Thursday, December 7, 2017

Climate Change: Fact or Fiction?

"a state of dynamic equilibrium within a community of organisms in which genetic, species and ecosystem diversity remain relatively stable, subject to gradual changes through natural succession"

That is the definition of "ecological balance".  Words like stability, gradual change and natural seem to carry the most weight in that sentence for me.  Metaphorically maybe that is what I loved about teaching when I first started.  Survival, just like in the nature, was no easy task.  But if nothing else my environment was stable and predictable(Though I must admit that the opposite was sometimes true of my students).  I gradually got better based on what worked and what didn't. So in reflecting on the past few years, my toughest years teaching, something seems different.  There was no radical shift or change.  But what I am now acutely aware of is the change in culture and climate in schools.  To me, climate change is very real. 

I am of course talking about the climate of reform in our schools.  The National School Climate Center explains the following:

A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in a democratic society. This climate includes:
  • Norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe.
  • People are engaged and respected.
  • Students, families and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision.
  • Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.
  • Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.
Go back and read those again.  Now a third time.  It seems balanced to me.  Change is a natural part of any environment.   But as an inhabitant of a school, it seems evident to me that some efforts to improve schools for those who learn in them might be coming at the expense of those who work in them and thus to the school itself.   I would assert that any change in order to succeed, must be mutually beneficial.  

In our case as teachers, there must be buy-in and the belief that this can and will work.  As an experienced teacher the "what's best for students"  is a truism that ignores the interplay between the two primary inhabitants of schools, students and teachers.  When I am in a meeting and I hear that phrase to justify a change, I roll my eyes and sometimes it even makes my skin crawl and implies somehow that beneficial actions for students and teachers are mutually exclusive.  It seems to discount the views and insights of all the trained, highly experienced, caring professionals who work directly with students. 

I try my best to do every single day what is best for students. To imply that my actions are otherwise, perhaps motivated by self interest or apathy, is a slap in the face.  Am I perfect ?  No.  But I teach because I am a teacher, not because I need a job.(let that sink in)  Unlike the natural world where everything exists in concert, schools exist for the sole purpose of benefiting students.  But the metaphor is one which I hope remains a powerful one.  You can't have an action that benefits one group without affecting the other. 

Whether it is a conversation about technology, homework load, teacher professional development, multi-age learning spaces, grades, standardized testing or any of the thousands of things we consider as teachers, the quality educators I work with try to do what is best for the student.  Sure there are some that don't live up to that standard.  This would be true of any workplace.  But increasingly there seems to be a movement of a small group of professionals directing things that seem to be disregarding the evidence and not paying much attention to the less overt impacts of change.  The system seems set up to exclude the ground level experts in the field who see every day what is actually going on.  While that could describe the current state of affairs regarding the EPA or our federal approach to climate change, it is a reference to decision makers who don't work directly with students.  The results in both scenarios could negatively affect everyone for a very long time to come.  Climates across the globe vary dramatically and the same is true of the climates within schools across our nation.  Some are farther ahead in the change and others remain unaffected and look much as they did 20 years ago.

Peter DeWitt and Sean Slade suggest leaders reflect on the following when trying to affect positive change in a school climate.
  • -How to engage students and school stakeholders.
  • -How to empower staff and students and foster autonomy so people take ownership of their ideas and the learning process.
  • -How to promote inclusivity and equity throughout the school.
  • -How to create a welcoming, cooperative, and safe school environment that nurtures students’ social-emotional needs.

Change is necessary and inevitable.  Any teacher that doesn't change should retire.  But the fact is that it is impossible to be a teacher and not change.  Some change is be expected but ill-informed abrupt and harmful shifts in the way we go about things can be disruptive just as they would be in the natural world.  They throw a delicate system out of balance.  Some suggest that such disruption is a good thing, needed to bring about meaningful improvement and fix a broken system. Perhaps this is the case in some places and aggressive action is needed.  But be wary of those that ignore the very nature of a school and are instead simply applying catchy idioms to fit their well meaning ideas.  I've heard it said that change is a process and not an event.  Those affecting change would be wise to remember that mantra since even things they see as small shifts could have enormous and unforeseen consequences. Any school that doesn't change will become obsolete.  But those schools that focus on positive change and not sustainability might achieve neither.  

