikipedia

The implications of Halpern’s ideas are profound, particularly in our current society that has lost sight of planing for the future, and is understandably interested in recovering the status quo. When your car doesn’t run, you have it repaired so it will run as it did before. But all of us experience that moment when we decide it is not worth fixing the car; it is time to buy a new one. Society today has not yet crossed that threshold, and until we do, we will be stuck on the near side of the rainbow, forgetting there is a far side that contains the proverbial pot of gold.

The kinds of innovation Halpern discusses will require both heavy financial commitments and big-time brainpower. Those are the two characteristics of our society that are sitting in the garage rather than on the open road. As a democrat who always believed in the value of public goods and social programs, I am humbled to say that the Republican emphasis on protecting the “5%,” who are the captains of our economy, may be well-placed. Yes, we need to get the rest of our society back to work, but that will only happen if the 5% get excited about funding technology research that will create jobs. President Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” may have been ahead of its time.

More importantly, the 5% will not live forever, and their offspring represent a very small slice of our workforce. The challenges for education are enormous, teaching all kids to think about where the puck will be rather than where it is. Imagine an educational philosophy that promotes the charge, “Question everything.” We need to cultivate a Steve Jobs type of mind in almost every child, and we need teachers who buy into the notion that preparing our kids for a very challenging future is in their best interest, and bureaucrats who understand that higher order thinking skills cannot be cultivated in the realm of the multiple choice question.

Finally, there are those who favor progress, but worry about the ethical issues that result from “messing with the essence of humanity” in laboratories. Recall that dinosaurs became extinct because they were unable to adapt to environmental changes. That is perhaps the best reason for “rewriting the life code,” to adapt to a changing environment. Halpern speaks eloquently of the ethical issue in the article: “It’s not clear where, in the process of innovation, questions of ethics arise, or if the process is so solipsistic and self-referential that the answers are largely beside the point.” The Open Source movement grew out of a desire to democratize knowledge and expertise, and it has provided numerous benefits to individuals and the marketplace, but over the long haul, knowledge will become the premier unit of economic value, and if it does not command a handsome return, what will provide the incentive to develop new ideas and technologies (Daniel Pink should weigh in here)?

Halpern has posed all the right questions, and now we need the appropriate answers. The purpose of this post is to begin the conversation, not to end it.

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A Social Media and Politics Project

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I’m currently working with one of our best students on a Capstone project that asks the following question: “Is there a form of social media that, properly analyzed, could be used to predict the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election?” After consulting with a polling expert at Wesleyan University, we came to the conclusion that it was possible to use social media based on polling theories, but that we would be in uncharted waters. This Professor suspected there was a chance that Twitter might be used to forecast a national election outcome, based on the assumption that Twitter had become a reliable gauge of public sentiment in some circles. My student immediately searched for similar studies and uncovered the following:

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

1. The CIA has an  entire division that does nothing but look at public data for the purpose of characterizing the mood of a nation or group: “The intelligence analysts at the agency’s Open Source Center, who other agents refer to as ‘vengeful librarians,’ are tasked with sifting through millions of tweets, Facebook messages, online chat logs, and other public data on the World Wide Web to glean insights into the collective moods of regions or groups abroad.” (The Atlantic Monthly – Jared Keller)

2. Analysis of Twitter feeds have already been used to predict the behavior of the stock market, perhaps an even more fickle index than public sentiment: “Here we investigate whether measurements of collective mood states derived from large-scale Twitter feeds are correlated to the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) over time… we find an accuracy of 87.6% in predicting the daily up and down changes in the closing values of the DJIA.” (study completed at Indiana University)

I love this project because it combines rigorous analysis of political trends and a study of Twitter as a predictive rather than reflective social networking tool (what some have called “crowdsourcing”). Suppose we could ascertain the ongoing sentiment of our students through a review of an appropriate Twitter feed?  Love to hear your feedback.


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