Thursday, 21 June 2007

Hardworking, deeply committed teachers

It's about time that public school teachers were defended. This morning I was discussing the continual negativity towards teachers by politicians and took great pleasure in the comments by Diane Ravitch in The New York Sun .

Recently, I attended yet another one of those conferences where leaders of American industry, commerce, and government get together to decide what to do about our schools.

The meeting proceeded through the now-familiar litany of bad news: American students perform poorly on international tests as compared to their peers in Europe and Asia.

American graduate programs in science and engineering have relatively few American-born students and lots of foreign students. India and China are grabbing more and more of the world's technical jobs because their students are better educated and, I might add, lower paid.

We are losing the brain race to our economic competitors.

We have heard all of this before, for at least the past 25 years.When the time comes to talk about solutions, the conversation and the remedies always seem to focus on teachers. The line goes like this: Our students are not learning because our teachers are not smart enough, are lazy, don't care, get paid regardless of their effectiveness, and so on.

So, once again, out come the usual solutions to our nation's education problems: Incentivize teaching. End tenure. Adopt schemes for merit pay, performance pay, bonus pay. Pay teachers according to the test scores of their students. If student test scores go up, their teachers get more money. If student test scores don't go up, their teachers get extra professional development, and if need be, are fired.

After sitting through another day of discussion in which the teacher was identified as the chief cause of our nation's education woes, I felt that something was amiss. It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers — about 40% who enter the profession will leave within their first five years, frustrated by their students' lack of effort, their administrators' heavy hand, unpleasant physical conditions in their workplace, or their own inability to cope with the demands of the classroom.

I have not met all three million of our nation's teachers, but every one that I have met is hardworking, earnest, and deeply committed to their students. All of them talk about parental lack of support for children, about a popular culture that ridicules education and educators, and about the frustrations of trying to awaken a love of learning in children who care more about popular culture, their clothing, and their social life than mastering the wonders of science, history, and mathematics.

This is a tangled skein of causation, to be sure, but I have a radical idea. Next time there is a conference about the state of American education — or the problems found in each and every school district — why don't we take a hard look at why so many of our students are slackers? Why don't we look at the popular culture and its effects on students' readiness to apply themselves to learning? Why don't we investigate the influence of the role models of "success" that surround our children in the press?Why don't we ask how often our children see models of success who are doctors, nurses, educators, scientists, engineers, and others who enable our society to function and who contribute to our common good?

It's time to stop beating up on teachers and ask why so many of our children arrive in school with poor attitudes toward learning. If the students aren't willing to work hard, if they aren't hungry to succeed, then even the best teachers in the world — laden with merit pay, bonuses, and other perks — are not going to make them learn.

Every article and book about successful education systems in other nations say that their students are "hungry" for education, "hungry" for the learning that will propel them and their families to a better life. Our children — with too few exceptions — don't have that hunger. It's not the fault of their teachers.

We will continue to misdiagnose our educational needs until we focus on the role of students and their families. If they don't give a hoot about education, if the students are unwilling to pay attention in class and do their homework after school, if they arrive in school with a closed and empty mind, don't blame their teachers.

Diane Ravitch is a research professor of Education at New York University. She is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Storytelling and narrative medicine

Last weekend I was staying in Smythesdale with friends Anne and Jeff Langdon. Anne is an artist and teacher and head of Ballarat High School's Art Department. Anne and I were discussing the state of world affairs, our kids, and teaching, when she asked me if I had anything useful on creativity, as she and her Art Faculty colleagues are preparing a paper on the importance of art and creativity in the curriculum.

As it happened I had just been reading chapter 3 in Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind and mentioned that Yale Medical students were studying art and Columbia University Medical School are being trained in narrative medicine. The relevant extract can be found on page 52:
Today the curriculum at American medical schools is undergoing its greatest change in a generation. Students at Columbia University Medical School and elsewhere are being trained in "narrative medicine," because research has revealed that despite the power of computer diagnostics, an important part of a diagnosis is contained in a patient's story. At the Yale School of Medicine, students are honing their powers of observation at the Yale Center for British Art, because students who study paintings excel at noticing subtle details about a patient's condition... UCLA Medical School has established a Hospital Overnight Program, in which second-year students are admitted to the hospital overnight with fictitious ailments. The purpose of this playacting? "To develop medical students' empathy for patients," says the school.