Certain species are often bellwethers of the health of an ecosystem.
USGS- the actual "experts" say the Pika is disappearing
 Birds and amphibians reveal the danger in an environment first.  In schools I believe that has always been the experienced teacher.  In the turbulent era of change today it would seem to me that signs and feedback from those individuals is not only too often being ignored but seems unwelcome.  Instead of valuing those insights as an asset and working together, their understanding is seen as an obstacle for change.     Changes that are increasingly driven by factors and elements outside of schools or by what seems fashionable or innovative...not necessarily effective, threaten the very existence of the effective school.  Teachers know this to be true.  Some might say that is not a big deal.  They are wrong.

Experienced teachers are one thing but expert teachers are another.  They are what I would liken to keystone species. They are best represented by the stone at the top of an arch that supports the other stones and keeps the whole arch from falling, a species(expert teachers) on which the presence of a large number
of other species(schools and students) in an ecosystem depend.  If they are removed then those dependent on it will disappear(bye bye good school).

While it demands a whole series of posts to itself, the rapid shifts in technology is I think doing real damage to our students.  No, strike that, doing damage to our society.To be in any way complicit in this is painful.  But before you dismiss my or any other teacher's concerns ask yourself this: "Why is everyone bemoaning the damaging aspects of technology addiction and yet not changing their own behaviors?"  About the only place where we can control this, is in the schools and doing what is best for students, if you ask a teacher, would often involve less technology, not more.    

Many other shifts I've witnessed I think are actually disruptive and harmful to students.  Real long term damage is done to them and the school where they learn. Potentially permanent damage.  As an example I think one thing young people have lost is the ability to sit quietly.   I asked my students in class the other day, "Where would you go if you wanted somewhere quiet where you could focus?"    They one answered.  That should be alarming.    In an effort to make things more "engaging" or accommodate those who really do have trouble being still and quiet and need different supports have we neglected things that are needed by all, like quiet?  Things pushed to favor one particular group will result in an unhealthy balance. So these shifts are often driven by groups, individuals or philosophies to help students might actually hurt them.   Developed too far from the actual places being affected to see the gradual effect, not unlike decisions in Washington that affect our nation's environmental future, these climate changes should give us pause as we wonder what their long term impact will be.  

Teachers, just like wild species,  must adapt to survive.   But they also are asked to mitigate the changes when things aren't thought out very well or don't go exactly as planned.  Just think of the impact of many invasive plant and animal species that were introduced with good intent.  That is diifficult to undo.  Teachers can only help so much on ground level and instead we have to address the source before these things are in the environment

The greenhouse gases of education.  
Nature, like a school, if left alone has a unique ability to self regulate.  Change is a constant and a norm.  The problem is that most schools are seeing a gradual but undeniable loss of control.  Whether that is something as simple as what furniture will be purchased, how much work will be assigned or what classes will and will not be taught. Loss of autonomy is a bad thing and a sign of a climate out of balance.  For certain students today enter our climate affected by factors and forces that neither we nor they fully control.  We can try to help with this, but that help has limits and we must confront that sad reality.  We should focus on what we can in fact control.

The conditions that favor one species and may be harmful for another are inextricably linked.  Students, teachers, administrators, parents, even politicians and the public inhabit schools in one form or another.  They all play a role and have an impact on the school climate.  In our efforts to help and sustain one group we must avoid tipping the balance in favor of any of them. 

Schools, like climate change can indeed be understood by scientific processes using data, surveys and other methods.  But if that information is ignored it does no good.  In both education and our environment, we should trust more in  the observations of those "in the field".  Having an honest conversation with someone who has lived on a piece of land their entire lives might reveal more about what is happening in nature than a mountain of research.  An honest two-way conversation with a teacher might indeed be more valuable than all the hand picked research in the world.  Great teaching is an art and great schools are a rarity.  And I feel these are more and more threatened both by unwise action and inaction, with each passing day.   

Monday, February 27, 2017

If You Can Google it, Why Teach it?

