Thursday, April 23, 2015

Dangerous Reading

Sometimes reading can be a dangerous thing. It is always best to be prepared!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tomorrow is Today!

Last night, I saw Michio Kaku at the St. Louis Speakers Series, which is a lecture series open to subscribers in St. Louis. Kaku is a theoretical physicist and futurist. He has an amazing way of taking complex ideas and communicating them in ways that regular people like myself can understand.

During the talk, Kaku talked about cancer treatments that are so advanced, they consist of molecules that individually attack cancer cells, leaving healthy cells intact. He talked about smart transportation, smart paper, digitized education, prosthetic technology, and "smart wallpaper" that has Star Trek-like capabilities. The point he was making was that these technologies exist today. Some are advanced and some are still in their infancy.

The lecture made me wonder how our schools are preparing kids to work in fields that develop this technology with a forward-thinking mindset. How do we prepare a student to work on a team developing "smart wallpaper" that, when touched, can launch a "Robo-Doc" and find the most accurate medical information for someone having chest pains in their living room? How do kids learn, in schools, the skills they will need to develop "digital paper" that unfolds, is used as a keyboard and CPU, records ideas and folds back neatly to be pocketed? How is what we are doing with kids in schools relevant to this new frontier of advancements? No longer are these ideas futuristic. Tomorrow is today!

We must bring these ideas into the schools. I don't mean we should be working on developing digital paper (though I'm not against it), but we should at least be exposing kids to as many of these ideas as possible. If we are constantly showing kids ideas that are in development, then they may begin to see past limitations that they (or we) have put on themselves.  Maybe by seeing the "smart wallpaper" idea, the kids will apply that idea to something else they can create. Maybe kids can take a futuristic medical idea and apply it to a field outside medicine. Isn't that innovation? How can kids dream big if we keep their world small? 

Amazing things will happen when we combine exposure of futuristic ideas with the space and time for kids to work on their own learning. Kids can see all of these great ideas but we have to follow up with personalized learning opportunities so that kids can explore the ideas that resonate with them. Maybe a student really does want to look into "smart prosthetics" and pursue a project in that kind of technology. Maybe a student sees the "digital paper" idea and imagines all kinds of possibilities that no one else does. How will we harness the genius in each of our kids if we don't give them opportunities in school to imagine and work? We must provide the right learning environment so that kids can follow their dreams in school.

A few years ago, I used to take half of a class period every Friday and show examples of innovations. I called it "Creative Genius" because the things I showed them were genius, in my opinion. I remember showing kids a video about the first iPhone. They were amazed. The examples ranged from technology to creative solutions to environmental problems. Anything that was creative, innovative, interesting and cool made the cut. The kids loved it and I think it opened a lot of their minds to so many possibilities. Isn't that why we're here in the first place?

I stopped doing "Creative Genius" a little while ago and now I regret the decision. I think it is more important than ever to expose these kids to the futuristic ideas and ingenious solutions to problems that they may have never seen before. I want the kiddos to THINK. So, I will be restarting "Creative Genius" this week. Michio Kaku's website looks like a good place to start.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Kids Before Standards

Often I talk about the class period as a time for discovery and learning. I sometimes find myself in conflict with others when talking about learning standards and goals. When I mention veering off on to an unexpected topic in class, I am told, "That's okay as long as you bring it back to the learning goal." Hmmm. I don't believe that. Sometimes when the natural evolution of class goes away from the learning goal, it is often better to follow that learning than to try to bring it back to the day's goal. If kids are excited about something that naturally comes up in class, why would we NOT pursue it? It is good learning whether or not it fits the standard or the learning goal. After all, why sacrifice the natural curiosity of the kids just to get back to something that can be learned later. I take those learning opportunities seriously and pursue them with zest. I put the kids before the standards. Today was a case in point.

A week ago, we put a grant on for a 3D Doodle Pen. We had a grant for a 3D Printer funded two months ago and some kids wanted the doodle pen to freehand some 3D artifacts for their learning. Today, we finally took the wraps off of it. One student, Ben, began playing with it to get a feel for how it works and its potential for his project. Within minutes, Ben had a group of four or five other kids who were learning with him. Now, learning to use a 3D doodle pen was not the learning goal for the day, nor was it a standard for our English class. What it was, though, was good, relevant, immediate, enthusiastic learning. The kids were very excited, deciding who would use the pen next and talking about what they would try to create.

Should I have pulled the plug on that group and shooed them back to work on their daily learning goal? Not on your life! These kids were experiencing authentic learning driven by their own curiosity. This type of learning is exactly what real learning is; it is how we as adults learn.