Further on in the chapter Pink quotes Bob Lutz the head of General Motors:
Bob Lutz is not exactly a touchy-feely, artsy-fartsy kind of guy. He's a craggy, white haired white man in his seventies....when Lutz took over his post at GM, and the New York Times asked him how his approach would differ from that of his predecessors, here's how he responded: "It's more right brain.... I see us being in the art business. Art, entertainment and mobile sculpture, which, coincidentally, also happens to provide transportation." ... General Motors says it's in the art business.

The other thing I'd like to pick up on here is the "narrative medicine" training that medical students at Columbia Medical School are undergoing. Last week in The Age Business section there was an article on storytelling by Gabrielle Dolan which referred research by Human Synergistics International that highlighted:
... organisational storytelling as an effective tool in the success of these critical factors. Organisational storytelling is storytelling with a business purpose. Business leaders such as Jack Welch have always understood the power of story. When asked what his greatest attribute was, Welch replied: "That I am Irish and I know how to tell stories." ...

Stories allow people to personalise the organisation's mission and translate it into human terms.

... story becomes a critical tool. While logic and data can engage people's minds, stories engage their hearts. ...Essentially, change management is replacing existing stories in people's heads with new stories about the future. Narrative and story imagery are powerful ways to paint this vision of the future.

That's something I'll pass on to Anne. If any of you have other connections to creativity I'd be delighted to read about them and pass them onto Anne.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Practice Makes Perfect

Yesterday I was discussing literacy with a couple of primary teachers and asked about their impressions of secondary school English classrooms. We got around to talking about the ubiquitous practice of reading a class novel aloud for a whole period. First of all the students are bored; secondly there is often very little explicit teaching including giving the reason for reading the novel; third, the learning intentions for that period aren't stated; fourth, students are expected to be passive receivers of information with the occasional response to a question about the text. Engaged the students aren't.

Today I came across a blog post by Maish R Nichani of which referred to a survey about adult learning. The first preference was learning by doing and I wonder how much of this is the situation in our classrooms. If students are to write how much writing do they actually do as compared with listening to their teacher talk about writing.

According to a survey from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), UK workers have an overwhelming preference for less formal ways of learning to improve job performance.

For the survey (Practice Makes Perfect), a sample of 2,076 workers in the UK were asked which of ten ways of learning were helpful in learning to do the job better.

Learning by doing the job on a regular basis was the favourite method - overall, 82% found this quite or very helpful. This was followed by being shown how to do things by others (62%), and watching and listening to others (56%). Just 54% felt that taking a course paid for by the employer or the worker was helpful, followed closely by reflecting on your own performance (53%). Reading books and manuals (39%), using trial and error (38%) and using the internet (29%) were the least favourite methods.

I wonder what our students would rate as their preferred way to learn?

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Cowshed line

I drove to Zack and Tracy's (our son and daughter in law) house last Sunday and on the way took a few photographs focusing on line. I'm fascinated by line in natural and made objects and above is an interesting mix of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines with a derelict cow shed.
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Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Is school reform impossible?

My head starts to spin with all of the information you can come across in the blogosphere. I keep telling myself that slow learning is savouring learning not rushing from blog to blog. Recently I came across mention of the pedagogy of slowness in a blog titled Artichoke.

I am loving listening to The Knowledge Tree E Journal issue featuring Geetha Narayanan’s take on just this idea and its real time and space result - Project Vision

So what is the dangerous idea I have been exploring and why do many people across the world consider it powerful? The dangerous idea is that school reform, in India in particular, but across the world too, is impossible.

Changing education, at the systemic level or at the institutional or school level, or educating teachers and school leaders in change can be classified as largely first order change - that of school improvement, which involves doing more of the same but doing it better (where the focus is on efficiency) and that of school re-structuring, which involves re-organising components and responsibilities (where the focus is on effectiveness).