Have you heard that one yet? Maybe it sounds like a great mantra for 21st century learning. It certainly goes a long way toward making the majority of members in the teaching profession seem like dinosaurs. Sometimes, I think that's the point.

Why don't we give the question a little more honest consideration though? I've given it a try in a few disciplines and here's what I came up with.

"If you can google it, why teach it?"- World Language

This will save tons of money and relieve students of the burden of useless vocab and grammar lessons. All you need is an internet connection and you can translate anything. Just google translate and you can convert text and/or speech from one language to another. If you have a smart phone or tablet, you can just aim your camera at text or capture audio from the internal mic and get an instant translation. So why do we still spend so much time on languages?

"If you can google it, why teach it?"- The Arts

I posted some time ago about a student who developed quite a talent for making balloon animals. When I asked where he learned how to do it, he said ""youtube".  So, just look it up- "how do I make ceramics", "how do you play a trumpet", "whats the best paint to use for a realistic painting", etc. I bet they don't teach anything in the arts wing that a student couldn't find for themselves.

"If you can google it, why teach it?"- Geography

Reading maps? 20th century. Learning about place is just not necessary. GPS tracks us sometimes even if we don't want it to. Turn on location services and open google maps and you can find anything in the world.

I could imagine a common response to these points would be "we're not saying these subjects aren't important, but students need to go beyond memorizing and practicing rote and irrelevant material toward applying and integrating these disciplines into their work.

I agree, but the "why teach it" mentality is flawed and slightly dangerous. It isn't much different than saying "why learn it."

The language (vocabulary) and fundamental skills and knowledge of a discipline shape the way we understand the discipline and how it fits into our world. Maybe to play on an old metaphor, there's no such thing as a forest without trees; and usually lots of them.

Studies of the Himba tribe in Africa demonstrate that their ability to distinguish various shades of blue and green differ from Western Cultures largely because of the language they use for color words. Cultures that differ in their use of self-referencing directional words versus cardinal directional words show different abilities at movement and navigation. The nuances of verb tenses in languages shape the worldview of entire groups of people. These factors influence how people think.

Likewise, the basic information of a discipline, like latitude and longitude for example in geography , shapes the way we think about place, location, here and there. The vocabulary and basic skills lay a cognitive framework for building new knowledge and applying it to other contexts.

"If you can google it, why teach it?" assumes that knowledge out of context, quick and accessible is just as useful for the human mind as knowledge grounded in understanding and internalized through mental effort.

In the end, I think that those who are fond of this phrase would argue that they're just tired of the traditional "drill and kill" rote memorization and practice that supposedly characterizes modern education, but I think they're mistaken to assume that there is not a time or a place beneficial for students to just know something.

It's also just a provocative phrase. And I'm tired of shallow provocations. I think there are much better ways for educators to move forward together.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Is Credibility Going Extinct?

I teach a research methods class and lately we’ve been struggling with finding and identifying quality sources. Last week I asked the class “how do You evaluate the credibility of an online source, what is the first thing you look for?” I wasn't trying to get the "right" answer, I wanted to know what they really think about. 

The response, “if it seems to make sense and sound right.”

That answer is so true and so wrong. I posed this question in class after finding that a student had inadvertently used web advertisement as a source for a paper we are working on. I'm not poking fun, or trying to make the student sound stupid-- judge for yourself, here is the link, it probably doesn't contain any misleading or wrong information. It totally makes sense and sounds right. But the content is generated by marketers, and that matters. The quality of information matters. Otherwise, we wouldn't be talking about...

...Fake News?

It’s hard to tell what's genuine anymore, but even more frustrating to know that so many of my friends and fellow Americans are consuming a steady diet of junk information without the ability to know that it’s killing us.

The standard for credibility has become simple—If I agree with it and it fits my world view it is credible.  Don’t believe me? Try this. Imagine you'd opened this post to read the following headline and story:


Figure 1
High tech brain scans (see figure 1) clearly show the effect of exercise on the brain. The brain on the right, pre-exercise, is efficiently processing information and expending much less energy than the brain on the right. This brain is prepped for learning and ready to engage. If you see the brain on the right, energy is already being depleted in most regions leaving little room for additional cognitive activity. The increase in activity is consistent with a brain that is using excessive amounts of energy to process the most basic cognitive tasks. Whenever we get children up and actively moving about, we overtax their brains (especially note the energy used in the left hemisphere language processing centers), and expecting them to engage with their reading lesson becomes instead an exercise of inefficiency.