When I talk to others who are insistent that classroom learning must always come back to the learning goals and standards, I will remember our class today and know that learning happens all of the time in so many ways. We have to expand our idea of learning, not reduce it to the "approved" learning goals and standards. Are standards important? Of course they are but they are not as important as the kids.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

"What Makes Me Irate..."

This is another excerpt from the book that Melissa and I are writing. We started our state testing last week at school. Every time we begin our state testing, I reflect on the intellectual corruption of the testing process specifically and the state-mandated curriculum in general. The entire testing apparatus runs counter to what we know about real learning.

What makes me irate is the following scenario. Let’s say we have a student named Tommy. Tommy is a gifted writer. He is able to write stories that are more imaginative and beautifully crafted than anyone in his class. He loves to write and he loves to read. He does not love math. In fact, he hates math and it has always been his greatest weakness in school. When Tommy gets his report card, he gets As in English, social studies and science but an F or a D in math. Because of Tommy’s weakness in math, Tommy gives up an elective class in order to take a remedial math course. After all, Tommy must learn math so that he can get his grades up and be prepared for the next level of math.

My blood boils when I see this happen, and I see this happen every year. Tommy will spend hundreds of hours trying to get his math skills from “totally sucks” to “doesn’t suck so much”. Tommy will still be a below-average math student. I will bet that Tommy’s future does not have math in it. Yet we sacrifice hundreds of hours punishing Tommy for being bad at math. Maybe his brain just doesn’t work that way. Maybe Tommy doesn’t want to learn math. That doesn’t matter. The school says, “Tommy needs to bring up his grades in math so we’ll give him more math.”

The real human-intellectual loss here is that if Tommy spent those hundreds of hours practicing his writing craft instead of trying to “not suck” at math, school would have done him a huge favor. The hypocrisy of our educational system is that we accept strengths and weaknesses in adults but we will not accept strengths and weaknesses in students. We will only accept strengths. How unreasonable is that? Students must score “proficient” in all subjects tested every year or they are a “failure”. Really? How many adults would be able to score “proficient” on all of those tests? Not many. Adults have figured out where their strengths lie and pursue careers that cater to those strengths. Adults pursue careers where they find personal fulfillment. Why can we not begin that process earlier in the game? Why can’t we introduce that personalization element into schools? Why can’t we help kids realize their gifts, develop their strengths and help make their learning meaningful? Let’s figure out what each student is passionate about and leverage that drive to help kids learn and succeed.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Adjust the Learning to the Child, Not the Child to the Learning

Yesterday, our Assistant Superintendent John Simpson, share this video with the teachers in our district. It is must-see viewing for everyone who teaches or works with children in any capacity. The very first line, "School sucks!" may offend some people initially but when you see the rest of the video, you see that he offers many examples of how kids are not being properly served by schools. You quickly realize that for those kids, he is right; school sucks. In many cases, things are getting worse for kids. As many districts morph into a culture of "testing on steroids", more and more kids are LEFT OUT of learning. The testing culture is the wrong road to go down and yet many blindly speed down that road without thinking through the repercussions of their actions. It is shameful.

The boy in this video talks about every child's genius. Melissa and I talk daily about the genius in every kid. Our challenge as teachers is to unearth that genius and nurture it until it grows strong and sturdy. Kids are good at so many things and their confidence grows exponentially when we find that expertise and develop it. So much of the kids' expertise is not related to what we do in schools but IS RELATED to what they will do with their lives. The school is disconnected, not the child. The child will find a place in the world, based on their genius and expertise, regardless of their schooling. The challenge for us is how to re-engineer schools to allow the kids to identify and develop that expertise in school.

If schools become more and more irrelevant to students' lives, there will be less and less need for traditional schools. We will see different kinds of schools pop up, ones that are engineered to nurture the gifts of each child. We must find out what motivates a child (and ALL children are motivated) and move that child down that path. For example, if a child's real passion is architecture, then we should tailor that child's schooling around that passion. Indeed, this child will find meaning in his/her life working in architecture. Why wouldn't we want to help make that happen? 

Schools have standards. We talk about "teaching the standards" all of the time. We have developed those standards over time and feel that they are the essential things that kids need to master. Are they? Must a child whose passion is architecture really master the standard:   7.4 Analyze how a drama's or poem's form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning. Why don't we build standards that are more relevant to this child's passion and have them work toward those standards? No child is standard. We must honor this diversity of genius and adjust learning to the child, not the child to the learning.

We say that every child is unique but we don't necessarily treat every child as unique. The learning is standard and the testing is standard. It is up to us all to remedy this disconnect so that real, meaningful learning can occur for every child. Only then will every child discover their own genius.