The power behind the dangerous idea is the realisation that if one cannot reform education by improving the system or by re-structuring the schools, then the way forward must be through design. The need seemed to be to re-envision and to design a new system - one that supports both personal and social transformation creating 21st century learning.

Geetha’s thought experiment in challenging hidden assumptions about how we do school resulted in something very practical and grounded - Project Vision – a slow pedagogy created from shop front type learning experiences for marginalised children in the “rapidly growing slums” of Bangladore, India.

Project vision is not about creating small sized schools – it is about fragmenting theone place one space school into “four distinct, distributed, interactive and inter-related components that work in coordination with one another.”

I'm still grappling with the ideas Geetha Narayanan articulated in her blog, including this paragraph on slowness:
The concept of Slow emerged from the Slow Food and Slow Design movement in Europe and the United States and builds and develops on ideas of sustainable living as a desirable future. Slowness as a pedagogy allows students to learn not at the metronome of the school day or the school bell, but at the metronome of nature, giving them time to absorb, to introspect and contemplate, to argue and rebut and to enjoy.

Increase creativity - raise the roof

Are you an abstract, creative thinker or a more detail concrete, detail-oriented thinker? Currently there is a lot of thought given to school planning, especially open plan classrooms but one thing I haven't heard discussed is ceiling heights. Artist Robert Genn in his blog The Painters Keys writes about research into ceiling heights.

Raise the roof! May 8, 2007 Dear Artist, Now it seems that researchers at the Universities of British Columbia and Minnesota have found a relationship between creativity and the height of ceilings. Rui Zhu and Joan Meyers-Levy tested various volunteer groups in rooms of eight- and ten-foot ceilings. "When a person is in a high-ceiling environment, they are going to process information in a more abstract, creative fashion," said Zhu. "Those in a room with relatively lower ceilings will process in a much more concrete, detail-oriented fashion." These researchers feel people under high ceilings are "primed" to think broadly because of the sense of freedom associated withManchester Cathedral, UKThe soaring architecture of Gothic Cathedrals may have contributed to the lofty thoughts of the Renaissance" src=""> Manchester
Cathedral, UKThe soaring architecture of Gothic Cathedrals may have contributed to the lofty thoughts of the Renaissance the space, while the containment of a lower ceiling encourages people to think small and focused. There may be something in this. Artists have traditionally demanded high ceilings, not only so they can run up their easels and facilitate high light but also to give themselves creative headroom. My studio, for example, is divided into two areas, one with a 9-foot ceiling, the other with a pitch that goes up to 14 feet. I've noticed I feel different in the two areas, and bringing work-in-progress from one area to the other demands different moves. On the other hand, working outside under an infinite ceiling can evoke a kind of conservative stagnation. In my case, this perverse reaction may be due to the intimidation that the great outdoors has always given me and may not be typical of all plein air enthusiasts. On the other hand, the studio in general is a sanctuary where I may safely vacillate between exploratory creativity and my personal bag of tricks. Apart from the feng-shui of high ceilings and their invitation to power and expansive thinking, other benefitsBig Mark Rothko in the Metropolitan Museum, NY include the dissipation of toxins and more oxygen. And when you think about it, the availability of empty warehouses and lofts on Manhattan has contributed greatly to the New York "paint big" school. Paris has always had some big places too. "Give me the venue and I will fill it up," said Picasso. While larger, higher studios may invite larger, higher work, they might also invite larger, higher ideals. Incidentally, these researchers ought to try to find out if shorter persons are more creative than taller ones because they have more space above their heads. Best regards, Robert PS: "Higher ceilings prime the feeling of freedom that in turn facilitates the relational processing of multiple data." (Rui Zhu) Esoterica: Contrarily, I'd like to draw your attention to the possible value of confinement. Tight little areas such as bird blinds, cars and motorhomes work well for many. It has something to do with the absence
of clutter and the opportunity to focus. Curiously, I've pulled off more than a few reasonable paintings in the economy seat of a crowded aircraft. I feel there's something smugly brilliant about keeping my elbows to myself. In any case, when building the studio of your dreams, you need to think about bumping your head.