What’s the takeaway from this? GET THOSE KIDS IN THEIR SEAT—recess is killing them.

Do you believe this? Why not? 

Probably because you didn’t agree with the premise and wrote it off from the start.

  • Did it concern you that the source of this information is just some high school Psychology teacher who writes stuff? 
  • Was it questionable that I didn’t provide any references to actual research that suggests these conclusions? (on that note, does the fact that I just used the term suggest instead of prove mean anything?
  • Is there any good reason to take at face value the words that you read on a blog? 
  • Is it possible that I’m just using an image to create an illusion of credibility?
All of those answers should be yes, but if I wrote a post about how exercise increases synaptic potential in the learning pathways of the brain and activates the reward centers of the limbic system making students more eager and capable of learning, you just might have thought I was smarter than I really am. You might even believe that all of those claims are right.

(By the way, the fine folks at Neurobollocks have done afine job debunking this image and I partially stole the idea for the paragraph above from them)

Why is this a Big Deal?

It doesn’t matter that much if exercise helps kids learn or not. It’s just good for them and no one has to be sold on the negative aspects of sitting still for a prolonged period of time.  

Why use a brain scan that you don’t understand? You didn’t learn anything from it, it is just being used as a blunt tool to make a point.

People interested in wielding power, boosting their public persona, or sometimes just bullying people who don’t agree with them peddle in passing along graphs, data, and charts they don’t understand the meaning behind. They tweet pithy quotes that offer no substantial advances in dialogue and understanding. On the contrary, they shut down reasonable conversations and create dichotomous situations that pit one side against the other and serve as fodder for demeaning those who don’t agree.

It doesn’t surprise me that politics and government are beginning to function this way. We’ve been doing it in education since we discovered blogging and social media. 

We live in a new era and parsing the distinctions between fact and fiction are more important than ever. In this new world, "opinions and attitudes" seek information and research to build credibility and authority. "Facts and curiosity" seek information and research to build knowledge and advance our understanding. As educators, we should be taking the lead on this one.

Monday, February 13, 2017

So We Find Ourselves Here

I was just a child when Reagan took shots at the Federal Department of Education, and suggested that it should be abolished. In the years since I’ve seen many conservative politicians chastised for suggesting the same. 

To be honest, I usually agreed with them. 

Education is the responsibility of the states. Federalism and divided power makes our nation strong and provides a context for change without sacrificing stability. Even as a teacher, when I saw budget pie charts with such a tiny slice of revenue for our district coming from the federal government I would wonder why we even accept their money in exchange for spending even more of ours to meet federal mandates and requirements. Especially after No Child Left Behind became the law of the land.

But now that I’m older, even with a Trump administration at the helm, I’m not so sure that I was right.

We have a history in the United States. Some people don’t believe education is a right. Some people don’t understand that giving everyone an equal chance isn’t an equal chance when the starting line is so much further ahead for some than it is for others. And when resources get low, it’s easiest to shortchange the neediest among us.

I’ve heard people, related to me by blood, still alive today, express the belief that integrating schools is at the root of our countries' trouble today.

It’s not the law of the land, but the birth certificate of our nation proclaims that all men were created equal, and endowed with the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Education may not be a right of birth, but it is one of the few routes at our disposal to live up to the promise of our Declaration.

That could be reason enough to value the Federal Department of Education. It can provide the oversight to make sure that our varied systems of education in the United States are living up to the promise to give a fair shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all of the children that come through our doors.

If I am right, and that is the most valuable reason for its existence, then I am concerned that with Betsy Devos at the head its only value may be lost. But I am hopeful. In her first speech as secretary, she promised to listen. She promised to serve every child. She even made a joke about bears. The news over the weekend about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act website doesn't bode well, but for now, we'll do what we do and what we've done. 

Face every child that comes before us today, and give them the best that we have.