Friday, May 18, 2012

Keeping it in Context -- A disjointed rant about getting along, the common core, dreaming big.

One of the things that I absolutely love about my job is that, in its present form, I have the time and the ability to meet with other geeks, #edtechs, and teachers and talk about improving schools for everyone.

I have worked with public and private schools.
I have consulted with large and small corporations.
I have recommended 1:1 chromebooks, and carted laptop models, and my beloved BYOT

In one rare case, I was even asked to help shape a professional development plan for a 1:1 iPad implementation that would be starting in less than 4 months (and to the credit of my previous speech coaches and directors, I did not even crack a smile, let alone say:
WHAT ARE YOU THINKING! I AM BEING IRONIC WHEN I SAY THAT THE FLUTTER OF #SHINYPRETTY ANGEL WINGS WILL WAFT MAGIC VALUE-ADDED PIXIE DUST ONTO THE EYES OF ALL OF YOUR STUDENTS)

I consider this consultation experience educational for me, helpful for others, and part of my mission in life as both an educator and a Jesuit employee (we are meant to serve and work to bring about the greater glory of God, afterall).

So it is somewhat surprising to me when I review some of the twitter #hashtag PD chats that I have participated in and read some of the blogs and news articles and e-mails from THE_Journal's partners that insist there is an absolute right way to do technology -- my favorite of that last group being an email with the subject "BYOT is coming" -- sent to advertise a webinar about centralized control for Apple Tablet roll-outs.

We have let go of one essential part of the educational experience: CONTEXT.

In the Jesuit educational system, everything starts with context. The relationship between the teacher and the student is supposed to mirror the relationship between a spiritual director and someone on a prayerful retreat -- guiding the learner, advising based on the experiences at the moment but ALSO based on the experiences that that are being brought from the outside and from the past.

Context: What has been learned? How does each child learn?

This is not just limited to the Jesuits either. Ask any really amazing teacher how they pull off the miracle of education and you will get some variation of "I understand each of my students" -- This is much different than "I understand KIDS" in the general sense of the world. A great educator can tell when a student is upset, can sense when a particular educational strategy is not working, can realize when it is time to let a student sink or swim (there is a whole blogpost about failure as an educational tool, but it is still on simmer). This is done on the individual level, based on the understanding of a particular student: moods, interests, home life, past education and more.

Interlude: A Trustee Conversation
A trustee, after hearing about the types of consulting work that was being done by myself and @40ishoracle pulled me aside in that "I am about to impart wisdom from the hallowed halls of business" way that is not common but not unfamiliar to people who work in education. He shared with me his concern that we were "giving away the magic formula" to our technology program.

I had to let him continue for a few minutes before I realized that he had completely bought into the factory model/widget version of education. He believed that our BYOT work, our system of personalized professional development, and our relationships between techs, teachers, and students could be systematized, bought/sold, and implemented like a textbook or electronic gadget.

oh. man. that's it.

I explained to him (not in these terms), that his claim was based on the assumption that any part of an educational program was a standard commodity. Commodities can be reproduced and distributed. Standard parts can fit in anywhere. -- We cannot be easily reproduced - it takes time, effort, belief and skill; The context of each school is special - no formulaic response works the same in one school as it does in another.

He was relieved, if perplexed. And I didn't have to go into part II: And even if it can be, it's for the children!
End Interlude

When we factor in context, we can agree to disagree
As much as I like the Bring-Your-Own-Technology model and believe that it is one solution that can work in a number of different educational circumstances...it is one solution. It is a model that we chose based on input from students and teachers over the course of four years. It is based on the specific needs of our population, our financial circumstances, and even the mission of our school.

It is about context.

As educators, particularly in America, but this is trending in Europe too, we are immersed in a culture that is drawing very harsh lines in the sand: ANDROID is good, so APPLE is bad. STEM is good, so ENGLISH is bad (unless its technical writing. but literature? ha!). CELLPHONES are bad. STUDENTS are bad. TEACHERS are bad. -- we have to put a stop to this.

It is about context.

Changing Gears: The Common Core

Believe it or not, this began as I was thinking about the common core. I was reading Anthony Cody's "Critical Questions about the Common Core". Through this I began to see the common core as another permutation of the factory/widget, cog-in-the-wheel model. It assumes a premise that our standards in some places are too low, worse, that we as educators have intentionally lowered that standards for some inexplicable reason (remember, according to CC supporters, until recently we had no accountability and bon-bon eating summers off -- so it wasn't out of fear).

Anti-context? Teaching by remote prompt - Photo by Mark Webber
The common core, almost by definition, exists outside of context. In pursuing its commonality, it has stripped away all pretense that human beings will be learning the information or skills. It assumes specific sequencing (at the grade, if not classroom level) is best for all. It spawns an industry of cookie cutter lessons, pre-, post-, mid-, partial-, and intermediary- assessment readiness instruments, and electronic reference graders. The Gates Foundation has funded industries working on methods for keeping teachers on curricular track by prompting them when they are off track/off topic/off message/off identified-testable-element.

This presumption becomes even more insane when we add high-stakes to it. No student can graduate without a certain score...no teacher can receive a raise without a certain value-add coefficient...no school can remain open without Xty-three percentiles on the Unobtainium scale. At the point that the common core is not even about raising the standards but about uniform testing and reward/retribution -- it begins to look like a shell game. One that moves resources and services away from kids, and teacher, and local control and into the hands of business and industry. This isn't surprising. It's been happening for hundreds of years.

But what if?


  • What if we let educators at the local level use connection with their colleagues near and far determine what is an is not necessary in a new Marketplace of Ideas?
  • What if teacher preparation emphasized understanding students as unique individuals and demonstrated a pedagogy that allowed teachers to remain flexible in method as well as scope and sequence, so that each student received individual attention from a teacher rather than an algorithmically determined exercise based on the previous multiple choice answers?
  • What if we as a society made the conscious decision to attack poverty, lack of health care, and malnutrition as the barriers to successful education that data shows they are instead of spending those resources attempting to measure the fractions of a percentage difference in one professional's value-add ratio over another?


What if we remembered that it starts with context?