That is the sort of nonsense up with I will not put

A blog I came across recently is the blog contains excerpts or quotes that the editors think interesting.

I've signed on to receive daily emails and the first one I received is pasted below - an extract about prepositions. As teachers in the local schools begin report writing and grappling with making sure their reports are grammatical correct, the excerpt seems apposite. Worth a look.

"[O]ne of the all-time great grammatical shibboleths [is] that when writing a sentence or a clause, you must not ... make a preposition the last word you put in. This notion apparently originated with the poet John Dryden, who in a 1672 work quoted Ben Jonson's line 'The bodies that these souls were frighted from' and commented 'The Preposition at the end of a sentence; a common fault with him, and which I have but lately observ'd in my own writings.' Probably, Dryden based his stand on two foundations. First, prepositions in Latin never appear at the end of a sentence, not surprising since praepositio is Latin for something that 'comes before.' Second, a principle of composition that's as valid in the twenty-first century as it was in the seventeenth holds that, whenever possible, sentences should end strongly--and prepositions, as necessary as they undeniably are, are usually more of a whimper than a bang."

Whatever its origin, the ban found favor with prescriptivists through the centuries, including Edward Gibbon; John Ruskin, who in an entire book (Seven Lamps) concluded a sentence with a preposition precisely one time; Lily Tomlin's officious Ernestine the telephone operator, who asked, 'Is this the party to whom I am speaking?'; and my mother-in-law, Marge Simeone, who is prone to saying things like 'In which car are we going?'... [B]ut [this rule] was always a bit suspect. It was blown out of the water by [Henry] Fowler, who wrote in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 'Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are 'inelegant' are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards.' Fowler then gave twenty-four examples of the 'rule' being broken by such writers as Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pepys, Swift, Defoe, Burke, Kipling, and the authors of the King James Bible. ... When the preposition occurs in a phrasal verb, the transposition task can be close to impossible. To 'fix' a phrasal-verb-concluding sentence like 'I'm turning in,' you'd have to come up with something like 'Turning in I am,' which not even Yoda from Star Wars could say with a straight face. "To anyone still unconvinced, I offer two small anecdotes, in reverse order of familiarity."

1. Winston Churchill, when corrected for violating this rule, supposedly replied, 'That is the sort of nonsense up with I will not put.'"

2. A guy from South Philadelphia, on vacation in London, asks a bowler-hatted gent, 'Where's the subway at?' The Londoner replies, 'Don't you Yanks realize that it's poor English to end a sentence with a preposition?' To which the South Philly guy says, 'Okay, where's the subway at, asshole?' "

Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, Broadway Books, 2007, pp. 163-165.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Helvetica is fifty and everywhere

Typography and graphic design grabs my attention. My wife, Pat, tells me that she notices that when I'm feeling a bit stressed I often spend hours redisigning some unit of work I am to present. I lose myself in the small details and problem solving. I came across a piece with a slide show by Mia Fineman "The Helvetica Hegemony: How an unassuming font took over the world" in Slate magazine. To take a grab from the first slide:

This year is the 50th anniversary of Helvetica, the ubiquitous sans-serif font that some have called the official typeface of the 20th century. Even if you don't know its name, you'll probably recognize its face. Helvetica is everywhere. It's been used in countless corporate logos, including those of American Airlines, Sears, Target, Toyota, BMW, Tupperware, Nestlé, ConEd, Verizon, North Face, Staples, Panasonic, Evian, Crate and Barrel, and the Gap. You can spot it on billboards, album covers, and directional signs, including all the signage in the New York City subway system. Even the IRS uses Helvetica for its income tax forms. ...

Now, the typeface is the subject of a small exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art centering around an original set of Helvetica lead type donated to the museum by Lars Müller, designer and publisher of the 2005 book Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface.

Worthwhile reading the text with the slides. Have a look.