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.